Questions Arising (Blog)

No us and them

There is no us and them, only us. The white supremacy thing, the patriarchy thing, the class thing: binary structures of inequality and violence. The antidote? Affirming equality already here and getting ourselves together, mixing it up, messing with it. Laugh at it, blow kisses. These structures depend on division, difference. They need walls. They’re not news, but they are fake. They are a joke, but not funny. How to get out of this simulation, this Matrix? Not by casting around for a better simulation of real life, a better hack. Not the blue pill but the red.

It’s becoming clearer that a lot of how we live is based on false premises. This is good news. That revelation will change everything. As will technology. As will the climate disaster. There is a lot of change coming our way, a lot of uncertainty: we are already in it. And it is going to hurt. (Learning always hurts.) No avoiding it, no way out – only through.

And here you are – already in place, already in motion. Finding your way. (Which may not mean getting your way. Sorry!) Here is something I read last week and I thought of you:

What is right, what is wrong? In this situation?
What a small question!
What is great? That is what my heart longs to ask. What is lush? What is bold, what is daring? In which direction lies maximum richness, abundance, delight?

~ George Saunders, Liberation Day, 25

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? An important question. Not-knowing is your friend, doubt is your friend. “When nothing will work, anything might. Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.” (Clay Shirky)

Don’t take what isn’t given to you. Always move in the direction of your freedom, in the direction of more life, more love. Hold your seat. Hold onto your hat. Take part, take care. Take courage. Be of good cheer and be of good hope.

And have a really, really good time.

I wrote this for Fish Hoek High School’s annual two-day “Amazing Race” camp where Grade 11 learners go to think together about race, identity and community. Rob and I told them about our experience in the anti-apartheid underground in the late 1980s. It was a great evening.


Otherwise philosophy, Philosophy otherwise

Levinasian philosophical practices

Friday 26 November 2021, 1:00pm–6pm EST. Live-streaming on MS Teams

1:00pm: Welcome and Introduction

1:15pm (8:15 pm in South Africa): Helen Douglas, Philosophical Counsellor, Cape Town, South Africa, “Otherwise Philosophy or Philosophy Otherwise: Levinasian Philosophical Practices”. I’ll be talking about my counselling work as an interpersonal Levinasian practice of ethics and emancipation as well as the possibilities his work opens towards a new mode of thinking in troubled times.

Poster. Transcendence & Ethics: A one-day workshop on Emmanuel Levinas, Bishop's University, 26 November 2021

3:00pm: Deborah Achtenberg, University of Nevada, Reno, “Shestov, Levinas and Plato on the Human Good”

4:00pm: Bruce Gilbert, Bishop’s University, “The ‘Institution’ of the Good in Levinas”.

4:45pm: Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal, “Women and Revolution in the Talmud”


The Housekeeper’s Tale

International Solidarity in Apartheid South Africa

Keynote Address
North American Levinas Society
“Solidarity and Community”
29 July 2021

Need I remind anyone again / that armed struggle is an act of love?
~ Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile

In 1987, my husband Rob and I were recruited in Canada to move to Johannesburg to run a safehouse for underground leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle. We did so until 1990, when the operation was discovered by the regime and we fled back to Vancouver.

Those years raised profound and troubling questions for me. However, it was only in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas that I eventually found a way to properly frame and understand my experience of violence and armed resistance, of one’s infinite responsibility before the suffering of others, of solidarity and justice.

I wrote “The Housekeeper’s Tale” for a 2016 conference on the Politics of Armed Struggle in Southern Africa. More literary than scholarly, it sets out several lessons from the School of Underground. What does it mean to go to war? What does it mean to love your enemies? What does violence mean? What peace will come?

Making sense

Like consciousness is always consciousness of something (if you believe Husserl), making sense is always to someone, to some particular first-person singular. It’s interior, private, personal. That makes sense to me. But I have to ask you, Does this make sense to you?

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“The luxury of isolation”

So I find myself thinking, if there’s this group of people, who are being labelled “essential”, but are being treated as sacrificial, [and] then there’s this other group of people, who are at home – like us, right? – who have the luxury of isolation. So what are we, if we’re not essential? [laugh] Are we superfluous? Are we being kept like pets? For who? What is our role?’ ~ Naomi Klein

(in conversation with Arundhati Roy, A Global Green New Deal: Into the Portal, Leave No one Behind, 19 May 2020, Haymarket Books, 26:15–26:44)

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For a post-millenarian philosophy

I am so tired of all the posturing. The lines drawn to keep everything in its place and everyone accountable. The absurd insistence that people do not change.

Consider the Anthropocene. A couple of centuries of industrialisation and empire – mere decades, not even a tick in geological time – and boom, our own epoch is etched upon the earth.

So, yes, things change. It was not ever thus and will not be thus forever. People change. May we get on with it. Amen.

Continue reading For a post-millenarian philosophy

QA 60. None the wiser (On the obligation and cultivation of wisdom)

Last week, I had the pleasure of addressing a conference of family mediators in Cape Town on the topic of “Wisdom in mediation”.

byzantine philosophy

Two stories

First story. An ethics professor once said to an undergraduate philosophy class, “If you believe that a professor of ethics is an ethical person, you are making a category mistake.” The students recognised that this was true. At the same time, at least one of them thought, “Yes, but you ought to be.”

Continue reading QA 60. None the wiser (On the obligation and cultivation of wisdom)

equivocation, ambivalence

These “mixed feelings” of yours. If you have no reason to feel the way you do, and yet you do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no reason (you are irrational), or that you’re wrong to feel that way (you are mistaken), or that you should feel otherwise (you are dissolute).

Continue reading equivocation, ambivalence