[Awkward Disclaimer: I didn’t mean this just as a defence of Dawkins. Some New Atheists may or may not have a sectarian obsession with Muslims – but to dismiss every bland generalisation as another instance of racist bigotry is as flippant as it is frivolous.]
Much of the Left, very dazed these days, has turned to the puritanism that Right-wingers seem to have mostly abandoned. With it has come a tendency for the Left to assume that their rivals are driven by the most base, the wickedest, the absolutely worst motivations imaginable: Owen Jones moralising on the Tories is an odd example of this. If one is flippant, he must be callous; if one clarifies his terms only in rhetorical retreat, he is a bigot. Carelessness means racism.
A number of atheists – whose gravitational pull is still mostly liberal – are declaring in chorus their antipathy towards the anti-Muslim bigotry of which they accuse Richard Dawkins. If I might quote Alex Gabriel at the Heresy Club:
The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.
To illustrate his point he takes Dawkins’ January tweet:
Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu’s priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians http://t.co/D15gFcya Vive la France
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
To the inevitable fury, Dawkins clarified on two accounts – first to accusations of selectively targeting Islam:
Xtian barbarians murder abortion doctors. Most Xtians are not barbarians. Stalin was an atheist barbarian. Most atheists are not barbarians.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
And second to those who believed he was treating Muslims like an uncivilised homogeneous bloc:
English is my native language. By “Islamic barbarians” I mean those Muslims who are ALSO barbarians. I do not OF COURSE mean all Muslims!
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
Both are important.
To paraphrase Orwell – I think more democratically – to return to basic principles has become the first duty of all serious men; absolutes therefore mustn’t be relegated to the religious or the Utopian fantasist. Calling out those who exist to suppress and to suffocate the values underpinning decent society is the premise to internationalism – not its enemy.
The Incubation of Defeatism
… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people …
Preamble to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights may one day be ranked as the most powerful expression of liberty ever proclaimed, Eleanor Roosevelt famously dreaming it up to be the Magna Carta “of all men everywhere”. It was never expected to be a permanent guarantee of personal freedom, being neither legally binding nor politically enforceable; in a few short years not a single atrocity of note in Palestine, Egypt, Spain, Portugal or Hungary would be prevented with an invocation from the United Nations. What it neglects cries out for remedy, and its simplicity of statement, though a great strength, consistently struggles with the complexities of application. But at no other point in history have nations gathered together to express, however reluctantly, the unfalsifiable authority of personal dignity before fascists, theocrats, and the mass of blandly clichéd authoritarians floating between.
But the hangover throbbed with regret. Not many years after the UN’s proclamation of the “inalienable” rights of free individuals, intellectual anarchism masquerading as “postmodernism” was looking to undermine it. In an age of decolonisation cultural theorists rushed to denounce “humanitaranism” as imperialism for the mellow-minded, fuelling the isolationist rhetoric, to name but one instance, of the odious Ayatollah Khomeini whose government would dismiss the UDHR as the secularised transcription of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Self-doubt, cynicism, and flagrant sadomasochism blurred into one ungodly polygamous marriage striding over millennia of Western philosophy in the name of “relativism”. Its academia sank into a mid-life crisis.
“Good” and “evil” are great secular words. Their dichotomy has transcended many languages and religions, from village to nation, evolving separately in regions of the world that existed for centuries in isolation. I think it’s a mistake, and a great shame, that many atheists and agnostics have decided that we don’t need this sort of moral certainty; that we ought to leave it to the religious to express emotional outrages – because they might fall silent on crimes of which they approve. Secular space is not created; either it is offered by missionaries or it is fought for and captured.
But this rejection of absolutes has lined the mentality of those academics who believe they know better than the “civilised” – that the only true way of building a society is to accept, ultimately, that there isn’t one.
