The full audio for this interview can be found here.
My guest today is Stephen Jenkinson. Stephen Jenkinson is an activist, teacher, author, and farmer. He’s the founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Tramore, Canada, and the author of four books, including Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, the award-winning book about grief and dying and the great love of life. In 2018, he released Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble.
I asked to speak to Stephen today on the theme of ‘Dangerous Ideas’. It’s our fifth conversation together. Over the past decade, the marketing world has been full of the importance of telling your story in the marketplace.
Stephen has a new book out, full of dangerous ideas called A Generation’s Worth. You can learn more about it here and watch the trailer below.
Note: All photos in this post were taken by the good Ian Mackenzie. The video trailer is by Gregory Hoskins. The intro and outro music is from a song called Shadow by Gregory Hoskins off the album Rough Gods.
Stephen has a new book out, full of dangerous ideas called A Generation’s Worth. You can learn more about it here and watch the trailer below.
Tad: Welcome, everyone. It’s Tad Hargrave, from Marketing for Hippies. Today we’re here with Stephen Jenkinson, discussing the question: can ideas be dangerous? Welcome, Stephen.
Stephen: That sounds very ominous. [Laughter] I should say for the listeners that this was not my idea. So let’s see what happens with a dangerous idea when you start talking about it.
Agreed. Let me start off by seeing if I can set the table for this and give some context, the best I can.
This is my fourth interview with you. In preparing for this one, I found myself nervous for the first time, as you say, sensing some danger even in discussing danger. The word “danger” appears nine times in Come of Age, 14 times in Die Wise. I’ve heard you speak many times about danger and its sibling, safety.
It seems like a timely thing to discuss. We live in a day and age, wrestling these notions of political correctness, questions of what, if anything, to censor, to cancel, to call out. It’s not uncommon to hear words on social media like, “What you’re saying is dangerous. It’s harmful.”
A few weeks ago, I was at the dentist’s office. There was a COVID waiver I suppose they all have. I had to sign it or initial, I think, six or seven boxes.
The first statement was the official government understanding of the situation, that “SARS-CoV-2 is a deadly virus originating from China, a contagious cause of the symptomology we know as COVID-19.” It laid out the narrative we hear.
I was struck with this question of, why did they need to know what I believe? It seemed clear that if I didn’t check the box, I might not be let in. It seemed to me that I was being asked to step into a sort of confessional booth and confess, not to anything that I’d done, but to what I believed.
The assumption seemed to be there that, walking around, even holding an idea, whether I shared it or not, could make me dangerous — that if I even believed something they found dangerous, I was considered unclean and a vector for infection in some way.
We live in this era of lockdown, social distancing, masks, and minute-by-minute reports on the plague, as you say. This fear of dangerous viruses prompts a diligence in our hygiene: washing of hands, social distancing, covering of mouths with masks.
It seems there’s a parallel. Social media sites and Google delete and de-platform those whose ideas are deemed dangerous. This leads many to be publicly silent about their views, or in their communities, or in their families. It doesn’t seem to undermine the ideas, but more push them underground.
Others say that, well, ideas are not dangerous. They see these as calls to censor, as the rise of modern book burning or thought policing, the opening of George Orwell’s memory holes, a slippery slope into fascism, tyranny, mental mono-culturing, and this. They might say, “Well, no idea is dangerous. It’s the lack of talking about these things that is dangerous. If we don’t talk, we fight.”
In modern times, with social media, we see a mix of very loose talk on social media, people saying whatever they want to say with no sense of consequence, and again, on the other side, this censorship. I see people on both sides or different sides of the same issue, calling each other’s ideas dangerous.
To tie this together, all these examples seem to be predicated on the notion that either ideas can be dangerous, particularly if they’re expressed, or that ideas are not dangerous, but censorship is. One group suggests that the dangerous ideas are communicable, like the viruses many live in fear of today.
Others insist that there’s need for more communication. In the middle of it all, of course, there are people not wanting to take sides, saying, “I have no idea at all,” and washing their hands, not of the idea, but of the need to have a conversation.
I’m curious. As you look at this landscape, so increasingly polarized, what do you make of it all?
Well, that is quite a speech, Tad. You’ve covered the terrain. I wonder what’s left to say after that exhaustive review of the boundaries of the beast.
What do I make of it all? Well, this might be the least useful answer that I could come up with, as we go along. I’ve never been on social media. I don’t know if the Internet, per se, counts — YouTube occasionally, and a hockey game, and stuff like that.
I don’t understand social media to be social, except in the microbial sense of the term, or even the infectious sense of the term. I understand it fundamentally to be the undoing of social media. That’s its real work.
I’m not talking about anybody’s plan. I’m talking about consequence. I think if we’re uncritical about our understanding of the mechanics of the things, and get overly simmering in the contentiousness of it, we’d lose track of the consequence about weighing in at all.
They say — and I’m willing to go along with it — that with the advent of the daguerreotype, which is the prototype of photography, in the 18, I’m going to guess it was ‘40s, there were two things that happened almost immediately.
One, people took pictures from high places. You had a sense of the panopticon. That’s what it was given to, almost instantly. The other thing it was given to? Pornography, instantly. This is really something to think about.
