#80: There is No Alternative to Dialog and Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#76: We Need No Saviors

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

Or so it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#75: There are no “Internal Matters”

When criticized by others, some governments frequently claim that any disapproval from the outside world would be an unwelcome intrusion into “internal matters” that should be rejected out of hand. Furiously, foreign ministers, heads of state, state media and sometimes even religious leaders reject any attempt to condemn any attacks on human rights or territorial rights of others.

Such a reaction needs to be rejected out of hand. Everybody gets to criticize everybody else. Nothing and nobody should be sacrosanct. We live in a society, in community of others, whether we are in different countries or not. That is the point of human rights: they are valid everywhere, and their violation anywhere is the violation of everyone.

The excuse of “internal matters” is the childish attempt to seem unassailable and beyond criticism. It is bullying behavior that means to silence any critics. But that should not stop us. As much as we ourselves should always be open and welcoming of criticism, we should expect this of others as well. There is no bubble. You do not get to do what you want to your allegedly “own” people in your allegedly “own” country because this is one humanity, one planet, one universe (yes, let’s think that far ahead).

Borders are an artifact of history that may well be necessary for the administration of different regions. But borders should not limit the reach of human rights, and should definitely not limit the reach of criticism about their violation.

#71: The Improvement of Society Never Ends

“Aren’t we tired of change? Can’t things just stay the same? Why can’t we just fix our society once and for all and be done with it? Just do it, do it right, have the right people in charge, and we’ll all be happy and can go back to our own lives.”

This fictitious quote probably represents what a lot of people are feeling, and have been feeling, around the world, throughout all time. It’s a familiar desire, it is at the core also of any utopian promise: Create the perfect society, let us be happy, and leave us be.

Such a promise is deeply anti-political: Politics is the domain of the constant management and improvement of society. No matter which political model is followed, this will always apply. Aristotle categorized societies according to two parameters: number of rules, and good/bad implementations of such a model. He distinguishes between rule by one (Monarchy1/Tyranny2), few (Aristocracy3/Oligarchy4) or many/all (Democracy5/Ochlocracy6). Notwithstanding these distinctions, there will always be politics, but the reach of political participation will be limited.

You could argue that if you limit participation, you spare most people from having to deal with politics. They can live in peace and quiet while people who know what they’re doing are taking care of things for them. Even in democracies, many people who would have citizenship rights self-limit their engagement out of a variety of reasons.

In a utopian society – or so the fantasy goes – that should be ok. Yet we are not living in a utopia, no matter what you believe. Thus if you do not have political participation rights, or choose not to execute them, you are relying to others doing that work for you. You will be at the receiving end of decisions made by others. These others may or may not be well-meaning; but even if you grant that (you shouldn’t always, but let’s just for sake of nicety do so), they will always be human beings, or – in the case of algorithms or artificial intelligence – be programmed by human beings. They will always be imperfect, always be flawed. Monarchies may claim to draw their power from that one which is perfect (typically called God), but no monarch themselves will be God, not even Pharaohs, Emperors or God-Kings.

In addition to that, you may have created the perfect society, but challenges will continue, life goes on, history will continue. There will be external threats, technological and economic changes, environmental challenges, weather, diseases, dangers from events in space, you name it. Unless you freeze society in time, change will happen always. Time is the master of us all. The longer we live, the longer our society lives, challenges will keep coming. No single state has ever lasted for ever. Even the biggest, most powerful, most resourceful empires, and the smallest, most secluded, most protected states, have all disappeared over time. Mortality is the essence of all our being, and all our institutions, and we can fight it only for so long.

This means that change cannot ever be avoided. Now you can choose to prefer a societal and political model that limits your ability to fight those challenges yourself, and to promote positive change. Of course, this is a constant struggle, and it will be unending. Once change brings about countless others, and so on and so on. The Greek story of Sisyphus shows him continuing to push a boulder up a hill, but the bolder keeps rolling back, and his work will never be finished. This is life, this is all of us.

But maybe this is a good thing. We cannot not be political – either we are participating in society, or we will be society’s victim. Participation thus is critical, in whatever form possible, and fighting for participation is part of the human struggle forever.

Is it worth it? Maybe Albert Camus has an answer here: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


Footnotes:

1 μόνος / monos = one; archein = to rule
2 τύραννος / tyrannos = tyrant
3 ἄριστοι / aristoi = the best
4 ὀλίγοι / oligoi = the few
5 δῆμος / dêmos = the portion of the people that are allowed (and expected!) to be politically active, typically called citizens, in distinction from strangers, unfree people, and sometimes relatives of citizens without citizenship rights themselves (typically children and – historically or still in some countries – women, or others with minority status)
6 ὄχλος / ochlos = the mob. Sometimes, the distinction for rule of many/all is called Polity/Democracy, in which “polity” just means “political community”, and democracy means “mob rule”. Athens called its democracy ἰσονομία / isonomy, which means same law for all.