In previous posts we have considered how difficult it is to experience the otherness of others. According to the philosopher John Dewey, to listen requires an ability to take different valuations into consideration, to enlarge the sense of self.
This is a theme taken up by Karen Armstrong with others in a new initiative they are calling the Charter for Compassion. The idea of the Charter is to encourage mutual understanding and to learn to sit beyond one’s natural tolerance level of difference and otherness. The word compassion, Armstrong reminds us, means to experience with. This requires listening and then listening further. She considers this to be a very different process from the current enthusiasm for ‘dialogue’, if by dialogue we mean simply listening to the other person until we have a chance to restate what we already think. She draws on Socrates to speak to the need for being able dispassionately to enquire into the complex situations we sometimes find ourselves in, which also means being able to take our own positions into consideration and be more detached about those.
This Socratic imperative, that a life unexamined is a life not worth living, reminded me of meeting one of the members of the Sula Batsu co-operative in Costa Rica and hearing about their work. Sula Batsu members take the idea of compassionate enquiry very seriously. The co-operative is a research organisation comprising some 20 professionals who are trying to keep educated and qualified professionals in Costa Rica contributing to the development of local communities. They are currently engaged in a number of different projects using new technologies with poor communities as a means of helping them to understand themselves better. Whilst development traditionally revolves around facilities or material structures or services Sula Batsu understand this support they are offering for greater self-understanding on the part of community members to be the profoundest form of self-empowerment.
In fact, Sula Batsu engages in two degrees of reflection and reflexivity. Firstly, they train up local community representatives both to use new technology, such as digital cameras and computers, and to carry out research. These representatives then carry out a research project of their own choosing which will be something to do with the identity and history of the community of which they are part. The local researchers put together and edit their research then re-engage their community to discuss the findings. Reflection arising out of research leads to further reflection and discussion.
Secondly the members of the Sula Batsu co-operative are also meeting on a regular basis to discuss how they are working with the communities. They reflect on their power relations with each other and with the communities they are working with. They are reflecting on how they are reflecting with others. The co-operative members are engaged in the same process of understanding themselves better that they are supporting for others.
The German philosopher Axel Honneth warns in his 2005 Tanner lecture that we have a tendency to turn the objects of our compassion into things, to reify them. We so quickly get drawn into plans and strategies to make our compassion tangible that we become swept up them, forgetting the reason why we were empathetically engaged in the first place.
Sula Batsu co-operative members have developed ways of working based in reflection and reflexivity which keep them reminded of the Socratic method, to enquire and then enquire further. It is the same kind of compassionate enquiry that Karen Armstrong is advocating.