Nature and Origin of Violence in Groups A Consideration of Group Dynamics based on Levinas’
Paper written for the International Society for the Psychoanalytic
Study of Organizations
June 2003 Symposium — Power and Politics
Let us explore the question: Why should we — as organizational
consultants, interested philosophers, as psychoanalysts, as students
of human nature, as fellow members of the human race — concern
ourselves with the work of Emmanuel Levinas?
this paper, I shall review some key elements of Levinas’ thought,
and show how his thinking provokes a re-evaluation of thinking about
others and our selves, and how this thinking may be relevant and
useful within the world of human relations research and in the practice
of organizational consulting. I suggest that a mode of thinking
which Levinas critiques — totalization — may indeed
be that which constitutes the origins of violence, both between
self and other, one-to-one, and within groups. It should be remembered
that violence is opposed to the good — which is also a consideration
of this paper. We shall first consider the motivations for Levinas’
works, then review some key concepts — particularly of totality
and infinity — and then consider how Levinasian thought may
be applied within an organizational consulting milieu. Then I shall
show how these concepts can be applied usefully within a consultation
with a group of psychoanalysts who espouse a radical openness, but
find themselves clashing over issues relating to what a commitment
to openness really means.
is the dehumanization of the other that is not just a concomitant
of oppression but a necessary prior condition — an originary
act of violence — that is first performed and required long
before the visible effects of oppression are manifest — such
as arresting people because they are in the wrong part of town;
not allowing non-white people to take certain jobs; torturing people
for opposing the brutal policies of the government; house arrests;
banning; silencing the opposition; killing of those opposed to the
system . And the list could go on and on…
Nazi Germany; Stalin’s Soviet Union; Apartheid South Africa;
Srebinerca; Slavery; the decimation of the American Indians; Rwanda;
Cambodia, and so on. These acts of violence, and the way they are
understood and rationalized effect all of us to this day. Consider
also, religious persecution, attitudes towards women, homosexuals,
the poor, oppressed and downtrodden. Consider also attitudes towards
those considered crazy and mentally ill, because their behavior
falls outside of what is considered normal and acceptable —
in a society which itself participates in dehumanization of segments
of its own population. All these instances represent totalized systems
— the system becomes greater than the humans involved.
consider the neglect of and disdain for lower-income groups, the
treatment of workers in Indonesia, Vietnam and other third world
countries by trans-national companies , racism in a variety of forms,
intolerant religious fundamentalism which doesn’t just tolerate
violence, but encourages it, and more … These are further
examples of total and totalizing systems.
of ethics, and doing good — which is a central theme of the
present discourse — and considering the concept of the good
in relation to politics, the theme of this conference on group relations,
we can consider the violence perpetrated by those who claim God
is on their side, and they know what he (or she) says, and follow
this by claiming the authority of God, as they define him, as justification
for acts which cause violence to others — in the form of denigration
of outsiders, justifying the servitude and oppression of women,
and even causing death to others — those infidels —
who do not believe as they do.
illustrates the arrogance of the self-assured nature of thought
justifying itself, as the only, and total truth — thought
which claims itself as self-originating and as the total truth —
as totality, which seeks to gain political power to force others
into accepting the precepts and consequences of its dogma. In contrast,
Levinas’ thinking takes our responsibility to the other as
primary, and philosophy, laws, politics, the social sciences and
justice should be mindful of the other — and all others —
in its formulation.
wondered, especially, about the brutality of the Nazis. He was motivated
to think about and examine the totalitarianism of the Nazis, and
so also to rethink the foundations of western philosophy for a variety
was Jewish, born in Lithuania in 1906. The family fled to Russia
to escape oppression. He emigrated to France in the early 1920’s.
