A Discussion of O-A (O:WIBN)

From my first non-travel log post here.

“We have been discussing in our Media, Peace and Conflict Studies class whether objectivity is possible, whether it is practical, and whether it is good.  I think it can, under the right circumstances, be all three.  In any event, this has been an imperative for me to actually formulate and write down the principles that I believe in.  This is not a prescription for anyone else, just what works for me.”

Well, this issue has come up again with salience, and I thought I’d stimulate the mind during this narguile session by elaborating on the principles I wrote down here last September.

On the Six Principles of Objective Altruism

I think that objectivity and altruism are necessarily interdependent for the following reason.  For both of these frames of being, the first step is to look, think, feel and endeavour outwardly.  The foundation of objectivity is to eliminate the subjectivity of the self.  In antithesis to the Ayn Rand conception of objectivism, anything resembling real objectivity requires that we favour ourselves no more than anyone else (and no less).  Even if the Nobel prize-winning peace maker or the Secretary General of the United Nations or the woman or man on the brink of discovering the cure for cancer perceives evidence that suggests their life has more value than that of a serial rapist or someone about to take their last breath, it’s important to remember that we have no idea of really knowing what is valuable, and therefore no one can have more objective value than anyone else.

Altruism requires the same, to endeavour toward the needs of others at least as much as one would toward their own.  However, if this is done out of desire or inclination, such as the missionary who clothes and tends to lepers in Calcutta because it satisfies religious imperatives, or the doctor in Zimbabwe treating tuberculosis because it fulfills and brings meaning to their life, then I don’t think it can be called real altruism.

I would argue then, that real objectivity absolutely requires altruism, and that real altruism absolutely requires objectivity.  Now as for the principles themselves.

1. There is no right, there is no wrong. There are no truths, only half truths.  ”True Aim” is understanding “half truths” as they are; “Untrue Aim” is believing them to be truths.  All conflict stems from Untrue Aim, all peace stems from True Aim.

(Inspired largely by Alfred North Whitehead).  This is the big one. Ideas should never be manipulated into facts, and we should never believe anything absolutely, or at all without reason and knowledge, even if and especially when we find ourselves desiring to.

There might seem to be a glaring contradiction here.  If there is no certainty, if nothing can be perceived as really true, then how can this principle itself be true or hold any weight?  This is a “caveat” called Pyrrhonism, and it was problematic in the 4th century as well.  The issue I take with this skepticism of skepticism, is what it leaves us with- specifically nothing.  If I hold a red apple in my hand and announce that the apple is red, a skeptic might say “well, how do you know that it’s red?  Does having red skin make it red?  Is that what constitutes redness?  Can the light refracting off the fruit’s surface really be said to define it?”  And I would value these questions.

The Pyrrhonist standing next to him, however, would question the skeptic further, asking “how do you know that the questions you’re asking have any value?  What do words mean?  Can you really determine what Jared really sees, thinks or believes by asking him how he knows the apple is red?”  And I would lower my head and exhale in exhaustion.  And then the Pyrrhonist standing next to the other Pyrrhonist would say, “but my fellow Pyrrhonist, how do you know that the questions you’re asking the skeptic have any meaning or value?  What does ‘red’ even mean?”  and the third Pyrrhonest would ask “how can that question have any meaning?  Even what I’m saying now is completely meaningless, because if nothing can be known with certainty, then we can’t even know that nothing can be known with certainty.”  Do you have a headache yet?  I do.

So rather than resign all thought to oblivion, I choose to accept the one truth that nothing can be completely true or right- there are always unknowable victims and unknowable perpetrators, often in the very opposite places that we might imagine them to be.  If someone breaks into your car and steals your stereo, do you indulge your emotions and blame them?  Do you consider yourself a victim deserving of sympathy, and the thief a perpetrator to be reviled?  Consider the sociological evidence that crime is overwhelmingly a result of societal mores that hold material gain to be the only real indicator of success, while at the same time denying the opportunity for material gain by legal means to significant portions of the population?  Are you not at least partly responsible for your stereo being stolen by accepting, living in and contributing to the societal structure that necessarily made it happen?  Some people relax with Zen Buddhism, but this objective realization brought me peace and tranquility the first time this situation happened to me as a teenager.

