Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Think. Act. Do. Feel? : On the relationship between knowledge and emotion

Think. Act. Do. Feel? : On the relationship between knowledge and emotion

I’ve decided to write on a topic preeminently philosophical, but also psychological, religious, phenomenological, and much else. It has the two-faced caricature, prima facie, of being on the one side either too complex for discussion, or on the other, as some might critically contest, too mundane to warrant discussion. But I will venture into these murky waters nonetheless, and hopefully many informants will mean better navigation. So here it is, with all of its existential significance: How does information, upon being received, affect a person? How do ‘facts’ become internalized, appropriated, given a “home to roost” (as Hannah Arendt puts it) within us, so that they can then be translated in all of their meaningfulness into practice that makes a difference?

I’ve been interested in the idea of character, lately (with much credit due to reading Arendt). The notion that thinking about things creates change internally is simple yet profound. But I want to go deeper than thought. I want to ask about the evocative power of story, of the affect facts and stories have on our hearts (for do we not all have a sense of what we mean when we use the word ‘heart’ instead of ‘mind’?). Let’s provisionally call ‘heart’ that in which our emotions dwell and flow from. I find this discussion particularly intriguing because it is one in which anyone can participate; all one has to do is reflect on their own experience (that is not to say that secondary sources wouldn’t be appreciated here, too, but just to say that personal experience is most important in this case and makes the discussion accessible to all).

Here is an example of my own. When I hear a fact, this is what a process I go through might look like: (1) I stop and think about it; I repeat it to myself, just to let it sink in. (2) I allow it time to move something in me. (3) If I am emotionally moved to “do something about it,” I then think about what I can conceivably accomplish. (4a) I will either feel overwhelmed by the thought of getting involved or discouraged that it won’t amount to much, or (4b) I will feel empowered and become determined to make a conscious and committed change in my life that will at least be “doing my part.” But in almost all of these steps, emotion, or what French phenomenologist Michel Henry calls ‘affectivity’ plays a central role in my move either toward action or resignation.

In this regard, how far can philosophy or a religious message go in participating in the concrete dilemmas of our world if it only appeals to our reason? But the ‘heart’ and the ‘heart’ are never so separate from one another. What for you reaches your affect the most?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reflecting on Social Justice and Human Rights


The post this week is by Allyson Carr, who was a worker at the Conference on Social Justice and Human Rights discussed in this post and is currently the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics.

As some of you may recall, this past April the Centre co-hosted a major conference on Social Justice and Human Rights. The conference themes have set much of the tone for the material on this blog over the past year, both prior to the conference and afterwards, and there has been a great deal of good discussion that came out of the conference itself, including at least two projects: one on conceptions of social justice among faith groups (with the CRC being a focal microcosm) and one on economic justice. Given the high quality of the work presented there and the conversations that followed it, we have been working on compiling summaries of all of the sessions that took place during the two day conference. The summaries are ready for viewing now and a pdf of them can be found here. I encourage you to take the time to read through them, but we will also shortly be posting each summary separately on our conference blog, to enable commenting on topics in particular sessions. We’ll let you know when those are up, as well as when the video currently being produced, which highlights aspects of the conference's thinking on social justice and human rights issues, becomes available. For our discussion here this week, though, I'm just going to pull out a few points that really struck me. We can discuss those here, and continue discussions of the more specific issues that are raised in the summaries as they get posted on the conference blog. 

Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff was the keynote speaker who opened the conference, and as it discusses in the summary of his opening lecture, any reckoning with the issues of social justice and human rights can not meaningfully proceed until that reckoning is able to give an account of why justice matters. In all the very important activist work and theory production that goes on both in the advocacy world and academia, giving a an account of "why does justice matter?" can get lost in the details of fighting for justice. And yet, without such an account, how can we persuade the sceptical or agree on what constitutes justice in very complex cases, even where all sides desire justice? Does justice matter because without it we are not responding to some normative call for fairness? Does it matter because only with justice is any real human flourishing possible? Do we think of justice as a response mandated by divine authority, and if so, what does that mean for those who believe no such thing exists? Is justice necessary in a positive sense for social progress, or in a negative sense--to avoid things like war and suffering? Why should we, all of humanity, care about justice, and can we even have, is it even desirable to have, the same reason(s) for doing so?

