Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.


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You’re both right! Now let’s listen to each other and work out the details — Pt. 3

This post is part 3 in a three-part series.  Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. 

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Being wrong doesn’t feel good.  In this series, I have expressed my views on some complex topics – Israel, race relations, the possible connection between Islam and terrorism – and expressing these views makes me very uncomfortable because I know they are likely inaccurate.  But even more so, I would like to be right about the things that I have said, and I will probably feel even more uncomfortable when my positions are critiqued by people on both sides of these issues.  I will do my best to take these critiques seriously and learn from them rather than just shutting them out.  Of course, it can be hard to tell when a critique is well-founded and when one’s critics are even more wrong than you are.  Did you see that?  What I just wrote there?  That’s me, bobbing and weaving, trying find ways to justify my own rectitude.  I know a world-class bboy (breakdancer for those who don’t know) who once said that there is nothing he likes better than losing a battle.  Because only losing truly motivates you to practice harder and improve your craft.  Can we learn to lose political debates just as gracefully?   Can we find a way to look at the mistakes of others as forgivable and correctable rather than as personal deficiencies?  Can we learn to see our own mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than as devastating fissures in our already fragile egos?

Last fall, I heard a speaker from Black Lives Matter Toronto talking about naming anti-black racism for what it was and pointing it out whenever it appeared in the words or thoughts or actions of either friends or strangers.  What was most interesting to me was how she described these ‘call outs’ as areas for improvement, as places where work still has to be done.  Here was a way of saying ‘that’s racist’ that was meant not as a critique of an individual’s very humanity, but as a helpful pointer, something more akin to a gift than a condemnation.  Now there are both moral and practical arguments to be made about who should take responsibility to ensure that criticisms are heard as advice — but the case I’m making here is that we will have better dialogue if speakers learn to say ‘yes, but’ and listeners learn to consider everything they hear as potentially true, even if our instinct is to reject it.  What does it mean to think of something as potentially true?  It means to really sit on it, to hold it in one’s mind as a true statement and see how the rest of one’s beliefs would have to adapt for it to be true.  This is what has been described in the philosophy of science as a paradigm shift — the fact or bit of evidence that doesn’t fit into the current model and requires everything to be rearranged, the peculiar planetary orbits that suddenly simplify if the sun, rather than the earth, is at the centre of the universe.  Paradigm shifts often take a generation to come about, because many scientists are deeply committed to an older model of the world.  If they see a particular model as their life’s work, they may dig their heels in to defend it.  Many people feel the same way when told that their success is the result of race and class privilege, rather than their own hard work.  If we want to have dialogue on difficult issues we must grapple with our fragile human egos.  We have to find ways to admit it when we are wrong and to honestly consider the possibility that our apparent opponents might be allies in our quest for understanding.

We need to learn to really listen to each other.  Not just listen to capture what is being said to us.  Not just listen so that we can respond.  But really listen.  Let the words that you hear into your soul, hold them somewhere inside yourself so that they can grow and change just as your own thoughts do.  A call-out is an opportunity to grow, not an attack.  This comment stuck with me partly because of the way it mirrored something I was grappling with in my own study of philosophy.

Gilles Deleuze’s early work was about ontology — the question of what we mean when we say that something ‘exists’ or has ‘being.  For Deleuze, and for Spinoza and Neitzstche before him, to exist is to change.1  As a result of this view, Deleuze argues that ‘the power to be is also the power to be affected.’  What the hell does that mean?  To exist in this world is to change and to express ourselves.  But how and why do we change?  What are we expressing?  We change because we see and hear new things that affect us.  We express what has been impressed upon us by our personal experiences.  Our existence and beliefs do not come from somewhere deep within ourselves, we exist because we reflect the world around us.  We reflect the world around us in our very molecular composition, but also through our ideas and feelings.  So let yourself experience new things and ideas and viewpoints, allow yourself to be changed by those around you, because that is how you grow.  To be changed by the world is to exist more fully.  And in order to be changed by the world, we have to admit to ourselves that we don’t know everything.

