I will be attending an international conference offered by a research institute called l'Institute des Ameriques, or the Institute of the Americas. This is connected with the Sorbonne.
On Friday morning I will be giving a paper I wrote on waste practices and the theory of education in the context of social division. The idea here is that we can find unity in conflict if we look for our areas of common interest and experience. Sustainability is one of our common interests.
This paper grew out of a five year long research project I started back in the fall of 2012. My research was aimed at understanding the nature of waste as a social process. My interest in this subject grew out of years of teaching geography and looking at waste practices and issues in different countries.
In 2012 my son and I bagan to experiment with ways to extract value from products that were being thrown away. We took apart piles of machines to see what was inside. We worked for free taking apart whole buildings just to see what they were made of and what we could do if we salvaged the materials inside. The paper attached here provides a detailed overview of our findings in this long term research project. As many of you know, our research project eventually gave rise to a successful small business.
At the Institute of the Americas, a small but distinguished group of scholars from major universities and research institutes will gather to discuss the status of waste processing and sustainability initiatives in our different countries. Most of these people will be geographers and social scientists. I am pleased to represent Edgecombe Community College as one of two scholars acepted from the United States.
Many of my colleagues have asked to read the paper I will be giving, so I thought I would ask you, Global Ed, to share it with our ECC Family.
Instructor in Geography, Religion, Humanities, and Developmental Studies
Edgecombe Community College
Agnotology, acceptance, and alternative approaches to waste
Stephen A. Herring
Edgecombe Community College
Tarboro and Rocky Mount NC (USA)
September 12, 2017
This paper examines the problems of conflict between epistemic and value
based communities with respect to waste management and other
environmental practices and policies. We begin with common experience,
showing how social conflicts can grow in intensity such that one group of
believers may accuse another of being ignorance based and agenda driven
instead of being knowledge based or aimed at the common good. As these
conflicts grow, we witness the abandonment of environmental policies that
originated with positive efforts. This paper suggests that agnotology
(Proctor and Schiebinger 2008) offers a useful conceptual basis from which
to perceive the conflicts between epistemic and anti-epistemic
communities. Specifically, in the area of waste management, this paper
shows how expanded recycling and creative alternative approaches to
waste can help us to transcend the barriers of political and social polarity.
People are favorably disposed toward programs that reduce or eliminate
waste regardless of their political or social values. Thus, waste reduction
practitioners are in a good place to address the conflicts between rival
groups. Coming from the perspective of waste pickers in the conservative
and racially divided rural south of the United States, the author maintains
that non-dualistic acceptance, on both internal/individual and
exterior/community levels provides us with a way to develop effective
strategies for dialogue. To find inward and outward acceptance, we must
learn to learn differently. Agnotology offers us an opportunity to encounter
poorly understood issues from the perspective of not knowing instead of
the pretense of knowledge as power. Admitting the scope and depth of our
collective ignorance and our collective ineffectiveness can help us to
develop a more meaningful process as we seek to improve the quality of
dialogue within conflicted communities.
Epistemology of waste, agnotology, non-dualism, acceptance, creative
solutions to waste
I. The failure of environmental policies in a polarized world.
II. The ontology of waste: Does waste exist?
III. A case study: Waste picking in Tarboro NC.
V. Critique of findings.
VI. Agnotology, ontology, and the philosophy of waste.
VII. Conclusion: Learning to learn differently. Acceptance and the end
of the battle between right and wrong.
The failure of environmental policies in a deeply polarized world.
