maandag 27 augustus 2012

Levinas and Empathy

Idealistic do-gooders have big expectations about empathy, ie the ability of people to identify with others and their situation. If only we would deploy more of that ability the world would possibly look a lot nicer.

Already in the eighteenth century the Enlightenment thinkers formulated the idea that we through empathy - according to them a constant factor in human nature - are capable of altruistic behavior, even when it goes against our immediate self-interest.

In our time, a variation on this idea is propagated by the philosophers Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum. They encourage us to read many books, especially novels. Because that broadens the range of feelings and thoughts we get familiar with and it helps us to understand other people better. The world can only benefit from that.

Into this line of reasoning fits the often heard remark that Jews, given their history, surely ought to know better as to what violence does to people. They should, because of that experience, be able to show more restraint in what they do to others than other people (can) show.

Quite often also my favorite philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is related to the importance of empathy. His emphasis on the phenomenon that we suddenly can feel guilty and obliged towards another human being would require that we be empathic. In order to achieve that altruistic effect we should actively identify with the other.

Actually I am very much in favour of doing so, but I think it is not what Levinas speaks about. It might even be the opposite. Because the characteristic of the experience of the other as Levinas describes it, is precisely that you did not identify with the other. Indeed, you are completely surprised by what the other brings up, because he falls silent where you are excited, because she proves not to be enthousiastic for what you believe in.

The shock that comes with that creates a sense of obligation, says Levinas. For such a reaction that you yourself could not have invented, according to Levinas, the other is indispendable. Because that’s the essence of his otherness. No empathy could equal that effect.

A prerequisite for being touched this way by another may be this: that you are able to face your own limitations. Because if you are, you may sooner notice somebody else’s vulnerability and the injuries caused by your lack of empathy.

Also see Levinas and Egoism

zondag 12 augustus 2012

Fair Play

For fourteen days we were experiencing the fever of sports performances, in the spirit of global brotherhood and fair play. And the world enjoyed it.

But I can not resist making a few comments, it’s probably to do with my underdeveloped interest in sports. What keeps me hooked in particular, is the often unthinkingly acclaimed concept of ‘fair play’. 

Because fair play is a concept that belongs to winners, it is used mainly by those already in control. Within communities that are - politically and economically - comfortable, losers are still relative winners and in such a situation fair play thrives.

That explains why the term stems from the British Empire, which at the time of the founding of the Olympics was at the height of its power. But, says Professor of sports history Tony Collins, this gives an indication of the illusory aspects of fair play: “The British expanded their empire by force and manipulation. The idea of fair play can only be maintained if you are the dominant world power”.

Also in politics we cling to fair play: to the idea that reasonable people talk to each other in a reasonable way and look after their interests in rivalry with others while respecting the rules of the game.

Daniel Gordis articulates these thoroughly courteous and optimistic view of politics in a retrospective on his youth: “In the American suburban home in which I was raised, we were taught that war was an aberration. Conflict is solvable. If war persisted, the both sides had been less bold than they needed to be. If Americans and North Vietnamese wanted to, they could figure out a way to end the conflict; the same was clearly true of Jews and Arabs”. And then he poses the question whether one, as with fair play, must not belong to the winners already in order to afford oneself such a high moral view of conflict management and politics.

Gordis comes to these thoughts after his move to Israel. “The Middle East is not a Hebrew-speaking version of the comfortable, safe, conflict-free suburban Baltimore in which I had been raised”. Perhaps completely different rules apply there.

Those thoughts are strengthened with him by the recent death of Yitzhak Shamir, the uncompromising right-wing Israeli Prime Minister of the nineties. Gordis has mixed feelings when retrospecting his life. He knows that in life already Shamir was not very popular because of his staunch views, and for his funeral hardly any interest appeared to exist.

But, Gordis observes, Shamir did not stem from the comfortable suburb with its fair play. He had very different experiences with the world. His father escaped the Nazis only to be murdered, when he returned to his birthplace Ruzhany in Belarus, by his former neighbors. Shamir could not help but see the world as hostile to Jews, against which Jews should stand vigilant and combative.

Therefore, Shamir at the time of the British mandate until 1948 was not inclined to let his terrorism against the British to be taken away from him because it would be unfair play. Following the assassination attempt against Harold MacMichael, the Commissioner of the British Mandate, for example, he said later without any regrets: “There are those who say that to kill Martin (a British sergeant) is terrorism, but to bomb civilians is professional warfare. But I think it is the same from the moral point of view”.

At this moment, says Gordis, Israel belongs to the winners. “Ours is not the world that Shamir and his generation inherited. Ours is a world in which the Jews are secure, and largely safe”, and that is in no small measure due to controversial actions of Shamir, Begin and Ariel Sharon.

The irony of the story is that Israel, now it is relatively comfortable, in its turn makes play with fair play: there will be no talking with terrorists (read Palestinians).

It's not fair.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line