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Truth & Paradox

September 9, 2007

In A Different Drum Scott Peck made the point that the truth always has a paradoxical quality to it. He used the example of the bible stating that being Christian is simultaneously about doing good works and having God’s grace save you from the need to do good works. This is observably a big issue for Christians and I’m not sure I’ve met any who have a good handle on it. They’re hardly an exception though.

This idea that real truths are inevitably paradoxical has stuck with me and it’s been particularly interesting watching the recent debate about cities with Jason and Ran. It also occurred to me that we’ve been this way before, with Jason behaving in a relatively rude manner and the other party extending him some grace so the debate can continue.

The first time I saw it was early last year when we were trying to decide whether being a hunter-gatherer or a permaculturist was a better way to get through the impending crash. I think it was all prompted by an essay by Toby Hemmenway. As I recall Jason told Toby his thinking was ‘dodgy’ on the subject – a tad unnecessary but Toby let it slide.

While it was true that Toby’s initial argument lacked hard academic rigour what he was trying to do was find his way forward to a new understanding about the crash. I’m thinking the same thing about Ran’s idea now as I said about Toby’s essay: Let’s not attempt to close him down because the argument is a bit loose, at the core of it is a really important idea that needs exploring, and that’s much more important.

Like it or not people are going to try living in cities for a long time. Things will be hard enough psychologically during the crash and the last thing city dwellers will want to do is shift out to country living. They will feel psychologically more secure in a city and will be drawn back to that environment – so we’d better figure out how to make it work, for a few generations at least.

Ran quoted an email of mine the other day:

“You could always decide to call these sustainable cities villages, or maybe large villages, and still keep the definition of cities nice and clean.”

“Never!” said Ran in his reply back to me and then used it to make a point about disliking nice and clean thinking. What I was really trying to say in the email was; fine give Jason his clean definition of city and lets get back to the debate and see what we can learn.

In actual fact I totally agree with Ran about that and what he said gets to the core of what this posting is about, if we try to keep things nice and clean we close off the other side of the paradox and lose sight of the real, complicated, messy truth. Ran seems to have a good instinct for this, and I loved that out of the debate he, the archetypal anti-civ blogger, produced an essay entitled How to Save Civilisation.

Getting back to that earlier debate, after insisting that I needed an answer to whether permaculture or hunter/gathering was the answer to post-crash life I ended up posting this article full of wonder at how we ever came to be in an arguement:

….Not surprisingly it soon became apparent that a combination of the two might prove to be the best solution of all but what I wasn’t expecting was that it would turn out that both approaches already combine elements of the other to such an extent as to make the debate almost pointless. In fact, the opposing concepts of either being totally in charge of our food production or totally leaving food production to mother nature existed only in my head. In the real world it turns out that:

(a) Many of the cultures that we thought were hunter/gatherers were actively managing their environment to increase levels of natural food production and…

(b) The aim of permaculture is to create an environment where food can be ‘grazed’ at leisure.

Put like that I can barely tell the difference between the two …

The same thing happened recently with the issue of whether people should expect chaos or community post crash and of course the answer turned out to be that we should expect both.

Then there was; are eco-villages a better option than forming a tribe and disappearing into the forest? In the end I concluded the best way to form a tribe was to form an ecovillage first and lo; Jason (coming from the opposite direction) said that Anthropik’s path would be to buy some land next to a forest park and use that as the tribes base to get themselves started.

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THE COMMUNITY APPROACH V THE ACADEMIC APPROACH

Yes, I’m frustrated by the futility of the way these debates proceed, they’re too destructive and too exhausting and they seem to produce false dichotomies.

Scott Peck (from A Different Drum again):

“…because it integrates diversity, in community partial ideas tend to become whole ideas, and the initially simplistic thinking of community members tends to become complex, paradoxical, flexible and sane.

In all honesty I don’t think that Jason values the relationship as much as the need to win a debate, I’ve seen him leave mile-long responses to people on blog comment sections which can be a very overwhelming experience and not especially helpful.

The need to close down EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of an opponents argument is a profoundly different approach to trying to zero in on the core of the debate. It’s about obliterating your opponent and it’s very forceful – essentially the literary equivalent of a good thumping.

This destructive approach is both a cause and a result of a person’s desire to keep their argument unchanged but the destruction of the relationship (community) ensures that debaters remain isolated and have less of a chance of nuancing their views with an understanding of the paradox.

Of course combat seems to be the very nature of academic debate. It doesn’t surprise me that academic methods are destructive since academia’s first priority is to reinforce the hierarchy and it’s values (including separation from self, community and land), and this means avoiding communal style collaboration. I remember a lecturer at architecture school who taught design in a genuine collaborative environment – he was universally reviled by the other lecturers.

Ironically it was at university that I learnt the concept of synergy and it’s that ‘greater than the sum of it’s parts’ thing that I love about this circle of blogs. However as I learned at the time you need at least an element of community for synergy to work.

I have to admit to a feeling of trepidation every time I visit the Anthropik site – in fear of what new calamity I will encounter there. Not so at Ran’s site, even when he uses my comment to bounce a debate in a particular direction it’s not done in an insulting manner.

Where I’m going with this is that I believe that the academic method is a very flawed way of chasing the truth, not just because it zeroes in on the details and loses the big picture but also because it uses combat as a debating method.

Whilst it’s true that an argument that can withstand immense criticism must be a good one, the war-like nature of the debate puts the proponent of any new idea immediately on the back foot and they have to ‘dig themselves in’ to withstand the assault.