There, he became interested in the work of Edmund Husserl —
the “father of phenomenology” — and went to Germany
to study his thought further, in 1927. While there, he was witness
to the emergence of Husserl’s brightest student, Heidegger,
to a leading role in Western philosophy. He was amongst the eager
students who attended Heidegger’s noted lectures and debates
around that time.
introduced Heidegger’s thought to France. It was particularly
the French — Sartre, Camus, Merleau Ponty and others who developed
Heidegger’s thought into modern existentialism.
the war, Levinas was incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp.
He lost many family members to the Nazis during the period of the
Nazi occupation of France.
the war, Levinas began seriously asking the question: how could
Heidegger, who had authored one of the greatest works of philosophy
of the twentieth century — Being and Time — willingly
throw in his lot with the Nazis? Heidegger had been offered the
rectorship of Freiberg University and had accepted in 1933 where
he presided during expulsion of Jewish faculty members and students,
and the burning of books — including those of Freud, Einstein
and of his own Jewish teacher — Husserl .
had succeeded, in Being and Time, in going beyond traditional western
metaphysics, which had often relied on arbitrary governing original
principles — such as the notion of the all-pervasive God —
to guarantee the truth of its positions. Heidegger began thinking
of the truth of what it means to be here , as human, in the world,
from consideration of what is presently and immediately given and
apparent to us. It represented a movement away from the arbitrary
and towards the contemplation of immediate experience, in openness
— a more authentic truth.
puzzling and disturbing question then is: How could Heidegger, who
represented a culmination of that highest attribute of civilization
— philosophy — be seduced by the Nazis, and their totalizing
(and totalitarian) ideology?
there something in Heidegger’s philosophy which would lead
to the embrace of a totalized and totalitarian system? Something
that might suggest this direction? If so, then perhaps this might
imply that there is a “force” or tendency in all Western
philosophical thinking that might propel thought into the confining
constraints of totality.
Totality and Infinity, Levinas’ first major work, Levinas
provides an opening to his project of rethinking philosophy, by
setting up and exploring the vicissitudes and distinctions of the
two terms of the title — totality — and infinity —
while at the same time providing the basis for an ethical philosophy
— a philosophy that begins with ethics, where ethics is understood
as an openness to the other.
philosophers had first explored the nature and substance of truth
along with the appropriate methodology of attaining truth, before
setting out to explore ethics and morality. The most vivid and impressive
example is given to us by Kant — who wrote The Metaphysics
of Morality after he had completed several of his major philosophical
works in which he explores the nature of reason, of judgement and
thus of truth. Ethics, for Kant, is founded on the rational.
Levinas, however, ethics is first philosophy. Ethics — my
caring for the other, my openness, my responsibility for the other
— comes before reason, before understanding, before truth.
Before philosophy itself, in fact.
does Levinas mean by this?
explores the nature of self, the self-same, the I, or ego, in its
identity with itself, then asks us to think about the other. The
other is, Levinas says, other, in that he or she is absolutely other,
and therefore always beyond my conceptual grasp.
the extent that I can conceive of the other within my own conceptual
framework, to the extent that I can categorize, structuralize, thematize,
diagnose or finalize the other, I am making the other into an aspect
of the same — my self — and thereby I lose my openness
to the other, by making him or her into an aspect of the same —
my own conceptual framework.
achievement of knowledge consists of grasping the object. Its strangeness
is then conquered. Its newness, the opening up of its otherness
is reduced to the “same”, to what has already been seen,
already known. In the ethical relation, the other man remains other
to me. Despite our exchanges, he remains that which I — closed
up in myself — am not.
other, as other, as absolutely other, remains always outside my
conceptual grasp. This is the realization I have when I am face-to-face
with the other.
does the face of the other say to me? What is invoked in me by the
presence of the other, by the face of the other?
face of the other calls out to me in its otherness: “Here
I am.” And “Do not kill me.” For the face of the
other, as presented to me, as absolutely other, also presents itself
to me as this possibility, that he/she might be killed. But simultaneously
with this moment, the face of the other calls out to me: “Do
not kill me.” Thus, we are now faced with the proposition,
or the commandment, to be more precise: “Thou shalt not kill.”
is there in the face? In my analysis, the face is definitely not
a plastic form like a portrait. The relation to the face is a relation
to the absolutely weak, to what is absolutely exposed, naked, and
destitute. It is a relation with destitution and consequently with
what is alone and can undergo the supreme isolation we call death.
