Crafting Gentleness

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Dancing Ideas

Okay Anthony, I understand more now what you by "gentleness." Something like not forcing your immediate will on an easily broken selection of possibilities. I'll go with that. And perhaps we can all understand each other a bit more as this goes along. The garage is almost finished and its raining, a good time to write.

Let me scatter around a bit... You say: "I don't think there are correct answers, as answers invite the question 'according to whom?' and often it's not according to the person answering. I think there are helpful and unhelpful approaches, and if an approach isn't working it isn't working. If it isn't working, I think we can acknowledge, work to understand a little better, and try again or move on."

I think you will have to admit that there are certain answers that are correct. My car broke down last week - stopped running on the road. What's up? Out of gas? Threw a rod? No - the serpentine belt broke. That was the answer to that question. And now the question changes to "What do I do about it?" Possible answers are: "take it to a mechanic" or "get a belt and do it myself" or "get a belt, try to do it myself, and then take it to a mechanic." One of those answers will be right. We get into trouble when we want eternity - one answer for all time. That doesn't happen.

Maybe you were talking mostly in the world of ideas. I still have to insist that there are correct ideas and incorrect ideas. Remember "The Bell Curve?" That was a book that came out about 15 years ago attempting to prove that blacks are genetically inferior. Wrong idea. Again, I think the trouble is not whether there are right and wrong answers but trying to make them be "The Answer For All Time." That's the problem.

Hi Duke. (I hope that's your name - I apologize if I'm jumping to conclusions) Good story about the angry day. For me "anger" is not something you do, it is an emotional state. And it seems to be mostly generated through the perception of injustice, real or otherwise. A larger force has obstructed your progress - a cop stops you for jaywalking when there is no traffic and he is going to write you a ticket. You cannot reason with him and you have no recourse. And you know damn well that at 57 years old you are perfectly capable of crossing the street on your own. That can make you angry. But anger is also a kind of a crossroads, you can go any number of ways. And in my experience once the correct decision is made the anger dissipates. But it is there as a spark. (In that way its like fear) Should you call the officer an asshole and make a run for it? Or should you accept the ticket with the knowledge that everybody else has to deal with frivolous red tapes as well? I think that's the issue rather than the anger itself.

My idea is kind of like this: people have a right to their anger. Victims of child abuse, racial hatred, systemic injustices, whatever. When the rich white guy on the talk show tells you not to be angry he's actually telling you to stop thinking. Because you can hone your anger like a weapon, like a knife. And by "honing your anger" I mean learning where it comes from, what its historical reasons are, and educating yourself about it. To see that the cause is often so much larger than the tiny little human who is doing this thing, whatever it is, to you is a liberating insight. And that makes your anger intelligent and intelligent anger is not dangerous like a loose canon. You will not be boiling over onto friends, family, and co-workers out of frustration. I call it sharpening your anger. And if the anger has a big cause, something that other people are involved in as well - racism for example - then it behooves you to work on it regularly. And just like a knife, when you have finished sharpening it you can put it away in its sheath, snap it closed and go on about your day. You can go to the movies, listen to music, fall in love - all of that. But when you see racism you can respond with intelligence, you can take out your sharpened anger - which is really just the memory and acknowledgement of historical injustice - and you will be a formidable warrior. "Warrior" in the best sense, not the guy with the helmet and the rocket launcher. Over time the sharpened anger beomes deterimination. That's the point you want to get to, but first you have to allow yourself to be angry.

My friend Utah Phillips is a Korean War veteran. He is haunted by the knowledge that he may have killed people over there. It's very possible but he doesn't know. When he got back he drank a lot and bummed around. Then he got smart. He had help of course, but he realized that it was his privilege and capacity for violence that was destroying him. He is now a committed pacifist. His anger is intact, but he has focused his energies and intelligence so that he can better serve the purpose of humanity. As he sees it.


  • Hi Jim,

    You can call me Duke! The internet's a very public place, and given that this blog touches on quite personal issues, I'd rather it didn't turn up every time someone Googles my name...

    I recognise what you're saying about the relationship between anger and injustice - Rowan Williams (one of the gentlest and most inspiring people I've met) talks about the value of a "generous anger". But I also sense the danger of righteousness - even intelligent, restrained anger often leads to black and white judgements. Judgements that lead us away from the messiness of reality.

    I'm not sure Anthony's suspicion of "correct answers" is as rooted in the world of ideas as you suggest. To me, the danger of reducing things to oppositions (which is what tends to happen when people talk in terms of "correct answers") is to do with the distance from that messiness, and the way such distance can legitimate destructive (if well-intentioned) behaviour.

    I'm enjoying taking part in this blog - and I'll be interested to read Anthony's thoughts on our discussion. Meanwhile, I'd better go and read a news bulletin...!

    By Blogger duke_aldhein, at Sunday, 10 September, 2006  

  • Hiya.

