This is an independent blog and is not affiliated with any particular church, group or conference. The term Bruderthaler refers to a specific ethnic or cultural Mennonite heritage, not to any particular organized group. All statements and opinions are solely those of the contributor(s). Blog comprises notebook fragments from various research projects and discussions. Dialogue, comment and notice of corrections are welcomed. Much of this content is related to papers and presentations that might be compiled at a future date, as such, this blog serves as a research archive rather than as a publication. 'tag

Monday, May 7, 2012

Suzuki, Plett and Gadamer


  Southern Manitoba is probably the closest Russian Mennonites will come to again realizing the concept of an integrated Russian Mennonite commonwealth. So the region commends itself for study in the areas of sociology and political science.
    Recently, (21 March 2012), noted Canadian scientist Dr. David Suzuki and PC Senator for Manitoba, Don Plett, got into an exchange that clearly illustrates the concept of openness, or rather its lack, in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s discourse theory or “rules of play.” 
    In as much as both Plett and his hometown of Landmark, MB, are of strong Mennonite heritage, this brief “exchange” between the two ideological social leaders is notable for its reflection as to the potential evolution of Russian Mennonite norms and values.  
    According to Toronto’s Globe & Mail, on Tuesday (20 Mar), Dr. Suzuki’s foundation created a web-based campaign to register what they hoped to be the public’s disappointment in what they felt to be efforts by Torie politicians (Conservative Party) to ”silence and demonize those who don’t share their positions,” (Globe & Mail, see below).

(c) Holger Motzkau, 2010
    Dr. Suzuki, who holds a doctorate in zoology from University of Chicago (1961) and is retired from his post at University of British Columbia teaching genetics, is perhaps best known to North Americans as the voice of Science.   In 1974, Dr. Suzuki created the influential CBC-Radio program Quirks and Quarks, and since 1979, has hosted CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things, which might also be seen on various Public Television stations in the United States (in fact, it is viewed in over 80 nations).  

    In a quote posted on the program’s web-site, the Montreal Star states, “The Nature of Things is a remarkable program.  It operates on the assumption that a TV audience is intelligent, inquisitive … and alert,” (1960).  Wikipedia indicates, “In [The Nature of Things], Suzuki’s aim is to stimulate interest in the natural world, to point out threats to human well-being and wildlife habitat, and to present alternatives for achieving a more sustainable society.  Suzuki has been a prominent proponent of renewable energy sources and the soft energy path,” (Wikipedia: “David Suzuki”).

   The nature of the debate between Dr. Suzuki and Sen. Plett is such that it exemplifies the challenges of Gadamer's theory of communication, in both requiring certain presuppositions or necessary prerequisites for effective communication and modeling two different approaches to public debate which would either reinforce or challenge Gadamer's understanding of prerequisites.  
     According to Gadamer, society seemingly progresses through a series of dialogues -- a social process by which the many competing subjective or personal perspectives, truths and ideals all contribute to a mitigated, impacted and consensus-based, accepted social ideology or reality. In this Gadamer is definitely channeling Hegelian thought. Seemingly, Gadamer believes that the subjective perspectives are in fact given up in good faith to be shaped and impacted by potential useful truths and perspectives contributed by others -- his form of the Hegelian synthesis.
     According to David Vessey, in his Gadamer and the Body Across Dialogical Contexts (2000), Gadamer also holds a place for tradition in dialogue but possibly places more emphasis on an individual's "attitudes" within the dialogue process than on his or her culture.  For Gadamer, "There is no higher principle than this:  holding oneself open to the conversation," (Vessey, p 1).  Vessey continues, "... in dialogue subjectivity is displaced.  One enters into dialogue, but one does not control the progression of the dialogue.   A genuine dialogue is a genuinely social act -- it is irreducible to explanation in terms of one person's activity [or perspective].  Dialogue is a form of play, and in play 'the real subject of the game is not the players, but the game itself.'  Gadamer claims that the give and take of dialogue operates on the model of question and answer.  We are always interpreting the content of an exchange as a viable answer to a legitimate question.  This [in] turn raises new questions requiring new answers..." (Vessey, p 3).
     In this debate, the above quotes from the Montreal Star and Wikipedia would indicate that Dr. Suzuki's position of openness, intelligent dialogue and a respectful shared interest in the result or engagement of a common dilemma is in line with Gadamer's understanding of the necessary attitudes, positions and goals for real dialogue, or play, to occur.  
     For his part, Sen. Plett seems to pose an alternative, challenging certain Gadameric precepts in seeking to close-off, control or limit participation in the debate, creating an unequal if not unfair, playing field and seemingly preferring to impose his own goals on the debate rather than to surrender in good faith to the process of engaged dialogue (though this latter point may not an exactly fair charge).

