Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Irony

I'm still exploring Woermann and Ciller's discussion of complex ethics in their article The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics (2012). I have found it to be such a rich line of thought, and now Rhizo15 is starting. Actually, I think this is a fine time to write this particular post.

Woermann and Cillier's view of ethics relies on a self-critical rationality that accepts the tension between the unavoidable limits of our knowledge of any complex system or situation and the necessity of acting anyway. They explain the implications of this tension this way:
[I]f we remain open to other ways of modelling and other ways of being, we are more likely to practice a self-critical rationality, to respect diversity, to be willing to revise our models, and to guard against the naturalisation of these models. The provisional imperative, therefore, provides us with a strategy for remaining open to complexity at the same time that we reduce complexity through our decisions and actions. (452)
They posit four operations, or mechanisms, that support and make possible a self-critical rationality, and I've written about the first two: provisionality and transgressivity. In this post, I will tackle irony and humor as an approach to behavior in complex spaces such as MOOCs.

Imagine yourself in a dense fog at night on a poorly lighted street corner in a big city. You cannot shake the sense that something big is about to happen, but you don't know what it is. You hear sounds from every direction—some appealing, some not, most just ambivalent street noises. You can see vague lights of every color somewhere beyond your cone of light, though your own little light obscures most of them. Things move in the distance. You must decide to stay put or move. Decide now.

The point for Woermann and Cilliers, I think, is that we are all in a fog on a poorly-lighted street corner. In most situations, what we confidently know is dwarfed by what we do not know, certainly in complex situations such as MOOCs present, and we can either be scared shitless, or we can see the ironic humor in our condition and make our choices with the full understanding that we do not completely know what we are doing. Woermann and Cilliers argue for ironic humor, an alert ironic humor.

They seem mostly to use irony as "a demonstration of incongruence between what is expected and what is" (455). This incongruence is the slippage between what we know and what we don't know and in the interactions between our knowledge and ignorance. We often seem to think that—or at least to act as if—what lies beyond our little street corner of knowledge does not affect us. This is not so. Complexity demonstrates that very little in reality is closed to outside influences, whether known or unknown. We try to build black boxes that do not interact with the outside, that are perfectly hermetic, but we always fail. All boxes leak, and the unknown always feeds into the known, perturbing our knowledge in mysterious ways until what starts as little slippages becomes a landslide, and we have to transgress our boundaries, expand our knowledge, to account for the perturbations.

Irony helps us to cope with the uncertain results of our choices, and this uncertainty extends far beyond our lack of complete knowledge of any situation when making our choices. The uncertainty really begins after we've made our choices. In her 2010 doctoral dissertation, A Complex Ethics: Critical Complexity, Deconstruction, and Implications for Business Ethics, Woermann references what Edgar Morin calls "the principle of ecology of action". Woermann says, "as soon as an action is taken, it begins to escape from the intentions and will of its creator, and is taken up in a network of interactions and multiple feedbacks, which deprives it of finality" (212). In other words, all our actions reverberate, proliferate, amplify, and wander. They blow back. Once we release our actions into an ecosystem, they unpack in ways that we cannot completely predict or control.

Anyone who communicates publicly is familiar with this capricious behavior of our pronouncements, for instance. My father, a Christian minister, often shook his head in amazement when members of his congregation congratulated or criticized him on some point in his message that he was certain he never made. If you speak in a MOOC, someone will misunderstand you. If you don't speak, someone will misunderstand you. How can you not see the irony in this situation?

Or the humor? Humor is a step beyond irony, a step that I am too willing to take, but it is a tricky position to take in a MOOC, or most any other open system. Humor is too easily misunderstood and too quick to give offense. Much of humor exploits the incongruence between what is expected and what is, and it works when that incongruence is sudden and somewhat surprising. In other words, humor depends on playing with people's beliefs and boundaries and pushing them beyond those boundaries. Almost everyone has beliefs and boundaries that they are not willing to challenge except under the most carefully managed circumstances, if at all. You can't make jokes about those boundaries without starting a fight.

Humor works best, perhaps, as a stance toward the pronouncements and behaviors of others. Keeping a sense of humor means recognizing that the other says things and acts from as confused a position as you do and with no more control over the consequences of their acts and pronouncements than you have. Practice the most humor with those who are the most confident that they are absolutely correct. They need all the humor you can bring.

Irony and humor, then, weave into our behavior and thought processes an appreciation for the impossibility of our situation: we don't know enough to make decisions with absolute confidence, and even if we did, we cannot determine the results of those decisions once they enter a complex space. Still, we must make decisions. We must act. Like all of life, our actions are probabilistic in nature, and while we can work hard to increase our chances, we will all have some fortunate successes and ample failures. Just keep a sense of humor about it, both for yourself and for others.
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