Sunday, August 09, 2015

Part 47: (The Self Coupled--Harm, Torture and the Educated Social Self): Dialogues on a Philosophy for the Individual

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

With this post Flora Sapio and I (and friends from time to time) continue an experiment in collaborative dialogue. The object is to approach the issue of philosophical inquiry from another, and perhaps more fundamentally ancient, manner. We begin, with this post, to develop a philosophy for the individual that itself is grounded on the negation of the isolated self as a basis for thought, and for elaboration. This conversation, like many of its kind, will develop naturally, in fits and starts. Your participation is encouraged. For ease of reading Flora Sapio is identified as (FS), and Larry Catá Backer as (LCB).

The friends continue their discussion in which Flora Sapio responds to Larry Backer and Betita Horn Pepulim and takes up Larry's challenge of Paolo Freire in the education of the self. considers the moth, the harm principle and the self.     

Contents: HERE.

FS:   Betita Horn Pepulim Larry Catá Backer In some circumstances the main glue of human relations is given by conducts that, despite (or because of their) being in line with the socially agreed-upon principles of right behavior cause harm to others. And, limited to those circumstances and those human relations, the best ethics may well be an ethics of damage avoidance, reduction and control. If each one of the human relations we maintain were exclusively grounded in harm, things would be as Larry said, and religious and non-religious ethical systems could work only as he describes. With the qualification that religion is not the only source of all those unconscious motivations that reduce individual autonomy. But, in the context of this discussion, this is a secondary point. At least for the moment.

There are human relations where as Betita said, harm may occur, but from your description, Betita, is it clear that these relations may perhaps not be grounded on rules of conduct that automatically result in harm. In this case repentance, understood as concretely remedying damage, is possible. While if one practices a morality that has been given to us by others, without never questioning such a morality despite the tangible harm it produces, lamentation is the only possibility. Thus, the psychologist who participates in the torture of detainees may be aware that he has harmed another person, and experience feelings of guilt for what he has done. Yet, unless he can abandon the ethical system that led him to condone torture as being necessary to serve a greater good, he will remain trapped within a vicious cycle of harm and guilt worse than the vicious circles experienced by his clients.

Here, we come to the point raised by Frege and Wittgenstein, the possibility to look at the same object in the world in different ways, and the realization that the same object may be interpreted by different people, or even by the same person, in two or more different ways at the same time. I will limit these observations to religion. Given how the secular systems of morality we are discussing have been influenced by religion, the key to reinterpret them must be somewhere in religion.

A fundamental distinction in all of these ethical systems is the distinction between moral inclusion and moral exclusion. In rereading your responses, it suddenly came to my mind how this distinction is weirdly resemblant of a similar distinction to be found in the most different religions – the distinction between exoteric knowledge and practices – those the majority of believers are taught, know and practice and esoteric rituals and practices accessible only to a small number of initiates, and unknown to the community of believers. In other words, there are or there were some very specific practices that religious law proscribed under penalty of excommunication. However, proscription applied only to non-initiates, to the community of believers. Initiates, and here I am referring to historical figures such as Cabbalists and the Sufis and others, were entitled to do what the others could not. Religion itself provided a way out of such trap, through archetypal figures (al-Khidr, John the Baptist) who could reveal to non-initiates all the limitations of conventional ethics, and the secret truth that non-initiates, too, had the potential to create their own ethic.

The notion of Harm may well be semiotically constructed – after all, all concepts are made by man. But, everybody has the capacity to access the dimension of symbols, and interpretation, go beyond appearances, and understand how what looks good on the outside may be bad on the inside, or viceversa.