(c) Senate of Canada, 2009.
    Don Plett, retired owner-manager of Landmark Mechanical, a plumbing supply firm in Central Canada, is the founding president of the National Council of the Conservative Party of Canada and was appointed to the Canadian Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2009 in recognition for his service to the Conservative Party and his three terms as national president of the party.  Plett is a graduate of Red River College and has served as an alumni member of the school’s board of governors. 

    According to family and local sources, the Plett family has historical ties to both the early Brüderthaler Mennonites in Steinbach, MB, and the Kleine Gemeinde who immigrated to Manitoba from Russia in 1874, but that the family have left traditional evangelical Anabaptism for a more Pentecostal variant of the faith.
     Plett’s historic ties to the Ruβländer Mennoniten are important in that I have maintained a thesis that Gadamer’s model of dialogue most pertinently reflects the alternative historical and social experience of the Russian Mennonites and preserves the basics of traditional Mennonite self-governance within the gemeinde.  (Note:  I am encouraged in this by an awareness of Michael A. King’s book, Fractured Dance, which holds a similar thesis for United States’ Mennonite-Amish, but I have not yet had access to his book.) As a Russian Mennonite from an ethnic Russian Mennonite community, Plett's attitudes and perspectives could indicate a continuance or social rejection of this consensual ethnic model.  Whether the valuing and practice of consensual norms is rejected or retained, it would also be important to understand how or why this is true, in either case.

    Dr. Suzuki’s foundation has been targeted amongst others by Plett’s political party for having accepted funding from foreign, mostly United States donors.  Suzuki’s on-line letter urges fellow Canadians to call Conservative Party senators to task, to tell them to “get back to the business of thoughtful debate” and that Canadians “are disappointed by [Conservative senators’] attempts to silence and demonize those who don’t share their positions,”(Galloway).  [What many American’s would not give to say something similar to their Congress!]
    Suzuki’s letter continues, “The Senate is supposed to be a house of sober second thought.  As such, we expect more from our senators than uninformed and immature rhetoric that does nothing to further debate about matters of vital national importance. … The issue of ‘relatively small amounts of international funding’ is a distraction and an effort to silence and discredit organizations that are looking out for the interests of Canada and Canadians. …” (Galloway).
    The topic spawning this controversy is the proposed Keystone Pipeline to ship tar sands oil to the southern United States, or alternatively, over sovereign First Nations’ lands through to British Columbia, is a political hot potato on both sides of the border.  Local impacted communities have raised concerns about the necessity, the value and the dangers of bringing more pipelines through their small communities and farmland – creating a common cause between rural farmers (including Mennonites) with potentially impacted First Nations communities in Canada and South Dakota.  Interestingly, the pipeline in the United States will impact numerous heritage Mennonite communities as well.  Despite potential threats to heritage water rights on the Fort Peck Assiniboine - Sioux Reservation over the Missouri River, these communities, containing also a large Mennonite and growing Hutterite populations, have been strangely silent in comparison to their Tribal and non-tribal peers.
    Senator Plett has questioned how much of the opposition to the pipelines is being funded by American groups, “If environmentalists are willing to accept money from Martians, where would they draw the line on where they receive money from?  Would they take money from al-Quaeda, the Hamas or the Taliban,” (Galloway).
   Bascially, both the Suzuki Foundation and the Conservative senators are worried about fair play in the dialogue – but neither side seems to trust the other.  In fact, the dialogue seems to have stopped – with both sides openly and preemptively condemning rather than listening to each other.
    Interestingly, Plett seems to be leading the more outrageous of the reactions to the dialogue – comparing environmentalists to Martians and terrorist groups (bringing to mind the more outrageous rhetoric of Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George in that city's increasingly vitriolic social debates). 
    From a Gadameric perspective, it seems that the Suzuki camp is frustrated and serving notice to the Conservatives that dialogue is in danger of ceasing.
    Plett is coming back at them with even more polarizing rhetoric – attempting to bull-doze the opposition rather than to dialogue.  Plett is breaking several of Gadamer's rules by limiting dialogue.  Regardless of ideology or national origin, the pipelines both impact and involve American communities just as much as they do Canadians.  Sovereignty or no-sovereignty, both the United States and the First Nations have the right to be heard (and vice verse).  Also, Plett is ignoring the fact that money is coming into Canada also to support his side of the debate.  Powerful corporate sponsors and interest groups in the Oil Industry and Republican Party are in support of the project.  In fact, Obama has finally given in to United States' pressure sources and given the Keystone pipeline a green light to begin construction on the southern stages. 

