Situating Knowledge Systems – A Summary

Western thought, knowledge, and education systems differ from Indigenous ways of knowing. What this means is that there are certain assumptions that originate from Western European society’s culture, history, and ideology that are quite different from the knowledge systems that are based on the traditions, history, and philosophies of non-Western cultures. Western rationalizations have largely excluded the knowledge systems of the colonized ‘other’ in their discourse, and by this, they produce conditions of social injustice. Dr. Bagele Chilisa has intimate knowledge concerning both the dominant knowledge systems and that of the colonized ‘other’. This is because Dr. Chilisa was born and raised in Botswana, Africa (a former British colony), and educated in a Western academy at Pittsburg University, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., and is currently a social science research expert at the University of Botswana. Therefore, with a firm foundation in each worldview, and as an informed response to the prevalence of Euro-Western intellectual domination and the suffering that results, Dr. Chilisa has authored a text, Indigenous Research Methodologies (2012), in which she has placed the philosophies of these two worldviews in conversation with one another in order to form a new framework that she describes as a postcolonial indigenous research paradigm.

Situating Knowledge Systems, the title of chapter one of Indigenous Research Methodologies, provides a framework for understanding the differences between Western and non-Western philosophies and worldviews. In this chapter, Chilisa discussed the need for the decolonization of Western research methodologies, and then she examined various cultural assumptions concerning ontology (the nature of reality), epistemology (the nature of knowledge and truth), and axiology (cultural values). To do this, she compared and contrasted three research paradigms: the positivist, interpretative, and transformative, within the context of a non-Western worldview. Then, Chilisa suggested the integration of relational indigenous ways of knowing with aspects of Euro-Western research paradigms for the dual purposes of decolonizing social science research and legitimizing indigenous knowledge and value systems by constructing an indigenous research paradigm. Thus, situating knowledge systems, concerns the need to examine the cultural assumptions that shape various social science methodologies, and appropriately make changes that will decolonize the hegemonic Western approach by shaping an alternative postcolonial indigenous integrative and relational research paradigm and methodology.

The decolonization of Western research methodologies is necessary in order to give voice to historically silenced perspectives. Western research methodologies move toward decolonization when the research paradigm becomes inclusive of the relational indigenous perspective. Thus, decolonized research methodologies value relationships, and therefore, they recognize and embrace the notion of interconnectedness. They are formulated and framed within indigenous ways of knowing and they are simultaneously respectful of the Indigenous ownership of indigenous knowledge. They open discourse space to topics that have been historically invalidated or silenced. The dismissal of what might be labeled sorcery, or the avoidance of the discussion of colonization, are examples of such silencing. They also adhere to “ethical standards such as the informed consent of the researched” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 3, 4.). Thus, research approaches have a postcolonial indigenous paradigm and method when they are participatory in that they create a ‘third space’ in which to consider the history, experience, perspective, values, needs, and rights of the researched; and when they shift power in such a way as to direct it toward social justice by meeting indigenous goals including the recognition of a relational reality and the right to Indigenous self-determination.

In order to meet the goals of an indigenous research paradigm and methodology, it is necessary to establish a context for understanding how such compares and contrasts with predominant and hegemonic Western research approach. For this reason, Chilisa documented cultural assumptions concerning the nature of social reality (ontology), ways of knowing (epistemology), and ethics and value systems (axiology) within three Euro-Western research paradigms: the positivist, interpretative, and transformative. She discussed them and their associated cultural assumptions in detail by scrutinizing each paradigm’s philosophical underpinnings, their ontological assumptions, where each places cultural values in the research process, their assumptions concerning the nature of knowledge and the meaning of ‘truth’, the methodology each employs, and the techniques each uses for gathering data. Each of these cultural values are relevant, yet especially important to consider, though, is the purpose for which each research paradigm has been designed, because the purpose (and the world view that informs it) shapes what is and is not included in the other cultural assumptions. With this context, Chilisa also suggested an alternative framework for an indigenous research paradigm and she listed the cultural assumptions from which it was developed.

Thus, the positivist/postpositivist approach to social science research has been designed in order to discover natural laws that are generalizable and which are universally applicable. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as the scientific method, which is informed by the philosophies of realism, idealism, and critical realism, which in turn, state that there is one objective reality that is (because of human imperfection) only knowable and expressed in terms of probability. The scientific method, because of its universal applicability, is free from cultural values, except when choosing a research topic. Knowledge, in this way is objectively determined where the truth is based on observation and measurements that are verifiable. Positivist/postpositivist research designs use quantitative, correlational, quasi-experimental, experimental, causal comparative, and survey methods. Scientists gather data, primarily through questionnaires, observations, tests, and experiments (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). A shortcoming of this approach is that this sort of research is designed to meet the needs and goals of the researchers, and it may not necessarily address “questions of relevancy” or issues of ethics and morality, but instead further reinforce the dominant group and their particular paradigm (Chilisa, 2012, p. 31.)

On the other hand, the interpretive approach to social science research has been designed in order to understand and describe human nature. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as informed by the philosophies of hermeneutics and phenomenology, which state that reality is socially and multiply constructed where each social group determines its own value system. Knowledge, in this way, is subjective and idiographic where the truth is dependent on context. Interpretive research designs use qualitative, phenomenology, ethnographic, symbolic interaction, and naturalistic methods. Researchers gather data, primarily by the use of interviews, participant observation, pictures, photographs, diaries, and documents (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). A shortcoming of this approach is that this sort of research has a history of unequal power relations, where the researcher has also been the colonizer, and where the result is that indigenous knowledge is likely to be suppressed in favor of Euro-Western paradigms, thus the worldview and practices of former colonized societies might become excluded from the dominant system of knowledge production with the interpretative research paradigm (Chilisa, 2012, pp. 34-35.).

In addition, the transformative approach to social science research has been designed in order to destroy myths and to empower people to change society radically. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as informed by the philosophies of critical theory, postcolonial discourses, feminist theories, race-specific theories, and neo-Marxist theories, which state that multiple realities exist, which in turn, are shaped by human rights values, democratic and social justice values, and political, cultural, economic, race, ethnic, gender, and disability values. Knowledge, in this way, is dialectical in understanding, which is aimed at critical praxis and is informed by a theory that unveils illusions. Transformative research designs use a combination of quantitative and qualitative action research, and participatory research. Researchers gather data by using culturally responsive techniques of data collection (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). The transformative approach to social science research has addressed shortcomings of the positivist/postpositivist and the interpretative methods, yet is still not indigenous because it is not culturally situated in Indigenous ways of knowing.

On the other hand, the indigenous approach to social science research has been designed with a very different purpose that is shaped by a very different worldview. The indigenous approach is designed to “challenge deficit thinking and pathological descriptions of the formerly colonized and reconstruct a body of knowledge that carries hope and promotes transformation and social change among the historically oppressed” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). What this means is that the indigenous approach is much the same as the transformative research paradigm in that it is informed by the empowering philosophies of “critical theory, postcolonial discourses, feminist theories, critical race-specific theories, and neo-Marxist theories” but it is distinct in that it is also informed by indigenous knowledge systems (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Therefore, an indigenous paradigm and methodology integrates what is useful in Euro-Western paradigms with indigenous ways of knowing in order to create a new paradigm and methodology that is uniquely designed to meet the needs of Indigenous people.

Additionally, the indigenous paradigm is similar to the interpretive and transformative research paradigms in that it assumes multiple realities, yet it holds the further distinction that communicates the indigenous worldview. Thus, indigenous assumptions about reality hold that there are “[s]ocially constructed multiple realities” that are “shaped by the set of multiple connections that human beings have with the environment, the cosmos, the living, and the nonliving” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Knowledge, in this way, holds that “all research must be guided by a relational accountability that promotes respectful representation, reciprocity, and rights of the researched” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Therefore, an indigenous paradigm and methodology recognizes interconnectedness, human rights/animal rights/environmental rights ethics as integral to the nature of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’, and this shapes the approach.

Thus, indigenous research designs are unique. They use “participatory, liberatory, and transformative research approaches and methodologies that draw from indigenous knowledge systems” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 42.). Unlike western methods, researchers using an indigenous paradigm and methodology gather data using “techniques based on philosophic sagacity, ethnophilosophy, language frameworks, indigenous knowledge systems, talk stories, and talk circles” and they use these in conjunction with techniques adapted from Western paradigms (Chilisa, 2012, p. 42.). In this way, indigenous methodology situates first, the indigenous worldview and ways of knowing and integrates this with what is useful from the Western academy when conducting social science research with indigenous and otherwise marginalized populations.

Thus, Dr. Bagele Chilisa has, in order to decolonize social science research paradigms and methodologies, put forth a postcolonial framework for indigenous research. This framework is inclusive of the Western worldview and methodologies, but it is critical in that it examines the purpose of each of three Western paradigms, understanding that each has its unique notions concerning what it values, and what is real and true. For this reason, the positivist/postpositivist, the interpretative, and the transformative paradigms are not truly effectual for Indigenous social science research, because indigenous ways of knowing are distinct. Thus, in order to give voice to traditionally silenced ways of understanding what is real, true, and valued; Chilisa has shaped a postcolonial indigenous research paradigm and methodology. This paradigm creates a space to conduct research that is not only about Indigenous (otherized) people, but instead is inclusive of Indigenous life experience, worldviews, and ways of knowing. In this way, Chilisa has situated Indigenous ways of knowing at the front, yet along with Western knowledge systems, blending the past and the present across multiple ways of knowing, in order to shape a new future where social science research methods legitimize the experience, perspective and wisdom of historically oppressed Peoples within and without the Western academy. An indigenous social science research framework fosters hope and creativity in order to shape strategies designed to meet Indigenous goals and needs.


Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. SAGE Publications.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Stereotypically Objective Paradigm

To be objective is to hold assumptions about reality and the nature of truth without considering context. This is the scientific method, and it is imperfect in that it is generally understood that because of human error, truth can only be known and expressed in terms of probability when discussing human behavior. The scientific method eliminates what the researchers find to be false in order to ‘bring knowledge closer to ‘the’ truth,’ rather than proving something true. This is the reason for expressing scientific knowledge about human behavior in terms of probabilities. Furthermore, when context is taken into consideration, the generalizations that the scientific method produces may no longer hold true in individual cases. What, then, is produced by scientific objectivity in the social sciences?

