#35: What Is Social Constructivism?

The key to understanding the idea that there may be no such thing as human “races,” but that there is racism, is the concept of social constructivism.

Human beings do not access reality directly, but through mental concepts about what we perceive. These concepts are usually transmitted through various means of communication. There is a difference between what is out there (objective reality), what we perceive about it (phenomenology, from the Greek word for appearance), how we sort out this kind of knowledge (epistemology, from the Greek word for knowledge), how we contextualize it into a domain of knowledge (theology, from the Greek word for gods; or philosophy, from the Greek word for the love of wisdom; or science, from the Latin word for knowledge). These knowledge domains sometimes compete with each other, but more often than not, they can cooperate.

Science, humanities and religion have worked together more frequently than we would assume. All have one approach in common: In order to deal with the difficulty that we cannot access reality directly but only through mediation via our senses or our instruments, we create a model of reality in our minds. These models may or may not directly map onto reality directly, but they can be helpful in certain situations. One of these approaches to model reality is the creation of mental constructs, which may be shared throughout a specific culture or society. These concepts are artificial, but ideally not arbitrary. Language is such a model. Linguistics tells us that there is a relation between an object and the descriptor, but that this relation is entirely arbitrary. Some words (like “bump”) may mimic a phenomenon, but not all do, and how a specific language chooses to represent a specific phenomenon varies from language to language.

Whether language is the key to human thinking can be debated. One school of thought certainly believes that, and sees in the way we use language a key to what we are thinking; and sees our thinking eventually tied to our doing. That may sound plausible, but skepticism is also possible, especially when similar actions can occur across cultures despite the use of completely different languages. Furthermore, there is a hot debate over how much our actions are influenced by our thinking, or in how far our thinking just serves a justification of our actions. (Personally, I tend to be skeptical with regards to how language influences thinking, and how thinking actually influences action. Human beings may be much more instinctual and unreflective about their actions than we would care to admit. But my feelings here are beside the point.)

How we utilize language is not the problem, but that our mental assumptions about and models and constructions of the world around us – constructed culturally and socially – can indeed exist quite independently from objective reality. Human beings, like probably most living things, are pattern-seeking creatures, so that we overcorrect for danger (mistaking a bush for a tiger saves a life) rather than to underestimate it to our detriment (mistaking a tiger for a bush may kill you).

We see faces and shapes in the clouds, in rocks, in the sea, in the stars. There is no science to Zodiac signs, and still many otherwise intelligent people claim to believe in them as the basis for astrology. The typical “white” person has a skin color ranging from extreme pale to rosy to red to brown, and still we use the term “white.” Hardly any black person is literally black, and we still use that term. Biology says that “race” does not exist in humans, and yet we think it to be meaningful enough to discriminate against people. This is all about ideology, about constructions of power.

Biological men and biological women are rather similar in most aspects, especially very early and very late in life (when hormonal differences are less important), and yet we proclaim to see essential differences. Boys used to wear pink, and still we think of pink now as a feminine color. Whether you get sick or not may not be up to you, and we still judge people for it. Unless you die young, we all age, and yet discriminate against the old as somehow different people.

We differentiate between people and think in differences because that may well somehow be how we function as humans; but what kind of categories are important may well be arbitrary. Mountains exist, but whether they are considered holy or should be hollowed out for mining depends on what value we attribute to them. What makes big islands like New Zealand and Greenland an island but Australia and Antarctica a continent, and what makes Europe-Asia-Africa three, and America sometimes one, two or three continents, is anyone’s guess. We know that no serious scientist or educated person after the 5th Century BC believed that the Earth was flat, but the lie that people before the 19th century believed the Earth was flat perpetuates our imaginations still because it makes us feel good as somehow advanced, and that’s why Washington Irving invented it.

All of this shows that there are some mental models, or constructions, that we believe in as real, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. If they guide society, they can be called social constructions. The reality and the phenomena behind them may well be real, but we over-exaggerate their meaning and, in effect, create a difference that holds a meaning to us that – in reality – it should not.

#34: What is White Privilege?

Racism is the belief in essential differences between human beings based on a set of superficial characteristics. While race is not real, racism is, and it centers on the idea of who has relative privilege in specific contexts. “Whiteness” is a category of assumed neutrality, which brings with it the unearned advantage of less discrimination. This is what “white privilege” means, nothing else.

