Mind Control

Here's another part of an Orkut discussion. Stefan from Switzerland says that I have to be careful with trying to eliminate prejudices, discrimination and racism, because e.g. prejudices are thougths in peoples minds, and I should not try to control their minds, I am not allowed to do that. It is because of my Levaninasian protest against totalitarian racism that I protest against racism, but Stefans warning is at the same time Levinasian too, since mind control is just as totalitarian as racism. So it's an interesting and very relevant discussion we were having - of which you see the most important part below.

We were talking about justice, about if we have the same aims that we strive for, with different means, or if we also strive for different aims.

I said:
My central aim is justice:
- I don't want to see that millions and millions of people die of hunger every day. That one of the 3 women in Senegal dies when a child is born, because the health care services are insufficient there. The life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 38, while it more than double that age in the Netherlands.
- I don't want to see that people are discriminated and considered to be inferior human beings just because of the colour of their skin.
- I don't want people to live "imprisoned", that they can't go on the street, that they can't say what they think, that they have to fear for their lives all the time, only because of their political opinions.

- I don't want to see children traumatised by stupid wars that go on for ever. When children are confronted with too much immoral violence, for a too long time, there comes a time when their lives are ruined for ever, when they will never be able anymore to live a happy normal life without having nightmares of the war.
A world with so much poverty, suffering and oppression is not a world that I consider as right and just.

And then Stefan said:

Esther, it seems to me that I was right on with my understanding of your goals:
"you'd want to live in a peaceful, harmonious and prosperous society, where no one suffers from poverty, crime and oppression"
You went into more detail, but I think the above summed it up quite well. The "justice" component is implicit in this formulation, but it is well worth making it explicit.

So our goals are not different at all. I also strive for justice, based on the understanding that every individual has exactly the same right to his own body and mind, especially the right to live as he chooses, not as someone else wishes to impose on him.
So to me, the most important aspect is to remove aggression and oppression as much as possible, so that people become truly free to choose.

As for the "mind control" aspect - when you say you want to eliminate xenophobia, you have to be very careful:
- It is RIGHT to eliminate criminal ACTS in general, quite independently of motivation. To the victim, it doesn't matter if he was attacked because his aggressor was drunk or because he didn't like his skin colour. Ideally, the victim is able and allowed to defend himself against aggression and will be helped individually and institutionally.
- It is WRONG to try to control what people think, feel or express (short of, as I've said elsewhere, actual direct or veiled threats, which constitute acts of aggression).

If someone doesn't like red-haired people, that is his preference and you're not making the world better by trying to force not to feel that way. If someone dislikes foreigners, women, blacks, whites or whatever, that does not concern anyone. He is even entitled to refuse interacting with the people he doesn't like. I think laws to the contrary are criminal, as they impose a specific worldview, no matter how noble it may seem.

If the law creates the conditions for a peaceful coexistence by opposing aggression, then the hearts and minds will follow. If the law tries to force harmony, it will only ignite much worse hatred. Your wish to eliminate xenophobia does not concern objective rules of justice, it concerns what goes on in another person's mind and hence becomes as dangerous as the attempt at imposing a religion or ideology.

In short: distinguish what you WISH for and what is actually coherent with the principle of justice and the right of other people to make their own decisions and have their own opinions.
It's quite interesting to see that people are often more eager to impose their worldview than they are to implement those things that do not require a "re-education" of everyone else.

NB: This is true of every possible type of unpleasant thought.

I don't want to control what people think, I just don't want them to use force to impose their ideas, period.

Then I replied, later in the discussion:

I wanted to come back to Stefans point of "mind control" against prejudices, discrimination and xenophobia / racism. We can never determine for others what they should and what they should not think. The state can't do that, and I can't do that to my friend for instance.

If somebody decides to put away his prejudices and xenophobia then that is his own choice. But people could be stimulated to make that choice when others show them why prejudices and xenophobia can have negative effects not only for foreigners but also for a society as a whole, for the interhuman relations.

By the way, I don't care what people think, they can have the most awful thoughts as long as they treat each other right, with respect. So I won't ever accuse somebody of bad thoughts, I will only protest against bad behaviour. I think we all have this kind of responsibility to protest against discrimination and racism, and this is not the same as mind control, and it will be more like a computation of individual protest, then through collective state control.

So in my opinion I am not trying to control someones mind when I protest against racism etc., because I don't protest against thoughts but against discriminative dehumanized behaviour. But this is something that many people against whom my protest is aimed, don't understand. When I try to wake up the first person, with me in the role of the other, my protest isn't expressed in the way the Levinas describes how it should happen. When the first person sees the face of the other, a natural appeal goes from the other to the first, it's an invitation to respond. When the first person takes his responsibility upon himself and welcomes the other, then he took a distance from the totality that was there before he welcomed the other.

An invitation with a welcome as a response is not the same as when I accuse somebody of racism and when I try to convince him to change his behaviour.
This is in my opinion a general difficulty with ethics. You have ideas about good and evil and you try to turn what you consider as evil into good. But it's not so easy to avoid doing it in a totalitarian way. And even if my intentions are good and if I deliberately try to bring it as an invitation, not as something I am forcefully pushing through, then still people usually don't react with open arms when I accuse them of evil behaviour. So Stefan is right that it is something that should be handeld with care...

And here's Stefans reply to my last post:


your formulation coincides entirely with my own principles – again :). One should never care about how someone thinks, only how he acts. As long as a person doesn't attack others physically or through threats (which, as we've seen, is the same thing), he can have any idea he wants.

Trying to convince people that certain ideas are limiting and counterproductive, mostly for themselves, is obviously a good idea. If someone refuses categorically to deal with a certain category of people (e.g. because of skin colour), he mostly limits his own possibilities. His world will be more restricted. He has nothing to gain, but a lot to loose.
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