The most important application of this, I think, is to war and peace.  Is it possible to wage violent conflict against another group or nation or state, without believing the half-truths you perceive to be whole-truths?  Is it even possible to consider them an enemy?  Could Palestinians launch RPGs into Israeli civilian territory, or could Israelis deny food and water but give generously white phosphorous to Palestinian refugees, or could Al-Bashir employ the Janjiwid in Darfur, or could the Sri Lankan government put Tamils in concentration camps, or could any other atrocity in history have been endeavoured without otherwise good men and women taking the half-truths of their positions and perceptions, and transforming them into whole-truths to be rallied under and bloodthirsted for?

To hold the concerns, fears, angers and rationales of another, of one’s enemies, to equal weight, importance and value as one’s own, is to make peace.  Is to be peace.  To help conflicting parties to find the common ground to reach this point, I think, is to be a peacemaker.  And all this really requires when you get right down to the heart of it, is simply to understand half-truths as being what they are.  That’s all there is to the key component of objectivity.

I’ll be updating this one principle at a time… If you’ve any interest, check back periodically.

Published in: on 3 March 2010 at 11:59 pm  Comments (1)  

Of Race and Racism

Earlier tonight a Upeace student performed a series of monologues on campus which she has been doing for a few years, called “Mixed”.

Here is a link to a segment of it, for context.

It’s about the external ascription and self assertion of race and ethnicity from the perspective of people who blur labeling and bend stereotypical ideas.  First I want to comment that it was extremely informative, enriching and entertaining (I completely lost it at the use of the antiquated and ridiculous term “quadroon”).

My interpretation of the piece’s central theme was the irrelevance and the imaginary nature of an idea of “race”, and it’s inspired me to write down my thoughts and arguments about race as they have been for many years.

Pre Factum Qualification

Obviously ethnicity has physiological implications.  Our immediate genetic derivations of course have impacts on our physical appearances, vis-a-vis complexion, countenance, et cetera.  And of course our cultural surroundings have profound impacts on our attitudes, beliefs and understandings.  But culture and ethnicity are entirely different from “race”, which is what I want to talk about, or “racism”, the prejudicial ideas some people draw based on perceptions of ethnicity and culture.  Distinctions of ethnicity and culture are relevant  and important for diversity, but they have absolutely no bearing on conceptual divisiveness within the one human race or homo sapiens sapiens.

Ideas of “race” really don’t trace back very far.  As far as my research has yielded, these notions of biological “othering” and division within an idea of one human race do not appear in antiquity whatsoever, not in Egyptian, Greek, Roman or medieval texts.  Even in primary sources regarding the Crusades, I have never encountered a reference to the concept.

The word itself comes from the Italian word “razza”, first used to differentiate between flavours of wine.  It was not applied to people in a divisive sense until 1774, with ideas of “racialness” only appearing in 1862.  To the best of my understanding, the reason for the construction of the idea that some groups of people are so fundamentally different from others that they are a different species or race, is due to the imperative of dehumanization or “othering” to facilitate colonial genocide in the context of democratic and humanist contradictions.  Compulsions for wealth and power are all well and good for ruling elites, but when these things don’t benefit armies and general populations, you need to find alternative justifications for sending them to massacre the defenseless.

In this short video, Edward James Olmos articulates the point I’m trying to make pretty concisely.

The evidence is overwhelming that ethnicity and culture have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on things like intelligence, personality or disposition, yet I think it’s safe to say that majorities in most territories and nations still cling to these antiquated ideas.  And to some extent it’s forgivable; we’ve only been committing efforts and resources to understand and debunk these centuries-old myths through anthropology, sociology, psychology and sociobiology for a few decades, and we’re talking about ideas which have been sunk into our collective consciousness for many generations.

Similarly, when Cristobal Colon (or whatever his real name really was, he had like 700 of them) empirically disproved the ruling paradigm that the world was flat, it took a while for the idea to really sink in, for people to understand it.  And that was a very simple myth, with a very simple and entirely incontestable rebuttal.  With the idea of race we have a relatively complicated myth with a relatively complicated but no less entirely incontestable rebuttal.  Even today the Flat Earth Society continues to argue that the world is flat, and even today billions of people continue to think in racial terms.  Forgivable, but not acceptable.