“White privilege” does not mean that a person seen as “white” is overall privileged in life. It only means that in relation to those seen as non-white, they do not have to worry about a set of things that they would have to worry about if they were not white. I find Peggy Mackintosh’s list helpful, because it is not overstuffing the concept with ideology and shows that this is not an abstract concept but a very concrete one.

Do you stand out frequently, and not in a positive way? Are you frequently seen as the representative of a group rather than an individual? Is your ascribed group identity defining you more than it should? Fanon calls this being “overdetermined from without” – you, as an individual, have white privilege if you can most if not all the time successfully insist on seeing yourself, and being seen by others, as an individual.

A better and more generalizable term could be “normalcy privilege” or something of the sort. Do you have a reasonable assumption in life that in spite of how you look, in spite of your biology, in spite of who you love and how much money you have, how much wealth your family has, how old you are, how physically able you are, in spite of all of it, if you try hard, work hard, and do the very best you can, that you can succeed? Or are there unnecessary roadblocks in life that stand in the way of this basic promise of meritocracy? Of course we are all different; but should some differences really matter in the way they do?

The point of the discussion about white privilege is thus not “white shaming” or guilt-tripping; it is to lay the path for a more equitable society in which the basic principle of individual freedom is supported throughout all walks of life. Recognizing who has relative privilege and who has not is the first step to making sure that we can, indeed, make sure that those who apply themselves will be rewarded for their efforts.

#33: Race Does Not Exist. But Racism Does

A dangerous side effect of the discussion of racism is that such discussion can keep the idea of thinking in different human “races” alive as something that is real. But it is not. Dividing people up into different races is deeply unscientific, deeply unhistorical, and deeply inhumane. We are all one. We are all part of a great human family that may here or there differ superficially in shape or appearance, but these differences are just skin-deep. History shows that human populations have been mixing with each other forever. We are all creoles. We are all mixed. None of us is pure x or y or z. “Race” as a category was invented to justify the exploitation of those who were considered exploitable, and to make that palatable to otherwise educated people, they were socially constructed as being of lesser worth, even though that was scientifically and factually wrong, always.

But even though “race” does not exist, racism does. The way we think about each other, whether factually or not, can poison us against each other, can create groups where none exist, create assumptions that are not justified, and can create living conditions that then create the phenomenon as an effect of discrimination. We imagine that the characteristics allegedly defining “racial” difference are real and meaningful, and then discriminate against people with these characteristics.

The challenge now is that while fighting against racism, or against any discrimination of a group that was socially constructed as different, that we must not give credence to that difference by essentializing it, making it something that it is not. Discrimination is real. Experiences of discrimination are real.

Nevertheless, the category of difference that discrimination is based on may just as well only exist in our heads. We should not continue to give it more credence. This is not easy, but necessary. In the fight against racism, we must not perpetuate the lie that humans would be dividable into different races. We are all one; but some of us have been mistreated more than others just because they have been said to belong to a different group than whoever has been seen as neutral.

#32: Guilt vs. (Historical) Responsibility

Every country on the planet has probably had at least one moment in their history that does not quite inspire pride. This is what humans do: while aspiring for the best, we frequently succumb to our worst instincts. We do this on an individual and on a group level. We are fallible. We are not perfect. We can hope to be angels, but can be devils as well.

When we do horrible things as individuals, it is clear that we need to own up to them also as individuals. If we do horrible things as a group, and we individually are implicated, we will also need to own up to being part of the group that did something horrible. But what if the horrible things that happened are historical, and we have no other connection to them than to be born into this country, or into a group within the country, which committed the crime?

Guilt can only be individual. The notion that there is something like “group guilt” can only be maintained if you believe that you, as an individual, have no way of resisting against group pressure, and that your identity is only determined by the group. This kind of philosophy is preferred by criminal gangs, totalitarian regimes, and by those who want to promote a view of humanity that sees people as unemancipated cogs in the machine. Unless you want to deny the dignity of the individual, you need to accept that individual actions and individual motivations do matter. Guilt is personal, it cannot be inherited. Nobody is to blame for the sins of their predecessors, or for those of other people allegedly like them.