LCB:  I appreciate Flor's points. She suggests that ethical systems can be detached from the internal moral system of the individual and that this distinction itself creates the triadic semiotic relationship within which her concept of harm can be elaborated.  It also suggests the possibility of a guyilty conscience in the construction of moral systems that themselves informs the boundaries of self awareness and of the "good" in societal relations and individual self reflection. The best case for this argument is the Wannsee Conference in which "on 20 January 1942, a number of high-ranking officials of the Nazi state and security apparatuses gathered , under the direction of the Chief of Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich, in order to discuss ‘the Final Solution to the Jewish Question’." (Project Aladin, Wannsee Conference). The bad conscience is evident not merely in the process of the decision, but in its organization and mechanics.  There is something to be said about secrecy as a sign of guilt.  A moral system built on the non-humanity of Jewish people, one might suggest, would have been indifferent to the publication of its plans for their extermination (as odious as that might have been to other moral communities).  And yet the enterprise was conducted in secrecy.  Even its language acquired a cloak--with a treasure trove for the semiotician:
The progress of the Wannsee Conference appears from the minutes, the so-called ‘protocol’, which was written by Adolf Eichmann. The language in the protocol was consciously manipulated. Expressions like ‘extermination’, ‘murder’, ‘deportation’, and etc. were not used. In stead the protocol speaks of ‘natural reduction of population’, ‘special treatment’ and ‘immigration’.
Yet one can argue here that one is experiencing is indeed bad conscience.   But if one believes what one does, then a guilty conscience and its tell tale secrecy is not necessary.  It is in this light that ISIS' actions, again reprehensible to other moral communities, becomes more understandable, and also more terrifying.  The undifferentiated self prefers Lenin's professional revolutionary (Lenin, What is to be Done?) to the conspiracies of hidden elites, illuminati,  controlling them without their knowledge.  Wannsee and the CIA psychologists smelled too much of hidden conspiracy, that that breaks a cardinal principle of the undifferentiated self--the preservation of the illusion of free will from birth through death. . . and perhaps beyond. Flora may tend toward the notion of harm and responsibility grounded in the power to act or not act within the control of the individual (and thus backing into the premise that there is a sphere of individual autonomy to act; e.g. Nietzsche Genealogy of Morals, essay 1).  I tend toward the notion that this idea of autonomy is largely illusory, though necessary as an institutionally foundational disciplinary technique ("Men were considered "free" only so that they might be considered guilty – could be judged and punished: consequently, every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within the consciousness (and thus the most fundamental psychological deception was made the principle of psychology itself)" Nietzsche Twilight of the Idols, The Four Great Errors", § 7 (Walter Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale, trans.)

But there is another explanation as well.  Consider again the psychologists seeking to manage moral systems to permit the torture of excluded individuals.  There one finds the secrecy that suggests bad conscience.  And one can also then conclude that there is a guilty conscience here.  Or not: Both the Wannsee Conference and our psychologist examples suggest the techniques of instrumentalism in the management of moral systems that themselves define the parameters of societal self reflection and the construction of individual "free" will. Secrecy is necessary especially where sub-communities engage in contests over control of the parameters of societal (and individual) self consciousness.  Thus consider the larger object of the efforts to legitimate torture by reshaping societal conceptions of the self and of the consequences of inclusion and exclusion.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s health professionals repeatedly criticized the agency’s post-Sept. 11 interrogation program, but their protests were rebuffed by prominent outside psychologists who lent credibility to the program, according to a new report.

The 542-page report, which examines the involvement of the nation’s psychologists and their largest professional organization, the American Psychological Association, with the harsh interrogation programs of the Bush era, raises repeated questions about the collaboration between psychologists and officials at both the C.I.A. and the Pentagon. (James Risen, Outside Psychologists Shielded U.S. Torture Program, Report Finds, The New York Times, July 10, 2015).
The Report may be accessed (HERE).  And consider the effects of the loss of that contest within the community of psychologists in the wake of the revelations that some members of the psychological community sought to engage in societal moral management to enhance the legitimacy of torture by Americans. In the wake of the Report the American Psychological Association issued a statement and issued an apology:
 “The actions, policies and lack of independence from government influence described in the Hoffman report represented a failure to live up to our core values,” Nadine Kaslow, a former president of the organization, said in a statement. “We profoundly regret and apologize for the behavior and the consequences that ensued.” James Risen, Outside Psychologists Shielded U.S. Torture Program, Report Finds, The New York Times, July 10, 2015)
But it did more--""The largest association of psychologists in the United States voted to begin reversing its policy of collusion in torture on Friday by prohibiting members of the American Psychological Association from participating in the interrogation of US prisoners on foreign soil." (John Barber, Doctors who colluded in US torture vote to crawl 'out of the dark side', The Guardian, Aug. 7, 2015).  These may not be so much cases of bad conscience as the techniques of management of moral systems.  Instead there might have been guile in the production of the undifferentiated (communal) self through  the remaking of its parameters.  And the stakes are quite high--the power to control, in part because control in the sense that is commonly understood is impossible--perhaps better to access and influence, the content of the parameters that provide the source for the identity of the individual to herself and in her community.

