On Reconciling Epistemic Enclosures

Epistemology Lecturing

Democracy depends on the negotiation of common ground

I’ve spent most of my life as a connector. I’ve always been something of a bridge-builder. Someone who can ‘see both sides’ (sometimes to a fault). I’m forgiving, even when I might vehemently disagree with someone, and am generally able to admit that my way of perceiving the world is no more than just that: my way. Anyone else’s is only an equal and complimentary contribution to the sum of views that accounts for our socialized reality.

In the opening lines of my Master‘s, I cite a few lines of Nabokov’s that I’ve carried with me through much of my adult life (a longer excerpt of this idea is included in the very first post on this blog, as well; certainly, it is a foundational idea in my thinking about life and learning):

“The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality.”

Of course there are limits to the idea that all perspectives are rendered equal, and I would admit the maxim that one is “entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” There is a hierarchy of (variously informed) opinions, (variously true or provable) beliefs, and what we might consider to be truly known (though even this empirical knowledge often offers a less complete picture than many ideologies would readily accept).

In basing our social reality (democratic politics) on such a humble view of what is known, and basing our decision-making processes on the limitations of that knowledge, we can hope to create the most just world possible. But this potential will remain as mere hope if we do not resolve to wrestle with democracy’s limitations; and if we believe in the potential of democracy to create such a just representation of human views, we must fight to be inclusive of diverse views that may offend our existing paradigm(s), while at the same time be able to reject that which is based in dubious claims to knowledge or reality.

Galileo to Descartes to Canadian Multiculturalism

By one reading, it was the destruction of the epistemological paradigm of the Middle Ages that brought about the west’s democratic revolutions in the first place. It is the scientific revolution which enables the social, and precedes the political, as Galileo and Newton create the necessity of Descartes’ ultimate scepticism that leads him to outline his knowledge beginning from only true beliefs, and the notion that the sole certainty is that “I am a thing that thinks.”

From here the technological advancements in printing technology and the cultural revolutions of the Protestant Reformation bring about the realignment of the knowledge-creating bodies of the western world. Where before the one word of god and Pope and king defined the parameters of the social experience, as it became clear that a polyphony of voices was just as capable of advocating for a truly collective perspective, it similarly became apparent that the political structures governing that society would be in need of significant renovation.

The initial forces exerting this seminal democratic will are with us today, and we see in the evolution of the causes of civil rights and social justice in countries continuing to strive toward these Enlightenment ideals. In its Multiculturalism policy, the Government of Canada sets the lofty goal for itself to

“promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation”.

So radical does the statement strike me every time I read it that I cannot help but emphasize the scope of what such a policy might genuinely aspire toward. To promote the “full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

In a seeming nod to Nabokov, Canada holds as an official view that each of our responses to the question, What does it mean to be a Canadian? must be counted as equal. Not only that, however, but also that it is the role of government (and citizen alike, by extension), to “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

How we intend to arrive at the notion of what it means to be Canadian, and what this vision of nationhood implies of what it means to be human, then, exists on an epistemological foundation which values bridge-and-consensus-building, on creating spaces for dialogue and disagreement, and on reconciliation of the myriad different ways we each experience the world.

Engaging the deplorables

I’ve always had a lot more fun exploring my thinking on issues I’m passionate about with folks of differing opinions; even with my more liberal friends, the conversations I learn the most from are where we are able to highlight minute disagreements that help shed light on the contours of an issue or event. Fortunately in this regard I’ve been able to make social connections with a range of sharply opinionated conservative coworkers and teammates over the years: I spent five years living in Arkansas, two of which saw me working at a Boy Scouts of America summer camp in the Ozark Mountains; and I’ve shared a lunchroom back in suburban Vancouver with passionately libertarian male Baby Boomers (a relationship I’ve explored at some length here before).

In both of these cases, I’ve worked to represent the liberal values espoused earlier here, and attempted to represent and reconcile our differing views on a range of contemporary events and issues fairly and as dispassionately as possible (not that this has always been possible). I make a point of being overly cordial, friendly, and make explicit the idea that it is important for us to respect one another and our perspectives despite our divergent views about the state of the world. Reasonable people are free to disagree, after all, if we are each able to present our view of the facts as best as we are able and come to our own conclusions from there. It is through this process that respect and reconciliation of our differing views become possible.

But I wonder if we aren’t living through a time which makes this hope a fragile and idealistic possibility, as the advent of “alternative facts” and a pervasive distrust of there being any common reality for us to point to being dispelled through more and more normalized channels. How can we be expected to arrive at a collective interpretation of reality with such nihilistic views of facts or the truth circulating in such broad swaths of the population?

