All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.
A: So, when I think of acceptance I think, is it a virtue? If it’s about the capacity to accept any type of difference, then we’re in the field of pop philosophy. It sounds like accepting everything and detaching from the world, Buddha style. But then, how do you manage that kind of society?
What you might end up with is a group of ‘perfect beings’, and the rest. That’s what you see with the Cathares in France, and you see the same thing in Thailand. Thai Buddhism, the ‘Little Vehicle’: it’s about personal practice, with a clear distinction between the perfect and the non-perfect. It’s very different from Chinese, Korean or Japanese Buddhism, where the goal is to reduce the suffering of other people – and so, it’s also about playing a role in the community.
B: Yes, there’s this kind of extreme realism in Asia. While monotheism is more a project of self-transformation.
A: I also think that acceptance sounds a bit like nihilism. When you of an extreme level of acceptance, it’s actually not something you would want. You don’t give a shit because nothing matters. It’s harder to spread high level enlightenment than nihilism – and so, when you try to promote acceptance, you might just promote nihilism
B: Another way to think of acceptance is to frame it as politeness, where you ‘round up the angles’. I do that with a colleague: you don’t give up on your own internal shape, you just present it in a way that reduces conflict. That’s politeness, it’s both self-acceptance – you know your own shape – and self-transformation – you transform some of the outer layer, or you angle in a way that avoids conflict. In fact, acceptance might even be a preamble to resolve conflict. It allows you to communicate better, because you’re not in denial, and you can tell it like it is. It’s also the underlying principle of non-violence communication. Before you can express you feelings and needs, you must be able to accept them.
A : In Japan, we say that people can ‘read the air’, but in fact, it’s more about the capacity to understand the prevailing norms. It’s about information sensing. Japan is a very unified and uniform society, so things work even if people don’t understand each other. Now if you look at the US, you have to make everything explicit, because there are no more unified norms.
B: When I think about acceptance, I also think about tolerance, in its physical sense: tolerance as strength, what makes it so that a bridge does not collapse when a big trucks goes over. It’s about the capacity not to break down when there is something unforeseen or undesirable.
A: I like that. But acceptance is not the same as tolerance. It doesn’t stay in a place of discomfort.
B: Yes. It’s like there is a form of realism in acceptance – and so, it ties back with prudence. Once I’ve accepted that there are trucks outside my door, I accept this as being reality. Then I can change strategies to change it, or I can accept this new situation and change myself, or I can sell my house and move elsewhere – change the context. So I wonder if a way of understanding this more was to ask, what would be the opposite of acceptance? Is it belief? Idealism? And so, is acceptance like a cousin of realism, which is a form of prudence?
A: Well, here’s another example: Islam in France. France has this ‘state atheism’. Islam is challenging the atheistic vision of the world – but that’s also because this French idealism is projected onto Islam. A more realistic way to approach this would be to say that there are different value systems, and a significant part of the population has one that’s different. Then the question becomes, how can we adapt our society within the system collapsing?
B: Yes. It goes back to Buddhism right? We suffer because there’s a gap between our expectations and reality, and that’s not useful. Then acceptance is a way to reduce suffering.