The ethics of documents in relationships: the United Church of Canada and its reconciliation documents
Introduction. Documents may play an important ethical role in relationships in the absence of face-to-face contact. The field of information science’s focus on information and knowledge is not able to support the ethical dimensions of understanding that are necessary to consider this role. A hermeneutic approach to understanding may offer the field a way to reconsider understanding.
Method. I conduct a literature review on the concepts of aboutness and understanding in information science and compare this to ethical understanding in Levinas and Gadamer. I read this conversation against a case study of documents created by the United Church of Canada as part of its reconciliation efforts with Indigenous people.
Analysis. My archival research places the case study in public and historical context. A hermeneutic reading of the case study provides clues as to how ethical relationships to the other may occur on the documents’ own terms.
Results. The United Church of Canada’s documents cannot initiate an ethical relationship to the Indigenous other because they do not offer an experience of the other’s whole complexity. However, the documents allow a different kind of ethical response wherein readers become aware of their own limitations in relationship to the other.
Conclusion. Documents have the potential to increase ethical understanding. Studies of ethics and documents offer a more complete picture of how documents function in people’s lives.
Though documents may initially seem to have little to do with the ethical nature of human relationships, their continuously important role in the expansion of communication across space and time means that they are implicated in our relationships with those we “know” in the absence of face-to-face contact. Interactions between individuals always involve some ethical consideration because even the most fleeting of interactions constitutes a relationship. A variety of ethical actions could occur in that moment of interaction. A variety of ethical rules could be followed. The primary ethical event in any relationship, however, is one of understanding—or failing to understand—that this Other is fundamentally “like me.”
Though this claim may sound abstract, we are confronted with evidence every day. Through documents, we enter into relationships with individuals in many situations and we are often asked to make a human connection with them. Documents created by the United Church of Canada provide just one example of this. The church ran 15 of Canada’s 139 residential schools and residences. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), the purpose of these institutions was to ‘break [Indigenous children’s] link to their culture and identity’ (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015, p. 2). Because of this, the church was party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and was called upon by the TRC to apologize and engage in reconciliation. Documents are a key part of the church’s response as it moves ‘toward building respectful, compassionate, and loving relationships with First Nations peoples’ (United Church of Canada, 1998).
For Indigenous people in Canada, reconciliation efforts are often overshadowed by the continuing legacy of cultural genocide. In this context, traditional normative ethics—prescriptive ethics bound by standards for what is right and wrong— may appear ineffectual. For instance, deontology, which focuses on rules and duties, or utilitarianism, which focuses on consequences, do little to change Indigenous people’s lives. What has made a difference, though limited, is the act of dialogue and listening. At the national level, this occurred primarily through the TRC’s truth and reconciliation events, wherein more than 6,500 witnesses offered testimony of their experiences. The UCC also has prioritized dialogue through home groups and workshops. These efforts not only place the emphasis on the individuals involved in the relationship; they reflect Indigenous practices.
Emmanuel Levinas provides an alternative to normative ethics that also focuses on face-to-face relationships, going so far as to insist that ethical understanding can only occur in person. Levinas believes that the other with whom we come into contact has an enigmatic subjectivity that cannot be reduced to the objective totality that forms the basis of Western thought. He refers to this as the other’s ‘infinity’ (2011, p. 194), a surplus of meaning that is exterior to the objective totality. The other’s face provides the only access to infinity and it is accessible only because it is offered and expressed, but never seized. Traditional normative ethics are tied to objective totality and seek to control abstract ethical scenarios in logical ways. For Levinas, however, infinity cannot be bound by such ethics. If Levinas is right, then documents are problematic, initiating relationships but failing to fully realize them because documents cannot offer access to the other’s face. Here we are left with some questions: Can ethical relationships be founded on documents? And, what kind of ethical response to the other is facilitated by documents?
