The Usefulness of Talking

Perhaps I owe my readers an apology: I have not been citing books much lately, even though they are a mainstay of this blog. The fact is, I have not been reading books lately. This is partly because our libraries are closed, and it will be several weeks yet before I can request more books or ask that they be purchased. I haven’t the room in the house for all the books I’d like to purchase; not all books are as good as promised; and of course they cost a lot. But it is mostly because during COVID a remarkable number of organizations have put free events, lectures, and panel discussions on line. These used to take place downtown. One would have to drive there, find parking, maybe dine before or after, and pay for admission. You would get to mix with others interested in the subject, which is always attractive. But the cost in money and time limited the number of such events I could attend. Now they are offering these on-line usually for free. I have immersed myself in them while they last. I barely have the time!

There are webinars by

The Canadian Urban Institute
Urban Land Institute
Toronto Foundation
Ryerson University’s City Building Institute
University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics
Canadian Journalism Foundation
The Belfer Centre for Science
The Munk Debates
University of Toronto School of Cities
The Centre for International Governance Innovation
Data and Society
Future Cities

And for entertainment there are the

Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (Toronto)
Stratford Festival Theatre
The National Theatre (Britain)
McMichael Art Gallery
Art Gallery of Ontario
Ryerson Image Centre
The Orpheus Choir

As well as concerts by individual artists. What a time for free information and entertainment!

Like books, you have to get into each new production before evaluating its usefulness for this blog or in other matters. So, I attend the webinars and await more books.

I work with, and sometimes chair, several groups and committees, all of whom also have moved to on-line communication, both by e-mail and texts, and by group communications in real time. These are person-to-person, but not physically together. I have had to reconsider the qualities of these measures (I was previously opposed) because they are necessary during this pandemic.

In any of these groups, I am not the only one thinking about the value of communicating this way. Others suggest how to do it better. The suggestions are based on different values. I myself place a high value on talking with others for a long time. I want to hear their opinions, their facts, how they express them, notice what they choose to bring into the discussion and what they don’t, to wonder whether those are deliberate choices or simply offering the latest information they have seen. Perhaps, I think, those not retired, haven’t the time to read widely for a greater variety of sources or opinions, but I am regularly impressed by how widely even the busiest people read. I have developed confidence that what they bring to conversation is the result of curated material. They have considered what they know and what they believe. But they may be unaccustomed to having the time, and the clearly expressed interest of others, to fully express their views and information. I could spend hours listening to those views and sifting among them, not only for the joy of being able to respect them so highly, but also for what I may learn, and for the really exciting prospect of changing my own views. I am extraordinarily fortunate in being able to keep such company.

Although…in 38 years as a clergy, I did not find among the groups in the churches, nor among the individuals within or outside the churches, people whose thinking, interests, and levels of information were uninteresting. I think this may be because there was always time to hear them, if not right at a given moment, then later in a follow-up communication. Oh, I read about people who utter ill-considered remarks, or act doltishly. I sometimes read their actual written views, or watch and listen to them on radio or TV. But I haven’t actually encountered them in person.

Was my exposure to the world too narrow as a churchman? I think not. I met and talked with people in the inner city of Detroit and of Toronto, as well as rural residents and suburban residents. I have met with mentally people in slums, and in very posh areas. I have met with mentally healthy people in the slums and in the posh areas. I have met with people of a variety of faiths, although they tended to be people who wanted to know other different people and look for areas of cooperation, if not agreement. So probably I did not meet with people who don’t want to meet someone like myself. I have been with people at the very bottom of their lives in grief, addiction, illness, and just catastrophic chaos. I have been with people at the top of their game, their highest financial achievement, at the time of their political victory. I guess that anyone who is willing to talk with me, rather than just to me or at me, is interesting. Perhaps it is the others who are not.  So, no, I don’t think my experience has been narrow.

I taught a course for a local college once called Civil Discourse. It was about how to talk respectfully with other people, and really listen. There were few registrants. Three sessions into the course I learned that several of them, having decided together to register, were now leaving because of unmet expectations. They had expected to learn how to win in conversations and disagreements. The other registrants, more passive, left because, without the verve of the people who wanted to win, the remaining people became bored. I guess my viewpoint is disappointing to those who want to win conversations and arguments.

I read somewhere that while the U.S. developed its independence by confrontation and war, Canada gained its unity among the provinces, its constitution, and its all-but-ceremonial independence from Britain, by talking. Bringing together the original provinces was accomplished by morning and afternoon meetings of conversation, and evenings of entertainment, chatting, and drinking, usually with spouses attending. It’s been suggested that the mornings may not have included quite as much conversation, owing to residual effects of the previous evenings. (I know many Canadians believe that the country’s individual identity was brought about by Canadian-led combat during the First World War, but even that was a cooperative effort with other countries. It is important not to disregard both features of our history.) This talking was engaged for definitive purposes and goals, not just for social comradery.  But it was talking and exchanging views, nonetheless.

