Something Different for a Change

A Positive Example for a Change!

Pictured above is one of my favourite churches in Canada. The reason for this is not immediately tied to the religious denomination of the institute, its geographical location, aesthetic value or even its positive welcoming of the LGBT+ community (though those are all wonderful things in and of themselves, and I certainly value them). Rather, I  value this church as a member of the Muslim community. This past trip to Canada I had the opportunity to attend this church for purposes of Juma’a (Friday) prayer. Through an agreement between the growing Muslim community and St. Andrews United Church, Muslims are welcomed to use this space for prayer in an effort to help accommodate the growing multicultural/multi-faith population of Canada. I understand that there are financial reasons for the endorsement of this agreement but this is a moot point in comparison with how far some societies have come in respect to mutual recognition.

It is unfortunate that this sort of relationally is not the norm around the world but is the stated exception. I decided that in light of two recent news stories (protest of the use of a Mosque as a voting site in Florida and the horrific events at a Church in France – I intentionally selected this link for its effort to emphasize the Muslim support of the Church members), I wanted to post something more positive which often fails to receive adequate attention.  I don’t aim to use this as a space for arguing for the benefits (and limits) to multicultural theory and the task of mutual recognition. In short, developing a multicultural society requires more than just paid lip service to shared values of the good. It demands, among other things, a transformation of the shared perception of the social, legal, moral, and economic institutions of the state. To roughly paraphrase the influential legal and political philosopher, Joseph Raz, multiculturalism requires a transformation of our way of thinking whereby we gradually move from interpreting the public sphere as consisting of minorities and majorities and instead view it as consisting of a plurality of cultures.

 

Reflections on the Subject of Free Speech on Campus

 

mark_twain_wallpaper_by_jkltechinc-d4ggiuh

On the Subject of Free speech on Campus

It has become commonplace at the FGCU campus to hear religious condemnations being shouted almost daily at the open lawn quarters. The religious gentleman (I will use the term ‘preacher’ generically here) commonly holds a sign that claims God’s love for the sinner but His hatred for Sin. In addition to the sign, the speaker generally uses a megaphone to express strong religious sentiments against promiscuousness, homosexuality, infidelity, atheism, and gender specific forms of dress (e.g. short skirts, tank tops).

It is common to hear individuals voice their displeasure over the loud and provocative claims often shouted by the preacher. It is even more common to hear members of the community also acknowledge that his right to free speech protects his expression despite how they may feel about it. In other words, we might not like it but offensive speech, regardless how bothersome, ought to be protected. The argument usually takes the following form: Free speech is an absolute value that aims to protect the right to free expression and not necessarily the content of expression. If person X wishes to voice their opinion or beliefs on topic Y, then regardless of whether such viewpoints conflict with the views of other citizens, it is not to be subject to interference.

I wish to suggest that this argument is misleading and often invokes a starting point for discussing the value and limits of free speech rather than resolves the matter. Claiming that free speech protects X is a foregone conclusion where an argument is still needed to determine why (or why not) such speech ought to be protected. In this short reflection, I wish to raise a few considerations about the value of free speech and the various means by which to understand its relation to other constituted rights (such as non-discrimination, equality, etc.). I also wish to determine what restrictions FGCU may adopt toward all forms of free speech on campus, regardless of content.

preacher

I believe that the University ought to reconsider the means available for the preacher’s speech on FGCU grounds.   In particular, it might be possible for FGCU to suggest restrictions on the method of expression used while steering clear from undermining a right to free speech. For example, the use of the megaphone to express speech may be limited without undermining the more general right to free expression. While removing something as simple as the megaphone might set back the interests of the preacher, it does not morally wrong him in terms of infringing on his freedom to express himself but merely frustrates one method of carrying out his speech.  As long as other viable options exist, then it might be said that neither his external freedom to present his views nor his internal right to adopt the beliefs or ends of his choice are undermined. Yet, the removal of the megaphone can provide a benefit for both the campus and the members of the university community. Not to mention that the university itself is not a morally-neutral institution that refrains from promoting some set of agreed upon values – in this case, respect for all members of the FGCU community, non-discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion, and other analogous factors, and equal treatment. Such values demand at least some recognition when being evaluated in debates about free speech on campus. However, whether free speech ought to reign regardless or not requires unpacking the value of free speech in order to assess whether it is another (important) value but one that can be balanced with out cherished values, or whether it ought to take primacy over all other values, regardless of its impact on the FGCU community and its student-body.

The value of free speech is not unanimously agreed upon. On the one hand, some understand free speech as an intrinsic value, that is, valuable in and of itself. On this interpretation, free speech is valuable regardless if one exercises it or not. Moreover, the value of the speech is independent of its content. The speech can be supportive or hateful; it could target a majority or a minority, yet the ability to do so remains of value. Put differently, the exercise of free speech is done solely for its own sake and not for the necessary promotion of any other end. Although there is more to be said about this view, it is difficult to completely situate free speech as either an absolute value (presumably it is non-absolute given that it is one of several protected rights in the Bill of Rights which can, at history proves, come in conflict with other protected rights such as equality and non-discrimination) or as of intrinsic value. Moreover, it is difficult to understand speech in isolation from other goods that individuals consider to be part and parcel to the pursuit of whatever life plans and ends they set. ‘Rights’ are a special class of protected interests thought sufficiently important enough to hold others to a duty not to undermine or violate them. Their justification is intimately tied to the role they fulfill in allowing citizens’ to construct and pursue their desired view of the good life.

