“I Don’t Get It”

Asymptote: A line which approaches nearer and nearer to a given curve, but does not meet it within a finite distance. (OED)

My dear friend Kibe spent many hours trying to explain geometry to me. I understood, in the abstract, that the sum of certain angles added up to 180°, and that, sometimes, those angles were in odd positions. There was a relation between, say, the line that extended out of a triangle and the angles within the triangle. (If you just winced, you are experiencing Kibe’s pain.)

Geometry requires magic.

No doubt, my sense that this most precise of disciplines consists of magic offends, but I want to hold on to it for now. I want to hold on the sense that it’s difficult, almost impossible, for some of us, perhaps all of us, to understand certain things.

Geometry is one thing, my inability to understand it another, but I have been thinking about what it means to “get” something, to “feel” something.

We often fault those who “fail” at what we consider “empathy.” We believe they do so out of some fundamental “wrongness” or “willfulness” and that if they just learned enough, heard enough, experienced enough, they might be convinced about the rightness or justice of a cause.

What if they just don’t “get” it? And what if their not getting it is actually foundational, not anomalous, to our political lives? What if our not getting it is essential to the political lives we lead and choose?

To begin from this position goes against the view that one’s reasoned position can and should convince others; that politics takes place on rational grounds.

And we come, finally, to the asymptote.

In my very non-mathematical way, it represents a gap that one must jump for congruence to emerge. In another one of my languages, it might be called a leap of faith. Were I to steal from Obama and, by inference, Jeremiah Wright, it might be the audacity of hope.

What if not getting it is central to political life in a more fundamental way than we have imagined? What if the political invitation is not that we should get it or feel it, is not fundamentally empathetic or rational? What if it is predicated, instead, on a leap of faith, a willingness to risk, even without knowing what it is we risk?

Politics as a gamble. Perhaps.

I am not sure I’m totally convinced by this idea, but I have been trying to work around the idea that people I know and love and trust don’t “get” the politics I support: race-based, feminist, queer. And I am reluctant to attach a bunch of “ists” to these people, mostly because I am stubborn.

But I also want to take more seriously defenses of those who say “odious” things and are then defended: x is not racist or sexist or homophobic. This requires a slight detour. As I’ve written before, the injured person feels pain: the driver of a truck that hits a pedestrian cannot say whether or not the pedestrian experiences pain. The “ist” statement has to be judged from the position of the addressee, not the intent of the speaker.

However, what if individuals just “don’t get it”? And should we rely on them to “get it” to prove something about them or about ourselves? And, here, let’s not forget the psychic satisfaction “we” get from being in the right.

What if we recognize that politics, or activism, might not rely on shared values or demonstrating the right kind of empathy? What if we acknowledge the seriousness, the scary, stuff-of-nightmare risk that we ask of each other? What if, to choose an issue close to home, GLBT activists did not dismiss the anti-gay marriage stance as hate, but engaged with the bone-deep fear it provokes?

This is not to say we abandon “getting it.” If so, then all pedagogues would be out of work—and I like my job, thank you very much. It is to say we recognize what we ask when we urge people who “don’t” or “can’t” get it to, somehow, get it.

This is why I like the idea of the asymptote as a model for collaborative world-making. In truth, I might simply have written about metaphor, since it similarly relies on the lack of congruence. But I like the idea of almost getting there, but not quite, a hopeful position that believes, ultimately, that people are good (WM has de-cynicised me), that they desire good for others.

To desire a shared good means asking for a collective leap, a jump across the political asymptote.