Perhaps this attitude’s most lasting apologia was Edward Said’s sweeping assault on the orientalist tradition in Western scholarship – it was both a symptom and a cause, he believed, that orientalism now only makes sense as the propagandist machine of the imperial project: in engaging in a conscious effort to misrepresent foreign cultures as backward and inferior, a colonial aggressor felt at liberty to “civilise” them. Everyone in the age of imperialism was a racist Euro-supremacist, Said claimed, which he sought to justify – to the disdain of imperial historian Bernard Porter, who has found little evidence in his Absent-Minded Imperialists – in tenuous literary imagery pre-empting paragraph after paragraph of claustrophobic “analysis” before the final write-off of the author in question as a stooge of foreign aggression. (In Culture and Imperialism there’s a very strange passage accusing Jane Austen – whose novels barely even mentioned the Napoleonic Wars – of promulgating labour exploitation through her silence on empire and the emotional withdrawal it apparently represented. See Unrepentant Jacobin’s blog for a brilliant and much more comprehensive post on Saidism.)
Nonetheless, for the all the deficiencies of post-colonialist thought it might still have seemed very reasonable that the earliest victims of Said’s argument were loaded phrases like “barbarianism”. After all, the horrors of African colonialism that some contemporaries justified in the name of “progress” now seem too absurd for serious scholarship; Rudyard Kipling’s infamous The White Man’s Burden charged the English with the ineluctable duty “to serve your captives’ need” and bring barbaric peoples “towards the light”, a path apparently lit by the intermittent fires of war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and enslavement for those who resisted the imposition of rule by gunboat, diocese, and caste. This so-called “liberal” justification for the atrocities – “civilising the savage” – managed to creep even as far as the socialist Fabians, whom Ramsay MacDonald was compelled to abandon when they refused to condemn the Boer Wars.
Considering the long history of “barbarianism” this should hardly have come as a surprise. It doesn’t come from a very politically correct ancient world: the Proto-Indo-European barbar – which pre-empted the Greek barbaros and Latin barbaria for “foreigner” and “foreign country”, respectively – mimics the unintelligible ramblings of an alien. St Augustine would write the lengthy polemic City of God in order to make sense of the fall of great Roman cities to the murderous Alaric; and though the European humanists swore adoration for Rome they never departed from their Gothic and pagan inheritance, understanding better than their ancient forebears that not all “barbarian” cultures could be dismissed without merit. Consider how the conquistadors – the Pope’s military muscle in the New World – saw it their first duty to conquer the native Americans whose immodesty of clothing apparently revealed an equal poverty of the mind.
Given this history and its tradition of merciless ironies, surely – just surely – we wouldn’t be so stupid as to invent our own savages?
Identifying the Barbarian
“Barbarian” and “savage” have not always been purely racial terms.
The reason that every colonial power got it wrong was because they all shared in the same ridiculous presumption: that an individual’s ethnicity made them a barbarian for the sole reason that they had not produced laws as “advanced” of those in whose judgement they sat. Through the adoption of customs originating in the land of the expansionists, they could they become “civilised”. In the classical world this racial link was only implicit, the Franks merrily absorbed into the Roman Empire while the Saxons continuing to appear to be wintry nomads for failing to see any virtue in Italy’s fading pyres. But by the 19th century technological industrialism had dwarfed whatever instruments the “barbarians” could offer; and with the advent of pseudo-sciences in the likes social Darwinism and phrenology this was codified into an explicitly racist set of assumptions about the genetic foundations of “alien” societies.
But in the 17th century there had been something of a respite to this thinking with John Dryden’s pitying indictment of the “noble savage”; although deeply condescending, only now does the phrase appear to be an oxymoron, contemporaries meaning the word “savage” as an equivalent for what we today would supply “person from another country” (though almost certainly with implications of skin colour). As a romanticism of the foreigner whose relationship with nature endowed him with values equivalent to the “civilised” virtues of England, it made a crucial point: foreign customs may indeed be “noble” but that is not a vindication of times in which they are not. Cultural toleration does not have to mean moral relativism. That points towards what today we would identify as religious and ethnic pluralism under a constitution constrained by moral parameters to human rights, and to the civil liberties they predicate.
It is the tradition around Dryden’s sentiments – which seems to have ended before the African conquest from the 1880s – that we have and will build upon in the modern world. The UDHR rules on “inalienable” rights for the very reason that no individual in the world is foreign to them: they are universal, and people are at liberty to demand them if and when they please.
Anybody who therefore uses violence to deprive people of equality from birth, to suppress and fight freedom and preservation of culture and of thought – and to murder for these ends and without remorse – is a barbarian.
That’s not a racial term; it’s written in the preamble to the UN’s greatest cause on a morality that has no bearing on nationality. It doesn’t mean “un-British” or “un-American” but anti-human. The commitment to internationalism and universality that it makes necessary is the very definition of anti-racism.