Each of us carries around inside us a little model of the world.  And all of these models have some truth to them, because they reflect real experiences we have had, but they all have errors too, because none of us will ever experience the entire world.  The world is always more complex than our internal models of it.  The only way to be true to the infinite and miraculous complexity of our world is to doubt what you already are so that you can become something better.  When we allow our models of the world to grow more complicated, we reflect the world more truly and our world becomes richer.  When we double down on our existing beliefs, when we insist that we have seen and heard everything, we stop growing.  If a human being were a tree, than our perceptions would be our roots and our thoughts and words and deeds would be our branches.  We will not grow if we try to nourish ourselves with our own thoughts, if we waste our lives confirming how correct our first impressions were.  To hide behind simplistic models of the world is to limit our own existence.  When we insist that we already understand the world, we are chopping off our own roots.  We are ending our own lives.  Perhaps we will do and say a few more things, our leaves might produce one last spectacular spread of autumn colour, but there will be no spring.  Instead we must learn to seek and understand the unnatural, alien bits of truth that exist in the minds of people we disagree with most vehemently.  We must allow our roots to split and weave, to penetrate even into rock and drink deeply from hidden aquifers, so that our crown of leaves will grow ever more glorious and intricate.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Interestingly, for Spinoza, this great, unfathomable complexity and ongoing change that underlies all existence is God.  So my praise for”doubt” need not be seen as a critique of religion. Self-doubt is also a form of faith in God/the world.

 

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You’re both right! Now let’s listen to each other and work out the details — Pt. 2

This post is part 2 in a three-part series.  Click here for Part 1.

How then, do we talk to someone we disagree with?  What do I mean when I say that everyone is mostly right?  If someone says something racist, we are well within our rights to say ‘that’s racist,’ but we are unlikely to change their mind by doing so.  When we disagree, we have to pick our battles, and our tactics.  Sometimes just saying ‘that’s racist’ is the right thing to do, if only so that other people around us see that racism is unacceptable.  At other times, depending on our relationship with the person and the amount of time we have on our hands, it might be best to ask them why they feel a certain way, what experiences in their lives have led them to that belief.  It might be better to break that racist statement down into so many pieces that we find the pieces we actually can agree with and help that individual to see other ways of putting those pieces back together into a different worldview.  Louis C.K. suggests confronting racist jokes by simply saying “I don’t get it, can you explain it.” and letting the racist reconsider their own logic during their attempt to explain the joke.  All of us carry around models of the world in our minds and bodies which are a confusing mish-mash of lived experiences, things we learned in school, myths, hearsay, correct assumptions based on bad evidence, faulty assumptions based on good evidence, piercing insights and hilarious misunderstandings.  Actually changing someone’s mind means diving headlong into this unsettling soup and the only way to really do that is to take everything they say seriously, at least for a moment.  If someone said to us “I love processed cheese,” we wouldn’t reply: “No, you don’t, you’re wrong.”  But whenever anyone tells us anything about the world, they are telling us something important about the way they feel.  Ask them, when did you first have processed cheese?  What do you like about it?  How do you prepare it?  Have you tried this other cheese, it’s also fatty and oily and delicious.  You probably won’t convince anyone that they don’t like processed cheese, but with enough patience, encouragement and careful questioning, you might convince them to try Stilton.  And three years later, they might realize that its better than Kraft singles.

A key point here is that if everybody is right, then everybody is also wrong.  Stilton might be delectable, but gooey Kraft singles can be pretty damn delicious between two toasty slices of Wonderbread.  The cheese snob of the previous paragraph could also learn a thing or two about the world.  In many of the cases I have discussed, the problem isn’t necessarily that people think they are right about something, but rather that they conclude from their correct beliefs that someone else is wrong instead of trying to develop a broader, more nuanced view that is capable of accommodating the lived experience that underlies both perspectives.  You can be right about something without fully understanding it or seeing the whole picture.

Throughout this piece I have highlighted my own ignorance of the day-to-day lives of many of the people involved in these conflicts.  Even though I tried to develop a balanced look at a number of social conflicts, I am probably wrong about some of the things I said in this article and I am willing to see and consider evidence about these errors.  What I’m asking in return is that everyone reading this article also takes seriously the possibility that they are wrong about things, that the world does not actually work the way they think it does, that the truth of the matter is more complicated than their little glimpse of reality has allowed them to imagine.  Doubt is one of the most underrated human virtues.  People who doubt their own views rarely claim that supporters of a certain political candidate are stupid or pray for a certain type of person to be wiped off the planet.  People who doubt their own views are also more likely to keep learning.

