dinsdag 28 oktober 2014

Acceptable cynicism

Rosanne Hertzberger exaggerated a bit when she recently stated: “It’s all opportunism. There is no justice”. This in response to the many violent troubles in the world, and the tendency of many people to deny or forget the implied brutality.

The distance to pure cynicism with such a categorical statement has become very small, and the answer to the question why you would even worry at all about something else than your own interest could only read: don’t do so, because just blind fate and the right of the jungle prevail.

This conclusion was probably not Hertzberger’s intention, because she finished with the observation that we actually dó care about what is near: the immediate environment, our own country, perhaps even Western Europe. And that would not be the case if not a basic form of trust and justice had been organized there. Thanks to functioning legal systems, democracy and a civil society.

So, in my interpretation Hertzberger’s cynicism begins with the krooked distribution of violence and prosperity at the global level. Things go wrong there, she says, and it is utopian idleness to think that you can do something about this injustice from the West.

That still sounds cynical enough, but I am inclined to agree with her on this point. Because  curbing our own chaos is hard enough already. That took us centuries of thought and effort, and we underestimate, from habituation to our order, how easily new chaos breaks into that.

For this reason I also agree with another sober voice, that of columnist Rob de Wijk. He wrote last week that “it is time for a fundamental discussion on how to deal with the chaos around, and now also in, Europe. ‘Containment’ and ‘red lines’ are the keywords. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that the West puts its own security and interests first and looks less through humanitarian glasses to these conflicts”. That will be difficult, says De Wijk, “because politicians and citizens are stuck in the old pattern of a pedantic and supreme West that is mainly concerned with humanity”.

So we must renounce many comprehensive ideals. But for what we want to sustain – an ordered society with attention to basic human values – a lot of idealism and commitment will be required.

Also see Reluctance against the West

Reluctance against the West

A common factor in many of today’s trouble spots is the resentment of some of the combatants against the West. Whether it comes to IS in the Middle East, the Russians in Ukraine or Boko Haram in Africa, they are all filled with a deep distrust, if not hatred of the West. Like their kindred spirits in our own Western countries. And according to Abdou Bouzerda the disproportionate attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is also traceable to that factor.

What to do about that?

You can go along with it because, you say, there’s some sense in it. We simply played the boss for too long. The certainty with which the West once thought itself to be in the position to decide about good and bad for the whole world has severely become unserviceable. Guiltfeelings about that colonialism are more appropriate, it is now up to the West to remain silent.

This response sounds to me a bit outdated, reminescent of illusions about non-partisan pacifism, or about being above partisanship. As if you yourself do not have your own point of view or even nothing to defend. The renewed Western focus on defense shows in my view that we definitely dó have something to defend in the West.

Another possible response to the resentment against the West is to go against it because, as you believe, many of our values such as human rights and democracy are actually universal. “Actually”, according to this view, all nations would want them, even if they don’t realize it yet. We must therefore continue to propagate these values’s universal validity. A bit like the Dutch theologian Erik Borgman did recently in an article on religious freedom in which he declared that religious freedom belongs in every constitution.

A problem for supporters of this second position is that the resentment against the West makes a lot of groups and people allergic to that kind of messages. A frequently heard Western solution for that objection is that we do not call these values ‘Western’, but ‘universal’. The danger of this tactical approach is that it (understandably) reinforces the revulsion. After all, even if it were true that those values are universal, people still want to find out themselves. They don’t want to get those values carried over from former imperialists.

One can also, with Amsterdam Mayor Van der Laan in his Abel Herzberg Lecture, opt for a third position, and say maybe there be several moral compasses next to each other. “We live with different moral compasses, in a world of trouble spots. We will have to get to know each other’s moral compasses and recognize these compasses often originate from suffering. There is no ‘patent’ in the world of suffering, according to Van der Laan.

This third option resembles the first, except that Van der Laan links this position to great alertness and willingness to actually physically intervene. I think that is also the beauty of the Mayor’s position: his criteria for whether or not to intervene are of a very practical nature. He looks at human behavior, thus reducing a complicated ideological debate to a, at least for his own feeling, practically performable assessment of behavior. Does someone sow hate, does someone call to violence, does somebody use violence? Then that is a border crossing and there will be no millimeter tolerance.