There is, consequently, in the face of the other always the death
of the other and thus, in some way, an incitement to murder, the
temptation to go the extreme, to completely neglect the other. At
the same time (and this is the paradoxical thing) the face is also
the ‘thou shalt not kill. (p 166).
injunction not to kill the other is not only an injunction not to
kill the other physically — for example, with a knife or a
gun — but is also an injunction not to do violence to the
other by totalizing him or her. Totalization entails the creation
of a complete and total concept of the other within my own conceptual
of the other is violence. This is the original violence, of making
the other into an aspect of the same — which strips the other
of her alterity, denies her otherness and autonomy as a separate
human other, whose experience I cannot see, feel, touch or hear.
Levinas suggests that it is in this realization of the face-to-face
with the absolutely other that I first become aware of the concept
linguistic analysis, which is common to much 20th century philosophical
thinking, particularly in continental thought, as well as what is
referred to as post-modern thinking, words are essentially signifiers
or signs, which point to the things themselves, or more correctly
the concepts of the things. The word tree points to (signifies)
that which we commonly take to be a tree, the concept we have of
a tree as a tree. The signifier “tree” is bounded and
finite and excludes what is designated, for example, by the word
the word pen, or desk, or mountain, have finite, bounded and definite
so with the concept of infinity. As soon as I conceive of the infinite
as a something, then I am no longer conceiving of the infinite because
the infinite is by definition, not finite. I could come up with
a new definition/conception of infinity but then again as soon as
I arrive at such an understanding, it is no longer an understanding
the signifier infinity always necessarily (as signifier) points
to some thing — which is not a thing at all — which
is in the face of the other — the face as reminder of the
absolute otherness of the other — which reminds me of the
impossibility of ever knowing her fully — that I first become
aware of infinity, and so we arrive at Levinas’ understanding:
that we can totalize the concept of a thing but the other always
partakes of infinity, and so is always unknowable in totality, just
as infinity is.
propose to call “religion” the bond that is established
between the same and the other without constituting a totality.
to reiterate now: the face of the other in its infinitude calls
to me: thou shalt not kill, or perhaps: thou shalt not totalize.
totalize the other is violence. This is a realization that Levinas
finds is missing in the works of Western philosophy, even including
Heidegger, who subsumes the being of the other into his concepts
of Dasein (being there), and Being, which ultimately becomes a totalized
fact, for Levinas, understanding which is rational understanding,
when applied to others — other human beings — will inevitably
lead to a conceptualization and thematization of such other, and
imprisonment of the other into my categories of thought.
of the other, the experience of the face-to-face, is prior to any
rational understanding. Prior to conceptualization. And prior to
need to remind ourselves, again and again, in reading Levinas (or
re-reading him) that Ethics for Levinas is not about a set of rules
that govern correct behavior — such as when we talk of the
ethics of a profession — medical ethics, or the ethical code
governing the practice of psychotherapy — although these ethical
rules may indeed be founded on good and appropriate considerations
of the other. These also may well not be — certain rules of
some professional organizations are formulated with the interests
of the group’s members, not its clients, in mind.
Levinas, Ethics is the appreciation of the other as absolutely other.
