• working/reading

    I am reading through 'both ways' literature of Yolngu and non-Yolngu working their knowledge systems together. Alongside I am reading Lorraine Code's 2006 book Ecological Thinking. I am also browsing through blogs and discussions on knowledge work and community development.
  • About this Blog

    Here I post some of my work and thinking. It is a much harder task than I thought! It is an extension of my research on knowledge and difference connecting my experiences, reflections, formal written pieces, and hopefully friends and colleagues. As work and self cannot be separate this blog is both personal and intellectual. Comments are moderated because, while it is a site for collective work, it is not anonymous.
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This blog is not longer being used: it has been moved to www.christianclark.net

Being wrong, tolerating dissent

A recent quote by a man of the moment, educationalist and thinker Ken Robinson has had quite a profound effect on me: ‘nothing original can be achieved if you are in fear of being wrong.’ Certainly as a university student the fear of being wrong is strong. I still feel it in writing this blog. As a tutor I often struggled with the impulse to simply hide behind the authority of the tutor rather admit I was wrong.

Being wrong, and right, are embodied experience. It is not simply about abstract knowledge claims, nor entirely about social status. My most recent experience of this was riding home a month ago. It was night time and a family was tumbling out of a car and congregating on the bike path outside a restaurant. My reaction was simply to slow down, stay on my line and ring my bell. I was right. I was on a bike, on the bike path. It was an immediate physical feeling of being right. I even sat up a little in that arrogant, impatient kind of way. I didn’t think to communicate with the family, think to call out in case my bell was too soft, or even notice that the family were too busy getting out of the car to notice me or my bell. My immediate reaction was that I was right and that it was their responsibility to notice me and get out of my way. In consideration of their ignorance I slowed down, a little.

“Sorry this must happen all the time,” said the man as he ushered his kids off the bike path. By speaking to me, addressing me, I was suddenly in a relation to this man and his family. Then I was twenty meters down the street thinking ‘It doesn’t actually happen all that often. What’s my problem!’

My problem was that the sense of being right came over me all to soon and unconsciously. It certainly had to do with the context; the quiet fear or anxiety a rider has on city roads, the fact that as a cyclists I have been given a lane and I was staying in it, as a cyclist I go much faster then a family on foot and could potentially ride past without considering them as people, just an obstacle.

I saw a similar situation and effect expressed the other day when a scientist said that the great myth of the climate change debate was that there was dissent amongst the scientific community. “There is no dissent!” he exclaimed (I remember it was a man). Why can’t he say, “Yeah, there is a very very small group of scientists who don’t agree and they are keeping the rest of us on our toes, but climate change is REAL problem that needs addressing immediately.”? Of course, he can’t say this because in the cut and thrust of politics and media it would be shortened to “Yeah, there is a very very small group of scientists who don’t agree”. And I would add, our general understandings of science (taught in school and common throughout universities and society) likes to keep talk of uncertainty and talk of reality separate and hence cannot tolerate a scientist talking about something that is both REAL and UNCERTAIN at once.

I worry about people and communities that can no longer tolerate dissent. In this case I agree that disinformation and dissent about climate change comes much from privately funded research and commercial interests. But that is also not why it is wrong or not worthy of consideration. No science today is outside private funding and commercial interest. If we have a problem with oil companies then let’s say it, if climate change is serious then say that, but denying dissent is dangerous.

This post is in some sense an admission to the family I rode so swiftly by. Often an admission is directed back on oneself, ‘I admit I was wrong.’ But an admission is also an act of allowing an entry, a sharing of a privilege, or making a place for something that is different (by not mentioning dissent the scientists above is not sharing with his dissenters the privilege of his interview and maybe this is justified). But … we need to protect places of dissent and allow families on bike paths without the fear that they will throw us off the path entirely.

[From Being wrong and tolerating dissent]

“Do you want to see the beach?”

“Do you want to see the beach?”

Accepting this innocent invitation we drove down to main street to beach. Past the store, past the council officers. We parked on the high ridge from the which the grainy sand ran steeply, not into water but onto a long flat expanse of fine mud which finally slid into the sea. A deep channel separates the mud flat leading up a concrete ramp in line with the main road. We stood there and as scene began to impress itself as our eyes adjusted to the brightness. We were shaded by the big tamarind trees that line the beach here. They arrived generations ago, their seafaring companions from the island Sulawesi have long returned, but the seeds have grown roots and leaves all along the Australian north coast.