If you think of the advent of the personal computer and the Internet in similar terms, you come with startlingly similar observations about where it was turned first — to spectacle; to occupying the God’s-eye view of things, which of course, the Internet is alleged to be in and of itself; and pornography of all stripes.
Not just the obvious, period, sexual kind, but the flagrant, I’m going to call it, masturbatory display of personal preference and the notion that this is what democracy nets out as — the alleged freedom to declare yourself, [Laughter] over and over and over again, into the void. All of these things are little treacheries, I think.
Unknown to you, I know that for years I was in something I came to call “the death trade.” One of the things I learned when I was there, I didn’t seek. Some of the best learning comes that way.
What I saw was that there were mountains of clinical experience brought to bear upon every case, every lingering, dawdling, terminating case, mountains of professionalized experience, mountains of professionalized training and orientation, and, to a certain extent, disorientation.
You would think — you would hope — that that’s basically driving the clinical bus, that that’s how all the decisions get made. But there was this parallel universe ongoingly in the death trade, which was the rate of change in the innovation in medical technology.
That, I’m here to tell you, was answerable to nobody. It was accountable to nobody. Oh, they had an ethics review board, but I can promise you this. The same thing happened in palliative care that almost certainly happened in the advent and the development of the vaccines for COVID-19.
There were standards in place. And then there was a sense of urgency, or desperation, or whatever, that softened the edges of the normal checks-and-balances practice. I’m almost certain that’s what happened. I have no grounds to say it, but I have reason to believe that it’s likely.
The parallel I’m drawing is an obvious one. I’m suggesting to you, in the death trade, what happened was that there was a kind of fifth-column presence of medical technology, the entire manufacturing universe, the R&D arm of big pharma, basically. That steadily drove things in a way that the professional practice couldn’t begin to manage, and wasn’t able to manage.
There are lots of basic human reasons for it, not the least of which is, nobody could keep track of the innovations that were rolling off the mythical assembly line. Nobody could. No practitioner who’s directly caring for dying people could do it.
Ultimately, they relied upon peer consensus on the one side to make their decisions, and on the other side, a sense that everybody was on the same team, which is a lethally dangerous assumption to make when there’s money to be had, even in a socialized medicine circumstance like ours.
The practice wisdom that should have governed the introduction and the use and the resorting to innovation to medical technology, took a back seat to the onslaught of the medical technology, and couldn’t right itself during my time there.
I have no reason to believe that things have improved, largely because nobody besides me ever seemed to think that that was something to be concerned about. Why? The assumption I told you earlier, that we’re all on the same team and we all want the same thing. It’s just demonstrably not the case.
So do I suspect that something similar is happening, not in terms of big pharma for the moment, but in terms of the assumption that because it’s an open and clear communication device — this Internet thing I’m talking about — that invariably, we all want the same things from it, we all believe the same things about it, and we all have space that, even though it’s entirely privatized, somehow it’s regulated to our benefit?
Who wouldn’t want to believe that? The world is a scary motherfucker of a place, without a pandemic.
So finally, then, what for me is an extraordinarily lamentable circumstance that has arisen in the last maybe eight months, which is a kind of forlorn nostalgia for the good, old, pre-COVID days. It’s palpable and it’s real, in the sense it has consequence, but it’s not true at all. It’s real, but it’s not true.
I get asked all the time — I’m on a bit of a rant here now, Tad, because you opened the floodgates, and I’m awakening. In many of the interviews I’ve done in the last six or eight months, one of the themes that proliferates in these things is the idea that we have somehow now been brought closer to death.
All of my concerns voiced in Die Wise and a hundred other places have been, to some extent, laid to rest because the general populace is more death-versed that it’s ever been, and therefore, more death-capable than it’s ever been. This is the silver lining, so to speak.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no indication whatsoever that the dominant culture of North American is more death-alert than it has been in the time prior.
As far as the nostalgia goes, the wickedness of the nostalgia is the belief that somehow, in the era before single-use cotton and acrylic plexiglass, we were grief-literate, and we were conducting all these rituals upon people’s demise, and all the rest.
God Almighty, is there a collective memory that can be relied upon, I ask you, about anything? Or is everything so short-term and election-cyclish or news-cyclish that there is no ongoing memory, that it’s the first casualty of the addiction to novelty and information for its own sake, and all of that?
I guess, to sum it up, no, I can’t sum it up. I’m just saying that I’ve been brought to a degree of alertness by the ludicrous idea that we were doing a pretty good job before the pandemic, and we’re very likely to pick up where we left off as soon as we’re allowed to, when the big, bad guys get their knee off our necks, and we can behave freely and responsibly as allegedly we were doing.
Let’s remember, Tad, and then I’ll turn it over to you now, because it is your show. Let’s remember that in the good, old days, it’s not clear at all that we were conducting ourselves with great emotional, intellectual, and conscience-driven aplomb when the time was upon us — not at all.
The idea that we have something noble to return to just makes your head swivel. It’s put my head in permanent “tsk, tsk” mode, really. I would say it’s ultimately sad, for all the alarming things that you pointed out in your introduction there.