In the same moment as my recognition of the other, I am aware, I
am made aware, of my responsibility for the other.
far does this responsibility extend? Levinas suggests that his responsibility
for the other — the other as infinite — has no limits
as such. In fact, he suggests that not only am I responsible for
the other, I am responsible for the other’s responsibility.
a number of interviews which took place over a period of several
years, collected in a book titled Is It righteous to Be?, Levinas
returns repeatedly to a line from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov:
We are all guilty in everything in respect to all others, and I
more than all the others.
don’t know whether it is possible for me, or for any of us,
to live our lives, moment-to-moment, with the weight of this responsibility.
perhaps I can take cognizance of the Levinasian stance of openness
to the other in my professional work — as a therapist, a coach
or organizational consultant.
we can take Levinas’ thought as a provocation. An invitation
and inducement towards being in a radically open way to the other,
to each other we encounter in our work.
cannot reduce Levinas’ thought to a methodology or system,
because in order for me to do honor to the spirit of Levinas, I
must welcome the other — whether working with an individual
or in a group. This welcoming without conditions is a radical openness,
without presupposition, systematization or categorization, to the
other, or others.
can conclude this present meditation by considering some of the
ways that Levinas’ thinking could be applied to our work.
first, we should note that much of what Levinas writes about is
the relationship between self and other. What about relationships
the dyad, self may be able to contemplate the possibility of a total
openness to the other. A putting-the-other-first. Thinking from
this standpoint, we could engage in a re-evaluation of the nature,
practice and purpose of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. We could
ask: What would the practice of one-to-one therapy be like if the
analyst adopted a stance of openness — so that no categories
and no diagnoses are applied to the patient? Indeed, to go further,
in such a stance of radical openness the therapist, beyond desire
for self, beyond the stance of doing violence by applying his categories
to the other-as-patient, would not even attempt to cure the patient!
Nor do him/her any harm.
this is what was suggested by Bion, when he spoke of the analyst
needing to be “beyond memory and desire.” For example,
is important that the analyst should avoid mental activity, memory
and desire, which is as harmful to his mental fitness as some forms
of physical activity are to physical fitness.
we go beyond the dyad, a third is introduced. I must now decide
how to divide my attentiveness between more than one other. Here,
Levinas says, the idea of justice arises. Justice is the extension
of the ethical relationship to the other to a group-related responsibility
— responsibility towards the others.
of the nature of a system of justice founded on a non-divisible
openness to the other — or others — could lead us to
a new awareness, a reconsideration of the nature of group dynamics,
and of what is desirable, in terms of each’s responsibility
to each other other, in groups — and towards a rethinking
of politics, anthropology, business practices, community therapy
and human relations theory as well as of organizational consulting.
would an ethical organizational consulting approach be like? Perhaps
we could think of it as a “just organizational consulting
methodology, or simply as “just consulting”.
is clearly a definite need for Just Consulting in business these
days. Besides the realm of conflict resolution in groups, we can
see a definite need for Just Consulting in the corporate world these
days, after the recent revelations of the less-than-just behavior
of many senior executives of large well-known corporations.
is heartening to note that a group called Governance Metrics International
has conducted a study which shows that companies which have an overall
“good governance” rating (measured in terms of how well
they treat their employees, how well they treat their customers,
whether they restate earnings, etc.) actually perform better, financially,
in the long run.
cannot do much more in a paper of this length than suggest some
ideas for further consideration, in the realm of organizational
respect to human relations theory: We may note that Bion’s
basic assumption groups all share the characteristic that they create
(or embody) a totalized view of the group by the group, by each
and every member, with concomitant totalized views of those not
in the group. To the extent that the group totalizes itself, and
each sees the other as part of that totality, the group does violence
to itself and to each other. The work group is presumably free of
such violent (and debilitating) totalization, but as the work group
is based on a rational premise — the accomplishment of a commonly-conceived
task — it may or may not be operating in an Ethical or Just
manner. It depends.
am presently involved with a group of organizational consultants
that is presently engaged in thinking about what a Levinasian/ethical
group practice would be like.
is a temptation in organizational consulting to consult to those
who are paying the bill — not only consulting to them, but
also seeing their interests as paramount. There are cases where
consultants minister to the problems of the executives, sometimes
expressing great sympathy (or empathy) for their plight, while at
the same time blocking from awareness (of both the executives and
the consultant/s) the un-human, de-humanizing attitude of management
both to employees and to the population being served.