We once lived in the age of knowledge, but we now live in the age of the
crisis of knowledge. This crisis takes the form of our profound mutual
ignorance. We do not know what is happening to our world. We do not
understand the issues unfolding around us in any accurate or
comprehensive sense. Scientists and academics working within diverse
disciplines perceive and articulate fragments of the narrative, but few if any
perceive the way the whole thing fits together. Each issue brings forth
another set of interrelated sub-issues, and the whole picture becomes lost
Back at the high point of modernity, we were arrogant enough to think that
we all possessed the same grand narrative. We also believed that this
grand narrative would evolve in an ideal direction Eurocentric civilization
marched forward in progress. Today, in post-modernity, we face a dynamic
vortex of individualized micro-narratives. (J.F. Lyotard 1979, 1984)
Any given micro-narrative may go viral and change the opinions and thus
the trajectory of whole masses of people. Here we may consider the
example of the micro-narrative turned macro-narrative of a Tunisian street
vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who committed suicide by self-
immolation in late December of 2011. The social media response to his
death ignited the Arab Spring. Later, this ignited the Syrian Civil war, which
ignited the European Migration Crisis. One could argue that all of these
events were waiting to happen eventually, but from the perspective of
simple narrative progression, Bouazizi and the social networking reaction to
his suicide provided the spark that lit the fire.
In many cases, such as waste issues, global warming, social justice, social
polarity, and religious conflict, the need for solutions is growing critical and
imperative. Yet, we cannot even agree that these problems exist, much
less work together to move toward solutions. While we face serious
problems related to our own understanding, we are now facing the even
more serious failure to communicate what we know effectively and to
influence public policy in any positive direction. In many cases, the best we
can do is to blame “them.” After all, we could work effectively if it were not
for “those idiots” who do not see the world the way we see the world.
Somehow, we have failed to grasp the full power of radical individualism as
brought to us by social media. The individual now has the freedom to
transcend the old objective/subjective binary and to define reality by
themselves and on their own terms. By the power of social media, an
individual may reach out and connect with a strong group of other
individuals who hold the same values and beliefs. This in turn allows
alternative realities to emerge in social discourse.
Any sort of intelligent and effective environmental policy requires political
will for implementation. A polarized society cannot regulate its own
environment because such a society cannot agree on what its environment
is or on how it works. Recent hurricane and flood events in the United
States provide a good example here as politicians have hastened to
coordinate government funded relief efforts while simultaneously denying
the reality of climate change.
In the United States, waste and waste management issues are another key
area where environmental policy has failed in the context of social conflict.
People in the U.S. compile mounds of trash every day without a second
glance, and cart them to the street where municipal or private trash haulers
load huge smelly garbage trucks. This material is trucked to transfer
stations where it is compressed into larger wads of reeking waste before
being loaded for transport to a remote landfill. Then it is then buried for
eternity. The landfill is a humongous methane generator, so this whole
debacle only serves to make the environmental problems worse. (Jha
2007) As all this happens, precious few people even bother to take notice.
This paper is an attempt to reconcile radially polarized ways of thinking by
examining the need for new currents of thought around our most
fundamental perceptions of reality. Our basic premises of truth and
falsehood, good and evil, right and wrong, is and is not all need critical
review. Otherwise, we will ruin ourselves in ideological struggles and
environmental ineptitude. Waste and waste practices offer us an excellent
opportunity to frame and to examine these larger issues.
The Ontology of Waste: Does waste exist?
So, does waste exist? The answer is both yes and no. From the
perspectives of a disinterested and largely wealthy public, there is no such
thing as waste. Once we throw things away, they simply cease to exist.
“Out of sight, out of mind” is the idiom used to express this attitude. Ask a
few random people in the United States what becomes of the material they
deposit in their local rubbish bin and the answers will look something like
“I don’t know.”
“It gets recycled.”
“It gets put in the dump.”
The only group that can answer the question from a broader perspective
would be a small set of public works personnel, a few zero waste activists,
discard studies scholars, and an even smaller group of waste pickers. If
one enters this small group of people who have decided to make waste and
waste issues a priority for one reason or another, the perspectives on
waste change dramatically. Once we realize that waste does exist, that it is
a large part of our day-to- day reality, we can begin to see waste and the
waste stream as a complex and richly textured matrix of individual realities
and sub texts. There is a lot to look at and the volume of material is
overwhelming. (Liboiron et al. 2017)
The public works perspectives on waste and waste management are
different from the perspectives of waste pickers. Public workers are looking
at the tonnage they need to manage. They need to remove waste as
promptly and efficiently as possible in order to assure that the
thoroughfares of public business and commerce can proceed with a
minimum of delay and disruption. Waste pickers are looking for resources.