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The question of right and wrong can be particularly problematic when experts and amateurs meet face to face.  When parents want to tell doctors that they know what’s best for their children’s health.  When civilians disagree with police about how policing ought to be done.  When high school students want to tell nuclear engineers that they’re doing something wrong.  The challenge here is for both parties to keep listening.  Amateurs have to be willing to admit they might not understand the nuances and experts have to be willing to admit that they might have overlooked something.  Our public discourse needs more genuine outreach from experts.  Don’t just bottle up all that wonderful knowledge and communicate amongst yourself in arcane techno-babble.  Express your views in plain language.  Participate thoughtfully in public debates.  Explain what you are doing and why when you encounter members of the public.  And don’t forget to really listen to the public as well.  I’m not suggesting that when someone regurgitates some obvious and commonplace falsehood we should accept it; I’m suggesting that we should try to delve deeper instead of shouting it down.  If someone says something that you couldn’t possibly believe then they must have seen and heard things that you have not or missed out on some important experience you have had.  Experts have a responsibility to understand the source of amateurs misconceptions.  In doing so, they will likely learn about some aspect of the world that they had not considered.  For example, urban planning consultations should be open-ended and ongoing, rather than being focused on the specific details of a project that has already been 90% approved.  Instead of developing projects and wheeling them out at public meetings, municipal governments should be knocking on doors and holding meetings with free food and childcare to understand the actual problems that local residents face.  Outreach from the medical community has to be ongoing, honest, and attentive to the lived experiences of patients — rather than being targeted at specific misconceptions and bad habits.  Yes vaccines are good and important, but how did we get to this point?  Why don’t people trust their own doctors?  What other aspects of the healthcare system weren’t working to get us to this point — is it hurried face-to-face consultations? Is it because some people don’t know any doctors personally?  Instead of reasserting evidence about how great vaccines are, a doctor can ask a patient why they don’t want to vaccinate — if they are suspicious of big pharmaceutical companies, a doctor might be able to reply ‘I am too, but most of what we know about basic vaccines is based on independent studies of public data.  I think you’re right to be suspicious of the latest and greatest medication, but these are well-established.’  It might not work, but such a line of discussion at least opens the door to real communication.  These are the types of nuanced conversations that we need to be having — not a shouting match about vaccines good vaccines bad.

Being wrong doesn’t feel good.  And it can be particularly uncomfortable for experts, so much so that they may be tempted to just reassert the various things they know, rather than taking a serious look at that one troubling aspect of the world that they never really have enough time to consider in depth.  Vaccines work.  End of story.  Yes vaccines work, but is that really the end of the story?  Poor people shouldn’t be voting for conservatives.  End of story.  Perhaps they shouldn’t, but the Left should spend more time thinking about why they do, about what conservatives are offering which the Left is not.

Part 3 will take a look at how we can start to enjoy being wrong.


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You’re both right! Now let’s listen to each other and work out the details — Pt. 1

world is complex

Yes, all lives matter, and yes, “all lives matter” is an ill-considered and ignorant response to the cry of pain that is the black lives matter movement.  Yes, capitalism is destroying our environment, creating inequality and condemning billions to meaningless labour and desperate poverty in the midst of an unprecedented availability of food and commercial goods.  And yes, capitalism has raised billions out of poverty, increased food production, invented new medicines, provided freedom and meaningful social roles for millions of people and solved countless material struggles. Quite often, the people on both sides of an argument are absolutely right about most of their claims.  The world is complex enough to provide valid and defensible evidence for seemingly contradictory positions.  It has taken me half a lifetime of reading, talking, travelling and observing the workings of my own mind to really understand this in my bones.  The world has more relationships, both seen and unseen, than any theory of the world could ever have.  Our models will always be partial and the world will always go on being the world, undermining and outpacing different aspects of our attempts to understand it.  Our greatest social and political problem today is our commitment to our personal models of the world — our desire to be right at the expense of productive dialogue with people who see things differently.  We need to model our world in order to make decisions, but instead of trying to shout down opposing models, we should think of these clashes as opportunities to add detail and intricacy to our own models of the world.  Getting to sit down and really talk with someone who has a completely alien worldview is a stroke of good luck, a rare and engaging experience not unlike travelling to a distant land.  But it’s easy to get off on the wrong foot and end up bickering.  The first question to ask yourself is whether or not you could summarize your opponent’s view in a way that they would agree with.  Can you could state their position without a trace of sarcasm, without belittling or demeaning their view?  If you cannot, then ask more questions.  If you can, then you have the starting point for a discussion.  When disagreements inevitably begin, the easiest adjustment to make is to simply say ‘Yes, but it’s also like this’ rather than ‘No, it’s like this.’  ‘Yes, police are doing a difficult and dangerous job, but they also fuck up badly sometimes and many people live in fear of those who ought to be protecting them.’  If you have strong opinions on political issues — which you should, because the world needs passionate people to bring about change — you will likely find yourself disagreeing with some of the things I say here.  You will think ‘God, you’re so wrong, it’s not like that at all.’  But just for a moment, try to entertain the possibility that I am partly right and really listen to what I have to say.  We can talk about the details later.