My operational orientation to the whole thing is a kind of sadness and profound kind of regret that this thing really could’ve been something that had the consequence of inducing that sob upon awakening that I’ve been advocating for years.
As it is, we’re in another fit of nostalgia. I did a little closer examination of “nostalgia” as an etymology. I was slightly wrong when I was making my pronouncements a few years ago.
“Nostalgia” actually means not the return of pain. The pain upon returning is what it means. You see? So it literally, literally means homesick. That’s where the phrase comes from, “homesick,” sick upon returning home.
In other words, these things are not what you imagined when you were homeless. Your home does not resemble the fantasies that your homelessness generated. This is what’s waiting for us, Tad, when they blow the all-clear horn and all of us pile into the street, imagining a kind of Victory in Europe parade, something like in 1945.
Thank you for that. It strikes me when you were speaking about the hospitals, about this sense that there was some “we,” some shared understanding amongst all the doctors, that we all want the same things. I’ve heard you speak about culture many times, the shared understanding.
One of the things that really struck me, as I’ve been preparing for this and talking with friends about danger, is there’s no coherent understanding of danger. People who eat a vegan diet would say, “Well, eating animals is harmful for your health. It’s dangerous.” Other people say, “No, eating a vegan diet is harmful.”
People on the left and right both call each other’s ideas dangerous. Of course, there’s the great, good vibe-killer of all conversations these days — vaccines, dangerous if you get it, dangerous if you don’t.
There were certain things people seem to agree, where ideas that were once considered dangerous now are normalized: universal suffrage, equal rights, Galileo saying the Earth revolves around the Sun.
Various things we’ve come to agree and certain things we thought they were safe, but now we agree they’re dangerous: thalidomide as an anti-nausea medication, asbestos, nuclear power, DDT, all of this.
Then there were so many things where it was clear there were no hints. There was no shared understanding of, are these things dangerous or not, everything from the plow, dynamite, GMOs, pasteurized milk, cryptocurrency, identity politics. The list goes on.
I was left baffled, because it seems we can’t even agree on what’s dangerous. I’m curious if you see the same thing, or what you make of that, looking at a world where there’s not even common, shared consensus in themes.
That’s three times when you characterized the current regime. You used the — I don’t know if it’s an adjective. I don’t know what part of speech it is, but you used the word “even.” We can’t “even” agree. We can’t “even” get a consensus about what constitutes dangerous.
Your employment of that word tells us both something. It is that the question it leads to has bought the idea that you begin with consensus, and that’s how things get mobilized, or that you must begin with consensus. That, typically, we have done.
When you formalize the question the way you did, you’re appealing to the fact that, in the matter of dangerous ideas, we have not proceeded in that fashion, and if we could just get back to that, et cetera, and so on.
My first response is to suggest to you, that’s probably not how it’s ever been. Let’s imagine the advent, different places, different times, of what’s come to be called “the Iron Age.” We’ve talked about this in the school and other places. Let’s ask ourselves whether it was deemed to be, quote, “dangerous.”
Well, the first thing is that the Iron Age, as a discrete event, was never a discrete event for the people that it was leveraged upon or the people who undertook it, because these things don’t happen the way they’re described in our imagination or in our imagination’s history books.
Very often, I think nobody recognized that a change was underway, that this is the benefit of hindsight speaking. In order to have hindsight in these matters, you have to have memory. In order to have memory, you have to have the social institution of elderhood as a sort of concretized incarnation of ongoing memory.
In order to have elderhood, you have to have regard for diminishment. You have to institutionalize being deepened by diminishment, which is the hallmark of elderhood, as far as I could tell.
All of these conditions and more that I can’t think of right now have to be in place before there’s this thing called a “consensus view” of what’s recently happened. Never mind what’s happening. Never freaking mind what’s going to happen. That’s one.
Two, we’re in the land of meaning here. We’re not really in the land of naked consequence. The word “dangerous” would lead us to believe that what we’re really talking about is easy to recognize, easy to gain consensus about, contortions that will lead to mayhem and undoing and all the rest.
You know. You’ve been alive the last X-number of years. You know as well as anybody does that, as Chomsky put it — I think it was Chomsky — this consensus is actually manufactured. In that sense, it’s not really naturally-occurring consequence of weighing out the evidence.
What’s happening in the metrics game is quite a well-known thing, I would hope, by now. It’s that the wonks, in wherever the hell they hole up, are selling us two things that we don’t think we need, because we think we already have them. One is our preferences, and the other one is our anxieties.
That’s the currency of the metrics game, as best as I’ve been able to figure it out. That’s why your newsfeed is a preferential newsfeed, and you just come across what you’re keen on, and you hear yourself coming back at you a hundred different ways.
When people get clever and they employ newsfeeds from the opposite side of the contentious circle in order to subvert that, you don’t think they’ve got metrics of that? [Laughter] You think you can outthink this thing? No.
Once you’re in it, you’re on the receiving end of what it’s cooking. There’s nothing conspiratorial about that, if, by that, you mean some underground, unacknowledged, third-party apparatus. No, this shit [Laughter] is wide open and there to be beheld and to be unnerved by.
