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October 1999, Volume 7 Nr. 2, Issue 74,

The Spirituality of Dissent

In research methodology, for a long time, it had been assumed that the positivist empiricist perspective was superior.  Positivism's reliance on data collection through  controlled experimentation produced stunning results in the understanding of the world and universe about us. In more recent times, examination, however, has revealed  the methodology could not explain racism, bigotry, prejudice, religiosity, dissent and spirituality.  Ideologies such as Marxism, feminism and other's offered the insight that other approaches to analysis were not only possible but desirable.

It appears that there are at least six paradigms from within which research garners valid insights about the world around us.  This is particularly true if the events under scrutiny are social ones that encompass the interactions of individuals.  These other forms of analysis are particularly insightful when the observer of the phenomenon under study  places themselves into the social setting, rather than accepting the universality of outcome given predescribed and predetermined conditions as is common in positivism.

Positivism is but one paradigm from which to interpret our observation of the events taking place around us.  To briefly name the others, there are the formalist-structuralist, the interpretive, the theortecist, the critical, and the participant-observer paradigm. A closer examination of each is not required for this discussion.  Interpretive paradigms are not the sole purview of research academics.   Quite the contrary, whether we are aware or not, every moment our mind is functioning whether restlessly scanning or focused we are operating within the boundaries of a previously defined and continually modified set of inculcated guidelines.    It is important to recognize that each of us brings into any social setting, situation, discussion and debate the rules by which we interpret our interactions with the world outside of  ourselves. Into every situation, as willing or unwilling participants in life, we bring with us the paradigms by which we function and operate.

Tom Kuhn, a student and researcher of research methodology, suggests that the various paradigms are incommensurable, that is, they are incompatible with each other. This is why, for example, two or more groups of researchers studying and analyzing the same problem or situation can achieve different and irreconcilable results.

I suggest that it is this inherent paradigm baggage that we bring to any meeting or discussion, and it is precisely our inability to transcend the incommensurability between differing participants' paradigms that is an obstacle to understanding, appreciating or empathizing with an idea, concept or argument being presented by another.

Incommensurability is also a big asset in that humans  possess the ability, but not necessarily the skills or will, at any given moment to expand consciousness, knowledge and appreciation of the thoughts, philosophies and ideas of others. When we walk in someone else's shoes we may obtain blisters, but, we also may partake in a journey that offers new and exciting opportunities.

The Words

This month's discussion revolves around two words which like the words, god, beauty, truth, good and evil, have different meanings to different people. Perhaps it is wise to establish a framework, an originating locus of operation,  from which this discussion of the spirituality of dissent begins.  I offer a paradigm of  immersion into like- mindedness in an attempt to rise above the incommensurability of life's personal experiences and baggage which we identify as our own.

Consider the word spirituality. Take a moment now and consider in a few words what that term means to you.  What words come up?  The word spirituality conjures up many meanings.   Consider, that with a little prodding we might find little disagreement that consuming a liter of wine might alter our spirits.  In fact, alcohol is referred to as spirits. We know what happens when we drink.  The popularity of alcoholic beverages is a testament to the spirit-raising potential of the chemical industry.   In the homeland of my grandparents, the Polish National Spirit Works is noted for its "spiritus", an interesting homonym for the Latin "sanctus spiritus" or holy spirit.  Perhaps, the holy spirit knows something we do not?

Raising a person's spirits through kind and considerate action or through imbibing of chemical agents such as alcohol or marijuana does alter the current state of one's consciousness. Is that not, after all, the intent of tending to one's spirituality?   If it is, and I contend that it is, though the means may be suspect, then spirituality may be defined as the moment-to-moment state of affairs of our psychic house. Right now, at this juncture of my life, as it intersects with yours, where is my head at?   What is the condition of my spirit?  Why am I offering this presentation if not in some self-serving way reaffirming or improving my spirit or spiritual well being?  This moment-to-moment state of affairs of our psychic house is the paradigm that I wish you to accept for the remainder of this discussion.


I contend that as a society in general, and as individuals, more and more of us have had our psychic house  conditioned toward depression. The depression comes about through the greater culture via the media, the calculated presentation of the news, world events and a national and self-image, in such fashion as to render one's spirit amenable to and accepting of our incompleteness.  We are lulled by entertainment and advertising to rearrange the furniture in our psychic house to accommodate the couch potato decor of powerlessness and inadequacy.

