In praise of muddling

Posted on Jul 2, 2016 in Everyday Life, Research Methodologies

I’ve been rather harshly reminded of late how bad a forum Twitter is for complex discussion, so I’m going to try to work through some tangled thoughts and experiences here instead. (And maybe something I write will help me reflexively attend to my own research later on.) Although I would think it goes without saying, I’m going to say it: I’m about to think out loud and I’m not certain about any of this. I am a multitude and constantly changing. I very much welcome conversation on any of this, but please don’t try to pin me down too hard. I promise the same in return.


I enjoy thinking about difficult and fraught things. And I am, for better and worse, especially interested in public controversies and ideas that go against the grain. When I was young, I approached this with the passion attributed to a ‘good’ academic and activist. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that passion can be extremely self-serving and isolating — and what I prefer to value is compassion. By saying this I don’t mean to belittle the experience of being young or passionate, but only to mark a personal change over time.

This change has also included a shift from being proud of what I do and who I am, to a sense of real humility in the face of others and lack of stable, personal identity. Added to this, for a variety of personal reasons, I feel utterly compelled to defend anyone who is being denied care. Now nothing makes me more nervous than immediate and unconditional withdrawal of support. I can’t say it doesn’t occur to me to do so, but rather that the second it does I know I must stop and ask myself if it’s the best thing to do. Social media and internet culture make this especially difficult because of a tendency to encourage snap judgement and what I call the ‘I hate everything you love’ mentality.

According to the OED, passion is an “intense desire or enthusiasm for something.” Compassion, on the other hand, is defined as “sympathetic concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Passion derives from ecclesiastical Latin pati, ‘to suffer,’ and compassion derives from Latin compassio, from compati ‘to suffer with.’ In other words, passion is about the self, and compassion is about relations between selves.

As a human being, and as a researcher, I feel a real duty to be with the world, not against the world. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in right and wrong, but it does mean that I think that right and wrong only ever exist as specific, local solutions to particular problems. This position is contrary to one which holds that there are objective morals that can be applied to all circumstances, and it is contrary to the position that we can, or should, ‘hate the sin, but not the sinner.’ (I can’t hate either.) Put a bit differently, I believe in allowing myself and others to muddle along, because in the end she’ll be right. (That last bit’s a wee joke, btw. Feel free not to laugh.)

By privileging relations amongst things, I’m not arguing that my perspective is the only or best perspective. But I am asserting that it allows me to witness, and attend to, things that other perspectives might hide or erase. I consider this as an act of ‘good faith’ or compassion, a default belief that people are always trying to do their best by others according to what they believe to be true at a given point in time. This makes it impossible for me to condemn people or actions in absolute terms because it forces me to look for — and truly see — what people are attached to. I also think that people (myself included) often get confused between a ‘poorly argued’ position and one with which we don’t agree.

As you might imagine, this puts me at odds with many aspects of my culture-at-large. But this makes sense to me because I’ve dedicated my life to trying to understand and care for difference — and all this despite being introduced to anthropology at a point in academic history when we tried to abolish the concept of ‘otherness’! Today I would call on María Puig de la Bellacasa’s reminder that: “[C]are can also extinguish the subtleties of attending to the needs of an ‘other’ required for careful relationality. All too easily it can lead to appropriating the recipients of ‘our’ care, instead of relating ourselves to them […] Appropriating the experience of another precludes us from creating significant otherness, that is, from affirming those with whom we build a relation. How to care for the ‘oppressed’ is far from being self-evident (2012, p. 209).”

I bring this up because I want to distinguish care (which I loosely associate with compassion) from justice (which I loosely associate with passion). And here I would ally myself with Mol, Moser and Pols’ practices of care, which “may involve ‘justice’ but other norms (fairness, kindness, compassion, generosity) may be equally or more, important – and not in a foundational way, but as orientations among others (2010, p. 13).

This is what allows me, I think, to live with but not agree with ideas that threaten my own attachments and activities. For example, I want to (and am largely able to) engage with vegan abolitionists, even though we have a fundamentally incompatible view of the world. I may disagree with the claim that all animal agriculture is untenable, but I am also incredibly grateful for their attention to the parts of livestock husbandry and food production that I also find highly problematic. Where we might part ways, and what makes meaningful engagement difficult at times, is when someone cannot see any areas of shared concern or care. This, I believe, is at the heart of every public controversy — and I should add has happened just as often in my conversations with livestock farmers!

On a bad day, I take this inability (and what I consider to be inflexibility) personally. I feel as though my care for the other is met with a lack of care for me, or for another other. Of course, this kind of thinking quickly goes pear-shaped! It’s hard for anyone to care for someone they don’t feel cares for them, and a breakdown in communication is pretty much inevitable. So I try to focus on what happens after this breakdown, and this is where I see passion coming into direct conflict with compassion: do we think first and most of ourselves, or of our relations with others? In a culture of individualism, and a time of woundedness and fragility for all living things, the desire (and need) to passionately protect ourselves is very strong. I understand and respect that. But I do struggle to know, for certain, who or what is worthy of protection — and at what cost(s). Put a bit differently, I fear that passion and certainty can easily, and very quickly, become the enemies of compassion and transformation. I’m both terrified and heart-broken when the only possible reaction is self-preservation through condemnation of difference.

This is also the reason I now turn most often to fantasy writers like Ursula Le Guin as sources for social, cultural and political theory. I believe that our greatest shared hope lies in being able to imagine otherwise — even when it might mean changing who we (think we) are. The most profoundly painful moments of my life have been when I believed that who I am had been lost or stolen. But life became less painful when I realised that I can only be broken if I refuse to bend — and I learnt this most profoundly from reading Le Guin, who always manages to imagine otherwise without moralising. I think it probably has to do with her love of Taoism, and I’m reminded of a quote from Lao Tzu shared with me earlier today:

“Softness triumphs over hardness,
feebleness over strength.
What is malleable is always superior
to that which is immovable.”

But here I am losing my train of thought, so it’s probably best to wind things up. Plus, there’s a lambing shed that won’t build itself and the afternoon is quickly disappearing!