I’ve taken the opportunity of late to engage some of my southern friends and former neighbours in dialogue on social media over the last few weeks. I’ve attempted to dispel disproven facts, or to inquire as to the origins of what I perceive as xenophobic views.

“These refugees are getting ready for a war,” one of my Facebook friends writes, prompting me to offer an exceedingly polite summary of the process through which refugees must pass through before entering the United States or Canada. Over the course of a dialogue that lasts through the weekend, I am told that President Obama is a Muslim, and worked tirelessly throughout his presidency against American interests. I am told that his efforts as president were intended to weaken America such that the invading hoards of refugees could “make America Muslim.” This friend was proud to tell me that they knew of terrorist training camps throughout America, and that the fact that there was no evidence to support this claim was only more proof that vigilance is needed.

I’ve been down this road before: arguments about the “disastrous” Obama economy (despite 75 consecutive months of job creation; record high stock markets; auto-industry recovery; tens of millions insured); the validity of climate data (“scientists who study climate change’s funding depends on them making conclusions the politicians like”); and even the very existence of racism in America (what with the election of the nation’s first African American to its highest office).

“We can’t know any of the real story,” this friend informed me when I asked if there were any sources to their horrifying claims. It is a startling (and somewhat ironic) admission from someone positing their own reading of the available facts, but also a distressingly bleak prospect for deliberative democracy. It is little wonder that people with so little faith in the democratic system elected a man who campaigned on the rhetoric that he, “alone,” could fix what ailed America (even if by many demonstrable metrics the country had been progressing). There can be no truth under authoritarianism but what the authorities say it is; the consensus of the public ceases to matter, and like that we have undone the promise of the Enlightenment, the necessity of democracy, and the hope for justice that comes with it.

If nothing can be known – or if enough people in a democracy believe that nothing can be known – what is the point of discussing anything? Why ought there be a democratic process at all?

Teaching to Resist

Sea Lion

Where did everybody go?

Is it just me, or has it been a minute?

Did we turn a corner? Or have we ascended some ultimate peak to only be careening out of control these last how many months?

Did things online not seem to move so fast, previously? Or were they just less likely to see us preoccupied and frantic with the escapades of the new American world order?

…or is it not just online that this has been happening?

If it’s only been me who’s been feeling this way: I’m sorry to have deserted you, friends. We probably used to talk about other things. We used to share music, books. Used to browse each others’ photos over stories of where the “real world” had taken us. Lately it’s as though the noise of the world has been taking up more and more space, and those opportunities to ruminate in thinking about things frivolous or fleeting are losing out to the latest press release, analysis or interpretation, this or that comedic riff, or the public stands taken by individuals and groups that provide momentary bulwarks against bottomless negativity.

Perhaps it’s coming to grips with life as an act of resistance, and the need to keep one’s eye on the advancing shadows of authoritarianism, hatred, and white supremacy that the last eight years might have calmed us into thinking were in their deathly rattles. Perhaps it’s the shock that precedes the types of upheaval the likes of Steve Bannon and the newly orange-coloured president seem intent upon wreaking.

Whatever its cause or wherever its origins, I’m writing here to acknowledge that something has changed, rather than to pin down anything of substance that might explain it.

How to teach and learn now?

Last year our school began a pilot process of professional development based on a collaborative inquiry model. We begin the year with individual questions that lead us into small groups that meet over the course of the year to investigate the unique conundrums and inquiries we are each facing in our classrooms and teaching lives beyond (I’ve written about this here, if you’d like to hear more about the origins of this project).

This year we met for our second instalment and meeting in our small groups, and revised and re-entered the questions and inquiries that we had begun in September. A few of us had missed that initial day for trips or illness, and a few others besides had seen their questions change or become irrelevant in the meantime. A few more student-teachers and new staff had been added to our school as well, and so among the splinter cells of inquiry a smaller group was struck that I found myself in despite it not having a banner or direction under which to organize ourselves.

The conversation quickly turned to whatever latest outrage had been announced south of the border, and how the general mean-spiritedness of so many of the new administration’s initial policy announcements were affecting anxieties in both our students, and ourselves.

“How do I model coping with a world like this for my students when I am at an utter loss myself?” one of my colleagues asked.

“What can we do or say, especially in subject areas that aren’t directly related to current events, oppressive structures, or political goings on?” wondered another.

There is a line, we agreed, between acknowledging the panic that comes with witnessing preposterous cruelty on such a grand scale as the new government has sought to impose on the most vulnerable members of its society – from LGBTQ+ kids’ rights to safe schools, to green card holders and visiting scholars turned away at borders, to hate crimes erupting in the light of day echoing the new administration’s language, ideology, and intent – and modelling hope and perseverance for our young charges.

