These past two weeks I have had the pleasure of staying with close friends in Edmonton, one of whom is a social worker. We were discussing the possible approaches to a particular case, and I objected to one option because it seemed to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’, as if we were two different societies. My friend looked at me and said: “There are two different societies. The life my clients live is so far removed from our lives that it’s almost incomprehensible.”
That conversation has been part of an awareness growing in me that I assume much of the world around me is the same as ‘my’ world. The recent uproar over the George Zimmerman acquittal in the US fits in the same category. I used to think (incorrectly) that I have a good grasp of American culture, since Canadian culture is so similar. But I am so far removed from that culture of racism, suspicion, and fear that when the case first hit the news, it never crossed my mind that the shooting could have a racial aspect, or that it could be construed as a civil rights case. (This is not to say that Canada does not have problems with racism. It does, but it presents differently.) I am no expert on the issues at stake in the trial and so won’t pretend to speak to them, but this further illustrates that this is an area of society alien to me.
I expect to encounter different societies in foreign countries, in areas far away. I haven’t been in the habit of thinking about such difference so close to home. In the inaugural post for this blog, Rachel spoke of Gadamer’s concept of horizons. She explained that our limited vantage point should lead to epistemic humility, because we cannot know everything. Our perspective is imperfect and incomplete. I am inspired by this view that highlights the importance of horizoned talk. Rachel’s point leads me to the position that it is our responsibility not only to realize the limitations of our perceptions, but to actively seek out the other vantage points. This includes not only intellectuals (whose perspectives are easy to find) but also the illiterate, the homeless, the oppressed: anyone who is different from us.
In his 1928 Brampton lectures on the vision of God, K.E. Kirk argued that doctrine must precede ethics. He was specifically concerned about theological ethics, and argued that we must know what God is like in order to know what we should be like and how we ought to act. For Kirk, ethics were not rigid principles, extended the same throughout all time and space. Instead, ethics vary but are always grounded in doctrine, the reality of who we are and who God is; ethics spring from these beliefs. The theory behind his argument can be extended to not only the doctrine of God, but also the ‘doctrine’ of the world around us, if you will. By this doctrine, I mean an understanding of what we are like, and what the world around us is like. When describing our culture (whether it be North American society, Canadian culture, or the vibe of Vancouverites), I find myself generalizing my own attributes, opinions, and experiences to describe the world around me. And my ethics, the practical outworking of my views, reflect this description. I vote, make ethical decisions, spend money, etc. based on my perception of what our society, our world, is like. This means that a limited perspective of our society has far broader implications than we may think. How can we serve the poor and oppressed, the ‘”others,” if we have no conception of what their world (or our world) is like?
We need to enlarge our view of our society or culture to encompass its diversity. This is the basis on which we make our practical decisions, decisions which affect not only ourselves but also those whose voices may not be heard. If we are unable to broaden our horizons, the decisions we make and ethics we choose will further drive apart these differing societies, further separating ‘our’ world from ‘their’ world.
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