This intimate tie between the guaranteed rights and individual conceptions of the good life lead some to interpret the value of free speech as being instrumental, that is, valuable for the sake of something else. In his essay, On Liberty, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued quite extensively for an instrumental understanding of free speech, stating that we do more harm when we suppress unpopular opinion than we do potential good in allowing such views to be expressed in the marketplace of ideas. Mill’s reasons as roughly as follows;

  • The opinion we suppress might, for all we know, be true; we are fallible.
  • Even if not wholly true, the suppressed opinion might contain part of the truth, and that truth can only come out through free discussion.
  • Even if we know the whole truth on a given subject, we must allow our belief to be challenged or it will come to be held as mere prejudice, dead dogma; we will lose our understanding of its rational ground, why it is right.
  • The meaning of truths will be lost or enfeebled unless challenged; they will not be properly held or appreciated or internalized. (On Liberty)

It is worth noting that Mill’s commitment to the moral theory of Utilitarianism puts him in a position that values rights only insofar as they promote overall utility (or greatest happiness of the greatest amount of individuals). Mill’s view on rights is not grounded in natural rights or Divine rights but only positive rights (derived through government). That is to say, Mill was not in principle opposed to a system with no rights insofar as the utility of the population was maximized. However, he also thought that the life led from within, even if ultimately unsuccessful in the pursuit of adopted ends, is a more worthwhile life than one led from the outside by others (even if such a life is filled with success).

This is important, as Mill understood free speech as having a distinct value in societies marked by deep disagreement and moral pluralism. This suggests, at the very least, that some forms of speech, if done for no other purpose than to diminish utility or undermine the purpose of free speech (such as the above four points indicate), then it ought to be potentially limited or outright prohibited. Mill’s view on the value of free speech is tied to the enrichment it adds to the marketplace of ideas, the ability to offer different minded individuals reasons for accepting or changing previously held beliefs in light of new arguments, technology and social developments. When speech is used to curtail this process or to just outright lambaste members of the FGCU community (in our case), then it begs the question whether such speech is actually of any value.

Mill also did not refrain from suggesting some justifiable limits to free speech as presented through his commitment to the Harm Principle (i.e. the right to infringe on an individuals freedom is to prevent harm to others). This is made clear in his often cited Corn Dealers example, where Mill writes: “An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in a form of a placard.” (On Liberty, p. 55) Mill’s claim is not that free speech is non-valuable but only that it is subject to countervailing considerations, in this case the prevention of harm to others. The limit here is placed on the method of delivering the speech and not strictly the curtailment of the speech itself. Such an opinion “ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press,” as Mill explicitly makes clear.

Returning to the campus preacher and his megaphone, we might be able to shed a little more argumentative light on what value the preachers speech is intended to promote, what means may be available to him, and, finally, what forms of limitations can be enforced by FGCU that steer clear from free speech violations.

-Free_Speech_Doesn't_Mean_Careless_Talk-_-_NARA_-_513606

First, it is unclear what the preachers aim is on campus. It might be to spread the word of God, it might be to warn students (and others) of the consequences of living a life of so-called sin, it might be a general mission to educate members of the population, it might be to make students feel shame and worthlessness, it might be general fear mongering, it might be a combination of the above suggestions or something wholly different. Either way, I do not think there is anything immediately wrong with such possibilities (with the exception of undermining dignity of students). Such ends can be peacefully and purposefully pursed without the needed megaphone to disrupt others on campus or those in surrounding classrooms. If the preacher has no other purpose except to derail free speech and make students feel morally inferior, then there may be even stronger reasons (under an instrumental view of rights) to completely remove such specific speech from campus while leaving the notion of free speech intact.   But the preachers others goals (e.g. spread the Gospel) can be satisfied without the needed loud disruption.

Second, the university needs to do more than pay lip service to its mission statement and values. If the university is committed to creating an equal learning space and environment where all walks of life are welcome to attend, then it needs to protect these values in its daily affairs. One can imagine the university restricting a student from standing next to a domestic violence awareness booth on campus with signs suggesting that such victims deserved experiencing domestic violence, even taunting them of their experienced past and reminding them they are not safe. Unless the university does not take any stance on the wrongfulness of domestic violence, it is difficult to see how such a free speech act could be permitted. The university has the ability to highlight its other core values as reasons for limiting similar speech.

I recognize that it is difficult, and often dangerous, to attempt to determine what forms of speech ought to be allowed (or where to draw the line). But perhaps we can begin by identifying what speech will not be supported (similar to Mill drawing the boundaries at the Harm Principle) on campus on a case-by-case scenario as the university establishes its own set of core protected interests deemed necessary for the pursuit of knowledge and academia.   There is a principle in legal theory that states ‘whatever is not forbidden is permitted’. The university needs to adopt a similar approach by determining the forbidden, and in this case it can adopt restrictive measures for the preacher that neither undermine his general right to free speech nor the beliefs he wishes to adopt and value.

Finally, the disruption caused by the megaphone is a standalone issue. It is not tied to the case of the preacher specifically but with disruption more broadly. Any and all forms of disruptions caused by loud noise (e.g. megaphone, CD player, showing a movie on campus, etc.) ought to be restricted – not because of free speech or anything of that sort but for mere consideration and respect for all other members of the university committee.

