#80: There is No Alternative to Dialog and Debate

Of course, we all want to believe that what we are thinking and doing is the right thing. Nobody wants to be wrong, nobody wants to be the bad guy. Nobody is truly at peace with themselves if they are at war with the world.

But we cannot all be right on everything. We all live different lives, in different circumstances. This, our very being – as Marx has famously recognized – influences if not determines our consciousness. How we live, what resources we have, how we are able to create a future for ourselves, all of this influences what positions we will be able to take politically.

That does not mean that we cannot aspire for something higher, even if it does not align with our situation in life. Hope has always been a motivator for people, and our consciousness can also influence our being, our life circumstances, as Hegel has famously stated.

We are influenced both by both our circumstances – which may limit our perspective – but also by our hopes and aspirations – which may allow us to move out of limiting circumstances. Recognizing both positions allows us to recognize in others their specific needs, but also to see the potential for all of us reaching for a higher goal.

As long as we maintain our righteousness, we will never be open to understand our own limitations and those of others. We will also not be able to hope for a greater mutual vision, which will limit us in pursuing the steps to get us all to work together.

In a society, you will always have different opinions. Demonizing the respective “other side” is the first step in the wrong direction. We need to recognize that our differences make us stronger: A car has both an accelerator and a brake, for a good reason. As we may seek to progress towards a better future, we also need to conserve that which we will continue to need in order to survive.

While this all may sound simplistic, it is the basic principle of deliberative democracy, as promoted also by philosophers like Habermas. We will need to work together in true dialog, recognizing each other as just as fully human as ourselves, in all our complexities, all our limitations, all our potentials, all our sorrow, pain, hope and desires.

Of course, that is a path that seems more difficult than just to win a majority and ram through decision that you know the other side will not like. As a consequence of such behavior, the next election can easily turn over all your alleged achievements. Moving fast and breaking things will only do one thing: break things. There is no value in that in the long term, because everybody will then want to disrupt everything. As Max Weber has already noted, “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” If you get everyone on board, you will get there slowly, but steadily.

The alternative would be a politics of exception, following Carl Schmitt: But acting in a constant sense of emergency and panic only enables the dictators and demagogues. Of course, everything is always urgent and necessary, everyone is suffering, and everyone’s special interest are special to them. In many cases, this is true. Some emergencies are indeed emergencies. But contrary to Schmitt’s suggestions, it is especially in emergencies that an all-encompassing and dialogical approach towards problem-solving is needed. Schmitt’s thinking belongs on the garbage heap of political philosophy because it does not work, and not just because he was a member of the Nazi party.

Totalitarians all think alike, no matter the pedigree. By following them, all you do is end up in a totalitarian situation. Democratically minded people all think differently. You will be frustrated easily, but you will share your frustration with others, and this shared frustration will eventually lead to breakthroughs that will be accepted by almost everyone, creating a constructive path to positive change that will benefit us all and not just a slim and ever-changing majority.

The path towards ending social division is not to overpower the other side, but to have everyone understand that even in our never-ending disagreements, we all know that in the end, we are all on the same side after all: As Nietzsche said, we are human, all too human.

#79: The Need for the Public Understanding of Humanities and Social Science Theory

Words are easy. They are not formulas. You should just be able to read them and understand them instantly. Or so it goes.

We seemingly are living in a time where all the things talked about in the humanities and the social sciences in the recent decades are finally coming to have their day in the public consciousness. Words like “race”, “gender”, (not “class”, that is not of interest ever, really), “narrative,” “history,” “construction,” “capitalism,” “discourse,” “inequality,” “equity” etc. are thrown around with ease that you would think the entire world had just taken advanced theory graduate classes.

But of course, this is not the case. What has happened is that some of these terms – completely taken out of their “habitat”, their historical and philosophical context, have been unleashed as memes into the wild, devoid of their caveats, conditions, footnotes and complications – devoid of all things that make up the equivalent of a mathematical formula.

The perception that the “talking” and “writing” sciences should just be understandable “as is” appears to have made the rounds, and any complexity is denied as it would be deemed to just make this new pseudo-discourse boring, take all the fun out of it, and the possibility to monetize the outcry.

