Last week, I had the pleasure of addressing a conference of family mediators in Cape Town on the topic of “Wisdom in mediation”.
First story. An ethics professor once said to an undergraduate philosophy class, “If you believe that a professor of ethics is an ethical person, you are making a category mistake.” The students recognised that this was true. At the same time, at least one of them thought, “Yes, but you ought to be.”
Second story. Václav Havel, the writer and dissident who became the last president of Czechoslovakia, was hypersensitive to the temptations of political power. In 1991, he spoke about the perks of his office – the chef, the chauffeur, the personal assistants, the special access to medical attention – and the “unassailable logic” of their necessity: “It would be laughable and contemptible for me to miss a meeting that served the interests of my country because I had spent my presidential time in a dentist’s waiting room, or lining up for meat, or nervously battling the decrepit Prague telephone system.” Read more
Beating the opponent at his own game. The pluck and courage of the underdog to outwit and overcome. Why does this strike everyone (I’m talking to you, Western culture) as a good trope? Underdog becomes top dog, it’s still a dog.
To change our thinking could mean getting out of the game entirely. To withdraw, to pass. To disenchant the field of play.
Sure, sometimes you have to get into it. Some enemies have to be overcome, vanquished, destroyed, no matter the odds against you. We need to think about that and to practice with it, deliberately (doggedly!), in order to act strongly and well at the proper time. And then to bear the consequences and the responsibility for what comes next.
But much better to seek the low places, to overcome like water. To practice both, to know the difference. No need to take advantage.
What did it mean: to join the Party? Brecht says it best. I was not an exploiter, so I could grasp it.
To dedicate oneself to a more human society. For justice and peace, bread and roses. Against exploitation and oppression. Against all odds. To understand the indivisibility of freedom. To adopt José Martí’s willingness to share one’s fate con los pobres de la tierra. To know the world again, differently, in many dimensions, ranged along new coordinates. Eyes open, edgy. To become serious, disciplined, responsible. To get over oneself, forsaking singular, private prides and fears. A kind of loving, of deference. Read more
Annals of philosophical counselling/practice with others
“But it doesn’t work like that!” I say this in response to some proposed scheme or strategy of yours. I mean that, in terms of what you want to achieve, what you are doing seems either futile or malicious because you have a mistaken view about what’s going on. (I could be wrong, of course. We can talk about that.)
My basic theory is that, although there’s no saying how something will turn out, the world generally makes sense and we are basically equipped to take part in that. And we always are taking part in that. Sometimes we get the wrong end of the stick. We can do better. Philosophical practice is how we learn to do that by our own lights. That is why I call it “emancipatory”.
Between 1987 and 1990, my husband Rob and I ran a safe house for the liberation movement in apartheid South Africa. We were part of what we would later learn was named Operation Vula, short for Vul’indlela (“Open the road” in Zulu). Its aim was to infiltrate exiled leaders of the African National Congress/Umkhonto we Sizwe back into the country to help co-ordinate the different streams of popular resistance within the country – trade unions, civics, students, armed units and others – and to open a secure channel of communication between the leadership inside the country, in prison and in exile.
This was the time of State President PW Botha, he of the wagging finger and brutal states of emergency. With the townships locked down by the military, Vula operatives would need access to hideaways in the white suburbs, but any white South African who was trustworthy enough would already be known to the regime. The operation thus required white internationals who could come into the country, set themselves up as immigrants, rent a house and blend into the neighbourhood to provide camouflage for underground activists. With a couple of twists of fate, a couple of fairly low-key anti-apartheid activists in Vancouver got the call. We said yes. Read more
The self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of these people. Karl Marx
ABSTRACT: If a time of crisis calls for a new mode of thinking, philosophical practice offers the means to answer that call. Contemporary philosophical practice revitalises the ancient Greek understanding of philosophy as a way of life that cultivates personal transformation and new ways of seeing the world. This article describes the development of the author’s philosophical counselling practice as a practice of emancipation, in concert with the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Rancière. It considers the significance of personal engagement and companionship for the cultivation of practical wisdom, and suggests that the intransigence of our global social and economic crises ultimately indicates an incorrect view of human nature and an ossified or unbalanced relationship between practical and theoretical ways of knowing and wisdom.
For Nelson Mandela’s birthday, and because I’m reading Thula Simpson’s Umkhonto We Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle, thinking about and respecting the lives of everyone who stood against apartheid, those whose names are known or unknown, remembered or forgotten. Thinking that the aim of the struggle was peace, and how we’re not there yet. Thinking that peace without justice isn’t good enough, but neither would be justice without peace. Read more
The student movement that flashed into life this year in South Africa, from #Rhodesmustfall at the University of Cape Town to the extraordinary #Feesmustfall protests last week in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, Grahamstown and Pretoria, is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. Lots going on there. But there are two things I’ve been trying to think about. Two things that they are “getting right” (that’s the phrase in my head). Two elements that have held us in thrall, enthralled even as we participate here on the outside, that make it feel so momentous.
One element has been their use of disruption to open up space, to interfere with the old game with its rigged and futile moves, their refusal to play along anymore. And then to occupy the space and not let any new game begin. Standing vigil, wide awake. Holding open the space where we could imagine something new. This manner of disruption and occupation gives them (and the rest of us) a chance to think differently, to breathe, to find their/our bearings with each other, to be quick and bold and lively. Read more
Participants in last year’s “Archives of the Non-racial” mobile workshop through South Africa and Swaziland were asked to submit fragments of our notebooks – doodles, notes, reflections, poems, coffee stains. These have been gathered in the JWTC’s online journal, The Salon.
Check out all the loveliness here. This is my bit.
Solidarity and the non-racial (Political struggle 1)
“I’m not going into definitions with academics. Making resolutions and policy is one thing. These things evolve.” Ahmed Kathrada
He made it sound too easy! As if he, Sisulu, Mandela and the others had just sailed into a non-racial ANC. Building on the Congress Movement, it was they who made it such through their lived work. Brought to life with integrity, discipline, trust, humour, love. Practicing (non-racial) freedom, dignity and equality here and now, continually. And of course having a shared radical political project: not non-racialism for its own sake but as a method of struggle for national liberation. These things evolve. Read more
One image that can be seen in two distinct ways, but never both at once. Faces or a vase? Duck or rabbit? Crone or maiden? Someone shows you: See, the old woman’s chin is the young woman’s throat! All of a sudden, you do see. You start to switch the two back and forth, grinning like a kid. You can’t believe your eyes!
In times like ours, which call on us to think differently, the skills of vacillation are good to cultivate. Look at it this way. We are all, more or less, caught in the thrall of a particular mode of thinking and its moral order. Call it Western hegemony or what you will, this dominant perspective prizes objectivity, reason and utility, and excels in categorisation, prediction and control. It conceives of humans as self-interested and separate beings that are concerned with their own being, and as winners and losers in competition for scarce resources. It is a view that marginalises and dismisses human tenderness, vulnerability and relatedness. But it knows a duck when it sees one! Read more