Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives

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bare tree

The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.

Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?

My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.

In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.

Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.

I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.

On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.

It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.

…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.

….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.

….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.

And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.


……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.


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EXPECTATIONS: Helpful and Otherwise


Overheard in a college hallway: “I am who I am! I cannot be responsible for his expectations of me.”

The tone of voice was stressed, angry. The speaker was obviously struggling in some relationship where she felt the pain of believing she was expected to measure up to some standard with which she did not agree, or believed she could not meet. Her anger at not being accepted for that of which she felt capable seemed fed by her guilt that she had not measured up to the standards of someone important to her.

Or, was I projecting? Was I reading too much into a simple declaration, simply because it resonated so deeply? Who among us has not at some time felt the pangs of inadequacy, having somehow failed to be the person that a parent, teacher, friend or spouse thought us to be? More important, who of us is not guilty of verbally projecting our expectations on another in a judgmental fashion, capable of stripping the other of self-confidence and a sense of belonging.

Strange Family

Strange Family

As the Academic Dean of a small college in an rural area where students received a suboptimal education, as both student and faculty advocate I was often called upon to mediate the issues arising when faculty from more cosmopolitan backgrounds failed to recognize the intelligence and potential of their students, judging them only on their failure to have been adequately prepared for college level work. Faculty would often disparage the students publically, claiming they would not work, could not learn, and should not be in college. Their expectations of the students were as low as their claims, and the relationships between those faculty and their students were broken and painful. Neither group expected anything good to come from the other.unhappy 1

Yet my own experience with these students was that on the whole (of course there were exceptions – there always are) the more I expected from my students and the more I recognized their exceptional qualities, the harder they worked and the more they succeeded. Further, they returned my love and respect for them, and for each other. The same was true for my students in Africa, as well as for my students in a large city-based university.

The principle, I believe, crosses cultures and generations. I first heard it stated from a young OB-GYN physician who had been charged with overseeing residents, interns and patients in a central city hospital clinic. I had the privilege of working for him as he changed the appearance, the attitudes, and the quality of care at that clinic. Where it had been said patients were “herded like cattle” into the clinic area itself, and then into exam rooms where they were prodded, talked about over their heads between the teaching and learning physicians as though the patient was a dumb animal, where the environment itself was dirty and depressing—there was change. In an attractive, welcoming environment where every patient was treated as well as paying patients in a private doctor’s office, we were able to observe the change from surly, quarrelsome and often unwashed patients to patients who were no different from those in any doctor’s office, where they trusted their caregivers and returned the respect they were given.

What that young physician believed and lived by, and helped everyone around him to emulate, was the statement he always made: “People will respect themselves and act accordingly if they are treated with respect and dignity.” Most did just that.

What I told my faculty members was “These students will live up to—or DOWN to—your expectations. Either outcome will be elicited by your treatment of them.”

Expectations make us or break us. Expressed in love as realistic possibilities that honor and dignify the humanity of the other, they can inspire. Expressed as a judgment of the failures of the other, or as a goal absolutely not in accord with the dreams and goals of the other, they are destructive. And that includes the expectations we have of ourselves.


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The expressions of a pervasive sense of impending doom are on the increase, whether you read/listen to the armchair experts on social media, or the professional experts in science, economics, philosophy, or religion. Yet as I look around me in the “real-life” portion of my world, people seem to be pretty much absorbed by the joys and/or challenges of daily living rather than wondering whether the world is going to end in a financial meltdown, climate change disasters, the extremes of social anarchy, or World War III. Then, of course, there are others who only argue about who is to blame for any of these terminal disasters, as opposed to those who fatalistically refuse to think about it: “Whatever will be, will be.” Finally we have those who are totally unaware, perhaps desensitized by a lifetime of failed threats of the immanent End of Time.

-Remember the back yard bomb shelters of the Cold War era, complete with supplies to support a family until it was safe to return to the earth’s surface (however long that would be)?

-Remember the End Times and the Space Ship arrival cults? (True, these are not entirely gone).

-Remember Y2K, and the Mayan Calendar date of December 2012?