But there is such a thing as historical responsibility. You may not be guilty in the sense of having committed a horrible act, but if your country and your way of life is built on this crime, then – whether you like it or not – you are living in the shadow of whatever people in the past did, sadly, also in your name when soiling the future. Just as any parent will have to ask “will I make my children proud?” so will every political leader need to ask “will generations after me be cursed for what I made my country do?” Sadly, some leaders have not asked this question, or found ways to justify their actions which were committed also in the name of future human beings not yet born. Nobody is born an empty slate, we all have historical baggage, and our lives are built on it, for better or worse.

Historical responsibility is put upon generations after the fact. This is deeply unfair, but we cannot change the past, we can only change the present to make the future better. Our historical duty is to act responsibly by making sure the memory of the crimes and their victims is honored by building a better society. We are not guilty, but ours is the responsibility to learn the lessons our predecessors had not learnt.

You might say that morality changes over time, and that you cannot judge over historical events. Maybe something we find horrible now was perfectly acceptable then. That might very well be so, in some cases. But in the most egregious cases, there were always individuals who stood up against injustice, who recognized that what was happening then was not right, and who were attempting to correct the course of their country. They did not always succeed. But we need to honor their memory as well by recognizing that typically, horrible crimes in history were crimes already then. Genocide, chattel slavery, and the severe mistreatment of human beings were always wrong. Some societies were just better at deluding themselves into tolerating the abuse.

Our responsibility is not to feel personally guilty. That would defeat the purpose. We did not do it unless we were alive back then; and making people feel that they did will only create resentment. History simply has homework for us. Our task is to build a better future, that’s all there is to it. We cannot undo history. But we can shape the future, and we have the responsibility to make it better.

Every country on the planet has probably had at least one moment in their history that does not quite inspire pride. This is what humans do: while aspiring for the best, we frequently succumb to our worst instincts. We do this on an individual and on a group level. We are fallible. We are not perfect. We can hope to be angels, but can be devils as well.

When we do horrible things as individuals, it is clear that we need to own up to them also as individuals. If we do horrible things as a group, and we individually are implicated, we will also need to own up to being part of the group that did something horrible. But what if the horrible things that happened are historical, and we have no other connection to them than to be born into this country, or into a group within the country, which committed the crime?

Guilt can only be individual. The notion that there is something like “group guilt” can only be maintained if you believe that you, as an individual, have no way of resisting against group pressure, and that your identity is only determined by the group. This kind of philosophy is preferred by criminal gangs, totalitarian regimes, and by those who want to promote a view of humanity that sees people as unemancipated cogs in the machine. Unless you want to deny the dignity of the individual, you need to accept that individual actions and individual motivations do matter. Guilt is personal, it cannot be inherited. Nobody is to blame for the sins of their predecessors, or for those of other people allegedly like them.

But there is such a thing as historical responsibility. You may not be guilty in the sense of having committed a horrible act, but if your country and your way of life is built on this crime, then – whether you like it or not – you are living in the shadow of whatever people in the past did, sadly, also in your name when soiling the future. Just as any parent will have to ask “will I make my children proud?” so will every political leader need to ask “will generations after me be cursed for what I made my country do?” Sadly, some leaders have not asked this question, or found ways to justify their actions which were committed also in the name of future human beings not yet born. Nobody is born an empty slate, we all have historical baggage, and our lives are built on it, for better or worse.

Historical responsibility is put upon generations after the fact. This is deeply unfair, but we cannot change the past, we can only change the present to make the future better. Our historical duty is to act responsibly by making sure the memory of the crimes and their victims is honored by building a better society. We are not guilty, but ours is the responsibility to learn the lessons our predecessors had not learnt.

You might say that morality changes over time, and that you cannot judge over historical events. Maybe something we find horrible now was perfectly acceptable then. That might very well be so, in some cases. But in the most egregious cases, there were always individuals who stood up against injustice, who recognized that what was happening then was not right, and who were attempting to correct the course of their country. They did not always succeed. But we need to honor their memory as well by recognizing that typically, horrible crimes in history were crimes already then. Genocide, chattel slavery, and the severe mistreatment of human beings were always wrong. Some societies were just better at deluding themselves into tolerating the abuse.

Our responsibility is not to feel personally guilty. That would defeat the purpose. We did not do it unless we were alive back then; and making people feel that they did will only create resentment. History simply has homework for us. Our task is to build a better future, that’s all there is to it. We cannot undo history. But we can shape the future, and we have the responsibility to make it better.

#31: What Is Systemic Racism?