I acknowledge that there is more to be said about the rich topic of Free Speech, and this post was not intended to commit a comprehensive study of the topic.  Rather, my aim was to tease out some reflections and considerations on free speech.  It need not be an all-or-none concept.  There are ways to challenge some forms of expressions (and the means used to carry them out) without necessarily undermining the general right to free expression.

 

‘Hello, LensCrafters? I broke my glasses fighting in a rebellion, am I covered?’

 

Rebellion! Just don't damage or lose your glasses  (that's not covered by the warranty)..

Rebellion! Just don’t damage or lose your glasses (that’s not covered by the warranty).

Earlier this week I was convinced I had lost my new pair of reading glasses.  This was even more frustrating given that I just bought them only two months ago after losing my long-time favourite pair during a conference trip to New Orleans.

I am happy to report that I was able to recover them after nearly two days of agonizing over where I might have last seen or left them.  It turned out that I accidentally left them at a recent visit to the Outback Steakhouse two days prior.

During the 48-hours spent looking for the glasses, I took it upon myself to read, in detail, the LensCrafters extra (non-manufacturer) warranty I had purchased.  Intuitively I knew that the rationale of ‘lost glasses’ would likely not be covered.  The whole idea of replacing lost pairs seems irrational (not merely unreasonable) from the suppliers end.  But I thought I had nothing to lose.  Worst-case scenario I am no better off than I currently am and best-case scenario I might actually benefit in some way toward getting a new pair, maybe a discount or so.  I like to remain optimistic!

What I discovered in the Warranty Contract was fairly straight-forward legal jargon, terms and definitions, stated exceptions, and so on.  However, there was one section of the warranty agreement that was odd enough to warrant highlighting.

About halfway through the document, there is a section entitled: ‘What is Not Covered’.  Under this section, LensCrafters lists twenty-three conditions (or circumstances) under which the warranty will not apply.  Majority of these are sensible and not too difficult to interpret.  For example, Condition 5 states “Third-Party actions (fire, collision, vandalism, theft, etc.” (See Warranty).  However, there are two listed conditions that easily capture the reader’s attention, which state;

“6) LOSS OR DAMAGE DUE TO THE ELEMENTS OR ACTS OF GOD; (7) LOSS OR DAMAGE DUE TO WAR, INVASION OR ACT OF FOREIGN ENEMY, HOSTILITIES, CIVIL WAR, REBELLION, RIOT, STRIKE, LABOR DISTURBANCE, LOCKOUT OR CIVIL COMMOTION;” (Warranty)

I am not a contract lawyer or have any specialized training in the field but these two conditions are startling.  In what sense can an act of God be determined for purposes of denying the warranty?  Would this include non-habitual set of events? This is conceptually problematic and impractical to say the least.

This hurts even more when you know it was caused by foreign enemies

This hurts even more when you know it was caused by foreign enemies

As for Condition 7, much of this actually harms military-personal and other similarly situated interest groups (e.g. war-reporters) who run a risk of possibly sustaining damage to their eye-wear during combat.  As for invasion or act of foreign enemy, hostilities, civil war and rebellion, it is not all that clear.  Perhaps this part of the warranty has remained the same since first introduced.  LensCrafters was founded in 1983, so language concerning ‘invasion or act of foreign enemy, hostilities’ might be better fitted for that period of politics and hostilities (e.g. cold war, etc.).  As for the ‘civil war and rebellion’ aspect, this seems just outdated concerns.

I confess that there was a part of me desiring to call LensCrafters and informing them that my glasses were recently damaged during a rebellion just to hear someone on the other end say ‘Sorry sir, our warranty doesn’t cover loss or damage caused in a rebellion or civil war.”

What I learned while reading ‘Gone with the Wind’

1388857475000-gone-with-the-wind-logo

What I learned while reading Gone with the Wind

I have a confession to make.

I recently finished Margaret Mitchell’s classic American novel, Gone with the Wind.  Moreover, I did this all on my own volition and free will.  I guess my fascination with the American South – culturally, socially, and historically – has no limits, and in this case it has come to subsume a work of historical fiction.  While the characters are fictitious; the setting, timeline, and narrative used to describe the attitudes, feelings, and life in the South before, during (and after) the Civil War is on its own worth it.  There is lots to be said about this novel, its setting, its story of struggle, character growth, love, loss and tragedy.  There is no doubt that the characters grow on the reader with the turning of every page.

I also confess that at first I committed to reading only the first one-hundred pages in order to make up my mind as to whether I wish to further engage with a story that unfolds over nearly 1500pages.  At first, I found myself frustratingly counting (and recounting) how many pages I had left every time I put the book down but by the end I found myself sadly counting how many pages remained.  Mitchell has the uncanny ability to carry through a smooth narrative without hardly ever missing a break in its unfolding. Even when you think the worse is over you eventually come to learn that in the next paragraph things can radically change with the sound of horse hooves in the distance or the delivery of a telegram requesting Scarlett to return to Tara or Atlanta.

This is not a happy story.  It does not have a happy ending.  The love between Rhett and Scarlett is not complete.  There are no winners in this story, which far exceeded my expectations of the typical love tales.  Throughout the entire book I kept waiting for the moment when things would finally begin to get better for Scarlett and others.  No such moment ever comes.  I had even always contextualized Rhett’s famous line (‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn) as a pronouncement of love for Scarlett regardless of what the entire South thought (I also admit that I have never watched the motion picture version).  So needless to say but I was somewhat struck by the nature of the relationship at the end and the confessions made by Rhett that in turn situated his character and behaviour throughout the story.

