What we’d rather not hear

Earlier this week, modestypress challenged me to blog about people not hearing what they don’t want to hear. I’m not sure what prompted his comment, but what really intrigued me about it was his reference to the Three Wise Monkeys and the maxim to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” in relation to this.

The image of the three monkeys – one with hands over his eyes, the next with hands over his ears, and the third with hands over his mouth – is so familiar that I have no idea when I first encountered it. My aunt Bonnie has a collection of these monkey figurines, which I always admired when I visited her and my uncle, and I kept an eye out for new ones I could add to her collection.

While I was also familiar with the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” it wasn’t one I gave much thought to. What I’m fairly certain of, though, is that if I did think about it, I thought of it as a serious admonition not to let evil enter and control our lives through our eyes, ears, and mouth. If I heard anyone use the phrase to refer to turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to evil so as not to have to respond to it, I assumed they were trying to be humorous.

After I read modestypress’s comment, I looked at the wikipedia article he mentioned, and realized that to many people, the phrase is about pretending not to see or hear what is happening so as not to get involved. If I do a search on Three Wise Monkeys, I get hits about the origin of the legend and its teaching about not doing evil. But if I do a search on the phrase itself – especially if I add the word “news” – I read about a lot of bad situations, and accusations that people who should do something about those situations are choosing not to get involved.

This article is a good example, both of how this phrase is commonly used, and of the challenge of dealing appropriately with such situations. What do you do when you find out that a man who has done much good for the community in public life once did terrible harm to a teenage girl in his private life?

There may be some point to the idea of not wanting the man’s portrait hung in a place of honor, but the writer of this article makes an excellent point that better lessons can be taught by talking about what the man did right and wrong than by not talking about him at all. (If it were just a matter of taking down the portrait, that might be a different matter, but in this case it seems to be part of a general consensus to act as if the man never existed.)

I think that, in general, most people would agree that if we know about evil and have the opportunity to do something about it, we should. (Determining the right thing to do about it is a whole different matter.) But in our technologically advanced world, this is greatly complicated by the fact that we can learn about evils all over the world. As individuals, most of us can do little or nothing about most of them. But we can do something, however small, about some of them. Determining what we can and should do takes a lot of wisdom.

Then there is the question of what is right for a large group of us – that group of people known as citizens of the U.S.A, for instance – to do about evils elsewhere in the world. I read the arguments in favor of intervention in one conflict or another, and then the arguments against intervention, and there are good points made on both sides.

On the whole I probably would tend to lean more toward the non-intervention side, largely because of the “law of unintended consequences.” No matter how good our intentions, we often create as many problems as we solve. (I could write a whole blog post on this, but I’m sure there is plenty already out there in the blogosphere on the topic.) Besides, we always end up being selective as to where we intervene, creating a great many questions as to why we didn’t intervene elsewhere.

Of course, there are lots of other ways to “see/hear no evil,” some wise, some unwise.

  • Don’t listen to gossip.
  • Don’t listen to music or watch movies or TV that glorifies evil behavior/people.
  • Don’t listen to/read news that is primarily about terrible things that have happened.
  • Don’t listen to/read teaching that encourages evil behavior.
  • Don’t read (or listen to) books about evil things people have done.
  • Don’t watch movies that depict evil behavior.

Sometimes I have heard Christians talk about Phil. 4:8 as though its teaching (” whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things”) means those are the only things one is supposed to think about. Clearly it’s hard to think about those good things if the majority of one’s mental input comes from sources that contain little or none of those virtues. But virtues are often most evident where they stand in contrast to evil, so one must look clearly at both.

Perhaps one reason I never gave much thought to the “see … hear … speak no evil” was that it seems too general to provide direction in difficult situations. The Golden Rule isn’t specific either, but by its reference to how we would want to be treated, it does provide a practice guideline in many situations. Of course, it has its limits – what do I do when someone is in a situation I have never faced and don’t know how I would want to be treated?

In the summer and fall of 1988, one struggle I faced frequently was whether or not to mention to someone about having been raped that June. When a friend asked how I was doing, and I told her why I was not doing well emotionally, she was clearly uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say. Would she rather I had not told her? I don’t know. I had never had someone tell me about having been raped, and I have no idea how I would have reacted – probably much the same as my friend did.

(That’s another topic for a whole post, if I chose to blog on it. Was I causing my friend to “hear evil”? By not talking about having been raped, do rape victims act as “enablers” of society’s tendency to avoid dealing with difficult issues?)

I do know that in general, I favor more knowledge to less, even if it is difficult to deal with the implications of that knowledge. I would rather know the arguments made against my own views, and either find valid counterarguments, or change my views, than go on with my views unchallenged. I don’t need to see a graphic depiction of much of the evil that goes on, but I don’t want to be ignorant of its existence. I may feel tempted sometimes to shrug my shoulders about suffering that I don’t feel I can do anything about, but if I didn’t know about it I wouldn’t have the choice to do something when I can.

Well, I doubt I have said anything very original or profound here. (If I waited until I had such pearls of wisdom, I’d rarely if ever post here. And if I did have something I was sure was original and profound, I’d want to publish it for a larger audience than the handful who visit here regularly.) But such are my thoughts in response to modestrypress’s challenge. What are yours?

One Response to What we’d rather not hear

  1. modestypress says:

    Pauline, as always, I find your comments intelligent and interesting. Al though we come from different philosophical positions, I think our conversations are worthwhile and stimulating.

    It is quite interesting and ironic that you mention the case of Neil Goldschmidt. I lived in Portland, Oregon while he was mayor and a fairly close friend of mine was a subordinate to him while he was in charge of Nike. Although she never said anything to me about him making inappropriate comments or exhibiting inappropriate behavior toward him (and she was about the same age as he was and his alleged offenses in regard to morality involved a much younger woman), she told me that working for him was a difficult and unpleasant experience. As I recall, her complaints involved arrogance and impatience. I have worked as a subordinate to various executives (none as high and mighty as Goldschmidt) and my experience was that people in powerful positons are frequently arrogant and impatient.

    The more important point, and one I think that comes out in your post is that people are very mixed creatures. Many people are admirable in certain contexts and quite awful in other situations. It is a strong human tendency to want to consider people admirable or awful. When we encounter people who are both admirable and awful all in the same package, our internal moral compass begins to spin wildly.

    Perhaps one example that comes to mind (though I never knew him personally, so I am going by second hand information) is the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Certainly he is a man of great talent and courage. He also strikes me as being, to put it crudely, something of a jerk.

    I am going in part by an article by the atheist writer Christopher Hitchens: http://www.slate.com/id/2196606/

    He writes in part:

    “Of course, one cannot have everything. Nelson Mandela has been soft on Daniel arap Moi, Fidel Castro, Muammar Qaddafi, and Robert Mugabe, and soft on them even when he doesn’t need them anymore as temporary allies in a difficult struggle. When Solzhenitsyn came to the United States, he was turned away from the White House, on Henry Kissinger’s advice, by President Gerald Ford. But, rather than denounce this Republican collusion with Brezhnev, he emptied the vials of his wrath over Americans who liked rock music. The ayatollahlike tones of his notorious Harvard lecture (as I called them at the time) turned out not to be misleading. As time went by, he metamorphosed more and more into a classic Russian Orthodox chauvinist, whose work became more wordy and propagandistic and—shall we be polite?—idiosyncratic with every passing year.”

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