If you have been wondering, should you have been reading anything on this blog so far, what it is that I am actually doing, then you are not alone. It took me, myself and I an entirety of 23 years to comprehend what I have been on about on my blog and in my research. My real interest in this format seems to be the Public Understanding of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I am trying not to be too pedantic, to have a bit of fun, to not be too dogmatic, to never be mean, and to always be open to new ideas.

Speaking of idea, isn’t that a difficult term? Ah, but I just promised to not be too pedantic, so there’s that for now…

#78: What Is Social Justice – and What Isn’t

Monument to the Burning of Giordano Bruno at the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
“A BRUNO – IL SECOLO DA LUI DIVINATO – QUI DOVE IL ROGO ARSE”
(“To Bruno – from the age he divined  – here where the fire burned”).

If a term like Social Justice has to have any meaning, it needs to solve problems in society.

The biggest social problems typically have one thing in common: They create division.

Overcoming division and enhancing participation in a shared society is thus key to solving such problems.

The first component of Social Justice is thus a focus on society itself, on commonality, on unity, on harmony. Anything that enhances social peace is better than that which creates social strife.

Now to the second component, justice. Justice means a repairing of those aspects of society that are not contributing to social peace, to equal participation, to overcoming division. Problems past, present and future need to be addressed, honestly and openly, and remedies found for repairing the damage caused, and opportunities sought to increase social awareness of social injustice, in order to promote – jointly, collaboratively – social justice.

Social Justice is nothing but social peace, and peace means happiness, productivity, equity of access, equality of worth, shared humanity, acknowledgment of human dignity, even a recognition of the dignity of all life.

Social Justice draws from certain traumatic moments in human history, and aims to learn from them, create justice for the future out of the pain from the past. Social Justice sets itself as a reaction to the Holocaust and other genocides, slavery, mistreatment of others as a group due to culturally constructed differences such as race, class, gender, age, ability, species, and in the future surely the distinction between natural/artificial life forms. All these divisions exist because of culturally constructed differences that are creating differential understandings of others as human or infrahuman (to use Paul Gilroy’s term).

Thus if we truly want to work to enact social justice, some guidelines might help:

  1. We are all living beings with the same rights every human being has. We may be in different standing in society, in different professions, following different beliefs and ideologies, may be richer or poorer, but at the core, we are all the same. We all share in the human community and the human condition.
  2. We also share in community with our planet and the natural world; we are part of them, and our actions or inactions directly affect the natural world, and consequently again ourselves. We are all on the same planet, we share the same home, and everybody has a right to be here.
  3. We shall never forget that the categories of difference that discrimination is based upon are culturally and socially constructed. Reifying and validating these categories of difference will only further division instead of creating justice.
  4. We are all equal in worth and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Every single life matters, and a mistreatment of one is a mistreatment of all. Some of us are more vulnerable than others and may need to be given special consideration and support. Those who are strong have a duty to protect those who are weaker, and not exploit them.
  5. In a Social Justice framework, there can be no thinking of other human beings as enemies. We are all fellow living beings, no matter our differences.
  6. Without honesty, no community can survive. We need to be striving for truth always, wherever it may lead us, irrespective of ideology.
  7. If you favor Social Justice, you cannot hate other human beings. Hatred means dividing yourself from others, preventing a connection and understanding rather than building them.
  8. Free speech is absolute. Everybody should have a right to speak, just as everybody should also have a duty to listen and be respectful of each other. We only learn, we only progress, if we learn together and from each other, and if we progress together. Once people feel that their voices are being suppressed, they may vent their frustration in a space where much less learning will be possible, and further division is created.
  9. We need to recognize that we are all imperfect beings. We all have the right to say or do things and regret them later and be forgiven for them. Social Justice is social healing, first and for all.
  10. There shall not ever again be masters and slaves – no group shall set itself apart from the others. We need to overcome traditional hierarchy, not recreate it.
  11. There needs to be humility about the things we can achieve. We may have high aspirations, but a recognition of our fallibility protects against undue despair and depression. We do not live only to work, we work to live.
  12. There needs to be grace towards those that fail to live up to standards that may be seen as higher. We all travel through time throughout our lives, and the world keeps changing around us. Assume it will happen to you yourself eventually, and draw humility from that thought.

Certainly there could be more points, but for now, I’ll leave it here.

#76: We Need No Saviors

In the darkest hour, the savior will appear. He alone will bring us out from the darkness into the light, from despair into hope, from misery into triumph. He knows what to say, what to do, we can trust him explicitly. If we follow his lead, redemption, salvation, and the future await. If only we had a leader with charisma, with greatness, with vision, we would all be better off.