So I hold a strong belief in the value of talking for the sake of learning and sharing and enjoying others’ company, but also for the purposes of making decisions and coming to agreement about matters.

In the group meetings to make decisions, others want to emphasize getting the job done. They want lists of what must be accomplished, the priorities among them, and a limited amount of time to discuss each one. I understand these preferences, coming from people who are busier than I. I cooperate with these preferences, but I grieve for what we as individuals and as a group forego because, of necessity, talking is limited. I know these people individually, the depth and breadth of their knowledge and thinking. I think it is terrible that the others in the group risk not witnessing any of that. I believe that we will make better decisions, and take on more tasks, as the result of hearing as much as people want to say about issues. Full discussion offers greater opportunity to discover things we would not have known to consider, let alone reconsider.

Establishing priorities is very important for many. “Pick your three top priorities…” we are forever instructed. This risks never getting around to examining the other ideas, the other issues, or the other questions. They are lost to our cognizance. They are lost topics around which we might gather our experiences. We shall whiz by them, probably never looking back. At the next meeting we will again pick the top three priorities. But all may be entirely new matters which, perhaps, can be fully understood only by considering them in the context of the older matters we haven’t considered yet, because they weren’t the top three the last time, or the time before that. Always picking the newest top three, we may forego understanding how we got to this point. We can make many poor choices in the now if we never examine the then.

Example: I was in correspondence with a local politician about one of the poverty programs, expressing my disappointment with the shallow efforts of her government. She replied that this was “at least a good first step.” I wrote to her of the previous thirty years’ efforts on this matter, and insisted that her government should look at the whole range of efforts and discern why the problem persisted. It was ‘way past time for lauding “first steps.” That’s the value of reconsidering: I want to understand the past and the present, to give or withhold informed consent to the history of a matter, not just the immediate effort. In group discussions, take the time to gather those personal histories which explain how each of us came to our view at this moment.  This leads to a deeper understanding of an issue, and a greater understanding of each other.

If you have time to talk you will hear peoples’ stories. If you want to understand the real reason for a person’s view, look not merely to the facts, the arguments and discourse, and the choices of the moment. Look rather to the person’s story leading up to this view at this time. Having been invited into their story, you can understand at a gut level the person’s views. You can’t argue with it. You can only understand it in your gut. And then, after sharing your own story, you enter a different conversation with each other that is more considerate, more patient, and more respectful. After that you will not only understand the joint decisions, but you will have greater perception about what else can be decided in the future.

For an enjoyable example of the benefit of just talking, see an on-line history of Toronto’s Union Station, particularly the story of the welcoming of war brides. How to welcome them?  Help with the kids, serve coffee, and talk.  


Keeping your soul-value

Two books:

I am currently reading Between Two Fires: truth ambition and compromise in Putin’s Russia, by Joshua Yaffa. He quotes Soviet sociologist Yuri Levada’s essay “The Wily Man.” The quote is this:

“The Russian Wily Man not only tolerates deception, but is willing to be deceived, and …even requires self-deception for the sake of his own self-preservation….He adapts to social reality, looking for oversights and gaps in the ruling system, looking to use ‘the rules of the game’ for his own interest, but at the same time – and no less important – he is constantly trying to circumvent those very same rules.”

Reading this, I think it is unfortunate that there may not be a higher value, a soul-value, which Yaffa’s examples of The Wily Man can hold above all else. Something which so defines their feeling about themselves, their soul-value, that they cannot do without it. But more on this later.

At the same time I am reading Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump`s War on the World`s Most Powerful Office, by Susan Hennesey and Benjamin Wittes. While it certainly includes what you might expect – a screed against Trump—it is, more importantly, a careful examination of the history of the presidency itself as structure and processes. It clarifies the legal requirements and limits of the office, which are different from conventions. It shows that Trump stands in a long line of presidents who radically changed the office by changing some conventions. For example, writing, but not speaking, the State of the Union message to Congress but not addressing the American public, became a new convention –the dramatic speech delivered to Congress but intended for the public..

It includes, for example, an examination of the “kingly” (Yaffa’s quotes) power of pardon, both for reasons of state (pardoning rebels in order to re-integrate them into society rather than leave them outside it) and for personal political reasons (rewarding friends and punishing enemies). Why the power could not have been fashioned to forbid serving the president’s personal or political benefit, I don`t know. But given what it is, I understand the reasons of state, even though they violate justice by removing the duly ajudged punishment. I perceive that keeping the state together may have superior value than punishing the rebels themselves. Moreover, much evidence has accumulated that people can be convicted of crime unjustly. I want to keep justice as a soul-value, but I understand that “justice” does not necessarily accomplish that.