Between waste pickers and public workers, there is a simple nexus of
common interest. From the public works perspective, if we remove some
of the waste and divert it into commodity markets we will reduce the
tonnage we need to manage and that reduces costs. From the waste
picker’s perspective, we can find resources in the waste stream and make
money by resale, upcycling and repurposing, or we can make money by
selling the commodities into the recycling stream.
A Case Study: Waste Picking in Tarboro NC.
Creative Salvage never had a business plan in any formal sense. We
began with a set of academic research questions. What is in the waste
stream? (Rathje 1984) What can we do with it if we allow ourselves to
approach it creatively? What would happen if we devoted our time and
available space to a careful collection and examination of waste material
with an eye to extracting, or recovering resources and commodities? Our
research methods grew out of cultural anthropology and basic ethnographic
fieldwork in the sense that we intentionally entered the culture of waste
pickers in the Southern United States. We became waste pickers,
scavenging for discarded items that might have some value we could
recover. While we became waste pickers, we did so with the help of a lot
of prior knowledge that helped us to avoid common problems and to
develop reliable sources for the material we wished to salvage. The role of
prior knowledge here is an important determination that we will explore
below in the critique of our findings.
In the summer of 2012, we began working on dismantling electronic waste
and recycling copper, aluminum, stainless steel, and iron. We converted
our small garage to a dismantling and recycling shop. Early in our work,
we focused exclusively on a category of waste known as WEEE, Waste
Electric and Electronic Equipment. We acquired broken computers, VCR’s
television sets, small kitchen appliances, and anything else that might have
some metal inside it.
As we carried more metal to sell at our local scrap yard, we began to
search for larger and heavier forms of scrap metal. Our search was fruitful.
In the Fall of 2012 when we were able to speak with the owner of a local
food processing company who had an older abandoned structure at the
back of his property. This was a key point where prior knowledge placed
us at a distinct advantage in securing salvage rights to this old facility. The
facility was an old cotton gin that had been abandoned somewhere around
1979. The previous owners of this facility had used it for another 20 years
for general storage before part of the roof fell in in 1999. Because the roof
had collapsed on top of a range of material stored within, a conventional
approach to demolition would be too costly. This complex mix of materials
housed in a collapsed building presented an unacceptable liability to its
owners. Our solution was to work without pay, very slowly, and to examine
each layer of material as we encountered it. We approached this job site
as if it were an archaeological dig. This allowed us to recover over 50,000
pounds of iron. (Around 22,600 kilos) In addition to the iron, we also
recovered bricks, wood, and various other items we could sell for use in art
installations. This project took us six months to complete.
By the spring of 2013, success on this project led to a whole series of
dismantling, demolition, and salvage jobs. In the summer of 2013, we
acquired a truck. This opened up a larger range of other clean-up projects.
The larger dismantling and demolition projects required certain tools, so we
began to visit auction sales in an effort to locate and acquire tools at a price
we could afford. At these sales, we also noticed large volumes of scrap
metal and other useful material that was available at amazingly low prices.
In the United States, auction sales are another form of disposal for surplus
material possessions. A prosperous but aging society finds itself with a
surplus of material collected or hoarded by a generation of people who
could plan on living and working in one place for most of their lives. Often,
when these people die or move to a care facility, their material possessions
are liquidated. First, the family takes what they want. Then collectors and
antique dealers swoop in to buy the other high value items. When the
dealers and collectors have taken what they want, a load of material
remains that must go somewhere. At auction, if someone does not offer a
dollar for it, it all goes to the landfill. This led us to acquire an increasing
volume of marginally useful material, which we accumulated at our
residence. Fearing an irritated response from the neighbors, or from the
town authorities, we began to search for a workshop where we could
process more material safely and efficiently. A property owner agreed to
lease us a large abandoned department store in the center of town at a
discount price. This led to the establishment of a retail business and a fully
equipped workshop for repair, repurposing, and upcycling.
