Who matters?

Two books I have read with one in each hand. Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, by Marc Lamont Hill, and The Sum of Small Things: a Theory of the Aspirational Class¸ by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett.

Nobody examines the best-known examples of how systems maltreat people of certain colour, low economic circumstance, or geographic area such as Flint in Michigan and Ferguson, Missouri, but then expands to show many other examples, if less known, of the same thing (lately in Newark, and perennially in Canada on aboriginal north reserves). There really are people who are treated like nobodies. I have known and worked with some nobodies over the years, but I never thought there are so many. Truly depressing.

The other deals with people of probably significantly higher incomes who nowadays, instead of being conspicuous consumers, are aspirational consumers. You may not see what they own, but they desire to do good with their money by, for example, purchasing green energy services, putting their kids through better schools, purchasing more expensive energy-efficient cars, climate proofing their homes, taking public transit more often, bicycling more, and purchasing primarily artisanal products and sustainably sourced products. The author describes a certain level of snobbery in this, but the aspirations are all, I think, pretty admirable.

The juxtapositions of these two books and theses is very gripping, because of the extreme dichotomy they demonstrate. If you’ve read my earlier blogs, or know me personally, you realize that in ministry, volunteer politics, and advocacy efforts toward governments, and as an ethicist, I have worked with and known well many people at both ends. Particularly in these days of what is commonly referred to as “tribalism” or nativism (both, I think, terms which are used far too imprecisely to describe matters which merit much closer scrutiny but which, having been labelled, are thought not to need further examination) it is worthwhile to know about these two worlds.

I think that, particularly in the fields of religious ministry, ethics, government service, and politics, it is paramount that the needs, interests, and concerns of individuals in these groups be known; that the individuals themselves be listened to and heard in their own words, acknowledged, and responded to. Francis Fukuyama`s latest book Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment contributes to the discussion by suggesting that each of us has a sense of self which needs recognition, respect, attention, and care from others. The need for this is profoundly emotional, but makes questionable the presumption that abstract, rational discussion and debate are the proper tools of understanding social issues and addressing problems.

Example: the usual methods of getting `public input` were applied by one municipality as plans were being devised to renovate a neighbourhood. The proposals, typically, would require poorer people to forfeit their homes and neighbourhood. The `public` were the usual middle class, mainly white, articulate people who can read reports using complicated language and concepts, express themselves well verbally, and who can adjust their work and domestic responsibilities to attend daytime meetings somewhere other than the affected neighbourhood. Clearly this was a process which excluded nobodies.

A second consulting group took a different route: they met in local houses of worship, schools, bars, and coffee shops, during the day, evenings, and weekends, to hear the view of the nobodies. Of course they heard different concerns. It is that kind of attention focused on lived experience which is needed.

What’s needed, as suggested by Cass Sunstein in #Republic, is that people make extraordinary efforts to meet with and be with people who are very different from themselves. There is much research which shows that personal acquaintance can diminish fear or suspicion (always two sides of the same coin).

There seems to be a problem of overlooking, or abandoning with prejudice, the older standards and ways of being together with some people and very distant from others. Patrick J. Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed, (p.xiv,) puts it this way:

              The breakdown of family, community, and religious norms and institutions, especially among those benefitting least from liberalism’s advance, has not led liberalism’s discontents to seek a restoration of those norms. That would take effort and sacrifice in a culture that now diminishes the value of both. Rather, many now look to deploy the statist powers of liberalism against its own ruling class. Meanwhile, huge energies are spent in mass protest rather than in self-legislation and deliberation, reflecting less a renewal of democratic governance than political fury and despair. Liberalism created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own worst nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge to understand its own culpability.

I acknowledge that the old ways have preserved racial prejudice and animosity toward gays, aboriginals, lesbians, trans-sexuals, and women, along with religious prejudices which have separated communities. The difficulty seems to lie in acknowledging these distinct ways of living while making it possible for those who want to preserve their own community, religion, and rites of passage to not feel that, when reaching out to others, they are losing their own inner qualities for which they, also, want recognition and respect.

I know of two ways to do this.

The first comes from my forty-five years of facilitating group discussions on controversial topics. They prove to me that conversations are important and should continue forever, the more personal the better. By that I mean conversations in which people talk about the course of their lives so far which have led them to their current opinions on the social issues of the moment. The point is not to argue or persuade, but simply to tell your story while others listen, and to listen while others tell their stories. This gives everyone permission to step outside themselves and become immersed in story. Everyone loves hearing a story (although not everyone tells one well). Doing so puts you in another place for a time. It is difficult to argue with someone else’s story. You simply have to acknowledge it, and somewhere in your subconscious it will change you because you will start to take it into account when you think about issues reflected in that story. You will, believe me. This is good consultation: it may make it possible for people to design solutions which take account of almost everyone’s concern, and keep track of what remains unresolved – a follow-on meeting, maybe a couple weeks later, often gives people room to second-guess themselves, to return to ask questions of others to clarify something, or to say the second time something which they wish they had said the first time. It brings the satisfaction of knowing that you have been heard (twice!) and had the opportunity to express yourself more clearly because now your subconscious may have clarified your thinking – you may understand yourself better. This is very satisfying. I can’t tell you how many people have ended such discussions by asking me, “Why am I not feeling angry and frustrated after this?” Having such discussions on a regular basis with people unlike yourself can make an enormous difference in yourself, and in how you and others solve problems.

People who move from such conversations to working together on problems, can make remarkable inroads.

The second, but perhaps less desirable way of dealing with these problems is to conclude that action is critically necessary NOW, and there isn’t time to come to theoretical agreements first. You must ACT (I think climate change is the obvious such situation).

Example: With the onset of the First Gulf War, eleven local clergy who were preparing a public service of concern, were each given a short period to read a relevant holy writing, and a short period to offer public prayer. We circulated in advance what we were going to read to avoid overlap. We held the service, everyone stayed brief, and the crowds responded well. Over coffee afterward, one said to all of us: “It’s a good thing we didn’t discuss theology first. We just moved.” Exactly. Each of us knew the issues: whether the cause of the war was OK, the concern for those in combat and their families and friends, the innocents who would be injured or killed, how long the war would last and how long before things in the countries where battle occurred could be put right in some way. The need for wisdom for all decision makers high and low (see earlier blog). You could see in the writings cited and in the prayers that all these matters were understood intuitively, and prior discussion was not needed in order to address them. If we disagreed about any of these, it didn’t make a difference because we and the crowds were able to gather and give witness of caring. Just knowing that others care along with us, was helpful, and equipped us to do what we must in the coming weeks. We knew what we had shared.

So these are at least two ways we can be aware of our differences and get along. I’d be glad to hear of additional ways.

Can such methods influence the real decision makers in the world? They can if you can get them in these conversations. If we allow them to stay apart and make decisions, my guess is that the business decision makers and the politicians will fail us.

You know by now that this blog site is primarily about the virtue of informed consent. I have described ways of getting to informed consent which I know work. In this case, the “informed” part relates to what we know in our subconscious or gut: the information comes not from data and empirical evidence but from genuine encounter with the world as it is for individuals. Consent can be informed this way, and it is good.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.