The perpetuation and promotion of structures of domination are ubiquitous in western society.
Growing up I attended public school. In those years I never heard the words: empowerment, voice, dialogue, or critical thinking. And in fact the land-grant university I attended for my Bachelors degree had professors who regularly made comments that were racist, sexist, and classist. It was not until I entered my Masters degree that I began studying the tools of critical pedagogy, promoting critique and possibility and democracy. Having not had any exposure to this in the past those were heady days, full of hope. But as it turned out, full of false hope. For the literature of critical thinking was full of language of who we should be, and what should be happening in classrooms, and what should be implemented in practise, and these all turned out to be context specific and over time I came to see that they were more a response to the particularized understandings of the teacher and students and their own myopic social identities and situations and enculturated psychologies. Not long after as clergy I began to desire to become more and more accountable for naming the political agendas of both the gospel as well as my listeners…something which is inherent to the methodology of the gospel itself. Initially, by prescribing moral deliberation as a key part in this, using critical pedagogy implied that people can and should engage one another and the world around us as fully rational subjects. At the time I saw my role as that of developing my congregation’s capacity for critical reflection. But over time I came to see rational argument as a culturally prescribed tool that was used by more rational, privileged people in order to dominate lesser trained Others who had less access to privilege. Rational deliberation was a way to dominate conflict and required a universal capacity for language. I came to see this as problematic mostly because in a society of veiled privilege any inclusion of other ways of knowing could never be public, let alone democratic in the sense of including all parties or according them legitimacy. So in the mid-90’s I engaged in a radical shift in my own way of teaching and relating to others. I began to teach and preach in a way that started to dismantle the foundation for critical reflection in the churches I served. This pissed off a heck of a lot of people whose self-interests were at stake and who had hired me to serve and promote their self-interest. Their reaction was to become even more entrenched. I began to write and teach in ways that solely had to do with saving my own life, because it did. Radically particularized it made me stop hallucinating as a white, middle-class, privileged male. As a PhD student at the time I began openly talking about not wanting to teach when I graduated; this was insane speech – self-contradictory – and alienated me from my instructors and most of my confreres. They remained bound to the rationalist agendas of teaching analytical and critical skills for judging truth and the merits of propositions. And I refused to enforce the rules of reason any more in the church. Rationalism could no longer be respected by me as it was a self-sealing political action used to dominate. Critical education, including critical religious education, only treated the symptoms, but left the disease intact. No teacher is free of learned and internalized oppressions; no single group’s sufferings and struggles are immune from inflicting suffering on another group. I came to see that I had been granted institutional power. So I began to divest myself of those foundations. All life-giving voices along with their differences became increasingly important to me both in expressing identity as well as in recalling suffering. The asymmetry of being in the position in which I found myself professionally was finally fully let go. My life became a collective struggle. There were no longer victims, there was just struggle. And for me this struggle became increasingly interpersonal, personal, and political…and definitely not waged from an ideology of some sort of mythical sameness, but of difference. The reason for the lack of true dialogue in culture is because power relations between races, classes, and gendered people are simply unjust. These differences cannot be overcome by teachers in classrooms or law makers in legislatures or boards of municipal directors. Like individuals, groups of people possess only partial narratives of their oppressions…partial in that they are self-interested and exclude others, and partial in that any person’s or group’s experience is never self-evident.
It is not the unknowable or unknown that is most frightening to me any more, instead it is the social and political and educational projects that are formulated and implemented by critical-thinking social planners at all levels of society who legitimate their actions based on their lack of simply admitting the otherliness of Others. I have come to fully embrace that I don’t know Others…and that they don’t know me. What I do know is that I can continue to unlearn my own positions by coming to experience how truly different Others are. So here’s the bottom line: that if I can talk with you in ways that show that my understanding of you and the world and the right thing to do is always partial and interested and potentially oppressive…and if you can do the same for me…then we at least have a chance of building a world where all of us can thrive. And that’s what we at least hope that we are doing here on this Catholic Worker farm as Benedictine oblates in the northern Parkland region of Manitoba in north central Canada. Attempts at non-violence that do not recognize that our understanding of the world is partial and interested and potentially oppressive is most certainly founded on the repressive myths of critical rationalism. When Others refuse to do the same then we certainly don’t have any chance of building genuine peace.