Our research project ended up leading to a successful business. Today,
Creative Salvage operates two retail stores. We also offer a positive
alternative to the “consume and waste” lifestyle. People save money by
purchasing everything from tools to hardware, parts, equipment, furniture,
and decorative items at a fraction of the prices for new items. People
respond by bringing in box loads of material they simply want to get rid of.
The reduction of waste brings with it a positive outlook shared by a diverse
1. Our society has produced an astounding amount of waste waiting for
us to recover and monetize. The only limits we have encountered are
the limits of what we can physically manage. There is a lot of stuff,
and with the right mix of skills, equipment, and opportunity, one can
make good money recycling, upcycling, or selling it.
2. This work is physically very demanding. It requires constant heavy
lifting, working outside in extreme weather conditions, climbing, and
various forms of agility. To be successful at this, one must enjoy hard
work. When needed, we have worked all night to remove material
from a given area when there is a deadline.
3. This work is dirty. Waste material is bathed in filth.
4. This work is dangerous. While we have incurred innumerable cuts,
scrapes, and bruises, we have only needed medical attention twice in
five years. The author partially amputated the tip of his right index
finger in an accident with a band saw while recovering copper from a
group of bar fuses in 2013. The author’s son was injured when a
refrigerator fell on him while unloading a truck at the scrap yard in
2017. Both incidents were successfully managed, but both were
financially costly. The other specific hazards we have encountered
are as follows.
● We encountered fire and burn risks from cutting with an acetylene
● We encountered dangers associated with derelict structures. On one
occasion, a property owner was severely injured and nearly died in a
fall while trying to recover material from the second floor of an
abandoned barn. We had told this elderly man that the area was
unsafe and that we could do this work safely, but he insisted on trying
to do it himself. We have also fallen through weak floors in
abandoned properties on several occasions but without serious
● We continually encountered inhalation hazards, mostly in the form of
mold and dust. These hazards were mitigated by the use of high
● We encountered “mystery fluids” and “mystery powders.” These are
unknown chemicals, usually solvents, fertilizers, herbicides and
pesticides that have been stored without proper labels. We used
extreme caution around such materials.
● We encountered hazards related to working in hot weather, including
dehydration and cramps.
● We encountered hazards associated with working on rooftops,
(salvaging metal roofing) and other fall hazards. The most common
fall hazards came from loading or unloading the truck.
● We encountered hazards associated with working around loads of
● We encountered hazards associated with power tools, especially
grinders and power saws.
5. As we did this work, we found that people were constantly respectful
and helpful to us whenever any special needs arose. See the critique
below for possible explanations of this finding.
6. We have made friends with homeless and other highly marginalized
people in our area. After our local scrap yard closed due to falling
commodity prices, we began to accept scavenged metal from our
local homeless people in trade for other items they need from our
7. In our retail operations, our customers came from well to do tourists
on their way from Raleigh to the beach, from the local business
community, from the African American community, the Hispanic
community, the Anglo-white community, the disabled, the homeless,
the old, the young, the well employed, the unemployed, the very
liberal, and the very conservative.
8. We have discovered that Creative Salvage transcends the barriers of
social polarity. This is because, paradoxically, people like to acquire
material possessions, but they also dislike waste.
9. While searching for the meaning behind this activity, we stumbled
upon the new metaphysics of waste and environmental practices
outlined in the next section.