That brings us back to the initial question--the individual in these constructions.  The harm principle is necessarily a societal constraint, and a complex set of value judgments grounded in the embedded societal self within the individual--an embedding that begins with the interactions between mother and infant and them widens to family, community, polity, religious community, etc. These judgements are communal though so deeply internalized that they appear to be individual.  But they are so only in the sense of the peculiarities of interpretation and application of those values that constitute the individual and that were projected in from around her from birth. These interpretation and applications are then judged in turn by the community within which the individual performs undifferentiated individualism through acts intermeshed within the organism of the communities in which the individual resides.  A young girl vies for the attention of a boy in her class.  She has a rival.  She beats the rival after school in front of witnesses.  A college student understands that her application to an elite medical school is dependent on performance on an exam; she pays a colleague to take the test for her.  An older sister takes food from her younger brother's plate at the family table.  In each case there will be discipline.  But that discipline comes not from an internal source, nor certainly from advantage (though American and English pragmatists and economists have been brilliant in constructing aggregation based theories of individual advantage) but from the expectations of the internalized construction of the self and its self policing.  Each provides an important teaching moment--a space in which the communal interpretant can create meaning. 

And that brings us again to education--from infancy, and discipline, through moral systems.

FS: This all brings us to Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy of Liberation. I am still going back and forth between the Pedagogy of Liberation and the critique to it, and I have not yet reached any conclusive judgement, so I will not go into the merits of Freire's argument, but share one or two reflections on the book.

I was one of the many readers who were put off by Freire's Marxist jargon, and yes, I am aware of the argument that only that language can do justice to the complexity of the dynamics analyzed by Freire. At the same time, I am highly skeptical of the word “liberation”, and of any other word which are fashionable thanks to their universally positive connotation. Any act of naming is an act of creation (and categorization) but, once a word has been created, we no longer have the monopoly over its interpretation and its use. We know, however, that once uttered, seen or read, words as “liberation”, “oppression”, or “freedom” can easily break through the minds and hearts of the most diverse individuals, trigger their most subconscious drives, and perhaps lead them to act. Now, these words can be spun in very enticing ways, they can be interpreted to mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, and tell the listener whatever the listener wants to be told. I am neither saying nor implying that this was in Freire's intentions. But, strong and emotionally charged words as liberation can be easily appropriated and used against Freire's intentions.

Would an individual, who acted in response to the stimuli conveyed by a manipulative use of such words still be acting in full autonomy? Marxist lingo aside, Freire's aspiration was enhancing the agential capacity of individuals, allowing them to reach the highest possible awareness and autonomy. Limited to its moral dimension, we know how autonomy means the capacity to take a distance from any system of morality that may be imposed on us, or created by others, to create our own system of morality. Obviosuly we would not want a system of morality that worked against the self, to the benefit of another. And a system of morality that benefits both the individual and others cannot be created by any third party and imposed on us. Yet the word “liberation” has lent itself to uses Freire never intended, becoming a cover for experiments in social and political engineering that have resulted either in the reproduction of oppressive structures under the most diverse guises, or in their imposition by force. Historically, various ideological and ethical systems have been used to justify each one of these structures.


Aside from these considerations, each one of us acts partially in response to unconscious motivations. A question concerns the unconscious motivations that induce one to want to liberate others, either in the role of teacher or in the role of student. (I do not consider myself a liberator or liberating educator but a parrhesiast, one who speaks the truth, and speaks in her own name). Discovering the influences religion, value systems and ideology have on us is much easier than coming to terms with the much more subtle influences other factors, which include but are not limited to repressed historical memories, may have on us. Some of the influences others have had on us in the past can be easily understood and undone. The negative feelings each one of us has experienced towards a bad teacher may be understood, analyzed and give us the motivation not to repeat their mistakes. Other influences can be infinitely more subtle, and much more difficult to come to terms with.

Some of these influences can be redirected to symbolic objects. For instance, the choice of a research topic or a theoretical orientation is never entirely contingent, and can in many cases be explained by the personal or family history of the teacher-researcher. I will give an example about myself, the one and only reason being my wish to avoid any possible speculation or misunderstanding. I do have one or two Fascist “Podestas” among my ancestry, as well as highly successful lawyers. This fact may have had some weight on my inclination to look at the most negative and harmful potential of the law. Yet, from a very young age I have been aware that I am not my great-uncles, therefore I am not responsible for what they may or they may not have done. Knowing the reasons of my choice has been useful in different ways...the law can be many different things.

Freire's educational philosophy has been criticized among others on grounds that liberating education served to appease his middle-class guilt. Yet the question remains of what impact unconscious motives can have on the practice of education, and whether such education can truly liberate others.

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