Objectivity produces a mind that thinks in terms of generalizations. Classifying the world in this way also results in what social science research expert, Dr. Bagele Chilisa (2012) described as a “paradigm that becomes essentialized, compelling thought along binary opposites of either/or,” and that way of thinking underlies notions of ‘us and them’ when thinking about people (p. 25.). What this means is that when we generalize about people, thinking in terms of either/or, we are very likely to ‘otherise’ people. Otherizing takes place when we think in terms of generalizations about individuals (others), who we perceive (and maybe incorrectly so) to belong to certain groups, who we then perceive (and maybe incorrectly so) to hold certain characteristics, and this way of thinking can block the way of truly getting to know and understand individual particularity. Objectivity, then, we can reason, produces a mind that is likely perceive and classify individuals in general terms concerning characteristics that we have attached to certain groups; in other words, obective thinking likely leads to the stereotyping of individuals.

Chilisa, B. (2011). Indigenous research methodologies. SAGE Publications.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Think Straight about Psychology by K.E. Stanovich – A Summary

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Keith E. Stanovich, PhD., Professor Emeritus of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, has authored a classic titled, How to Think Straight About Psychology (1986). Introductory courses in psychology, critical thinking, statistics, and research methodology often use this text, currently in its tenth edition (How to Think Straight, n.d.). According to Stanovich, and perhaps the primary reason for writing the text is the fact that, the public’s understanding of psychology is quite different from psychology as a modern science that explains the underlying functions that shape human attitudes and behavior. That is to say, to many people, the field of psychology is not a real science, but a pseudo-science instead. To think straight about psychology, then, is to understand that the field is, indeed, based on the scientific method, as are other sciences. Thus, this text describes people’s many misconceptions and reservations about the field of psychology and it offers its readers a true representation of the field as a modern and scientific psychology and it explains how this science functions.

How to Think Straight about Psychology (2010) opens chapter one with a discussion of what Stanovich named The Freud Problem, which is a general perception that psychology primarily consists of Freudian-style psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) based his approach to psychology primarily on theories that he developed by examining case studies that did not involve scientific empirical evaluation. Stanovich’s response to this public misconception about psychology in general, was to document the great diversity that exists in the field of psychology. The field of psychology includes more than fifty-four different divisions, where psychoanalysis is perhaps only about ten percent of the whole (Stanovich, 2010, p 3.). Additionally, he discussed how the scientific method, which uses systematic empiricism, publicly verifiable knowledge, and testable theories, describes the majority of the psychological studies that occur today. In this way, Stanovich made clear that the relatively new science of psychology is, in fact, a legitimate and true science and he provided much detail throughout the remaining chapters in order to convey this fact to his readers.

Stanovich first discussed how scientific psychological research uses the falisifiability criterion when formulating a scientific hypothesis. The falsifiability criterion establishes that “scientific theories must always be stated in such a way that the predictions derived from them could potentially be shown to be false” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 20.). This notion, perhaps, sounds counterintuitive at first, if one is thinking that an experiment ought to prove something true. In reality though, because the body of knowledge increases and changes over time, it is better to understand that the scientific method works to eliminate what is false in order to bring psychological knowledge “closer to the truth” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 34.). Therefore, a good hypothesis is a based on a testable theory, and it poses specific predictions of outcomes. Predictions that are more specific result in stronger support of the theory. False confirmations lead to new theories and new hypotheses, and in this way, they too, add to the body of scientific knowledge. A good hypothesis also interconnects with other scientific knowledge. In contrast to scientific falsifiable research methods that include specific predictions, Freud’s theories were case studies where theories were established after the observed behavior. The lack of scientific evidence is the reason that Freudian methods have generally fallen out of favor. Thus, an important aspect of scientific psychological research concerns the principle of falsifiability, which does not always result in finding the truth, but instead allows psychological analysis to get closer to the truth.

For that reason, a scientific psychological theory is not the same as essentialism, which requires finding an ultimate explanation of phenomena. Instead, “science advances,” according to Stanovich (2010), “by developing operational definitions” (p. 35.). Developing operational definitions is another concept that may be easily misunderstood. Scientists who are developing operational definitions are not coming to an agreement on the definition of words. Instead, an operational definition links concepts to observable and measurable events. This allows for replicability in experimentation that is also publicly verifiable. Operational definitions, which link concepts to measurable and observable behavior that can be publicly replicated, facilitate the growth of and widen the spread of the body of scientific knowledge.

There are some obstacles that interfere with people’s ability to understand the importance of a scientific psychological explanation of human behavior, though. One is the prevalence of the general population’s faith in personal testimonies and case studies as providing valid explanations. Yet, both personal testimonies and case studies have limited usefulness in scientific psychological studies. This is because there may be biases present in personal testimonies, such as the vividness effect, where the vividness of information makes select information more accessible from memory (Stanovich, 2010, p. 59.). Furthermore, the placebo effect may negatively affect and invalidate case studies and testimonials. For these reasons, testimonials and case studies are not scientific psychological studies. Therefore, testimonials and case studies may be useful in the development of theories and hypothesis, but because of their limitations, any evidence, regardless of how vivid and convincing it may be, might be invalid, and therefore such evidence calls for further scientific testing.

Another often-misunderstood concept concerning what shapes human behavior is the difference between correlation and causation. That is, the relationship between two variables is a correlation and there may or may not be a causal relationship between the two. It could be that there is no causation. Or else there may be a spurious correlation, where there exists a third variable, which is the causation (Stanovich, 2010, p. 76.). Additionally, correlations do not account for biases, such as a selection bias. Neither do correlations indicate the direction of causation, if such causation exists. Fortunately though, scientific experimentation, in which researchers manipulate variables, can determine whether a causal relationship exists in addition to detecting the direction of causation while at the same time ruling out selection bias when concluding the causes of human behavior.

Thus, scientists create experiments in which they manipulate variables to investigate correlations in order to discover causation. To elaborate, in an experiment, a scientist manipulates only one variable and holds the others constant while observing for effect. This eliminates the possibility of a third variable. To illustrate this, Stanovich (2010) told an interesting story about Clever Hans, which was a case where experimental control proved to be especially valuable in explaining a curious animal behavior (pp. 96-99.). Clever Hans was a horse who seemed to have superior intelligence in the area of mathematics. That is, clever in math only until observation revealed that Clever Hans was only as accurate as was the person testing him. Further scientific testing revealed that what Clever Hans was especially good at was reading human body language, and for this reason, he responded to subtle cues when tapping out ‘results to mathematical problems’. This story explains why scientific testing can reveal information about behavior where human intuition falls short. Experimentation, then, is essential in psychological research, yet, the necessary method of manipulating variables in order to reveal causation of behavior is sometimes difficult to perform in a natural setting, therefore scientists find creative solutions.

This is the reason that scientists create special conditions for the purpose of experimentation. The purpose of most psychological experiments is to test for “the underlying mechanisms that influence human behavior” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 120.). In this type of theory-driven research, it is not necessary to test in a real life situation, but rather with basic research of this sort, artificial situations prove beneficial. Less stringent random samples and representative situations (e.g. using college sophomores or even mice as the subjects of research) can be adequate. In contrast, direct application research requires more rigorous research samples and other methods such as cross-cultural research. Thus, the purpose of the psychological experiment determines its design such that theory-driven research requires less stringent samples and methods, than does direct-application psychological research.

It is also good to know that scientific psychological research has a different sort of framework than do other types of science. That is to say, an Einstein-like “breakthrough model of scientific progress” is not the best model for describing causes of human behavior (Stanovich, 2010, p.123.). This is because psychological research uses a framework that can be described as a “gradual-synthesis model,” which adheres to the connectivity principle and expresses converging evidence. Gradual synthesis describes the notion that science is “a cumulative endeavor” . . . “that is characterized by the participation of many individuals, whose contributions are judged by the extent to which they further our understanding of nature” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 126.). Thus, in scientific psychological research, instead of producing ‘breakthroughs’, each experiment, although it may not be a definitive explanation, connects with other conclusions that act in a collective fashion that rules out some reasons, and by this, scientific psychological research brings explanations of human behavior closer to the truth.

Another important aspect that needs consideration with regard to scientific psychological research is that determinants of human behavior are never singular in cause. Stanovich cautions his readers to remember that human behaviors are “multiply determined” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 145.). Thus, because of the complexity involved in human interactions, studying human behaviors in isolation could result in misleading outcomes. Therefore, it is important to remember that human behaviors do not have only one single cause, but instead the determinants of human behaviors consist of complex interactions, and for this reason, a scientific theory and explanation will recognize that behaviors have multiple causes.

Sometimes, thinking about psychological analysis of human behavior poses difficulty in that the reasoning involved in scientific conclusions is, at times, difficult to understand. This is because the probabilistic conclusions of scientific psychological research are generalizations about human behavior, and therefore do not apply in all cases. Additionally, when thinking about probabilistic information, it is critical to take into consideration sample size when analyzing the information (Stanovich, 2010, p. 161.). It is important to remember that a larger sample size provides greater accuracy. Furthermore, when thinking about probabilities, some people tend to see correlations where none exists, such as what takes place in gambling (Stanovich, 2010, p. 163-164.). Vivid testimonials can seem more compelling than statistical information, too. Even with the challenges in understanding scientific probabilistic information, the generalized information about human behavior that it provides is nevertheless useful in that it can predict group trends, even when such does not apply to individual cases.

A final obstacle that sometimes impedes the correct interpretation of scientific psychological predictions of human behavior is the probability of chance. The role of chance in psychology is often misunderstood. A degree of chance and coincidence play a role in the accuracy of predictions, and for this reason, individual predictions about human behavior are therefore impossible. Therefore it should be strongly affirmed that, “[c]linical prediction doesn’t work” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 180.). Thus, it is necessary to know that scientific psychological predictions are not accurate for individual cases, but instead, such predictions express aggregate group statistical trends, known as actuarial predictions.

With all of these misconceptions concerning the field of psychology and the nature of the science it employs for its research, it is not surprising then, that the discipline suffers from a negative image. Popular culture, for example, shapes negative stereotypes concerning the field of psychology, e.g., the prevalence of parapsychology and self-help literature presented as psychology in mass media outlets – “pseudoscience masquerading as psychology” as Stanovich named it (Stanovich, 2010, p. 186.). So too, does the fact that many psychological studies are interdisciplinary in nature, and when critical new knowledge is shared with the public, it is sometimes presented as being the findings of a more ‘respectable’ science. The evidence of the effect of television violence on children’s behavior presented by the American Medical Association is one such example (Stanovich, 2010, p. 192.). Not only that, sometimes psychologists, themselves, engage in behaviors that give the discipline a negative image, too. Stanovich (2010) noted, “psychology has a kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality” where “[e]xtremely rigorous science exists right alongside pseudoscientific and anti-scientific attitudes” (p. 199.). Psychologists, then, need to actively work to improve this negative image of the discipline of psychology.

