Manual Reflections on the Human Experience

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Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you. This is the law of nature. I choose to live life this way.

Embracing "The Human Experience"

I want to live my life in such a way that when I get out of bed in the morning, the devil says, 'aw shit, he's up! No matter what you have been through, you're still here. You may have been challenged, hurt, betrayed, beaten, and discouraged, but nothing has defeated you. You are still here! You have been delayed but not denied. You are not a victim, you are a victor. You have a history of victory. Nothing is worth diminishing your health.

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Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear. That is the idea of humanity that informs what I have been saying about this topic. Reviewing my book A Common Humanity: The difference can be described most generally as being in their attitude to the natural world and their place in it. That is vague, of course, but it is enough to sustain the point that the difference has inevitably shown itself politically in, for example, disputes and court rulings about land and title and in the many, sometimes angry, arguments about what counts truly practically as reconciliation as opposed to merely symbolic gestures towards it.

Perhaps the most bitter disagreements were over whether genocide was at least sometimes, in some parts of Australia, committed against the Stolen Generations, as the Bringing Them Home report alleges. I want to comment on this, though not in order to set new fires burning. Genocide is perhaps one of the most controversial concepts of international law. There is disagreement over whether it entails murder and over whether the Holocaust should be regarded as its paradigm or only as an extreme instance of a crime that, at its other extreme, might be forced assimilation.

Bringing Them Home consists largely of heartbreaking stories. The argument that genocide was committed is brief and depends on its definition. Stories, I have argued elsewhere, cannot of themselves tell us whether that allegation is right. Stories, no matter how many and how moving, cannot settle the controversies about the nature of genocide.


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It is the work of discursive thought, usually in disciplines like anthropology, philosophy and history to try to render it reasonably perspicuous. But I must enter two important qualifications to that point.

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Firstly, the kind of thought that engages with the stories should be answerable to the same critical concepts that determine the degree to which the stories contribute to understanding, rather than to edification or to delight. Those concepts are, of course, partly those with which we assess literature. About virtually everything that matters in life, including matters of law, we argue not only about facts and the logical inferences made from them, but also about whether certain accounts of them move us only because we are vulnerable to sentimentality, or pathos, are deaf to what rings false, and so on.

For that reason, there can be no marked distinction between the concepts with which we critically assess narratives and those to which discursive engagement with them is answerable.


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Bringing Them Home was criticised for being emotional. Hostile to its allegation of genocide, many Australians said that it convinced only people whose reason had given way to their emotions. Kim Beazley, some of you may remember, wept in Parliament when he read out some of those stories.


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Then we ignore or deny facts and arguments that are not congenial to beliefs to which we are emotionally committed. Hold on to your reason, they say, especially in turbulent times like ours — like advising someone to hold onto to their hat in a storm. But there is a danger here that threatens our capacity, indeed our desire, to see things. It is the tendency to oppose reason to emotion in a way that makes us insensible to, or uneducated in, a form of understanding in which thought and feeling and form and content are inseparable.

Sentimentality, a disposition to pathos, a failure to register what rings true, a tin ear for irony — these undermine understanding more often and surely than when emotion usurps reason, if reason is conceived as separate from and unfriendly to emotion. When that happens it is not because emotion defeated reason that we affirm beliefs that we regret holding and having acted upon when we become morally clear sighted. It is because we were bereft of a sensibility, educated and disciplined, that would have enabled us to detect the sometimes crude, sometimes sophisticated, sentimentality, pathos and so on in what seduced us.

I come now to my second qualification. There is no shared understand between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians about what it means to be human, and therefore, I think, no shared understanding of what we would naturally call crimes against humanity — if the concept of humanity plays any serious role in the ethical characterisation of such crimes.

Aboriginal peoples have no power of the kind that could force anything on non-Indigenous peoples, no power to force them to negotiate a treaty, for example.

Soul: meet Human Experience

Awful though it must be to peoples treated as they have been by their colonisers and their descendants, whatever further justice they are given will be a function of the openness of non-aboriginal Australians to seeing that justice must be done and, most importantly, seeing what that comes to if it is true to the history of this land. For that to happen, non-aboriginal peoples must come to see what is at issue from the perspective of the Aboriginal peoples.

That requires more than we usually mean by empathy, because it depends on acquiring new concepts or modifying old ones — concepts that are a condition of empathy, rather than its product. For most non aboriginal Australians, that will involve a perceptual gestalt switch of the kind, which, for example, would enable them fully to acknowledge that this land is under occupation, if not legally as defined in international law, but morally, nonetheless. While the invasion was unjust, the real injustice was the denial by [Governor] Phillip and subsequent governments, of our right to participate equally in the future of a land we had managed successfully for millenniums.

Instead, the land was stolen, not shared. Our political sovereignty was replaced by a virulent form of serfdom; our spiritual beliefs denied and ridiculed; our system of education undermined. We were no longer able to inculcate our young with the complex knowledge that is acquired from intimate engagement with the land and its waterways. The introduction of superior weapons, alien diseases, a policy of racism and enforced biogenetic practices created dispossession, a cycle of slavery and attempted destruction of our society.

In his Ethik, Schleiermacher locates the individual in social and cultural institutions, and elaborates the anthropology that informs his influential lectures on hermeneutics. Three of many notable contributions of James' Principles of Psychology are a chapter on the self that is the source of conceptions of the social self in American sociology and social psychology, a critique of classical empiricism showing that the distinction between sense impressions and ideas is an artifact of an erroneous psychological theory, and a famous chapter on the stream of thought in which he argues human experi BOOK REVIEWS enoe is not divided into ideas, sensations, and feelings, but is a continuous flow of consciousness.

Toward the end of his career, he gave up the concept of consciousness as too closely associated with the mental in contrast to the physical, and spoke instead of the flux of experience.

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Lash accuses James of Cartesi1an dualism, and attributes to him the view that there is a "little person," a Cartesian self imprisoned in the body. In fact, there is very little in James that could accurately be called Cartesian, and nothing ei,ther in the Principles or in the late Essays in Radical Empiricism that would condone any such picture of an homunculus inside the body.

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