Researchers in information science, for the most part, have not begun to ask these questions. Yet these questions contain ideas that are key to the field in studying documents—which occupy a foundational place in both theory and practice—and what they contain. These questions imply the possibility that the document contains the other. Somehow, without encountering the other face to face, a reader may still experience that other as found in the document. The field’s toolkit for dealing with such a phenomenon exists especially in the subfield of knowledge organization and its attendant practices of indexing and classification. Here scholars and practitioners are frequently concerned with the concept of aboutness. That is, they seek to understand what a document is about in order to index and classify it. Presumably, when a document concerns the other, the other would be subsumed in the document’s aboutness.
Very little agreement exists concerning the nature of aboutness (Hjørland, 2001), but it is worth highlighting two debates within the larger conversation. One concerns the source of a document’s aboutness: whether it is inherent or depends on the user’s context (Fairthorne, 1969; Joudrey, 2005; Mai, 1999). The other expands on the idea of user context, asking what roles intended use, retrieval, and relevance of a document play in aboutness (Hutchins, 1977; Maron, 1977; Wellisch, 1996). Together these debates expose the importance of the relationship between a document’s reader and its content. This is a starting point for a discussion about relationships, and one that individual scholars have begun to explore in fuller contexts.
Of particular importance is Ronald Day’s Indexing it All, which is an investigation of aboutness in what he calls the modern documentary tradition (2014, p. x). Day emphasizes the way in which subjects—both individuals and texts—have been transformed into users and information (2014, p. 11). Aboutness now is defined as evidence based on the likely information needs of the user. Day’s analysis of aboutness bothers Hjørland, who describes it as ‘a point of view that may seem somewhat exaggerated’ (2017, p. 59).
Hjørland’s hesitancy may stem from the way in which Day broadens the parameters of relationship involved in aboutness. In Hjørland’s account of 100 years of debate in the field over the concepts of subject, aboutness, and topic, the possible entities in the relationship are the author, the document, and the reader. Intention plays a role, both for the author and the reader, but the document remains static, an object which is acted upon. Day reminds us that previous to, and overlapping with Hjørland’s 100 year timespan, documents played a more active role. Collections of books—that is to say libraries—were ‘sites for understanding (and therefore friendship) between peoples (and for individuals understanding themselves, as well)’ (Day, 2014, p. 15). This changed with Paul Otlet, who took the book-friend metaphor and reframed it in a technical way, so that
these book (or more generally, document) “friends” … are technically organized and are consulted by what we now call the “user” for the purposes of the user’s needs through libraries of documents and the techniques and technologies for information retrieval (2014, p. 16).
In other words, aboutness now works in a relationship more determined by epistemological and information needs than by understanding, friendship, and self-understanding. We can see the legacy of Otlet’s work in Hjørland’s definition of ‘subject’, which he equates with aboutness, as a document’s ‘informative or epistemological potentials, that is its potential of informing users and advance [sic] the development of knowledge’ (2017, p. 62).
The consequences of this shift affect not just how documents are described and then indexed; they extend to ‘our relationships to our past and to other cultures, and our relationships to one another’ (Day, 2014, p. 17). We can see here the beginning of other possibilities for understanding the role of documents in relationship. Day starts this conversation—new within the debates concerning aboutness, but old within human thought—by returning to Heidegger and his focus on language. For Otlet, language is the conduit for information. For Heidegger, language is “what binds both the reader and the text, as well as friends, together in the possibility of being understood” (Day, 2014, p. 22).
Aboutness, then, is only one aspect of the total relationship in which a document may be involved. A fuller perspective asks about a more active relationship between the reader and the document as well as about the reader’s relationship to the individuals who become subjects for aboutness in the document. The informational and epistemological concerns of aboutness may then be reframed in terms of understanding.