That there is roughly equal evidence supporting the theory that the earth is flat as there is supporting the theory that ethnicity is a meaningful determinant of any kind, should bring us to a logical and obvious conclusion.  We need to start treating  attitudes which fathom the idea of race the same as we would attitudes which fathom the idea of a flat earth.  If you can read this, you are almost certainly a homo sapiens sapiens, or Cro Magnus human.  As such, you and I and everyone else falling under this classification come from Africa, specifically the Afrar/Great Rift region of Ethiopia, as far as modern science has been able to determine, with a relatively tiny number of generations in between which have played a role in our physiological and cultural development.

I hope that this has been quite clear in how ideas, ideologies and attitudes about race are founded in cognitive dissonance and ignorance, carry-overs from an epoch of deliberate misinformation.  Race exists in the world exclusively as an imaginary idea, and ideas hold only the power we give them.

Would you dignify an argument for a flat earth by engaging it?

My prescription is to pay the same heed to racists as you would to flat earthists: smile, nod, and walk away.

Post Factum Qualification

There are many, many situations and circumstances wherein the arguments I’m making would probably seem heartless, or even blindly naïve.  In genocidal situations, for example, such as in the cases of Rwanda, Israel/Lebanon/Palestine, the Holocaust, Guatemala, et cetera and other cases where leaders and policy makers use racial ideas to mobilize armies such as in the cases of East Timor or Bosnia, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that the victims of these blind campaigns of racially-facilitated violence could or should simply ignore the ideas, ideologies and attitudes that are driving machetes and bullets toward them and their families.

But consider this: ideas about race are almost never factors in the motivations of these leaders and policy makers; they are frameworks used to control and justify populations.  It’s obvious that the defenseless person being set upon by a hate-fueled mob is a victim of violence, and it’s important for us to understand this.  I would argue however that it is even more important for us to understand that the hate-fueled mobs are victims of coercion and manipulation.

In parts of the world where racial ideas, ideologies and attitudes are still used as justifications and facilitating frameworks for violence, which by the way are diminishing in number and not increasing, obviously education and campaigns for awareness are important.  What I’m talking about here is the most appropriate and useful position to take on these attitudes and ideas in a broader, global context.

Love in MLK.  Pura vida.

Published in: on 19 February 2010 at 8:56 pm  Comments (1)  

Moral Premises

Before I write any posts regarding emotionally sensitive issues, such as genocide or our perception of death, I feel that I should lay out the idea and importance of regarding moral premises as being non-inherent and transient.

A premise is simply an idea, specifically an idea about an issue from which some conclusion can be drawn.  For an extreme example, which will hopefully have some gravity…

Moral Premise: Human life is invaluable and must be protected.
Moral Premise: Committing murder destroys human life.
Conclusion: Committing murder is impermissible.

For some people, probably most people, these moral premises can be permanently and universally accepted.  Others might need to add the premise that “I wouldn’t want someone to kill me, so I won’t kill anyone else”, but it all falls into the same category of thought: faith leaping.  You need to accept certain foundations of irrationality in order to permanently and/or universally adopt any moral premise; for anyone who desires to be truly free-thinking it is necessary to question them instead.

So to question these example moral premises: why is human life invaluable, and why must it be protected?  We are .05% molecularly different from one another, and only .09% molecularly dissimilar from chimpanzees.  We have overpopulated to the threat of our own species, and we procreate quite easily- it’s even fun.

As far as I have been able to formulate, there is no rational reason for placing some “special” or “sacred” value on human life (in the consideration of ethics, that is.  Obviously societal order requires this).  They certainly have social value, that is to say we feel the social loss of someone we have come to care for, because they will no longer be in our lives.  And there are numerous rational reasons not to kill one another, my personal favourite of which is as follows.

(Rational Premise: Rationality is functional and desirable.  Rational Premise: Arrogance is the defiance of rationality, believing oneself to be better in some way than evidence supports.  Rational Conclusion: We should seek to not be arrogant.)  (Rational Premise: We have no idea of truly understanding the value of a person.  Rational Premise: Murder requires the conclusion that oneself is valuable enough to decide who else is sufficiently inferior so as to exterminate.  Rational Conclusion: Murder requires arrogance.)  (Rational Premise: Murder requires arrogance; it is irrational.  Rational Premise: We should seek to not be arrogant; arrogance is irrational.  Rational Conclusion: We should not commit murder.)