I’m so deep into this answer that I’ve lost track of where I began. What I’m saying, I guess, is that, no, I don’t think there’s a consensus about whether something’s happened that subsequently would be wondered about as having been dangerous, having begun as dangerous, having led to something dangerous, and all the rest.
I could say from, let’s say, a purely speculative or philosophical point of view, something like this. The last book that I had come out had a title in there, a chapter title, which I think was called “This Is An Important Safety Announcement.”
The title came from a particular event that took place when I was on a ferry ride in the West Coast, going to teach a session about elderhood at a retreat center out there.
Across from me were two people who you know, one of whom was maybe six months pregnant. The other one was married to the person who was six months pregnant. The woman’s father, in the previous three or four or five days, had most mysteriously and very suddenly died.
She was in a world of hurt that can’t really be described and barely can be witnessed, largely because, on top of everything else, the child that she was carrying would never know that man, except there’s a story in hindsight, some footnote to some other story, or an allegation of a past that the child will never know and will never see, or is obliged to imagine, at best. The hurt, there’s just mountains of it.
Just at that moment, the ferry was leaving the dock. They had that canned public service announcement come over the intercom. It said, “This is an important safety announcement.”
There was a pause in the recording. In that moment, it came to me to lean across to these two young people and say, “There isn’t any. That’s the important safety announcement. There isn’t any.”
That was true then, and it’s true now. The plague has done nothing about that, has done nothing to change it, to alter it, to mollify it, to subdue it, or subsidize it, or aggrandize it. It’s still true.
So the reason I mention that in the context of your question about danger — dangerous ideas — is that the word “danger” needs a little articulation, because it’s not self-evidently carrying a lot of content. Danger is mostly an inferred consequence, much more than it tends to be a demonstrable consequence.
In other words, it needs a near future to unfurl, in order to gather around itself a sense of legitimacy, so that it can be distinguished from fear, or anxiety, or fretting, or trauma, or things of that kind, and that it’s not a product of that particular kind of inquiry, a traumatized kind of inquiry.
That’s a really important distinction to be able to make, because traumatized people will tend to identify traumatizing things any way they care to look, for the obvious reasons, because it’s an affliction in and of itself. It doesn’t have to work very hard. No prejudice has to.
I need another five minutes here. Is this okay?
Yeah. It’s great.
Okay. I’ve evoked the word “prejudice” here. I’m suggesting, as an overture, that there’s something about the concerns around danger that carry a certain prejudice that tends not to be confessed to.
I began this particular inquiry for myself maybe two years ago, or three. The question I gave myself was simple. Can you inherit wisdom? Now, for a lot of reasons I think are pretty obvious, this is a fundamental question today, largely because people of your generation and younger have no interest in the question, nor the answer.
Why? Because they already know the answer. The answer is, who would want to? Who would want to inherit the alleged wisdom of another time? Because, basically, all those times have been corrupted and proven out in the ecological wash, so to speak.
So we have a terrible circumstance now, where young people of the dominant culture are going anywhere but to the antecedent or the precedents of the dominant culture for some kind of instruction on how to be a dominant-culture person. What’s to be done, in one case, about the issues of privilege, inherent privilege, and so on, and so on, and so on?
Turning away from received tradition has the consequence of compromising the idea of wisdom, the very notion that there could be such a thing as wisdom. If that prejudice — no, let me not use the word. If that certainty lasts longer than a generation or two, this will become a prejudice.
Here’s what I mean by the two terms. It seems to me not only can you inherit prejudice, but that’s the only way you can actually come by it. That’s the way it strikes me.
There’s something about the mechanics of prejudice — and I’ll articulate what I see there in a second — that make prejudice so user-friendly, so amenable to the uptake, that you can uptake them without even intending to, without even realizing you’re doing so, mistaking them for wisdoms, contemporary, user-friendly, at-hand wisdoms.
The reason you can inherit prejudice, I think, is because it’s in the nature of prejudice to be overarching. I’m talking about the mechanical architecture of prejudice, rather than the particulars of the content of it.
There’s something about prejudice that is self-evident to the prejudiced person, obviously. They don’t have to work at their prejudice, and they’re not backsliders where their prejudice is concerned. They don’t have to go to weekend retreats to re-up on their prejudice.
Why? Because prejudice is remarkably able at renewing itself, ongoingly, because the world provides all of the circumstantial evidence that’s needed to maintain the prejudice. That’s why. It’s no work to be a prejudiced person. You could almost imagine it’s the opposite of work. This shit’s very available.
All you’ve got to do is get up in the morning, look out the window, and go, “Yep, just what I thought,” or words to that effect, or enter into a conversation with somebody about trying to get into a dentist’s office and what you saw there. You’re off to the freaking prejudicial races now.
How is this different from wisdom? After all, I can hear people listen to this, saying, “Dude, haven’t you thought the obvious thought that all wisdom is prejudice that most people agree on?”
Well, that’s a good question. It’s not much of a question, [Laughter] but it’s a good thing to wonder about, so let me do so now. We do have to articulate the terms a little bit here. It’s a little bit arbitrary to do so, but I’ll try.
It seems to me that wisdom, by definition, is particular and specific and local and, in the old sense of the term, indigenous. That’s what wisdom is. It’s a product of its time, not an unclaimed bastard child of its time. It’s a product of its time, the way parents are a product of the advent of a child among them.