Critique of our findings
Before we proceed, we need to note that this case study raises a few
critical questions. The questions are in the areas of privilege and
In the area of privilege, would we have been able to accomplish all of this in
the southern United States if we were people of color? Could we have
done this in South America as easily and conveniently as we did it in North
America? Could we have accomplished this in a more tightly regulated
urban setting as opposed to a small town in the American South? We do
not know the answers to these questions, but we are doubtful that our
findings could be easily duplicated in other settings. Every step of our way
we have been the recipients of help from nearly everyone we have
encountered. Property owners have asked us to clean their places to
prepare them for sale. Auctioneers have alerted us to sales, which hold the
sort of material around which we have built our business. Contractors have
asked us to help them remove and dispose of appliances, and public works
officials have helped us to navigate regulations and building codes in a
variety of ways. We do not wish to denigrate the value of our own hard
work, but we believe that our positive experiences resulted in a large part
from geographic, racial, epistemological, and economic privilege. (Cf. Smith
Knowledge has also contributed to our success. We believe that this
observation is common to the epistemic community of waste pickers in any
area. Making money from waste requires the knowledge of waste and it
requires the knowledge of how to optimize income in the sale of waste
commodities. Staying alive, unhurt, and out of trouble as a waste picker
requires some specific knowledge in any location. The following is a list of
specific forms of knowledge that helped us on our way.
● We knew how to legally acquire the material we worked with.
● We knew how to identify, extract, and sort different kinds of metal.
● We knew how to identify and exploit value in other, non-commodity
● We knew how to develop markets.
● We knew the laws regarding the recycling of air conditioners.
● We knew the rules at the landfill and at the scrapyard.
● We knew (most of the time) how to avoid getting hurt when working
with dangerous materials.
● We had medical insurance.
● We knew who to call when we hit other problems, and the people we
called were able and willing to help us.
Agnotology, ontology, and the philosophy of waste
While doing this research into the value of waste, we have found a lot more
than huge piles of rubbish. We have found a metaphysics of waste that
has guided us in our continuing efforts.
This metaphysics consists of the following concepts.
3. The anthropic Idiom
7. Radical Humanism
In the preface to the 1924 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, Editor
M.V. O’Shea stated; “Knowledge is accumulating rapidly; there is much
more to learn now than there was a few decades ago. Upon teachers and
parents rests the responsibility of guiding the young so that they will master
all really vital knowledge readily and without waste.” This optimistic
statement belongs to the encyclopedic era of modernist epistemology. The
encyclopedic era refers to the idea that we could somehow encompass, or
encircle all knowledge in one authoritative canon of work. Today we see
such endeavors as naïve exercises in industrial colonialist modernism.
In postmodernity, we encounter instead the idea of fragmented knowledge.
Epistemic or knowledge-based communities exist in highly specialized
isolation from one another. In many areas, such as climate science or
health care, the mainstream of public policy can ignore the work of an
entire academic discipline. Many other issues of public concern are not
commanding the attention they would desire, while pseudoscientific fads,
conspiracy theories, and extreme political or religious ideologies command
great portions of the public’s attention. We live in an age of rapid
fragmentation, as various groups cannot even agree with one another on
what is real and what is not real. The definition of reality, the distinction
between truth and falsehood, and the nature of knowledge are all up for
debate as different culture groups come into conflict over their perceptions
and experiences of the world we all share. In an effort to sort out this
confusing mix of issues, it is helpful to reflect upon our most basic ideas
and definitions of reality, knowledge, and ignorance.
We do not always know when or where insight will occur. The foundations
of this new metaphysics of ignorance and waste began one very hot and
insect filled afternoon recently when we discovered several dollars in coins
in a black plastic bag full of stinking conventional household waste. This
happened in July of 2017. This raised a question. Why would people who
are not at all wealthy throw their money in the trash? Then there was a
second question. Why am I sticking my head into this stinking garbage
can? After all, I have several jobs. I am not poor, I am just curious.
To answer these questions, we must confront the principles of uncertainty.
(Cf. Gödel and Tarski) We must confront the limitations of our ability to
understand anything by virtue of the finite nature of our perceptions. (Cf.
Russell, Whitehead, and Derrida)
In the light of our discovery of treasure buried in trash, we began to see
that our traditional, specialized and hierarchical theory of knowledge no
longer provides us with an effective strategy to make sense of the reality
we are facing. We do not know why they did what they did and we do not
know why we are doing what we are doing. Our ignorance and our
uncertainty outweigh our knowledge and certainty.
Agnotology is the study of, or theory of ignorance or mindlessness.