In the last post, which attempted a definition of racism, I addressed the origin and ideology of racism. But there is a difference between thinking and doing, between ideology and practice. The accumulated history of thinking in difference – whether it is on categories of ethnicity, skin color (“race”), class, sex, gender, age, or any other divider that has been utilized to differentiate between people – has affected structures in society, government and culture.

The reason these structures exist is that they either were or continue to be seen as useful to structure society in a specific way. Human beings do think in differences and stereotypes, for various evolutionary reasons. We perceive all kinds of differences, but not all of them have historically been relevant. Contemporary racism exists because discriminating according to “race” was considered useful for the slave trade by Arab and European slave traders.

Slavery typically exists as the result of war, in which captives are made that are then sold as labor. This has not always happened according to skin color, but typically according to ethnicity – because that’s how war has typically worked. Rome used Germans, Slavs, Thracians, Africans, and many others as slaves. Slavery in antiquity, however, also permitted for manumission, and some slaves ended up becoming citizens. Serfdom, a version of slavery that means you do not belong to a master directly but to the land, which then belonged to the landlord, was a development that began in the late Roman Empire and lasted till the early 19th century in most of Europe. One of the few achievements of Napoleon that actually did answer some demands of the French Revolution was the ending of serfdom. Universal freedom for all people is the absolute exception in human history, and even in Europe it was only achieved starting in the 19th century.

The reason for the victory of freedom was the realization that utilizing all of a nation’s workforce, and giving them the freedom to maximize their potential, was one of the demands of increased capitalist production. Ideally, capitalism means freedom. Well-paid free workers are best motivated, best customers, best citizens. But at any point when the economic system can be cheated by introducing even cheaper labor, this will be done. Globalization after the end of the Cold War unleashed a new availability of cheap labor; and slavery – while it may not exist directly in the West anymore – continues to exist in practice when societies rely on the availability of cheap, expendable, desperate workers that have no choice but to work under otherwise unacceptable conditions. This may or may not be tied to “racial” or ethnic considerations, but it can be.

While “race” as a category may not be real, racism and the experience thereof very much is a reality. It is most visible not by examining people’s attitudes but by looking at structural effects of racism. Specifically, this means that there exist a major gap for most “racial” or ethnic minorities with regards to pay, inter-generational wealth, individual and inter-generational education, global perspectives and outlook, the assumption of innocence when confronted by police and the justice system, likelihood of incarceration, availability of a healthy diet, prevalence of drugs in communities, availability of good housing in safe neighborhoods, etc. It is a long list that we all have known about for quite a while, and have been slow if not reluctant to act upon.

In the United States, racism has of course been worse in the past. But it is still an issue that is a very real experience for non-white people. This should not be surprising. The Civil War, which ended slavery by 1865, was followed by another 100 years of sabotaging reconstruction efforts. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s started a process of improvement of race relations. Native Americans gained citizenship in 1924, but the status of reservations is still continually under threat, and full religious freedom for indigenous peoples was only granted in 1978. Migrant workers, whether from Mexico, South and Central America, China, India, Pakistan and other countries, have experienced discrimination at several times in history, just as even European immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany have experienced in the past to some degree; none, however, as bad as slavery or genocide. All these historical events have had lasting efforts, which continued for generations. While for some groups (mostly Europeans), such structural discrimination has ended, it continues for many if not most non-white groups.

Just imagine, if you wanted to be born in the United States today, and had a Rawlsian choice of which group and which location to be born into, which group would you choose to belong to, and which would you hesitate about? Which skin color would you want your child to have? I think you know. As long as we have to think about these matters, the structures we have been trying to overcome for a long time still have too much power on all of us.

#30: What Is Racism?

Racism is not just a mild disliking or misunderstanding of someone else because of some superficial difference. Someone may dislike people from group x, but still not wish the worst to them. Racism should be understood in a more substantial way.

First, racism believes in the idea of race holding a significant enough meaning to divide people against one another. Biologically, this is nonsense, and has been accepted as nonsense for more than a century. There is no science of “race”, only pseudoscience. Every human being on the planet has virtually the same DNA, and difference between members of so-called “races” are typically greater than those between different “races.” Among all human populations, skills and abilities are distributed similarly.

