Beth Bevis Gallick responds to Sam Tett
In the days since I first read Sam Tett’s reflection on The Ethical Vision of George Eliot, I have found myself noticing even more of the book’s “powerful synergies with the current political moment.” Much of the discourse surrounding the insurrection at the United States capitol, for example, carries echoes of the communion imperative, as we are cautioned against dismissing those on the other side without trying to understand their grievances. We need only hear the pleas for unity coming from newly inaugurated President Biden to understand just how embedded the ethical framework of “connecting and communing with other persons across differences and apartness” still is in our cultural imagination (Albrecht 4). For those who have grown weary of trying to understand and connect, the concept of an ethics of difference—of recognizing the impassable chasms that separate us from one another—has a certain appeal. And yet, even as I balked at the sheer alienness of the scenes of January 6, broadcast live on my screen—Trump supporters in Nazi apparel, confederate flags inside the Capitol—my mind was turning toward communion: toward those few of my friends or acquaintances with whom political debate has become impossible. Surely, I thought, these events—these images—would be enough to sow doubt into their convictions, enough at least to make conversation with them possible again.
Of course that optimism lasted no more than a moment; I already knew what their responses would be. I suspect that my resignation in this is more cynical than what’s intended by Eliot’s “difference imperative”: that I refrain from further attempts to understand not out of respect for the fundamental separateness of the other’s soul, but out of a conviction that I know enough of their minds to understand that debate is fruitless. In this I suppose I am guilty of that “knowingness” which is, for Eliot, so ethically suspect precisely because it contradicts the difference imperative. I’m not sure what to make of this, except to say that I’m grateful for the ways that Albrecht’s book (and Eliot’s works) demonstrate how these two ethical approaches can exist simultaneously, and in tension with one another.
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