Other areas of society have established a means to improve psychology’s image. Stanovich (2010) wrote that the Supreme Court has led the way in the effort to improve psychology’s image when it established, in Daubert vs. Merrell Dow, that four factors must considered when deliberating to allow expert testimony; paraphrased, they are:

  • The ‘testability’ of the theoretical basis for the opinion (falsifiability)
  • The error rates associated with the approach (probabilistic prediction)
  • Whether or not the technique or approach concerning the opinion has been based on peer review (public knowledge)
  • Whether or not the technique or approach is generally accepted by the scientific community (principle of converging evidence) (p. 204.).

In this way, “unscientific and unfounded claims concerning human behavior, such as introspection, personal experience, and testimonials are all considered inadequate tests of claims about human nature” (Stanovich, 2010, p, 204.). This court ruling helps to ensure that when people visit a psychotherapist, or when a school counselor tests a learning-disabled child, for example, they are not engaging with unsubstantiated pseudo-scientific treatments, but they are engaging with therapies based on scientific evidence, instead.

Thus, although the discipline of psychology is often misunderstood and currently carries a negative image, it is in fact, a true science that provides valuable benefits to society. Scientific psychological research investigates solvable problems by the use of empirical methods to falsify what is untrue in order to get closer to the truth concerning the determinants of human behavior. To do this, the scientists develop operational definitions, which link concepts to measurable and observable behavior that can be publicly replicated; and by this, they facilitate the growth of and widen the spread of the body of scientific knowledge. Science is different from testimonials or case studies in that it uses experimentation, in which variables are manipulated in order to test theories and hypotheses, which can determine whether a causal relationship exists in correlations. Scientific psychological research integrates the results of each experiment with other conclusions that act in a collective fashion that rule out some reasons, and by this, scientific psychological research brings explanations of human behavior closer to the truth. Scientific theories and explanations developed by psychologists will recognize that determinants of human behaviors are complex and that they have multiple causes and their findings will recognize this. That is why their findings are represented as generalizations and probabilities that are useful in the prediction of group trends only. Understanding how to think about psychology can help each of us to better evaluate psychological claims that we encounter in popular culture, so that we may distinguish between true scientific psychological research and that of unfounded pseudo-scientific claims. In this way, the scientific discipline of psychology can help all of us to better understand the underlying causes of human behavior in addition to the world events that take place around us.


How To Think Straight About Psychology. (n.d.). Psych Retrieved September 22, 2014, from

Stanovich, K. E. (2010). How to think straight about psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Examining My Assumptions About Money, Wealth, Possessions

I have come to understand that how mainstream U.S. culture has taught me to think about money, wealth and possessions (that is, to highly value those things and to desire them increasingly more and more) as something that is likely to promote violence. The reason that I say this, is because of how I ‘heard’ a Native American view, which was the expressed opposition to overvaluing money. Specifically, Aleck Paul, a Chippewa, explained in Our Stock of  Food and Clothes (Nabokov, 1999, pp. 85-87.)

When the white people came, they commenced killing all the game. They left nothing on purpose to breed and keep up the supply, because the white man don’t care about the animals. They are after the money. After the white man kills all of the game in one place he can take the train and go three hundred miles or more to another and do the same there (Nabokov, 1999, p. 86.).

What Mr. Paul was expressing was that when the European immigrants came into Chippewa territory, they would exploit the resources without regard for maintaining environmental sustainability. Their only concern was to make as much profit as possible from their exploitations of the environment, and then move on to do the same elsewhere once the resources were depleted. This was different than the Chippewa way.

In contrast to this sort of environmentally devastating behavior, Mr. Paul explained that the Chippewa act differently. They do not need government regulation concerning hunting. This is because the Chippewa “must protect the game or starve,” Paul said (Nabokov, 1999, p. 87.).  In other words, the Chippewa people do not need governmental regulation because they act with self-regulation.

After gaining this Native American perspective on resource management, I question the assumptions that I have learned about the capitalistic ideals of competition and profit and consumption. I now see that if a person’s priority is to ‘get ahead’, and get wealthy, that person may be too focused on those goals in order to be able to see that such actions are detrimental in the long term. Therefore, when a society is culturally taught to overvalue wealth, competition and consumption – and especially acquiring beyond one’s need, it is likely that resources will be depleted in such a way that others are unable to have their needs met. Then, unmet needs increase competition such that conflict is likely to result – thus the need for governance.

In essence, what I have concluded from Mr. Paul’s story is that when people act with self-regulation there is likely to be less conflict and less need for other-governance. Yet, if some people are competing in order to get ahead, those who self-regulate will be ‘left behind’. This too can cause conflicts. Therefore, self-regulation promotes peace only when everyone self-regulates. The two different life-ways are incompatible.


Nabokov, P. (1999). Native American testimony: a chronicle of Indian-white relations from prophecy to the present, 1492-2000. Penguin Group USA.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reflections on the Meaning of Peace

Yesterday was Memorial Day in the U.S. On Memorial Day each year, countless numbers of folks display their “American” flags, and they gather together at parades, picnics and other get-togethers in order to remember and honor the nation’s veterans who have passed on as the result of their service to our country and its mission of freedom and security. Generally speaking, our society instructs us that those veterans gave their lives in order to secure and spread the ideals of a peaceful democracy that we may live life free. Therefore, for the most part, many of us tend to think of ourselves as citizens of a rather benevolent nation, where values of living in peace and harmony prevail.

Yet, living in peace and harmony are virtues to which many of us aspire but few of us achieve. Instead, we engage much of our lives in competition and conflict. For example, when we are young, we often engage in sibling rivalry, and we begin to learn our exclusionary social tactics by grouping ourselves together in cliques at school. Additionally, we learn to compete with each other in our academics, in sports activities, and in our consumption patters – forever seeking to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ even when we are too young to know that this is what we are doing. We learn this competitive attitude and behavior when we are young, and we work to perfect it in order to “compete in the marketplace of America”, as political commentator Bill O’Reilly has so eloquently named our purpose and way of life (O’Reilly, n.d.). Our way of life, for the most part, then, consists of maintaining social exclusions, competition between individuals and between groups of people, and because of this, a great deal of social injustice results, and this leads to conflicts between people, not peace and harmony.

Personally, I have become tired and emotionally and spiritually drained from an ever increasingly competitive environment that is rife with social conflicts. Certainly, I tell myself again and again, there must be a better way. It was two years ago, when I decided to learn about ‘another way’ and decided to go to college in order to do so. It had occurred to me, at that time, that most of mainstream U.S. culture is built upon stories of competition, conflict and domination, as evidenced in our very profitable and rather violent entertainment and sports industries, for example. I wanted to learn about what I thought of at that time as the ‘hidden peace stories’ – those stories that did not have the exciting appeal of a conflict or combat (and therefore they gain little media attention) but are essential, to my way of thinking, of passing on cultural knowledge of how people can act in order to get along with one another in a peaceful and harmonious way.

At that time, it was my intention to engage in what I thought of as ‘Peace Studies’. When I told folks that it was my intention to learn ‘peace studies’ almost no one knew what I was talking about. I explained that what I had in mind was learning about interpersonal skills of conflict resolution, conflict transformation, conflict management, peace building, and peacekeeping. I did not know much about the field of Peace Studies, either. I discovered that only a few colleges and universities offer studies in peace. No wonder our ideas about peace and how to achieve it are sometimes rather ambiguous. This reinforced my idea that there was a great need for this sort of education, for both myself and for others.

Through my own research, I discovered that Peace Studies, as an academic discipline, began in the 1950’s in the aftermath of World War II. The focus at that time was on international wars and their prevention, but the field has been expanding in scope ever since it began. Currently, the approach to peace studies may take different paths depending on the lens with which the topic of peace is examined. Two common approaches include that of dealing with the politics of war and the effective means for its prevention, while another related method is concerned with the causes of social conflict and its effective management and/or resolution or transformation (What is Peace Studies, n.d.). There is a wide breadth concerning approaches to the academic field of peace studies and one’s approach may take place at the interpersonal, societal, or the international level, depending upon the focus one wishes to explore. I prefer approaching the topic of peace studies at the interpersonal level.

For certain, the concept of peace means different things to different folks. Perhaps the most common idea concerning peace is that it is a state of social harmony that is characterized by the absence of conflict, violence, or war. I used to think this way. This notion of peace is sometimes referred to as negative peace, as described by sociologist Johan Galtung, the founder of peace and conflict studies. Yet the components of negative peace are only a fraction of what peace is, because in order to achieve a sustainable state of social harmony, it is also necessary to address the reasons for social unrest that lead to conflict, violence and war.

It is important to understand that power and wealth disparity are major causes of societal unrest in the world, whether it is at the level of interpersonal relationships, larger group and community interactions, or increasingly (because of globalization) at the national and global level. Much of the power and wealth disparity that exists in the world is a result of social and economic systems that have been in place since the time of Western European wars and colonial expansion into other nations. These social and economic systems have resulted in systemic power and privilege imbalances, and are often described as racism, sexism, classism, ageism, nationalism, and many more ‘isms’, which are now deeply embedded into our society.

These unequal systems of power and privilege easily develop into systems of domination, resulting in indirect structural violence, where some groups of people are able to profit greatly while others are left in conditions of suffering and despair. Many times, these situations of unequal power and privilege erupt into physical violence, such as what took place during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the U.S. and more recently in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. I now know that if the human race is to achieve living together in peace and harmony, we must not only eliminate physical violence, but we must promote what Galtung named positive peace, by working toward a greater degree of equality and social justice for all.

Social justice recognizes a shared humanity. It also values diversity. Social justice promotes a positive and sustainable peace, by ensuring that all people have access to food and clean drinking water, security from physical harm and psychological harm, education for all, including for women and children, and other inviolable human rights. Social justice demands the consideration of human rights for all, and it works to balance competing demands for “needs, desert, and equality within and between societies”while balancing between joint responsibilities of both societies and of individuals (What is Social Justice, n.d.). Social justice addresses concepts of fairness at the macro social level by making the systems and structures of society more equitable. Therefore, in order to achieve a sustainable and lasting peace in society, it is necessary to move from unjust social systems to more just social systems, and this requires social change.