Or, just pick up the New Testament and read the words of the prophets who followed Jesus, claiming the Rapture would occur just any day, despite the words of Jesus himself, who stressed that the date could not be known. Yet the Second Coming of Christ has been predicted many times in the past 2000 years. It seems that when we are not fearing the end of the world, we are happily anticipating it.

Widespread dissatisfaction with and/or fear of the world as it is, however, have always been accompanied by cries that “the sky is falling.” And sometimes, it does – though not even close to earth-wide since the destruction of the dinosaurs. It happens to us as individuals, too. When everything goes wrong in our lives – economically, health-wise, or in relationships – the suicide rates go up, while others still consider ending it all or pray to die, because their situation is intolerable. The reasons for coming disaster mount up, while our ability to think rationally enough to take action for positive change in our own lives rapidly disappears. If that is our individual coping mode, how can we expect to fare any better in large groups, or as a nation?

Where is the leadership that can put aside their personal fears and aspirations, and show us the way to work together to solve the problems that have solutions, and learn how to prepare for the “new normal” when change is inevitable?

Where are the families and the communities that can help each other to get through the bad times, and show their children how to deal with disaster and failure as well as with success and wealth? I know for a fact that these exist, but perhaps there simply are not enough of them. Or maybe they have forgotten.

Where are the teachers who used to show us how to apply theory and practice to real life situations, and how to think critically in order to separate truth from fiction when possible? I do know of some.

Finally, we can’t blame all these people for our individual and collective feelings of impending doom. I believe that our lives will improve when we stop rushing head-long and helter-skelter into the end of time and stop to get our common sense back.

Yes, indeed, there are threats to our safety and well-being. There are major changes coming to life as we know it. (In fact, there always have been – they just come faster now). We can’t afford either denial or complaisance, and we never could. We have, however, succeeded grandly as a human race when we have cooperatively put our mental and physical resources together to figure out how to meet the challenges of the day, how to be good stewards of our resources, and how to live together in relative peace. This works for nations, for communities, for families, and for individuals.

The sky is not falling yet. It may never fall. But there are definitely some threats. While those who can, work together to see that the potential for damage is lessened as much as possible, the rest of us need to be cooperating – with those who are knowledgeable, as well as with each other — and not giving in to fears of the future or to total denial.

The way to get through a challenge is to work it out, and work it through. Life has always been like that.

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THE HERETICAL IMPERATIVE (with apologies to Peter Berger)

Two internationally recognized authors and educators wrote in the latter part of the 20th century in response to the problems of pluralism in our times. They each wrote of different places and situations, but the timelessness of their combined message struck me in a powerful way while writing my dissertation from the research done in South Africa in 1989. For the past few weeks, my mind has been drawn back again and again to these observations, and I both quote and paraphrase here from Chapter 5 of my research.[i]

As I write….I again experience the agonizing frustration arising from attempts to reconcile the difference between what is stated as truth, and what truths are implied by behavior in this country. The problem becomes even more difficult when one begins to unravel the various ideologies and theologies upon which social interactions are based, and the idiosyncratic interpretation of these beliefs by the various actors within the groups.

In other words, one has only taken the first step toward understanding by simply defining the contending worldviews and labeling groups accordingly. There are cross-cutting cleavages which separate political groups, religious groups, and ethnic groups; accordingly, there is at least as great a variety of perspectives within groups as that which exists between them. Yet some attempt must be made to organize one’s understanding of normative behavior, otherwise analysis of any given activity would be entirely incoherent.

Paolo Freire provides one useful typology, which presupposes the ability to choose how one will react to any given situation. He explains that people “exteriorize their view of the world” either fatalistically (which he also describes as reactionary), dynamically, or statically.[ii] The dynamic and static responses are largely self-explanatory; obviously, the dynamic response is the preferred of the three.

The dynamic response utilizes a dialogical process, which Freire describes as an affirming process of becoming.

If it is in speaking their word that [people], by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which [people] achieve significance as [humans]. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity…this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a single exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants. Nor yet is it a hostile, polemical argument between men who are committed neither to the naming of the world, nor to the search for truth, but rather to the imposition of their own truth…It is an act of creation…Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for [mankind].