Or so it goes.

We have seen this narrative rise up historically time and again, in fiction and reality. Plato’s Philosopher Kings, King Arthur, the return of Barbarossa, and plenty of real-life politicians. The desire for a leader, for a leader’s charisma, for some almost magical solution to all problems is a romantic desire that is certainly understandable, certainly, apparently, human, and can motivate people easily.

But it never works, and there are basically two reasons. First, such a savior does not exist. He (or rarely she) is a fiction, a dream-construct, a projection of our hopes for some great parental figure that knows what to do, that absolves us of our fallibility and our duty and will do the hard work for us.

There have well been great leaders in history, some of them even good, but all of them flawed. Augustus, maybe not just the first but the best Roman Emperor, built his empire with the blood of his enemies. When we indulge in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, we need to overlook his actual policies, and the person groomed as his successor, Commodus. When we look at the enlightened artfulness of Frederick the Great, we need to also consider his wars. Napoleon brought freedom and law to countless serfs and subjects, but he also brought war and suffering. And it all goes downhill from there when we look at the great hopes brought towards Hitler, Stalin, Mao and all the other sociopaths of the 20th century.

But these extreme examples are not helpful, because even the small saviors, the discount saviors and snake-oil-selling politicians who will never be dictators but just fumble around in incompetence and empty promises, selling out those believing in them, even those are dangerous – mainly because they are leaders of desperate people who they will lead astray and eventually betray and leave behind even more dejected, more hurt, more rejected as deplorables, and more cynical.

Second, all such saviors – the little ones and the big ones – will be found out eventually, hopefully not after they have had bodies piled up in their wars of resentment and revolution. Their days will come eventually because humans will not tolerate their incompetence and abuses for too long. Saviors have a history of becoming scapegoats.

This holds true also for the true, good-hearted, and needed community leaders that have been put up on impossible pedestals. The list of assassinated champions for justice is long, be they Socrates, Spartacus (yes, a flawed person, but still inspirational), Cicero, Jesus, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, and on and on and on – killed by those who rejected the positive change they were striving towards.

We need no saviors, and those with a savior complex should remember to vae victis – to remember the vanquished leaders, bad and good.

Relying on leadership is a shortcut, a lazy and potentially dangerous mistake. We should never assume a single human being should have such power over our hearts and minds. Have no heroes. Want no saviors. Just recognize that for change to happen, regular people need to step up. We need no cynics, we need committed democratic citizens willing to do the work, to educate, to inform, to serve in local, state and federal politics, and to commit themselves to truth, just and the – sorry – American way, but not as Superman, but as ordinary people united to make the world a better place. The cause should transcend the individual, and the only thing we need saving from is the complex of needing a savior.

#74: On the Difference Between Scientific and Mythological Thinking

Plato already talked about the difference between logos and mythos. Put very simply, the first, λόγος, stands for truth, reason, and science, whereas the second, μῦθος, stands for story, narrative, and mythology. Both can describe approaches to learning and truth, but they differ critically in how they function and of use they can be to society.

Mythological thinking is focused on beginnings, on genealogies, on staying within a system. In order to understand a story, you need to follow it from the beginning. If you enter it later, you will need to backtrack and figure out what happened before. Mythologies lay building block upon building block, and the building itself always aims for completion. Stories, as Aristotle reminded us, have a beginning that is not arbitrary, and an ending that conclusively ends the story and that brings to a close what was started in the beginning. The final goal, the telos (τέλος), beings to fruition what was laid out in the beginning. If we pay attention throughout the narrative, we may figure out the final goal, the endgame, the purpose of events. Everything has a deeper meaning, nothing happens by accident, signs and portents are everywhere to be found, and the truth can be revealed by those with special knowledge and insight that know how to interpret the flow of events.

In a way, mythological thinking appears to be core to human nature. We are natural storytellers. All human cultures have stories explaining their origins, their culture, their unique identity. Narrativity is what drives societies through their respective cultures. Narratives give us our sense of self, our sense of hierarchies, of destiny, of past and future, of meaning – for better or worse. They are deeply connected to language, and individual words have deep meanings steeped in history, power relations and ways of thinking.

Individual thinkers, philosophers and artists, have an enormous influence on mythologies.

