#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.

#77: Animal Personalities

Maybe it’s because of Covid and working from home, but I am spending more time thinking about animals than I used to. When I moved to the US from Germany, I felt like I entered an alien planet. Almost everything was different, down to fauna and flora. Sure, Germany has oak trees too, but Oregon White Oaks (Quercus garryana) is not the same as the German Oak (Quercus robur), and Douglas Firs and Sequoias are simply in a class of their own compared to the little stick-size fir trees in Europe are allowed to grow into.

The birds struck me as most different, even though I was able to recognize some similarities. American Robins are clearly related to European Blackbirds, maniacally rummaging around in the leaves but rewarding the evening listener in spring with fantastic melodic cadenzas. Chickadees (black-capped and chestnut-backed) can compete with Great and Blue Tits, but sound different. Two species of Nuthatches (red- and white-breasted), of which the smaller red-breasted is fearless. Jays are loud always, and it seems the Steller’s Jays know they are prettier than the Scrub Jays. There seems to be a hierarchy.

The real character actors though are the grey squirrels, deer and raccoons. I think I am able to communicate with the deer very well, and they are smart. Much smarter than I (stupid human) would ever have thought. They seem to understand hand gestures, and can read my intentions. When I accidentally walk where they are headed too, I retreat and signal clearly that I am making way – and I see them respond by waiting rather than jumping away. I see different personalities, and if I occasionally throw an apple to them in the heat of summer (as thirst quenchers), they thank me, clearly.

Grey Squirrels are always a hoot, and I am trying to understand their nervous ticks, hand tremors, tail twitches, and sounds of annoyance. I have learned to mimic their sounds, and am able to get their attention – but I am clearly saying things wrongly, for I am getting looks of disapproval. The occasional raccoon will be happy if there is cat food left outdoors, and will make eye contact with me to make sure I will let them eat.

I have started to rethink matters a bit. These are people, but in different bodies. Am I anthropomorphizing animals? Well, I think most of the time, we are anthropomorphizing humans far too much. Instead, it would help to remind ourselves that everything around us is just as modern, just as advanced from their own genetic perspective as us lowly humans. Sure, a squirrel’s body can look funny, but I am not that sure my own is such a prize either. The squirrel is surely more athletic. And as to cats – I have yet been able to communicate with every cat. They know who they can talk to or not. We have an understanding.

This is not about politics, vegetarianism, or anything like that (I am currently not a vegetarian – I tried it, but it did not work out for me, and I would consider myself more of a flexitarian). This is just about our human tendency to diminish life other than our own, and the prevalent arrogant assumption that we are not like animals, and they are not like us.

When I can look into the eyes of one of those animal people around the house, I see eyes looking at me with an intelligence and with feelings that are very much relatable, as soon as you allow for the possibility. This is not my yard. I am sharing it with others, and have to make sure they are doing well. I cannot save the world, but I can make sure, as much as I can. to at least approach my fellow beings with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Surely, such a perspective is made much easier by a welcome under-abundance of mosquitos and ticks around this area here. And as to voles and the occasional rat, I am counting on the neighborhood cats and raccoons to develop strategies to help me out with the problems caused by those.

Nothing really can be helped by seeing us outside of nature – maybe that can be a learning lesson here for all of us in the pandemic. We need nature around us, and we need to develop community with it and its non-human peoples.

#73: The Destruction of Creativity through “Social” Media

There used to be a magical time. You will remember it if you remember using MS Internet Explorer version 2 and above, Netscape Navigator 3 and the mighty Netscape 4 (Communicator). Search Engines (AltaVista, Lycos, Metacrawler, etc.) and Catalogues (Yahoo!) were two different things. Inktomi was not just an allusion to the Lakota spider-trickster (the original spiderman?) but the gold standard in search technology. Google was a nerdy new thing whispered about by tech-mages to their students (and still believed “don’t be evil”). Modems limited your internet speed, and if you had a chance to sit at a university computer, you hit the mother lode with terms of connection speed, and even a Windows NT machine!

I have a “bio-birthday” and a “web” birthday: on January 8, 1998, I built myself an awkward looking home at GeoCities’. This was the place to be, when GeoCities was not yet destroyed by yahoos who did not understand it. There were “neighborhoods”, I chose the sci-fi neighborhood (“Area 51”), and “Station”. Back then, it was clear that the internet was built for two things: Star Trek and pornography. I was definitely not doing the latter, thus Star Trek it would be. You can see early design versions of my site at my Layout History pages.

You had to learn how to do HTML, CSS, make graphics, logos, etc. You had to create your own content, thus you had to write, take pictures (analog!), scan them, reduce their filesize, create thumbnails, etc. Then, in a mad dash, a noisy modem session would be needed to upload the whole shebang to the respective FTP server. To find likeminded people, you joined a webring.

Web sites were wild areas for experimentation, and everyone who made one had to learn autodidactically, and had fun doing it. This was your own space, and it would be as good as your skills (and sense for layout and content) would be. You built your own identity. Your web site was an achievement, and once you felt it was good enough to accompany for longer, and once you found money to pay for it, it was time to get real. You dealt with InterNIC directly for your domain name, and would eventually get real server space.

The point is, you needed to learn, you developed skills, you learned about the nitty-gritty of the web. These were transferrable skills. You got to play, create something for yourself, and interact with like-minded people – who would actually get to e-mail you.

You still can do all these things, and some of them work better now. But there are monsters out there sucking all the creative energy out of the room in order to display shadows of it in their own space. MySpace provided a portal that still allowed for some wackiness to survive let people personalize the interface a bit more, but it was also the first step into a corporate world. Eventually, Facebook and all the rest have created a world where their own portal basically was supposed to encompass the internet. Now we also have apps that are graveyards for photos, short videos, shameless self-promotion, all to create ad revenue.

Your own web site works for you; but to Facebook (and services like it, wrongly called “social” media), you are the drone stuck in the matrix giving it life. You are completely dependent on social media platforms and their designs, their rules, their monetization. No skills need to be required, nothing needs to be learned that’s transferrable, other than how to use a stupid (in the sense of limited purpose) app on a phone. You cannot easily control your content, how it displays, how it will be read, and you engage with others in a monetizable manner where each of our “likes” feeds an algorithm to give you more of the same.

This is the end of creativity, or rather, it is the seduction of easiness that allows for the end of creativity. You can still get your own web site. Or even a blog (not the same, but better than social media). But most won’t, because we humans are all creatures of convenience nowadays, and why make the effort when minimal mock-effort is enough?

Why give up a personal space on the web that is really yours to shape for the simulacrum or rather poor parody of such a possibility on so-called social media?

#68: We Do Not Need Enemies

We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).

While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.

I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.

I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.

We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.

Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.

I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.

These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.

Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.

Happy New Year!