Collective action and social movements describe two methods that can be used to intentionally encourage social change. Collective action takes place in groups and describes behaviors such as a protest marches, political rallies, and the signing of petitions, for example. Mahatma Gandhi used this type of direct confrontation to or noncooperation with oppression as he worked to gain independence from the control of Great Britain for the nation of India and he called this method satyagraha or obstructive program (n.d.). When this type of group activity is purposeful, organized, and institutionalized, collective action then becomes what is known as a social movement.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960s was also led by a nonviolent obstructive program strategy. Nonviolence embraces a core belief that it is fundamentally irrational to use violence to achieve a peaceful society, and additionally it asserts that just means must be used in order to achieve a just end. Furthermore, nonviolence is a method of achieving social change by encouraging respectful dialogue and negotiation as a means for problem solving. Finally, nonviolence is a method of intentionally bringing about social justice by working to create an awareness of people’s unmet needs, and also by creating new systems and structures designed to meet those needs.

Nonviolent systems and structures are types of constructive programs ( n.d.)that are designed to replace the current unjust arrangement. They might include those that meet basic needs such as food, clean water, clothing and shelter for all. They could possibly be concerned with environmental sustainability. They might provide education and healthcare for all. They could also encompass more just economic systems that provide needed jobs and fair wages. Programs that include cultural awareness can reduce intercultural conflict while promoting the value of and the sharing of cultural knowledge. They might embrace nonviolent communication, or alternative dispute resolution programs such as mediation and conflict resolution programs. Or they may be ‘new’ ways of thinking about and addressing ‘criminal justice’ and involve strategies of restorative justice and restorative practices as an alternative to retributive justice and incarceration. Programs that encompass teaching about trauma healing (including the transformation of historical harms) and forgiveness can increase psychological wellbeing. There are many ways in which one can approach working toward a more peaceful future. Non-violent methods of constructive program, because of their intention to meet human needs and promote a more just society, are methods that are perfectly suited to promote not only social change, but also more specifically, social justice and consequently, a lasting social peace.

Over time, my ideas concerning what the notion of peace is, have been evolving to compare with the ideologies of many indigenous cultures, and that of nonviolence, constructive program, and especially in developing language skills (because the way we conceptualize our world is closely connected to our use of language) in non-violent communication. To my way of thinking, we may be best able to achieve a greater degree of social justice, and therefore peace and harmony by gaining theoretical knowledge and practical skills in the field of non-violent social change. What is most important to me is the notion of positive peace – a peace that focuses on a greater degree of social equality and justice for all. Ultimately to me, peace involves ‘right relationships’ with the Earth and with one’s neighbors including even one’s ‘enemies’.


Constructive Program. (n.d.). Metta center for nonviolence. Retrieved from

Obstructive Program. (n.d.). Metta center for nonviolence. Retrieved from

O’Reilly on America’s Race Problem. (n.d.). CNS News. Retrieved from

What is Peace Studies? (n.d.). University of Louisville. Retrieved from

What is Social Justice? (n.d.) Appalachian State University department of government and justice studies. Retrieved from

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Assessing the Rationality of Our Thinking and Decision Making

When my husband and I began homeschooling our children, I developed a simultaneous interest in frugality. That is, becoming frugal was an important lifestyle component of our homeschooling endeavor, because our decision required that we change our employment such that we now had to live within much more limited means than what we had become accustomed to. Therefore, my new reading genre included titles such as, The Complete Tightwad Gazette (1998), Backyard Homesteading (2011), Living More with Less (1980), and the More-with-Less Cookbook (1976). By far, my favorite titles were the More-with-Less titles. These books were produced by folks who followed the Mennonite faith, and they offered me a unique perspective of the world, and this intrigued me and encouraged me to learn even more.

Thus, I began sourcing Mennonite and Anabaptist material to read, and I looked for a Mennonite church to attend. I subscribed to The Mennonite magazine. Although there were no local Mennonite churches, I did find that College Mennonite Church in Goshen Indiana, posted their wonderful sermons online, which I could watch at my leisure. This led to increased interest in titles such as The Upside-Down Kingdom (2011), The Ragamuffin Gospel (1990), and The Powers that Be (1998). I also heard much talk about the concepts of thinking relationally, being authentic, and acting intentionally. At that time, those ideas confused me a great deal. I wondered how it was that I might be failing in those areas. I did not even understand what those notions were supposed to mean. What I know now is that these influences introduced me to alternate worldviews, and alternate ways of being.

What I began to discover is that much of what I had taken for granted was a way of thinking and a way of living that, perhaps, dominates mainstream U.S. culture, and even much of the Western World, but it was not the only way to understand reality.  Up to that point in my life, my ideas and actions had been shaped to a very large extent by a set of sometimes-faulty assumptions. These assumptions were based in what, professor of psychology and behavioral economics, Dan Ariely, named in his New York Times best seller, Predictably Irrational (2010), “standard economics”. According to Ariely, standard economics “assumes that we are rational – that we know all the pertinent information about our decisions, and that we can calculate the value of the different options we face, and that we are cognitively unhindered in weighing the ramifications of each potential choice (Ariely, 2010, p. 317.).” In other words, we only think that we think rationally, and because of this, we tend to believe that we make logical, rational, and sensible decisions. Plus, we believe that we make our decisions based on our own self-interest. Yet this is not necessarily so.

Ariely has articulated much of what I had been absorbing through learning alternate worldviews as he described what is known as behavioral economics. Behavioral economics brings psychology and economics together in order to explain how, although ‘irrational’ behavior is a part of being human, that irrationality has a degree of predictability. Ariely argues that forces such as relativity, social norms and emotions influence our behavior and our economic decisions in ways that do not necessarily benefit us. For that reason, if we wish to make ‘good’ decisions, we should understand how these forces work. When we do, we are then able to engage in thinking relationally, being more authentic, and acting with intention. Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational (2010), described how we all sometimes tend to act irrational in very predictable ways.

In fact, rather than thinking objectively or rationally, we think and make decisions and act in relation to context. This context is by means of comparison, and we find it easier to compare similar items than items that are less alike. This is why we have difficulty, as it is said, ‘comparing apples to oranges’. We also think in terms of anchors (Ariely, 2010, p. 32.). What this means is that we may not know the ‘value’ of an item, unless we can think of it in relation to something that has a predetermined value, such a manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). Then, when we compare, for example, different toasters, with their many options, and their MSRP in addition to the sale price, we presume that we know when we are getting a good deal. We know a good deal in only relation to comparisons.

Yet, sometimes, marketers who understand our decision-making processes create ‘decoys’ to aid us with our comparisons. When decoys are used, they create an arbitrary coherence to our options, and thereby direct us to purchase the item or service that will generate for them a higher profit (Ariely, p.28.). In light of this knowledge, theories of supply and demand hold less authority. Again, what we view as a ‘good deal’ can only be understood in relation to other similar items and their prices. Therefore, understanding how and why we make such comparisons can help us to prevent the downfalls that sometimes accompany such decision-making processes.

Additionally, marketers use their knowledge of how we respond irrationally to offers for free items or services. A free offer is used many times as a sales pitch. This is the marketing method used when a cell-phone service offers a ‘free phone’ with a signed contract. Ariely states that, “zero is an emotional hot button – a source of irrational excitement” (Ariely, 2010, p. 55.). When given such opportunity, based on the emotions that arise with the prospect of ‘free’, many people do not consider the actual value of the product or service that is being offered. They simply select the option that is advertised as ‘free’, perhaps costing them more in the long run. It would seem logical and rational that the free option is the best option, and this is what is many times chosen. Yet, when comparing the actual costs, we find that free, ironically, many times, costs more.

Furthermore, our decision-making processes are situated within and affected by the context of both social norms and market rules. For example, Ariely demonstrated this occurrence in the context of the offering of free candy as opposed to the offering of cheap candy. Through scientific experiments, he found that with an offer for free candy, college students self-regulated by taking only one or two pieces, and leaving enough for all to share, but if the candy offered was cheap (instead of free), people felt quite decent while ‘stocking up’, so to speak, and taking more than their fair share (Ariely, 2010, pp. 111-112). Therefore, it was demonstrated that when we are acting within social norms, we tend to limit or self-moderate our behavior, thinking of others’ wants and needs in the process. Yet, in contrast, when we act within the context of market rules, we generally feel quite comfortable justifying our behavior even if it is extreme and less socially just.

Furthermore, the acts of volunteering and reciprocity of gift giving fall under the realm of social norms, not market rules. Yet, it is important to know that if any notion of monetary value is inserted in such a social transaction, it will immediately change the relationship from one that is concerned with communal good to become one that is governed by individualistic market rules where self-interest is prized (Airely, 2010, pp. 75-102.). Therefore, it is important to understand that social norms indicate that when volunteering or gift giving, we should think of others, but if we add any notions of money those transactions market rules take over, which indicate that we should then act in our own self-interest. Consequently, understanding how the forces of social norms vs. market rules work can help us recognize how they can be used either for our benefit or else against us.

As already noted, emotions may influence decision-making, steering us away from our predetermined rational choices. To examine this idea further, Ariely conducted studies concerning the effects of sexual arousal on college men’s decision-making. He concluded that how a person thinks they will act when aroused and how they actually do act when aroused are different (Ariely, 2010, pp. 119-135.).  He surmised that other emotional situations such as anger, frustration, and hunger might potentially trigger similar effects. Thus, understanding that we may, in fact, act differently than what we presume we might, can help us to choose to avoid situations that might result in undesired outcomes, or else we might devise strategies to better protect ourselves.

An additional manifestation of irrational lack of self-control presents itself in human tendency to procrastinate. Sometimes we do not work as hard as we might in order to achieve future goals because of lack of what psychologist B.F. Skinner named “schedules of reinforcement” (c.b. Ariely, 2010, p. 159.). What this means is that if we do not provide ourselves with positive reinforcements along the path toward a larger future goal, we might not follow through on our original commitment. Instead, we may opt for more immediate rewards, that are, perhaps less rational.

