Student responses to Neither Wolf nor Dog

neither_wolfthumbnail.jpgA few weeks ago I received a wonderful selection of student responses to Neither Wolf nor Dog from Bill Davis, a teacher of philosophy and East Asian Studies at Blue Valley North High School in Stillwell, Oklahoma. The very fact that they have those courses speaks to the quality of education available to the students, and their papers on Neither Wolf nor Dog confirmed that quality.

I can’t always carve out writing time to offer a worthy response to the emails and contacts I get. But the efforts of these students merited something more than a short note of thanks and appreciation. I thought I’d share my response to them with the rest of you. Perhaps it will be of some value to those of you who teach Neither Wolf nor Dog in your classes.

It’s a long read, so get your cup of coffee.

Here goes:

To my friends in Mr. Davis’ class,

What an interesting and diverse set of responses. You must have some pretty lively discussions in your class. If you don’t, it isn’t for lack of opinions and thoughtfulness. You’re obviously a good group.

I’m going to give you some general thoughts that were keyed by your insights.

First, let me say a bit about America and our culture. We are optimistic and pragmatic almost to a fault. There is an underlying assumption that there is an answer to any question and that a critique is deficient if it does not point to instrumental corrective action. Consequently, knowledge is valued directly in proportion to the degree it points a direction for a constructive response.

Personally, I’m not in this camp, and, I think I am safe in saying, neither was Dan. Sadly, by my/our lights, there is knowledge that simply increases our quality of insight about ourselves, our society, and the human condition. Knowing about the state of the American Indian may be one example of such knowledge. There may be nothing we can do other than be aware of what our presence on this continent has wrought. This is not to say that we shouldn’t work for good and for betterment. But it is to say that there may not be a way to rectify past wrongs beyond having them serve as a kind of dark knowledge that guides our footsteps into the future. I’m not saying I believe this entirely, but I do believe that a cultural critique such as Dan’s is not the lesser for not providing a specific and positive roadmap to a more benevolent and healthier future.

We, as members of the dominant, or, at least, the dominating culture, do not have to feel guilt at what happened in the past. We merely have to feel responsibility for it as it impacts the present and the future. Power is real, and the powerless rely on those of us who can effect change to do so, even if that change is only in attitudes. Sometimes cultural movement does not take place in a decade or even a generation. But that does not negate the importance of acting for change and betterment.

So, what do I think that change and betterment should be, especially if I don’t see any clear path to instrumental action?

Part of it – the easy part – is recognition. We can’t go around naming towns “Chivington” (check him out if you don’t know who he is) any more than we can go around naming towns “Hitler.” We can’t go looking for racism under every rock when we don’t stand up against a symbol like the logo of the Cleveland Indians or a name like the Washington Redskins. Don Imus got run out of town for his “Nappy headed Ho” comment, yet the Cleveland Indian logo proudly graces the apparel of one of our major sports teams. If one is wrong, why not the other? If voices are raised in outrage about one, why not about the other?

There are myriad instances of such blind spots, and Dan, for his part, pointed out many of them. Some of you thought his critiques were riddled with similar blind spots. Maybe so. But disregarding his observations because you saw fallacies in his logic is a classic example of disregarding the message because of the flaws of the messenger.

I, for my part, thought he had a lot of very cogent insights, or I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of writing the book. Did he generalize about white people? Yes. But often when you are a minority it is possible to feel the presence of a cultural wave crashing against you, and it is more difficult to differentiate individuals from that cultural wave. So, for my part, I think we need to cut him some slack.

Do you generalize about Republicans? Democrats? People from another high school? Iranians? Gays? The soldiers of Blackwater? Hollywood morals? We simply cannot deal with the world without making generalizations and categorizations. It is the nature of thought and language to find patterns and discuss things in relation to those patterns. The key is to know that they are constructs, not reality. But if the shoe fits, wear it. Dan put all of us in the same shoe. It is not universally fair, but it is not entirely false, either. Consider, for example, his thoughts on the way we deal with language or race. Are there not some grounds for his generalizations in those two instances? And there were many others.

