#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.

#28: Violent Protest Does Not Work

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

#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.

_______________

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.

#26: Coronavirus is a Thief

The Coronavirus is a thief. It is stealing our time, our lives, our present, and attaching an unnerving question mark unto our future.

Wherever you stand on the question of lockdown or not, or on how to live with the virus, we all share the same predicament, even if to different degrees.

This is what stands behind the criticism of the lockdown as well: The fear that our life, even if we save it as bare life, will lack the meaning and the promise it had before the virus arrived. Whatever time we lost, at school, at work, with friends and relatives, cannot be recovered. If you missed falling in love because you did not get to meet that special someone, that will remain missed. Precious moments have already been lost, precious opportunities disappeared, many people’s lives’ work destroyed. Most crucially, thousands of lives have been lost, and are still being lost.

We have learned to hope that life is different now in modern, even post-modern times (whatever that means). We have adjusted, at least in the more affluent countries, to a safety and predictability of life that was – and in many cases still is – the domain only of the most privileged.

Now we are learning, or rather re-learning, the old truth: That the veneer of civilization is very thin. Nature is always stronger. Life (and death) are not abstractions, but concreteness. Loss is permanent, and everywhere.

We need to re-learn to process loss. We also need to rediscover what really provides meaning in life.

#25: Legitimate and Illegitimate Arguments Regarding the Coronavirus Shutdown

1. My financial situation / my business / my employees / my family / my sanity / my health is suffering. I need and want to work.

Short Response: Legitimate.

Longer Response: We are citizens, not subjects, and our concerns are legitimate. As long as you and your workplace follow official medical guidance, this should be made possible.

2. I will still support all possible hygienic and distancing measures, as medically required to curb the infection.

Short Response: Legitimate.

Longer Response: The virus is real, the dead are real, and the better we fight it, the better we avoid more health problems and more economic damage. Public health and economy are interrelated. If we feel safe, we will agree to participate in the economy. If we feel unsafe, we will not agree to it – we may be forced to, but that undermines both public safety and trust.

3. I can work from home, and I should be able to continue to do so.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: We have a chance here to revisit outdated models of demonstrating physical presence when working. Remote work, if possible and desired by the employee, saves on commuting costs, time, and can increase safety. We should use that opportunity as it presents itself.

4. Be cautious about indoors, but let people be outside. Open the parks, and let people sit outside at restaurants.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: This agrees with the science. However, maintain distances, beware of slipstreams, and ideally, also wear a mask outdoors. Definitely wear a mask indoors. Also be careful about central air systems.

5. I am afraid. If other people want out, let them. But let me stay home.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: This is still a largely unknown virus, with no good medication to ameliorate symptoms, high contagiousness, and a possible second wave coming. Caution is legitimate, and no one can deny your feelings. But please don’t panic, we will solve this. It is serious, but it is not the Black Death.

6. Let’s all stay home.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: Unless everyone has a perfect home, all the food and supplies and energy needed, a perfect family situation, no other health issues, all the money they need, etc., someone will have to be out there. Not all jobs can’t be done remotely.

7. I have only responsibility for myself. You cannot tell me what to do.

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: The golden rule is a cornerstone to all human societies for a good reason. We cannot live in complete isolation, we always depend on others, so we need to act accordingly. Surely, hygienic measures have to be democratically legitimized, and have to make scientific sense, and you can demand that. But if they are, you should follow them.

8. I cannot spread the virus, as I do not feel sick.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: You cannot be certain of that. It has been proven that you can spread the disease while not (yet) showing symptoms.

9. I am not part of the risk group. I want to live as I used to, no matter the consequences.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: This virus has still unknown consequences even for those who survive it. Better be safe.

10. Scientists and politicians said something else before. How can we trust their judgement now?

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: When available information and available resources change, suggested solutions have to change as well. This is normal.

11. I do not like the current government, so I am against everything they do.

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: People can legitimately argue which government they like or not. But elections matter, and disagreements are normal.

12. There is a conspiracy. There is no Coronavirus / Bill Gates did it / Q knows / Reptiles / Aliens / Nazis / Communists / Foreigners / Old People / Globalists / Nationalists / Jews / Elites / Businesses / x Needs to be Blamed.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate

Longer Response: This stands so much against established opinion that the burden of proof is on you. We know the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China (which does NOT legitimate xenophobic attacks against people of Chinese origin). We can legitimately complain and blame governments and organizations that have been and continue to be complicit in misinformation about the virus, and this needs to be cleared up. There is no reason to discriminate against groups of people unconnected to these decisionmakers. Pursuing outlandish theories is not helpful, and displays of xenophobia, racism and antisemitism are intolerable.

We all realize this is an untenable situation, but if the governments in competing or even enemy countries all react similarly to this, does this not show that the virus is serious? Does not the imperfect reaction to the virus shown by EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY in the world (maybe except Taiwan) demonstrate that there cannot be a conspiracy?

Be reasonable, and we will listen to you. Pursue unreasonable theories, and we will not take you seriously. Quid pro quo.

#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.

#23: We Need to Take the Virus Seriously

Surly, by now we feel we have a handle on the Coronavirus, don’t we? Think again.

This is still a virus that is largely unknown:

  • We don’t know the full consequences of getting sick.
  • We don’t know who really is being affected (statistically, the old, but there are severe outliers).
  • We don’t quite know how it spreads. Many buildings have central air, which may spread droplets. Surfaces are still probably a source of infection, depending on viral load.
  • The reason we tell people to follow hygiene rules is that many people don’t.
  • Most death counts are low-balled in all countries.
  • We don’t know whether there will be immunity, and if so, how long it will last.
  • We don’t know when it will be back – there will likely be further waves.
  • We still have no proven treatments for ameliorating the disease – what there is, will need to be proven on a larger scale.
  • Any vaccine development will take some time, and then vaccine production will take a while also, and not everyone will want to get vaccinated immediately.
  • People are not always respecting the social distancing rules or the mask wearing guidances.

Sure, we will need to reopen the economy somehow. No serious person will deny that. But we will keep needing social distancing, probably wear masks, make sure not to be in crowded rooms, and be hygienic.

And stop with the conspiracy theories. The only conspiracy here was committed by the People’s Republic of China, and we will have to learn our lessons from that.