That’s a product of its time, in that way. Because it’s faithful to its time, it arises in response to the troubles of the times. In that sense, it carries a faithful memory of the nature of the times. This is why you can’t inherit wisdom, because it’s too site-specific.
The notion that there’s a thing called “the wisdom of the ages” is a pernicious allegation that’s deeply prejudicial, because it carries the idea that you simply inherit the content of wisdom, like from the Greeks, let’s say. Just bring back the good, old used-to-be, and we’ll straighten up and resemble them again. Everybody will look like one of those statues in the Parthenon, at least intellectually.
I’m suggesting here that what is available from one generation to the next is not the content of the wisdom, not the spirit work that ensues from it. What’s inheritable is the living out of the example, the willingness to undertake the work.
As a younger generation, you inherit the travail, but not the travesty. You inherit the wisdom example. In so doing, you inherit the idea that there’s such a thing as wisdom.
It still falls to you to craft it according to the demands your time is making upon you, but you’re not starting from nowhere, because wisdom is not an allegation. Wisdom is what’s available to you by virtue of there being a past for you to be from. That’s what tradition is, as far as I’m concerned.
What has any of this got to do with the question that you asked me? My first guess is that wisdom is inherently dangerous, if, by “dangerous,” you mean it has a prismatic consequence for the status quo.
The word “dangerous” is not a self-evident term here, in the terms that you’ve been asking me about. “Dangerous” is very much determined by what you think you have to lose by considering something, by letting it in, by allowing it to arise, possibly. The rest are the things that are inherently dangerous.
I think that it’s a murky term, to be honest. I think if you reserve the word “dangerous” to be an autobiographical declaration first, and only secondarily a description of the consequences or the nature of the thing you’re talking about, I think some clarity is available.
This is why, when you’re saying the left and the right, and they say this or the same things, and they can’t agree on what dangerous is, and that’s dangerous, and it just goes round and round, if you add one more sentence to the consideration, “It’s dangerous because…” or, “I’m finding it dangerous to what I hold dear because…” the next thing is you’re holding that dear, because why? Why is that an inviolable truth?
I really appreciated the list that you made of things that were, once upon a time, deemed dangerous, although it’s not clear to me that that’s the best description of why there was opposition or challenge to this idea, why the ideas themselves were held off for so long, and then suddenly not.
Is it truly a consequence of the suffragettes, for example? Is that how it happened? Is there something about…? I’m thinking of the Ceau?escu regime, which I kind of remember how it crumbled. Up until the day it disappeared, it looked as Iron-Curtain-ish and incontrovertible as any communist regime ever did in those bad, old days. The next day, the guy was a corpse.
How does that happen? The answer is, it doesn’t happen in a day because half a million people gather in a public square and start yelling. These things began in a place nobody can find.
You could say the same thing about a dangerous idea. Is it dangerous at its outset? Is it dangerous, the way a baby shark is dangerous? That is, the moment it slips out, it starts circulating and menacing, and the rest?
Is that what a dangerous idea is, dangerous from its inception? Or does it gather danger around it as it takes up its place, or does its work, or fails to do so, or it’s taken up by someone, not others, or it’s pressed into service on behalf of a prejudice that nobody recognized at the time? Over to you.
Whew. Well, they’re very fine wonderings.
I’m curious. You’ve written a number of books now, and you have, I think, two more books on the way. In the death trade, you were certainly sharing ideas that were not the norm. You were asking questions and wondering about things that others weren’t.
I’ve heard you say that people disagreed with you, sometimes dismissed you, maybe saw your ideas as deluded or unnecessary to even wonder about. Have you had people over the years call your ideas dangerous?
Not that I can recall, I think, largely because, to be credited — that’s the word I would use — to be credited with generating a dangerous idea is some kind of reluctant admiration. [Laughter] If you have a genuine foe across from you, they’re unlikely to admire you, even inadvertently.
So not that I recall, but if I could infer back from the reactivity, I would say that some people found them… There’s a gradation, a sequence, that danger is towards the end of the spectrum, maybe. Maybe before it’s dangerous, it’s unwelcome. I’m not going to get all the tenses straight here, but maybe before it’s unwelcome, it’s unlikely. Before it’s unlikely, it’s unnecessary. You see?
I was certainly in the land of unnecessary, when it came to responses to what I was doing, and simply because I would ask routinely. In the context where people were all about self-improvement in their work, I kept asking what the work was. What is it we’re doing that you’re hell-bent on improving?
I could never get a declaration about what we were doing that had any kind of teeth in it. You can achieve consensus at the expense of a huge dental bill, if you know what I mean. In other words, there’s no teeth in the, “Finally everybody agrees,” because there’s no consequence to agreeing, because the gist of the thing that was contentious, once upon a time, is basically gone.
I couldn’t even get anywhere close to that in the back rooms, which is where a lot of this stuff happens, in the back rooms, when there’s no proto-patience or patience in waiting to overhear you. You’re slightly more unguarded, and out it comes. The inadvertent confessions come.