Further irrationality presents itself in how we tend to think about our possessions. We regard our own possessions to be of higher value than what others estimate them to be. Ariel surmised that this might be because of the amount of work that goes into acquiring them (Ariely, 2010, p. 175.). This bias, known as the positivity bias, predisposes us to value anything related to ourselves in a very high regard (Ariely, 2010, p. 182). Therefore, it is clear that we irrationally regard our own possessions as having a higher value, and the same time regard other’s comparable possessions as having less value.

We also sometimes have an irrational tendency to keep all of our options open. This is perhaps because we are afraid of losing what we already have. Yet, if we keep all options open, too many choices may create problems, such as those of indecision or of us getting caught up in chasing “worthless choices” (Airely, 2010, p. 192.).  For that reason, the decision to keep as many options open as possible may result in the irrational choice of not attending to our priorities.

Surprisingly, how we perceive reality can, at times, distort the truth. Ariely stated that “previously held assumptions”, such as stereotypes, “can cloud our point of view” (Ariely, 2010, p. 201.). For example, we may have certain political beliefs and wish to maintain them. Therefore, we might tend to focus on information that confirms our beliefs, while at the same time disregard information that disconfirms our beliefs. In this way, our previously held assumptions are confirmed in the way that we either allow or disallow information to filter in. The result of such filtering, named cognitive dissonance, is an irrational distortion of the truth.

Another factor that tends to distort the truth is the price of an item or service. When something costs comparatively more, we tend to regard it as being of higher quality. Peoples’ preference for high-priced pain medications, for example, ‘knowing’ that they work better (even if they are a placebo) is an indication of the power of price to influence our perceptions (Ariely, 2010, pp. 231-232.). Yet, if we apply this sort of reasoning to healthcare, for example, ‘affordable healthcare’ such as generic medications, may then become less effective. Consequently, our tendency to reason that price is an indicator of quality is less than rational.

As I have discovered over the years, much of how I previously understood reality was less than logical or rational.  It was based in faulty assumptions that have perpetuated over time as they are supported in standard economic theory. These assumptions include the notion that people are rational thinkers and that they choose rationally, acting in their own self-interest. Yet, if we look to the economy and markets, even businesses and their marketers understand that humans do not always think and act in rational ways.

Marketers use persuasion techniques that influence our decision-making processes. They manipulate, by use of decoys, anchors, and pricing techniques, for example. In this way, they influence how we respond to social norms in addition to how we respond to market rules. They play on our strong emotions, our tendency to procrastinate, our preconceived notions, and our tendency to overvalue what we associate with ourselves. They also understand how we have difficulty decreasing our options, and use that to their benefit. Marketers know that we use comparisons to determine value, and they use sometimes-deceptive pricing techniques in their comparisons in order to manipulate our behavior to their benefit. Over time, and through experience and learning, we realize that deceptive techniques are being used against us. This erodes our trust and our own honesty in our dealings with others. Then the cycle of dishonesty and lack of trust grows and perpetuates.

Honesty and trust are crucial components of relationships, both socially and economically. When business practices act in ways that result in degraded trust, a societal cycle of distrust results. Social norms of lying and cheating further reinforce the notion that we should act in our own self-interest in a competitive contest of ‘getting ahead’ of one another. The result is that over time we think of ourselves more and more as being ‘independent’ and we become increasingly isolated from one another, escalating notions of ‘us against them’ social divides. Ariely, in the final chapters of his book, provided some practical ideas concerning what he believes can be done to rebuild honesty, trust and relationships. For example, he lamented the loss of professional oaths when he wrote, “The oath – spoken and often written – was a reminder to practitioners to regulate their own behavior, and it also provided a set of rules that had to be followed in fulfilling the duties of their profession” (Airely, 2010, p. 285.). Oaths served to hold professionals accountable to their actions.

This is one example, but there are many steps that each of us can take to make strong, trusting, and healthy relationships. The first of these would be to recognize that we exist within relationships, and therefore, we must think relationally. This means we must think of how our decisions and actions affect one another, and resist the temptation to think and act in the interest of getting ahead. Secondly, when we do begin to think relationally, we then naturally follow with intentional actions that build community through reciprocating acts of generous and vulnerable honesty. These combine to create authenticity and trust between people and the systems and institutions they create. As it was said in that Mennonite sermon I heard years ago, be authentic, think relationally, and act intentionally.

To summarize, curiosity and life experience has led me on a path of discovery.  This discovery has been one of living life in a way that is quite different than many of my neighbors’ lifestyles. Some may look to my way of living as rather eccentric, with my more-with-less customs that include backyard homesteading and a somewhat tightwad frugality. Yet, the upside-down gospel that I follow frees me to become more authentic.  This authenticity is realized in decisions and actions that are made in recognition to and avoidance of, whenever possible, certain false assumptions and persuasive powers. Behavioral economics explains these false assumptions and persuasive powers as the dynamics of rather predictable irrational human behavior within context of western capitalistic society.

The main tenet of behavioral economics states that we are not always the objective and rational decision-makers that we wish to believe we are.  Instead, our decisions are affected by our emotions, our tendency to procrastinate, and many cognitive biases. Additionally, we make relational and comparative decisions within the context of limited information, while simultaneously acting within a society governed by both social norms and economic and market rules. Furthermore, when our economic system reinforces notions that we should desire to compete for limited resources, rather dishonest persuasive techniques result as a means to ‘get ahead’. The result is a breakdown in the social contract and quality of life for all. We may reverse this trend by thinking relationally and acting intentionally, thereby becoming more honest and authentic both with ourselves and with others. This would result in improved wellbeing through building relationships where the focus can then be located in community wellbeing and the social good.


Ariely, D. (2010). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York. Harper Perennial.

Dacyczyn, A. (1998). The complete tightwad gazette. Villard Books.

Kraybill, D. and Sine, T. (2003). The upside-down kingdom. Herald Press.

Longacre, D. (1976). More-with-less cookbook: Suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources. Herald Press.

Longacre, D. (1980). Living more with less. Herald Press.

Manning, B. (1990). The ragamuffin gospel. Multnomah.

Toht, D. (2011). Backyard homesteading: A Back-to-basics guide to self-sufficiency. Creative Homeowner.

Wink, W. (1998). The powers that be: Theology for a new millennium. New York: Doubleday.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Freedom of Choice: Is Having Greater Choice Necessarily Better?

The ‘American Dream’: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the U.S., to a large extent, we are free to choose. For the most part, this makes us happy. It feels like freedom. For example, the options that we have in life, such as which career to pursue, where to vacation, which car to buy, and even the numerous ways in which we might choose to dress our salad can be seemingly endless. The options for my salad dressing are astounding. There is a sixty-foot aisle full of condiments in the supermarket near my home, from which to choose. This seems like a great deal of opportunity that would lead to enhanced wellbeing. Yet, I have discovered that this endless array of choice is not always better.

The idea that more choice is not necessarily better became abundantly clear to me when my husband purchased for me a new cell-phone. It was one of those smart phones. He told me that I should decide what sort of protective cover I would like and purchase one. So, I went on-line shopping. What I found was truly amazing. There were literally hundreds of choices. The choices were so many that I decided that on-line shopping was not going to serve me well. I needed to see the choices in person: To feel them, to try them on, to see how protective they really would be for my new device. Unfortunately, I discovered that it was necessary for me to drive to a store that was nearly an hour away in order to do so. Therefore, I took my new phone to work with me, intending to shop for the cover when my workday was through. Yet, I did not even get into work before my phone was knocked out of my hand and flew across the parking lot. The repair, I discovered, would cost almost as much as a new phone. I was sad about my loss.

Today, in retrospect, I can see that it was the very wide range of choice in cell phone protection that made it almost impossible for me to choose a suitable cover. I wanted ‘the best’ cover that I could get, in order to ‘protect my investment’ and this is what caused the purchase delay. Many people have an assumption that the more choices one has, the better off one is. That theory proved to be untrue for me that day!

Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that social scientists have discovered that greater choice does not necessarily translate to better wellbeing. For example, Psychologist, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice (2004) argued that although a certain degree of autonomy and freedom of choice are important to one’s wellbeing, paradoxically, too much choice creates anxiety for people (Schwartz, n.d.). He has cited psychologists David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University, writing “increased choice and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being” and that there are findings that “indicate that the explosion of choice plays an important role” in this phenomenon (Schwartz, n.d.). Too many choices then, can be a disadvantage.

The disadvantage of choice can be explained in that sometimes too many choices lead some folks to encounter difficulty in choosing between the many options available. Schwartz named two types of choosers, and he called them the “maximizers” and the “satisficers”[1]. Maximizers are the sorts of folks who like to make the best choice possible from amongst all the options available. While by comparison, satisficers are satisfied with a choice that is “good enough” regardless of other, perhaps, ‘better’ choices (Schwartz, n.d.). It is clear to me today, that in the case of shopping for my cell phone cover, I was a maximizer, as I was determined to choose the very best protection for my new device. Yet it was the quest for the best that led to my difficulty in choosing, and my subsequent loss.

Therefore, my search to find the best cover did not provide me with benefit. Instead my delay in choosing caused the loss of my gift. There are other types of loss that maximizers may also encounter. What Schwartz and his colleagues discovered through their research is that maximizers expend a great deal of energy in their decision-making process and because of this they are more “likely to make better objective choices” but, in comparison to satificers, they also get less satisfaction from the decisions that they make (Schwartz, n.d.). I surely did experience less satisfaction, as I was disappointed because of the loss of the gift, and the financial loss if I would have chosen to repair it (which I chose not to do). Yet, I was sorry, too, about the time that both my husband and I extended in researching the purchase, and the time spent thinking about the many new features this phone would provide to me. Therefore, my loss also included the loss of features that I anticipated being able to enjoy. Surprisingly, less satisfaction also comes from thinking about what could have been.

Indeed, this lesser degree of satisfaction derived from ‘best’ choices can be explained by understanding the way in which maximizers think about the ‘costs’ involved in their decision process. Choices involve comparisons, and when a choice is made, the opportunity of choosing other options no longer exists. This leaves the chooser to wonder if a different choice might have, in fact, been better. Additionally, when one has high expectations, as is the case for maximizers, the idea of lost opportunities can lead to a feeling of regret. So, too, the time spent in decision-making adds to the costs of the choosing. Schwartz cited the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky writing that losses, such as opportunity costs, have a greater psychological impact than that of gains (Schwartz, n.d.). In other words, he wrote “losses make us hurt more than gains make us feel good (Schwartz, n.d.).” When a great deal of time and energy is invested in decision-making, the costs involved in choosing ‘the best’ may result in less satisfaction overall, and this can lead to feelings of depression. This explains how objectively determined ‘best choices’ can lead to less overall satisfaction. Schwartz named this phenomenon “the tyranny of choice” (Schwartz, n.d.).

