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The Escher Effect

Do you see ducks flying East or fish swimming West?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, speaks about the Church and HIV infection [Source]. In brief, he's against the spread of AIDS. I found the following archepiscopism particularly telling:

We have to acknowledge that there are aspects of our language and our practice that have certainly not made the struggle against HIV and AIDs any easier.

So you think a stance was taken? Think again. Two stances were taken, stances mutually contradictory, and that which you find in the Archbishop's remarks depends on how you're antecedently disposed to decode them. Everything hinges on which aspects of language and which practices we fondly imagine His Grace has in mind. A benevolent Christian could read his statement to mean "Equivocal moral discourse and laxity in conduct have fostered a sexual recklessness conducive to AIDS." A gay activist can equally well take the words to say "Judgmental attitudes toward promiscuity make it hard to turn AIDS into a PR coup for homosexuals." Whichever the struggle, it has not been made easier.

This deft trick with language explains why Dr. Williams is an archbishop and you're not. Think of those woodcuts of tesselations by M. C. Escher in which you see either ducks flying east or fish swimming west, but never both in the same glance: each "reading" of the design destroys the other, as long as you can keep it before your mind. At his foxiest, Dr. Williams speaks the linguistic equivalent of an Escher print (the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the pre-eminent master of this stunt). The language doesn't sound like fence-straddling; one's initial impression is that a forceful statement has been made. Only later reflection brings home the truth that what was crafted and communicated were two forceful statements of exactly contrary thrust. A really skilled operator, having issued an Escher, then segregates his subsequent audiences into small homogeneous groups so he can reassure the fish-fans he shares their point of view and can reassure the duck-buffs of the opposite.

Here's the key to the Escher Effect: as long as the fiction of unity is more important to the disputants than the reality -- it works.

Copyright 2007 Catholic Culture.

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