Truth & ParadoxSeptember 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.
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.
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.
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’.