Bawden and Robinson (2016) also draw attention to this new focus on understanding, but at a remove from the discussion of aboutness. They argue that ‘library and information science (LIS) should focus on the promotion of understanding, as much as on the provision of information, and the sharing of knowledge’ (p. 1) and go on to say that there is no consensus as to what understanding means. It is clear from the way they frame their discussion that they consider understanding to be distinct from both information and knowledge, the two concepts that informed Hjørland’s overview of aboutness. Yet, Bawden and Robinson cannot escape the influence of these concepts. Even as they call for the field to focus on understanding itself, they begin their discussion with reference to Ackoff’s 1989 data, information, knowledge, wisdom hierarchy and its elusive, missing step of understanding. They then state that
to be of value for LIS, as well as to be congruent with most pragmatically useful views of understanding, we suggest that such an explanation would have to involve the concepts of information and knowledge, and perhaps data, carefully defined (2016, p. 2).
In fact, as their paper unfolds and draws on a review of different accounts of understanding, the definition of understanding that emerges is one that is closely related to information and knowledge. The difference is one of degrees, so that knowledge is better than information and understanding is better than knowledge. Understanding now ‘occurs when a conscious entity, supported as necessary by information systems, appreciates the totality of a body of knowledge, including its interconnections’ (2016, p. 5). The difference between information and understanding is great enough that understanding does become distinct, such that development of new information systems is ‘associated with the gaining of understanding, rather than simply the acquiring of information’ (2016, p. 5). However, it is not clear how understanding is distinct from better knowledge.
One other scholar has taken steps to introduce a different investigation of understanding to the field. Across a range of recent writings, Gorichanaz has explored different ideas of understanding. Because of the sources on which he draws, Gorichanaz’s description of understanding offers one of the best alternatives for the field to move beyond epistemology. He develops this description based on Heidegger’s own description of understanding as ‘at root self-understanding’ (Gorichanaz, 2017a, p. 12). With this kind of foundation, Gorichanaz is able to engage in a discussion that leads to questions like ‘Is it the case the understanding is composed of (only) knowledge, or could there be elements of understanding that do not qualify as knowledge?’ (Gorichanaz, 2017a, p. 12).
Similarly, Gorichanaz quotes author Neil Gaiman concerning prose fiction in order to describe ‘pathic’ knowledge as emotional or inceptual: ‘You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed’ (as cited in Gorichanaz, 2017b, p. 502). As part of this discussion, Gorichanaz moves the emphasis from what can be drawn from the document to the document experience, or ‘the moment of interacting with a document’ (2017b, p. 504). This document experience is a holistic encounter that thwarts practical epistemological aims. Gorichanaz also directs our attention to a novelist, Vargas Llosa, who writes that ‘the wholeness of literature is the perfect antidote to the increasing specialization and fragmentation of modern science, technology, and scholarship, … It instills in us empathy and allows us to experience other lives’ (as cited in Gorichanaz, 2017b, p. 506). Understanding thus emerges as something different from information and knowledge because it recognizes ‘the pathic, emotional and inceptual’ aspects of those concepts (Gorichanaz, 2017b, p. 506)
Gorichanaz wrestles with the relationship between understanding and ethics in his 2018 paper on “Documents and Moral Knowledge”. Even as scholars across many fields work to fight the problem of misinformation, Gorichanaz believes individuals should work against the problem themselves, and doing so ‘requires an approach that is not purely epistemological, but also aesthetic and ethical’ (2018, p. 2). In order to conceptualize documents ethically, they need to be seen as providing ‘moral knowledge, which can be defined as knowledge pertaining to how one should act in order to live best’ (Gorichanaz, 2018, p. 2, emphasis his). Because Gorichanaz roots this ethics in knowledge, it has a normative feeling to it. Yet, Gorichanaz later clarifies the nature of this epistemology, writing that the subjective sense of moral knowledge—'what [a person] feel[s] should be done’ (2018, p. 3)— rather than objective correctness is what is important, shifting moral knowledge away from normative ethics. Because Gorichanaz makes this move, documents are given leeway to play ethical roles in relationships. Drawing on the thoughts of James Young, Gorichanaz is now able to describe documents as providing ‘insight into complex, diverse subjects where general laws are elusive or non-existent’ such that they help to understand ‘such complex phenomena as ourselves, our emotions, our relations to each other and our place in the world’ (2018, p. 3).