    Apparently, the latter “foreign interests” are playing by Plett’s rules and thereby deserve to be heard (i.e. they support his position).
    Plett does not seem to be playing fair – letting loose rhetorical flights in the Canadian Senate more fitting to the contemptuous cynicism often attributed to the Senate of Ancient Rome.  That most ancient and original Roman Senate often seemed to jeopardize rather than celebrate effective dialogue -- often ridiculing rather than reasoning.  Are Plett's Conservatives really comparing the citizens of their strongest and best ally to the terrorist fanatics against which both nations are currently at war?   Ridicule, disrespect and a closed mind are the said by Plutarch to be the symptoms of the Republic's  demise.

     According to Gadamer, Suzuki would probably be right – the Conservative current government’s attitude towards dialogue is not one of governance but one of force, bullying and ridicule.
    In his biography for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Jeff Malpas also indicates that Suzuki might have hit criticism of the Conservative Senators on the nail – the fact that both Plett and Suzuki bring prejudices and agendas to the table is not the problem – the problem is rather an apparent difference between how the two sides believe the Senate should operate and how they regard its proper role in governance.  Again, Suzuki is presenting the perspective that the Senate is, “a house of sober second thought,” (Ibid).   There is evidence that Plett sees his role as Senator a bit differently.
    Plett was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2009 for his service to the Conservative Party (all parties involved seem to see the Senate as a sort-of spoils system).  At the time, Plett was far more interested in completing his third term as president of the Conservative Party.  According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Plett was slow to acknowledge his appointment to the Senate indicating that his first and highest priority was to serve as President of the party. This is all well and good.
    But then the Free Press also indicates that Harper’s appointees had to agree prior to their appointment to cooperate with the Harper agenda (especially to reform the rules of the Senate) – not dissimilar to Republican party practice in the USA.  With an agenda to push, Harper possibly needed a Senator like Plett to serve the role of Whip to maintain and pursue the Harper programme of reform and the Conservative Party political agenda through the upper house.  In fact, Plett’s two key political characteristics seems to be a gift for grass roots organization and maintaining organizational party discipline or loyalty – Harper was instrumental in Plett’s successful bid for president of the party, possibly with these considerations -- that Plett would similarly be able to help establish and maintain an ideological caucus in the upper house -- and owe his political advancement directly to Harper's favor.  It seems likely that Plett could see his job not as a facilitator of reflective thought and dialogue but rather one of party loyalty and implementation of a specific party-oriented agenda (such as was alluded to by Harper).
    There is nothing wrong in this – the Conservatives are only playing the same game as have most Canadian, American and almost all political parties. 
    With these thoughts in mind, it is apparent that the Keystone Pipeline and the Gateway Pipeline (Keystone's northern cousin) are only a part of the apparent disagreement between Suzuki and Plett – they are really arguing about the future nature of Canadian government – just as Harper sought to reshape the Canadian Wheat Pool so it could be manipulated in pursuit of Party interests (or threatened to cancel it entirely), Harper may have similar aspirations for the Canadian Senate.  In this Suzuki is not merely a competing interest, he is potentially blocking reform by positing an alternative structure for the Senate (perhaps a more traditional one?).  Suzuki is calling for a body that dialogues and reasons through acknowledged prejudices to resolve social and political issues and averts political impasses by careful reasoning and intelligent dialogue.  As such, Suzuki is calling for spokespersons, not disciplinarian whips
    Malpas would probably support Suzuki.  In laying the groundwork of Gadamer’s theory, Malpas turns to Martin Heidegger’s concept of true statements – first rejecting the concept of a known truth value or the truthfulness of an ideological agenda, “truth is not a property of statements as they stand in relation to the world,” in favor of a procedural truth process, “but rather an event or process in and through which both the things of the world and what is said about them come to be revealed at one and the same time – the possibility of ‘correctness’ arises on the basis of just such ‘unconcealment’ [dialogue]”. 
    In other words, as the reasoned pursuit of Truth, Wisdom and Justice, political dialogue does not depend on having the correct prejudices, but rather, depends on having formed prejudices through honoring tradition, observation and experience, and to bring those prejudices to the public forum for an engaged dialogue (Suzuki’s vision of the Senate).
