Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics and Culture
by Peter Gabel
Quid Pro Books, 2013
This is the second collection of essays from Peter Gabel, law professor and long-time associate of Tikkun. The essays range over law, domestic U.S. politics, foreign policy, and a variety of cultural themes including the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, sports, evolutionary theory, and the lessons of illness. While the topics are disparate, an underlying unity can be found in what might be called a “spiritual social theory.”
Social theory, roughly speaking, is an attempt to comprehend the most basic and essential features of collective human existence and to normatively evaluate them in terms of concepts like rationality, freedom, justice, and human fulfillment. It is neither a purely descriptive sociology nor purely an ethics or political philosophy; rather, it is a fusion of the explanatory and the prescriptive, an account of why things are the way they are and how and why they could become better.
Gabel’s version of social theory recognizes the realities of historical change, class and ethnic struggle, gender oppression, and collective suffering (such as avoidable mass starvation) but takes them as secondary phenomena. But where Marxism gives primacy to class struggle and economic development, or where certain forms of radical feminism give primacy to gender relations, Gabel’s theory gives primacy to concerns about the expression—or suppression—of human beings’ essential and primary spiritual identity.
This spiritual identity, Gabel contends, resides in the fact that “we are each expressions of a loving energy and are animated by the desire for mutual recognition and affirmation of that loving energy—that we each long for recognition of our inherent worthiness and sacredness.” This loving energy, in turn, is the core reality not just of our personal lives but also of the universe as a whole. Thus to the familiar view that our essential identity is not social or physical but spiritual—a soul, a spark of the divine, a child of God—Gabel adds a relational dimension. We desperately need to be recognized, and we desperately fear rejection. Isolation, alienation, passivity before superior social elites, attachment to empty social roles, aggression, and oppression result when we allow ourselves to be ruled by the fear. Progressive social movements for democracy, ethnic or gender rights, economic fairness, and vibrant interpersonal care come when we allow ourselves to recognize and be recognized. Overall, for Gabel “the spiritual dimension of social existence [is] at the center of our understanding of social phenomena and at the center of our effort to transcend the problems that continue to limit and constrain us.”
A Spiritual Approach to Law and Foreign Policy
Gabel’s application of this perspective to law begins with his observation that our legal system is shaped by presuppositions directly at odds with our spiritual nature. People are viewed as antagonistic individuals involved in zero-sum conflicts, mediated by seemingly universalistic and rational (but in reality limited and slanted) rules designed to protect the monetary and ego needs of separate individuals with no stake in loving communities of mutual recognition. This perpetuates and unreflectively endorses the social antagonism that creates an unhappy, lonely population that is hungry for meaning but unable to find it.
Gabel’s alternative vision of law (though why it would still be called “law” is a question) is a systematic attempt to meet our spiritual hunger for recognition, to allow us to speak and be heard, and to have that speaking and hearing unfold in a context in which our personal needs are recognized as crucially important, as are those of other individuals and of the community as a whole. We need to have our hurts and losses acknowledged, to empathize with our fellows, and to bind up all our wounds through a recognition of our spiritual bonds. To do this, Gabel cautions, lawyers and judges will need a lot more wisdom and fewer rules.
Gottlieb, Roger S. 2014. Visionary Hope. Tikkun 29(3): 53.