sympathetic can we be to the director of a mental hospital who complains
of disorder and dysfunction in the organizational system, while
suffering from alcoholism, depression or some other form of personal
debilitation — while the patients are herded into the drug-induced
haze of the cuckoo-nest-like halls of drug-induced oblivion? The
mental hospitals in New York were emptied out, due in part to the
encouragement of major segments of the pharmaceutical industry,
who hailed the new “freedoms” available to ex-patients
who could now live normal lives outside the mental hospitals —
in group homes, through the “benefit” of their psychotropic
it was in these group homes that these ex-patients were brutalized,
de-humanized, robbed, neglected, sexually abused and sometimes left
to die alone, forlorn, in their rooms due to lack of attentiveness
on the part of profit-hungry administrations.
was part of a state-sponsored program.
lessons of the holocaust, of the brutalization of one by an other
in South Africa, Cambodia, Rwanda and Stalin’s Russia, to
name a few, are perhaps not learned because they are not lessons
that can be finally and totally codified within a neat rational
system. If we agree with Levinas that reason comes after my responsibility
for the other, then any attempt to develop a rational understanding
of these evils must first take account, as Levinas does, of one’s
responsibility for the other. The lessons that we can learn from
the evils of the past must be founded on lessons of the heart.
this is what we can gain from reading Levinas — that the path
to travel is the path with heart. The grand structures of reason,
no matter how elegant and impressive they may appear, are not good
for us — within one-to-one relationships, within small groups,
for our society, and the global society — if they do not begin
with a fundamental appreciation of and openness to the other. Of
us consider some organizational consulting situations where an understanding
of Levinas could help us gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics
being played out in a group.
Always keep the infinite in mind/out of mind.
There is no one way — no method — for ensuring openness,
and listening justly to others. There are general principles of
psychoanalysis which prepare one to clear the ego-centered understanding
which we may bring to relationships — psychoanalysis allows
for reflection on one’s way of entering into and conducting
relationships within the context of a relationship between patient
and analyst. What we gain from experience of participation in group
relations conferences, and from Zen meditation — to name some
possible methods — may also help us become aware of what we
bring to our relationships with others.
attempt to be mindful of the other person as infinite, and attempt
to be aware if and when an individual in a group attempts to totalize
an other, or themselves. Or, whether the group as a whole falls
into the position of totalizing itself. I remind myself, from time
to time that keeping these notions, entailing respect for the infinite,
in mind, necessarily would seem to entail having such ideas out
of my mind, as mind cannot contain the infinite. Thus, one keeps
the idea in mind while at the same time allowing oneself to freely
explore the dynamic interaction with the other, or others. In this,
I have found, on many occasions, that working with another consultant,
or sharing thoughts with other consultants, on reflection, can reveal
my own modes of not appreciating the infinity of some one or more
others. It is in conversation with others, that the fixed standpoints
one adopts may come into relief.
is not always appropriate to share one’s views, directly,
with any one member of the group, or with the group as a whole.
This would not be contradictory to Bion’s thoughts, as expressed
in Experience in Groups. Also, there are consulting assignments
where it has occurred to me that various key authority figures in
the organization would put up a stiff resistance to recognizing
that they are treating any other human within the organization with
less than the full respect that is owed to another human being,
the other as infinite being.
have consulted with several service businesses which employ large
numbers of low-skilled and generally low paid workers. I have noticed
that frequently there is a great deal of denigration of the low-skilled
workers, coupled with the view of these workers as lazy, demanding,
and unreliable. Generally, there seems to be an inverse correlation
between the amount of such complaining and denigration, on the one
hand, and the wages and other benefits provided to the employees,
on the other. The ethical path, in these organizations, seems to
frequently result in greater worker satisfaction, less employee
turnover, and better quality of work.
an ongoing consultation with a group of artists who use a 12-step
model (à la Alcoholics Anonymous) to attempt to help ease
the suffering of the artist’s inability to perform her art,
we notice that these aspiring artists treat themselves and each
other as if they are not really artists as yet. This becomes apparent
during a concert performance where each member of the group —
identified as Sandy H., Frank M., Mary S., or Bill W., for example
— is given exactly five minutes to perform his or her art,
in a cold, impersonal hall. Going over the allotted time leads to
being given the “Thank you” sign, upon which the audience
applauds and the budding artist must sheepishly leave the stage.