There is a lot to say about this book, all of which is not necessarily complementary or uncritical.  The book itself caused much controversy when it was first published over its portrayal of Southern life and the political motivations surrounding the Civil war. Mitchell tells a partisan story that offers an alternative narrative concerning the events of the Civil war and its aftermath.  Mitchell’s story at certain parts comes across as lamenting the old days (and ways), at other times a form of indirect defense of the slave system and the overly generalized fibs told in the Yankee strong Republican north about the treatment of slaves (e.g. Sam the slave informing Scarlett that he wished to return to Tara and return to a life of being told what to do – this is shortly after he tells her that folks in New York wished to hear about the gruesome tails of slavery but Sam didn’t have any personal experiences).  The book also has a historical place to play in the (then) ongoing cultural war that followed the end of the Civil war, in this case the intellectual battle over which part of America is responsible for producing better minds and works.

I am certainly not an expert on either the time period or the broader history surrounding the book and the events of Mitchell’s life but I do wish to highlight three main things I have taken from reading this book; gumption, ahistorical events and love.

On Gumption

Generally defined as ‘shrewd or spirited resourcefulness’, the term ‘gumption’ is a new addition to my personal vocabulary.  I never heard the term ‘gumption’ prior to reading this book and the first few times it was used it never stuck out to me.  I initially became aware of the term by incidentally reading the back cover of the book which had included a short description of a 1936 interview with Mitchell where she happened to be asked what she took her book to be about.

She responded by saying,

“If the novel has a theme it is that of survival.  What makes some people come through
catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave go under? It happens
in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t.  What qualities are in those who fight
their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that
survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption’. So I wrote about people who had gumption and
people who didn’t.” (as quoted in the back cover)

The story is full of characters that exhibit mixed degrees of gumption.  Mitchell’s claim is a little too simplified as some of her characters that show gumption in one case might fail to do so in another.  Rhett Butler is a case in point.  Clearly he has survived wars, shaming by his family, duels, jail and whatever else but there is something about him that is defeated by the end with the loss of his daughter, Bonnie, and then his eventual coming to terms over his relationship with Scarlett.  Ashley is another character in point.  His longing for a world that no longer exists and his failure to survive without riding the coattails of Scarlett and then his wife, Melanie, speaks to the character-type that never made it out of the Civil war, alive or otherwise.  Ashley captures much of the old ways but his extinguished gumption becomes manifestly clear by the end of the story.

Scarlett, on the other hand, shows gumption throughout the novel but not without some reservation.  Her strength is often informed by the wrong idea (e.g. her naïve love for Ashley) and thereby leaves the reader with a sense of Scarlett’s vulnerability and child-like character.  Interestingly enough the novel ends with her showing some strength in believing that she can get Rhett back (tomorrow is another day after all!) despite his parting words.  I certainly finished the last few pages holding out hope that despite the circumstances, Scarlett would find another way to escape her situation and get Rhett back.  She is a survivor after all, she will surely find a way to overcome this latest setback in her life.

I am pleased to add ‘gumption’ to my list of terms.  I confess that I came across this book at a time when I needed a little reminder about the need for gumption in my own changing circumstances.  I have also always found value and reward in the kind of struggles individuals face and overcome in life – no matter what they may be.  If nothing else, I valued the story for its ability to inspire the search for hope in an often-times quickly darkening world.

Ahistorical Account

Slavery is wrong.  I do not think any one can, with any seriousness, challenge such an account.  The moral wrongfulness of depriving others of their autonomy (even if subjected to positive treatment) is a wrong in and of itself.  I mention this for two reasons.  First, although the narrative associated with the rationale for the Civil war is connected to eliminating slavery, I am not naïve enough to think that this was the only rationale for the war.  I am sure other political, economical and social reasons play a role.  Independent of what such reasons might be offered (e.g. taxing the South or expanding central government, etc.), consensus can be reached that the system of slavery had to go.  Second, despite my agreement with the given rationale motivating the conflict (i.e. with ending slavery), I still think the narrative of the war and its aftermath by the Confederates is of value.

Let me expand on this second point a little bit.  The narrative told (justified or not) does reveal the hardships and feelings associated with colonialism, namely, usurpation of owned land, removal from political power, second-class treatment, unjust taxation, unfair treatment, and displacement.  The novel takes up the so-called ‘Reconstruction’ period in the south and what many confederates saw as a form of humiliation in addition to the wrongfulness of the whole encounter.

What struck me about this theme is its ahistorical value yet some of the individuals I have engaged with here in Florida (and Georgia) often fail to apply the conclusions they reach to other current parts of the world.  As a philosopher this is not strikingly new.  Often I am able to engage others on the just nature of some legal or political situation-involving Group A or Group B.  That is to say, in the abstract, many individuals have little difficulty grasping the morality of some situation involving nameless individuals (or states).  However, as soon as I remove the labels A and B and replace them with real world places/conflicts, the answer often changes.  I understand that context can matter but it remains to be determined when the context matters enough to alter the substance of the raised claim.  Again, I am aware that I am likely privileging a particular approach and school of thought in philosophy but this is no reason to discount my suggestion.  When those whom I engage with can agree, in principle, about the wrongfulness of the treatment and aftermath of the Civil war, they often just fail to transfer such conclusions to other worldly contexts.

