Music and song in social healing and reconciliation

Following is a paper written for a class called The Healing Ecstasy of Sound, led by Jennifer Berezan in spring 2009. In it, I explore the role of music in social healing and reconciliation, using two examples from southern Africa. The first is the healing rituals of indigenous African hunter-gatherers known as the Kung, and the second example is provided by the anti-apartheid movement in modern South Africa.

Since completing graduate studies this year, I’ve become ever more curious about the role of the arts in cultural transformation, and how artistic modes of expression may contribute to cultural renaissance and human awakening to the community of life. This paper represents some of my early explorations of this question.

Music and song in social healing and reconciliation

Musical sounds and vocalizations, from singing to chanting to glossalia, have been used throughout human history for the purposes of healing individual psychological, spiritual and physical ailments (Campbell, 1991, 1992, 1997; Gass, 1999), but what role has music played in community or social healing and reconciliation?  I will describe two examples of music, song and community healing from southern Africa, and present a few ideas on the role that music played in healing.

All-night rituals for community healing and reconciliation are woven into the fabric of the lives of the traditional Kung society of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, who are one of the few remaining human groups to live by foraging, “which was, until 12,000 years ago, the universal mode of human existence” (Katz, 1982, p. ix).

The Kung believe that humans carry incipient illness at all times, and must therefore maintain their well-being through regular community healing rituals.  The Kung healing rituals, and specifically the Giraffe ritual, function to build community cohesion and repair damaged or strained relations, as much as provide treatments for the physical, spiritual and emotional complaints of individuals.

For the Kung, healing is more than curing, more than the application of medicine.  Healing seeks to establish health and growth on physical, psychological, social and spiritual levels; it involves work on the individual, the group and the surrounding environment and cosmos (Katz, 1982, p. 34).

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Toward a Restorative Environmental Ethic

Following is a paper written for a spring 2011 class on environmental ethics at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Toward a Restorative Environmental Ethic

This paper examines how the themes, principles and practices of restorative justice can inform an environmental ethic and the shift in worldview and values which environmental ethics seems to imply.  One of the central philosophical and ethical problems to emerge from our global environmental crisis and the human quest to locate and remedy its root causes is the anthropocentric nature of the worldviews and values which dominate the biosphere today.

Restorative justice as a practice seeks to include all parties affected by a criminal act or omission in establishing how to best meet victims’ needs and who is responsible for meeting those victims’ needs, as well as reintegrating offenders into the community with the intention to avoid further harms and promote security. Could the motives of restorative justice shed light on a movement away from “speciesism,” that is, “the widely held belief that the human species is inherently superior to other species and so has rights or privileges that are denied to other” species (Ryder “Speciesism”), and into just relations with the wider Earth Community?


According to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, environmental ethics is “the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its nonhuman contents” (Brennan & Lo, “Environmental Ethics”). A relatively new and challenging branch of moral philosophy, environmental ethics emerged in the 1970s in response to a number of pressing issues related to anthropogenic environmental degradation and human population growth across the globe (Brennan & Lo, “Environmental Ethics”). Its challenge emerges from the impetus to expand moral concern beyond anthropocentric confines to include other forms of life both sentient and non-sentient (Gudorf & Huchingson 1). Such an expansion of moral consideration would seem to inherently require a shift in worldview for most individuals and perhaps all human social institutions in existence today.

Ryder’s definition of “speciesism” is expanded here to include moral consideration of more than just “sentient animals,” which is how he originally limited his definition. The underlying assumption of this paper is that the environment and its ability to sustain life is a holistic enterprise such that even the lithosphere is worthy of moral consideration. This regard for the interrelatedness of living and non-living, sentient and allegedly non-sentient life is expressed by Gaia theory:

The key insight of the theory is wonderfully holistic and non-hierarchical: it suggests that it is the Gaian system as a whole that does the regulating [of the conditions required for life to exist], that the sum of all the complex feedbacks between life, atmosphere, rocks and water give rise to Gaia, the evolving, self-regulating planetary entity that has maintained habitable conditions on the surface of our planet over vast stretches of geological time (emphasis in original, Harding 64).

            Accordingly, a positive goal for an environmental ethic is the realization of Earth Community, a concept which has been elaborated by the ecological thinker and theologian—who referred to himself as a “geologian” owing his promotion of an Earth-based spirituality—Thomas Berry, who writes,

In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity. Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings. This capacity for relatedness, for presence to other beings, for spontaneity in action, is a capacity possessed by every mode of being throughout the entire universe (4).

It is toward the conscious integration of the human being into the Earth Community that we explore environmental ethics, that it may benefit all beings in the universe.

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There’s No Salvation From the Myth of Salvation



Presenting a talk given at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco on May 3, 2012. A transcript of the talk follows.

(I realized later that I should also like to give thanks to visionary activist astrologer Caroline Casey for all she’s demonstrated to me about the trickster archetype and the importance of using language to “animate the desirable story.” Thank you, Caroline!)

There’s No Salvation from the Myth of Salvation

I entered the Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness [graduate] program in search of a beautiful critique of our times, as expressed by the following sentiment which I carried with me into this program: “It strikes me that providing hospice to a dying modern world view is just as important to human evolution and survival, as is living the possibilities of a different way forward into being, and I would only hope to discover a language of reconciliation sufficient to the task.”

I must be clear here, when I say “beautiful,” for the beauty I speak of isn’t something nice or pretty or any of our domesticated ideas of life bound up in a cage. Life is beautiful, and so there is also terror.  The beautiful critique I seek is one which doesn’t wallow in postmodern angst about the shadow of self-reflective consciousness, that self-satisfied embrace of misanthropy—that is, the fear and hatred of humanity—which is supposed to somehow keep us safe from ourselves. The beautiful critique isn’t afraid of the terror which accompanies beauty, it stares straight into the face of these strange days of death which doesn’t die…and smiles.

For our existence exhibits a great many qualities, and the aesthetic and emotional response to life involves ALL of those qualities—not just those which may be desirable or attractive. Life involves the perception of finitude, of death and loss—the ultimately mysterious nature of the universe, with all of the unknown, the unexpected— To attempt to eradicate the wild, the mysterious, the uncivilized is to fail to acknowledge beauty’s depths, and has invariably led to the truly ugly.

Misanthropy can hide in the strangest places, it’s not just that which resides in the pit of the stomach of the activist working for improvement of what seem like intractable situations: such as the Sixth Mass Extinction underway, the conflict in Palestine and Israel, the mockery of democracy in a world so riven by structurally-embedded inequalities.  One of the more curious places where I detect the fear and hatred of humanity is in the idea of salvation, the millennial idea that there will come a time—and depending on who you consult, it involves different variables—when we are free from this horrendous, fallen state of being human. When finally, at last, we will have escaped our hideous condition of decay, death, and the problem of free will which seems to bring with it so much suffering.

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