By defining themselves in this way, each implicitly allows him/her
self to become a member of an impersonal list of performers, worthy
of applause and acclaim only by virtue of having the courage to
stand on stage and perform, never worthy of an encore, for example.
seeing themselves as worthy of being put in such a position, each
allows him or her self to be defined as being unworthy of the possibility
of attaining public acclaim, and so agrees to put him or her self
in the exact position which the group claims it is helping each
member to escape or recover from. We are presently exploring ways
to help them see how a spirit of openness, a non-defining, non-violent
and non-infringing description by each of self, and each of other
may contribute greatly to the healing community they seek. The totalized
is formal, neat and complete, whereas the infinite defies formalization,
is beyond essence, and as unstructured, is an-archic. Allowing more
free reign of chaos, within the context of the framework of the
organization which holds them, may both allow them to experiment
more freely, and be artistic — art is always presented in
a framework that entails others. There may be an artful way of composing
themselves, if we, as consultants, can facilitate the process of
allowing themselves to become artists in more ways than they initially
expected. Art, like spoken or written language, takes place between
us — in relationship between artist-as-self and others.
2. Who is (politically) correct?
A psychoanalytic training institute in London is known to follow
a more progressive, philosophical path than the traditional Freudian
Institute. They have a tradition of reading philosophy, and approaching
their readings of Freud and other analysts from a phenomenological/philosophical
position, resulting in a reading of psychoanalysis, and a practice
which could not be called conventional. Several members of the organization
have read Levinas extensively, and have published papers or books
concerning Levinasian thought and practice.
institute was the first in the U.K. to admit gay persons as candidates
for training. They read Freud’s theories as metaphor, and
do not take a position concerning a normal and proper mode of expressing
one’s sexuality — defining such-and-such as normal and
desirable sexual practice, while another form of sexual expression
is perverse — that is, not acceptable within a totalized Freudian
1978, a Dr Karl Harrison completed training with the group. He was
well respected within the group. Besides being qualified as a physician,
he was also a homeopathic practitioner. He treated one of the esteemed
members of the organization, amongst others, during and after his
training. At that time, the training program was not as large, nor
as formal as it had become in 1995. There were no certificates or
diplomas. The early nineties saw the introduction of nationwide
rules concerning the registration and licensing of psychotherapists
in the U.K. In 1978, the year of Dr Harrison’s “graduation”,
there were no formal certifications required for psychotherapists.
Harrison left the eclectic and liberal training group — on
good terms — and decided to become a Catholic minister. He
continued practicing as a therapist.
1995, he approached the organization, to ask for a formal letter,
stating that he underwent formal training in the seventies, and
that he completed all the requirements — coursework, supervision
and individual therapy. He was now working as a psychotherapist
within the prison system, and needed to show some sort of formal
credentials in order to be able to continue his work.
institute does not take a position on religion. Some members are
engaged in the practice of Buddhism, and many could simply be called
agnostic. Perhaps even atheistic.
Institute’s board consists of eleven members. One prominent
member, Olga Cavanaugh, who has come to be seen as the spokesperson
of the Gay and Lesbian segment of the Institute, declares that she
is not prepared to provide a letter saying Dr Harrison is certified
as a qualified therapist by the Institute. She claims that the open
spirit of the Institute allows all shades of opinion, meaning and
practice, and the fact that Dr Harrison has become affiliated with
the Catholic Church means that he affirms an ideology, a set of
practices and beliefs such as that adhered to by the Catholic Church
in Ireland, where she grew up. She knows from first hand experience
what the Catholic Church is capable of. They have adopted an official
position which is paternalistic, reactionary, anti-woman, anti-homosexual,
anti-birth control, and anti-abortion, in any circumstances! As
Dr Harrison represented this anti-feminine, anti-freedom position,
he does not conform to the ideals which the institute represents,
and so he should not be eligible to be authorized by the Institute.
other members of the board see things differently. They claim that
the general spirit of the Institute is one of openness, and appreciation
of the other as other, without reservation, and without violence.