However, choice is not the only sort of paradoxical tyranny, what at first seems to be counterintuitive is the fact that we may also experience a ‘tyranny of freedom’ (Schwartz, 2000).   The tyranny of freedom can be understood in the context of our individual autonomy or what we may think of as self-determination. Schwartz has questioned the notion of self-determination asking, does it mean “determination by the self, or determination of the self, or both? (Schwartz, 2000).” This is an interesting question to consider.

Consider, then, that determination by the self would simply mean self-determined choice, or unlimited freedom to choose. Whereas determination of the self would mean choosing what sort of self one would like to be. For example, before my phone loss, the self I chose to be was a maximizer, because my objectifiably best purchase choice was determined by me. Today, I have reinvented myself, to be perhaps more of a satisficer, much more willing to choose what is good enough to serve my purpose without the need to choose ‘the best’. In this way, I have determined what sort of self I wish to be. The determination of what sort of ‘self’ I wish to be, therefore, limits my determined-by-the-self choices.

Why did I change the sort of self that I wished to be? I changed because I realized that the “unconstrained freedom” that I had in choosing a cell phone cover led to a sort of “paralysis” in my decision-making that become a “kind of self-defeating tyranny (Schwartz, 2000).” I did not choose a suitable protection because I wanted to acquire the best protection instead. Therefore, while I was still attempting to choose, the real choice that I made was a choice for absolutely no protection. This choice was very self-defeating, indeed.

Clearly, the realization of self-defeating choices leads to the understanding that constraints on my freedom to choose would have, most likely, served me better. With fewer choices, I would have had less difficulty in making a decision and would have chosen protection. Therefore, constraints on freedom to choose are not generally understood as positive, but in some circumstances, they very well may be. Perhaps this explains why cultural and social norms and what we think of as morals have developed in society. They act as guides by constraining freedoms in order to better enable members of society to make choices amidst endless possibility.

The notion that it may be better to have limited choices is contrary to what has been lauded for years, the belief in the inherent value of ‘rational choice’ as expressed in rational choice theory[2]. Contrary to the notion that humans make ‘rational choices’, it has been proven that there are many conditions of decision-making that are not entirely dependent upon rational thinking. One of these conditions is culture. According to Schwartz (2000), understanding how humans actually go about choosing “requires knowledge of the cultural institutions that influence their lives.” Furthermore, culture does shape peoples preferences, yet preference can only be understood within a limited context. What this means is that people may be able to intelligibly express preferences among limited choices, but preferences cannot be made concerning all possible choices. Schwartz asserts that it is the dominance of rational choice theory that is embedded into our economic system that influences U.S. culture such that we have erroneously come to believe that greater choice is naturally better for our wellbeing. Yet, new theories concerning how human choices are made are leading us to question the economic theories that we have trusted for generations.

Even though choices have increased for most people over time in the U.S, there is a correlation that incidents of clinical depression have increased too. Schwartz (2000) theorizes that this is perhaps because, with increased choices, people also have high expectations for perfection. Additionally, he notes, U.S. culture has become more individualistic such that people may have an expectation of being able create their version of a perfect life. Thus, unrealistic expectations based on notions of freedom of choice leave people disappointed when they do not obtain perfection. This provides us with provocative evidence that placing limits on individual freedoms might serve us well. Maybe our ancestors understood this as they developed certain morals and cultural and societal norms.

Hence, for the most part, in our individualistic society, our notions of freedom (which are perhaps an outgrowth of our capitalistic economic philosophy), which are sometimes thought of as self-determination or our unlimited ability to choose, are possibly only partially understood. Contrary to what we may assume, we do not necessarily choose among an unending array of free choices, rather we act within a set of societal and cultural norms, what we may think of as acting on our morals. One of the most prevailing morals of our contemporary society is our notion that we should exercise our unlimited freedoms, primarily expressed as our freedom of choice. Yet we may not be fully aware that acting on one set of freedoms may restrict other freedoms. What is overlooked, many times, is that because we are too busy engaging in our freedom of consumer choice that we also have a different sort of freedom. We have the freedom to choose the type person that we wish to be.

To summarize thus far, when we are engaged in determination-by-the-self, that is to say, the freedom to choose from unlimited possibility, we at the same time constrict our ability to engage in determination-of-the-self. Likewise, when we engage in determination-of-the-self, that is to say, deciding the type of person that we wish to be, we limit the possibilities of our ‘free’ choices. For that reason, when we think about our wellbeing, we should consider both of these types of freedoms and how it is that we wish to balance them.

With this understanding of the constraining nature of unlimited free choice, it is conceivable then, to think that if we intentionally limit our free choice possibilities, we can expand our personal wellbeing. This type of limit might be thought of as commitment. Schwartz named teaching this type of commitment, positive psychology, stating that,

a positive psychology will have to be willing to tell people that, say, a good, meaningful, productive human life includes commitment to education, commitment to family and to other social groups, commitment to excellence in one’s activities, commitment to virtues such as honesty, loyalty, courage, and justice in one’s dealings with others, and so on. Notice how the very notion that psychology might articulate a vision of the good life contradicts the emphasis on freedom, autonomy, and choice (2000).

Indeed, self-determined limits to personal choice can sometimes result in outcomes that are truly surprising beyond what one might have imagined.

For example, when faced with decisions about which one is unprepared to make, sometimes the choice decided is the choice of acceptance for what is. This act can transform us in profoundly unimaginable ways. This concept was brought to life in a National Public Radio (NPR) Fresh Air program, hosted by Terry Gross as she interviewed author Andrew Solomon, on the subject of his new book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (2012). In this broadcast, Solomon spoke about the experiences of parenting “profoundly different children (Parenting, 2012).” He came to the realization that what an important choice it is when familiesdecide to keep, raise and accept children who, because they are so profoundly different from the rest of their family, do not fit social norms.

In this discussion, he spoke of one family in particular who was grateful for the rewarding life experience that resulted from parenting such a profoundly ‘different’ child. He said that Tom and Karen Robards had a child with Down syndrome, and that in order to change the way education services were delivered to people with Downs, they set up the Cooke Center in NYC and spent many years dedicated to that program. Solomon questioned them, asking whether they sometimes wished that they had not had that experience, and that if they could make Downs go away, would they choose to do so? Karen replied that for her son, David, that choice would certainly make his life easier. Yet, speaking for herself, contrary to what she would have imagined thirty years prior, that the experience of having a child with Downs had made her think “so much more deeply and appreciate humanity so much more broadly and live so much more richly” that, she “wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world (Parenting, 2012.).” Therefore, when confronted with the choice between accepting (or not accepting) a child for what the child is, the simple act of acceptance, even when that child is so very different from oneself, can have unimaginable rewards. Therefore, it is clear that in that act of acceptance of others’ differences, we can learn so much more about ourselves and grow, as human beings. What is remarkable is that this growth takes place in such a way that it would otherwise not occur without that acceptance of difference.

Solomon also spoke about parents of children who were conceived that act of rape (Andrew Solomon, 2013). He said that because of the traumatic experience of rape, women will sometimes choose to terminate those pregnancies, and that they should be allowed to make that decision. Yet, he also spoke of mothers who chose to do otherwise. Choice, whichever choice a woman in such a circumstance chooses, empowers a woman to regain agency from a situation in which her rights were taken away.

Solomon also spoke about the children conceived in rape. He said that they were sometimes relieved to discover the circumstance of their conception because it explained a distant and sometimes negative feeling that they received from their mothers. Solomon also spoke of that which I had completely unexpected,

there’s a tendency for people who are in categories that are frequently faced with abortion to describe not being aborted as though it were some wonderful victory that they had achieved by riding at the head of an army on a white horse. And so there’s a resistance to abortion. There’s anti-abortion sentiment in the disability community. There’s anti-abortion sentiment in the rape community (Andrew Solomon, 2013.).

It is painful for people to know that there are those who would advocate creating a society, through the use of medical techniques, in which people like them would no longer exist. Therefore, when we think about ‘our’ choices, it is important to understand that we do not live unto ourselves, and that our choices affect others too.

Solomon’s book is about parents who had children who were profoundly different from themselves or who were likely to be socially stigmatized because they had conditions such as Down syndrome, deafness, dwarfism, Downs syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, or who were prodigies, or who were conceived in rape, or who became criminals, or who were transgender. Although such life experiences were most certainly challenging, and some might advocate for ‘giving such children up’, Solomon wrote about parents who chose to keep them and raise them. These parents had accepted their children in spite of circumstances that did not fit social norms, and that others might regard as tragic.

Although the circumstances of each of these families were quite different, Solomon sees connections between all of them. Perhaps this is related to his own unique circumstance of being gay. What Solomon was studying is difference. He named this sort of human difference as ‘horizontal identity’ (Andrew Solomon, 2013.). That is, horizontal identity is an identity that is not learned and passed down from generation to generation, but rather because one is so profoundly different from other family members, he or she must learn his or her identity though peers. It was the horizontal identity of the children – that is it was their differences – that connected the families of which Solomon wrote.

Contrary to what Schwartz discovered about social norms then, is the notion that instead of there being decreased wellbeing when we accept and embrace people who identify outside of the boundaries of that which we might consider ‘normal’, we may actually enrich our lives. Schwartz analysis of choice and freedom begs the conclusion that social and cultural norms are beneficial to a society because they assist people by limiting choices, thereby increasing wellbeing. Solomon’s argument contradicts this sentiment in that marginalized and stigmatized people suffer as the consequence of the enforcement of social norms. Therefore, even in a world where, say, medical progress might allow us to have greater access to the choice to ‘eliminate’ differences that we have come to think of as somehow unacceptable because they are ‘abnormal’ or cause us difficulty and pain, we might take time to pause before we choose to do so. Yet, surely we cannot know what is best for another, and therefore we need to allow others to make the decisions that are best for them. Perhaps what we need to consider, is the types of norms that society forms and attempts to enforce.  Instead of thinking about different ‘kinds’ of people (identity norms) – after all, we are all different in some way from one another – we might instead think about norms concerning our notions of free choice and limit those for our own wellbeing.

