Listening, Care, and Political Rants

listening

One of the cornerstones of my approach to understanding and creating sustainability is a model of human being based on care, not need. I am trying to make sense of the political speech that we all are increasingly being bombarded with. In listening to this as in all listening, what I hear depends on me, and on how the words and sentences my ears gather in and send to my nervous system get filtered through my already present cognitive structure. Sense comes when the message triggers a response that produces a set of bodily sensations I assess as positive and explain to others in positive terms. I may use some sort of rational argument to justify the explanation, but the perceived response in not the result of that reasoning, but of structure already in place in my body. If this way of talking about listening and communication seems strange, you can read some of Humberto Maturana’s work. Two good choices are: Maturana, H. R., & Poerksen, B. (2004). From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition; Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1992). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

I find that my reaction to much of the political speech I hear triggers emotional responses that go beyond my reasons for disagreeing. So I ask what is already in my body that is causing this? I do not normally get this kind of response in ordinary disagreements or formal arguments. In many cases, it is enjoyable to engage in argumentation. It can even be a kind of game. Since I cannot probe the structures directly, I have to make a guess as to the cause. My best guess is that I cannot find anything related to care expressed in the talk. My listening for expressions of care has become more acute through writing and especially teaching. When I find this distinction absent or misplaced, I know I am not in the same communication space as the others in the same conversation.

Care in my dictionary is the context of all action: everything done intentionally in the conventional meaning of intention. Care is at the center of what it means to be human; it is what separates us from other life. It is the natural consequence of living in language. Other species do not have language to coordinate the coordination of action. They do communicate, but cannot talk about what they are doing or trying to do. They cannot ask questions like why should I do this or what did you mean by asking that. They cannot ask what it is to be a fox or worm as humans can and do. The answers to that question for us depend on the philosophical ground one starts with. The normal place to start in the modern, western world is with Descartes and his notions of an objective world and of a transcendental mind. As I have written, the consequences of this model (it is only a model) lead to a picture of a world valued for its instrumental use and humans as needy creatures getting as much of the world’s instrumental fruits as they are able to acquire. (Perhaps this is a little harsh, but it is true if one stays inside the present frame of our thinking)

A model based on care is very different. It is grounded on a different meaning, that of care, that accumulates in our language and in our bodies. Care is about acting inter-connectedly and coherently with the target of action. Whatever I do in this sense is designed in part to perfect (make whole) my partner (human or not) in action. Care is grounded in the world, out of the historical experience of our species interacting in the world. We can talk about care only because we have language and can coordinate the coordination of action. Sustainability as flourishing demands that we understand this model of being and live out of it. Lack of care and a mistaken drive to satisfy need have left the earth in bad shape and human Being in tatters. Flourishing can come forth only when care becomes the name we give to the cognitive structure that runs our lives.

We cannot isolate that structure even with all the new tools of neurobiology and cognitive science, but we can translate it into everyday practical terms. A complete taxonomy of the world can be constructed with just three classes:

  • My own body
  • The bodies of other humans like me
  • Everything else

Defining the classes this way leaves nothing out. Further, as I have done in Sustainability by Design, each class can be subdivided into a handful of familiar domains, like subsistence, play, transcendence and more—11 categories in all. The diagram I use for this array appears at the end of this post. Soon I will be taking on each of the domains and explaining it. I hope to make it easier for you to listen for the presence of care in political and all other speech and act to bring it forth wherever is missing. I don’t have to power alone to change the rhetoric I hear today other than to make note of it and point out the absence of meaning connected with flourishing and, thence, to sustainability.

Calls for lower taxes are simply a euphemism for more acquisitiveness. The more money I have, the more stuff can own or control. Call for less government are a euphemism for seeing people as instruments, just nodes on the big Machine of Government and Economy. Calls to the heavens is a transfer of caring for the health and welfare of the world to some unworldly body. Calls to lessen unemployment can come from care, but often sound to me as above; just nodes in the machine, necessary to get the system back to producing more. Somewhere, a very long time ago, the caring context that had to presence itself in order for early humans to survive, got lost in the development of the social institutions that are now dominant. I have my own explanation for this disappearance, but this is unimportant; the disappearance itself is the critical concern. Nowhere is its loss more critical than in the current political sphere.

Much has been written lately about the more effective way the right speaks compared to the left. The superiority comes because the right speaks to the values; the left speaks to the reasoning mind. The right’s way is closer to the model of listening I described above. The response to what is heard (and sensed in general) is triggered by what the structure already present. “Values” is one way of speaking about that structure. Values are ascriptions made to explain the ordering of routine actions. In this model they would correspond to specific patterns of cognitive structure. These manner of talking works better that relying on reasoning because the “rational” mechanism for persuasion is not the primary way we work. In the next political season, the left is going to have to work twice as hard as the right to get in line with sustainability. The right has only to change the “values” to reflect care; they already know how to get people to act in the “right” way. The left must learn to resonate with the structure in the body, not the imaginary computer in the mind/brain and also to focus on values based on care. I expect neither side to follow my instructions here. This leaves the task of making care explicit and embedded in the structure of our individual bodies and the collective structure of society up to those committed to the cause of sustainability.

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2 Comments

David M. Carter said:

I have likely pointed this out before. But, ingenious work by Nobel Prize winning social scientist, Daniel Kahneman, has shown that the "Affect Heuristic" may be primary to all human cognitive responses to communication (and other sensory stimuli). This is consistent with your perspective of the "right's" superiority in getting strong responses from its political messages. This primary emotional response to stimuli is also most likely the cause of most human irrationality, and, ironically, the belief that we are somehow rational.

I would argue that this paradox is mostly responsible for our blind willingness to adopt and follow social and cultural systems that are at once destroying human well being and living system health. The good news is that this same emotions-driving-beliefs-and-behavior system can be co-opted by social and cultural paradigms that are more conducive to human and Earth well-being. What is needed is an incentive as intoxicating as capitalism as a driving force.

Phillip Crockford said:

Thank you John.

Among other things: a very eloquent interpretation and application of some of Maturana's work, an opening to take action, and a useful explanation of why so much political speech pushes my own buttons: absence of care.

A couple of things...

1. I don't think the right has a monopoly on speaking to values: MLK, Havel and many others of the left have demonstrated this, although it does seem that those on the left (relative term in the US) who currently have the reach do, as you say, seem to use appeals to reason as their primary manner of political speaking.

2. I am very interested to hear your explanation of why/how the context of care in early humans got lost. I disagree that this is unimportant: your understanding may yield some insights about how to go about restoring it, and may help those who care enough to heed your call to action.

After listening to Maturana, rather than say that the caring context got lost, I would say that our lineage also began to increasingly conserve the context of power, control and domination. And that this has become part of the modern context. Further, the balance is growing on that "side of the ledger" as we conserve these behaviours in our children.

Anyway, if you find time I am keen to hear your explanation for the loss of care in social institutions.

Thanks again for a thought and action-provoking piece.