It’s a real waste of time and energy in it’s own right but also because the proponent of an idea is the person in the best place to be critiquing it – after all, who else knows it so well. I know this is a strange idea for our culture, I’m expecting most people will be pretty sceptical of it and I would be too if I hadn’t observed Ran doing this very thing in some of his writing.

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I’m aware that this posting includes quite a bit of implied and direct criticism of Jason Godesky. Initially I was (and still am really) quite hesitant about doing this and I realised that I was feeling some kind of pressure about it. I don’t know how stuff like this can work across the internet but it happened a lot in the Derrick Jensen discussion list so I’m kind of familiar with it. In any case we should always respond to pressure like this and work to free ourselves of it, regardless of whether it is a small or a big deal.

I don’t have or want a problem with Jason, I gain immensely from his writing and there is far more to be gained from keeping the peace – but not at any cost. His behaviour errs on the destructive side at times and I’m hoping he will get the opportunity to see that sometime. It’s true that I wasn’t a lot different ten years ago so there’s hope for everyone.

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In the permaculture v hunter-gatherer debate I referred to above I remember Ran linking to one of my postings on the subject with the comment that he was burned out by the whole thing. How would it be if we could debate in a way that energised people instead of wearing them down? How would it be if the debate could be effective without having to be so damned ‘robust’.

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10 comments

  1. “…the proponent of an idea is the person in the best place to be critiquing it – after all, who else knows it so well.”

    In my experience, this just isn’t so.

    For one thing, there are few new ideas. “Who else knows it so well?” Why, someone who’s been all the way through it, rather than stopping in the middle of it. That is, people who’ve been failed by the idea, and figured out why it failed them.

    Also, many ideas have a complexity to them that requires multiple perspectives for a full understanding. True, useful ideas are particularly likely to have this quality; you seem to have noticed this in this essay, and called it “paradox”, which is as good a name as any.

    A healthy research group allows a small, tight-knit group to collaborate in preparing an idea before it is presented to the larger, more competitive community. I think this balance of cooperation and competition can be immensely powerful. However, healthy research groups aren’t nearly as common as they should be, and I agree with you that the process is all-too-often destructive.


  2. Aaron wrote:

    “…the proponent of an idea is the person in the best place to be critiquing it – after all, who else knows it so well.”

    Joel wrote

    “In my experience, this just isn’t so.”

    That’s exactly what I mean, everyone is so concerned about defending their ideas that it’s inconceivable that they would do anything else. Like I said, I’ve only ever seen Ran do it.

    I know there is nothing new under the sun but the debates we are having in this circle of blogs seem to be new to the people involved. I don’t know anyone who’s been all the way through the sort of crash we’re expecting. It’s all guess work so the sort of tight knit collaborative group you describe is really what we need – not duels.


  3. I’d love to see a collaborative effort to “get to the heart of it” as it were, but I’m afraid the internet is far more conducive to Jason’s style of communication than what you hope for. I think if Ran made a place for public commentary and discussion the tenor of the site would change radically.

    Also, in my experience with forums and discussion blogs, without perpetual debate and conflict very little gets said at all. If people agree and want to stop talking, they can’t exactly go hang out or anything. It’s an inherent limitation of text-only communication, that’s all.


  4. You’re right about the limitations of text based communication, people behave like they do when they’re behind the wheel of a car. I’m probably more hopeful than most because I don’t get trolls very often – unless you count Jason turning up and wanting to argue like he used to do here :-)

    The sad thing is that in real life it’s usually no better.


  5. […] recently, Aaron at Village Blog wrote a fairly hurtful post aimed at attacking me personally, from which I’ve taken the title for this post, where he […]


  6. Aaron,
    I wouldn’t call that an attack, or “picking a fight” anyone that has chatted with you online,even a little bit, should know you are a peacemaker.

    This is more like straight talk you give to a friend. I sense that is how it was intended but not how it was taken. That’s not your fault.

    Ted


  7. My strongest beliefs are not the ones which I protect or defend most stridently, but are instead those which I leave open to attack by competing beliefs and which survive again and again, with no help from me.

    The key is to truly leave them open to attack, rather than pretending. When someone is only pretending, it’s absurdly obvious, and there’s no use in continuing the engagement.

    casemeau (Yup. It’s me.)


  8. Casemeau! Where’d you go? I got back from my time in the housebus and you’d completely dissapeared. No one had a clue where you were apart from a cryptic comment on Frank Black’s blog. Actually where the heck has Frank gone too?.

    Nice to hear from you anyway. Your comment reminds me of issues of spiritual faith – it’s how people should handle their faith but I literally only know one person who does it that way.

    >>When someone is only pretending, it’s absurdly obvious, and there’s no use in continuing the engagement.<<<

    I’m not sure if that was meant to be relevant to my kerfuffle with Jason but I have reached the point where I can see there is no point in continuuing.


  9. Casey,

    Feel free to stop by blog!

    Ted


  10. Though this is 5 years too late, I really enjoyed the Truth & Paradox post and especially your ending comments re debating in a way that energised people instead wearing them down. If you get a chance to see this very late reply, I thought you might like to check out:
    — Tom Atlee’s work (www.co-intelligence.org). He focuses on things like Citizen’s Deliberative Councils which work to bring diverse people together to consider problems and arrive at solutions instead of attacking each other.
    –The techniques of Dialogue & Deliberation (www.ncdd.org) might also work in blog comments if people could follow the guidelines of the approach.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful posts.



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