I was very taken by the observation one of you made that Dan went from being a uni-cultural loyalist to a multi-cultural humanist. I had never heard those terms before, but they are very valuable, and I think they do apply to Dan as he unravels his thoughts for us. Simply put, he was casting about for a way to make the decimation of his people meaningful. Is this so much different from the sad struggles of the parents of soldiers killed in Iraq to give meaning to their sons’ and daughters’ deaths in a meaningless and unnecessary war? We all want to think that the sacrifices made by people we love had meaning. Would you not struggle to find meaning to an act that resulted in your grandmother being murdered or your little sister being taken away to a boarding school where she died in unclear circumstances? Of such things have the daily lives of Indian people been made, and they, like all of us, struggle to give meaning to those seemingly incomprehensible acts.

Now, consider if the agents of those crimes against your family were the relatives and ancestors of the very people who control the society you live in, and you can see easily why Dan said that Indian people did not dare to look squarely at what had been done to them. His choice, and it seems to me a good one, was to look for a larger philosophical or theological meaning behind the sacrifice of his peoples’ lives and culture. And, speaking personally, I hope he’s right, for I, too, carry in my heart the stain of our immigrant decimation of the Indian people, even if I am not personally responsible for what occurred.

There is much more I could say. But I will close with a thought that kept rising up in me when I reread your excellent essays: claiming that the individual is free and that we should both act and judge only as individuals is a proposition most easily embraced by “victor” cultures that are on the top of the economic and cultural wheel of life. It is easy for each of us to critique anything that groups us with others (e.g., “white culture” in Dan’s words), and it is easy for us to say that Dan’s sense of cultural oppression is something that he should transcend rather than dwell upon.

But the real world of every day affairs is not so simple.

I am sorry to say that none among us is free from the taint of ascribing certain values to certain cultures/groups, no matter how much we might wish or claim to be. And none of us is free from the shaping factors of our own cultural experience, even if we don’t wish to be. To give just the crudest example, those of us who speak English articulate the world in terms of subjects and objects and we nuance our understanding by creating specificity through adjectives and adverbs. Subjects act upon objects; subjects and objects become more individualized by the laying on of distinguishing characteristics. That’s the way we are; that’s the way we think. We can rail against it, but we can’t do a whole lot to change it.

We also are prone to thinking that the individual is the both the most fundamental and inviolable element in human culture. And the whole goal of the U.S. government over the years has been to force the Indian to think of him or herself as, first and foremost, an individual rather than as a part of a group. It is important for us to realize that this is not an absolute truth, but a philosophical construct. Just because we want to be understood as individuals does not mean everyone wants to be understood as an individual. Some people want to put the family above the individual; others want to put the entire group above the individual. And people who choose to think this way are not necessarily either brainwashed or naïve. They just choose to see the world through a different set of eyes.

What I’m getting at here is that you need to be aware of some of the deeper suppositions and presuppositions on which both your own and Dan’s opinions are based. You need to be as careful about examining your own suppositions and presuppositions as you are about judging Dan’s. That is what becoming educated is all about. There are a thousand ways to make distinctions on which one can build opinions and judgments: liberal/conservative; optimistic/pessimistic; socialist/capitalist; individual/collective; etc., etc. But those distinctions, and most others, are, at best, useful. They are not necessarily true. We tend to be a people drawn to dualisms like those above. They make things simple and understandable. But we must not mistake the valid for the true.

Dan speaks from a lifetime of experience and he shapes his understanding based on that experience. It is ultimately less important whether or not he is right than whether or not he gives us insight into a way of understanding that a number of people hold. Once we can begin to share that understanding, if only for the purposes of seeing into the hearts and minds of another, we are on the way to reconciliation and healing. If we have to go more than half way, so be it. How to act upon that understanding is another thing altogether.

Each generation gets its own challenge, and very often part of that challenge is to provide a corrective to the excesses of the previous generation. The obsession with “self” has dominated the American intellectual landscape almost since our national inception, but never more than in the past fifty years. Dan has given you a look into the world of the “other.” Your challenge, and the challenge of your generation, is not to pass judgment on Dan or others like him, but to learn from him and to pass that learning along.

Do not worry about what this means specifically. Each of your lives will take a unique course, and a moment will arise when you act upon that learning. Just carry Dan’s words in your heart, discarding the inconsistencies and forgiving the excesses. Then you, too, will be a fire carrier for his message. It’s a worthy burden to bear.

My best to each of you, and my deepest respect for your hard work on Neither Wolf nor Dog. It is a gift to me and an honor to Dan. Try to live your lives with kindness, and follow the path with heart.

Kent Nerburn

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