Friday, June 5, 2015

Life from below.

I recently read a fictional account of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described on the jacket of the book as a "German theologian and Nazi resistor". The book, Saints and Villains, was written by Denise Giardina. I enjoyed the book, especially the parts which addressed his time spent studying at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr.

Union Theological Seminary was familiar because of Dr. Niebuhr and two notable figures who studied there, Carl Rogers and Paul Tillich. Dr. Rogers was a very influential psychologist whose works on client-centered counseling had great impact on me when I was in graduate school and throughout my professional career. Paul Tillich was an influential existential philosopher.

Dr. Rogers promoted an approach to counseling/therapy that was seemingly very simple yet if it was implemented as he indicated...it was also seriously radical. His client-centered approach demanded authenticity on the part of the counselor/therapist...he also wrote that the therapist must possess "unconditional positive regard" toward the client. In other words, if you can't really really like someone...you shouldn't be doing therapy with them. I can assure you that these two factors can be very demanding for a therapist to follow.

Often his approach was glommed onto by beginning therapists and only vaguely implemented because some of the techniques he suggested are both fairly easy to learn and very unlikely to cause harm to those receiving counseling. And yet...if the practitioner goes deeply enough into his approach...it can be transformative both for the therapist as well as the client both because of the requirement for authenticity and because of the unconditional positive regard. No phoniness or falseness or manipulation allowed.

Roger's approach was (and still is) an incredibly difficult way of being a therapist and one that, more often than not, resulted in therapists who borrowed some of his techniques but left out the core requirements of practitioner authenticity and unconditional positive regard toward the client.

It's important to note that we can never "arrive" at authenticity, it is always only partial, it is a striving...not a state of being. Authenticity is just a fancy way of saying that we must always and ever be honest...we must only express what we genuinely feel...not that which is expected of us or is considered "appropriate" at the moment. Authenticity is tough...as each of you know from your own experience.

One side effect of striving for this way of being is that you become a quieter person...because often what you genuinely feel would...if expressed...result in lots of upset and dismay from those exposed to it. Instead of saying meaningless platitudes...you...if you chose not to express what you genuinely feel...stay quiet. And...keeping your mouth shut is usually (not always...but usually) a good thing to do for a therapist.

Dr. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazi Regime in 1943 and was hanged by them shortly before the end of WWII. His "crime" was resisting and objecting to the totalitarianism and the antisemitism of the Hitler era. Take a look at this passage attributed to him from Giardina's book:
We have learned to view life from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the transgressors, the mistreated, the defenseless, the persecuted, the reviled. It is important that we are not bitter or envious. For we have learned that personal suffering unlocks more of the world than does personal good fortune. p. 356-357
This idea was expressed in a letter written while in a concentration camp. The Wikipedia entry quotes him this way:

There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.
This seems to be an earlier version of one of the axioms of analysis I referenced earlier. In writing a post about Ruth Frankenberg, her three principles of analysis, were given and the third one was expressed this way:
Axiom Three: Those who are being harmed and/or oppressed by a system of domination are going to have the best location for detecting, apprehending and comprehending those domination activities. In other words, those who are being hurt by domination/oppression are going have the most comprehensive viewpoint. If you want to know what is going on...listen to the victims of oppression...they know more than you.
It's always exciting and interesting to see similar insights pop up in the thinking of different individuals and systems of thought. Here we see virtually the identical notion coming from a theologian who was executed by the Nazis and from a feminist theoretician who may have never encountered the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

What's even more interesting to consider is that this idea can be thought of as one of the principle comprehensions I remember from my involuntary immersion into christian dogma when I was growing up. The passage in the christian bible that's relevant here is from the book of Matthew, 18:3 which says:
"Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven..."
Many look at that bit of the bible and interpret it as referencing some sort of state of innocence...note that it can also be seen as advocating a return to a position of powerlessness or helplessness and that position can perhaps expand and transform our perspective. Maybe returning to that time of being without power offers an enhanced perspective both for understanding and comprehending domination activities but also offers a guide for how to behave toward others.

Position profoundly influences power and perspective. According to this passage the position necessary to achieve the 'kingdom of heaven' is one where we have little power...which means we don't/can't dominate/harm others and that lack of domination/harm additionally ensures our innocence as well as positions us to see domination/harm activities with more clarity and comprehension. Positioning ourselves in the location of the oppressed allows us to perceive and comprehend "from below".

