The Kingdom of the Blind


Sometimes, after waking up from a troubled sleep, it occurs to me that I live in a world to which I have become so accustomed that I wander down its streets like a horse with blinders. I see those things at which I am pointed and accept what I am told about the rest –even about the other horses… And they, like me, process their separate realities as if they were representative. Common grounds. All, no doubt convinced of the uniqueness -the appropriateness- of their own interpretations. Certain that what they see is what we all see –should see- otherwise we are mistaken and groping. Remember, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

But we miss a lot unless we stand back and consider what passes for reality. And why. The other day I was listening to an archival podcast from BBC 4 entitled Body Count Rising –a thought-provoking and insightful documentary about how we have come to watch- and accept- crime programs that seem to glorify violence against women. Rape, murder, abuse –all common themes that, had they no fascinated audience, no prurience, would never have gained the popularity they seem to enjoy:

To me, only an occasional crime show adherent, the trend was largely invisible. And yet, as a man, maybe even a steady diet of such programs would have slipped past without a comment. Without a conscious recognition that perhaps the overly realistic depictions of female abuse, the preponderance of rape as an important component of the plot, and the salacious depiction of the female corpse was actually a not-so-covert titillation. A not-so-disguised form of necrophilia.

Another component of the podcast documentary that I had not considered until then –and one that I found powerfully compelling- was not so much the increasing demand for these kinds of stories, but rather the effects on the female actors who had to play the role of the victims. I suspect that most of us become so enmeshed in the storyline, so enveloped in the plot that we forget that to be convincing, the actor has to become the character she is playing. Those kinds of victim roles must be devastating -especially when the story purports to depict what is actually happening out there in real life to real women. And yet for the rest of us, we experience it vicariously and from the safety of our living rooms.

Where does the fault lie? The documentary makes an honest attempt to dissect it –from the writers who decide what species of story is saleable, to the networks and producers who pander to audience demand, and even to the actors who, despite their reluctance to glorify the ugliness they are asked to portray, dare not risk declining or criticizing the role for fear of subsequent unemployment… Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t another form of abuse. More subtle perhaps, more deniable, and yet one more gossamer-thin thread in a web of denigration so easily ignored in our society. So readily dismissed. So invisible…

We are all to blame, aren’t we? There are blind spots in each of our lives.

I walked into in a crowded restaurant for lunch the other day, and the only table left was uncomfortably close to one where a man and a woman sat arguing. To be fair, they were initially discreet about it, never raising their voices, nor gesturing suggestively with their cutlery, but nevertheless, I felt almost as if I was a guest in their kitchen and forced to witness a family squabble.

“… Whatever!” the woman hissed sotto voce, as she glanced at me sitting so close to them. She was young –maybe in her mid-twenties- and looked as if she had just come from work. Dressed in a grey skirt and a white now-creased blouse, her auburn hair once pinned on top of her head, escaped strand by strand as she tossed her eyes back and forth from the leftovers on her plate to her partner’s face.

He was probably in his forties, and dressed in a brown suit with a red tie loosened at the neck. Staring intently at the woman, a patient smile tattooed on his face, he was leaning forward on the table when I sat down. He made several desultory attempts to touch her arm, but she withdrew each time. “Sheila asks for it, though, Janice…”

Evidently, this was not the response Janice wanted to hear and she sat up stiffly on her chair and glared at him. “Asks for it! What kind of an animal are you, Jeff?”

“Come on, Jan. Get off your high horse!” he sat back on his chair and his facial tattoo expanded sardonically. Cruelly. “She flirts with every man in the office… Including me,” he added, as if this proved his point.

“Flirts?” Janice’s voice rose unintentionally, but she glanced my way and subdued the rest of her words. “Sheila is just friendly; that’s how she interacts with people.” She shook her head sadly, and several more strands of hair tumbled to her shoulder and danced as she spoke. “You’re so shallow!”

“Friendly is one thing –you’re friendly, but you don’t stand as close as she does when you talk. And you don’t start fondling people to make a point. Sheila bores into your face with her eyes, like she wants to peer inside, or something…”

“You mean she actually listens when you talk…?”

Jeff frowned at the remark and shook his head. “No… it’s more than just listening, Jan. It’s… seductive.”

The skin on Jan’s face tightened, and her eyes tore a strip off his face. “So that’s why Jason gropes her every chance he gets? Because she’s asking for it?”

“Gropes her?” His voice rose unpleasantly loud and people at the nearby tables turned to see who was yelling. He dropped his eyes to his plate again, and lowered his voice. “Janice you’re so bloody naïve! He’s just responding to her. Stimulus-response –it’s not groping! You make it sound so… so damned lewd.”