In thinking more carefully about understanding, the relationship between individuals, and ethics, Day, Bawden and Robinson, and Gorichanaz take the first steps in articulating the important distinction between knowledge and understanding, rarely encountered in information science. In the philosophical tradition of hermeneutics, to which Levinas belongs, that distinction has been explored in great detail. These authors are aware of this tradition, engaging with it in various ways. Bawden and Robinson believe that information science deals with the concept of understanding in a way that may be complementary to this tradition, but do not explore that relationship. Day and Gorichanaz draw directly on the tradition to further their arguments. Heidegger plays the most prominent role here, but Day also draws on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of understanding to describe an engagement with a text as ‘an occasion for an event of understanding and self-understanding in the transformation of both the meaning of the text (via reading) and of the person reading it.’ (2014, p. 23). (Self-)understanding as a qualitative change in the reader and the text gives this engagement a new kind of significance.
Day recognizes Gadamer’s alignment of understanding with reading. Gadamer also aligns understanding with ethics, and so provides unique insights into the ethical possibilities for documents. Perhaps more importantly, from the perspective of information science, Gadamer allows the possibility of ethical relationships outside the realm of normative ethics even without the interaction with the face. Levinas’s ethical requirement is not met, but the ethical results bear some similarities.
We have explored the distinction between knowledge and understanding as seen through the information science’s discussion of aboutness and understanding. Now, let us rearticulate the distinction from the point of view of Gadamer; whereas knowledge is something that is usually rationalized and then grasped and possessed, understanding only involves dialogue with the subject, never ‘possessing’ it (Gadamer, 2006, p. 355). When the subject is another person, this takes on important ethical implications. Merely knowing about the other is always a reduction of that other, whereas understanding the other involves the realization that he or she is too complex to be known, just as the reader is.
In his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Gadamer developed the idea of the fusion of horizons, a process in which oneself and the other—often a text—negotiate through dialogue until they reach an agreement on the matter at hand. The dialogue occurs between what is familiar—our historically informed situation—and what is new, such that both the familiar and the new are affected. We may compare such dialogue to translation, which is also prominent in his hermeneutics (Gadamer, 2006, p. 386). Translations are always of something that we do not create and so do not control, such that we cannot say whatever we want. Instead, we articulate our understanding in terms we would use. Jean Grondin, a prominent scholar of Gadamer, offers the example of how he understands Plato ‘by using language that is familiar to me, even if what I am striving to comprehend is a thinking that was formulated in the ancient Greece of the fourth century B.C.’ (2002, p. 43). Plato’s texts enter into a dialogue with the reader and both come away with new understanding, the reader with a better articulation of Plato’s thoughts and the texts with a new articulation drawn from current language.
The ethical implications of Gadamer’s concept of understanding may not be apparent from this description. They derive from two features of dialogue. First, dialogue is characterized by openness because, for Gadamer, this is the only way a genuine relationship can exist. In dialogue, I and the other speak and listen. This means that I must accept without coercion ‘some things that are against me’ (Gadamer, 2006, p. 355). Second, dialogue is based on experience. We come to understanding through active participation in the world. What lends dialogue its ethical flavour here is Gadamer’s emphasis on Aristotelian practical philosophy, especially in the form of phronesis—practical, lived wisdom. We cannot plan for situations we may encounter that demand moral action because they are always new. There is no time for reflection in these situations; instead we either act or refrain from acting. We can think of this orientation as having good habits. Phronesis reveals the dialogical relationship we have as moral beings to lived experience; the experience is given to us, or questions us, and we respond. Our response applies what we have learned in the past (from our historically informed situation) to the specificity of the new experience. Hermeneutics even goes so far as to recognize the call for responsibility that comes from the Other. This happens because the Other, text or otherwise, calls us to revise our self-understanding.