    Gadamer would respond to Harper and Plett that in taking part in the dialogue, two things would happen, the prejudices would be unconcealed, engendering a procedural dialogue that would indicate better, more reasonable, more effective answers to the nation’s governance.  The prejudices must be present but they must be malleable and able to influence each other for the public good.
    Gadamer would encourage Plett to bring his prejudices and ideologies to the place of dialogue for “our prejudices are themselves what open us up to what is to be understood,” (Malpas).  This is because our prejudices are responsive to the dialogue – they are capable of being shaped, formed or changed.  Seemingly, we must first respect the question or the purpose of the dialogue, then we must bring our knowledge, ideologies, historical experiences and traditions to the forum to hammer out a plan of action.  Interestingly, this “solution” is never the “end solution” but merely becomes a component of future traditions, prejudice and ideologies to be further reshaped themselves by ongoing future dialogues.
    As Malpas puts it, “In this respect, all interpretation, even of the past, is necessarily ‘pre-judgmental’ in the sense that it is always oriented to present concerns and interests, and it is those present concerns and interests that allow us to enter into the dialogue with the matter at issue … we are involved in a dialogue that encompasses both our own self-understanding and our understanding of the matter at issue… [with the] emphasis on the priority of the question in the structure of understanding. … As our prejudices thereby become apparent to us [through dialogue], so they can also become the focus of questioning in their own turn…” adding (to encourage Plett), “One consequence of Gadamer’s rehabilitation of prejudice is a positive evaluation of the role of authority and tradition as legitimate sources of knowledge.” (Malpas).
    To come before the Senate with an uncompromising ideology or agenda is seemingly both ineffective and useless in Gadamer’s perspective.  He rejects “the idea of understanding as achieved through gaining access to some inner realm of subjective meaning… since understanding is an ongoing process, rather than something that is ever completed, … he also rejects the idea that there is any final determinacy to understanding [correct political ideology]… Gadamer argues against there being any method or technique for achieving understanding or arriving at Truth,” (Malpas).
    This brings us back to Vessey’s observation that Gadamer’s chief requirement is not to avoid prejudice or ideology – but to be willing to play – to bring forward your experience but to have it influence others and be influenced by others.  Malpas backs Vessey’s observation, “Gadamer views understanding as a matter of negotiation between oneself and one’s partner in the hermeneutical dialogue such that the process of understanding can be seen as a matter of coming to an ‘agreement’ about the matter at issue.  Coming to such an agreement means establishing a common framework or ‘horizon’ and Gadamer thus takes understanding to be a process of the ‘fusion of horizons’ (Horizontverschmelzung)…. In this respect, all understanding involves a process of mediation and dialogue between what is familiar and what is alien in which neither remains unaffected.  This process of horizontal engagement is an ongoing one that never achieves any final completion or complete elucidation [a perpetual dialogue]” (Malpas).
    In their article on Hermeneutics, also for the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, Bjørn Ramberg and Kristen Gjesdal, further clarify for Plett the role of ideology and tradition in the social dialogue, “It is through language that the world is opened up for us.  We learn to know the world by learning to master a language…” and “Being a part of our own tradition, historical works [dialogue and texts] do not primarily present themselves to us as neutral and value-free objects of scientific investigation.  They are part of the horizon in which we live and through which our world-view gets shaped. … Tradition is always alive.  It is not passive and stifling, but productive and in constant development. … The past is handed over to us through the complex and ever-changing fabric of interpretations, which gets richer and more complex as decades and centuries pass … [helping to establish a] truth of self-understanding … [this] is not something we can learn by coming to master a certain doctrine, method, or theory,” (Hermeneutics).  [Note:  in this quote, I am referencing other works to link “the truth of self-understanding” with “the fusion of horizons” as referring to the same personal impact though the former would be individual and the latter can only be experienced by the individual in dialogue with an other.]
