–––––––OPEN TO DEBATE––––––
Vital Disputation & Healthy Disagreement in Herbalism
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
A recent article in Plant Healer Magazine opened up discussion on the topics of political correctness and cultural appropriation as relates to the practice of herbalism. There was at least one person we will not name, who admitted never having read the magazine, and yet used social media to call the opinionated, adept and earth-loving author Sam Coffman a “Donald Trump.”
This same otherwise caring person also accused the publishers of the magazine of being bigoted for printing the piece. This of course hurt the feelings of my co-editor, who grew up a runaway in a ghetto, and who supports the emphasis we put on herbal access, justice and empowerment in spite of the heat that puts on us. You might think this would result in our deciding to avoid running any controversial material or addressing any sensitive issues… but instead it increases our desire to raise important but difficult topics that impact our work and relationships, and to encourage healthy and respectful dialogue among the wonderful folks who often try to avoid debate.
Our herbal community places a high value on kindness and cooperation, with most herbalists being highly sensitive to the feelings and sufferings of others. As healers, most of us would prefer to mend and confer than confront, even when dealing with a harmful untruth or unjust situation. And there is also a tendency among some of us to treat conflicting ideas as both are simultaneously and equally true and applicable. This well meaning effort to make all things compatible has the unfortunate effect of damping dialogue and debate, limiting the natural systems of testing and reassessing, and reducing the value of what is most real and effective.
This doesn’t mean we would be better off arguing all the time over some principal or “fact,” and we certainly suffer as a community anytime there is a personal attack, acidic gossip, online bullying, guilt-tripping sermonizing or self righteous shaming. Internecine conflict among subgroups is divisive, and is one of the ways in which the dominant paradigm maintains its insidious control. and yet it would be stifling if everyone thought alike, and debate – even heated debate – has the potential to lead to a clarification of our own understandings, as well as to the discovery of areas of agreement, shared values, and common aims. Besides, our tribe is made stronger through a diversity of dissimilar opinions, opinions that change and adapt with each new bit of input and information, with each intellectual and moral challenge.
Do we require an apology from the facebook attacker? Not at all, I for one am pleased people care enough to raise hell.
That said, there is for almost everyone reason and opportunity to make amends.
It would be great if our movement were free of moralizing, bickering, and infighting, granted… but at the same time, we could also use just a mite more productive disagreement.
1. lack of consensus or approval
Lack of approval and consensus can be a good thing. Let me explain.
Consensus – getting every relevant person to agree – is in some ways optimal for groups involved in things that greatly matter, including activists making decisions that could jeopardize their cause or their lives, and healers of any kind on whom the health and well being of a person even partly depends. On the other hand, expecting or holding out for consensus has again and again derailed what could have been meaningful action on the part of environmental and social activists from Earth First! to the Occupy movement, and the tendency of herbalists to adhere to “common wisdom” and “accepted truths” has at times reduced critical analysis and experimentation, hampered new discoveries and slowed the development of new perspectives. Consensus can also lead to inflexible and potentially inaccurate dogma, with a diversity of thinking being replaced by unquestioning conformity and group-think assumptions. Without variance, discussion and debate, herbalism is in danger of becoming increasingly dogmatic and inflexible. We surely do not want to become like a posse of church ladies, tsk-tsk’ing the unenlightened, nodding in unison at each other’s righteous umbrage.
What I recommend is something between: seeking agreement and an alliance of values and approaches without constraining analysis and creativity, or dissing variance.
We don’t need to approve of something for it to have at least subjective credence and value. We likewise do not need any other herbalist’s, herbal organization’s, or government agency’s agreement and approval to be correct in our opinions or methods, or valid when it comes to the roles we fill. Not the conservative medical establishment’s approval, nor the approval of the meanly ridiculed politically-correct “PC Police.”
And no matter how rationally or objectively “right” we are about anything, we undermine its truth and power when we try to insulate it from either the appraisal that tests it or the disagreement that contrasts, challenges, and thus enlightens and vitalizes it.
1. a disagreement or debate
It is the nature of a majority of caregivers to shy away from impassioned opinion, disagreement and controversy. Many herbalists tend to avoid contention and the “negative” even when it involves important issues of government regulation and certification, the intersection of social justice and herbal practice, of access and affordability, the healing of both the social body and our physical bodies – while those who are most predisposed to debate tend to be focused almost exclusively on social issues, and are often moral absolutists certain of the righteousness of their stance. They may come across as loud and indignant, or alternately claim they are above the fray and only concerned with staying positive… in either case communicating possession of an elevated understanding and moral superiority even when addressing topics like elitism, racism, and hierarchy.
