I’m pleased to have my colleague Omar H. Ali as guest columnist. Dr. Ali is Associate Professor of Comparative African Diaspora History, and Interim Dean of Lloyd International Honors College at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A scholar, community activist, play advocate and public speaker, Dr. Ali has appeared on CNN, C-SPAN, NPR, PBS, Al Jazeera, Black Network Television, and Huffpost Live. He recently was chosen as 2016 Carnegie Foundation North Carolina Professor of the Year, “Fresh Ideas: Blame it on Aristotle!” first appeared in The City Beat and is posted here with permission of the author.
By Omar H. Ali
Given the state of our world, it seems we want to blame or accuse others for whatever is happening. And when we do, many of us do so in the broadest of strokes — Muslims are terrorists, the police are racists, Syrian refugees are suspect, you always leave the light on in the kitchen! Whatever the case may be — big or small — however true or untrue, the blame-game is largely our modus operandi.
But if we’re going to blame someone, I say we blame Aristotle — for everything. The philosopher of Greek antiquity, tutor of Alexander (the Great), and supposedly the first person to classify all living things, is also the person who came up with the “law of the excluded middle” — the idea and approach which has come to dominate much of how we think about ourselves and the world. This philosophical tenet purports that things can only be “A” or “not A.” Unfortunately, this binary approach to logic (and life) limits our development.
Why? Because it is anti-becoming, it is anti-emerging. As any parent, caretaker or teacher displays through their actions, we relate to children as if they are growing, as if they are developing; but we stop doing this with each other as we get older. We literally say, “Stop playing around and get to work!” But what if some of our most important work now, at this historic moment, is to become more playful, more philosophical — that is, to relate to each other in more developmental ways as a way of moving forward?
The notion that we are either this or that — that we’re either smart or not, racist or not, sexist or not, good or not — not only lacks nuance in its bifurcation and rigidity, but is fundamentally undevelopmental.
By thinking of ourselves and others in such constricted and (largely) ungenerous ways, we undermine our power to develop environments where everyone can grow. And we desperately need to grow. Indeed, we must develop — that is, increase our capacity to recognize opportunities and do something with them — in order to make a better world. Why? Because justice without development will only continue to leave us wanting.
In our rush to be right, largely focused on ourselves and how we think and do things as the only way of thinking and being, we often miss out on opportunities to build something with others who are, by definition, different from us. We miss out on all kinds of opportunities to grow and support others’ growth.
The early 20th Century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky put it best when he said that we relate to children as a “head taller” than who they are when it comes to them learning language. Language speakers (parents, older siblings and teachers, for instance) relate to young children as if they are already language speakers (when they are not yet). By doing so, those children become language speakers. Vygotsky and the work of the American developmental psychologist Lois Holzman, who takes play (performing, pretending) as fundamental to development, points to a powerful methodology that we can practice in order to develop ourselves and our world.
A practical way of doing so is to do what improv theater performers do on stage: “Yes, and.…” In improv, “Yes, and” is acknowledging (no matter what) what another person gives you (“an offer”) and then creatively building on that (whether it is a phrase or a gesture). In contrast to “real life” where we are mostly organized around notions of “truth,” “Yes, and” offers us a performative, playful way of relating to each other as ever growing and ever developing beings.
So I say let’s engage in the playfulness of “Yes, and” — a way of building community across all kinds of perceived differences and divides. Things are too dire, too serious, for us not to use this powerful approach to cultivating learning, development and growing environments. We have each other, even if we don’t agree with each other. As the philosopher of science Fred Newman wrote, “Let’s develop!” How? By relating to each other — even Aristotle — as if we are becoming.
So, come play the becoming game with me, your loved ones… and total strangers. It’s a way for all of us to build community, develop and help make a better world.