I hope that wasn’t too hard to swallow, it was my explanation of a defense against the act of murder without resorting to emotion, morality or circular arguments.  The point is that when we subscribe to moral premises without thinking, without questioning, we surrender a significant amount of our freedom to various mechanisms of social control.

So the point is that no moral premise, whether that premise is “always brush your teeth before bed” or “don’t hunt your own children for sport” is never automatically defended or intrinsically defensible, and therefore should never be accepted implicitly without skepticism.   At the furthest, we should only adopt premises temporarily in order to consider and experiment with arguments which we could not do without that adoption.

For example… “it seems that most people in the world feel that genocide is significantly worse than simple mass murder… this justifies a movement to develop frameworks and systems of genocide prevention”.  The person making that argument does not need to believe in the premise, because the issue is whether or not genocide prevention is feasible/practical/useful, not whether genocide constitutes some special evil.  You accept the special evil argument to facilitate the debate over the real issue of prevention.

The phrase that so-and-so remembered where they were when so-and-so died has been passed around a lot in society, and it symbolizes what I am trying to talk about here;  moral premises exist in societies as categorical imperatives, which we are expected and compelled to adhere to.  But we don’t need to.  Next time you hear about a massacre of 12 Catholic school children being horribly violated and killed, and on the same day hear about 12 Serbian militants dying of a land mine, as well as 12 senior citizens dying of old age…  Ask yourself why your feelings are different about each case.  In the posts which follow, ask yourself why you mourn, and why genocide is such a horrible thing.  Or don’t.

Published in: on 11 December 2009 at 10:32 am  Comments (1)  

The State of the International Order

A broad and basic understanding of the world is probably necessary to comprehend a lot of what I’ll be writing here, at least up to the end of this year.

We are living in a very interesting and complicated time for the global system: a realist reality governed by a liberal paradigm.

Since 1648 we’ve had a structured world based on sovereign states, with the most powerful of these (almost always five, throughout history) determining what does and does not fly, usually called a “Great Powers” system.   As Otto von Clausewitz perceived and prescribed, war was simply an extension of politics by other means, and virtually no one (Grotius, Kant and Hume are examples of rare exceptions) thought that there was anything wrong with open violent conflict being completely unrestricted.

This paradigm shifted in the 20th century, with advents like heavily armoured tanks which could fire building-leveling shells, bomber airplanes which could destroy cities at an eagle’s view, and of course, nuclear bombs capable of annihilating countries from an underground bunker.  Our reactions to these were the League of Nations, a widely-recognized failure but important beginning, the Kellogg-Briand pact, an impotent but tangible agreement of peace, and the United Nations, which is only moderately better than the League of Nations at the best of times and in many ways a very dangerous and damaging institution (this will probably be addressed as opinioa later), though it is still critical for this paradigm.

These institutions and treaties are collectively, however, much greater than the sum of their parts; they represent, constitute and engender a liberal ideological shift.  We still have five Great Powers (Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States) in the United Nations Security Council, represented by their veto privilege which is basically a stop/go button for every political issue on the planet, but they are not as free to do what they would as they were a century ago.

There is a reason why George Dubya came before the General Secretary to beg permission for attacking Iraq, why China has taken moderate measures to scale back, or at least hide their human rights abuses, why NATO undertook a massive propaganda campaign to justify bombing Kosovo, and why Russia had to defend itself for the recent Georgian invasion; the criteria for international prestige and popularity has changed, even if the reality has not yet adhered to it.

The most fundamental question that this systematic circumstance raises is whether strong enough collective belief in an idea can make it real, and this remains to be seen.  But currently, this situation is very much a double-edged blade; while on one side, we see a decline in open violence and the imperative for states to behave themselves, at the same time the UN and these institutions of the liberal paradigm serve to wrongly legitimize the indiscretions of Great Powers, such as the Iraq invasion and including economically criminal and openly genocidal organizations such as the World bank, not unlike the slightly scolding forgiveness of a mother who is terrified of their sociopathic child.

That should be enough of a basis for later entries, such as Why and How we are about to see the End of States, Why Just War Laws are Bullshit, and Why the Initiation of Violence can and should be Categorically Opposed.

Pura vida.

Published in: on 2 December 2009 at 10:13 am  Leave a Comment