What appeals to me is that Van der Laan actually lets go the always so pretentious universalism. The first option doesn’t do so because, following a statement by Alain Finkielkraut, it remains trapped in the adoration of the other, or of all others, and from there in a kind of sterile above-partisanship. The second option obviously does not do so, because it precisely believes in the universality of certain values.

The Van der Laan-option eliminates this universalism because the connected action perspective is essentially of a local nature. Indeed, its effectiveness reaches to the boundaries of the Amsterdam municipality, or in the case of the presence of more like-minded Mayors to the country’s borders, and not beyond. Within these boundaries Van der Laan’s compass, with its own criteria for inadmissibility, is valid; outside it is not.

That may be reassuring for those Muslims whose compass indicates –  for example – female loose flyaway hair as absolutely unacceptable. In places other than Amsterdam or the Netherlands, for example, in Saudi Arabia or Iran, repressive action will, completely according to the Van der Laan position, indeed be an option. There they can have it their way.

And for me it’s reassuring because the local Amsterdam compass, with the above Van der Laan-criteria for impermissibility, is fortunately also mine.

Also see The heroic cosmopolitical individual

dinsdag 7 oktober 2014

Defining the world

Define the world, we múst do so, because otherwise it will be chaos in our heads. So that’s why do we all do it. It is a matter of evolutionary survival, and it becomes manifest as our tendency to categorize and stereotype.

It is very well possible to speak dispassionately about it. That’s what, for example, Daniel Kahneman does in his book Thinking, fast and slow. “Stereotyping in our culture is a loaded term, but as I use it here, the meaning is neutral. One of the main features of our intuitive system is that it interprets categories as standards or prototypes. This is how we understand horses, refrigerators and police officers.”

But that it múst be done – because in order to survive in emergencies we have to be able to act immediately  and cannot allow any doubt – does not mean that our definitions are correct and our judgments founded.

So there is a fair chance that you put animals, people, things in the wrong box. And that is less innocent than it seems. Especially when you do that with people, because people in the last resort want themselves to have control over their own lives. If another puts them prematurely or wrongly in a certain box (that’s to say: defines them), it can feel like a border crossing: you don’t have anything to say about me! That feels like violence.

But at the same time, as I said, our lives are made up of definitions and labels that we impose on the world and others. And their obviousness sometimes is so big that it seems far-fetched to problematize them.

Thus you would think that the distinction between men and women is one of the most basic and easy ones that we can make. So that we may assume that everybody can be classified in one of those two categories. That’s why it is quite natural for us to ask: is it a boy or a girl?

However, what we then actually do, says Lies Wesseling, is that the many differences between people are thrown on just two heaps. Then everything that does not fit under the headings of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is seen as deviant or as irrelevant.

But nature is not that clear cut, at least not always. And more importantly, individual human experience is not so clear. Someone in a woman’s body may feel himself a man, or vice versa, or something in between. If you pin such a person, as a matter of course, to a stereotype, you can cause serious damage.

How hurtful that obvious categorization can be may appear from the experiences of people for whom those categories were not suitable and whose stories only recently are being taken seriously: the transgenders. Those stories are pure sadness. And in the Netherlands their number easily runs into 50,000.

Now there is a new Dutch law that confirms that identity is something that only you yourself can feel and name. Transgenders can now administratively change sex, even without changing anything to the body. For example, it may happen that a man gives birth to a child, and is regarded as the mother.

The new law does not abolish the categories, so there is still spoken in terms of male and female. The dream of many transgender continues, such as Vreer puts it: “I dream of a birth certificate and an identitycard without gender designation. Even an X, as recently is allowed in Australia, can be an improvement. That means ‘not specified’, and so it is with me”.

But anyway, the new law infringes on stereotypes and definitions that until recently seemed to be cast in concrete. The law may therefore be seen as a Levinassian answer to the problem that Levinas treats with great tenacity in all his works: of the injuries that with our defining thought, seeking stable categories, we inflict to others.

Could possibly the Dutch Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) be such a dubious stable category as well?

Also see Kol Nidrei and other illusions