A few people sit in the shade of the large trees. Others mill around the council and a group of teenagers play volleyball in an open patch of ground. A pair walk along the beach, which is otherwise deserted in the heat of the afternoon. A large man, followed by a smaller women. We all converge on the concrete ramp. Shorts, sandals, hats, pale skin.

The woman we are with is a local teacher and begins the introductions. This soon develops into a conversation and then into long statements from the man seemingly trying to make himself a solid as the concrete ramp is this new environment. He raises one foot onto the ramp, knee bent. “The rubbish” he exclaims. “That is the first thing I noticed about this place. See all these people,” he says leaning forward on his knee, “they don’t do anything. Especially the youth. Look at them.” I follow his pointed finger. It is a Sunday afternoon, school holidays at that, and teenagers are playing volleyball. I return to the engagement we are now in and my eyes readjust. A man on a beach, leg up, momentarily paused in his progress up the slope. I half expect him to raise his pointing finger again and say “That is where will erect our quarters, the watchman will spend the night on eastern side of the rise.” All that is missing is his red coat with golden braids, his hat and his musket.

These people playing volley ball are Yolngu. The people who have lived here for countless generations. So are the people milling around the council building, the shore and those sitting nearby in the shade. Casting my eyes around, the man on the beach, the woman, myself, my partner and our guide the teacher are the only non-Yolngu.

The man is talking about a local leader who is apparently in full cooperation and understanding with the Government who has sent the man. The teacher prods. ‘But his children don’t go to school.’ This was clearly unwelcome and the engagement is faultering. “Look. I have been told about teachers” says the man’s lips. “Shut up, I’m the boss” says the man. His lips move again. “Some of you are close tot he community, but you don’t know what is going on. Nine in ten people don’t have jobs, more money is spent on coke and cigarettes than on food, one in ten children suffer from abuse, four in ten children don’t go to school, and most adults cannot read and write.” ‘These people’ I think. He knows them already. Nine in ten don’t work as hard as him. I can see thoughts moved across the face of the teacher, almost like flinches from the blows of the man’s neat list of facts. I imagine what they might be: ‘there are not jobs to be employed in, much food is not bought but caught from the sea for free, of course abuse is a problem as it is everywhere, if all children came to school there would not be enough classrooms nor teachers.’ “And what if people don’t like it?” asked the teacher, bringing the conversation to a climatic finale.

“I hold all the strings to all money in this place and everyone’s jobs. If someone doesn’t like it I’ll get rid of them.”

We hurry through some parting graces. My partner and I are both stunned. This is the new face of administration in indigenous communities. It’s not a regiment of young men, pale from sea sickness, shrinking in their uniforms with drooping buttons. It is a solid man, perhaps an ex-serviceman but of management rank and his wife. A navy blue t-shirt stretches around his slightly fat torso and a cap squeezes his head. His breast and forehead are blazoned in the corporate logos of the Australian Defence Force. She is dressed in outdoor-wear pastels. Their skin is pale from a Canberra winter.

The next day he is there again at the concrete ramp. In the shade now stands small group of young faces beaming out from under their floppy hats. Camo shirts tucked into camo pants, tucked into black boots not yet dirty. ‘Those people’ look o’. From the ramp we watch as large generators and storage containers are unloaded from a barge. Where forty or so children had been playing volleyball the previous afternoon, stands a large khaki tent. No children mill about of play there now.

I walk over to the youth centre and am glad to find the woman that works there inside. Finding a familiar face my partner and I don’t know where to begin telling of what we are seeing. But we are all seeing it, so what is there to say. “I guess there’s no more volleyball for a while” I comment. “They are the child health check tents”, the youth centre woman responds. “It is the only open space in town that is not owned by a particular family. They couldn’t put it anywhere else.” They could have it out of town I think as the disbelief tightens itself into the first knot of anger. Volleyball games and child health checks. Can there be no reconciliation? No, it is one or the other. But the two stay with me sink from my head to my stomach.

[From “Do you want to see the beach?”]