    I find it helpful to think-feel that there are more or less appropriate responses, inviting the question, 'appropriate for what?' or 'to what?' When an 'answer' quickly presents itself as being the most or the only appropriate answer, then it tends to mean that we are thinking almost entirely within the frame of reference established as 'given' within the (often narrow) focus of our attention. So, for the car breakdown, the 'correct' answer only works as 'correct' within thinking that takes the operating mechanics of the car and it's 'necessity' to keep going to be some of the most important criteria of the moment. Other criteria are always possible, as I see it, though. It also only works as 'correct' within a way of thinking that assumes that answers can be correct, which can get a little circular.

    I don't work with the idea that there are correct answers. I think there are more or less helpful responses, depending on the circumstances, and depending on what you would like them to be helpful for. If anyone were to continue to insist to me that there were correct answers, then it's a very short step to me being told that I am wrong, that they are right, and hey presto we have an opposition, a moral hierarchy, and a relationship of superiority/inferiority. All of these invite justifications, ways to add extra force to what are at the end of the day primarily rhetorical assertions or declarations. The idea of correct answers for me brings me too close to saying 'this is the way it is', and, for me, that sounds too much like the people I am trying to call to account for their actions, the behaviours and ways of thinking about everyday life that I am trying to critique.

    I'm interested in opening up the possibilities for making sense of things, not closing them down. And not with some relativist 'we are the world' 'isn't it all lovely' attitude, but with a real focus on the effects and consequences of particular ways of thinking, the helpfulness or unhelpfulness of particular ways of making sense of things, with a view to more or less helpful responses to the black-hole gravitities of coercion, violence, domination, and oppression.

    I get a sense that you may be using 'correct', Jim, to mean 'most helpfully appropriate'? As I was saying before though, that would for me invite at least the three questions of 'according to whom?' 'helpful for what?' and 'appropriate to what circumstance?' Some people might like to fix the car. Some people might think that walking is now an option. Some people might decide that it's an opportunity to leave the car, quit their job, and go and live on a hill by a river. :)

    'Correct answers' in my experience tend to party a lot with the idea of 'necessity'. I have not yet found any example of 'necessity' used as anything other than a rhetorical justification for something, usually used to persuade myself or others that a single road of thinking/feeling/doing is the only one possible.

    I came across the following the other day which outlines one take on the history of 'correctness' as a way of thinking. It's from a book called 'critical economic methodology' by Lawrence Boland (p93):

    "Students today are too often taught that the primary objective of learning, or even thinking, is finding the correct answers. The basic presumption is that 'knowing is knowing the truth'. It has *not always been that way. Before the time in which Socrates is supposed to have lived (say prior to 450 BC) many people considered thinking to be a process of discovering or inventing all of the possible or conceivable answers to any given question. That is, thinking people did not necessarily begin with a burning desire to know the correct answers.
    Among the so-called Pre-Socratics were some fellows whom I shall call Sophists. These fellows maintained that there just had to be correct answers. But whenever a Sphist thought he knew the correct answer he could not always prove it to be correct merely by arguing directly in its favor - that is, by simply giving reasons to prove the truth of the answer. Some of these Sophists devised an indirect way to argue in favor of their chosen answer. This Sophist's method, which is still followed today by some members of the so-called Chicago school of economics, proceeds as follows.
    First, the Sophist must claim (or presume) that there is a finite number of conceivable answers to any given question. For example, for some questions there are only two possible answers - 'yes' or 'no' (a response such as 'who cares?' is not an answer). The second step is for the Sophist to attempt to refute all other answers. If the first step was successful - that is, if all possible answers have actually been listed - then the refutation of all answers other than the one thought to be true would mean that the favored answer is revealed to be the correct one.
    The success of this Sophist argument depends primarily on there being a finite (and mutually exclusive) set of possible answers. Very often, Sophists argue without always being sure they have identified all of the answers. They might not have identified all answers if a complete search takes a long time. In general, the Sophist argues by criticizing competing answers in hopes of convincing everyone that the Sophist's favored answer is the correct one. But the Sophist's argument can work only when all of the possible answers have indeed been identified and all of the competing answers have been refuted.
    Unfortunately, the legacy of the Sophists is an excessive concern for (quickly) finding the correct answer - rather than for (slowly and carefull) identifying all the possible answers. For many questions it would be difficult even to list all the answers let alone determine which one is correct. But people demand (correct) answers. Politicians and kings demand answers, governmental agencies demand answers, and even corporation directors demand answers. Given these demands, it is easy to understand how the institution of 'authority' might be seen to be able to overcome the insufficiencies of logic - authority gives people answers quickly."

    By Blogger Anthony, at Monday, 11 September, 2006  

  • And just one more wee thing, thinking about what you said about The Bell Curve. I prefer to think that that book grossly misrepresents people and their experience, and I prefer to think that it's a possibility that I can do that, too. What I'm interested in is working out (or more to the point, learning and listening for) less misrepresentative ways of making sense of things. I don't think it's helpful for me to assume there are right ways and wrong ways of thinking/doing/feeling. Once I decide that there are, then where or how do I draw the line? and how would I manage to keep myself on the right side of it?

    By Blogger Anthony, at Monday, 11 September, 2006  

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