Getting Philosophical

There is one more session of Arguments, Fallacies and Trickery, the philosophy class I’m attending at the WEA. We have been looking at aspects of reasoning and how language can be used to manipulate our responses to issues and ideas.

The course has led me to dig out the books I have – some unread – about philosophy, thinking, and language used in argument.

I’ve been examining how I express – or fail to express – a point of view, and have found I often let my feelings get in the way. Edward de Bono‘s six thinking hats lets us acknowledge feelings (red hat). I often berate myself for not offering a view, particularly when someone makes an unsupported assertion in conversation. My reading is helping me to clarify my ideas and my thinking processes so that I can experiment with careful, considered responses. A friend uses the “commend, recommend, commend” technique which is a useful starting point and easy to remember when you are put on the spot. The “commend” part helps to see the other person’s point of view, which can help to quell the anger response which tends to result in a standoff, with polarised views. De Bono develops this in his chapters: “How to Agree”, “How to Disagree” and “How to Differ” in How to Have a Beautiful Mind (2004). The aim of his book is to encourage the readers to use their minds – beyond intelligence or knowledge – just as they might exercise the body.

We have become accustomed to a different, cooperative, collaborative style of leadership in Jacinda Ardern which emphasises kindness. Every achievement from gun control to environmental protection was sweeter for having been collaborative and responsive to events and needs. When asked if she found the coalition negotiations frustrating, Ardern said that, on the contrary, it was an aspect of leadership which she enjoyed. I am disappointed to see the old “oppositional” model being ramped up by the latest opposition leadership. Of course, the name “the opposition” sets up this style of discourse. It is calculated, of course, particularly with an election in October, because many people respond to it with relish, whichever “side” they are on.

Deborah Tannen in The Argument Culture (1998) begins the book by addressing “our tendency to engage in ritualized, knee-jerk opposition…our tendency…to approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.” It is a tendency of Western culture, she contends, which “has served us well in many ways but in recent years has become so exaggerated that it is getting in the way of solving our problems. Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention – an argument culture.”

How much worse it is now with social media and the internet generally adding to this culture. How easy it seems to slip into old habits and “go on the attack” (war imagery pervades our language) instead of looking for positive ways of responding which enable common ground and agreed solutions. When the Dalai Lama was asked what is the secret to living a good life, he replied: “Be kind.” It is such a simple and obvious thing to do.

Edward de Bono says we should always be looking for alternatives – as in his lateral thinking for which he became famous in the 1970s. It is disturbing that this technique, and the thinking hats, might be dismissed as no longer fashionable – “old hat” – when we need them more than ever.

There was a pro-life rally in the central city in the weekend and I felt a surge of anger as I saw men in pro-life t-shirts. It was some time before my thinking led to common ground. Probably, pro-life and pro-choice both want a society in which it is safe for a woman to bear a child in most circumstances. When looking for alternatives to the currently polarised views, I wondered if both sides could direct the energy created by perceived injustice into making a society in which women are not degraded, fearful and intimately scrutinised. In which they are not held responsible for the crimes of others. In which bringing notice to themselves does not make them vulnerable or subject to the controlling actions of others. In which they have access to fair pay and resources. In which they have the support of law – begun, in part, by the recent legislation in which abortion is a health issue, not a criminal one. It could be a way to move forward.

My re-thinking is a work in progress. (Double meanings intentional.)

Finding common ground? Ron Mueck, chicken/man, Christchurch Art Gallery. Less subtle is the power play in the painting on the right.

Missing August

When the school year was divided into three terms, instead of the current four terms, we looked forward to August holidays and the first signs of spring. The month is a changeable one. Yesterday was warm. Today I walked to philosophy class at the WEA feeling the cold bite of the “beastly easterly”. Our entertaining tutor and the rapt class did something to ease the chill, not to mention the sometimes heated discussions of logic and reasoning. The class is called Arguments, Fallacies, Trickery.

After class I dropped in at the Art Gallery to take a second look at the Louise Henderson exhibition. At the entrance is this quotation:

As a retired English teacher, I will never stop reading or thinking about what I read. The philosophy class has shown me how to rev the cogs up a notch and I’ve enjoyed the ‘homework’ I’ve set myself to discover more and to understand the jargon. I can apply what I’m learning to my reading.

I’m revelling in reading and missing no opportunity to read widely. The variety available at our fantastic libraries is impressive. I’ve just finished a book set on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia (Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips) and I’m now reading a book set in ancient Rome (The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis, in the time of Domitian who, incidentally, banned all philosophers from Rome) – both from the library. I was able to order a missing book in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s trilogy. It arrived very quickly, a brand new copy of The Book of Not, which follows on from Nervous Conditions. The last in the trilogy is This Mournable Body which is long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize. I have a copy in my latest pile from the library. The trilogy is the story of Tambudzai, a girl desperate for an education who moves from her rural village to a prestigious boarding school on a scholarship during the struggle for independence in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. Will her education give her the life she hopes to have? At what cost? It revives memories of my students’ teenage angst and struggles with anxiety and identity and with their often harrowing home lives. Add a layer of war (continual gunfire in the distance and close-up violence) and discrimination (an overcrowded African dormitory and a bully for a matron) and this character’s pain becomes palpable to the reader. I will read on anxiously to discover how Dangarembga’s character survives as she grows up. Interestingly, she remains in Zimbabwe (so far) unlike the main character in NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names (shortlisted for the Booker the year Eleanor Catton won) who migrates to the US and experiences poverty and racism there. In a heart-breaking scene, she and her cousins try on clothes in a mall to picture themselves living lives they know they will never have. Dangarembga has remained in Zimbabwe where she is an award-winning film-maker, playwright and political activist in a country where, like many others, a pandemic is one more thing on top of many dangers. There is no feeling nostalgic for times past, I would suppose. Instead, all of these books to some extent show virtue is a source of happiness and suffering does not exclude the possibility of joy – as in the philosophy of the Stoics interpreted for today. I may change my mind about this conclusion when I’ve read the third book.

Back in the Art Gallery, August is missing from Louise Henderson’s panels featuring the months of the year.

In a tangential mind-drift during the philosophy class this omission seemed significant. I’m not sure why. It makes a good thinking point. What would it have been like? Would it have shown a half-way point between the dark July panel and the light September panel? Did it contain something which set the exuberance of the remaining panels in motion? Has it been lost? (The answer is in this link.) Or did its owner refuse to lend it for the exhibition? I’m pleased the curator left a gap for the visitor to contemplate.

August seems yellow to me so far, less than a week into the month. Perhaps because I have just pruned the lemon tree quite hard to remove branches resting on a brick wall. I collected a bucket full of lemons from the removed branches and am considering ways to use them – limoncello? preserved lemons? lemon meringue pie?

‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ Sounds like Stoic philosophy to me.

Perhaps Popcorn will discover some answers inside the strawberry bucket.

When Zeno lost his merchandise in a shipwreck, he turned to discussions under a Stoa, or porch, hence the name Stoic. He is the founder of Stoic philosophy which seems to be based on not letting misfortune defeat you, but using it to discover new possibilities. These rescued hens have suffered misfortune, but don’t appear to be dwelling on it.

Here’s a nice thought to finish:

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live. Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store. ” — Seneca