Being a “wily man” may be equally the situation of even ethical politicians in some western democracies, including Canada. The federal Canadian system provides that the Prime Minister and his office make all the real decisions. They may even direct the conclusions of Members of Parliamentary committees examining the issues of the day (see the Samara Centre for Democracy’s Real House Lives, and other publications). Members of Parliament may be in the political game because they truly believe in the virtues of public service, but they serve this cause in a system to which they must adapt. Perhaps they, too, often try to subvert it to do good.

You can understand that those around you, those on the same authority level, above yours, and below, may have good intentions but still have to manipulate or duck the prevailing system. Their ways may be dishonest or avoid condemning dishonesty, in order to get something done. For instance, as a chaplain in a particular inner-city psychiatric hospital, I depended upon orderlies to get patients up to the chapel on the top floor, in reasonably good emotional condition (because everyone has the right to as nearly normal a worship experience as possible); to get them there on-time; to hang around during the service (whether worshipping or not) in case someone got out of hand; and then return them to their wards. The single most helpful and reliable orderly who took up this task was a known dealer of drugs on the wards to patients and to staff. When he prepared to leave the hospital on any day he had to stick his arm out an upstairs window and start his car remotely, as a precaution against a bomb.

If I wanted to conduct worship services with the severely mentally ill, this was how I was going to do it.

I don’t say that politicians nor others must deceive ourselves, but we do look for gaps in the systems and try to game them. Simply being straight forward, confident that the system is well and truly disposed toward doing good to and for everyone, is often not realistic. Rather, we must “own it” when we are being dishonest and deceptive, working together with others’ out-and-out illegal or unethical behaviour, in order to do good things.

The question is, how much time can we spend in the mud before we forget how to be clean? My volunteer experience in politics is that there are often people, not only among some politicians, but among the volunteers and staff, who gladly engage in such conduct because they have fun with political manipulation, but do not regret the mud. It is as if politics has its own rules, sense of morality, and ethics, and is not to be judged by people who don’t live and work in that environment.
Many of us outside that political environment are disappointed with it, and resent that sense of entitlement or exception.

My concern, as one who has had to cooperate or passively tolerate explicit wrong-doing in order to do my task, is this: does this diminish the ability to choose a higher ideal than “going along to get along,” as my real moral centre, my soul-value? I do not say, “Act according to that ideal at all times.” I have learned that is not always the best decision. Rather, I wonder is whether it is possible to even choose that ideal.

I also wonder whether there must be some sort of critical mass, so to speak, a requisite number of people, also choosing their own ideals, to make it possible for any of us — not necessarily the same ideal, just an ideal for each person.

I wonder whether it would be possible to so thoroughly hold onto such an ideal, that we could count on serving it, rather than “go along to get along.” Perhaps the best possibility is that we be conscious of our ideal, but not conscious of how we forsake it (cognitive dissonance).

Reading through the stories in Yaffa’s book, I see that some of his chosen individuals do have ideals, but they don’t seem to be ultimate in any sense. Violating them does not necessarily cause a crisis in the soul. Shouldn’t people be able to have ultimate ideals, ideals which so define them that they must not give them up, no matter how many fires? “What does it profit you to gain the whole world but lose your soul?” I think “soul” in this context means the self-understanding that makes you OK with yourself. “Blessed is he who can examine himself from outside, and be OK with what he sees (Romans 14:22, my translation)”. For me that’s what informed consent is about: the assertion that, to be OK with my life, to preserve my soul, I must be able to understand in my head and in my gut, not necessarily why, but certainly how damaging events came to others as well as to myself. Ought I have done something to avoid them, or change the course of events? Is there something I can and ought to do now to avoid a repetition, or minimize consequences, or altogether stop something?

Today I was speaking with a friend in politics, a previous local candidate. We were analyzing various candidates for leader of a party, and comparing what their leadership might mean for this party in comparison with other parties. Would each candidate be able to enable the party to bring about climate emergency policies? Or is the party, great values notwithstanding, too insignificant to make a difference?

I am active in more than one party at a time, one on a provincial level and another on the federal. My soul-value is to bring really innovative and effective counters to the climate emergency done before 2030, after which, I think, we will have lost the game (the feedback loop will bring such fierce conditions that we may be severely hindered from continuing many activities, including those mitigation efforts we project into 2050) . I want to help politics get the right things done now, and if that means working with two parties because no one party has all the answers, I am fine with that. My soul-value will not be violated by being in two political parties; it will be violated by not striving as hard as possible to preserve good life after 2030. I may have to support other things in each party, perhaps very silly platforms. I almost don’t care (there are some possible platforms which I might not be able to support), as long as I get to work out my soul-value.

While I will not be alone in benefitting from the effects of my work, so strongly do I believe in its rightness that, were I the only beneficiary, I would still work for this. And just pray that I not encounter some demand which would violate my soul-value. You can see how essential informed consent is for this.

I grieve for those who cannot even choose a soul-value, something they cannot bring themselves to violate. I respect those who must be wily, but I wish better for them.