Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Do no harm--but how much do we need to know before we act?

by Holly

This blog is prompted out of a cumulative effect of reading better educated, better informed, more clever people bash the (often misguided) efforts of well intentioned but less educated, less informed, less clever people to change their world for good.

We all know where the road of good intentions leads...(historical examples abound--Biafra, BandAid, I could go on, but you get the idea)

But really, should only clever very well informed people ever take action? I mean, how much do we need to know before it's a good idea for us to do anything? Nobody with good intentions (those who are being critisized) wants to act in ways that ultimately screw things up (undermine self-reliance, create dependence, bolster power of political miscreants, corrode political accountability and good governance, feed racism and negative stereotypes, encourage false perceptions about realities on the ground to extort money and support--I could continue, but you get the idea).

Many of the critiques I find not only valid, but self-satisfying. I find myself marveling at how ignorant some interventions are--like many western run 'orphanages'--or how insensitive the use of particular language is--e.g. when I read someone's website recently talking about how they provide a "voice for the voiceless" "Who told you?" I asked the author in my mind, "that they are voiceless? They have voices and things to say if you were listening but even your tag-line smacks of a power dynamic you should resist and an unconsciousness to your own assumption of superiority." But then I read another couple of blogs that are proverbially critical of organizations like Invisible Children and Falling Whistles. I confess that I find myself equally put off by some of the self assured pomp and judgementalism (especially in the comments) as I am rather pleased with myself for arriving at many of the same critiques as the authors. Yes, I congratulate myself, (I guiltily admit this thought enters my mind), I'm more informed and more clever. Or am I? It's all so relative--and when I make mistakes and there are unintended consequeces to my interactions and writing about northern uganda someone more informed and cleverer than I will rightly point them out, critique my work and show how I could have avoided my pitfalls if only I had known more and been cleverer.

We're all in process and surely being paralyzed by a recognition of our limited understanding isn't the right way of living? We know that ignorance is no defence--but truly--we're all ignorant. I've always been of the mind that we have a responsibility to act on what we know and know as much as possible. But perhaps we equally have a responsibility to not act on what we don't know?


Mat said...

Hmm... you framed that problem nicely. Sorry, I don't know the answer.

In the falsely dichotomised world of thinking and doing I'm definitely more the former. I often find myself thinking as if by thinking enough I can avoid making any mistakes when I get round to doing. As you rightly point out, that's not very likely...

Like most "thinkers" I too merrily criticise the "do-ers" for their ill-thought-out actions. And the "do-ers" no doubt criticise us "thinkers" for achieving little or nothing. With a little more grace perhaps I could learn to give more credit to those who got off their backsides and "did" while I was still thinking about it. And perhaps someone one day will cut me some slack for doing too little and still making mistakes.

As an interesting aside, the issue is sort of encapsulated in a difference between French and English law. In England if you walk past a person drowning in a lake and do nothing, you will face no legal consequences. In France you could be charged with the criminal offence of failing to help a person in danger. In England, attempting to save the person but failing could leave you open to a claim that your negligence caused their death. Perhaps it's no surprise that, like you, I think it's worth knowing your limits before you try to "help". But perhaps if I was drowning I'd rather be in a French lake....

Kkurtz said...

Hmm, I too would rather be in a French lake. Both Holly's post and Matt's response are really good to process. Thanks guys.

Holly and Ben Porter said...

Hmm, there are so many different directions you could take this analogy of the person drowning in a lake (although, I feel I should point out that, the analogy assumes a certain level of helplessness of the person in the lake—that they need to be ‘saved’ and in general it seems important to avoid “rescuing” attitude/language, but I’m confident that you have no intention of encouraging a Saviour complex and for the sake of discussion…) what about a lake where you have the responsibility to help and you can also be held liable for negligence if you fail? (maybe a lake in Norway? Or one of the scans) I mean, wouldn’t that prompt a little foresight? If I can’t swim, or know I don’t have the endurance to make it out to where the person is drowning and get them back I might come up with an alternate plan that has better chances of succeeding. I think I’d rather start drowning in that lake.

I thought I’d clarify that I didn’t intend to argue against critique. Critique is vital—it plays an extremely important role in the evolution of ideas and practice. It has a social function and is a form of accountability. And to be fair, most of the authors of the blogs I was referring to—usually have very thoughtful things to say that I think fit into a ‘useful ‘category of critique. I think what really irks me is when critique is combined with an attitude that is at best snobbish, and at worst really rather hateful (which is the case in a lot of comments). It’s this kind of snarky self-righteous prideful judgment that is really demeaning to the object of critique and can sometimes excuse apathy and inaction. So, let me see if I can say what I’m trying to say more succinctly: Critique is good but ought to be done with a healthy dose of humility and good intention toward the object of critique. We ought to have a little grace with other people who are attempting to act on what they know(however little or great it is) and who are still learning—because we’re all still learning. We need to recognize our limitations, try to act within them but keep expanding them—often by listening to and responding to the critiques of others.

The Stouts said...

I like your last summary about critique. It reminds me of what Paul wrote about speaking with the tongues of men and angels but not having love. Did you ever see the kids movie about the rat that becomes a chef? At the end the critic writes a really moving article about the job of the critic. He says that in some ways "the job of the critic is and easy one." He basically says that the critic has the responsibility to thoughtfully give his opinion, but he is not the one putting forth his efforts to create something new. He therefore risks less.

Interesting thoughts anyway.

Love you!