The discussion up to this point has been relatively abstract. The example of the documents created by the United Church of Canada (UCC), however, provides insight into one institution’s active and intentional efforts to use documents in the building of ethical relationships. The case study consists of 38 documents created by the church between 2008 and 2017. This a relatively small body of documents I am studying in great depth. Each of the documents arises from the UCC’s work focused on ministry to and reconciliation with Indigenous people. The date range is determined by the start of two parallel initiatives. At the national level, the beginning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in 2008 impacted the UCC and guided its creation of documents, sometimes explicitly. At the church level, 2008 also marked the beginning of the UCC’s Living Into Right Relations National Task Group, which explicitly ‘complement[ed] and parallel[ed] the Truth and Reconciliation Commission timeline’ (National Task Group, 2015, p. 2). The end date is determined by when my research started. I included every discrete document that was publicly accessible under the website’s Aboriginal tag. The case study includes the following kinds of documents: worship resources (prayers, litanies, hymns, worship services), guides (e.g., the guide to “Acknowledging the Territory in Worship”), institutional statements (e.g., responses to the TRC’s Calls to Action), and letters written to a variety of audiences (the church itself, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, and former students of the Indian Residential School system).
These documents, at first glance, are highly diverse; they might appear to defy any consistent or systematic analysis. Two aspects of the case study, however, link the documents. The church’s own indexing of the documents with the Aboriginal tag—which was relabelled as Indigenous in February 2019—demonstrate that the UCC sees all of these documents as “about” Indigenous issues in the church. At the same time, the fact that all of the documents share the same form—that of a document—informs the study. That is to say, the document’s form and not it’s type (whether worship resource, letter, etc.) is what may discourage the recognition of Levinas’s infinity by obstructing direct access to the face. When we consider these two aspects together, a tension develops between the intended ethical meaning attributed to the documents by the church and the resistance to the communication of that meaning by the documents within the relationships established by those same documents. That tension, and the opportunity it provides to better understand the ethical nature of documents, is the catalyst for studying this group of documents.
I explore the ethical nature of the documents in this case study through two methods: archival and hermeneutic. The archival research is used to establish an historical analysis of the documents. This involves visiting the United Church of Canada Archives in Toronto. Here I review everything that is publicly available and explicitly tied to the history, creation, and reception of the case study documents. My hermeneutic analysis of the case study documents mirrors Gadamer’s own hermeneutical practice in writing Truth and Method. In this process, he followed the principle of ‘holding oneself open to the conversation … [and] … constantly recognizing in advance the possibility that your partner is right, even recognizing the possible superiority of your partner’ (Gadamer, 1997, p. 36). Because he accepted the texts he read on their own terms, he—an expert on Plato—concluded that his ‘previous reading of Plato had been somewhat defective’ (Zuckert, 2002, p. 206). Similarly, I read these texts on their own terms, for what they say rather than what I want to extract from them.
With the discussion concerning aboutness and understanding—and Levinas’s and Gadamer’s specific approaches—in mind, three main themes are evident: aboutness itself, language reflecting understanding, and experiences of the fusion of horizons. Some general observations on these themes are followed by specific examples.
Aboutness is most difficult to describe in the worship documents, which form the majority. These documents, in general, may require the additional concept of ofness, which Hjørland (2017) says is used especially for picture indexing. Because the language involved is often poetic or symbolic, it potentially requires three levels of meaning: that based on ‘everyday experience,’ that based on ‘cultural knowledge of themes and concepts’ and a sophisticated level based on ‘world and cultural knowledge plus a deeper understanding of the history and background of the work’ (62). In other words, without a certain level of familiarity with the UCC and its worship practices, and perhaps without a similar level of familiarity with Indigenous thought, these documents are somewhat inaccessible beyond their form as worship resources. However, many of these documents also include instruction that guides the worship leaders, especially when it comes to the Indigenous aspects of the document. These moments of instruction offer the clearest glimpse of what these documents are about.