(Proctor and Schiebinger 2008) Its basic premise is that our traditional
approaches to questions of relevance/irrelevance, or knowledge/ignorance
have been epistemological in nature. We have historically approached
these questions from an unwritten perspective guided by a common theory
of knowledge. This approach has brought with it the unstated and
unproven assumption that knowledge in all its forms is superior to
ignorance in all its forms.
One approach to the question “What is reality?” is to see reality as a matrix
of perceptions woven by the human mind and reinforced by groups of
human minds that share the same perceptions. Reality is what it is
because we agree with one another on how to define it and relate to it. (Cf.
Whitehead, Russell, Derrida) The set of perceptions experienced by any
one individual is that individuals lived experience. (Cf. Husserl) We are
who we are and what we are by virtue of what we have perceived, or
collectively experienced during our lifetimes. A group of people who share
the same lived experience will tend to see reality in the same way. Another
group whose experiences are different will see reality differently. These
different concepts of reality are the natural product of the diversity of
experience in different human communities. Diverse human communities
are epistemic communities in that they share a form of knowledge. Diverse
groups of people share within their culture-groups a knowledge base that
reinforces their beliefs and activities. These diverse groups may be
separate and even opposed to one another, yet they also share the
common ground of humanity. (Roy 1947) These are human communities
and they have both human limitations and human potential. Our social,
ideological, and religious conflicts belong to the larger struggle we go
through as we try to figure out what it means to be human, and what the
differences are between our group and their group. We share the same
questions but we do not share the same answers.
The anthropic idiom is a way of describing the product of mind’s need to
give meaning to what it perceives and to shape this meaning in relationship
to the collective forms of human experience. This concept comes from a
simplification and direct application of the “anthropic principle” as applied in
physics and cosmology. The pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras said that
“Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the
things that are not, that they are not.” (Cf. Mark, 2012) By extension, we
may suggest that all things that exist only exist in relation to us. Things are
or are not because human beings conceive them and perceive them. If this
is the case, nothing exists apart from the human mind, at least not in a form
that we can perceive and understand. The problem we face today is that,
when mind perceives, perception becomes anthropic. We can hypothesize
an extra-anthropic ideal, but that ideal will inevitably become anthropic. We
can conceive of an unknown God, but that God will turn out to be like us.
Thus, reality is limited to what mind says it is. The phrase “anthropic idiom”
signifies that the information we possess is idiomatic in that it is only
relevant to us. An idiom is a unit of speech that has meaning only within a
unique linguistic context. The concept of the anthropic idiom suggests that
information shared by human beings is anthropic in nature because we
shape it by human perception. We know what we know only within the
narrow idiom of human perception. Accepting this anthropic idiom can help
us to accept the idea that, if we admit the limits of human understanding we
should also admit a certain uncertainty in all of our discourse. We do not
always know things as precisely as we think we do. This can in turn help
us to be a lot less judgmental and a lot less condemning of those whose
ideas and beliefs differ from our own. If we learn to be a little less certain of
the correctness of our own views, we might be better able to learn from
those who hold views that differ from ours.
The concept of agnotology suggests that our approach to any question of
knowledge or ignorance must be non-essentialist in nature. Non-
essentialism is a metaphysical concept that suggests we abandon
traditional concepts of superior and inferior with respect to knowledge.
In pre-modern times, all knowledge was supposed to derive from a
supreme heavenly ideal, or essence. The Scholastic philosophy of Dante
provides us with a great example here. Dante invented a model of the
universe based on the idea that all truth, knowledge, righteousness and
good resided up at the top, with God. According to Dante, all falsehood,
ignorance, sin, and evil resided down at the bottom, with the Devil. Dante
worked from the foundation built by the scholastic philosophy of Aquinas,
Augustine, and Plato.
In the postmodern era, in the disciplines of critical theology, philosophy,
and in social science we have moved to see these Platonic/idealistic
concepts in a way that is more ambiguous and mixed within the human
process. This has in turn led us to explore non-dualistic, non-hierarchical
evaluations of our lived experience. (Derrida) Non-dualistic and non-
hierarchical modalities free us to explore ideas without the judgmental
constraints of being close to or far from some supreme or essential ideal.