So I was simply struck by the historical situation of the text but also its ahistorical value in terms of showing the associative experiences of displacement and so on.  Finally, I was simply struck by how many of those I talked to fail to extend the themes to other parts of space and time.

Love

There is one passage, spoken relatively early in the story by Ashley when he is confronted by Scarlett.  Scarlett, having heard of rumours that Ashley was to be engaged to Melanie, confronts Ashley and professes her love to him.  His response, for reasons I do not wish to go too much into detail here, resonated with me.

“Love isn’t enough to make a successful marriage when two people are as different as
we are.  You would want all of a man, Scarlett, his body, his heart, his soul, his thoughts.
And if you did not have them, you would be miserable.  And I couldn’t give you all of me.
I couldn’t give all of me to anyone.  And I would not want all of your mind and your soul.
And you would be hurt, and then you would come to hate me – how bitterly! You would
hate the books I read and the music I loved because they took me away from you even for
a moment.”

I will say this.  There is nothing wrong with either Ashley’s view or Scarlett’s view.  I have come to learn that things may go wrong when either Ashley is made to think that his love (and level of offering love to another) is insufficient or when Scarlett believes she is asking for too much by wishing to be loved in this way.  More problematic is the associated sense of guilt that can accompany either feeling.

Moreover, Ashley was honest.  His claim was not solely about Scarlett and her perceived needs.  Rather, it was an honest statement about himself.  He confesses that he ‘couldn’t give all of me to anyone’.  Perhaps this is a burden, perhaps it is just who he is.  Perhaps it is tragic or likely to lead to misery.  But it was honest.  I could have stopped reading the book after reaching this passage and would still have said I found value in Gone with the Wind.

Russell, Doubt and What Not to Die for

russell

 

The 20th century British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, once stated “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” In one way, this is a sentiment toward skepticism and the recognition of our own limits and fallibility even on some of the most sincerely held beliefs and values. It also speaks to the awareness that the more knowledgeable one is the more doubtful they likely become. Russell also captured the spirit of this paradox of knowledge in his observation that the “whole problem with the world today is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

It is no secret that Russell himself was at one point committed to a core epistemic project aimed toward establishing some certainty in the world. He thought that logic and mathematics would hold the key to epistemology (an enterprise similarly sought by Rene Descartes, with the exception that Descartes remained committed to the viability of his Rationalism). It is also no secret that Russell gave up on this project in the early 1900’s when, among other things, it occurred to him that the foundation of knowledge remains founded on some presupposition-less proposition that is asserted to be a self-evident truth with no further justification offered for its acceptance.  This type of issue has plagued epistemology and the search for ‘truth’ since early Greek writing. Russell’s famous paradox concerning whether the set of all sets contains itself comes to offer important insight into the limitations of even logic in establishing certainty and truth.

The challenge of skepticism is hardly novel. Although in modern times skepticism has become part limited to the field of epistemology, this was not always the case. Looking to the Ancient Greek philosophers, there was at least two camps offering differing degrees of skeptical doubt. The Academic skeptics, much like Socrates, begins with the recognition that perhaps all I know is that I know nothing, which in turn comes to posit the first thing we can know. The other camp was that of Pyyrho and his followers who held a radical view of doubt that would neither affirm nor deny the proposition that I know that I know nothing. Pyrrhonian’s thought it best to simply suspend judgment on all propositions and only assume a proposition to be true insofar as they appear to be.  The implication being that when something appeared no longer to be true then it was no longer true (this doctrine would be defended later in the works of Sextus Empiricus).    However, unlike the Modern era and the return to questions of knowledge, the Ancients took up the doctrine of skepticism as part of an ethical enterprise. Pyyhronian skeptics, in other words, advocated radical skepticism as a means of achieving the good life.  In the Modern era, there is a return to the role that skepticism plays in challenging epistemic theories of truth.

I have always returned to Russell’s apt reminder of the importance of maintaining an open mind to the possibility that the beliefs we hold and advocate may be wrong. The implication of having read Russell at such a young age (I was probably in my late teens when first stumbling upon Russell – most of which I could barely grasp at the time) is that it has led me to inhibit much of what I have wished to say. My inhibition is not due to the fact that I am unable to put together some intelligible opinion or view on some matter. Rather, the worry that I might just be wrong is what has limited my expression. I have studied and read to the point where, short of becoming anything remotely close to ‘wise’, I have instead become full of doubt. But this is not a healthy degree of doubt – perhaps even by Pyrrhonian standards.

To my surprise, whenever I have had a discussion about the issue of knowledge and doubt, other academics working in the same or related disciplines have expressed similar experiences. I have been previously aware of  some of the other paralyzing fears academics often experience at one point or another when writing or presenting. Anyone who has written a dissertation or a major research paper has had moments of panic over the quality of his or her writing, what others will think, etc. Perhaps this describes a different kind of worry that is not too far distant from doubt. But it was more of a social fear of what others, particularly one’s peers or supervisors or attendees at a conference, will think. It differs in important ways from the concern I am highlighting here. The issue here is one of becoming paralyzed over the thought that everything I am writing might simply be wrong.