In the guides, institutional statements, and letters, aboutness is much easier to articulate. The subject tends to be one of two things: instructions or guidance for how to do something, such as acknowledge Indigenous territory before an event, or summaries of relevant information, usually on the following topics: the history of residential schools, the work of the TRC, the reconciliation work of the UCC, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or specific current events that affect Indigenous groups and on which the church encourages a certain position.
Of the 38 documents, only 8 involve Indigenous individuals as subjects. Of these, only four give us any details or story about the individuals. Even among these four, the individuals are not the only focus. In effect, the case study as a whole is not about Indigenous individuals. The archival sources make it clear that the UCC considers reconciliation with the Indigenous individual important, describing the resources put into events designed to bring settler and Indigenous individuals together, as well as the reactions—primarily of settler individuals—to these events. Yet, the documents do not reflect this, and perhaps cannot, because they cannot provide direct access to the other’s infinity.
The August 23, 2016 letter to Chief Bobby Cameron and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations is a good example of the case study’s rare access to an individual, especially because it is unique in thinking about two individuals: Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man who was killed in a shooting, and Chief Cameron himself. The letter says
The senseless death of Colten Boushie saddens the hearts of all caring Canadians. We are dismayed that racial tensions have been sparked in the wake of this tragedy, and false stereotypes are once again rearing their ugly heads. Our heartfelt prayers surround Colten’s family and community, and you [Cameron] as you seek to provide leadership in these troubling circumstances (Cantwell, 2016).
We learn nothing about Boushie, especially because he is defined here only by the circumstances of his death, so that there is no sense of his Levinasian infinity. The letter does a better job of considering Chief Cameron, who in the quote above faces the challenge of providing leadership under difficult circumstances. The letter later reiterates its awareness of this challenge, saying
We want to acknowledge that you are providing leadership in a difficult time, complicated by grief, pain, and anger. Please let us know what kinds of practical support we can offer as a church that would be meaningful for you (Cantwell, 2016).
As words in a document, this cannot match Cameron’s own infinity, but these are good steps for Gadamerian understanding because the letter acknowledges the complicated nature of his situation and listens, asking Cameron himself what would be meaningful for him. In other words, for a brief moment, this document starts the process of a dialogue, rather than imposing through telling. In the process, though Cameron remains a subject of the document, he simultaneously emerges as someone we cannot fully know and recovers at least a portion of his infinity.
Language reflecting understanding is fairly common in the case study documents. 26 of the 38 documents include language that promotes understanding in a sense that reflects Levinasian or Gadamerian thinking. One example is “Aboriginal Sunday: Celebration and Thanksgiving Service.” The opening prayer reads
Great Comforter, we know that we are surrounded by a legacy of pain. We acknowledge the pain, grief, and sorrow caused by not living respectfully with all people, and we are sorry for the ways that we have dishonoured the depths of this pain. Open us, Creator, to the power of interconnectedness: Help us to receive the painful stories as well as the inspiring stories; Grant us the courage to own any feelings of vulnerability, shame, fear, and guilt that may come from our interactions with each other; And with your healing grace, lead us through our aching toward your dream of wholeness. Transform us and our community so that we may continually work toward reconciliation and new life. Amen (n.d.).
At almost every step in this prayer, Gadamerian ideals are at play. When knowledge is mentioned, it is self-knowledge. Openness to interconnectedness reflects the work of dialogue. In that openness is the willingness to receive painful stories, to receive that which is against us, in Gadamer’s words. The continued emphasis on interactions with others focuses on the emotional complexity of, again, receiving that which is against us.
Examples of documents that include Levinasian language are fewer, though present. In the sermon “The Gift in Apology,” the Rev. James Scott, the UCC’s General Council Officer for Residential Schools writes,
Think of your own life, of a time when you needed to reconcile with someone due to something harmful you did. Do you remember how hard it was? To look someone in the eyes and take full responsibility for the harm we have done (n.d.).