The next thing that struck me as I read through the summaries again was comments by Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina, who spoke as a panellist in the inter-religious plenary panel on Religion and Human Rights in Canada of the need to find ways where liberal and orthodox traditions within a particular religion can learn to speak meaningfully with each other, making genuine progress through real dialogue. It was this emphasis on placing what often become opposing forces within a religious tradition--orthodoxy and liberalism, to paint in broad brush strokes--in real dialogue with each other that spoke to me. So often a human tendency seems to be to pull away from speaking or engaging with those with whom one does not agree, leaving sides to any given debate more and more polarized. We can see this within the Christian tradition as well, where divisions over "fundamentalism" and "liberalism" have shoved a growing wedge between members. How do we switch from polemics to real, engaged, debate and dialogue? 

Although there were many other discussions that made me pause and reflect and which I feel have been particularly helpful in transforming my own work and practice, I'll mention one other spot that stuck out to me in the summaries. This was the words of Deborah Stienstra in the panel "Disability and Human Rights: Issues of Access and Attitudes." So much of the conversation at the conferenced focused on finding a language and conceptual apparatus by which necessary practical work in human rights issues and advocacy could be done, but much of that discussion had centred on what, exactly, constituted a right or possibly even a human right. Dr. Stienstra posed the question from a different angle, implicitly asking how we think of what constitutes a human. Her point that disability is part of being human was a poignant reminder of our humanity, in all its personal and collective frailty, finitude and beautiful diversity. Any discussion of rights and justice needs to remember this, and remember the different needs and abilities of the complex creatures we all are.

There were many other very important and insightful discussions that warrant extended discussion toward transforming the way we live and work: the panel on Aboriginal Rights in Canada had vital reflections on land and identity that need to be heard and taken up; the panel on Environmental Rights highlighted the urgent need for stopping global ecological disaster before it becomes unavoidable; the panel on Children's Rights spoke of the intense impact of abuse and exploitation on the coming generations, and the need to provide a safe and flourishing upbringing not just for some children, or even "most" children, but for all children. 

There were a myriad of excellent discussions and discussion-starters, but I've raised these ones in particular to whet your appetite and get us talking. All of these issues are ones which we cannot afford to ignore, and which even if we could, I would argue that to do so would be fundamentally wrong. This is because justice does  matter, and our ability to pursue justice successfully is an intimate picture of who humans are and who we are becoming.  

Thursday, November 01, 2012

‘Cyber Sinai’? Does our world need of a code of ‘cyberethics’?

In the wake of the gut-wrenching episode orbiting around the death of Amanda Todd, there is much leftover in the proverbial pot to stew in our minds. For one thing, what about regulation in the cyber sphere? The conflicts that used to be confined to after-school hours have moved to a whole new dimension – playground bullying has escalated to the point where the battleground is literally everywhere in range; the jungle gym has become a fully-fledged and merciless (proverbial) jungle.

“It’s not that bad,” you might respond. I would say for many it is. Yes, those pockets of safety exist in and out of schools and that is to be praised. But I would not want to imply that technology is solely to blame for rises in rates of suicide among teens (that would be much to simplistic). But I do think it is a good time to discuss the plausibility and nature of what can be done to harness the cyber world’s power for good instead of harm. Social theorists and philosophers at the turn of the century were already wary of the effects that the surge of power brought on by the Enlightenment would have in the age to come. And they made predications that are now coming true. So while yes, there has been an explosive amount of work done related to this issue, I suggest modern phenomena have resulted that these theorists were not able to predict. The responsibility remains ours to think through the pervasive effects of technology on individuals and society at large.

Perhaps because it is still such a relatively new object of research, findings have yet to be confirmed by long-term studies. This status of being “still-in-the-works” means that important information has yet to be dispersed to the wider public and in the meantime, we have the obligation to think through these issues ourselves. I certainly have tried in my own personal life to establish a healthy relationship to the Internet (I’ve had quite the love-hate relationship with Facebook, “breaking-up” with it one too many times only to come crawling back months later).

A friend of mine who games online once commented on the sickening amount of harassment that coexists alongside other contrastingly positive effects of online community. Much of the harassment is misogynistic. It is much more difficult for anyone to hold the offender accountable for the words that they can so effortlessly spew onscreen. In a comfortable alienation from their words and “online actions,” the offender is protected by the medium of technology separating them from their peers and own productivity. Fundamentally, human rights don’t change online; and yet, they become easier to violate as the humanity of the other person diminishes onscreen.

What can we do, if anything, to protect our whole selves, our children, and each other from ‘cybersins’, (for lack of a better word)?