Over the past decade, I have periodically returned to Russell, sometimes for teaching purposes and other times out of a growing interest concerning his political views. Russell wrote extensively on humanitarian and war-related issues. He was jailed for his pacifist beliefs and partaken role in peaceful protest during the First World War. He adopted a less-than-pacifist position during the Second World War. Russell came to believe that some conditions, if met, might justify the use of force in self-defense (David Blitz calls this modified view ‘non-absolute’ pacifism since on no other conditions did Russell think pacifism ought to be abandoned). Russell also often served as a mentor and advisor to poor Indians living under British rule. Finally, he was one of the signatories in a letter urging US president Truman not to drop the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He even predicted that the Hydrogen bomb would not be too far along.

What struck me most is perhaps Russell’s willingness to put his reputation and career on the line for the benefit of others. But this didn’t faze him. When he was once asked why as a philosopher he was willing to risk his reputation by writing on controversial political topics, Russell responded by saying that when he wrote on political issues “it was not as a philosopher. I wrote as a human being who suffered from the state of the world.”

When I finally read his response it dawned on me that I had been interpreting Russell’s skepticism improperly (perhaps even wrong). Bertrand Russell may have been firm in his pronouncement that he would never die for his beliefs but he certainly lived for them. He lived for what he believed was just and right. It doesn’t mean he was right or that there was never room for any doubt over the political actions he undertook. It means he was able to put aside the philosophical hat when he turned a critical eye to issues of justice, democracy, and morality. He abandoned the skeptic in himself in favour of a human being who cared enough not to remain silent any longer.

 

The Dangerous Game of Chess

Chess

Ever since reading ‘The Grand Chessboard” by Brzezinski, my entire understanding of geopolitics has been substantively changed.  When placed in the analogy of a chessboard, with the key players being the United States, Russia, China, England, Germany and France, one gains a richer understanding of the global interest beginning from at least early 20th century and covering a piece of land that expands from north-east Africa through the Middle East, the Gulf States, all the way out to Japan.  Brzezinski powerfully articulates the United States (and other world-powers) interest in securing that particular geographical location of the world.  It serves as an important import/export route, has mass oil wells, potential capitalist market (e.g. India) and, finally, offers an important strategic position in terms of warfare and expansion of military might (as well the spreading of state-endorsed hegemonic ideals).  In essence, Brzezinski highlights the rationale that various states have for wishing to exert control, influence (if not outright domination) of this highly contested part of the world.

When geopolitical relations are viewed from such a lens, one begins to understand the ongoing tension between various states, especially the United States and Russia.  Both states have an interest in the region.  The United States has found means by which to exert some direct influence on Afghanistan and Iraq (though many would argue that they are not doing all that good of a job).  Pakistan is a complicated case, with much of the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq further spilling into that region.  And with the terrorism rhetoric of today, non-state actors have become a larger part of the story.  India’s prospects look better, though in such a hotly contested area, there is no predicting the impact regional changes will have on India.  Meanwhile, Russia has important economic ties with Syria.  Syria has had many trade embargoes and sanctions placed on it for several decades now and have routinely turned to the East for its economic affairs.  This is one market, trade route, and region the Russians (and Chinese to some extent) cannot afford to lose.  And certainly, they have been key players in keeping the powers that be in place for the time being.  This does not mean they are committed to the parties currently in power, such as the Assad family in Syria.  But most likely will not turn on him until such a time comes that they can be assured, to some degree of confidence, that the new power will maintain the economic and military ties between the two states.

But while Syria burns in the background in the interest of the global giants, the Ukraine has now become the new focus of attention (not to mention a new source of tension between the United States and Russia).  With the recent fall of the Kiev and the removal of the Russian-backed leaders, there will be a small window of opportunity for the United States to attempt to exert some influence on the newly formed leadership.  This would bode well for the US as well as the European Union, not to mention the people of Ukraine who wish to see their state edge closer to the European Union than a Russian confederation.  Of course, there is always the worry that the Ukraine will split into two very opposing views, which may lead to the type of friction that has often resulted in countless death in Europe (and other areas).

None of this is particularly new.  The names may have changed, the pons may look different, and the bishops and knights might be dressed in different garb.  But the game of chess remains the same.  The goal is to win.  The goal is to defeat the king of your opponent.  Geopolitics hasn’t changed.  Our understanding of it has though.  Perhaps the only difference is that while chess eventually produces a winner and loser, it is not clear who the winners are in the geopolitical game of chess.  The people, however, are sadly the clear losers in this bout.  Caught between competing ideologies and hoping someone on their side will yell ‘checkmate’ sooner rather than later.

chessboard02

Institutional Pluralism, William Shatner, Violence and Hockey

flag-of-canada

Much of my academic work focuses on issues of political justice, legal pluralism and minority rights.  I am interested in institutional design and some of the responses available for managing diversity in constitutional democratic frameworks.  This work requires that we in part think through the type of institutional responses offered to growing minority claims (feminist, religious minorities, racial, ethnic, LGBTQ, etc.)