Furthermore, the pseudo-scientific interpretation of biology – or rather pseudo-genetics, namely eugenics – which abhors mixing between races, is built on the fallacy that purity is better than mixing (wrong: intermixing creates stronger and more resilient populations, while incestuous patterns with a focus on purity only lead to well-told jokes about the declining state of nobility…). Just as pure one-species forests are more prone to serious damage when disease hits, while mixed forests are much more resilient, so do human societies and countries do best when infusions of genes, ideas and experiences from other cultures can enrich one’s own.

Racism is firstly the belief that “race” is real in a (pseudo-)biological sense, and that its (pseudo-)biological sense automatically leads to a hierarchy between those who are seen as more and others who are seen as less advanced than others. Now we have arrived at the incorrect understanding of evolution. No race is more (or less) evolved than the other.

But if there was the belief in a critical difference between “race” A and “race” B, there was automatically the belief that one race was inferior to the other, which was then used up in unspeakable ways.

Racism is a strategy of domination, subjugation, and the denial of humanity of the victims. The assumed gain is the so-called “eugenic” purification of the main society, which would then remain allegedly unimpeded by so-called “lesser peoples”.

This racism, which is foundational to most societies, is foundational for America as well. It believes in putting people in their place. This was the system America followed for several years till the Civil War in 1861, then it created a revised version of the system by which slavery is illegal, but racism still structured society. Only after World War II, after Black soldiers worked with White soldiers as brothers, the newly found brothers in arms would find a place to return to a home which made them drink from separate water fountains. The outrage over this praxis led to the Civil Rights Movement, and onward to today.

One of the ways to see how racism is not natural is the monikers used to describe people. No so-called “white” person has a literally white skin – it’s piglet pink. The only way to get a light-skinned person look white is white powder and white wigs – which was indeed done in Early Modernity when modern slavery was created, but it was a marker mainly of upper class and function in European societies. From the beginning, “race” and class need to be seen as intertwined. Maybe caste would be a better term.

No person is black either. The black-white dichotomy is purely ideological, following a Manichean pattern of opposing sides, the dark and the light; white being a sign of purity, of beauty, black being a sign of the opposite (Ironically, in antiquity, white was the color of sadness and death). Native Americans were described as red probably because of face paint, Asians are yellow probably because of the colors of Buddhist robes, curry, etc. None of this makes sense biologically, only culturally, ideologically.

We need to overcome this way of thinking. And yet, such a notion is probably too utopian. Human beings seem to be very much needing to distinguish between peoples and put them into different categories. If it’s not skin color, it will be something else. Skin color was just a facile way during the colonial period of distinguishing between Europeans on the one side, and indigenous peoples and imported slaves from Africa on the other. We are still with the effects of that; it’s a complex history, based on a simple unethical decision to decide whose lives matter more than others.

#29: Black Lives Do Matter

“Black Lives Matter” does not mean “Only Black Lives Matter.” Nobody is saying or implying this.

Of course, all lives matter indeed. Who would disagree with that! Nobody calling for Black lives to matter (or, with regards to other movements, Native lives, or Latinx lives, Asian lives, LGBTQ lives, even Blue lives) excludes the call to respect and protect the lives of every single human being. But we need to focus on Black lives for a good reason.

“Black Lives Matter” means that there has been insufficient attention and care paid to the Black community. Black people – for various reasons – have historically and presently been treated as expendable, as “less than” other people. Everybody probably knows this. If you seriously claim not to know, it should not take much to read up on history.

Denial of history (such as Holocaust Denial, or the denial of racism) is not acceptable. We do need to educate ourselves about historical and present injustice always. We need to stop the pretense that we can afford not to acknowledge historical responsibility in order to make the future better. It is part of the social contract of every country to know about its darkness and pursue the light. America may well have done better than most countries in that respect, even though it is not yet perfect. At least we have been talking about it for quite a while. Racism is not an American domain either and can be found in every single country on the planet, sadly.

Simply calling out that “Black Lives Matter” means to call out to stop the outrageous and racist treatment of Black people. Nothing else. Nothing sinister. Nothing objectionable.

We are all human, we all matter, but when it comes to minorities such as – in this case – Black people, that realization has not set in universally. That’s why we need to pay special attention now and remind everyone – globally – that Black lives matter just as much as those of everyone else. Nothing else. Is that too much to ask?

