Saturday, 10 September 2011

Is "do not question authority" an IQ principle?

I was recently contracted as an instructor to teach basic Inuktitut linguistics to a small group of adult learners. Being somewhat of a pariah in the social development discourse in Nunavut - after years of being critical of what I see as imposed (and unquestioned) social development agenda - I am grateful for the opportunity. I hope I don't make mistakes, including for writing this blog.

One of the Inuit Knowledge (IQ) principles that I've often reflected upon and questioned is the notion that we (the Inuit) should never question or "second-guess" authority and authority figures like our parents, the priests, our political leadership, qallunaat (or white people), etc. In terms of parents, I can accept that; in terms of the "social contract", I think it's dangerous to not question authority and authority figures - dangerous not only to self but also to society, human rights and actualization of human potential.

Now, let me make a qualification here: I'm not critical of certain facts and things (in the Nunavut discourse) just for the sake of hating and wanting things to not work; on the contrary, mostly I'm critical because I love and care about our society, human rights and have a deep regard for human potential as something sacred and a grave matter of trust - a grave matter of trust in the sense that we must rely upon strangers (Inuit and non-Inuit, does not matter) to educate us and our children, to protect us and ensure our safety, and so on. This goes both ways as others rely upon us to respect their trust (implicitly or otherwise).

I'm of the mind that we should respect authority. But to uncritically accept authority as somehow divinely-given and that authority figures are somehow different and superior to us is downright misanthropic and contemptuous of humanity and human dignity and of what is called social progress.

I grew up just after and even during a time of great social upheaval, displacement and degradation. In terms of socialization, this period of social upheaval brought about by sometimes-forced resettlement gave the impression that being cruel and abusive was a sign of strength and respectability - much the same as what Franz Fanon describes in his book, The Wretched of the Earth - of abuse and violence on own kind to deal with self-hatred and hatred of the oppressors and deniers of human dignity. Our culture and language was regarded as having come from the devil himself.

As a child I myself was acculturated into this mindset. One of our own was rejected by the father at birth as not his own (many Inuit children were similarly rejected by either parent (usually the father but sometimes the mother who was unsure who the father was) as was common and attributable to the resettlement and the emotional insecurities brought about by the upheaval). I thought, as a child, that this was an acceptable part of our society, that there were people born "inferior" and worthy of mistreatment and slavery. This is my great source of shame, to have been part of a system of abuse and neglect of the helpless and powerless whether actively or passively.

As I began to develop and learn how to read and take a more critical view of being human, I began to realize the great error of Fanonian self-hatred and self-abuse and my uncritical participation in it. Shame drove me out; awareness of the need for self-improvement made me search in religion then in secular humanism. I no longer believe in the "privileged" state of being but have come to realize that only critical awareness and active vigilance are our only source of decency as individuals and as a society, as a source of progress and transcendence.

I think this "do not question authority" is or once was foreign to IQ: the IQ principle of "pilimmaksarniq" (learning) is based upon the idea that human beings are thinking beings capable of learning through personal experience and reflection, which is fundamentally contrary to arbitrary authority. Inuit child-rearing practices seem downright lax compared to contemporary Western notions in that a child is allowed to explore and learn about the environment through pain and pleasure, through consequence and reward.

Even the pedagogical devices for teaching and learning how to become self-reliant and capable in hunting and taking care of kith and kin assumes that there is no one right way of acquiring knowledge and capacity because wisdom and experience (which is the basis of true knowledge) cannot be taught and only acquired through thought and reflection after trying out and experimentation (under capable moral and practical guidance, mind). Hunting practices and techniques were often kept secret and protected and to be only passed on to one's own because they were acquired through intelligence and hard work. Only those worthy of learning them were worthy of getting and keeping them - not out of contempt but because those not up to the challenges of a hard life were often seen as burdens to survival and well-being of the larger society - in the context of productive tension between pragmatic and moral/ethical considerations that bore down upon all members of that society.

I was caught up and lecturing on the basics and beauty of linguistic concepts and definitions when I inadvertantly used terms and conditions that were apparently not "the same" as the rather dense and convoluted text that appalled and aghast some of my students who thought and mistook memorization of word-for-word text for actual learning. I realized then that they were taught all their academic careers to memorize and not/never question or discuss ideas in textbooks or always take what their non-Inuit superiors told them were the facts at face value (even when they didn't make sense). After all, what is education but edification and exegesis of the bible or canon.

What began as a need for authoritative and uniform interpretation of biblical and legislative text has been translated onto pedagogical approaches imposed upon us. The state of ignorance and deference to authority which the state and church demanded of us at the dawn of our submission to the state of grace is now keeping us from fully and legitimately participating in the political, economic and social discourse: relative poverty, ignorance and subsequent lack of life prospects breed and still perpetuate self- and kind-contempt as reflected in self-murder and the appalling rates of participation in welfare, and the criminal justice and healthcare systems.

We can no longer afford to passively wait for the state to look after our human and social interests; we need an honest self-reflection and critical self-examination to redefine ourselves as a society. Our romantic notions of natural and native state of grace and innocence is propaganda and mental pablum that is bad for our self-preservation and health.

Jay

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