By Jeff Mallinson –
Online, at work, and at home, one thing never fails to frustrate: our natural human inability to understand each other. “What we’ve got here,” to quote Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke (1967), “is a failure to communicate.”
On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, Dan and I discuss this problem of talking past each other. We’ve touched on this subject before, but it remains a tricky problem. It is a problem of epistemology, communication theory, and ethics. It is a problem that leads to wars, divorces, plane crashes, and awkward dates. Why can’t we solve it? Why can’t we understand each other? I didn’t mention this on the show but it now occurs to me that the main reason we don’t want to understand is that we don’t really want to know the truth. We don’t want to know the truth because we know we might have to change.
As Ecclesiastes 1:18 says: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (RSV—why did we ever give up on this fine old translation by the way?) It hurts to pay attention. It is easier to get drunk and go to sleep. Permit me to share a story that helps make my point about confronting reality: The Great Chicken Massacre of 2009.
A few years back, I took college students to Whidbey Island, WA for a bloody learning experience. We were in a unit discussing agricultural ethics and the locavore movement. I had just finished trying to live off the land for a month (incidentally, I lost two pounds a day but discovered that stinging nettles make an excellent and tasty spinach substitute). My friend Aaron had rented an automatic chicken plucker, and was going to slaughter forty birds. I brought my class over to his property, crossing the ferry from Mukilteo to the island. There, we tried several methods for executing the birds: a) grabbing the bird by the neck and swinging it around our heads, b) putting the head between two nails and decapitating it with a hatchet, c) shooting it in the head with a pellet gun, and d) putting it in a metal cone upside down and slitting its throat.
As you read this, are you uncomfortable? Remember, these birds were well cared for, had lots of free space to roam, and were fed by happy children each day on a pleasant, wooded island. Still uncomfortable? Many of the students were. None began the day as PETA members or vegetarians. The first guy to try his hand at the art of slaughter went for the hatchet method. I forgot to tell him that chickens really do keep running around without heads. Since he didn’t know this, he thought he botched the job, freaked out, and went around to the front of the house to sulk and try not to vomit. He wanted to be a cop at the time, but this experience made him change direction. I think he’s now in banking.
The only folks who really got the great chicken massacre were a few ladies who wanted to be nurses and my young son Auggie, who preferred the Halal-compatible cone method. In retrospect, that really does seem the most humane method, and it is certainly the easiest. Nonetheless, even the most ruthless slaughterers were changed by their experience. Some students contemplated going vegetarian. After all, if we were trying to be as humane as possible and it was still unsettling, what of the factory farms that produce so much of the American meat? Chickens are stupid. What about cute little cows and pigs, species identified by ethicist Peter Singer as capable of experiencing suffering? Others remained omnivores but agreed that the experience was sobering and made them respect their food, and made them cautious not to waste it. The point is that, in each case, the students had to change somewhat, after confronting an uncomfortable reality.
Most of us, however, like our animal carcasses clean, filleted, and wrapped in clean plastic. We don’t want to think too long or too hard about how they got to our plates.
What does this have to do with ethical dialog? It shows that understanding is something we may subconsciously not want to attain. Our egos get in the way. We are defensive, so we give no ground, even when we know deep down that we might be in the wrong. We are finite, sinful creatures, and we are so good at deception that we too often deceive ourselves into thinking we are open minded, fair, reasonable, empathetic people. This self deception makes us closed minded, uncharitable, irrational, and uncaring.
Who will set us free from this mind of death?
The answer might be stanza 5 of the first Advent hymn (#331: “The Advent of Our King”) in the Lutheran Service Book. Jesus is coming to take away our misunderstanding, and renew our minds.
Before the dawning day
Let sin’s dark deeds be gone,
The sinful self be put away,
The New self now put on.
Dear Lord, help us to get over ourselves, listen carefully, look closely, and taste and see that you are good. Help us to understand even when it hurts, and even when understanding forces us to change in fundamental ways.
—The Wayfaring Stranger