But as to where we might garner and gather that hope and perseverance is a query we have not yet seemed to solve, either around that little table, or in the larger culture of which we feel a part.

Don’t go away.

What seems clear is that we must stay present, and available to one another. That we stay trained on the creeping tide of hatred and fear that threatens the values of inclusion and progress that our societies and schools are based on. And that we fight alongside and for those who are most threatened.

We must admit that we each are struggling to find our feet as agents of resistance against an emerging institution that seems bent on keeping us off balance, and create balance and stability for one another in the minute ways we might be able.

On Parity

When asked why he had made gender parity in his cabinet a priority, new Prime Minister Trudeau shrugged and said simply: “Because it’s 2015.”

With Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau preparing to announce a cabinet that is 50% women, researchers have discovered a sharp 5000% increase in the number of men who suddenly have strong opinions about how cabinet appointments should be a “meritocracy.”

Across the nation statisticians are at a loss to explain a recent and drastic jump in the number of men who have spontaneously developed hard opinions about the qualifications of Federal Cabinet Ministers.

“This is affirmative action, and even though it has been statistically shown to improve working conditions over time, I don’t like it,” said longtime man Thomas Fielding. 

The Beaverton

The argument for meritocracy espouses the belief that we should make decisions about hiring upon completing a thorough search for “the best person for the job.” This despite the tacit societal acknowledgement (“It’s not what you know…”) that the person in the job only has it because of a web of networked advantages: of friends and family connections, personal gifts or turns of good fortune in sport, wealth, opportunity or talent.

I’ve often remarked that “I’ve never gotten a job by blindly submitting my resume”; I won an athletic scholarship to a university in the American South, earned an academic fellowship along the way, and got work as an alumni teaching back at my old high school.

I may be “the best person for the job” that I have. But in gaining the qualifications to have found myself in the position, I can’t deny that I have enjoyed the easiest, least impeded path here by way of my various privileges, whether in gender, class, race or physical abilities. While I don’t often lack for self-confidence, I don’t think for a moment that a surplus of merit has earned me my job ahead of others who might similarly apply.

There are more than twice as many female teachers in British Columbia as men; yet it wasn’t until 2011 that there were as many female principals as there were men. Even in 2013 the province’s superintendents were 2 to 1 men.

Is the fact that so many men find themselves in the top spot a condition of their disproportionate merit? (Given their underrepresentation in the larger teaching force, this density of male talent and experience must be considerable for them to enjoy such heights of leadership, earnings, and power.)

Or…. there’s something else happening: gender inequality.

And if we can acknowledge that gender inequality unfairly advantages a distinct group (50%) of us toward positions of power and influence, we must also acknowledge that we aren’t committed to finding “the best person for the job.”

It means we don’t find them. We hire our friends, our sons, our connections through sports or other social networks that hold half of us (women) back.

And if we are to admit that this is the case, then establishing a quota for hiring or appointing leaders hardly seems the worst way to proceed. Even if there are arguments to be made against quotas, merit isn’t one which warrants consideration.

“All of those fifteen women,” a conservative friend of mine said today, “have a question mark above them, because we don’t know if they got the job because they deserve it, or because of the quota.”

Which is true, but no more true than it is of every man appointed today – or ever – to a government’s cabinet: we don’t know if they got the job because they deserve it, or because of a host of advantages that have nothing to do with merit, or earning the position. Karen Ho opens an eloquent salvo on how Meritocracy is a Lie by stating:

it’s important to acknowledge that notions of merit have never stopped previous governments from determining the make-up of their cabinets based on a variety of criteria. As Vice Canada parliamentary reporter Justin Ling has pointed out, “regionalism, parliamentary experience, who they endorsed for leader, [and] which MP they beat” are all considered valid reasons for the job, and gender is not. In effect, quotas meant to be fair representations of a variety of different Canadian constituencies have been around for almost fifty years.”

In the meantime, what these quotas ensure is that while societal inequality grooms men for roles of leadership and power, our government will at least endeavour to represent diversity of gender in its institutional leadership.

When asked why he had made gender parity in his cabinet a priority, new Prime Minister Trudeau shrugged and said simply: “It’s 2015.”

The young ladies in my philosophy class variously gasped, clapped, and cheered as we watched live on our class projector.

However, as Ms. Ho observes (by way of Denise Balkissoon writing in the Globe and Mail), this “is only the first step to recognizing the country’s diversity.”

The large shift in the number of visible minorities and residents of First Nations groups who were elected as MPs is a positive, encouraging change and their significant presence in Trudeau’s cabinet is nothing less than extraordinary. But real representation of this country also includes people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community.

If I can interpret the sentiments of many the young people I spend time with, and spoke to today, there is much hope that this symbolic first day of a new government is only that first step of many toward a more inclusive and just country.