Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Common Man Common Place

East Napa, California, USA

August 28, 2008

This essay, Common Man Common Place, is the companion piece to Plastic Chandelier.

It is also the prequel to Be What You Are.

There's a fine line between preference and prejudice, a very fine line. There's a finer line between being prejudiced and being racist.

I happened to be present at the Sunday evening session of the Landmark Advanced Course in South Africa. As the person who introduced Werner's work to South Africa I had the opportunity to speak with the graduates.

Until apartheid  ended, there was less than zero chance Werner's work would be offered in South Africa. That wasn't a political  position. It was simple pragmatism. Having one presentation for white  people and a completely separate presentation for black  people wouldn't work. Actually, in those days the term for anyone in South Africa who wasn't white  was "non-white"  rather than black. The generic characterization non-white  included black people, colored people, Indians, Chinese, etc. Japanese, however, were considered "honorary white". Go figure!

... and then a miracle happened ...

So there I was speaking from the podium with the graduates at the Sunday evening session of the Landmark Advanced Course in South Africa. The sharing in the group was lively, animated, indeed extraordinary.

A white  man stood up. Addressing the non-white  people in the group, he admitted he'd been a racist, a white supremist  in the apartheid  years. Now, a graduate of Werner's work, he apologized  to the non-white  people in the group and to the non-white  people of South Africa on behalf of the white  people in the group and on behalf of the white supremists of South Africa for being a racist, for being a white supremist, for being prejudiced against them, and for violating their human rights. He asked for their forgiveness. He really got it. He didn't like what he got. And now he was taking responsibility for the inevitability of what he got. He was starting anew.

The room was dead silent. You could have heard a pin drop. It was completely and utterly riveting.

But not as riveting as what happened next. A black  woman stood up. Addressing the transformed white supremist, she told him on behalf of the non-white  people in the group and on behalf of the non-white  people of South Africa, she accepted his apology. But she took it further. She  apologized to the white  people in the group and to the white supremists of South Africa on behalf of the non-white  people in the group and on behalf of the non-white  people of South Africa for being their victims  thereby making them aggressors. She took responsibility for creating her own experience of being prejudiced against AND  ... she took responsibility for the impact it had on other people. By declaration alone she was no longer a victim of apartheid. She, too, had started anew. Through her declaration the perpetuators of apartheid were forgiven. Peace and reconciliation had begun.

Unbelievable. Truly unbelievable. That's not business as usual. It's not business as usual  to apologize to someone for being their victim, and to take responsibility for being their victim which makes them an aggressor. Every person in the stunned room got  the exchange. In any other context  except Werner's work, such an exchange would have been impossible.

People To Meet

In South Africa, of all places, it's particularly pertinent to break through  racism. Racism is the manifest  behavior, the unquestioned behavior, the unquestioned right  behavior which comes from prejudice ie from pre-judging. The racist expression is unquestioned because the pre-judging is unexamined. During an experience of Werner's work, participants have an opportunity to look at their own epistemology. Epistemology isn't what  you know but rather how you've strung together  what you know. In the epistemology of racism strung together by prejudice, the background is simply unexamined preference  ie making some people better  than others. Said another way, having preferences isn't a problem. But having unexamined preferences giving rise to an epistemology in which we know  some people are better  than others is almost certainly going to result in problems.

It's rampant and pernicious. Just ask yourself who you'd prefer to be with. I'd prefer to be with someone who talks more. I'd prefer to be with someone who talks less. I'd prefer to be with someone who's better looking. I'd prefer to be with someone who's not such a workaholic. I'd prefer to be with someone who works harder. I'd prefer to be with someone who shares my interests. I'd prefer to be with someone who surprises me. On and on. Preferences? Yes. Unexamined  preferences? Almost always.

Continuing along this line of inquiry, if I could meet anyone, I've got a long already list of people (dead or alive) I'd like to meet. I'd like to meet Arthur C Clarke, fabled author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'd like to meet Carla Brunei. I'd like to meet Clint Eastwood. I'd like to meet George Carlin (in my opinion the depths of his remarkableness, while acknowledged, hasn't yet been fully appreciated). I'd like to meet Heidi Klum and Stevie Nicks and Brad Bradshaw, monster wave surfer. And of course Sir Paul McCartney would have to be on the list just because he's ... well ... Sir Paul McCartney  (note the British term of respect "Sir" is an anagram of the Indian term of supreme endearment "Sri" - Sri  Paul McCartney).

They're my idols, my heroes. Here in these United States, Clint Eastwood and Stevie Nicks and Brad Bradshaw are the closest we've got to American royalty. But what about the common man? What about the nowhere man?  What about the undocumented Mexican grape picker who's name I don't know sweltering in the sun? What about the girl who checks out my groceries at the local Safeway?  What about the man at the end of the bar, sitting alone nursing his beer with nothing particularly profound to talk about beyond who's going to win the ballgame tonight? What about the slightly overweight shopper, not very interesting looking mind you, carrying a brown bag or two through the mall? What about the man walking on the sidewalk, the perspiring pedestrian, anonymously bravely going where no one knows he's gone before? If I stop and look, I want to meet them too. It's just that, given my unexamined preferences, they don't show up at the top of my list. I notice the humility  which comes over me when I confront that fact of my life.

Places To Go

Preference for places  rather than people is just as rampant and just as pernicious, only more so. Ask yourself where you'd prefer to be. I'd like to go to places I've never seen. I'd like to go to places which sound glamorous. I'd like to go to Abbey Road and walk across the zebra  crossing*. I'd like to go to Bora Bora. I'd like to visit Khartoum in North Africa and Rishikesh in North India. And, if I could, I'd like to take in the view of Earth from the Sea Of Tranquility on the lunar surface, or make a reservation to go surf the magnificent Cloud Break  on Tavarua in the Fiji Islands.

Preferences? Yes. Unexamined  preferences? Again, almost always. If you look and tell the truth about it, the underlying unexamined  epistemology is saying "Life is better somewhere else.". It's saying "... anywhere  but here!". It's saying all that over on top of "This can't be it? There must be more than this?".

Well  ... how about creating completion  at a bus stop? What about having life be perfect while standing in a Department of Motor Vehicles line? Like lazing on a tropical island with a white sand beach, create fulfillment strolling aimlessly along a dirt road on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, or walking in an aisle in the grocery store, or along a sidewalk of a city street. Isn't ecstasy just as accessible sitting thumbing through old magazines in the dentist's waiting room as it is anywhere else? It's not the white sand which creates the magic. It's YOU.

* * *

Actually, that's just when it starts  getting interesting. When you can be as thrilled to be with the common man  as you are when you're shaking hands with your favorite rock star  idol, when you can experience being as full and as accomplished in the common place  as you are when you're surveying your favorite polynesian private atoll, that's  a way to aspire being, that's  a place to aspire to go. It's a ground of being worth living. What it takes is examining your preferences and getting clear about your own epistemology.

That's transformation. Arguably, as in South Africa, it's the only way of being which will ultimately ever make any real lasting difference.

* I went to Abbey Road and walked across the zebra crossing at 1:01pm on Monday January 14, 2013, fulfilling this intention four and a half years after I wrote this essay.

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