The literature offers a general spectrum of responses to diversity, ranging from extreme integration to extreme accommodation.  Typically, the closer one gets to full integration the more state-centered models one finds that enforce (to varying degrees) a shared identity.  The most extreme version of integration would be assimilation into one public/private identity with a shared culture, language, system of beliefs and so on.  The most extreme version of accommodation would be secession whereby some group is granted full autonomy from the state in order to govern its affairs in accordance with the group preference.  Then there are intermediate degrees of integration and accommodation.  For example, some liberal theorists (e.g. John Rawls) aim for a mixed-model that attempts to find some shared principles of justice for guiding the basic structures of a society marked by reasonable pluralism.  This would require that certain basic goods be shared and recognized in public but also permits for the type of individual/group expression desired by citizens.  Some intermediate degrees of accommodation may lead states to recognize certain exemptions from state laws on grounds of religious, cultural, or ethnic beliefs.  Or it may travel closer to secession and grant some minorities (e.g. Amish) many more exemptions from the state.  Such groups are sometimes said to exhibit the characteristics of ‘partial-citizenship’, that is, they participate by way of obeying the laws of the state, paying taxes but otherwise participate very little in mainstream society (e.g. do not vote, participate in the military, etc.).

We can apply these models to any state to get a sense of what kind of approach is currently favoured.  Whether it is North Korea, Saudi Arabia, United States, Germany, Egypt or Iraq.  Each state has adopted some model (or mix of models) in an attempt to maintain social stability.  Iraq has adopted a de-centralized model that attempts to spread political power between several groups in an attempt to keep the state stabilized by legitimizing state decisions through some shared-power model (e.g. Iraq executive power is decentralized and the system is set up to reflect shared governance between the competing Shi’a, Sunni, Kurds, and so on).  Egypt, just for variety sake, is currently struggling through to draft a constitution that would be given wide support by Egypt’s diverse (particularly religiously diverse) population.  Egypt appears to be heading into a centralist military backed constitutional state model.  These are just two examples to help illustrate the point.  Nearly every state struggles to find ways to manage diversity.

I should emphasize that this is merely a thumbnail sketch of a much more developed framework.  We see these models adopted by various states.  For example, Canada offers more of an accommodationist model toward its diverse population.   Aboriginal (or Natives) and French Canadian identities are protected in an accommodationist fashion.  To some degree both groups have gained certain special recognitions by the state (e.g. Bi-lingual constitution, recognition of Aboriginal identity as well as Quebecois).  Other minorities (e.g. religious, national) are expected to integrate within the system but often are successful at gaining exceptions from the state on grounds of religious freedom and so on.  Here once can think of the Canadian Supreme Courts unanimous decision in R v. Multani to permit Sikh students to wear their ceremonial dagger, kirpan, while attending school on grounds that such limits unjustifiably infringe upon the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  More importantly, it does so in a way that cannot be demonstrably justified in a liberal democratic state.

In light of the above comments, I wish to focus the rest of this post on one means to institutional pluralism and recognition.  I should emphasize that this approach is only one such approach and is one that feasibly displays integration and accommodation strategies all in one.  That is, there is a call here to have the state recognize change and put into effect accomodations.  However, nothing prima facie requires that new institutions be introduced or old ones taken apart.  It also does not necessarily presuppose the need for a separate set of institutions that derive their authority from some source other than the state.  The example below is one that wishes to maintain the central model but have the state recognize areas where diversity can be better reflected.

Thus, I essentially set up the above discussion in order to situate a recent debate in the Canadian context concerning the national anthem (O’ Canada).  The Canadian writer and activist, Margaret Atwood, has spoken on the need to revise the lyrics to the national anthem so as to reflect diversity and gender equality.  Such lyrics as ‘God keep our land . . .’ may need revision as well as the lyric ‘In all thy sons commands’.  In a humorous video made to coincide with a recent honorary award for the Canadian actor and master thespian, William Shatner, we see this very theme come to the forefront.  Shatner is asked to sing the national anthem and as he progresses through the lyrics he raises critical questions as to the descriptive adequacy of the traditional lyrics.

Atwood’s call for changing the lyrics is reflective of a framework informed by the need for the state to alter its institutions (or at the very least its policies and laws) in order to respond to the evolving culture.

I understand that the concern with the national anthem lyrics may come across as philosophically moot but it has implications for all levels of society.  For example (and on a serious note), several years ago while attending a conference on Law and Violence, one of the panels addressed the question of ‘what more can the state do to protect abused members?’  Several panelist argued that in terms of positive rights, the state was doing a lot.  Women shelters were open, criminal law prohibits abuse, counseling is funded by Canadian healthcare, public information is made available, anonymous tip-lines are established and so on and so forth.  And in many ways, this is true.  There are numerous sources made available to assist those who face or find themselves in such terrible circumstances.  But an individual in the audience  raised a rather interesting question about the policies that govern women’s shelter. In particular, she offered the example of her same-sex partner’s ability to also access womens’ shelter in case she was to run away.  It had never occurred to me that womens’ shelter – which aim, in part, to allow woman a refuge from their typical male abuser – are unable to account for same-sex abusive partnerships.

This is a complaint that is very much in line with the more general argument Atwood and others are putting forth.  The institutions we have need to reflect the facts on the grounds.  It was a wake up call to policy makers to revise policies in light of the new challenges.  Otherwise, we are left with institutional designs that reflect one particular normative approach (in this case hetero-normativity).  There is a tension here of trying to force something that is into something that was, thereby I think doing injury to the former in the hopes of maintain the traditional structure of the latter.

