See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil

November 2, 2015

On my 70th birthday, with mortality not at the doorstep, but somewhere down the street within sight, I find myself immersed in my Dutch roots.  I just finished co-leading a ten day “active seniors” trip in Holland.  Eight of us, from 55 to 75, biked, trained, trammed, boated and walked briskly through Amsterdam, Utrecht, Eindhoven and Rotterdam, through a series of days that Americans would call “cloudy with a chance of rain”. Like the fabled fifty words for snow of the Eskimos, I am sure there are an equal number of descriptions for “cloudy” among the Dutch.

Our themes for the trip were Dutch frugality, the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death, sustainable communities, and Dutch design.  While we covered all of these nicely, upon returning home I found myself thinking more about themes of freedom, religion and tolerance, and how my current views very much reflect a legacy handed down from the Dutch side of my family that goes back 500 years.  The book I am rereading by Russell Shorto—Amsterdam: a History of the World’s Most Liberal City—has provided me with much needed perspective.

My mother and her two sisters were part of a Dutch immigrant settlement in the Chicago area.  Like many Americans our immigrant roots were never the subject of family discussions and my sense of Dutchness consisted of culinary memories of crispy rosettes provided at family reunions (Yes, I know they are Swedish, but one grasps at straws).  And yet, during the turbulent sixties when I was awash in radical politics, civil rights protests, and atheism, I sensed a calm tolerance among the three sisters that perplexed me.  While my British father fulminated against the university that had turned me pink, and his sibs and their wives opposed my civil rights activities around the Chicago area, the Dutch sisters Hazel, Eleanor and Ruth, maintained the quiet warmth that I had experienced from them throughout my childhood.

Russell Shorto has named this for me.  It’s a Dutch word called gedogen, which means technically illegal but officially tolerated.  The informal description is to look the other way, rather than fight against challenges to orthodoxy.  Besides its use today in reference to Amsterdammer policy toward pot and sex shows, it also applies to Amsterdam’s response to the rise of Protestantism and the excesses of the Catholic Church in pre-reformation Europe.  Minority religions and critics of the Catholic Church were welcomed and the inquisition was not. Dutch tolerance, or liberalism, is not the same as “respect for diversity” or “multiculturalism” as we use these terms in the US.  It arose, along with incipient capitalism, as an explicit upholding of the rights of the individual to freedom and the pursuit of happiness, in opposition to the authoritarian relationships under feudalism and monarchy in Europe which never existed in the Netherlands.  Go to the Rijksmuseum and see how painting shifted during this period of the 1600s from the province and themes of the church to individual and group portraits, landscapes, and non-religious subjects.

Freethinking and even atheism is another long time Dutch theme, best embodied in the work of Spinoza in the 1600s. Spinoza was a transplanted Sephardic Jew whose promotion of reason and democracy over religion and monarchy caused his expulsion from the Jewish community at the young age of 23.

Besides the lifting up of the individual in Amsterdam in the 1500s and beyond, Russell Shorto also posits that Dutch communitarianism arose as well in the process of taming the sea in order to create and maintain enough dry land to establish the Low Countries.  That’s a story for another day, but I feel both those currents running through me as I face old age and certain death without the comforts of religion, but with a close and valued community of friends and family.

So what has all this got to do with my title See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil ?  Bear with me, because the connections are eerie.  My tolerant mother and her two sisters suffered a fate that bound them together with ancient Japanese lore and Dutch history.   A year and a half before her death my mother lost the ability to speak.  Her oldest sister Eleanor developed macular degeneration in her old age and became blind.  And Ruthie, the middle girl, struggled and finally succumbed to deafness.  There you have it!  The proverb of the Three Wise Monkeys, carved into the Toshogu Shrine in the 17th Century and visited like a curse or a blessing on my Dutch relatives.  And what is the message of See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil? According to Wikipedia, there is some controversy, but three common meanings are given:

  • In Buddhist tradition, the tenets of the proverb are about not dwelling on evil thoughts.
  • In the Western world both the proverb and the image are often used to refer to a lack of moral responsibility on the part of people who refuse to acknowledge impropriety, looking the other wayor feigning ignorance.
  • It may also signify a code of silencein gangs, or organized crime.


Taking the more positive stance, Mahatma Gandhi owned a small statue of the three monkeys among his few possessions.  “Looking the other way”, however, is gedogen in a nutshell.

The last eerie connection I made on this blessed day of my birth was that the Dutch East India Trading Company was parked just outside of Japan in an area devoted to trade in 1799, about which David Mitchell writes in A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  Coincidence? I think not.

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