Another ancient metaphysical concept connected to idealism is historicism.
This approach assumes that states, civilizations, kingdoms, or empires rise
and fall over time according to a prescribed set of metaphysical laws. The
idea is that societies and civilizations must follow these predetermined,
essential laws. A classic example of this concept would be the Marxist
ideal of the inevitable rise of the working class and the inevitable collapse
of capitalism. Another example of the same set of metaphysical principles
would be an assortment of religious ideals stating that nations will succeed
or fail over time if and only if they please the Almighty according to the
commandments contained in whatever set of scriptures a given culture
might choose to apply.
Karl Popper presented an alternative to this age-old doctrine of
essentialism and its equally irrational notion of historicism in his
monumental book The Open Society and Its Enemies. (1945) Popper
attacked the Hegelian, Aristotelian, Platonic ideas of essentialism and
historicism and replaced them with ideas of scientific rationalism. Using
Poppers principles of scientific rationalism in the social sciences, we can
see that nations meet with success or failure not by virtue of some
overarching set of metaphysical principles, but by their ability or inability to
solve specific problems in a timely and effective manner.
If we were to set aside the doctrinal precepts of essentialism and
historicism, we might be able to look beyond the cosmology of supreme
good vs. supreme evil, or supreme wisdom vs. supreme ignorance and
gain a little perspective on the problems we are encountering as we seek to
promote our own social, political, or environmental agendas. If we look
specifically at environmentalism, we can see that the issues at hand involve
the struggle to communicate relevance as “we” see what ought to be
regarded as relevant as opposed to irrelevant in social discourse.
In examining agnotology, the anthropic idiom, and non-essentialist non-
duality, we are seeking a transformation of traditional anthropic
epistemological formulations. The idea is that we can broaden the depth
and breadth of our understanding of any issue by attempting to relate to
information in a less self-centered or self-referent way. To demonstrate
this idea, we tried a thought experiment. Specifically, this is what
happened while we were sorting through all of that trash.
What would happen if we allow our minds to drift and to focus on less
significant, lower energy background noise rather than on the objectively
defined and dogmatically fixed elements of agreed upon reality?
Metaphorically speaking, this is exactly what we did when we decided to
immerse ourselves in the world of waste picking. This required us to pay
less attention to the crying demands forced upon us by circumstance, and
to pay more attention to those things we had previously ignored. What we
saw was that the unseen minutia, or the waste of the world come into focus
and the objectively determined fixed reference points of reality faded for a
moment into the background. (Herring 2017) Within the context of
massive piles of waste, our minds reached for a different set of perceptual
tools. For us, the result was that we came to describe reality in a different
Several prominent but unorthodox mystical texts provided us with examples
here. These include the Prophet Ezekiel, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon text
entitled “The Cloud of Unknowing”, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Philip K.
Dick, among many others. Allowing this to happen allowed us to change
our perceptions of the subjective/objective dichotomy.
The idea here is that things change when the subjective suddenly becomes
relevant. If the subjective matrix of individuality becomes more real than
the ordinary, basic groundwork of the conventional world, the
epistemological grounding of our perceptions can shift.
Would this be madness? Would this cause order to decay? Would our
epistemological center collapse? The answer is up to each of us as
individuals with individual perceptions. The whole point of this thought
experiment is to encourage us to develop an appreciation for the validity of
radical individualism as opposed to our own brand of collective idealism.
Each of us has the right to see the question according to our own
idiosyncratic definitions of reality.
