By Dr. Lynn Gehl
On Critical Thinkers and Wood Choppers
In the Anishinaabeg Clan System of Governance everyone has a role in community life where all roles are of equal value. There is no hierarchy. Intellectuals and philosophers are of equal importance as the fire keepers and wood choppers are.
It is my thought that one of the reasons humans are unable to really value critical thinking practitioners today is because we live in a world that does not really appreciate that wood chopper practitioners are of equal value. Because people don’t feel their work or knowledge is not equally valued many tend to act out emotionally against critical thinking intellectuals. What results is a society where anti-intellectual tendencies flourish and where we don’t really learn from one another, and so we sit around and debate with the very person who has valuable knowledge. Nation states love this poor behaviour.
Critical Theory as a Learned Skill
While it is true less privileged people will be critical thinking oriented, a lack of training is important to think about. Not all less privileged people are trained and skilled critical thinkers. Humans need to value this.
What is more, while it is true less privileged people learn how to be critical thinkers through their personal experience of living structural oppression, it stands to reason that personal experience of living structural oppression plus critical theory training heightens a person’s ability to think and act through critical theory. Humans need to value this too.
In sum, while a more privileged person inclined toward critical thinking will have less of the knowledge and skill, and a less privileged person will have some critical thinking knowledge and skill, a less privileged person who is also trained in critical thinking will have more of the knowledge and skill. This stands to reason: Experience plus training means more of the knowledge and skill.
Experience and Training in Critical Thinking
One example of critical thinking that informs us of the limitations of only having intellectual knowledge yet no experiential knowledge is the matter when white people educate other people about white privilege, yet as a white person they are not experientially rooted in the everyday results of white privilege in the sense that they are not at the receiving end of it the way people of colour are. Rather, what they most likely rely on is a body of literature and lectures that critical theorists have offered. This method of knowledge has limitations. Certainly people of colour who live the end result of white privilege every day of their lives hold the most important knowledge about white privilege and how best to address it.
It stands to reason that a person of colour who experiences the end result of white privilege, and who is also rooted in critical thinking training and practice, holds important critical theoretical and practical knowledge. They would hold more of the knowledge over a white person talking about white privilege. But, again, it also stands to reason that experiential knowledge, in itself, does not make a person a skilled critical thinker.
This example illustrates that I am well aware that intellectual, or academic, knowledge gained at a university is not enough; certainly knowledge is found within the experiences we live.
Criticism from Privileged People Beware
All too often more privileged people are overly critical, yet they are not in the needed critical thinking paradigm of liberation where more people are free. What they need to do is listen, think, and learn. More privileged people need to value that knowledge is not linear, rather knowledge is best viewed as a bundle, where it is foremost a relationship that unfolds over time, versus existing in the immediately understood and linear way – this is where most reactionary settler criticism emerges from.
Drawing from my work I have come to know that much of the criticism that emerges from settler people and their descendants is very much rooted in a lack of knowledge, or is due to them being cognitively stuck in a paradigm that is not working for the most oppressed or, for that matter, themselves.
Training and Experience Makes us Better Critical Thinkers
In offering another example, it is interesting that it is valued that an individual can have a natural inclination toward conflict resolution, where with additional training and experience they become better at their knowledge, practice, and skill. It is also interesting it is valued that wood choppers become more skilled over time. Yet, experiential and trained critical thinkers continually face anti-intellectualism. It is my thought that the reason intellectuals face anti-intellectualism is mostly due to the emotional knowledge, or heart knowledge, inherent in reactionary projection versus allowing the knowledge to unfold through reasoned thought. Remember, personal truth is both heart knowledge and mind knowledge.
I have a dream that one day wood choppers will be as valued as critical thinking intellectuals where we will then see the end of anti-intellectualism. When this happens all the projections and criticisms will lessen to a place where the water and the land will be better cared for by all peoples.
Lastly, it is too bad we live in a world where people don’t have the time to think critically about establishing a criteria set of who has knowledge and who the knowledge holders are. We all need to stop and think about this. Find the time and allow the knowledge to unfold.
Lynn Gehl, PhD is a member of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation. She is the author of two books: 2014’s The Truth That Wampum Tells: My Debwewin on the Algonquin Land Claims Process[i] with Fernwood Publishing; and 2017’s Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit with the University of Regina Press.[ii] You can read more of her work at www.lynngehl.com