Fighting the Barbarian
It’s for this reason that it’s so intensely patronising – and very eurocentric – to presume that it’s only privileged white atheists and Christians in the West who hold especial contempt for acts of Islamic jihad:
Horrific and barbaric act in Woolwich. My prayers and condolences go out to victim’s family. How do humans commit such un-human acts?
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) May 22, 2013
That “b” word again – and from a devout Muslim, no less.
The most numerous – and targeted – of all of the victims of Islamic barbarianism are fellow Muslims. It was not a “civilised” person who blew up the al-Askari mosque in 2006, one of the holiest – and most extraordinary – Shi’ah sites in the world:
Massoud’s assassination was an attack, to take but one target, on Afghan women; it would be Muslim Malians who would be deprived of international aid by fanatics objecting to the presence of women in the crowd; it is Syrian and Iraqi Muslims who are currently caught in a conflict all too attractive to clerical fascists leaching on their material poverty and surplus of pessimism. In every case, “barbarian” is the only word that could possibly be used to describe those willing to kill to impose a murderous ideology – one which is alien to fellow Muslims.
“Don’t fuel the fires!”
So why then did Dawkins, unlike Hasan, feel it necessary to add the unnecessary label of “Islamic” to certain acts of cruelty or barbarianism? I would give the following explanation.
It is impossible to imagine how sociology might have developed without the contributions of Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Capitalism posed an historical, and to a degree empirically answerable, question: why was it that Puritan religious countries, rather than their Catholic, Lutheran or Islamic foes, were the first to succeed in developing industrial capitalism? One cannot, he pointed out rather obviously, understand different historical trajectories undergone by societies and their religions without first addressing what distinguished them.
By today’s standards this academic – who wrote lectures stressing the importance of objective scholarship – is a racist.
It has become somewhat fashionable in recent years to dismiss all religions as inherently the same. The atheist sees them all to be false, and therefore always leading to a conviction in man-made ideas which, at their most extreme, can incite believers to commit horrific abuses driven by the presumption that God is on their side.
But are we really to pretend that all religions – and the followers of their respective deities – are the same? That they have neither been shaped nor shaped common social features and shared religious property? Is it racist not to presume that no one religious outlook has anymore tendency to evil than its rivals? Is it possible that the Islamic, or the Judeo-Christian, or the Hindu religions and their respective denominations vary in their general outlooks on the world? In this context, put this tweet:
All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
Is it possible that, in fact, it is partly due to common religious principles that Muslim societies have such poor records in education?
In his post, Alex spends some time talking about Dawkins’ connection – both implicit and acknowledged – with the English Defence League and horrid crackpots like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Geert Wilders and Pat Condell. He writes:
It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal.
I won’t condone any support for these people – but that is not say that they have never uttered a word of morally-palatable sense. Just because the right-wing press says it’s true doesn’t mean it isn’t, as Orwell said, which he then explained more fully:
Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.
The postmodern assumption that religions are “without fundamentals” is an utterly pointless remark: if the corollary that all of a given religion’s followers therefore share nothing in common – rituals, practices, holy sites, books, parables, folk tales or gods – is not then made, then there remains an imperative to identify what is broadly common. Weber looked for the “ideal-type” – the abstract projection of a religious follower from which every actual believer would deviate it some degree, but which would and can be necessary to make empirical arguments.
And demonstrating how these broadly common factors might or might not condone barbaric actions should not be suffocated in case nationalists seize upon them to denigrate entire communities. One can and should point out that parts of the Koran can lead to “barbaric” acts without then endorsing anti-Muslim (and by implication anti-Islamic) sectarianism. If one rejects every point in Wilders Fitna simply because they were intended to justify racist policies, then one leaves some of the most important moral criticisms of religion in the hands of nationalist thugs. That is how the issue is polarised; that is how one stokes a “clash of civilisations”.
Did foreign criticism of the old Tutsi monopoly on Rwandan government cause the Rwandan genocide? Did our disgust with the small number of atrocities committed by Bosnian Muslims mean that we could not also oppose the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian forces? Does the evolving – or devolving, perhaps – of the Free Syrian Army into sectarianism prevent us from sending aid to the civilians there, or mean that we have to support Assad’s government?
