Sunday, September 30, 2007
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
the bright side
it's perfectly possible to exist in a state both of profound despair and of militant optimism. in truth, if it were possible to assess one's place in the world from the viewpoint of a benign but withdrawn god, this is the only available position which would satisfy the demands neither of perpetual self-delusion nor morbid inactivity; the only available position, in fact, which is truthful.
the despair acknowledges that the worst aspects of the state of being human - the greed, the selfishness, the violence, the intolerance, the chauvinism - are barely modified by the best.
the optimism acknowledges that the best aspects of being human - the list is long, but might all be resolved under the single expression, 'love' - are capable of mitigating the worst.
it's very easy to reflect on what appears to have been the default state since the first ape discovered how to use a thigh-bone to bash in another's skull and conclude that progress - aside from the brutish contingencies of evolutionary progress - has simply not been made. it's clear to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind capable of processing the data that the simple dream of all peoples who have ever dreamed - to live their life and sing their song and dance their dance without either harming or being harmed - has been consistently and unremittingly denied, since the earliest recorded times, by something, some active agent of that something, that intervenes and prevents and perverts - some naysayer whose dismal intervention has been as inevitable as a post-festive hangover.
tempting as it is to scoff at the identification of this something as 'evil', the bald fact is that, despite an overwhelming body of rational evidence to the contrary, superstition remains the axiom of preference in matters moral and ethical for the majority of otherwise sensible human beings.
'evil' is just a word, with no more supernatural connotations than any of Harry Potter's spells. it derives from the Old English yfel, which comes from the Old Teutonic ubilo, which carries the meaning of both 'up' and 'over' - in this case, with the sense of 'beyond accepted limits.' (etymology, alas, is as unlikely to persuade the superstitious faithful [the faithfully superstitious?] as any other -ology - it is probably regarded by our good ole boys the Creationists as a Satanic device to test their faith, the one true language - American - having been created by God just as it is heard and spoke today in the blessed churches of Texas and Arkansas three weeks ago last Tuesday.)
a belief in 'evil' as an original propensity and in a fallen angel as its agent is - not to put too fine a point on it - patently absurd. its pre-Christian equivalent was forgivable in the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages; it was moot at the height of its popularity during the Middle Ages; it was utterly refuted by the Enlightenment; its survival into the twenty-first century is just - well - absurd. it's also an unforgivable cop-out, because there are other, better, less inflammatory explanations for the rise and rise of the something that continually interferes with the preferred popular inclination to get on with one's fellow humans rather than forever to find reasons to oppress and butcher them, and to subscribe to these alternative reasons entails no hidden riders about oppressing and butchering they who are disinclined so to do.
that the majority of humans seem to be so disinclined - many to the point of feeling morally obliged to proceed with the oppression and the butchery in support of their right to be so disinclined - might well be seen as one of those reasons not to be particularly hopeful about the future of the race.
it's abnormal behaviour - at a personal level - to react to another's pain and distress by ignoring it; but it's perfectly possible, indeed commonplace from a position of comfortable Western affluence and relative stability, to live a life of total disregard for the welfare and well-being of the huge majority of the planet's population whose lives are cripplingly constrained by poverty, disease and ignorance. the only time these others impinge is as depicted on TV either as the unfortunate victims of circumstance - the happenstance of being born somewhere else - or as escapees from it - economic migrants whose taxes are welcome but whose cultural baggage is regarded with suspicion. in quaint old psychobabble terms the effects of such denial result - hardly surprisingly - in neurosis, manifest in the body politic as a set of transparent if inane compensatory mechanisms: the guiltier we feel, the more we spend on the welfare of our pets, our cars, our houses, our junk - all the while persuading ourselves that charity begins at home and that there is no substantive connection between third world sweat shops, child labour, deforestation, and global warming and our insatiable need for more and more of everything.
despair is the obvious option.
rationalists, alas, from Socrates to Kant, from Russell to Dawkins, have forever been hoist on their own petard when it comes to addressing the irrational - that doggedly persistent state of affairs that's reflected in many, many more ways than the so-called 'spiritual' - and that runs through the human psyche like the Blackpool in a stick of rock, so pervasively in fact as to be thought of (almost) as a trait. the reason for their (our?) continual embarassment in the face of the superstitious is that reason as ultimate arbiter is always so relentlessly colourless - in comparison with the rainbow-hued fairground of faiths and beliefs - major and minor - on offer on the other side.
for my money, there are simply too many experiential hues that, with the best analytical will in the world, are just never going to get analysed: from the effects of hugging and being hugged to the effect of 'our' song and stargazing of the non-hollywood kind - forget it, what's the point, there are better ways of passing the time, and anyway, as Shakespeare put it (as he always did) as well as it can be put - there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
I do love a clattery ole cliché. why would Pope's immortal 'Hope springs eternal in the human breast ...' have enjoyed such resonant longevity unless it did - and it does - describe an antidote to that easy poison. a completely irrational one, of course, which is entirely germane - that the rationality of despair (in the face of the murderous behaviours arising from the irrationalities of faith) might be countered by the irrationality of hope (in the face of the overwhelming fact of the intransigence of those behaviours). there's a neat irony there - that the primitive faith-based weapons of the enemies of reason are opposable on their own terms, by nothing more nor less than a form of secular faith.
the dream was never sentimental - it always acknowledged the omnipresence of darkness, even if only as a peripheral event, as a metaphor for something awry and intractable at the deepest level of our hard wiring. to be afraid of the dark is a perfectly rational fear, of course, rooted in the real atavistic memory of real nocturnal threats. but it also represents a real vulnerability, which is as easily exploited now as it was when we scampered for the trees at the edge of the savannah. a nervous population is a controllable population: as long as I can persuade you to believe me when I say there's a threat coming from over there, and that I can avert it if you trust me, then you're vulnerable to the sort of opportunistic manipulation that has become the standard currency of governmental practice. and in the present climate of terror-hysteria it is absolutely incumbent on all members of our species to be deeply distrustful of whatever the guardians of democracy provide in the form of proofs of their trustworthiness, and to interrogate it with extreme rigour in order to establish what might be real and what is, more often, hysterical disinformation. it's sad, and it's shameful that it has come to this. but so, most certainly, it has.
such caveats aside, however, the future is no more relentlessly bleak now than it always has been. I doubt, personally, that, on a global scale, the ratio of malevolents to fearful acquiescents has altered much. it's part of the price we've paid for succeeding through the unstable tension between competition and co-operation. the pity is that, for all the militancy of our optimism - also a consistent historical thread - the work is still about mitigating the worst effects of the still-dominant malevolents. the time is still to come when the real work - the work that's predicated on the assumption of good rather than bad behaviour as a universal consensus - might finally kick in, and the potential in humankind for making some real progress might finally be realised.
Posted by paul at 13:30