In conclusion, too many choices may be constraining, and likewise too much freedom may be constraining too, and these constraints can limit one’s wellbeing.  Therefore, it is reasonable to think that placing limits on one’s freedom and free choice would remove constraints and enhance one’s wellbeing.  Nonetheless, choice is very important, because when options are limited, people suffer. To understand this better, it is important to consider what sort of choice one is considering. It seems that determination-by-the-self sometimes limits identity options for oneself and for others, thereby decreasing wellbeing.  While on the other hand, determination-of-the-self limits free choice.  Neither choice is totally free from limiting consequence. Understanding how these choices work in conjunction with one-another can help us to be they type of person that we wish to be.



Andrew Solomon: Love, No Matter What. (2013). (TED) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from

Parenting A Child Who’s Fallen ‘Far From the Tree’. (2012). Parenting a child who’s fallen ‘far from the tree’. (Fresh Air) [Radio]. WHYY. Author Interviews. Retrieved from

Schwartz, B. (n.d.). The tyranny of choice. Scientific American, (April, 2004), 70-75

Schwartz, B. (2000). Self-determination: The tyranny of freedom. American psychologist, 55(1), 79.

Solomon, A. (2012). Far from the tree: Parents, children and the search for identity. Simon and Schuster.

[1] Schwartz wrote that he “borrowed the term ‘satisficers’ from the late Nobel Prize–winning psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University (Schwartz, n.d.).

[2] Rational Choice Theory assumes that people always make rational choices based on “well-ordered preferences” among all possibilities, regardless of myriad influence possibilities, and as if they always have complete information about costs and benefits in order to maximize personal advantage (Schwartz, 2000).

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Storytelling: a Method to Heal from Historical Trauma

My friend, Tom DeWolf has been interviewed for a “Cities Tour” C-Span segment that is to air today, Saturday, 4/5/2014 @ 4:30 pm. EDT.  In this segment, Coming to the Table, an organization that “provides leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery,” is is prominently featured in this segment.  Tom discussed the book that he co-authored with Sharon Leslie Morgan, Gather at the Table:  The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade, in which they wrote of their exploration into the “deep social wounds left by racism, violence and injustice.”  It is their hope that their work inspires “a national dialogue about the legacies of slavery and racism” and that it offers “practical guidance for individuals and groups who want to heal themselves and America” from our traumatic past.

To Forgive or Not Forgive: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Malcolm X

One’s worldview shapes, to a large extent, how one might to choose to respond to situations of social injustice. That is to say, one’s historical background and culture influences how one may respond to injustice. Perhaps one might submit, or respond in an unforgiving retaliatory manner, or instead, animate a response aimed toward achieving social justice. In the U.S, during the time period of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s, two African-American leaders exhibited these different responses to injustice in their speech, in their writing, and in their style of social activism. These different ways of responding to injustice are perhaps related to these men’s different histories.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were two of the most prominent Civil Rights activists during the 1960s. They had a great deal in common. They were both African-Americans, sons of Baptist ministers, and they both worked to improve the lives of African-Americans by advocating for racial equality and freedom. From there, their similarities depart.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born to a “respected Baptist minister” and raised in a “prosperous but segregated neighborhood” where his “loving father taught him the value of hard work” and instilled in him “a strong faith in God (Ladenburg, n.d.).” For the most part, King was kept sheltered from racial discrimination ((Ladenburg, n.d.). He excelled in school, and went on to earn a PhD in theology (Ladenburg, n.d.). Comparatively speaking, King was privileged.

Malcolm X had very different life circumstances. He was born to a Baptist minister, an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, who was murdered it is believed, by White supremacists, when Malcolm was only six years of age (Ladenburg, n.d.). His mother was institutionalized a few years later, leaving Malcolm as an orphan to be raised in foster care (Malcolm X, n.d.). Malcolm “had known the traumas of a broken family and an incomplete and inferior formal education” and he “spent his early youth not at theological college but on the streets” finally landing in prison for burglary (Ling, 1993.).” There he learned of Elijah Muhammad’s Civil Rights message (Ling, 1993.).

In June of 1963, Malcolm X, now out of prison and a leading spokesman of Elijah Mohammad’s Nation of Islam, gave a speech titled, The Black Revolution (n.d.). In this speech he asserted that Dr. King’s approach to racial inequality was not an effective approach to the problems faced by the majority of People of Color. He advocated, instead, for a revolution where “so-called Negros” would live separate lives in a land away from the “White devils” as he called them (The Black Revolution, n.d.). Malcolm X did not believe that forgiveness and reconciliation between the races was possible.

The approach that Malcolm X used was much like what Thomas Paine used in his propaganda speech, Common Sense (n.d.). Paine advocated for revolt in order for the American colonies to achieve their independence from the British Crown. Some of Malcolm X’s tactics were to ‘dehumanize the enemy’ by naming them “goats” and “wolves” and “devils (The Black Revolution, n.d.).” He named the revolution that he envisioned as “part of God’s plan (The Black Revolution, n.d.).” He provided snippets of Bible quotes (without reference to their historical or cultural significance) as ‘proof’ to his claims of divine inspiration. His goal was to stir emotions and to incite his followers into action, perhaps even violent action, as the means of achieving separation away from the domination of those in power.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to addressing prejudice and racism was quite different. King was an advocate of a specific type of social change, that which is known as nonviolence. Nonviolence is a rough translation of the term satyagraha, the method which Gandhi successfully used to obtain India’s independence from the rule of Great Britain in the year 1947 (Nonviolence Introduction, n.d.). This method involves such methods as ‘constructive proramme’, which is the building of more just structures and systems to replace the unjust ones. Additionally, activists might engage in tactics that could embarrass their opponent into better actions. Furthermore, unlike a violent revolution, nonviolence also involves attempting to build positive relationship with the oppressor. Gandhi believed that a dedicated adherent to satyagraha (or nonviolence), “who worked to uphold a just cause will inevitably reach the heart of the oppressor by taking authentic action to represent truth (Satyagraha, n.d.).” Gandhi’s method was effective in gaining independence for India. Dr. King was using this very same approach to advance social change in the U.S.

This method of nonviolent social change mirrors the principles discussed by theologian Walter Wink in his book, The Powers that Be (1998). In this book, Wink described common responses to injustice as either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ responses. He asserted that Jesus’ parables taught a third way to achieve social change that was neither to fight nor to flee. This was what Wink also called nonviolence. According to Wink, nonviolence includes such actions as seizing the moral initiative, finding creative alternatives to violence, asserting one’s own humanity and dignity as a person, refusing to submit or accept an inferior position, exposing the injustice of the system, and shaming the oppressor into repentance (Jesus Third Way, n.d.). In The Powers that Be, Wink walked his readers through the parables, providing historical and cultural context in order to bring to life those not-often-understood messages. King understood Biblical messages in much the very same way that Wink did.

King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (n.d.), noted his “constructive work” referring to it as a “nonviolent direct-action program.” He said that it was his intention to stand between the two current options of complacency and hatred with a “more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest (Letters from Birmingham Jail, n.d.).” By this, he meant that he wanted to pull the disparate communities together – the White community and the community of People of Color, plus the community that was complacent and the community that wanted to fight. He recognized the “interrelatedness of all communities and states” which were “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality (Letters from Birmingham Jail, n.d.).” It was his goal to repair the broken relationships for the benefit of all.

To do this, he seized the moral initiative by calling out and naming bad actions. He looked for creative alternatives by calling for people to “look at underlying causes” of injustice (Letters from Birmingham, n.d.). He exposed the injustice of the system by naming unjust laws and calling attention to a discriminating police force. Furthermore, he wrote that he was disappointed with White church complacency in racial matters with the goal of shaming the oppressor into repentance (Letters from Birmingham, n.d.). King was teaching people how to assert one’s own humanity and dignity as a person by refusing to submit or accept an inferior position.

King would not resort to destructive violence because in doing so, he knew that would precipitate further violence, thereby making peace and justice even less likely. Therefore, he maintained a goal of building community through reconciliation instead.

As a biblical scholar, King had spent as many years studying the Bible as Malcolm X had spent in prison (Ling, 1993.). This difference in life experience had a profound effect on these two men’s different interpretations of Biblical passages, and likewise their different approach in working to advance social change. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. used a peaceful approach while Malcolm X used angry hate-filled rhetoric in a separatist approach. These approaches were different because of these men’s different ways of understanding their world. When Malcolm X travelled to Mecca, he saw ‘the races’ mixing in community in a positive way and this was a new experience for Malcolm X and it gave him hope (, n.d.). When he returned to the United States, he began to work with King, instead of rallying against nonviolent methods.

These very different life experiences – one of relative privilege, and the other of relative disadvantage, influenced how these two men responded to social injustice. King, who was highly educated and privileged and had resources of social and cultural capital, wanted to maintain and improve relationship with his oppressors. Malcolm X, with little education and little cultural and social capital, also leaned on his own knowledge – and that was the knowledge that White people were prejudiced oppressors of People of Color. Because Malcolm X received very little benefit from the current system, he wanted to begin a revolution to separate from his oppressors. King seemed to be more forgiving of his oppressors than Malcolm X. This is perhaps because King, as a highly educated man, received a much larger benefit from the systems that were in place, than did Malcolm X. Malcolm X’s apparent initial position of ‘un-forgiveness’ was perhaps a response to receiving very little gain from the unjust system, and little hope that he ever would.

In the example of the lives these two great leaders of the U.S. 1960’s Civil Rights movement, it is clear to see how one’s worldview shapes how one may respond to injustice. One’s individual and collective history and one’s culture shapes one’s decisions. Additionally, different life experiences, including one’s position of privilege or disadvantage may influence how a person might respond to social injustice. In the event of oppression, poverty, and lack of education, and reason for little hope, it is likely that the result may be complacency and acceptance or else a position of un-forgiveness characterized by anger, hatred and a desire for a violent revolution. If instead, hope is present, and leadership is grounded in an education of effective nonviolent principles and methods, change may take place without need for revolt or violence.


Ladenburg, T. (n.d.). 1960’s chapter 6: Martin luther king & malcolm X on violence and integration. Digital history: Using new technologies to enhance teaching and research [Web page]. Retrieved from

Jesus Third Way by Walter Wink. (n.d.). Jesus third way by walter wink. [Web page] Retrieved from’%20Third%20Way.pdf

King, M. L. (n.d.). Letter from birmingham jail. The atlantic monthly [Web page]. Retrieved from

Ling, P. (1993). More Malcolm’s year than Martin’s. History Today, 43(4), 13.