Indeed, we are above naming any war a “class of civilisations”. It is to elevate atrocities to a level of which they are undeserving: barbarians would replace a society allowing for freedom of conscience with whatever tyranny might arise from their blood-soaked totalitarian insurgency. Most Muslims are on the right side – and it’s a nakedly perverse paradox to say that this was a war initiated by humanitarian principles.
It was not on Dawkins’ orders that Boko Haram – whose name means “Western education is sinful” – declared war on every manifestation of what they see to be “foreign” philosophy, elements including the rights to education sought by most Nigerians, who in turn become traitors for whom the punishment is murder or detonation. Add to these Islamic imperialists the Malian Ansar Dine whose expansionism under the guise of Sharia has hijacked whatever rights the Tuareg might have ever had to self-determination, adding eschatological justification to the region’s still deeply-ingrained problem with slavery. It was the anti-fundamentalist Ahmad Shah Massoud whose assassination at the hands of the Taliban would occur two days before the fall of the Twin Towers; his support for the rights of Afghan women and cultural freedom would allow Islamists to put him as a stooge to “the West”. They have embraced the status of “alien” since it confers religious exaltation.
Nor would any decent New Atheist claim, just as Dawkins does now, that barbarians are all Islamic. The Christian white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, torch in hand, murdered and pillaged in aversion to the very first article of the UDHR; the slave labour of High Stalinism was just as evil as that authorised by Tuareg Islamists; say nothing beyond the probable claims of cannibalism within the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army; and Orthodox (or perhaps simply highly masculinised) Russians who assault gay pride protesters are, indeed, manifestly wicked. Savagery might be everywhere; but it is not racist to ask whether some religions or non-religious ideologies, more than others, warm to it, and not imperialistic to decry those who embrace it.
“For the union makes us strong!”
So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.
‘Inside the Whale’, George Orwell
I didn’t intend this post to be so long; congratulations if you made it, for thou art a noble savage (and damn you to hell if not). But the problems with New Atheism are not simple-minded instances of bigotry and racism. Dawkins is a clever and eloquent academic who does not need prattling teenagers like me defending him; if he is careless with his language, or if he endorses the bigots rather than whatever few decent points a bigot may have to offer, then he is being provocatively flippant.
It is perfectly possible to conceive of evils as barbarian; it is the first imperative of the internationalist to do so, irrespective of the religions and societies with which he is confronted. The methods of Islamic fanaticism are as alien to the moderates who share their faith. As the clash between Mehdi Hasan and Irshad Manji showed, some Muslims accept that the Koran can incite violence, while others do not; but, as with any decent New Atheist, no moderate would consider extremists “civilised”.
Let’s stop calling legitimate criticism of barbarism – Islamic or not – “racist”. This is very, very important.
Not that I can really contribute much to the BBC’s publicity, but one piece worth highlighting is on a new study revealing some of the evolutionary benefits to sharing and cooperation:
A team from Michigan State University, US, used a model of the prisoner’s dilemma game, where two suspects who are interrogated in separate prison cells must decide whether or not to inform on each other.
In the model, each person is offered a deal for freedom if they inform on the other, putting their opponent in jail for six months. However, this scenario will only be played out if the opponent chooses not to inform.
If both “prisoners” choose to inform (defection) they will both get three months in prison, but if they both stay silent (co-operation) they will both only get a jail term of one month.
The eminent mathematician John Nash showed that the optimum strategy was not to co-operate in the prisoner’s dilemma game.
This study would be worth celebrating in its own right – but it helps to contextualise some of the arguments made by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. If the study’s conclusions are correct – and I stress the weight of the if – then it acts as a practical, rather than visceral, refutation to those who believe in the beneficial qualities of war as a driver for progress.
One will inevitably consider the solipsistic racists expressing contempt for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Washington as they naively grapple to appease two parties of God at once. Eretz Yisrael Zionists – paranoid about the implications of a Palestinian state – and anti-Semitic Islamists – to whom a state for Jews is in itself a cause for war – pollute the two camps.
Human actions are only coherent in Darwinian terms. Thus a child-like plea from secular science: the conflict hasn’t worked out for anyone and never will. Stop it. Not that such an argument should be necessary, and not that it would work on zealots. But oh well.
Enjoy the picture.
