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Interdisciplinary Connections

Lately I’ve been most impressed with just how many of my other courses unknowingly interact with this one and our research. Namely, my Teaching of Writing class has been focusing a great deal lately on how writing consultants should address/aid students without taking over their papers, without babying them, and without unduly censoring them. We’re discussing an article today entitled, “‘The Use of Force’: Medical Ethics and Center Practice,” by Jay Jacoby of UNC. And this article and conversation struck me as oddly applicable to our own discussions of how to approach these research questions without faulty or unwitting assumptions as to how they should be answered or as to what their answers probably are — once again, the main contention we seemed to have with Galland.

Jacoby defines these issues as forms of paternalism — which I had already generally mentioned in class — but he expands upon the notion by explaining that there are “two forms of paternalism: Strong paternalism … and Weak paternalism” (Jacoby 147, from St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors by Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood). Strong paternalism essentially means that the outsider (or the tutor or, in our case, the researcher) is acting almost imperialistically, overriding the feeling, choices, and understandings of others in pursuit of an answer which, to the researcher, seems “more” correct. Weak paternalism, for us, refers to probably more of what Galland experienced, “acting on behalf of someone who, for some reason, ‘is not afforded the fully possibility of free choice” (Jacoby 147). It seems to me that Galland didn’t deny anyone the “possibility of free choice” but rather simply unwittingly assumed what those choices made by former slaves were and would have been, such as may be seen in her visit to the giant memorial and imagined herself as an African woman being kidnapped. For me, this occurred when I began working under faulty assumptions about how modern African Americans in our community may have felt in regards to our research or in regards to their ancestors generally. It would be, of course, the actual antebellum slaveholders themselves who practed true strong and weak paternalism, as we’ve now seen in Olmsted’s work and in Empire for Slavery, people often convinced themselves that enslaved peoples needed to be enslaved because they wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves — they needed to be enslaved in order to survive.

Of course, this also works in with a great deal of what I’m currently learning about in American Politics as well. We’ve been talking a great deal lately about Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and how the belief in necessary paternalism can turn even the best of intentions into something much more akin to an authoritarian regime — as Dr. O’Neill would say, “power is delightful so absolute power is absolutely delightful.”  And this may also account for all of our amazement at the putative “transformation” of the Irish woman Olmsted mentions in his letters, because it may have simply been that as a woman and as a minority in America who also would’ve felt prejudice laid against her, her change into an aggressive slaveholder may be attributed to the sudden great flush of power accompanying the idea of having someone who depended on her, someone she felt as those she could control and thus experience autonomy and respect in a way she had never truly felt for herself.

I don’t know, of course, this is purely speculation, but it is interesting and it is frightening, the way good people may be able to twist the history and reality of things in order to compensate for their own hurt feelings and weaknesses, for their own personal gratification. I’m dealing a lot right now with something to which I must act as more than simply a paternal figure but also which I must give continuous and specific instructions in order to function — my computer in Computer Science I. Perhaps if people understood what it truly means to be without feeling or autonomy, such as a computer does, then they’d be more empathetic and respectful of each other as human beings who do experience and cherish their autonomy, ideas, feelings, and freedoms.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. katelongoria
    February 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    These instances of paternalism are really interesting. It was really difficult for me to accept the paternal relationships that slaveholders had with their slaves, but your connections to the paternalism article clarifies it more for me. I can also relate to assuming an outcome in our research. Just today, my group went to the Williamson Country Museum and I had assumed that we wouldn’t find any substantial information about the black experience post-slavery. But I was completely wrong. We got so much great information today. I was shocked.

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