Whether or not this rush to intractable disagreement is anything new is hard to say.  Some commentators have blamed it on the media.  Certainly the ‘sound bite’ culture makes nuance and complexity difficult — simpler models of the world are going to have more trouble finding common ground.  In his famous appearance on Crossfire, Jon Stewart called out the show’s hosts for turning what should be reasoned public dialogue into drama.  Not every discussion needs to be an argument.  Carrying on the Daily Show’s proud tradition of saying obvious things that everyone else on T.V. seems incapable of even considering, Trevor Noah recently made the bold claim that you can support the police AND the Black Lives Matter movement.  At the same time!

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The reason that you can simultaneously support and critique the police is that nothing in our world is monolithic.  For example, people on both the left and the right claim to be opposed to the state.  And governments do cause many problems, so there is plenty of evidence that those opposed to the state can appeal to, but governments do a lot of good as well.  Even within individual ministries or federal agencies there are disagreements between managers, between politicians and bureaucrats, between those who want to make change and those who want to go home right at five whenever possible.  The “government” is rarely the enemy, individual policies or practices should be the focus of our ire.  Inside every police department there are good and bad officers and inside of every police officer there are good and bad tendencies.  Even individual tendencies can be good and bad in different circumstances — solidarity amongst officers can carry them through difficult situations that they might not be able to face alone but it can also create an uncooperative wall that hinders efforts to correct or expel bad officers.  The same is true of religions and cultural groups and capitalism and political parties and unions.  Having a view that any large institution or social force is either purely good or purely bad is almost certainly wrong, because everything is riddled with good and bad, in the same way that our own bodies are a precarious struggle between vital energy and impending collapse.

On issue after issue, we have a tendency to sort different facts together into opposing models of a problem and then try to deny or downplay the facts that support the model that we disagree with, rather than doing the hard work of developing a more complex model that can account for both sets of facts.  Generally, the core beliefs of people on both sides of any debate are correct.  For example, Israel really is allowing the ongoing oppression of a poor and powerless community and it really is under assault by extremists who will not compromise.  Denying either of those claims will quickly cause some people to stop listening to you.  And if we stop listening to each other, it will be difficult to make progress on complex and challenging problems.  Instead of smashing our superficial models of social problems against each other repeatedly, we have to look at the finer grain details, consider the day-to-day lives of people on both sides of the conflict.  Do ordinary Palestinians actually support their extremist leaders?  Or do they fear them?  If they support them, why do they support them?  It is pointless to argue that these extremists shouldn’t exist — because they do.  Instead, we have to understand how they gain and hold power.  Similarly we must look honestly at the actual conditions in which ordinary Palestinians live.  Is there a path to peaceful and enriching lives available to them?  If not, why not?  How can we improve their lives? No high-level model of the situation can possibly account for the different views, habits and histories of so many different individuals in Israel and in Palestine, let alone the fact that any given individual probably feels different things at different times on the same day.  Instead, we should start considering which small actions set a few individuals on a path towards peace and which cause people to double-down and entrench themselves.  I certainly don’t know enough about the daily lives of all these millions of people to have a firm opinion on what needs to change, but I do know that the solution will be complex, not simple, and that anyone who is 100% convinced that they understand the whole problem is more likely to hinder than advance progress.

Atheists are right about some things and their criticism of dogmatism is spot on, but some evangelic atheists also fail to see that religion provides many people with a meaningful and absolutely accurate way of understanding the miracle and complexity of existence.  Religious fundamentalism will only grow stronger and more dangerous in the face of arrogant proclamations that God doesn’t exist.  Religious people will have more chance of convincing atheists of the value of their position if they stop labeling atheists as inherently immoral and atheists will have a better chance of opening dialogue with the religious if they can say ‘I see how these practices and beliefs are meaningful to you, but this particular aspect of your worldview leaves you vulnerable to being led astray by a charismatic preacher.’  All of us are trying to make sense of the world as best we can based on the evidence of our experiences — if we try to deny something that another person has seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands we will only convince them to stop listening.

