Fraternity is one of the most abused words of our times. We can learn its true meaning from Tai Ji Men.

by Marco Respinti*

*A paper presented at the seminar “The Call to Fraternity and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers, Walnut, California, February 5, 2022.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on February 14th, 2022.

Humpty Dumpty, by American illustrator William Wallace Denslow (1856–1915).
Humpty Dumpty, by American illustrator William Wallace Denslow (1856–1915). Credits.

Today I would like to tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a curious fellow, who spent his time sitting atop a brickwork, his legs swinging in the void. He was the main character of a popular nursery rhyme in Britain. Traditionally, that bizarre chap is depicted as an anthropomorphic egg going by the name of Humpty Dumpty. Many know him through the literary works of an English mathematician and Anglican deacon, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898), better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, the famous author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

In this latter book, Humpty Dumpty entertains an interesting dialogue with Alice. I am quoting from Carroll’s book: “‘I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you.’ I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’’’ “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’’’ Alice objected. “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’”

Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Illustration by John Tenniel (1820–1914) from the first edition of Through the Looking Glass (1871).
Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Illustration by John Tenniel (1820–1914) from the first edition of Through the Looking Glass (1871). Credits.

This is a brilliant piece of modern hermeneutics. Per se, hermeneutics is the art of interpreting ancient texts, especially religious texts, but in the age of Humpty Dumpty has been de facto re-defined as, more or less, “everything is only interpretation.” In a great though tiny 1948 book, entitled Ideas Have Consequences, American rhetorician and man of letters Richard M. Weaver (1910 –1963) traced the origins of the cultural and religious decadence of the West to the advent of Nominalism, in the late XI and XII century, and Ockhamist philosophy in the XIV century.

These speculations deny reality to ideas and concepts, claiming that they exist only as mere names or labels. In more recent years, this line of thought was resurrected and made popular by the world-famous Italian semiologist and novelist Umberto Eco (1932–2016). Interestingly, one of the possible outputs of this philosophy is the justification of absolute power.

When words, ideas and concepts lose universal meanings, and all becomes subjective perception, the chaos of conflicting interpretations, where the only absolute is that everything is relative, rips humanity apart—until Humpty-Dumpty-like masters find enough power to rise above others, imposing their vision to a world that will easily eat out of their hands, since it shares the same relativistic premises.

In this context, words that once were meaningful, and able to raise and excite strong feelings, do not disappear; they are just emptied from within. For example, the word “democracy” is always present in the mouths of non-democratic ideologists. “Human rights” is a preferred expression for abusers. “Liberty” is confused with “license,” and is liberally used by those who oppress and discriminate. And finally we come to “fraternity,” a word misused by some who are filled with hatred.

I intentionally echoed here the motto of the French Revolution (1789–1799), “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which others have also mentioned in this seminar. Being myself a Roman Catholic, I raise my eyebrows when I hear this word shaped by the legacy of the bloody French Revolution, but I deeply appreciate it when it resonates in the teaching of my Church.

French revolutionary image of Fraternity, after Louis-Simon Boizot (1743–1809). From Twitter.
French revolutionary image of Fraternity, after Louis-Simon Boizot (1743–1809). From Twitter.

How can I reconcile these two opposite feelings? By rolling back Humpty Dumpty’s claim that words have only the meaning that a “master” is able to arbitrarily impose on others.

I promised you a story, and a story I have told. But as every story-teller or folklorist knows, stories, fairy tales, and myths have the power to evocate and represent reality, because they are made of real words and may even create meaningful words—Humpty Dumpty is wrong, words do have recognizable meanings.

My story is no invention, and is in fact the story of Tai Ji Men. For a quarter of a century, Tai Ji Men suffered the Humpty-Dumpty-like tyranny over words perpetrated by some rogue bureaucrats. Not believing in truth and in the power of words to have truthful meanings, they managed to persecute an entire spiritual movement for crimes that, as courts of law repeatedly said, it had never committed. They were probably motivated both by vulgar personal interest and ideological hate.

This staggering persecution, which caused and cause deep human suffering, was and is committed in a democratic country where, in theory, human rights, liberty, equality and fraternity reign. It was and is committed by some branches of the government of Taiwan; by bureaucrats who, while describing themselves as friends of democracy, liberty, equality, and fraternity, in fact emptied these words of their real meanings.

Here our true tale of Tai Ji Men reveals itself as a paradigmatic and paramount testimony. Either Humpty Dumpty and the bureaucrats that persecute Tai Ji Men are right, and words have only the meaning that  powerful “masters” impose, or the opposite is true and words have universal meaning because they express reality and truth.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

But if the Humpty-Dumpty-like bureaucrats that persecute Tai Ji Men are right, all becomes possible, even the most spectacular injustice. There would be no ground to conclude that the persecution of Tai Ji Men on false claims, or any other evil, is wrong. We should all accept and praise persecution, as part of the triumph of the relativistic absolutism of self-perceptions that we seem to enjoy. Or, the opposite of this absurd and illogical conclusion is true, and the persecution of Tai Ji Men reveals to us the need to return to words grounded in solid meaning. For example, the word “fraternity.”

My tale could continue for a long, long time, because it is a tale of things as they are, the universal tale of life. I interrupt it here, having made, I hope, my point.

No one can truly respect its fellow human beings as brothers and sisters unless their inviolable dignity is fully recognized. This dignity is tailored out of the very fabric of humanity or, in a religious language, expresses the nature of men and women as being the sons and daughters of a common father and mother, God. In fact, Christian theology, rooted in the Bible, describes God (by using human images) as both paternal and maternal when caring for human beings.

Tai Ji Men is a peaceful movement, which works with conscience and benevolence to bring harmony and fraternity to our world. Why on earth should the world let its persecutors deny Tai Ji Men dizi the right to enjoy the true brotherhood and sisterhood, which are the mark of a just society where Humpty Dumpty is not the king?