I would suspect, if I had have been allowed a little longer rope for a longer period of time, that might’ve come. I think I was summarily executed before there was a willingness to take me seriously enough to find what I was talking about dangerous.
I’ll tell you this story. Some years ago, I was invited to speak to — I was going to call it a “congregation” — a group of people who were associated with a kind of healing center, you could say, that had an Eastern proclivity to it. I gathered there, the place was full, and it was very nice.
I was waiting my turn, and I was being introduced. The introductions were just floral, I would say. I mean wonderful, but as a Canadian, it puts me on edge to endure uncredited admiration. [Laughter] It’s a terrible affliction, but there it is.
And so I was waiting it out. At one point in the tirade of appreciation, she used the word “visionary” to describe me. Now you see why I’m telling you the story in the context of dangerous ideas, because nobody calls somebody “visionary.”
Let me say it differently. If you stand on the ramparts or on the minaret of your personal domain and your personal take on things, the fiefdom of your ideas, and you declare from the heights that something or someone is visionary, generally speaking, it means you’re going along with it.
This is the term. It’s virtually never used, except as a form of appreciation or assent. That’s what visionaries are. They see on behalf of the rest of us, and when the rest of us catch up, we see it that way, too. That’s the allegation.
Of course, a real visionary is constantly envisioning. As such, they will never have peers. They will never have kin. Why? Because, by definition of the function of visionary, most people ain’t seeing it.
The only time you really become a visionary to people is when they catch up to you and when they’re glad that they did, and see themselves or their upside reflected in your vision. You see? That’s how you get the accolade.
It put me on edge for that reason, because I knew that wasn’t true. I wasn’t there. I was never going to be there. The people sitting in the room, the people listening to this now, are not lining up to finally recognize themselves in the characterizations of Die Wise, or Come of Age, or Money and the Soul’s Desires, or A Generation’s Worth, or anything in particular. I’m not saying they should. I’m just saying they’re not.
Now back to the story. I get up, I stand at the microphone, and I thank the person for the very kind introduction. But I knew it for the setup that it also was. It’s an inadvertent setup.
You call someone a visionary in introducing them to a group of people they don’t know, and it’s Anglo-North-America you’re talking about. What kind of expectation begins to ensue, and what kind of resentment follows it before you’ve said a word? Ah, so it’s a tender trap, no? It’s velvet teeth, you could say.
Anticipating all of those dilemmas, I came to the question of visionary. I said, “I know it was meant well, but honestly, I don’t recognize myself in the accolade or the function. In ‘divisionary,’ though, maybe that’s closer to the truth.”
I’d never heard anyone use the word “divisionary.” I’m fairly sure it’s not in the dictionary, but as soon as I said the word, I recognized it as a laudable invention. If I credit myself with it, so be it.
What am I saying? I’m saying a divisionary is a proto-visionary. It’s a visionary without the consensus.
By definition, in a consensus-oriented place, divisionaries are, by definition, quote, “dangerous,” unquote, because they or what they’re doing doesn’t lend itself to the manufacture of consent, or consensus, or easy agreement, because there’s always the question of wonder. There’s always the moral and social obligation to ponder.
It’s different from doubt. It’s different from poking at something with a stick. Wonder might be God’s middle name. It might be the closest we can get to a seat at the table of divinity, the willingness to wonder — as they say in legal terms — without prejudice.
That’s what we should be doing about the question of danger and dangerous ideas, like the vote, or that really fine list that you came up with. Each one of these things is not recognizably or necessarily dangerous, perhaps, even then. They might have been on the continuum of ludicrous and unnecessary, and those other things that I’ve mentioned.
So how do you recognize danger? Should you be able to recognize danger? Is danger more of a conclusion than it is an observation? Finally, the context for coming to an understanding of what constitutes danger has a lot to do with the social firmament in which the various dilemmas are rising.
Again, I’ll take a page from the death trade days and say that… I used to say people die in the manner of their living. People would think, “Yeah, well, sure. I mean, isn’t it? What else?” Well, there are a lot of other possibilities, but people did die consistently, or consistent, with how they lived.
Now, this would be great news. That would be a consistently-lived life, a recognizable through-line, only if the life had been lived in a death-literate, death-capable culture.
If the background of the observation is that the life was lived in a death-phobic culture, then the declaration that people die in the manner of their living becomes an indictment and a lament, instead of an articulation of the necessary through-line of a consistently-lived life.
You see? That is where the danger comes from, to my mind, the willingness to consider the social context that lends danger its acrid, concerning hue.
Yeah. There are, I think, two more wonderings that I have about this.
In the Orphan Wisdom School, as you say, it’s an exploration of an unauthorized history of North America and how it came to be as it is. I’ve seen that you proceed so slowly in it. There’s such an immense care taken in approaching the stories that we’ve read and approaching the topic at hand.
I find myself curious. What has you go so slowly and with such care? Do you sense danger? If so, what’s the nature of the danger? Is there some other reason for the slowness of the approach to those things?
That’s a great observation. I have to think about this while I’m answering.
What occurs to me is, it’s not like I’m saying, apropos of the unauthorized history and all its consequences, that the unauthorized history is out there, and that we in the Orphan Wisdom School are blessedly free from it, at least free enough to be able to wonder about it.