JeanneE reminds me that this is the concept of learned helplessness.  Somehow, we are never quite whole, never able to make the necessary changes or take action making  a positive difference, that is, except the one that we have unconsciously been programmed to take.  We become spectators in our own depression with options for action confined and limited through the oppression of corporate culture to purchasing something. Feeling blue or bummed out? Shop until you drop. And, there are millions and millions of people in post-modern America now diagnosed as clinically depressed.  There must be much shopping taking place though there is never quite enough that mitigates the underlying current of wrongness within ourselves, world, nation and culture.  We not only shop for, purchase and consume more stuff in search of catharsis, a reprieve from our innate powerlessness, we buy tons of antidepressants and chemical sexual makeovers as well.   In 1998 Eli Lilly & Company's second quarter net income climbed from a loss of $1.7 billion to a gain of $491 million from Prozac-stimulated sales.   While doing research for this topic I came across a web site prominently proclaiming, "Buy viagara on-line.  No prescription?  No problem."  Has corporate capitalism gone into the spirituality commodity marketplace?  I am reminded that it never left.

I do not deny that medication has its place and many people require its helping hand.  Yet, I cannot help but ponder whether our spirituality has been commodified into a neat and clean pill paradigm that is easy to swallow leaving the life work that is our personal responsibility in the back taking in the scenery while the drug cartel is in the driver's seat.  Setting aside drugs and alcohol, how does one rekindle a positive spirituality in the face of the overwhelming counterexamples and images of defeat packaged to be easily acceptable along with quick-fix consumables?


To ignore the disempowerment of the spirit is to negate the art of the possible. It is in fact this art of the possible that the manipulators of our spirit wish us to ignore. The art of the possible is empowerment and, often, empowerment takes place through dissent.

Dissent is not complaining. Dissent is hopeful and is a call to action. It is the first step toward spiritual uplifting, often, and perhaps, favorably and fortunately, in the face of overwhelming contrariness in our associations and interactions with others and with the things that take on far too much significance in our lives.

Dissent is the first step in the creation of a paradigm shift that redefines the spiritual modus operandi with all its previously discussed supposed incommensurability to move toward congruency.  Dissent is often a radical step toward inevitable compromise.  How can, compromise, however, succeed without it?  It cannot.  

Consider the magazine, Dissent, a quarterly journal of the Left.  Dissent makes the claim that it is a magazine of independent minds and that it welcomes the clash of strong opinions.  Often, in our culture, the make-no-waves attitudes superimposed over the clash of opinions squashes discourse in the name of simply getting along and making nice.  My typical day at work interacting with my teaching colleagues consists mainly of the weather, who won the football pool, etc.  Whatever paradigm filters our reality, I cannot help but believe that these artificial constraints on discourse and the expression of passion contribute significantly to our spiritual unwellness.  The sad part is that these constraints are voluntary.

A few years ago, my family visited a now elderly gentleman in New Jersey.  Benny is an Italian immigrant who struggled to makes ends meet for his family, to put his son through college and law school.  He was the head custodian at the junior high school where I taught for eleven years.  We visited him over one Thanksgiving and found ourselves eating dinner at a typical Italian feast.  The conversation soon became lively and animated.  It was not long before Benny and I were shouting, gesturing, throwing in off color and humorous comments about ourselves and the world situation.  Philosophy flew back and forth across the table accentuated by vigorous dissent with no animosity, ill-will or self-pity from bruised ego.  By the time the desert course choices were introduced, we found ourselves hugging each other and in tears with affection for one another.  Why are such occurrences so rare in our culture?  Why isn't the give-and-take discourse of a good debate the glue that brings people together?  Is it that thinking for oneself and meeting opposition considered such a threat that it pushes people apart?  Is it a defense mechanism of learned helplessness?

More Rare Stuff

In our nation's high schools, by far, the least favorite subject is history.  Why is this so?  History (a better name might be "ourstory") should be exciting, passionate and full of debate and discourse, and, yes, dissent.   I believe that students at an early age in the United States have their moment-to-moment state of affairs of their psychic house dulled and numbed through teaching that avoids controversy and the controversial.  Perhaps, we should teach history over old-country Italian dinners? 

In the United States, history textbooks are selected through a screening process that discards the controversial and seldom delves into any great detail.  No point in risking offense the thinking goes.   Yes, Columbus was a great explorer and good guy.  Yes, the pilgrims sought religious freedom in the New World and were nice people.  Yes,  Betsy Ross sewed the first American Flag in a patriotic fervor akin to the gulp that we are expected to have in our throat as we say the Pledge of Allegiance, never mind that we or our children may be atheists and are often intimidated into invoking god.  Never mind that it was a Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, who wrote the Pledge in the first place in August 1892 for the quadracentennial celebration of (all people) Columbus Day.  He was chairman of a committee of state superintendents of the National Education Association and in charge of a  program which included a flag raising ceremony.  Though Bellamy attempted to bring forward the idea of  the equality of all men, he took out the word "equality" from his pledge knowing that the superintendents of education were against equality for women and African Americans.  Yes, have not women and African Americans come a long long way since those days.  I ask you, how far would they have come without dissent and struggle?  How successful would have been their struggle without their spirits spurring dissent and dissent fueling their spirit?  It was their spirituality that got them through.  Think of the African American spirituals, songs to raise the spirit.  Many of these songs conatined instructions on how to act, on how to escape.  They were songs of dissent which maintained the old religious and cultural connectioins, even, under the lash.  Follow the Drinking Gourd, for example, was a spiritual call to action.  The dissent was the planning and execution of the escape to the North.  Think of the songs during the civil rights movement.   It was dissent that brought the nation and the world to notice and respond in kind.   In turn, the nation's spirituality was transformed, though, nowhere near far enough.

