Sunday, January 16, 2005

Response to Parker Palmer's Concept of the "Community of Truths"

(This post was originally for my students--if you haven't read Palmer and would be interested in reading "Community of Truths" leave a message in the comments and I'll send you the reading)

There are some unanswered questions from our discussions today and so I would like to make sure they get addressed:

In preparation for Unit 2 a student asked me "What is Democracy?." To help us think about this important question I will send you a historical definition of the usage and origins of the term "democracy". The author is the British cultural historian Raymond Williams--he is approaching "democracy" as a cultural concept with a long history, with different meanings, at different times and in different places/situations... I think it is a great example of how words/ideas/concepts are mutable... and the benefit of mapping out the changing relationships/usages of these concepts.

Some background on Williams to help ground his interpretation of democracy:

Biography of Williams

Willaims on Culture

Williams on Technology and Democracy

On Competitive Democracies

Another student asked:

"Does any subculture living in America have the right to not participate in protecting America?"

An excellent question which I believe would be best discussed as a group--please bring it up again so that we can discuss it. If you are asking for my personal opinion I would understand a democracy as having a place for "conscientious objectors" as fully active and responsible citizens. For me it is during times of war that we most need dissent--we need questioning of what we are doing and whether it is for the right reasons (should we not debate the killing of others?--should we not consider other options?--should we not listen to those that doubt the rightness of our cause?) It seems that many of the polticial systems that democractic systems oppose themselves against have traditionally forced citizens to serve in a military capacity--should a democracy force pacifist citizens who believe all killing to be morally reprehensible to take up arms in defense of the state? A damn difficult question that troubles me deeply--thanks for asking it and once again we should discuss it as a group.

Another student asked:

"Is there a form of geovernment better than democracy?" We will definitely consider this... and one of the things we need to consider in answering this is what is a democracy? More later as we develop an understanding of "democracy"

Another student asked:

"Why did [Parker Palmer] compare himself to the Third Reich, why would you want to be compare[d] to what we look at as evil?"

The way that I read this passage:

"The history of the Third Reich speaks a voice of evil that if I listen carefully to it, will find echoes in my soul."

My reading and subjective answer: The passage is reminding us that it is not only great works (how ever we want to distinguish these things--good/moral/beneficial), but also works/acts/events that are frightening/disturbing/incomprehensible/evil that we can learn from if we allow them the opportunity to speak to us, instead of just allowing to experts to tell us what they "are"... what lessons can be learned from the story of the Third Reich, a democracy that descended into fascism, a society that was manipulated through artful use of media messages and sound-bite propaganda, and that worshipped the power of martial discipline and social order? What do we lose (and in doing so what dangers do we face) in simply dismissing the Third Reich as anomaly of evil that erupted in time and then was defeated by the "goodness" of the allies and disappeared... can we benefit from understanding the historical root causes of anti-semitism, its long history, processes of community, manipulation of popular belief through fear of the Other, new technologies, buraeucratic classifications of beings as numbers, new techniques of meat production/slaughter, the factory system, ethnic hatered and cycles of revenge, and how they all played a role in the rise of the Third Reich and the incomprehenisble acts (incomprehensible if we refuse the courage to look at the causes--more comprehensible if we are courageous to recognize the humanity of the Third Reich) of the Holocaust? In this Palmer may be saying that we do no good to dismiss these actions as simply acts of "evil" committed by "monsters" for "insane" reasons who once "destroyed" we will no longer have to worry about... instead he is attempting to recognize in himself, as a human, what could lead another human to carry out the orders of Death Camps, or to sit passively by as their neighbors were rounded up, or even worse design these processes... So can we understand the present bu listening to the past (instead of dismissing it as simply good/bad):

The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future

and how do these lessons reflect on our understandings of the War on Terror:

Language of the War on Terror

Or in approaching the abuses of Abu Ghraib:

Abu Ghraib

Or what is a "terrorist" and who is a "terrorist" and what causes "terrorism" and how can we stop "terrorism":

Who is a Terrorist?

Zimbardo, Philip G. “Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University.” Visual/Textual Slide Show Articles on the Experiments

Many of you asked if Palmer believes in "truth":

He does believe in truth and he vehemently rejects the notion that there are no "truths" (which is a form of absolute truth--there are "absolutely" not truths, becomes an all-encompassing Truth)... what is important is that we recognize the basis for the truths that we hold and that any truth worth having should be risked in open-conflict through comparison and questions in the "community of truth." As biased, imperfect beings, we need to compare notes, discuss, debate, revise, re-conceive and reflect on our truth/s...

A student asked about the meaning of Ontological:

Ontology: is a the philosophy of "being." It can also refer to questions of "existence." Here is wikipedia's definition of ontology

A student pointed out this passage:

"In the community of truth, the connective core of all of our relationships is the significant subject itself--not intimacy, not civility, not accountability, but the power of the living subject."

I understand Palmer to be saying that we should understand the relationship of learning to be an active, continuous process and that are subjects of study are live subjects that have something to say to us about their "state of being". We have to open up to the world to allow it to speak to us--not just humans, but objects, animals, places, etc... now I know this may seem mystical to some and thus suspect, but is there something to be sad for the spiritual, the religious, the mystical connection to learning and "knowing"... the Old Testament prophet going out in the desert to gain spiritual wisdom, the Buddha meditating (opening-up to the world), the shaman opening-up and communicating with the non-human world ... are these really so different from the scientist studying particles, Black Holes, invisible processes (to the naked eye) and projecting answers on assumptions/educated-guesses? In this we might ask is our faith in science and technolgy a form or religion/mysticism? Evelyn Fox Keller, a brilliant scientist and theorist of knowledge-production, asks what happens when during the process of "looking" at something and how does that object change and should we care about how that alters our information--this applies to the microbes that has been separated from its environment and placed under a microscope, but also applies to broader issues of society and culture when cameras are operating or the judgments of researchers when making field observations. Likewise we can see these questions in the work of the scientist Michael Polyani

We also discussed theories of paradigm production in science (and other disciplines/fields-of-expertise). Here is some more background on a main theorist of scientific paradigms--Thomas Kuhn and his theory of Paradigm Shifts


Susannity said...

I want to take your class. =)

And I hope the kids know we are not in a real democracy.

Michael said...

I wish you could Susanne, I'm sure you would teach me a lot.

Michael said...

As for the concept of "democracy" we read about the long history of the concept ("Democracy" by Bernard Crick) and discussed current struggles over the concept of "democracy" in post-9/11 American culture ("Homeland" by Dale Maharidge)

While my students are generally much more conservative than I am we have found a lot of common ground and have came to some exciting conclusions (which led to more perplexing and intriguing questions)