I go further and say, our capacity to wonder itself has been drawn up into the unauthorized histories. There’s reason enough to wonder about how we habitually wonder about things. That will slow you down, more or less, inevitably, I think, that nobody gets a pass. No idea gets a pass. No willingness to think an unthinkable thought gets a pass.
Here’s a parallel. I’m doing something in about a month and a half that I call “Grief and Dirt.” It’s a long meditation on, let’s say, the agricultural angle of what you and I have been talking about for the last while here, the Green Revolution, all kinds of stuff. I’m really looking forward to it. Why am I mentioning this now? I’ve lost track. I’m going to guess that it’s going to come back to me.
The thing that grants me my hesitation on the matter is the understanding that our way of wondering about things delivers us in a preordained fashion to certain kinds of conclusions. Until we can wonder about our wondering, that’s likely to be the situation, ongoingly.
People who are wondering, let’s say, almost for the first time tend to be content with the first thing they find, the first thing that the wonder turns up. They stop wondering and start cultivating a new kind of certainty to replace the old certainty. It’s a rare thing.
Well, the parallel is kids on the beach. You see them fan out across the beach on the eternal scavenger hunt. They find something. It completely arrests their search, little piece of whatever it is, a glass bottle that’s had all the edges worn off, and is it a shell or no, that sort of thing.
It’s a wonderful thing to do, to look. It’s a wonderful thing to be arrested in your looking. But somewhere in there, you have to be able to remind yourself that the only way you found that thing was by beginning to look, not by finding. Finding is a secondary thing. Looking is the thing.
That’s why you’ve heard me be so big on questions for so long, and not so big on the answers, because the question is looking. The answer is what you found.
It might be useful for a time, but it’s mostly a kind of calisthenic for your spirit to try to answer a question. Hopefully, what it does is call your certainties into a kind of, let’s call it, functional uncertainty, an uncertainty that doesn’t paralyze you.
If we’re wondering here about, is there such a thing as a dangerous idea, there are all kinds of caveats that have to be brought to bear, not because the question is itself dangerous, but you can’t easily distinguish dangerous from undermining of the unconscious aspects of the status quo.
It’s a very hard line to draw between those two things, because any denizen of the status quo is going to find even routinized questioning dangerous, unsettling, unnecessarily unnerving, provocative, and arrogant, and so on, a lot of things that have been leveled at me over the years, especially that “arrogant” thing. I’m tempted to say, many times, when I hear that one, “Okay, well, you try to do this without arrogance.”
Just try to occupy the position. How would I ever be able to, in good conscience and in good faith, come to respond to the things that you’re asking me about, that’s in league with what you’ve done to generate the question, and not have a presumption — me have a presumption — that I would come up with something that was worth coming up with?
If that’s not the functional apparatus that I go at it with, what would I sound like? I would sound like one of these people who makes a condition out of everything I say, “if,” and “maybe,” and “sort of,” and “kind of,” and “you know,” “like,” and all, over and over, and, “It’s my view; it’s just that I can’t speak for anybody else,” and on and on and on about the disqualifiers that attend to my declaration.
Who needs that shit, I ask you? That’s not humility. That’s a kind of congenital uncertainty that you’re certain about. Of course, there are dangerous ideas, but you don’t say much by saying so. I think you say more by saying, “Well, there’s certain things that we’d be predisposed to find questioning, in and of itself, dangerous.”
Think about the mantra that, no doubt, attended to your schooling, that when you’re 18, 19, 20, 21, you did the university thing and all of that, that you were supposed to challenge authority. It’s a big one, challenge authority. Speak truth to power. I love that one.
Why? Well, because authority needs to be challenged, right? By who? By people who are not authoritative. But wait. You’re challenging authority with a degree of authority that’s absolutely breathtaking, that there’s no hesitation whatsoever in your understanding yourself to be imminently qualified, and in fact, that the world needs your questioning of authority more than it needs the authority. And of course, it needs you.
I’m not making fun of anybody by pointing this out. I’m saying it’s a young person’s game. Of course, you’d have to proceed that way, in the same way that I have to proceed with a kind of pseudo-arrogance in order to answer something.
But somewhere along the line, your disciplined inquiry has got to include some kind of inquiry about your inquiry, about your self-appointed task of calling down the mighty, because that’s what a mighty person does. See? That’s a very challenging proposition.
I’m not using it to disqualify anyone or anything. I’m talking about it as a question, I believe, of conscience, first and foremost, that the ability, the kind of God-given ability, the ability that is so far available to us in a more-or-less free political system — democratic and free political system — asks much more of us than it grants to us.
That’s my take on it, that if you are exercising your, quote, “freedoms,” you are not engaged in a calisthenics of rights. You’re engaged in the burdensome activity of translating those rights into a scheme of obligations and responsibilities, and trying to act on those.
That’s what I’m talking about, as far as the certainty that a young person has of calling down authority and the power structure and all that sort of thing.
Don’t think for a second that your instinctive sense about what’s right and wrong, about what’s just and unjust, is free of the injustice that you’re meaning to eradicate, the degree of intolerance that I see leveled, one person upon another, in the name of free speech. It’s barely speech, and it’s not clear at all that it’s free.