Notwithstanding that, we can of course disagree about the steps that need to be taken about this matter. Violence, of course, is not a solution, neither is weakening the legal protections for every single person in the country against free speech, against crime and suffering, neither is discrediting the need for vigorous and civil debate, neither is disregarding Public Health measures in times of a global pandemic.

There are no easy fixes for the problem, otherwise it would have been fixed already. Let a national debate happen about the best solutions, but do not let any agitators – well-intentioned or not – dominate the discourse and mandate pretend fixes which will do nothing to solve the actual problem, namely the presence of racism and thinking in racial terms. We need to be united in this.

But the first step to solving the problem addressed by the legitimate (i.e. truly peaceful) protestors is to recognize that indeed, Black lives do matter.

#27: What is Peace?

Peace is not just the absence of war, it is not just the absence of violence, it is not just the absence of strife, it is not passivity.

Peace is the active practice of a state of mind that is at peace, that seeks peace, that acts in peace. That excludes violence both in action as in words. For that to happen, it needs peace at heart, it needs compassion, it needs humility, it needs grace.

Peace is not easy; it is the hardest thing to ever achieve and maintain. It requires strength, perseverance, and constancy. A peaceful person does not give in to negativity, does not yield to temptations of aggression, does not diminish others, even if they are wrong.

Peace can only be the goal if it is the path. That does not imply pacifism, but it means that even if you have to fight an enemy, you should do it with the goal of peace in mind. Any enemy of today will have to become a friend as soon as possible. We should never make reconciliation nor forgiveness impossible, but see them as the path out of the conflict. Every war is a war with ourselves, as we are all one. If we reject that unity, we have already lost; and once inner peace is lost, outer peace cannot be gained.

Gandhi knew that, King knew that, Thoreau knew that. Black Elk knew it, according to John Neihardt: “know the power that is peace”1.

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1 Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, the Premier Edition. SUNY Press, Oct 16, 2008. 27.

#24: Conspiracy Thinking is Not Critical Thinking

This seems to be the age of conspiracy theories. What is a conspiracy theory? It is the belief that specific, if not all, major problems in the world are caused by a conspiracy of powerful people that secretly pull the strings behind your back. A select few have allegedly seen through this scheme, and are now desperately trying to enlighten the world about the truth they have just uncovered. It is, if you want to say it in post-modern terms, the grand narrative of all grand narratives. The one tale to explain it all.

If you listen to people believing such theories, they will all tell you that they are critical thinkers, thinking for themselves, researching the truth, for themselves, coming to uncomfortable conclusions that set them up against the rest of the world that is still falling prey to the conspirators.

On a certain level, this does seem like a familiar description of critical thinking. Has not every revolutionary been someone who has stood up against the world, against established opinion? Is not the basis of all social criticism the assumption that, to quote Marx in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, while philosophers have explained the world, the point is to change it? Does he not call for a ruthless criticism of everything existing, as in his letter to Ruge? Does not Kant call to dare to think on your own – Sapere aude? Are there not enough calls in philosophy, media criticism, and activism to question the order of things?

The key aspect of criticism here, though, is that criticism never ends, it never stands still, it never stops. It is not a tool to unveil some big conspiracy, to find the big answers for all or at least for major problems – it is an ongoing practice, a state of mind, something that should be immanent, meaning embedded into our ways of thinking, and into our structures. This is the definition of science, where every step may lead somewhere new, but never somewhere finite. There is always something new around the corner if you keep looking.

This is what makes true criticism, true science, so frustrating for many if not most people, apparently. In order to live, we seek stability, but in order to advance, we need change. If scientific answers keep changing depending on new data and new theoretic insights, that leaves many people displeased, especially if the expectation towards science is that it provides answers, that it provides closure. A scientific answer is always temporary.

What is even more frustrating, even religion does not provide closure here. That may seem to be a perplexing statement. Is not religion about finite answers, about eternal truths, about stability in your life? Not quite. Yes, religion talks about eternal truths – but they are only available for eternals themselves. The key definition of the divine is that it is not accessible to us mortals. God (or divinity) is that which is always greater than our understanding; greater even than our possible understanding. This is not an “god of the gaps” argument, it is the one consistent definition of the divine throughout all religious schools of thought. God is the sublime which dwarves us, which overshadows us, which we can never reach, but should always strive towards; it is the eternal truth, and the purpose of religion – quite like science – is to reach that truth while expecting human fallibility and imperfection. Every religion contains the tension between the struggle for meaning in life, the promise that meaning is out there, and the strongest of all caveats that we will never understand it in our physical lifetime, but that we need to keep trying, and we need to keep failing, and that this is ok – for if we were to understand this, we would be like God. Our religious knowledge is only temporary.