North American police departments are violent and terrifying and they expend too much energy protecting dangerous, racist officers and too little energy working to reform themselves AND they are also a necessary social institution filled with good people who are risking their lives and genuinely trying to make our world a better place.  Instead of arguing about whether policing as a whole is good or bad we should start publicly examining the day-to-day complexities of policing.  I don’t know enough about what goes on in police departments to offer any solutions, but I do know that I learn more about the issue from an article like this which makes concrete and nuanced points about the internal politics of police departments than I have from op-eds and Facebook posts defending or critiquing the police as a whole.  Did the officer in this particular shooting have a history of excessive force or poor-decision making?  Is there any pattern across police shootings?  Could these problems be corrected through training or discipline policies or different hiring practices?  Which officers are doing a difficult job with composure and skill and how can we replicate their practices?  Could social workers be sent to some emergency calls instead of armed officers?  THESE are the discussions we should be having in public and in the media and yet here we are arguing about whether or not ‘all lives matter’ at a moment when public attention is finally focused on this long-standing and devastating problem. (Primarily because people decided to say ‘all lives matter’ instead of hearing the black lives matter message and taking small concrete actions that made sense to them).

Terrorism is a real problem that is tearing societies apart AND it is statistically irrelevant compared to deaths from traffic accidents or disease or poor nutrition.  The vast majority of Muslims are good caring people who love their families and cities and enjoy jokes and movies and looking at sunsets AND it is possible that religious fundamentalism and stigmas about mental health in pockets of the Muslim community are allowing extremist views to spread from one mentally disturbed individual to another.  On this issue, and other issues I have discussed here, I fully admit my own ignorance of the day to day lives of Muslims.  My point is that if we want to talk about terrorism, we have to look at individual cases and patterns which develop out of them, rather than trying to make pointless claims about Islam as a whole or Muslims as a group.  Why did this specific individual find Islamic extremism appealing?  To say that the Muslim community is capable of harbouring terrorists is not to say that the white or Christian or secular community is not.  Similarly it is possible to consider radical Islam as a possible source of terrorism without ruling out oppression, inequality or mental health problems as additional causes.  People often argue that terrorism is always a mental health issue or always the result of hateful preaching or historical oppression or social isolation.  In all likelihood, each terrorist act has a unique and complex mixture of these different causes at its heart.  We must take seriously the question of how these attacks come about, just as we must take seriously the question of how police violence actually occurs.  Were the terrorists disturbed and socially excluded before or because of their contact with extremist ideas?  Did they have mental health issues that went undiagnosed?  If so, was it because of cultural forces or a failure of the state-sanctioned mental health system?  Or both?  This Danish police force is attempting to fight terrorism by contacting potential extremists and giving them help with their day-to-day lives, rather than labeling them, tracking them and curtailing their freedoms.  If we disagree with such a program, can we try to rephrase our disagreement as ‘Yes, but they should also be contacting and assisting isolated and aggressive Christian teenagers’ or ‘Yes, but we should also be preventing these youths from going abroad?’

Terrorists and fascists are the extreme caricatures of the simplistic mind-states I am attempting to critique here and we can see how they both manage only to strengthen their own enemies.  Every time a terrorist bombs a market, they increase military funding across the globe and increase public support for those who want to root out terrorism with torture and further violence.  Every time the United States bombs a funeral or tortures a brother or father, they only succeed in creating ten more terrorists somewhere in the not too distant future.  Every time a racist idiot tells a mother or aunt or sister to go back where they came from, they only increase the anger and isolation pushing that woman and her family members to lash out.  The same vicious cycle exists between black bloc protesters who hope to weaken the police state by smashing windows and the belligerent officers who want to teach those damn hippies a lesson by busting a few skulls.  When we are wounded, we fight back and when we are treated kindly we look and listen with wonder and curiosity.  When someone attacks our core beliefs, we get defensive.  When someone genuinely tries to understand our perspective, we are more likely to admit our own uncertainties.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for political protest or speaking truth to power.  Protest is important to bring attention or urgency to a neglected issue.  But those who are serious about making change rather than just exercising their own righteousness should also think about how to improve dialogue and make nuanced progress after the protest is over.  Shouting might get a conversation started, but it will never resolve it.

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In Part II, we will take a look at how we can talk to one another in a way that leaves space for people on both sides of a discussion to be right about some things while also beginning to see for themselves where they might have gone wrong.


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Talking Politics without Arguing

This post is the landing page for a three-part series that is more about public discourse than public space, but I think the two are closely related.  For me, the real value of indoor public spaces is that they can give people who wouldn’t normally talk to one another a place to have meaningful, non-confrontational discussions about art and life and politics.

Part 1 will look at the question of complexity and try to explain how it’s possible that two people saying contradictory things can both be right.

Part 2 will take a look at how we can talk to one another in a way that leaves space for people on both sides of a discussion to be right about some things while also beginning to see for themselves where they might have gone wrong.

Part 3 will take a look at how each of us can learn to enjoy being wrong