I do not say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.  I am a veteran of the Vietnam era and the two years that I have given to my country guarantees me my right to dissent by not saying it.   In the school where I presently teach, we have many exchange students.  Those who come from Germany are often shocked and appalled when they first witness and are peer pressured into rising for the Pledge.  One student commented to me that in Germany such display of nationalism is not allowed.  To me not saying the Pledge as a statement of dissent is as spiritually uplifting and sometimes difficult as the actions of those who refused to participate in Senator Joe McCarthy's House on un-American Activities Committee hearings.

Recently, I read the statement that the 20th century witnessed two horrific and tragic philosophies of incredible consequence, that being fascism and communism.  There were actually three: fascism, communism and colonialism.  It does not help our spirituality to ignore the oppression that our government has been part of and to a large extent has institutionalized.  That colonialism continues today.  Ah yes,   Nike shoes do fit well.   Consider, Tiger Woods, the professional golfer, making millions by wearing a Nike swoosh trademark on his hat.  Imagine, an act of spiritual dissidence so overwhelming and freeing as to offer a blueprint for an international paradigm shift in favor of social justice!  Imagine Tiger Woods taking the swoosh off in a show of dissent, a statement in support of the oppressed (mostly) Asian female child laborers working long hours in sweat shops providing America with its footwear of status convenience and little conscience.  While I cannot necessarily convince Tiger Woods to change his operating paradigm (though I can try), I can refrain from buying Nike shoes.  That little, tiny action of dissent does wonders for my psychic state of affairs.  Why talk about any of this in our classrooms and homes?   Far better to rock no boats.  Some teachers learn from the system that there is little reason to provide ammunition that may be used against them.  Sadly, many others just don't care.  Ingesting the bromated white-bread philosophy of Americana and regurgitating its remains can only contribute to our youth doing the same.   We expect them to believe that all is well with the Nation and the world.  Their non-verbal and not-fully developed sense of self knows better.  The psychic state of affairs of our young people is troubled.  Recent violent events of the past few years is adequate testimony.

It is lonely to travel on a road where everyone appears to be heading in the opposite direction.  It is, however, beyond a doubt in my mind, empowering and necessary for my spiritual well being.  A belief in a just correctness explicated by dissent and followed up through action is a contribution to personal and communal spiritual growth.  Like the reputation that we build with ourselves, called self-esteem, it begins with one step and eventually leads toward attaining a stride that is unstoppable.

Personal Example

I would like to bring up a personal example. During June of 1999 I was informed that the homophobic group, the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas, led by Fred Phelps was coming to Montpelier, Vermont. The intent of the group was to let the nation know that Vermont was heading down the heathen path to hell with its Supreme Court consideration of same gender marriage (still pending).   The Phelps crowd of ten on the morning of the demonstration was quickly face-to-face with almost three-hundred counter demonstrators. I was amongst that group of dissenters. The round trip to and from Montpelier is almost 200 miles from my home. The majority of people who counter-demonstrated that day chanting, "Take your hate out of our state", drove as far as I or further. What was the impetus for their action? What was the driving force behind their outward and public expression of dissent? I believe the answer is: the action was spiritually uplifting.

I did not know what to expect that morning as I headed to Montpelier coffee cup in hand.  I did know that I had that day taken a first step.  The demonstration which was extremely peaceful even though the two groups were in each other's faces.   I took about a dozen digital photographs trying to get a sense of the event.  Later that evening, when home, I quickly put together a homepage on the World Wide Web entitled, "Vermonters Click Heels and Send Homophobia Back to Kansas" - a small high tech dissenting action.   Within a few days, I received an email from the ISP (Internet Service Provider) at Goddard College (where my pictures are archived) that the web server was experiencing an unusually large number of hits or visits.  Could I please move the pictures until the controversy faded.  "What controversy", I thought.