By “free,” I don’t mean without consequence. I mean I’m not sure that it’s not already immensely expensive before it’s undertaken. So free speech is mostly an exercise in responsibility.
Is it possible to get up on a dais, or on a platform, or behind a microphone in your little home studio, and issue forth things that deeply concern you, that you’re absolutely persuaded of, and call people into dangerous circumstance by so doing? Absolutely, it’s possible. Does it happen? I believe it happens. Sure.
I’m not just talking about people’s careers disappearing before their very eyes for an indiscretion or worse. I’m not talking about how people imagine that the airwaves are there for them, and mistaking this for democracy, and mistaking the exercise of rights as a democratic activity.
The exercise of rights is your democracy temporarily suspended, because you’re feeding on the upside of the democracy when you’re doing so. I’m not saying everybody has to see it the way I’m articulating now, not at all. I’m just saying, can we get this concern into the stew, too? That’s all.
Believe me, I’m pretty sure that if I heard this much more frequently, I’m very unlikely to say it, because I’d have to find other work, other aspects of the current regime that are unattended to by the current sort of polyphonic monologues that are masquerading as conversations out there.
I guess I can be accused of one, because I haven’t let you say much at all. I hope that this was an invitation for me to wonder about things that I hadn’t really done so before. If I’ve taken up too much room, from somebody’s point of view, I somehow apologize for it without being clear how I could’ve done it otherwise. [Laughter]
Steve, well, as always, in these conversations with you, I find it all becoming more mysterious and more confounding than it was at the beginning.
I really love what you had to say about inquiring into our own manner of inquiring, as the William Blake poem, “The Grey Monk,” in the last four lines, speaks about revenge towards a king. He says, “The hand of vengeance found the bed, to which the purple tyrant fled. The iron hand crushed the tyrant’s head, and became a tyrant in his stead.”
There you go. There you go, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
If I have an ongoing, subterranean concern about the area of inquiry that you’ve asked me to wonder about, it’s that if you have enough unconsciousness and unwillingness to be laid low when you’re in full-throttle certainty, you will, in time to come, become the thing that you believed your certainties were there to unseat. This is almost a given.
The beautiful thing about a polyphonic culture is that you would do well to tolerate the divisionaries amongst you, because their vested interest is elsewhere. It’s not in the prevalence. It’s not in the regime. It’s not in replacing the regime. They have an often self-appointed task of wondering how things came to be as they are.
There’s not a statute of limitations on that particular object of inquiry. There is always a question of how things have come to be as they are, even when they’re in a fit of change or pseudo-change or everything-but-a-change change, which is, I think, the kind of time that we’re looking at now.
The P.S. on all of this — I think we’re winding up here — from my point of view, would be this. I just finished a book that we’re going to bring out ourselves, probably within a month, called “A Generation’s Worth.”
In there, at the very end of the book, I gave myself the job of anticipating the near future when the all-clear signal finally issues forth from central command. I have to say that everything I see tells me that we’re going to have a degree of almost primordial mental distress that, it sadly seems, very few people see coming right now.
The parallel I would draw — and you’re old enough to remember this — is that not that long ago, the government of the day, which is this government that we still have right now, took it upon themselves to acknowledge the consequences and the victims of the residential school system in this country. They issued formal apologies, recognitions, acknowledgements, and the rest.
Of course, always, when you’re confessing, there’s a degree of liability, which is invariably translated into dollars. So there’s a fund set aside. All these people had to do was document the mayhem that had come to them as children. They qualified, and they were on the receiving end of this thing.
From what I hear anecdotally, upon the acknowledgement, and upon the confession and the apology, these people began to suicide in remarkable numbers.
It’s an absolutely stunning little thing to observe, that having undergone the experience, having undergone all the doubts about the experience, having tried to live a life into adulthood that included all this — having to try to craft families when you had no notion of how to be a family, or how to be part of one, or how to lead one, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera — none of this proved to be their final undoing.
Of all things, the public acknowledgment of what they had lived through was something that somehow could not be borne.
This is what’s coming, because we have seen something in ourselves that is fundamentally unsupportable. It’s unspectacular. The consequence of the plague, among a host of others, is that we’ve been obliged to live with the consequences of our choices in a naked and banal way, and in a way that climate collapse and various other things couldn’t do.
This has revealed something about the venal aspect of our victories. I think a lot of people are going to find it unendurable to glimpse the realities of their reacquired normal life, because it’s not what they claim to remember as being right now.
Ready yourself, man. I don’t say inoculate yourself, but I do say ready yourself for that, because the work that will come to those of us who are willing to try to serve our time might be unprecedented, at least in volume, if not in kind. So, people, get ready. There’s a train coming.
Well, Stephen, thank you so much for your time, for setting aside a portion of your days to get up on the high wire and wonder about these things out loud, as you so often do.
I’m very grateful, again, for the deepened mystery and wondering that I feel left with and entrust you with at the end of this kind of conversation. So my deep gratitude to you, and blessings on you, everyone on the farm, the farm itself, and everything that feeds it there.
You’re very kind. I’m glad you’re out there, Tad.
You too, Stephen.
Just keep going.