Consider that one of the common experiences that every living Earthling has is that of the relative powerlessness of childhood. It is the fact that we all (and by all, I include rabbits and donkeys and and and) have a time in the beginning of our lives where we are relatively powerless and helpless, especially in comparison to more mature and grown-up beings. We all know what it is like to be at the mercy of others (dominated) because we all share that same experience.

To be subject to the whim of those who are bigger than we are, who are stronger than we are, who can help or hurt us is a common and shared state. Every one alive has lived the experience of being "like little children".

Most can well remember those with more power who treated us with kindness and acceptance and care just as we can remember those who weren't so kind or behaved cruelly toward us. You, me and every other living being has had the experience of being helped or harmed by those who were more powerful. That's part and parcel of being a child...of being an Earthling.

Maybe I can't know what it's like to be reviled or ignored or demeaned because of having a skin color different from the group in power, but I can know what it's like to be powerless and/or to be dominated/harmed by those with more power. Maybe I can't know what it's like to be reviled or ignored or demeaned because of being a female, but I can know what it's like to be powerless and/or to be dominated/harmed by those with more power. Maybe I can't know what it's like to be reviled or ignored or demeaned because of not being heterosexual, but I can know what it's like to be powerless and/or to be dominated/harmed by those with more power. Maybe I can't know what it's like to be reviled or ignored or demeaned because of belonging to the wrong species, but I can know what it is like to be powerless and/or to be dominated/harmed by those with more power.

Important and critical specifics and details will be unavailable to me...but...the experience and accompanying perceptions of being dominated/harmed by those with more power than me is available if...and only if...I allow myself to revisit and remember and relive being a little child.

That path, reliving being relatively weak/powerless (like a small child), is available to each of us, if we're willing to take it. And...that reliving...offers us the opportunity to perceive life "from below" and there we might use our enhanced perceiving and comprehending as a guide to figure out how to behave.

Becoming 'like a small child' offers us the opportunity to escape the obliviousness induced by power and position. We can partake of the perceptions of the powerless because we all have some experience of that...if...we're willing to do it.

Maybe that's not easy...but if the alternative is to be oblivious and to oppress others...well...hey...nobody said being a grown-up was going to be without struggle.

It's interesting to consider that maybe the way to be a decent grown-up is to never forget what it was like to be a small and helpless child and to use that knowledge and perspective to guide grown-up behavior. How cool is that?

In that earlier post I noted that power...or being positioned to dominate...creates obliviousness (I called it being stupid) and that weakness...or being positioned to be oppressed offers awareness or enhanced perception. Dr. Bonhoeffer observed that being able to comprehend "life from below" means we must view life from the perspective of those who suffer...which is being equated here to those who are oppressed...which is being equated here to those who belong to the groups targeted by the oppressions exemplified by speciesism, racism, sexism and so on.

While I was working on this post I came across something called Standpoint Theory. These two sentences in the writing on this theory caught my eye:
Emphasis on the relationship between power and knowledge is crucial in defining the terms the standpoint theory sets forth. Perspectives of the less powerful provide a more objective view than the perspectives of the more powerful in society.
Sound familiar?

One thing in that quote that makes me a little nervous is the use of the term "objective". It's important to remember that objectivity is like authenticity...it's not an end state...there's no such thing as pure objectivity anymore than there is pure authenticity. It's a more or less thing, not an either/or thing. It may even be totally bogus...objectivity, I mean...I'm not sure about it as a concept because it implies some sort of position that is outside of all social/human influence and that's problematical...especially if it is in reference to the activities of living beings. All that's another whole bunch of thinking and writing though. Just remember to be a little bit cautious when you hear the term "objective". 

This post has become rather lengthy, I'll stop now but there's much here to think about and I'm still churning all this around. There's a lot to this power and position and perspective stuff. It's really rich and dense and I have to do a lot of wallowing around with it to gain some semblance of comprehension.

2 comments:

Have Gone Vegan said...

Hey veganelder, I meant to get back to this post much earlier (and may be jumping around a bit on this blog as I get caught up tomorrow), but like the re-envisioning of that bible passage. Not having power, or perhaps, not using power to harm or dominate, makes the passage easier for me to understand.

It also reminded me of the passage about the meek inheriting the earth, and again, I like the interpretation of not using power to dominate better than how we might otherwise interpret the word meek. And, it made me think of the text about how it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Ah, if only corporations and all who profit from animal use would take heed. :)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. The "meek" is a good observation...that one didn't occur to me when I was writing. As far as anyone interested in profit taking heed...I won't hold my breath. :-)