woensdag 27 januari 2010

Out of place

It may have its charm sometimes, to be completely out of place. To use words and phrases which for the listener feel like not appropriate to the activity or the conversation that is going on. And not because you do not understand what that activity or conversation is about, but because you very consciously want to say different words and phrases. Levinas did so in his expositions with other philosophers, because he wanted to introduce new language into philosophy.

I myself try to do so in the workshop Thinking for someone else. One of the observations of that workshop is that the language spoken in organizations often ignores fundamental experiences of employees. In line with that observation I talk about the ‘violence’ that organizers thus do to their employees. And about the ‘injury’ being done that way and about the ‘sorrow’ of people who suffer from it.

Sometimes I note that for some participants of the workshop all this is too much. Come on man! We are talking about organizations and about labour relations to which reasonable people have committed themselves completely voluntarily! That requires another vocabulary, namely of professionalism, reasonableness, maturity. And if we really want to do something ethical or moral in organizations, we can do so through moral codes and procedures.

A problem is that the latter do not seem to have much effect. Procedures do not generate inspiration, however widespread the indignation is about bonus hunters and dirty tricks. “That should not be allowed” people say, and then take resort to procedural language, to standards of decency and legislation. They keep themselves out.

In earlier days there used to be a richer language to talk with each other about such things, says ethicist Theo Boer. For within the denominationally compartimentalized groups of those days there was a certain consensus about the good life. This offered a kind of shelter, and because of that words could be used that are adequate to morality. After the collapse of the compartimentalized society just a kind of hull morality is left, an almost technocratic minimum for all, in which even words like respect and tolerance may soon become empty slogans or sometimes commands.

I understand what Boer means: morality should be talked about, one should have the opportunity to come up with stories, and one should be able to collide with one another. But I don’t share his nostalgia for the past, because within the one time denominations a lot of stories appeared to be not welcome indeed, such as those of gays or divorced people. The minimum hull moral may still feel for many of them as a liberation.

What remains to be considered is that within the denominationally compartimentalized system words were used which, according to philosopher Edith Brugmans, you can not do without if you want to talk about morality: “Moral words like pain and sacrifice I do not often hear anymore”. In this domain there is in her view a big vocabular deficiency, because one does not manage with just procedural language.

Hence the idiosyncratic language of my workshops. I think there is no other option for us than to learn to use words like ‘violence', 'pain', 'sorrow', 'injury' in simple, everyday situations. So even within organizations, because they are full of violence, pain, sorrow and injuries.

Also see Levinas and Spinoza