Malcolm X (1925-1965). (n.d.). Malcolm X (1925-1965). [Web page] Retrieved from (n.d.). MalcolmX.Com. [Web page] Retrieved from

Nonviolence introduction. (n.d.) The metta center for nonviolence [Web page]. Retrieved from

Paine, T. (n.d.). Common sense. The writings of Thomas Paine. Retrieved from Google:

Satyagraha. (n.d.). Satyagraha. [Web page] Retrieved from

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forgiveness in Northern Ireland: Facing the Truth

The BBC documentary presentation, Facing the Truth (2013) tells the story of the beginning of reconciliation between estranged parties that experienced ongoing strife and political, ethnic and sectarian violence, referred to as ‘The Troubles’, in Northern Ireland that began in the 1960’s. This conflict was primarily political, such that Unionists and Loyalists, who were mostly Protestants by faith, wanted to remain as part of the United Kingdom.  However, the Irish Nationalists and Republicans, who were mostly Roman Catholic by faith, wanted Northern Ireland to break away from the United Kingdom and join with the Irish Republic.  In this documentary, South African social rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Archbishop Desmond Tutu moderated a ‘difficult conversation’[1] between convicted extremists and victims from both sides of ‘The Troubles’.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu used very specific peace-building skills as he moderated these talks.  One important skill that he used is his knowledge of body language and mannerisms.  Body language often speaks volumes.  For instance, body language communicated a great deal when maimed constable Michael Patterson met with Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit leader Tommy McCristal.  Mr. Patterson entered the discussion forum with lightness, exhibiting an air of confidence, and he was smiling with bright eyes as he took his seat.  When Mr. McCristal entered the room, a few moments later, his mannerisms indicated that he was distressed.  He had an air of arrogance that communicated self-consciousness and defensiveness.  His eyes looked worried and sad.  He was clearly uncomfortable with the situation.  Mr. Patterson was filmed looking directly at Mr. McCristal, examining him closely, inquiringly.  It is clear that the men were at odds with one another.  Yet Desmond Tutu’s demeanor was one of soft-spokenness, kindness, openness, and acceptance.  He presented himself as non-judgmental.  By these actions, he offered a safe space and opportunity for each ‘side’ of the conflict to tell his version of the story, and to do so without defensiveness.

Constable Patterson entered the conversation in a very different frame of mind than did Mr. McCristal.  Patterson, when asked, did not identify himself as a victim of a terrorist attack but as being injured in the line of duty, instead. His role as a police officer allowed him to view his injuries through a lens of dignity and self-respect. While in contrast, McCristal identified himself as a victim.  He said that the reason that he joined the IRA was because he was attempting to create unity and to change an unjust system.  He spoke of a need to walk the streets and of very few jobs. From this view, it seems that the Irish Nationalists were experiencing economic inequality that they wanted to redress. McCristal justified the violent actions of the IRA saying, “we had an objective here, and it was to create a united country (Facing the Truth, 2013).”  It was this attitude of victimhood that permitted McCristal to target members of the British armed forces with violent protest actions. An attitude of victimhood led to violent actions and years of being stuck in emotional turmoil for McCristal, while an attitude of acceptance of injury allowed Patterson take responsibility and move on with his life.

Although McCristal initially justified violent retaliation to injustice, he said that he began to question his role with the IRA when he participated in the killing of two of his neighbors, John Graham and John Hana. He knew these men well, and felt sorrow for their deaths and their families’ resulting loss and pain. He said that he realized that they were “filling the graveyards” but that no one was “winning” and there “had to be an alternative” to the violent methods for protest and social change (Facing the Truth, 2013.).  McCristal expressed a desire to find a point that they could all agree on and move forward, admitting that they were not there yet, but hopefully they would get there.  It was the realization of the humanness of John Graham and John Hana that led McCristal to question the armed struggles, or ‘The Troubles’, as they were called.

Patterson also expressed a desire to move away from conflict.  He stressed the need for acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility.  He said, when questioned, that McCristal’s doubting of his past actions was OK, and that it is “where they are” although “it doesn’t bring back my arms” but “if that is where they are in their healing process, that is OK” (Facing the Truth, 2013.). Patterson, even though he lost so much when he lost his arms, was able to have a positive attitude because he was able to accept and take responsibility for the situation in which he currently found himself.

An attitude of acceptance seems to be a key factor in aiding a process of forgiveness and healing.  When McCristal heard Patterson discuss this acceptance without a desire for retaliation, he seemed to become more hopeful saying, “maybe we are going to achieve something here” with “more people thinking like that . . . maybe that’s how we are going to achieve something (Facing the Truth, 2013.).”  Both men communicated a willingness to accept what is, and be accountable to what has been done.  Both men feared that if reconciliation was not achieved in their generation that the younger generation would repeat history.  Both Patterson and McCristal expressed a desire to reconcile and a willingness to take on that responsibility as a way to not pass this struggle on to future generations.  It seems that, in this circumstance, a willingness to take on responsibility grew out of an attitude of acceptance.

In another discussion between victims and offenders of the Irish ‘Troubles’ that was moderated by Archbishop Tutu, involved family members of a slain teenager and a convicted murderer of a different teen who was murdered decades earlier.  This discussion involved the family of eighteen-year-old Gavin Bret, who was a child of a mixed Catholic/Protestant marriage.  Members of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary and vigilante group, murdered him in a drive-by shooting in 2001 because they assumed he was Catholic.  This discussion also involved Alex Calderwood, a UDA member who at seventeen years of age, twenty-one years before the murder of Gavin Bret, murdered another teenager, Alex Reid, because he was Catholic.  Mr. Calderwood met with Gavin Bret’s family after having served his jail sentence.

At the beginning of the meeting, Gavin’s father Michael questioned, “Why do these things occur? (Facing the Truth, 2013).” Alex Calderwood felt the need to start at the beginning, discussing when and where he was born, providing context by doing so.  He did not like to admit at that present time that he was raised to be a bigot and hating Catholics, whom he believed at that time were all members of the IRA.  He said that he joined the UDA at sixteen years of age because it provided him with ‘identity’ as signified by a blue jacket with a fur collar.  Wearing that jacket meant that he was “one of the big boys (Facing the Truth, 2013).” Calderwood said that he “wanted to be the same as everyone else” and he admitted, “I joined because I wanted to kill Catholics, and I don’t make no bones about that (Facing the Truth, 2013).” He explained that at seventeen and a half years of age, he was drinking heavily at clubs and this was when he came across a group of Catholics who were being detained by other UDA members.   The others left and he was alone with one of the Catholic boys, and Calderwood explained to Gavin’s family, “I set myself up as judge, juror and executioner and took that young man’s life (Facing the Truth, 2013).”  He said that he believed at that time that the Catholics would have responded to him in the same way.  It was clear by Calderwood’s discussion that he was young and impressionable and he was acting on social prejudices that he had learned.  It was also clear that his attitudes and beliefs had changed since his youth.

Calderwood’s attitudes toward the Catholic community changed while he was incarcerated.  He, at twenty-five years of age, requested the governor to provide to him a teacher so that he could learn to read and write.  When he began reading, he gained information about Catholics that he did not have access to before.  For example, he learned that not all Catholics were members of the IRA. He also learned that Catholics were people, too, who had families that they cared for, and who cared for them. Up until the time he learned to read, he was dependant on the information that was provided by others, in order to form his opinions.  Receiving instruction in reading has allowed Mr. Calderwood the opportunity to learn and make decisions based on what he has learned, and this has altered how he views the conflict in Northern Ireland.  He now wishes to be a part of the healing process.

Key elements that led to the seemingly amicable conclusion of these discussions were the creation of a safe space for the sharing of each side of the story and the result of skillful and effective moderation of the discussion.  The issues were very sensitive ones, that were likely to lead to defensiveness and continued conflict. For example, when Calderwood stated in a rather matter of fact way that the reason that he hated and killed Catholics was because that was how he was brought up, Gavin’s father replied that he could not understand that.   Calderwood attempted explain again, justifying his position, but was interrupted by a moderator who acknowledged Mr. Bret’s feelings and position, “But he is saying that he can’t understand that (Facing the Truth, 2013).” That was an important moment. The feelings and position of an injured party need to be heard and acknowledged as valid.  When Gavin’s motherPhyllis said that Calderwood came across as very complacent, she also explained her own position of facing discrimination and yet still being able to respond with love, as evidenced by her own mixed marriage.  The Brets have chosen to overcome their past and love one another, despite their differences, and from their perspective, they cannot understand the degree of hatred that shaped Calderwood’s actions.  Mr. Calderwood offered a sincere apology, “I can assure you from my own perspective that I am very deeply sorry for any hurt that I have caused anyone during my time growing up, and I do apologize that I have come across as complacent because I certainly didn’t mean to do that (Facing the Truth, 2013.).” This was a very sensitive issue, but when conflicting parties are provided with a safe place and an effective method of communication, in order to share their differing perspectives, there is greater likelihood that they will be able to arrive at a common understanding that may lead to a process of healing and reconciliation.  This is what took place between Calderwood and the Bret family.

The creation of a safe place and effective communication process is what the talks with Archbishop Desmond Tutu are designed to provide. Archbishop Desmond Tutu began the discussions by speaking about the need for honesty.  He said that he was honored to be part of this healing process and welcomed the presence of all there.  He offered the first opportunity to speak to the victim, and he listened to the story of the ‘offender’ next.  The moderators probed with questions to bring out the perspective of each party. In this way, through honest, open, authentic and respectful communication, a third and more complete story emerged that was inclusive of many perspectives.  From this, both ‘sides’ of the conflict learned of each other’s experience and feelings and they each departed from the meeting with a more complete understanding as a result of their candid and respectful discussions.  This atmosphere of safety, honesty, openness, acceptance, and respect assisted the parties on both sides of the conflict to overcome longstanding lies and silence.  The creation of a safe place and effective method for honest and open communication between estranged parties is an important element of a peace-building process.


Facing the Truth (1 of 2). (2013). (Archbishop Desmond Tutu Moderates Talks with Extremists and Victims on both sides of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from

Stone, D., & Patton, B. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.

[1] ‘Difficult conversations’ is a term coined by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Sheen, members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, in their straightforward guide to negotiation and conflict resolution, Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most (2010).

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