This is not, however, a good argument against airing our differences and disputes. Social issues cannot be separated from healthcare issues, and I think it would be great to see more disputation over the specifics of an effective herbal practice, an airing of strong differences of opinion about herb actions and uses, dosages and combinations. Disputes over terminology and definitions, over invasive species and the impacts of human sprawl on plant and animal habitat, over how we present and represent ourselves to the rest of our contemporary society. Disputes about the best soil to grow a certain herb in, which parts of the plant to use, and whether it is plentiful enough for us to ethically harvest.
The effects on the herbal community of a “shaming culture” that pillories individuals for their opinions are more caustic than any wrong-headedness. And reasoned, compassionate disputes are so much less harmful to our community than social media attacks, backroom nastiness, hidden agendas, ignored injustices, or undisputed untruths. Disputes are downright healthy whenever they inspire applied critical thinking, leading to an open-minded and reasoning analysis of our own cherished ideas as well as those of others.
“Dispute” is a Middle English word with origins in the Latin disputare meaning ‘to estimate.’ Its origins can be found in dis – meaning separate or apart – and putare meaning to “reckon.” To dispute is t0 risk the consequences of disagreement in making and announcing your thoughtful estimation. This estimation requires separating out factors and features in order to better reckon their truths, relevance, and effects. And we’d best apply it to every aspect of every thing. Nothing is, as the saying goes, “beyond dispute.” There is nothing that shouldn’t be explored and estimated, and then re-explored and estimated again! No topic is too sensitive to be considered off-limits, and no examination should ever be dissed as heretical. Look at things from one direction, then another, and then another, seeking not only the most comprehensive understanding but also the most healthful application or response.
1. a discussion on a particular topic in a public forum, in which opposing arguments are put forward
For the past five years we have found it nearly impossible for us editors to get reader reactions to specific content, receiving instead simply general compliments on the overall mix of skills, information and ideas, perspectives and approaches in each nearly 300 pages-long issue of Plant Healer Magazine. We have run anarchist urban wildcrafters next to conservative herbal gardeners, articles by Christian home-schoolers along with with pieces about traditional indigenous healers and by Goddess worshipping Wise-Women, the work of evocative folklorists beside that of exacting academics and scientists, and this diversity of experience and thinking has seemed to feed the consistent growth of the magazine as well as what Paul Bergner coined “a new herbal resurgence.”
It is, however, extra satisfying to me whenever any of our content has stirred passions to the point of online discussion, discourse and debate. Heated conversations have at least the potential to add some light! The expression “open to debate” makes sense, given that you have to have an open mind to be a fair and effective debater.
I greatly value those of our writers and teachers willing to voice strong opinions, while being open to the possibility of being mistaken… including Sean Donahue, Renee Davis, Charles Garcia, as well as Dave Meesters and Sam Coffman who continue the dialogue in the upcoming Spring issue of Plant Healer Magazine. It is the mission of this periodical and journalism itself not to push any agenda, promote any single tradition or approach, foster dogma or enforce any “party line,” but rather, to instigate estimation and critical thinking, to challenge every entrenched “status quo,” to encourage creativity, to showcase diversity of thinking as well as further those ways of living that contribute to human dignity and planetary well being. It is our work – the good work – not only to spread empowering herbal information but also to seed and feed deep investigation of our themes and feelings, of our analysis, public discourse and debate… affecting and aiding others as we are able while making clear for ourselves what is real or not, from the stories we tell ourselves to the medicines we ingest and recommend.
This doesn’t mean I want to avoid issues of right and wrong. It is wrong to call a writer a bigot because they dare address issues like cultural appropriation which have been troubling and sometimes capturing most of the attention of herbalists of late. And I dare say it is right to speak out about how ideas of race, gender, class and privilege impact individuals, herbalism, and our usually shared aims of making this a healthier and lovelier world. If you have to pin me down, I would say it is wrong to stuff our feelings, wrong to vent without listening, wrong to be personally hurtful. And it is right – if anything at all is right – to notice, to feel, to care, to freely express and share… and to act on the urge to help that so often follows among all you deep feelers, culture shifters, and plant healers.
On the subject of healing and caring I reckon you agree with me. But I thank you, for all of herbalism, anytime you don’t.
–Jesse Wolf Hardin
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