On a less serious note, I witnessed something similar while watching Womans’ Hockey at the Sochi Winter Olympics.  During the first preliminary game between the USA and Canada women, the Canadian team was penalized for having too many players on the ice during a line-change.  This is a recognized penalty that occurs periodically due to  random poor line-changes.  What was interesting about it was that the official penalty charged against the Canadian women was ‘too many men on the ice’, though there were no men on the ice at all, let alone too many of them.  Again, this is trivial and too moot to raise more than an eyebrow about.  But it is a symptom of a much larger issue concerning the institutional design of the state and the ways by which it goes about to recognize and manage diversity in accordance with abstract moral principles embedded in the very make up of a constitutional democracy.

Valuable Distinctions

12-years-a-slave-2341180

I am nearing completion of Solomon Northup’s retelling of the horrific turn his life unfortunately (and wrongfully) took in 1841 when he was kidnapped in Washington and sold into slavery.  He would remain there for 12 years mainly working on various plants in New Orleans under the direction of different owners. (The account includes several intense experiences)

There are too many valuable insights in the narrative to attempt to capture here.  However, there is one recurring theme that I wish to highlight, namely, Solomon’s ability to keep separate the act of slavery from the system of slavery itself.  For example, in his initial description of one of his owners, Mr. William Ford, Solomon notes the following;

“But I was sometimes [WIlliam Ford’s] slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.  The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrongs at the bottom of the system of Slavery.  He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection.  Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light.  Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.” (Northup, 12 Years a Slave, Chapter VII).

This type of moral awareness of the distinction between the individuals who participate in the system vs. the system itself resurfaces at other parts of his narrative.  In the case of Ford, Solomon’s writing suggest that he understands why such a good natured man holds the beliefs that he does.  That is to say, it is difficult to see Ford’s beliefs being otherwise than they were given his inherent normative worldview.

However, the same awareness is displayed in respect to slaveowners who Solomon spoke ill of, as he does in his discussion of his longest owner, Epps. This is explicitly stated by Solomon when he writes;

“It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.  He cannot withstand the influence of habit and association that surround him.  Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.” (Northup, 12 Years a Slave, Chapter XIV).

Looking back to this distinction and thinking more broadly about Solomon’s actions, particularly his willingness to trust ‘whites’ for help, it begins to make sense why such a distinction central for allowing Solomon to escape his ever likely ill fate.  He didn’t lose his faith in man.  Rather he never had any faith in a system.

I also think this distinction is important for much of todays’ expression  in areas of religion, law, politics and morality.  Distinguishing, for example, the difference between a normative system (e.g. Islam, Christianity, Socialism, Democracy, Liberalism, etc), the doctrines formulated within a system (e.g. Sunni Islam, Calvinism, Marxism, Republican Party), and the individuals who adhere to such systems (e.g. a Sunni Muslim, a Calvinist, a Socialist, or a Republican) helps address the kind of general statements made about such subjects.  It also helps keep separate the value of the system itself from those who give it expression (and interpretation).  At times the system could suffer from faults (as did the Slave System), while other times it is the expression the system is given through its adherents that can be more problematic.  And of course there are variations of these two issues.  There is a need to be mindful of the complexity of these three distinctions in respect to their convergence as well as divergence.

Had Solomon failed to remain mindful of such a distinction, then perhaps the outcome would have been different.  Had he believed that all slave owners are one and the same, subscribe to the same set of beliefs, interpret slavery in the same way, view blacks as necessarily inferior, then perhaps he would not have trusted the individuals he did to help rescue him from the shackles of slavery.

Recent Developing Interests

Image

I have recently began developing an interest in American slavery and its history.  My interest is not limited to any one particular area.  I find slave narratives (e.g. Solomon Northup) fascinating as well as historical analysis of the rise of slavery and the moral, political, social, and religious normative orders that largely supported it.  There are also contemporary issues about the implications of slavery, hidden racism via state policies, legislative acts and so on. And I imagine many more approaches to the topic that I fail to mention.

I hope to share my thoughts on the matter as they develop. I have started by picking up a copy of ‘Documents of American Prejudice‘ for a brief look at how racist (as well as progressive liberals before and after the Union) viewed race relations and moral outlooks.

I will periodically post analysis and ideas I have on the subject as they develop.

Introducing the Other Philosopher Blog

cropped-cropped-avicenna.jpg

“Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”
                            – Ibn Sina (Avicenna)

Welcome to The Other Philosophers’ Blog!

The aim of this blog is to explore various topics and areas of philosophy as I continue to make my journey through  life and the philosophical terrain I find myself constantly thrusted upon.

As for the title of this blog, I figure a few words of explanation are appropriate.  I grew up in North America but am of Middle-Eastern background.  For much of the early years of my academic undergraduate studies, I was always under the impression that Islamic philosophy was part of the ‘other’ (or non-western) traditions.  It was not until early into my graduate studies in Philosophy that I began to see the historical, philosophical, and geographical bridge between western philosophy and Islamic philosophy.  In fact, calling Islamic philosophy ‘other’ or non-western is conceptually and descriptively inaccurate.  Historically, Ancient Greek philosophy was lost and revived through Islamic thinkers.  Conceptually, Islamic philosophy takes up much of the same subject matter taken up by the western canon of philosophy (metaphysics, nature of God, ethics and so on).

However, playing on this notion that I am an ‘other’ and in the spirit of philosophical fun, I have titled this blog ‘The Other Philosopher’.  That is, if I am indeed an ‘other’, then from this standpoint it is in fact ‘western’ philosophy that is other.  If so, then this is the others view of what appears to him to be the other.