Ian Brady’s ongoing plea for sanity registers some important contentions with legal prosecution. Here, I’ll look at a few of their psychiatric implications.
This is him today, with Myra Hindley the murderer of five children in the early 1960s:
Since 1985, Ian Brady has been clinically insane. That he soon might not be, seeking as he is the chance to commit suicide in a regular prison, is testament to the awkward authority held by criminal psychologists: because they represent that attempt by the modern state to incorporate the individual, with his emotional and ritualistic instincts, into its own process for calculation and systematisation, a conflict between the gradient reality and binary bureaucratic world that interprets it.
Bleak though this is, so much hinges upon a declaration of sanity: it is the distinction between the validation of a person’s outlook and its relegation to the condescending majesty of the clouds. But the delusion is ours if we pretend the outcome is in anyway proportional to the assessment.
In some ways, the mental eclipse being classed as mentally ill is more severe than death: by relying on the highly subjective interpretative techniques of psychiatry, it can transform someone’s life irrespective of broadly understood hard, powerful evidence. The BBC has a few such examples: Stuart Harling found that “hurling papers from the dock and shouting threats” somehow lacked persuasive force, the jury rejecting his plea to insanity. But it is also suggested that in instances where the punishment may be capital punishment as many as 22% of pleas are fabrications. How many have escaped the system, and how many miscarriages of justice has it made inevitable?
When Brady was first diagnosed, he now says that he was “method acting”; he understood the necessary prerequisites to be moved to a mental hospital, and exploited their shortcomings. If true, then something ominous is apparent: a sane person may rationalise his way into insanity only to be trapped like a fly in a jar. Suddenly every word uttered is the confirmation, however bleak or sublime, of a madman’s madness. It is the intelligent man’s dystopia.
In ‘Science as a Falsification’, Karl Popper described Freudian psychoanalysis and Adler’s “individual psychology” as “simply non-testable, irrefutable. There was no conceivable human behaviour which could contradict them. This does not mean that Freud and Adler were not seeing certain things correctly; I personally do not doubt that much of what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a psychological science which is testable. But it does mean that those “clinical observations” which analysts naïvely believe confirm their theory cannot do this anymore than the daily confirmations which astrologers find in their practice.”
Psychology, Popper might agree, is empirical in its scavenge for laws: but it would rather create more than challenge the ones it discovers. By virtue of focusing on the atomised individual, psychiatric diagnoses can’t rely on objective analytical frameworks. The common tests, regulations and analyses to which the patient is subject simply cannot hope to account for the idiosyncrasies of the insane; it is a process inviting paradoxes that neither the sensationalist media nor its audience would feel qualified to investigate. But the result of this, ironically, is that scientists are more likely to make existing disorders seem so complicated that they become impossible to challenge – the prevalence of “multiple personality disorder” in the United States, at a rate ten times higher than in India, is one such illustration. Psychiatric treatment risks failing as a science of falsification.
There’s a more moderate parallel in conspiracy theorists, here, and how society tends to treat them: consider Alex Jones, whose apostolic promulgations are so obviously deranged that no comment he ever now makes can affect the real world. He believes he has uncovered the workings of the Bildenberg illuminati or some other such global order; even the non-partisan BBC’s Andrew Neil invited him onto his show to call him a “madman”. But in Jones’ mind the colours are reversed, not negated: the rainbow begins with violet rather than red, but it is a rainbow all the same. His worldview finds consistencies where none exist to normal minds. But just as this process can produce those society reveals as geniuses, like Einstein, so can it throw him to the bins and mock them as they gnaw on forgotten food. Jones typifies the boy who cried wolf when he really believed he saw a pack of them. It is this which the law’s psychiatry needs to be able to explain. No mean feat.
That the psychiatric experience has proven so ready to change does not offer much comfort here. In 1967, David Cooper wrote in his introduction to Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation that “madness has in our age become some sort of lost truth”; for him and his fellow anti-psychiatric contemporaries, sectioned patients were victims of authoritarianism, junkies being freed minds representing narcotic rebellion against the law. For all the obvious paranoia for which polemics were the cover, R.D. Laing’s “alternative” psychiatric hospital at Kingsley Hall proving ephemeral, a number of changes were brought about to official hospitals. Patients were treated less as material objects, and the utilisation of “labels” lost some of its simple ease and flippancy. The assumption that all mental disorders were biochemical was recognised as fruitless. However, these changes proved symptomatic of a system still struggling with its own internal rationalism, its purpose, methods and ideas able to offer visibly less than the legal system demands of them.
