Unpacking Things

17 Nov

This semester, the final semester for my undergraduate degree, has been very interesting.  I’ve never taken this many credits in one semester – 16.5.  I think that I’ve been handling it pretty well.  I was able to take a Pistol Marksmanship class, and get credit for it, so who doesn’t love that?

One of my classes, Dialogue and Cultural Studies, has probably been the favorite of undergraduate studies.  Professor Leonard Hawes is teaching the course and I’ve learned a lot about myself, how I deal with conflict, and how dialogue can work.  The semester began with the book The Identity of Violence: The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen and the introduction of two ideas, Immanence and Transcendence.

Sen’s presentation of identity is that it is not singular.  I do not have “an” identity, I have many.  Identities stem from affiliations.  I am: male, white, an American, a Utahn, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, an ex-boyfriend, a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, a gun owner, and much, much more.  The idea is to avoid the all-encompassing “other.”   Immanence is the idea of remaining within a conflict.  Transcendence is the idea of stepping outside of the conflict, creating boundaries of right/wrong, better/worse, etc.  Now, before you get all bothered, “well here’s a bunch of hippie, leftist relativism,” stay immanent with me.

Real Life Situation: 

The other night Tammy and I were lying in bed and a sensitive subject was brought up.  As we talked about it, we came to see that we both had completely differing views of the subject, but hadn’t realized that the other person saw it differently.  Our natural reaction was to say, “well, my way is correct,” but we rejected that notion and let our opinions stand independently.  We didn’t “resolve” anything, meaning we didn’t come to a common agreement on how we would treat that subject in the future, or who was “right” and who was “wrong.”  But now we have a better understanding of how each other views that topic and this will allow us to navigate it in the future.

That is immanence, rather than transcendence. Immanence does not say that you cannot have an opinion, or that everyone is right, it says simply that remaining within a conflict rather than attempting to step outside of it helps resolve conflict.  It would have been very easy for me to try and force my position on Tammy, telling her that she was wrong and needed to change her views.  But I didn’t and we both grew through the process.  A tool that assists in immanence is witnessing.  When I witness someone’s truth, their reality which is socially constructed, I get to understand them better.  By witnessing what my wife was saying that night I was better able to see not only how she feels about the topic but also why she feels the way that she does.  This gives me the knowledge that I need for when this comes up in the future.

The second book that we read this semester was A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts by Harold Saunders.  The books main focus is creating understanding through sustained dialogue.  The course syllabus describes our dialogue method:

The purpose of self-indexical, self-reflexive and self-implicative dialogue is for you to affirm identifications by actually practicing what you’re learning.  You will be paying close attention to fluid changes and subtle processes rather than to more static positions and stationary relations.  The process of this method of inquiry is dia-logical – a logic that is different from and one that goes beyond both formal logics and dialectics.  The processes and practices of dialogue are driven by the movements of desire and reason, which show up in the perpetual turning and reversing of conversation.  The Latin root terms for “conversation” – con and vetere – mean to turn together in a continual process of reversal.  The reading, writing, speaking and listening of dialogue are grounded in your lived experience – i.e., in the problems, contradictions and paradoxes of your everyday life.

So, you’re probably asking yourself, “well, what do you do twice a week? Get together, hold hands and talk about your feelings?”  No, we sit and have dialogue based on what we’re reading and what is going on in the world.  We are putting into practice what Saunders is suggesting – sustained dialogue, over the course of a semester, so that we can better understand each other and the common conflicts that we face!

The book that we’re currently reading is Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity by Arnold Mindell.  And though, at times, Mindell can seem a little “out there” (think campfire and Kumbaya), the book challenges the reader to at least consider some of the propositions being made.  Which cycles back to immanence (being present in the conflict) and taking the conflict for what it is.

This class has helped me unpack some things.  For years I’ve felt that I’m supposed to be ashamed of being a middle-class, white male because, zomg!!!!11!!1eleven!, I’m the devil incarnate and the oppressor of the world.  After moving back to Utah I had one more thing to be ashamed of – I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the dominant religious group in the state.  These presumed feelings of shame made me angry at the world and “those liberals who say that I should feel this way.”  My anger began to consume my identities and was forcing me to shut down when ever I heard one of “them” talking. 

In Sitting in the Fire, Mindell discusses what he calls rank: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, education, religion, age, expertise, profession, health, psychology and spirituality are just a few that he mentions and how each person has a higher or lower rank that someone else in any given field.  The difference in rank is all socially created and is tied to identity.  For example, in western cultures lighter skin gives a person a higher rank than dark skin; males have a higher rank thank females; more education gives you higher rank over then uneducated, etc.  Mindell says that it’s not the differences that cause conflict but what we do with the differences.  Do we abuse others, either consciously or unconsciously, with our rank?

When we remain immanent in a conflict we have the opportunity to see our rank and how we may be abusing others.  This then gives us insight into how we can potentially resolve the conflict or transform it into something else all together (taking an either/or and making it a both/and).  I had not, until recently, been able to see how this, as a system, can be applied in large groups (between ethnic groups or political parties, for example).  But I think I’m getting closer.  In order for large groups to change, the individuals in that group must change.  In order for individuals to change there must be dialogue where participants are willing to remain immanent and witness the experience and social reality of the other participants.  This does not lead to a “right” and a “wrong,” but it does lead to a better understanding of what ranks I have and how I’m using them to either assist or abuse others.  Regardless of the size of the group it still comes back to the individual.

So, as a workable model:  When a conflict presents itself and I begin to react I first need to know which identities are being threatened and why are they feeling threatened, remembering that the person(s) on the “other side” also have identities feeling threatened for various reasons.  Re
maining immanent allows me to understand that person and either resolve the conflict or transform it into something else.  This works in large groups because I am part of the process, which never ends.  It is always fluid and moving.

Okay – bring on the world!


Posted by on November 17, 2009 in Education, Life, People, Really Excited, School


5 responses to “Unpacking Things

  1. Jim and Sherri

    November 17, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Whew! That was a mouthful.You are going to have a lot work trying to remember your approach to life formula when all the minutiae of life, especially the jerk that cuts you off in traffic, the overly active children in the house and neighborhood, that annoying relative or two, or those times when you look in the mirror and say, "How in the heck did I get into this mess?" Guidelines are great if you can apply them in the middle of those mind blowing experiences. Good luck.Remember: if you are going through hell, don't stop. Chao.

  2. Reese

    November 17, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    Yeah, this is definitely not a catch all for how to behave. But in the moments when I have the time to think, it's a useful model. If someone was attacking me or my family, I wouldn't stop and try to understand why – I'd just shoot the bastard.


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