The belief in having gained some grand, even final insight is the core of conspiracy thinking, of misunderstood science, and misunderstood religion. A true scientist, just as a true religious believer, knows that doubt (in your own ability to finally understand everything) and faith (in the need for the search for truth, and the belief in the existence of truth) belong together. The true attitude characteristic of both science and religion is humility. Everything else is pretension.

Conspiracy theories do not function like this. They misapply critical thought and apply magical thinking. They see truth in patterns that they create themselves, they see devils at work, and their guiding question is always “cui bono” – who benefits, which leads to witch hunts, scapegoating, and a magical belief in potions, false prophets, and false promises to let the initiates see the truth, finally.

This is not critical thinking, but the opposite: the uncritical acceptance of a final truth. Science and religion believe that “the truth is out there,” but they know that we will never know the complete picture and will have to have faith in the procedures that lead us on the right path (which is why, on The X-Files, Mulder is lost without Scully, and vice versa). Conspiracists believe they know the final truth, stop criticizing it once they believe they have gained it, and need everybody to believe the same. This is not criticism, it is humbug.

#14: The European Project Needs Both Unity and Disunity

Now in a major crisis, the European Union has a chance to lead. But how should such leadership look like, and how strong should such a union be?

It may well be understandable that currently, during the Coronavirus crisis of 2020, its individual member states are concerned about their own safety, and that they have seemingly fallen back on national thinking. But this would be a misleading conclusion that would fall in line more with those suspicious of the EU as an overreaching enemy of national identities.

But the European Union is not such a super-state, and it should never become one. The history of Europe teaches us two major lessons: First, without some form of unity, European states will defeat each other in their selfish quests for dominance. Many a war has been fought in pursuit of this, and it took several wars of global scope to demonstrate that point eventually. The Seven Years War, the Crimean War, World Wars I+II, and the Cold War have revealed Europe to be a danger to itself and the entire world that needs to be contained by some form of structure stressing cooperative and mutual success over selfishness and deadly competition. Yet second, history has also shown that national, regional, even tribal identities in Europe need to be respected as well, and that they need to also be recognized administratively.

Accordingly, the answer to European Integration can only be a form of supranational, very weak federalism. But this is not a weakness, it is a strength, and it is recognized already in the EU’s motto “united in diversity.”

Throughout history, many a charismatic leader has tried to unite the area that could be called Europe under a single ruler. The only stable approach to this has been the Roman Empire, but this was at a different time, under completely different historical circumstances that cannot quite be compared to our times.

Reasons for the failure of Rome are manifold, and always fun to discuss. There is no one factor to pinpoint. But maybe it helps to see that the great empires of antiquity – which would include Egypt, Persia, Seleucia, and Rome, acted as developmental drivers for the entire Mediterranean region. All these multicultural empires were enabling infrastructure, local development, science, and culture; but they eventually also enabled different regions to develop their own identity. While everybody focuses on the Germanic invasions later on as a cause for the breakup of Western Rome, it is more instructive to look at local independence movements in Gaul, Britain, Palmyra, and other areas. In the end, all subsequent attempts at unifying the entire realm by force would fail, thankfully.

The lesson here may be that large empires can be established when the provinces and regions are weak, but this is, of course, no sustainable economic model. Once provinces and regions grow stronger, centrifugal forces will keep creating division if the central authority is perceived as too strong. If there is any lesson history can provide us, it is probably that.

If we apply this to the European Union, we need to first provide the major caveat that the EU is of course not a structure created by force but voluntarily so. Its creation, however, was hastened by several factors, namely the legacy of World War II, the dangers of the Cold War, the external help from the United States, and finally, the legacy of Soviet oppression. If we simplify these forces, the lesson here is that democracy and freedom are drivers of unity, while authoritarianism is a danger against which European states will eventually rise up.

This reveals the following: Any attempt at European integration that aims for a unified super-state with state-like powers will fail. An all-powerful and intransparent central bureaucracy will kill the European project just as much as any authoritarian dictator will. Brexit surely was idiotic, but predictably so. In order to retain some form of European unity, some form of disunity will need to be tolerated.