None of this is to undermine the good that psychiatry and psychology clearly have to offer, of course. The trouble is that we still have no idea how to quantify it, which is worrying: a great deal hinges on an institutional process that many aren’t confident is even scientific.
(Tomorrow, I might try and touch on a few of the other legal and moral questions that Brady presents. At a godlier hour.)
I don’t know anything about science. I was comforted to know that some of its most renowned contributors don’t either:
So something might have come from nothing because nothingness doesn’t exist (we think). Physicists are like fringe archaeologists constructing an ancient language from a single word.
Krauss touches upon a particularly depressing poetic injustice. In a trillion years time we will lose sight of the observable universe, becoming as blind to the wider universe as our ancestors. But don’t worry – we won’t last that long.
When I see a photo like this my impulse is a pessimistic one: to say that against a cloud bigger than our minds could ever comprehend we don’t matter. Not at all!
It’s our very perspective that brings us to that conclusion, one which invites us to subvert it. Take another look. We’ve seen those clouds before – the lines as malleable as they are intricate, the ghoulish blend of black into green through which modest lights pierce. And they’ve been found on earth in their own forms, be it the aurora borealis or that piece in the Tate or a field: it’s a description that after all fits into the English language. This thought that a gas cloud 26 light years wide can be captured and compared with what we see everyday is, I think, an optimistic one: although we shouldn’t forget how incredible the universe is, it should not be used to make us feel tiny and insignificant. We define it!
(About the Orion Nebula from Slate here.)
So my visit to a friend at Bangor University resulted in attending more lectures than I do during term time, and in this case it was a rather fascinating talk by Philip Zimbardo on “The Lucifer Effect” or the “Psychology of Evil”. I couldn’t find the exact lecture recording that I watched but this one probably covers the same material (being based on his book named to similar effect). I recommend you watch it if, as I could not, you are able keep your eyes away from his incredible beer belly.
It’s nothing short of fascinating. Psychologists are, we might say with dreary accuracy, renowned far and wide for their skills of eloquent bullshitting, tapping into fresh reservoirs of facts and figures to justify theories more ludicrous than the mental subjects they examine. But this particular talk seemed somewhat departed from that tradition; he humbly designates the first part of his lecture to explaining the importance of rehabilitating morality into science. If we want to override and prevent “evil” behaviour then we need to challenge its presuppositions, the conditions that produce it. The lecture gives some convincing material explaining the role psychologists might play here.
Zimbardo takes a tour around a few studies, some published and some not, but centre-stage is his own pride and joy – the well-known Stanford Prison experiment. Relevant, I suppose, that we’re currently reminiscing on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War are the comparisons that he draws between Stanford and the crimes of Abu Ghraib in 2003-4; Zimbardo noticed that the subjects in his study acted almost identically to those military personnel in Iraq. There were common factors: boredom, mental hierarchy between prisoner and imprisoned and all the rest and so if we want to counter evil then we have to change the system. Its vaguely put confidently asserted that psychology can provide a significant part of the answer – and I’m more than a little persuaded.
I did, though, have one lingering reservation: perhaps Zimbardo is too keen. When the crimes of Abu Ghraib hit the media Zimbardo was invited to defend one of the detainees, and he did so in order to argue that the criminals were not military “bad eggs” but part of wider institutional problems that provided the conditions to make the acts virtually unavoidable. But to follow this logic is to assume that to explain is to justify; that to find the cause is to morally exculpate the individual involved. If social institutions make certain outcomes more likely then we should change the conditions, not excuse the subjects; to do so is the destroy thousands of years of Western moral philosophy – to equate Saddam’s chief institutional devices of rape and murder and torture with American democracy – all for the chance to sound that little intellectually superior.
Conclusion on Zimbardo: really interesting ideas with a tendency to jump the wagon.
This has been making its way around the internet for a few years now. It sums up my attitude towards the debate over greenhouse gases. Although one should never take scientific consensus as proof (take Copernicus), if in the modern age 97% of scientists agree that humans cause climate change, there’s not a lot of point denying it. But even if we’re wrong, what exactly have we lost?