Lately, whenever I speak, I’ve been handing out small cards bearing two optical illusions.
Last night, I handed them out at dinner. My friends hosted a lovely evening of teachings devoted to Passover’s theme of liberation. When I thought about what I wanted to share, these images came immediately to mind.
Gaze at the image on the left. What do you see? Some will see the profile of a duck, facing left, its bill slightly open. Do you also see the rabbit? Think of the duck’s bill as the rabbit’s ears, and it will come into focus, a rabbit in profile, facing right. You’ve almost certainly seen the right-hand figure before: as you gaze, you will be able to switch between a white vase centered on a black ground and the image of two human profiles in silhouette, facing each other against a white ground.
You’ve probably heard the term “paradigm shift” thrown around—so often, in fact, that its meaning has been watered down into a simple change of perspective. But half a century ago, when historian of science Thomas Kuhn proposed this term for a change of scientific consensus, its original meaning was more precise. A paradigm shift takes place when an older system of understanding can no longer hold newly emerging knowledge. If your notion of reality is grounded in the certainty of a flat earth, for instance, and evidence accumulates that ships sailing over the farthest horizon return, rather than plunging over the edge into nothingness, your old model of planetary reality shatters, making way for a new one.
These optical illusions illustrate an important aspect of the concept: how the exact same information can have two completely different meanings, depending on your framework of understanding. In fact, Kuhn used optical illusions to convey the essence of paradigm shift, because this is exactly how people’s ideas about the world change.
Every significant social change of the last century has been actualized by a simple shift in perspective. The civil rights movements of the sixties were triggered by people realizing that their minds had been colonized by what the great educator Paulo Freire called “internalization of the oppressor.” In this phenomenon, we come to adopt views that serve those more powerful than ourselves, even though they may be antithetical to our own real interests. At the very beginnings of the Black liberation movement, for example, an anonymous organizer uttered the phrase, “Black is Beautiful.” That triggered something like a cascade of dominoes, in which countless oppressive, internalized self-images were recalibrated to a new reality.
My usual subject is art, specifically the public interest in art. I am trying to affect public understanding of culture, such that it moves from the margins, where it is widely dismissed as nice, but not necessary, to the center of public attention, where it belongs. To make my point, I argue from many different perspectives, bringing in how evolutionary biologists are learning that human artistic creativity was rooted in and central to our development during the Pleistocene era, when things like grace, dexterity, and storytelling ability were important factors in sexual selection; what neuroscientists are learning about the healing powers of art, as when stroke victims can regain the power of speech by singing; and what cognitive scientists are learning about how we make even the most important decisions based as much on images, feelings, metaphors, and stories as on logical calculation.
I consider what pundits conventionally conclude when they see countless people walking city streets, plugged into their iPods—that we don’t talk anymore, that everyone is in a private world, and that is not a good thing—and I see a picture as different as a duck is from a rabbit. I see us self-medicating through music, drawing on the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual energies that music generates to strengthen ourselves for whatever lies ahead.
The same perspective can be brought to bear on spiritual and historical realities. In their new book, Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia, Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman describe the paradigm shift that gave birth to the Passover seder, substituting a communal, inward journey around a table—a power, participatory ritual of redemption—for the long journey of wandering through the wilderness toward freedom. Laboring under Roman rule, they engaged the memory of the exodus to consider how to move towards freedom when domination seemed immovable. They did something we might see as “postmodern,” weaving the Greek philosophical banquet that provided the setting for Plato’s Symposium with the memory of slavery and liberation, all deepened by annexing symbolic tastes, sounds, even physical postures to create a full engagement of body, emotions, mind, and spirit, alighted toward freedom:
So the rabbis of the Mishnah created a form of celebration that would affirm their freedom in the very nook and cranny of the Hellenistic dinner. The medium would be the message. God was not likely to come and sweep away the Roman legions as the Breath of Life, the Wind of Change, had blown away the chariots of Pharaoh. So they needed to cross their own Red Sea in a new way.
