Learning Through Disagreement

Presentation by Janos Abel, based on a book by Marvin T Brown – Learning Through Disagreement – a workbook for the Ethics of Business. 

Present: Janos (chair/presenter), Eddie, Ellena, Simon, Mary (notes). Apologies, Peter, Ray

Janos explained that what he has learned from all the groups he has been associated with for many yeara is that disagreements are often to do with ego, and people tend to walk away from them instead of learning how to benefit from them. This happens in all groups including this one. He thinks it is vitally important for the future of grass roots activism to utilize available methods that can turn unpleasant arguments over differences in view to learning opportunities. What often happens in this very group when a disagreement arises is that the initial assertion is defended and the disagreeing person enters into the trap of wanting to defend his position of disagreement instead of trying to understand the reason behind the original assertion. this starts an argumentative loop that is not at all constructive.

Some helpful techniques are set out in the book, Learning Through Disagreement – a workbook for the Ethics of Business by Marvin T Brown, Janos wanted to offer for consideration (we should not be put off by the word “business” in the subtitle as it applies in all situations where collaboration is a desirable process.
Mary corroborates that “walking away” is what sometimes happens in LETS groups. Groups tend to go through several stages, i.e. Forming the Group, followed by Storming/Arguing, then the Norming Stage (which means learning about issues without egos, with at least 50% sharing a common vision), and the fourth stage, Performing — actually doing the intended “business” which drew people together in the first place. Then a group can function as an effective Change Agent. This model of group progression (forming>>storming>>norming>>performing) was first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. See Wikipedia entry.

Janos felt strongly that the new world will not come without being ushered in through group work. Leaders and charismatic people can not, by themselves as individuals, change situations; it is the group forming around them that does the transformation — the group functioning as a unit with a shared vision and full commitment to the task agreed. Sadly from experience Janos said he had seen no group getting through the second stage.
Janos showed us a diagram of concentric circles, showing 12 people coming together, then uniting in their common interests. They can do this if they leave the ego behind or command it to be a subservient agent of the group objective. The diagram shows “Degrees of Team Resonance” 0° to 12° (least to most effective collaboration).

—The intended presentation of how debate can be turned into a more productive mode of communication known as dialogue gave way to a general discussion of points raised so far.—

Simon mentioned “Heart Math”, the discovery that we think much more in the heart than the head, i.e. you are drawn to people emotionally, then afterwards you find ways of justifying this intellectually; conversely if you feel poorly disposed towards someone emotionally, you won’t accept their ideas. If people are aware of this they can learn a lot more from each other. And if you say a word that jars with me, and you don’t mean the general meaning of the word, and can explain it, I can adjust to your use of it.

Mary recalled a similarity with the group work of M Scott Peck’s. Janos had also read and been inspired by his work, and recalled one story about a religious community living in a forest, who were longing for the return of Christ, and the leader, the Abbot of the community says he couldn’t tell them the details, only that “it will be one of you”, and this idea transformed the community.

Janos went on to say that trust is absolutely vital. He was prepared to put himself in a vulnerable position because he trusted the present group that what he was going to say would not be used as a weapon to diminish him by, for example, misunderstanding  as megalomania what he was about to say: In the last few weeks he (Janos) had gone back to the story of the problem of Moses, which was that he (Moses) had a speech impediment yet felt that he had important things to say to the people. (According to the Jewish (i.e. Old) Testament, God wanted him to give a message to the people, but Moses argued that it was an unfair request—in view of his problem with speech. He rebelled against this, but God said he will give him a mouth, and chose Aaron, brother of Moses, who could understand what Moses had to say, and repeat it in a way that people could understand.) In a similar way, Janos feels he is looking for a ghost writer, and Simon said this is a reasonable aim, many others seek such support.

Other books Janos wanted to share were John Taylor Gatto’s “Dumbing Us Down”, and his latest book “Weapons of Mass Instruction”, which is about the “transformation of schooling from a 12-year jail sentence into freedom to learn”. Its thesis was that our current education system has ensured that every generation is dumbed down so that they can accept the society as given. In English “education” is the most maligned word, whose original meaning was “bringing out’, is all about “putting it in”.

Janos went on to say that truth-seeking and -saying is like “intellectual warfare” that can redeem rather than destroy oppressors and tyrants defenders of the un-sane status quo. The conflict must be kept and resolved on a conceptual level, not a physical level – “truth is the only weapon of the poor”. You can use truth to hit the target, so that it crumbles. Gandhi has actually pointed out the way to the use of “militant non-violence”.

Simon said that the trust issue is crucial because of Peter’s notion from Margaret Kennedy that it works for everyone and protects the earth, but an “everything” that doesn’t include “everybody” won’t work long-term. Trust is a feeling rather than an intellectual thing. The question is how can we build trust as some form of movement that is not exclusive in its approach. Ellena reiterated the importance of trust in relation to the situation when she visits her sisters’ home in the north of England. She has taken in young teenagers, and sometimes when she challenges their behaviour they said “trust me”, to which her response is “I trust people who are trustworthy”.