They see no particular clear and bright lines demarcating a particular
ideology or ideologies which are automatically approved or disapproved.
In their view, it matters more how a person is in his or her being,
and how he or she treats others, particularly their patients.
Harrison is asked by the board about his views, and his mode of
practice. Does he believe in a woman’s right to choose? Dr
Harrison answers that he believes that abortion is generally wrong
in the eyes of God, but that he would not try to influence a patient
one way or the other, as he recognizes that this is his personal
view, and so, as such, it would not be appropriate to attempt to
preach this to a patient or to try to influence a patient to take
a particular course in her life based on his opinions. What matters
in therapy, he believes, is to allow the patient to explore for
herself what seems appropriate. He is a facilitator, not a preacher,
when engaged in his psychotherapeutic practice.
says that he has worked with a patient who became pregnant during
the course of the therapy. Normally, he says, if someone came to
him and said she wanted to get an abortion, he would refer her to
someone else. But in this case, he was already working with the
patient, and so continued to work with her during the course of
her having the abortion, and working with whatever material came
satisfied three of the members of the board, who said that, although
they didn’t share his particular religious views, they were
satisfied that he was not unduly exerting influence, or imposing
his ideology (and thus committing violence on others). Additionally,
reports from others who had been patients of Dr Harrison —
including a patient who disliked formal religions, but found Dr
Harrison very helpful and attentive when she was going through a
crisis — were favorable. So, he should be entitled to a certificate
from the Institute. Ms Cavanaugh and others, on the other hand,
were absolutely opposed. "You're prepared to certify someone
who does not believe in a woman’s right to choose? A religious
fundamentalist? What next, you would authorize a Nazi?” she
demanded to know.
two of the three board members who had voted to authorize were Jewish,
and so they were doubly offended. Subsequently, Ms Cavanaugh and
Ms Perkey led their followers (most of the Gay and Lesbians, as
well as one or two others) in a walkout, and the Institute was split
between two factions.
can ask what is happening here? Ms Cavanaugh claims that the institute
stands for openness and freedom, and Dr Harrison represents a restriction
on the openness, that his views would conflict with those of many
members of the Institute. On the other hand, Dr Katz claims that
excluding someone because of particular views — where those
views are not compelling the individual to denigrate, totalize or
otherwise do violence to others — would be contrary to the
spirit of openness of the Institute; that we should not be concerned
with the particularities of an individual’s world view, as
much as the spirit with which that person practices.
seems that sometimes a well-intentioned idea, an idea which involves
an opening up to freedom — once it has been accepted and put
into practice — can become an ideology which is practiced
as dogma — a totalized world view. The finest humanitarian/humanistic
principles can, intentionally or otherwise, become hard and fast
rules which may have the aura of goodness but can actually become
the rationale for treating others with less than true Justice.
the process of writing this up, I confess that I became aware —
due to the perceptive comments of a colleague who read the initial
draft — that I was perhaps totalizing one of the parties in
the above dynamic. He wondered if I hadn’t taken sides somewhat
in my descriptions of the positions of the parties involved. I reviewed
what I had written and attempted to give a fuller account of each
person’s position. I also realized that there was much more
that could have been explored, and so I contacted some of the people
involved, and have asked them for further comments, thus making
the for the possibility that this would be an ongoing consultation.
note also that written presentations, case histories, descriptions
of relationships and interactions after the fact necessarily summarize
some issues, always involve condensation, and a resultant focus
on what the writer deems interesting and relevant. Levinas, in his
later work, Otherwise than Being, or beyond Essence, draws a distinction
between the saying — which is present, dynamic, and in interaction
directly with the other — and the said — a recollection,
a summarizing, a review which is more static, and not directly in
interaction with the other. As this paper is intended to be read
at the ISPSO Conference, it will become a live saying in its presentation
and the ensuing discussion, which will give it a different life.
