On the Nature of Permission

Letters about permission

    Here at Conversation Agent, we love books. And we believe that to learn the most when reading, we want to be in conversation with the author. We should subject what we read to inquiry. Not to agree or disagree, but to take control of what we think about the material based on where we are in our journey of knowledge and experience.

    As Umberto Eco' says through a conversation between Adso and William in The Name of the Rose, many hypotheses, false though they may be, can still lead one to a correct solution:

“The only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for the truth.”


“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”

    When we listen to the anatomy of what happens to our body and mind when in conversation with an author, we have many tools at our disposal to engage. For example, our intuition, which comes from the cumulative experience and working intelligence, tells us if the material is sincere. How we feel about it is an open invitation to be curious as to why. This is what learning is about.

    If something doesn't feel genuine, we know it right away. Because it has no heart. So while what an article, book, or talk says may be in the ballpark of interesting and useful, it slips away when we try to have a conversation with it. We should pay attention to this feeling and inquire further, rather than try to talk ourselves into accepting what everyone else says.

    How else are we supposed to ask others to believe us when we're not ready to believe ourselves? Coherence is an earned trait. It comes with practice, and we practice by listening to and developing what is core to us —our values and purpose— then experiencing ideas and stories “with an unobstructed mind,” as Bruce Lee would say. Lee created a 'no style' form of martial arts to not get trapped into a method, confined as individual.

    Conversation is the 'no style' form of training we can use to create options for ourselves —as the circumstances of our work and lives change constantly. It's a process that happens at many levels and that is what we want to train so we can deal with information, data, and experiences in different contexts. We have enough documented history behind us to know that things that are considered true one day, are thrown out the next. So our compass needs us to provide the setting.

    This is how we operate within the tension between learning and knowing. The truth sits somewhere in between “acting as if,” and learning to ask better questions of ourselves and others. When we look to figure out something ourselves, we become more intimate with how it works and add multiples of value to our own capacity to think about problems.

    History teaches us that the answer is not to ban or censor thought, but rather to encourage self-knowledge beyond knowledge, what Eco referred to as the antilibrary. We want to engage in the conversation with thought and do the work necessary to figure things out as we go along living our lives and doing our work. Right and wrong are not absolutes, even in science, certainty is relative, there's a stark distinction between knowing something and certainty.

    Delegating thinking or assimilating the ideas of someone else, or as often is the case, many others, does not a full picture make ― it most likely makes a Franken-pastiche. With the added discomfort of still not knowing what we think. So this is the nature of permission, to allow ourselves to be exposed to ideas while doing the work to develop and practice our core.

    We have approximate answers and possible beliefs, but the best way to see them through is to keep practicing their development. Which control would we rather have, that of our thoughts and choices, or an alternative? It's useful to seek evidence of where imagination has led our collective history, and the consequences of fencing thought in.

    Books feed the soul, but also help the mind practice. Why our library should contain all kinds of books and ideas. Marcus Zusak's Liesel, The Book Thief, can't resist books. A story with heart. He says:

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

    What is right “for us” to us right this moment matters. This is where responsibility and accountability come in. Which is why we want access to raw data ―our experience and the ideas and the stories based on the experience of others― not to agree and disagree, but to have the conversation.

    There are many forms of censorship, but thought is quite hard to fence in. A recent example of it is in the form of permission slip a father wrote to address censorship taking place at his son’s book club. His son Milo is in 8th grade [via].

    Milo's note to his parents says:

Dear Mom + Dad,

My ELA book club and I are going to be reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The book is set in a dystopian future where books are highly illegal, and it is the man carachter’s [sic] job to burn them.

This book was challenge because of it’s [sic] theme of the illegality and censorship of books. One book people got most angry about was the burning of the bible. Secondly, there is a large amount of cursing and profanity in the book.


If you are cool with me reading this book, sign here.

    Milo's father, Daniel Randosh, responded:

I love this letter! What a wonderful way to introduce students to the theme of Fahrenheit 451 that books are so dangerous that the institutions of society – schools and parents – might be willing to team up against children to prevent them from reading one.

It’s easy enough to read the book and say, ‘This is crazy. It could never really happen,’ but pretending to present students are the start with what seems like a totally reasonable ‘first step’ is a really immersive way to teach them how insidious censorship can be.

I’m sure that when the book club is over and the students realise the true intent of this letter they’ll be shocked at how many of them accepted it as an actual permission slip.

In addition, Milo’s concern that allowing me to add to this note will make him stand out as a troublemaker really brings home why most of the characters find it easier to accept the world they live in rather than challenge it.

I assured him that his teacher would have his back.

    Because, “History is rich with adventurous men, long on charisma, with a highly developed instinct for their own interests, who have pursued personal power —bypassing parliaments and constitutions, distributing favors to their minions, and conflating their own desires with the interests of the community,” as Umberto Eco says, we do want to learn from history.

    When we don't learn, we are bound to repeat…


[image Daniel Radosh]

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