Janice’s eyes grew to the size of the plate in front of her and her face reddened as the veins on her neck grew fat and swollen. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. “Suppose Sheila kept grabbing his ass –what would you call that? Or his crotch…? I saw him trying to finger her in the corner, Jeffrey!!”

Jeff rolled his eyes and guffawed. “He’s just playing the game, Jan… And anyway, Jason wouldn’t do that unless she was okay with it.” He toyed with the bit of food left on his plate and then chose a large, dripping piece and put it in his mouth –but slowly and carefully. I could tell he thought he was being seductive.

From where I sat, I could see Jan’s fists opening and closing. She seemed momentarily speechless, although I suppose she was actually trying to calm herself down before she exploded. “Jeffrey, you’re missing the point!” The words came out between clenched teeth, her eyes locked on his. “Jason is her boss, for god’s sake! She feels she has to take it…” She tried to soften her face for a moment as she explained the obvious, but it was a losing battle. “Don’t you understand…?” she said quietly while shaking her head. I could tell she wasn’t far from tears.

But Jeff’s face stayed blank. It was as if Jan hadn’t explained anything. “Sheila could just tell him to stop, if she wanted to.” It was so obvious to him.

Jan glanced at her watch and stood up. “I’ve got to get back now, Jeffrey…” He smiled again and pointed to some food still left on his plate. “Wait till I finish this, Jan,” he said, and not kindly. It was an order, really, so she sat down again and leashed her eyes obediently.

But not before they strayed briefly to my face in apology –a silent recognition of the way things were. An invisible shrug.



Science and Simulacra

One of the problems with Science for many people is that it keeps changing its mind. We are in an era when to say that an idea is scientifically proven is to imply that something profound has been uncovered: a truth has been revealed that is forever irrefutable. It is a time of global angst, when religions and cultures appear to be at odds with each other; only science seems to have anything to say that can transcend boundaries: something reliable to believe in.

Now we learn that yet another theory –i.e. that mammography would reduce deaths from cancer by detecting them sooner and at an earlier stage- doesn’t seem to be valid : or perhaps a more readable summary:  Maybe this might have been better described as a scientific hope than a fully fledged theory; nonetheless it does not inspire confidence that we are on the right track…

But it is in the very nature of science to be open to refutation and revision. Paradigms shift and new theories replace older ones… So what can we believe? Is science wrong?

Philosophy offers some insights, and how we view reality lies at the heart of it. There are many ways of apprehending reality. Realism is perhaps the most pervasive nowadays: the common sense view that scientific theories say verifiable things about the world –stuff out there exists and even if we aren’t able to see it (a quark, or a lepton, say) we can measure it. But there are other ways people have viewed reality –everything from Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (there is something out there but we only know about it through our senses, and they –as in the case of, say, hallucinations- may be deceiving us), to what has come to be called instrumentalism –Science just measures things and theorizes about them (somebody else can worry about whether or not they are real).

As I suggested earlier, since theories and paradigms change –and always have- why should we believe that the ones currently in vogue are correct? And if they’re constantly subject to revision, then how then can we believe they are telling us anything about reality? Well for one thing, the scientists say, the technology engendered by them works doesn’t it? That’s surely a testament that we’re on the right path. And yet how can we balance the discrepancies? It’s a terrible pickle we’re in if we try…

But theories don’t talk about real things, only our interpretations of theories do. Science is usually couched in mathematics, hidden in numbers, but meaning –interpretation- requires metaphor.  We are creatures of stories, myths, legends… It’s only through these that we make sense of our world. Numbers almost have a separate reality –they describe our world, but they don’t really live where we live. To an extent, they are contingent on metaphor to have any descriptive function.

So, what does all this obfuscation have to do with the value of mammography? The problem of being told one thing today, only to have it rescinded –no, revised– the next? Well, as I see it, reality is still obscure: we think we understand it, think we are wearing it –and yet, like an onion, it has many other layers, deeper layers…

I’m struck by the prescience of that allegory told by Plato so many years ago. You know it: the one about the Cave. Prisoners are chained in a cave and only able to see the shadows of objects cast on a wall from a fire behind them. These shadows, they think, are real –indeed, it’s all they’ve ever known. But a prisoner escapes the cave and sees the world outside where he can finally appreciate what is truly real… Maybe the shadows have prepared him somewhat, but only when he is outside can he understand that what he had been calling real were, at best, approximations. Some were no doubt better than others, but simulacra nonetheless.

Although perhaps closer to the entrance to the cave, we are still imprisoned, still mistaking shadows for what they represent. For reality. For now…