Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Zones Of Discomfort: Enlarging The Tent By Jonathan Doering and Nim Njuguna

If one of the remits of university applied philosophy departments is to promote the betterment of understanding between opposing vested interests, or, to confer the possibility of an ethical dialogue upon a complacent and unexamined landscape, then Enlarging the Tent, a book about constructive reconciliation and hope, gently nudges its audience towards accord by means of listening.

Refreshingly comfortable with the disentangling of intractable socio-cultural knots, Jonathan Doering and Nim Njuguna’s protracted conversation embodies the precise opposite of a dry academic text. Written from a Quaker perspective – both writers practice the religion, if in differing capacities – the secular reader need not feel displaced here, for if the tenets of Quakerism underpin the dialogue, there is sufficient evidence of reason and commonsense to dispel an hegemony of partisan control. Which is not to suggest that Quakers are not also reasonable, but rather that the application of a solid moral sensibility gives shape and direction to argument, if culminating in recalcitrant attempts at synthesis. For both writers are sufficiently self-aware, throughout the dialogue, to be able to express the limits, in practical terms, of use or efficacy.

And it is well, in the context of research, knowledge and diversity, that Njuguna and Doering bring entirely different life experiences to the table of discussion: the former, a Kenyan consultant, Quaker prison chaplain and writer, and the latter, a British educationalist and contributor to national papers and Quaker magazines. The enablement of sincere self-examination respecting the book’s dominating theme of racial justice, is, for Njuguna, first conditional upon an acceptance of fundamental differences: the condition of guilt over slavery, for example, is a ‘guilt of being’ for a person of White/British origins, ‘because’, Njuguna avers to Doering, ‘you haven’t kept slaves, you haven’t trafficked anyone’. The distinction is pertinent – the guilt is abstract, occluded by a couple of centuries of hindsight but reinforced in a time - our time - of reckoning.

Integral, too, is an acknowledgment of human inconsistency and the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. More especially of those who are capable of acts of ‘good’ whilst otherwise being generally thought of as ‘evil’. Such inconsistency is, or should be, mediated by the coterminous, often unadvertised, presence of another way of behaving. The disgraced cabinet minister, John Profumo’s, reply to a letter from Njuguna respecting the former’s lifelong commitment to charity work, is an object lesson in the need for constructive disassociation and humility: ‘Thank you, it’s good to hear from a stranger recognising my other work, other than getting hammered.’ The process of amelioration that follows is conditional upon a recognition of behavioural duality.

Stylistically engaging because arranged informally – the book is a continuum of transliterated conversations recorded almost verbatim - Enlarging the Tent effects a quietly persuasive ministry, presented, as it is, by two wise and self-effacing commentators. Each chapter of an ongoing dialogue, headed by a specific theme, is introduced by two ‘discussion points’, one per contributor. By means of pertinent sub-headings, and the promulgation of fascinating anecdotal asides, the received effect is authentic to conversational latitude with the minimum of disruption, encouraging the reader to eavesdrop, notwithstanding the formal intrusion of an editorial structure. The inclusion of work sheets towards the end of the book inspires the reader, or group of readers, to continue what is necessarily an open-ended dialogue. For Enlarging the Tent is a book that builds by accretion, whose declared interests depend upon the conscientious stewardship of all stakeholders.

No more so than in the concepts of ‘allyship’ and ‘intersectionality’, two thought-provoking paradigms: the interconnection of all problems, the leaching, for example, of the attitudes of an imperial past into the fabric of the present through complacent racism, or the indivisible association of conditions of poverty and globalised economic systems, demand an holistic approach to resolution. For Doering and Njuguna, individualised dialogues coalesce to build a means of addressing wider structural issues: the latter, in particular’s, many illustrations from the real world of experience make a convincing collective argument for stage-by-stage engagement, whilst recommending a system of allyship whose constituent parts grow in awareness and intellectual coherence at each step. By this measure, genuine inclusivity can only be guaranteed with the drawbridges resolutely down, in a neutral space where prejudice and preconception may be mediated by the power of discourse, since, as Njuguna cautions, ‘without a conversation there can never be intimacy’.

The presence of humour authenticates, rather than otherwise, the sincerity of a narrative that gently pushes exploration in the direction of a species of resolve, if only because shared fun is one of the cornerstones of universal comity. The many ‘offstage’ chuckles that litter the passages make of the commentators something reassuringly human, not least when dissecting the vagaries of the backward glance - the naïve misapprehensions of youth, the failure to apprehend a bigger picture from the comfort of the childhood living room, or the ignorance of what constitutes Western privilege.

It is, in any case, a tribute to the perspicacity and scholarship of Njuguna and Doering that their book should be supported by some serious research, evidenced both throughout the discussion and in a comprehensive bibliography. From Marcuse to Bakhtin, from James Baldwin to Gutierrez, that research is by no means circumscribed by a Quaker agenda, but sensibly wide-ranging in the prosecution of constructive wholes. That it includes, towards the end of an offbeat yet transformative enquiry, a brief comment on Animal Farm is one measure only of Enlarging the Tent’s efficacy: using Orwell’s book to illustrate the blinkered misconstruing of authorial intention, Njuguna points, again, to the raised drawbridge of human perception that must first be lowered in order to yield an unrestricted view across the moat to the woods and fields beyond:

‘There are some people who say, “Look, I’m not interested in anything other than this story of these animals who kick out this farmer and take over. I don’t want to read anything else into it, so don’t bring politics into it!”’

Enlarging the Tent: Two Quakers in Conversation About Racial Justice Dialogues and Worksheets by Jonathan Doering and Nim Njuguna is published by Christian Alternative Books (2023)

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