It appears that after I posted my pictures on the Metaphoria homepage, someone in Vermont (not yours truly) surreptitiously changed the ownership of the Fred Phelps site named to http://www.god  The upshot of this conversion was that the owner of the "loves" fags site received an email from  Internic, the world's registry of websites, saying that he was the unsuspecting new owner of the "hates" site.  A little creative hypertext markup language was all that was required to redirect all visitors attempting to open  the "godhatesfags" to the "godlovesfags" site.  The Phelps site contains floating balloons, some with words "God hates fags" on them.  As you enter the site there is a picture of Mathew  Shepherd, the slain gay man, with the words "Remember!".   The picture of Matthew is engulfed in flames as if burning in hell.  A link on that page is entitled, "WBC to picket Matthew Shepherd's First Anniversary in Hell."  Charming.  On the "godlovesfags" site, however, there on the evening of the counter-demonstration in clear view was the link to my pictures.   Soon, the on-line magazine, Salon, picked up the story.  The large number of worldwide hits thereafter, 6,000 in one day, is evidence suggesting  the alteration of thousands of spirits.  I checked.  The hits came from everywhere including the military and the government.

I receive similar spiritual fulfillment when I join a picket line in support of working people or volunteer to help bring about the acceptance of a union in a previously non-union shop.  A few years ago, the Copley nurses formed a union.  This summer, against heavy odds and administration bribery, the  Rutland nurses voted to recertify their fledgling local union.   It is spiritually uplifting to walk a picket line in solidarity with working class people.

We often secretly admire dissent.  Consider the world famous picture of the lone dissenter in China standing alone in the face of the encroaching long line of tanks easily capable of squashing a human being the way an elephant snuffs out an ant. This one person stopped all the tanks. The picture is breathtaking. I can only wonder if dissent were more common during the 1930s and 1940s how the Holocaust might have been different?

Thirty-five years ago a journalist argued vehemently with a Senator who did not agree with US policy. The journalist contended and stated to the Senator that, "…the Constitution gives to the president of the United States the sole responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy." The very alone Senator dissented not only to the reporter but to his colleagues in the Senate and the nation with unavoidable and pointed oratory saying, "Couldn't be more wrong. It belongs to the American people…And I am pleading that the American people be given the facts about foreign policy." The journalist was Peter Lisagor and the Senator, Wayne Morris, one of two senators who had voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.  In Robert McNamara's new book, "Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy", he admits that the second Vietnamese provocation against Naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin was mythology. It never took place.  Senator Wayne Morse's dissent in the Senate was well placed.  As a side note, Morse became extremely unpopular and was inevitably defeated by a slick politician name Bob Packwood, who eventually resigned from the Senate after the ethics committee voted 6 - 0 to expel him for, as the New York Times reported, being "...guilty of an array of sexual harassment and official misconduct charges that amounted to a 'pattern of abuse of his position of power and authority as a United States senator.' "  As a consequence of President Lyndon Johnson's lie, 58,000 US citizens and over 2,000,000 Vietnamese and other Asians died.  Yes, dissent is good for the spirit and it often saves lives.

Kosovo and East Timor

Recently, Admiral Eugene Carroll (retired), deputy director of the private Center for Defense Information (CDI), spoke at the University of Vermont and appeared on Vermont Public Radio's (VPR) call-in show.   Carroll is a recognized expert on major defense issues and an outspoken critic of excessive military spending.  I spoke with him and asked if he would be kind enough to to elaborate on two points: 1) explain the Rambouillet agreement, subpart B, and 2) say something about US involvement in supporting and training Indonesian troops.   Sometimes, a simple question is enough to elicit dissent and help spread new information and knowledge.  Even a slight increase in personal paradigm vulnerability to change can can summon  increased spirituality.  My spirits were elevated when Eugene Carroll came out stating that the Rambouillet agreement was no such thing.  It was,  an ultimatum which in advance was known to be unacceptable.  It's rejection was guaranteed.  It was the 1990's equivalent of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.  Yes.  There was a Senator Wayne Morse equivalent during Kosovo.  It was Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio.  On the question relating to US and Indonesia, Carroll simply referred to them as "our thugs."  Enough said.

An Era of High Spirituality

I received my bachelors degree in physics from a Jesuit institution in Jersey City, New Jersey at a time when open discussions were common and spirits ran high.  There was an excitement in the air that anything was possible.  We could end the war, clean the environment, help the poor of Appalachia, join the Peace Corp and otherwise, be of service to humanity.  Were I and my classmates, friends and associates  deluded?  I do not believe so.  I believe back then that the spirituality of dissent and the dissent of spirituality created a world where a single individual was empowered to make a difference.  Just this year the nation publicly celebrated the dissent and spiritual actions and life of Rosa Parks.  That is no delusion.  That era of possibility thirty years ago has not disappeared.  It is still here.  What has changed is the paradigm under which we function.  I suggest we rock the boat and fear not for falling overboard, for without falling overboard, we will never know if our spiritual life preservers work.  We might even forget about them and not have them available when we need them the most.  And, the spiritual waters of the world are ever becoming more turbulent.

1999 Jozef hand-Boniakowski

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