The reader who reads it without that interaction will necessarily
experience it differently. A description of a person after the fact
of their presence always involves some type of characterization,
sometimes even as caricature. We would need extensive, moment-by-moment
description of a person and his/her actions to attempt to overcome
this, and that itself, while impossible, would also not necessarily
provide you with a complete or accurate picture of the person .
As we are always in interaction with others, we always speak from
our point of view. I can try to open up each person's point of view,
as a conflict resolution consultant, encouraging each participant
to appreciate the view of the other. This is sometimes difficult
or even impossible. The problems, in Levinasian terms, could be
referred to as the problem of establishing a dialogue (dia-logos)
between two others who are totally separate and distinct from each
other — the problems and possibilities of inter-paradigmatic
dialogue . As consultants we can be aware that, sometimes, people
are speaking to each other (if they are actually addressing the
other at all) in languages that involve very different sets of assumptions.
One thing we can learn from these considerations, is that sometimes
it is possible that dialogue will not allow each side of dispute
to appreciate where the other is coming from — the two parties
may be talking to one another across an unbridgeable chasm. But
recognizing that all discourse between any 2 others is inter-paradigmatic
(as it occurs between two absolute others) may help one to help
them achieve the possibility of true dialogue (dia-logos).
reader is encouraged to think of situations encountered which reflect
this dichotomy: the ideas and principles arrived at after much debate
appear good and holy, and after reflection seem to be the ethically,
religiously, spiritually or politically correct thing to do. These
principles are then embodied in a set of rules. But, the application
of the rules in a given particular situation seems to do harm to
one or more others, in contravention of the original motivating
spirit behind the rules.
can think of the noble motivations of Christianity, and the subversion
of these ideas during the Crusades, and the Inquisition. Or, the
good spirit (in my view) of Marx’s vision — how everyone
could share equally — subverted by Stalinism. Or, we can consider
the irony of a country being invaded and occupied by those who hold
freedom as the highest value — war in the name of freedom.
Robert Mugabe seemed to many to be the embodiment of the socialist,
egalitarian vision when he became Zimbabwe’s president in
1980. Now, in the name of creating a greater justice, he authorizes
thugs to harass and kill white farmers, and members of the opposition,
expels those who know how to farm effectively, while he flies in
his private plane to antique shows in London, as millions face poverty
and starvation due to food shortages brought about by his gross
mismanagement of the economy.
do we follow a Levinasian path? How can we become Levinasian, and
apply his thinking to our practice?
if we attempt to become Levinasian, we run the risk of creating
yet one more thematization, one more set of ideas which could in
turn become the new holy ideology. Perhaps then we somehow need
to eschew Levinas in order to welcome him!
the other hand, Levinas has opened up for philosophical thinking,
for all serious thinking that involve relationships between us,
a new spirit, a new responsibility, an ethic that involves a caring
of one-for-the-other, without appeal to an abstract notion of God,
an understanding that we are always already in relationship with
each other, and that implies a responsibility for others, that should
suffuse our thinking — about philosophy, life, psychoanalysis,
justice, business, ecology and politics… It is the un-codifiable,
unmarked and uncharted path with heart.
undertook a radical re-thinking of western thinking and philosophy,
and its assumptions, deconstructing previous assumptions of philosophical
thinking, forcing us to read philosophy, and understand society
and its mores in a more critical light. Nietzsche influenced Freud,
who also radically questioned society’s assumptions. Levinas’
radical rethinking of the assumptions underlying western philosophy,
and its unquestioning quest for truth turns philosophy from being
a love of wisdom, into being a wisdom of love.
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University Press, 1991
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April 30 - May 1st, 2005
Psychoanalysis, Philosophy, Religion
- An Inquiry on Evil