…At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only [people] who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.[iii]

The reactionary response typifies what Freire terms “sectarianism;” which, “because it is mythicizing and irrational, turns reality into a false (and therefore unchangeable) ‘reality.’[iv] He explains that sectarianism results from fanaticism of either the right or the left; the first imagining a well-behaved present and the latter a predetermined future:

…closing themselves into ‘circles of certainty’ from which they cannot escape, [they] make their own truth. It is not the truth of men who struggle to build the future, running the risks involved in this very construction. Nor is it the truth of men who fight side by side and learn together how to build this future—which is not something given to be received by men, but is rather something to be created by them. Both types of sectarian, treating history in an equally proprietary fashion, end up without the people—which is another way of being against them.[v]  (emphasis mine)

Sociologist Peter Berger, writing from the perspective of the sociology of religion, produced a similar typology of options which apply to affirmation of religious belief in a modern, secular, and pluralistic society.

 In the pluralistic situation…the authority of all religious traditions tends to be undermined. In this situation there are three major options, or ‘possibilities,’ for those who would maintain the tradition: They can reaffirm the authority of the tradition in defiance of the challenges to it; they can try to secularize the tradition; they can try to uncover and retrieve the experiences embodied in the tradition…I call these three options, respectively, those of deduction, reduction, and induction.[vi]

“Modern consciousness entails a movement from fate to choice, Berger explains; further, “modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.”[vii] But the multiplicity of choices, and the variety of plausibility structures differing from community to community and institution to institution turns this freedom of choice into an intensely anxiety-ridden situation. The deductive response is to relieve that anxiety by recreating the certainty of authoritative tradition; essentially a return to the past. On the other hand, the reductive response is essentially a change of authorities. “The authority of modern thought or consciousness is substituted for the authority of the tradition…In other words, modern consciousness and its alleged categories become the only criteria of validity for religious reflection.”[viii]

The inductive (heretical) option bases religious affirmation on a deliberately empirical weighing and assessing the bodies of evidence based on experience and tradition. Admittedly, the reductive response typically makes this same endeavor; however, in that instance a line is crossed whereby a new authority is created and takes the place of the authority upon which the religious tradition has been founded. The result, borrowing Freire’s terminology, is sectarianism.

These typologies are similarly based upon their authors’ understanding of the three options available to any individual or community when faced with the challenge of social change, or modernity. It is interesting to note that Freire’s typology, as he interprets it, is essentially action oriented, or related to the “outward journey” whereby we seek community. By comparison, Berger’s typology is inner-directed in that the emphasis is on introspection and evaluation, particularly in the religious sphere, which must occur before action is taken.  This, as Berger explains, is  the essence of the “heretical imperative” that is before us.

Unfortunately, in either typology or any combination thereof, the reactionary/reductive or the static/deductive are the choices most often made; in either case, the result is the closing of a worldview. This closed worldview must be maintained at any cost, in the face of a continuous onslaught of conflicting realities which will challenge it. One could even say that in each of these two options, there has occurred an ‘opting out,’ the choice being against entering the situation as a participant. At national levels, these worldviews are recognized as totalitarian (of right or left); as rigidly authoritarian; as dictatorships. At the community or individual level, those who “opt out” are recognized for their bigotry and closed-mindedness; such people are rarely, if ever, capable of the “I-Thou” relationship which is a prerequisite for the dynamic/inductive option.

If we are to bring ourselves out of the excesses and wrongs of sectarianism and work together again for the good of our country, we must engage in the Heretical Imperative of real human-to-human dialogue, deliberately utilizing the empirical weighing and assessing the bodies of evidence based on experience and tradition; bringing about a loving act of creation that moves us forward into the future in which we stand and work together, for the sake of our children.

[i] James, Marylee M. Good News for the Poor? The Church and Community Development in South Africa. In fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Boston University 1990.

[ii] Freire, Paulo Pedagogy of the Oppressed trans. M.B. Ramos. New York continuum, 1989. Pg. 97.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 76-79.

[iv] Ibid, pg.22

[v] Ibid, pg. 23

[vi] Berger, Peter L. The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1980 (1979). Pg. xi.

[vii] Ibid, pg.10 & 25

[viii] Ibid, pg. 57