If we take the risks inherent in widening our ideas of that which is real and
relevant, we are prepared to enter the world of non-hierarchical, non-
epistemological formulations. This is a fancy way of saying that we can
approach some of the problems of learning and education without building
barriers out of our own preconceptions of superior hierarchical idealism. In
other words, we might get off the high horse of intellectual or ideological
superiority and learn to engage people effectively where they are and how
One way toward effective action might be to base our motivations on the
principles of practical radical humanism. As a potential solution, humanism
M. N. Roy (1947) offers us the chance to validate one another regardless of
our perceptions of the relative rightness or the wrongness of our points of
view. Practical humanism suggests that the immediate, tangible here-and-
now needs of human beings must take priority in our more idealistic efforts
to improve the effectiveness of the institutions in which we serve. Radical
humanism suggests that the needs of ordinary people must take priority
over any professional, idealistic, religious, nationalistic, racial, ethnic, or
Conclusion: Learning to learn differently. Acceptance and
the end of the battle between right and wrong.
The quality of educational outcomes and the subsequent quality of the
institutions built by public policy will improve if we can make our methods of
communication less human and more humane. If our perceptions become
“less human”, they will be less anthropic, less tribal, less focused on our
own limited professional socio-cultural enclave. By being more humane,
our perceptions may seek a stronger focus on the unique needs and
experiences of individuals whose lives are radically different from our own.
It is easy for us to feel trapped in the conflict between the forces of
privatism and collectivism. On the one hand, we have grown to respect the
right of the individual to hold her or his own points of view, especially with
matters of ideology, politics, religion, or ethics. On the other hand, we feel
attracted to groups who share our beliefs. As social beings, we seek the
company of like-minded individuals. It seems that pure privatism might
threaten many of the institutions of civil society, but it also seems that
collectivism leads us into equally dangerous forms of conflict. By way of a
suggested way forward, we will do better if we learn to respect the radical
individuality of people as they define themselves and their world according
to their own needs. This required acceptance and it requires us to quit
fighting the battle between the forces of right and wrong.
We will continue to face success or failure in adapting to the proven best
practices of modernity. For example, if we know how to use a modern
cellular phone, to text, and to access the internet, we will receive the
benefits of modern best practices. If we know how to drive, we can
experience the benefits of mobility. If we understand the dangers of
tobacco, we have the option of living a healthier life. Statistically proven
best practices are not subject to debate within rational communities. These
practices have built civil society. They can be improved, but if they are
ignored, a price will be paid in the form of a diminished quality of life.
Simply put, if I choose to ignore traffic laws I will face the consequences of
wrecking my car. The concepts of non-dualistic, non-hierarchical, non-
epistemological individualism outlined here should not detract from the
known best practices of any profession. Within any professional epistemic
community, we will encounter people who are suffering one way or another
because they have not followed the best practices our profession has
presented. Ignorance of a law or laws will still produce suffering. The point
is to encourage us to develop better ways of communicating with those
who do not follow the pathways we have determined to be the most
effective. If we can find better ways of communicating and learn to
understand one another more deeply, suffering will decrease as
If we begin by admitting the extent of our own uncertainty, we can progress
to knowing that we do not know. Once we know that we do not know, we
can open a corridor of dialog with those whose ignorance we would try to
correct. The one thing we know least of all is the reality faced by other
people. By admitting this, we may be able to converse more effectively
with those we seek to help.
Stephen Herring is an instructor in religion, geography, humanities and
developmental studies at Edgecombe Community College in Tarboro North
Carolina (USA). Edgecombe is a two year publically funded technical
school located in rural North Carolina. Mr. Herring’s academic background
is primarily in classical and Biblical languages. He holds an M.Div. degree
from Yale University (1983) and a BA in Classical Studies from the
University of California at Santa Cruz (1980). In addition to teaching, he is
also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He preaches
on a weekly basis at two small churches situated in the religiously
conservative “Bible Belt” of Eastern NC. Mr. Herring also owns and
operates a comprehensive salvage and recycling facility called Creative
Salvage Designs, located in Tarboro. This business works to save over
1500 kilos of discarded or potentially wasted material every week.
Salvaged materials are resold to the local community, repaired,
refurbished, used for art, or recycled. The website for Creative Salvage is
www.creativesalvagedesigns.com or on Facebook at Creative Salvage
Designs. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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