Mythologies can tolerate variance. Any attempt at systematizing mythological narratives will need to make exceptions for multiple versions. Some core tenets of such a narrative may remain constant, but surrounding factors will change, irrespective of the mode of narration. Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies may each center around a specific pantheon, but some details may vary from narrator to narrator, from time period to time period. Gods will have many names, or many bynames signifying different origins or interpretations. Stories about the gods will vary depending on the author, the specific culture, time period, etc. Mythologies can evolve over time, and emphasize different core elements even transcending specific mythological or religious narratives. The myth of the “Great Goddess”, for instance, sees its main deity in different religious contexts, whether it talks about Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Demeter, or Mary, for instance. The demigod Hero who saves the world after undergoing a variety of self-sacrificing trials can be called Prometheus, Hercules, Odysseus, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But behind this variation stands a clear anthropological truth. Religion cannot be disproven because it is not about facts but about deeply held anthropological / psychological / theological / mythological meaning. What we think about reality is deeply influenced by our narratives.

Scientific thinking is different. Beginnings matter in different ways than in narratives. Science does not care about narratives. It does not care what Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Archimedes, Richard Dawkins or even Neil DeGrasse Tyson my think. While there is Norse mythology according to Icelandic or German traditions, to Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, Wagner or Tolkien, science is the same everywhere. It matters not one iota whether Einstein discovered Special and General Relativity, somebody else would have eventually – or not. Science describes reality, and reality does not care about narratives. You may need narrative power to explain science (and none do it better than the likes of Dawkins and Tyson), but again, science does not care. It is true regardless.

Whether we know how the universe truly began may or may not inform important technologies derived from our scientific knowledge about the beginning, but knowledge about its beginning is immaterial to our contemporary reality. The so-called laws of science are mere descriptions of reality. Planck did not disprove Einstein, who did not disprove Newton (as it is frequently said). Quantum physics describes a different lens on the same reality as Einsteinian relativity or Newtonian mechanics. Relativity is an important consideration when discussing very fast objects, but for our day-to-day lives, Newton does just fine. No matter how fast humans move on Earth, we will never even approach the speed of light, and time dilation does not matter to us. And unless we look at very small particles, we need not contend with quantum physics. Whether space has 3 dimensions or 4 or more does not change our day-to-day lives.

If Darwin made a mistake, that does not unravel the theory of evolution. Einstein underestimated the importance of quantum physics, but that does not take away from quantum physics. Newton did not think about objects traveling close to the speed of light affecting their passage of time, but that does not disprove his theory of gravity. Why? Because science is based on observable reality, on repeatable experiments and observations, on falsifiability, and on a community of free-thinking scholars all eager to compete with each other in the discovery of scientific principles underlying reality.

In mythological thinking, beginnings matter and individual thinkers can make a big difference. In scientific thinking, the latest and newest findings matter, and individual scientists – as accomplished and justifiably famous as they may be – do not matter with respect to their discoveries.

We see this difference being played out right now in the times of Coronavirus. Those believing that it is all a big conspiracy will point out that early in 2020, some scientists said masks do not make a difference, and the conspiracists will assume that this was somehow an original truth and what scientists say now (that masks matter) is a lie. But science only analyzes the data. We learned that the virus spreads in ways that indeed make mask wearing necessary to protect yourself and others. (We also were able to make more masks in the meantime and do not have to ration them for hospital workers as we had to in early 2020).

In science, the majority opinion matters because it is based on the competitive attempts of all scientists to discover reality. In science, of a specific hypothesis or even theory is disproven, science benefits even more – and scientists will applaud this, bruised egos aside. There cannot be “renegade scientists” – because all scientists are, in a sense, renegades already. “Scientific consensus” means that the burden of evidence supporting a hypothesis or theory is so great that the likelihood of it being wrong is low; but should there be evidence overturning a specific way of thinking, it will be welcome, and will be invited with great interest as it serves the larger interest, the search for truth.

In the end, the great seeker of compromise, Stephen J. Gould, spoke of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Science and religion (or mythology) seek different answers, both, ideally, speaking to our human quest for meaning. But when it comes to confronting a real-world problem, whether it is a pandemic or climate change, I prefer to listen to the majority of scientists over singular renegade voices focusing on narratives and conspiracy mythologies.

Mythos may be good for the soul, but logos ensures our survival.