    Lest Plett feel that we are picking on him, Ramberg and Gjesdal point out that in Jacques Derrida’s critique of Gadamer, Derrida agrees with the Conservatives that Gadamer might be a bit naive, “… Derrida questioned the idea of a continuously unfolding continuity of understanding.  Meaning, he insisted, is not based on the will to dialogue alone.  Most fundamentally, it is made possible by absence, by the relations of a word to other words within the ever-evasive network of structures that language ultimately is.  Our relation to the speech of others, or to the texts of the past, is not one of mutual respect and interaction.  It is a relationship in which we have to fight against misunderstanding and dissemination, … The ethics of hermeneutics, consisting in the recognition of the possible truth of the other’s point of view, tends to cover up the way in which the other escapes me, the way in which the I always fails to recognize the thou in its constitutive difference,” (Hermeneutics). 
    So we return not to a disagreement over the environment and over foreign interference in the Canadian national dialogue – but rather a basic disagreement over the nature and possibility of this dialogue.  That the dialogue must occur is the consensus of the Canadian founders – the drafters of the Canadian Constitution.  Whether this dialogue exists to determine truth and justice in the best national interest or as a rhetorical justification for dividing social, financial and natural resource assets is in fact a deeper, more far reaching question.  Suzuki and his fan-base seem to think such open, respectful and mutually impactful dialogue is both necessary and possible.  Harper and Plett seem to be more doubtful – but what exactly is the alternative they are bringing forward?
    Interestingly, Plett’s perspectives and ideological tolerances might possibly reflect internal Mennonite dialogues that have historically occurred amongst the Ruβländer Mennonites in and around Steinbach.  As such, Plett’s arguments on a national scale and his use (or possible manipulation of) the national dialogue could indicate either a cultural prejudice that fosters and endorses this prejudiced perspective or, if the Russian Mennonites have culturally been an example of consensual ethnic and religious self-government, Plett’s example could indicate a distinct turning-away from traditional Russian Mennonite principles, values and traditions.  Being that Plett is a “conservative” politician for a party touting “traditional” values, the question as to whether or not Plett is reflecting traditional values or indicates the cultural assimilation of new social prejudices, perspectives and traditions, is both an historically pertinent and exemplary point for further study and elaboration.  In this vein, the extent to which Plett is selling his party programme to the ethnic Russian Mennonite community as consistent with traditional ethnic Russian Mennonite values would be a matter of concern with both he and the Party being held liable for their claims of cultural or religious integrity.
    Along the same vein, it is interesting to see Plett so vociferously protesting the involvement of trans-border groups in the dialogue process.  Historically, the Mennonites have held themselves aloof from state borders and boundary-setting – especially the Russian Mennonites of the western United States and Canada.  On the other hand, there is a bit of hostility between certain historic groups such as the Kleine Gemeinde (KG or Kleinies) who have held their co-religionists across the border somewhat in disregard and with suspicion due to ancient differences over their joint immigration, some old financial differences and old fashioned Evangelical and Mennonite disagreements.  Is it possible that these old traditions do or do not reflect themselves in contemporary Canadian politics?  Is it possible that internal ethnic disagreements can carry themselves forward, perhaps even unconsciously, into the assimilating society?  These are very interesting and potentially important questions for someone else to pick up on.  I'll leave it at examining the retained relevance of Gadamer-style consensual dialogue from the traditional ethnic Mennonite perspective to its ultimate application or rejection in the storied halls of the Canadian Senate.

    Note:  As usual, there at least three topics or essays combined into this one… but again, the idea is to help get ideas out there for further refinement and dialogue rather than an intention to “publish” a polished academic thesis.

  • Galloway, Gloria, “Ditch’ immature rhetoric’ on oil sands, David Suzuki tells Tory senators,” The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON, 20 Mar 2012.
  • Malpas, Jeff, “Hans-Georg Gadamer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy…
  • Rabson, Mia and Akin, David, “He united the right, now he’s in the Senate:  Manitoban Don Plett expected to be appointed,” Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg, MB, 27 Aug, 2009.
  • Ramberg, Bjørn and Gjesdal, Kristin, “Hermeneutics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
  • Vessey, David, “Gadamer and the Body Across Dialogical Contexts,” Philosophy Today, Vol 44 Supplement [2000], 70-77.
  • Canadian Senate on-line minutes and records.
  • Personal conversations

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