This brief passage’s focus on looking someone in the eyes as connected to full responsibility has a Levinasian quality to it. The recognition that looking someone in the eyes is difficult brings to mind Levinas’s description of the vulnerability yet defiance of the face, which ‘is inviolable’ and the other’s eyes ‘which are absolutely without protection, the most naked part of the human body, [yet] none the less offer an absolute resistance to possession in which the temptation to murder is inscribed’ (1990, p. 49). This encounter with the other is always paired, as it is here, with responsibility to the other.
From the standpoint of Gadamerian and Levinasian thinking, this prayer and sermon promote ethical understanding beyond knowledge. Yet, by themselves, they are not reconciliation or understanding at work. They are descriptions of what this might look like or what the church hopes for and intends the documents to accomplish, but there is no individual other on the other side of those documents. This reflects Gadamer’s concerns about locating meaning in an author’s intentions as something that not only is impossible because meaning does not work that way, but also as something that deprives others of their legitimacy (2006, p. 354).
Despite the weaknesses of even what is good in the documents, their moments of aboutness focused on individuals and of language reflecting understanding, the documents may yet have some ethical power. That is because, as Gadamer recognizes, every encounter with the other, even in the form of a text, has the potential to lead to the fusion of horizons. It is not possible to describe certain documents that may result in the fusion of horizons, because the exact nature of such understanding depends on the reader’s historically informed situation, which cannot be predicted. When it does occur, however, we know from Gadamer that it will be because the document provokes a qualitative change, such as surprise or confusion or because it leads the reader to question something.
The result of the fusion of horizons is not Levinasian responsibility to the other, but it is the ethical awareness of the reader’s own lack of knowledge and of the complexity of the other beyond what the reader can know. Awareness of these deficiencies in knowledge and of the reader’s own prejudices, which some of the documents may prompt, is actually true understanding. It is also ethical because as readers practices such understanding, they develop phronesis, a habit of seeing individuals for who they are, rather than for how they are labelled.
My analysis of the case study documents provides some cautious answers to the questions posed earlier. It is not possible to found an ethical relationship to the Indigenous other through the UCC’s documents because they offer no way to experience the other’s infinity. Yet, an ethical response to the other is allowed by these same documents. This may happen when a reader encounters an Indigenous subject as depicted in the document and in that encounter experiences the fusion of horizons. The exact nature of the encounter will depend on the reader’s historically informed situation. Nonetheless, if this occurs, the result will be an ethical awareness of the reader’s own limitations in relationship to that Indigenous subject and will, in turn, contribute to the reader’s practice of phronesis.
Studies of the ethical nature of documents, like this one, offer a more complete picture of how documents function in people’s lives. Documents not only inform and entertain, but they also have the potential to increase ethical understanding. Making sense of this phenomenon not only helps to answer theoretical questions concerning knowledge and ethics but also is a step towards further understanding the dynamics of everyday uses of documents by institutions and individuals—among them NGOs, politicians, and businesses—to achieve purposes with ethical implications. When individuals or institutions create documents to communicate their thoughts about others and when those documents then become one of the primary ways that readers experience those others, as is true with the UCC’s documents about Indigenous people and issues, we must consider how the readers’ experiences of the other corresponds to ethical understanding as described by thinkers like Levinas and Gadamer.
About the author
Martin Nord is a PhD candidate in Library and Information Science, University of Western Ontario, Canada. His research considers how documents affect human relationships as objects that hold and communicate meaningful content between individuals. Documents bridge the space and time between individuals in the absence of face-to-face interactions, and Martin is interested in the implications—good and bad—of this phenomenon. In his dissertation, Martin explores a case study of documents produced by the United Church of Canada in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s Calls to Action and its recognition of a government policy of cultural genocide. Individual experiences of the church documents concerning this fraught situation shed light on how documents are and are not able to bridge the distance between people. His other research interests also reflect his overarching concern about the problems arising for meaningful human relationship in the “information age.” Martin sees information issues—such as the personalization of information—and information organizations that facilitate communication of ideas between people—such as libraries and NGOs—as directly associated with the strengths and weakness of social relationships in what we are told is a highly-interconnected world. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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