All this did not happen in a moment. It took more than a century for the new understanding of Passover and of liberation to reshape and be reshaped by the new paradigm of Jewish life.
But the idea was born in a moment, in a flash of expanded vision, as all world-changing ideas are.
This reminded me of something I’d read a few years ago about the ways that a people can make an essential transition—a paradigm shift—when their way of life changes so much that their old model no longer describes reality. Jonathon Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, describes such a transition by the Crow people, whose way of life was radically altered by white settlement and the destruction of hunting grounds. (The book made a powerful impression on me; I wrote about it back in 2007.) As the great Crow leader Plenty Coups put it: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”
In the old Crow way, intertribal warfare and hunting were two chief realities shaping life. Status was gained by “counting coups,” which in the case of the Crow people meant planting a ceremonial stake to mark territory. As Lear explains, “Counting coups makes sense only in the context of a world of intertribal warfare; and once that world breaks down, nothing can count as counting coups.” Lear imagines someone going to a restaurant to order a buffalo hamburger. He is told that he can’t have it because the last buffalo has been killed. Very different would be the predicament if we were transported to a future where restaurants no longer existed, and words like “ordering” no longer had any meaning. The first case is one of de facto impossibility; the second shows a radical impossibility.
When a culture disappears, people’s situation is so changed that the actions that had crucial significance are no longer possible. It is not just that you may be forbidden to try them or punished for attempting to do so; but worse, you can no longer even try them. You find yourself in a circumstance where, as Lear puts it, “the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense.”
As dire as their circumstances were, the slaves who left Egypt were not in the same position as the Crow people, in that the exodus lessened, not increased, the prospect of cultural obliteration. But life’s entire context was radically altered: the landscapes, relationships, ways of behaving that had become normalized in Egypt were no longer possible, and thus, everything was transformed. In the line that is commonly cited as the first joke in Torah—the people say to Moses, “‘Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11)—I hear an echo of Plenty Coups’ description of radical loss, of the absence of a new story that can console its bearers for the loss of the old one.
Lear explains that, facing no future, Plenty Coups went into the wilderness to seek revelation through a dream. His dream foretold the end of the Crow way of life, but it also promised new life if they could listen “like the Chickadee.” He said they had to observe others, and through their observations, find new ways of going on.
Some people have to stare at the duck or the rabbit a long time before the other animal flips into view. They tell themselves that it’s a duck, and their perceptual apparatus won’t admit another view. Perhaps they have internalized the fear of seeing what others do not, and that blocks their vision. But once they make the shift, they can always see both views. All it takes to journey from one to the other is willingness and attention.
This is where I believe we are as a nation, and perhaps as a planetary community. Conditions have changed so radically that the old way of living and understanding is no longer possible, but the new way has not yet come into focus for a sufficient number of people to tip the balance. My personal mission to is to raise the questions that can potentiate the paradigm shift. When I hand out my optical illusion cards, I always ask three big questions that I believe ought to guide all of our public policies: Who are we as a people? What do we want to remembered for, our vast creativity, or our prodigious ability to punish? How are our answers reflected in our collective actions?
And when people express skepticism about change, I point to the Passover seder, and the communal reinvention of the Crow people, and the countless other examples of visionary leadership sustaining human history through the imagination of possibility in a time of constriction. I say that it is in our power, too, to make the journey to a new understanding. And if that knowledge starts to slip away, I stare and the duck, then the rabbit, then the duck, and see that—always, everywhere—we possess the freedom to see with new eyes.
In Jewish tradition, the number 40 has powerful multiple meanings: 40 days and nights of rain during the flood; 40 years wandering in the wilderness; 40 years of Solomon’s reign, and many more. Here is Richie Havens, on the 40th anniversary of his performance of “Freedom” at Woodstock, still going strong: the yearning, the pain, the desire to keep trying.