Janos went on to explain that Marvin T Brown, the editor of Learning Through Disagreement, recommends that every interchange with people starts with the request, which is to choose to engage in a dialogue rather than a debate, so when engaging with people in the group, he will have to ask if he can dialogue, rather than defend his position. The book gives you techniques, how to make the dialogue fruitful, and achieve something from it. It also mentions the presence of “gatekeepers” who are put into a group that may become threatening, their role being to divert a promising line of investigation into something that won’t be dangerous, and this is something that he had observed in the Occupy Economics Working Group,

In further discussion, Simon mentioned that whilst the Green Party has taken on board the issues of the banking monopoly of creating currency, unearned returns of natural resources and the value generated by the whole population of the earth, basic income, which would prevent the system commandeering the time of our life, by requiring us to earn money before we can buy the necessities of life, these ideas had been too radical to put forward in their election manifesto.

This reminded Janos of the psychological position we all suffer from when we feel we are handcuffed strapped in a chair, e.g. if you are trying to refurbish your house but you are not allowed to unstrap yourself (from daily concerns) before you can get down to it. Another example is when the machine you are using is malfunctioning, but you keep on struggling trying to get the job in han finished, instead of stopping to sort it out. So people want to have time to be creative cannot make the demand for basic income the main campaign of their life, in order to enable this to happen. The importance of the Constitutionalists proposal, lies in its vision is to achieve a root and branch transformation that will be a step-change in social evolution.

Simon said that the desire for basic income, universalism mitigation of inequality, the type of things that we want, the fact is that people voted against them in the recent election. They understand the principle of people getting things as a right, but prefer the idea of people should wok.

On the other hand, Mary felt that due to lack of education, most people don’t understand the issues, and are swayed by slogans and plain untruths, e.g. the Tories blaming the Labour Party for the recession, whereas actually it’s a global issue. We are influenced by emotion rather than logic, and the use of catch-phrases to simplify things, also some people have more confidence in “strong leadership”, irrespective of politics. All agreed that the Iraq War would have lost Labour votes.

Janos felt it was right to always find the underlying reason, the meta-issue – it’s well-known that systems can change instantaneously if the correct weak point can be identified and corrected. most of the time our concern is captured by obvious symptomatic problems. This is like pushing on the short end of a leaver— near the fulcrum. Using Analytical Activism, as opposed to traditional, “more of the truth” activism is developed by the Thwink Prject. We discussed whether things could suddenly tip, and Janos felt that to get a measure of integrity you need someone who is prepared to change their minds. So the emphasis of the cafe society is about people educating themselves, to form a movement. Economics is taking pieces of nature, moving to another location where it becomes useful. i.e. human nature creates wealth. This is basic economics.

Janos then alluded to the question of ownership being a point of difference between his ideas and those of the constitutionalists, which seemed to be a confused philosophy. Proudhon’s statement “property is theft”, he feels that the phrase should be amended, and is the foundation of the intellectual problem that needs to be worked on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Joseph_Proudhon – see Recent article in by Lord Desai: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/new-homes/3303619/Not-all-property-is-theft.html

Simon was also interested in what could be done collaboratively. With reference to Rob Urie, an artist/economics, who writes for CounterPunch, he felt that we need to distinguish something about what people want and what is attractive in life, for example a recent posting: http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/23/the-king-of-empty-gestures

Eddie felt his own experience in developing his work as an artist of having a collaborative Masters Degree, was relevant, as this was a form of shared ownership, which the authorities found quite difficult to accept. He had been inspired towards developing this model by his memories of school, where Mrs Maguire had ordinary work in the morning and in the afternoon they always put a show on, so they were constantly in rehearsals: in the morning you knew who was clever, in the afternoon all talents were valued, everyone found their space, their was no distinction, that would be a fantastic duration for everyone, and this was the basis for some of his beliefs about doing things as a group.

So it was agreed that there was much food for thought, in Janos’s presentation so far: See
Marvin T Brown: Learning through Disagreement: A Workbook for the Ethics of Business: http://www.amazon.com/Learning-through-Disagreement-Workbook-Business/dp/1554812178


Postamble: Janos shared with us the importance of being able to present the ideas he had been researching, and he appreciated the opportunity to develop confidence. He felt he had been born a philosopher, but fate forced him to become a manual worker. He had escaped the Hungarian regime, at the age of 19, when the revolution broke out in 1956. His parents could not return home from a visit to his grandparents, and he found himself alone in the family flat for the first time ever. He heard that hundreds of thousands were leaving for the West as the borders of his “prison-country” were unguarded. He realised that this was his chance—a “now or never” moment—having dreamt about escaping communism (and also his family). However, once in London, it was obvious that a lot of growing up remained to be done after a stultifying childhood environment left its mark on him.


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