Black-and-white glasses of Lunatic Liberals

So finally I will write something about the debate "Don't give racism a voice" which was organized by the Socialist Party in Amsterdam, International Socialists, Together Against Racism and the Union of Moroccan Mosques in Amsterdam and surroundings, which took place in the building of the Turkish Workers Association in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam. A detailed report of the debate you can find at the weblog of Anja Meulenbelt (but in Dutch). I will focus on one issue that I was thinking about during the debate.

I would like to focus on the contrast that can be found in the philosophy of both Levinas and Derrida, between on the one hand post-modern relativism and on the other hand the tradional religious ideology of the "work of justice", and to make a link from this to the anti-racism debate.

If you read Derrida's deconstructions of text, he makes it plausible to think that there are no absolute truths, there are no texts which speak for themselves, texts don't have a one to one relation to the objects in the world out there which they describe. Language creates reality, or in fact it creates our perception of reality. But this is all we have, we can never step out of our subjective perspective to move to an objective perspective which would be completely without any subjective interpretation. Facts are facts, and in principle they can be measured. If I make a statement that refers to facts only, in most cases we can investigate if it is true or not, what I said. But a very big part of what we say and write down does not only consist of factual descriptions but also of opinions and moral judgements. This means that what we say and write is for a very big part subjective, not objective. There are no opinions and moral truths in the world out there, they are only in our minds. So they can only be personal truths, never absolute and objective truths.

Because Derrida realizes how much the meaning of words is determined by the context in which they are said, and how much the way a person understands a message is influenced by his personal interpretation, Derrida becomes very careful with how he uses his words (which doesn't make his texts very easy to read ;)). So he sees it as his mission to deconstruct texts to the bottom, to show how so many claims to objective truths in the world out there are in fact illusions and just personal opinions. He breaks down a text to the bottom, he analyses every word and mentions possible interpretations that could be given to it. And when he deconstructed / broke down the whole textual building, he starts to rebuild it with the same words as the stones of the building, but before he speaks out the words, he tastes every word at lenght. It's almost a work of art that he is doing with the text, he plays a difficult intellectual word game. With this he doesn't only want to present his views on a certain text (sometimes it even isn't clear what he is in fact trying to say), but he also wants to show through his own writings how the text itself can play with the meaning of the words.
If you follow Derrida very far in these post-modern thoughts, you will be constantly full of doubts with regard to what you say or write down. With every statement you make, you can label it immediately as subjective, and think of what somebody with a different view might put against it, and his interpretation could be just as much right as your own one. So in fact the statement that you just made was a random one, you could just as well have said the opposite, if you choose for a different perspective / interpretation.

One could say that there are two Derrida's: the young Derrida with his post-modern analyses of texts, and the Derrida at the end of his life, who started to speak and write in a completely different way. With the Derrida reading group we noticed the big contrast in the topics and the style of his younger and his older years. In his older years he's a clearly articulated extreme left-wing political activist. He is lead by traditional Jewish morality in his struggle for justice, his struggle to help the poor, the strangers, the oppressed, etc. Then at once he seems to believe again in absolute truths, he no longer puts everything he says into question, he chooses a political side.

Some examples / quotes from Derrida (from: "Philosophy in a time of terror"):
"We will have to realise that all forms of resistance - what is called with two problematic words the "war on terror" - will always have as a result that the causes of evil that should be eliminated, that on the contrary, new life will be blown into it. Whether we talk about Iraq, Afghanistan or even Palestine, the "bombs" will never be "smart" enough to stop the victims from reacting to them, which they can easily justify as a legitimite retaliation action. Bush speaks about a war, but in fact he isn't able to identify the enemy that he is fighting against. We should be aware that power strategies and power relations are at stake here. The dominant power is the one who succeeded at a national or international level to enforce others to accept the terminology and the interpretation that they have chosen to use with regard to a certain situation, and to legitimize it like that."

When I read what Derrida says about 9-11, it almost sounds as if it's the fault of the US that the terrorists attacked the WTC buildings, and as if he is glad that this stupid Bush will never be able to protect himself and his country against terrorists, which could also be considered to be freedom fighters. You wouldn't really expect that kind of views from an otherwise nuanced, non-political and intellectual philosopher. But the way he speaks reminds me of Michael Moore...

How is this possible for someone who seemed to be such a critical post-modernist who relativates all strong statements? It seems as if Derrida has two different faces: on the one hand he doesn't believe in absolute truths and he always tries to reveal these illusions of objectivity in the texts he analyses, but on the other hand he does believe in absolute truths, because he is determined to strive for justice, to help people who suffer and who are confronted with injustice. He doesn't see that as a random personal choice to temporary accept one truth instead of something else, he believes that the injustice that he sees is something that really exists in the world out there.

This is an interesting combination I think, on the one hand the critical, rational, sober, and cool way to analyse texts, and on the other hand the passionate, emotional, strongly convinced of being right way of striving for justice. So Derrida has at the same time a post-modern and a traditional Jewish ethical side inside of him.

I was thinking about this contrast when I listened to the discussions in the anti-racism debate. This desire / passion for the "work of justice" was clearly present in the debate, no matter on which ideology it was based this time (socialism, the Islam, maybe a little bit of Christianity, or not based on any particular ideology/religion). Since Levinas focusses on totalisation (generalizations, prejudices, simplifications, exagerations) as opposed to being self-critical, nuanced and open to the totally other, I focussed on the kind of arguments people used to figth racism, or to defend the interests of their group. I noticed that there were big differences with regard to the amount of simplifications / exagerations. Some people were drowning in their roles of victims, they generalized and exagerated a lot, while others just stated the facts as they were, they let the facts more speak for themselves, and they were more directed towards practical and pragmatic solutions. In my view that last way to react is a stronger way of arguing, which will also be more convincing towards people with other views. To drown in the victim role only irritates the supposed "oppressors", and it doesn't bring the "victims" any further.

But what I was wondering, was: is it in fact possible to combine postmodern constant self-criticism and internal doubts with a convinced of being right attitude towards the struggle for justice? I think Derrida will have wrestled with this question himself as well. My own position is that I think: Ok, there are no absolute truths, that I believe in the justice that I strive for is maybe only my personal truth that I strive for, the question of what is just and what is unjust can not be answered in a completely objective and universal way. But who cares, why shouldn't I continue to strive for what I believe in? Only I should be careful that I don't "kill the other" in my fight for justice. I should have an open mind to other views, I should be self-critical. I should allow others to put everything into question that I say and do, I should be able to explain why I did so and said so, I should be willing to change my views and course of actions. I should not look at the world in black and white, because in reality there are many many gray tints. Dogmatism refers to an illusive simple view on reality, which means that there's a big part of reality that you don't see, in fact. Dogmatism is inflexible as well, you have to stick to what you thought in the beginning, you can't change / improve your views based on new experiences. Dogmatism is something you can find among many different groups of people in the society, of course. There is not only the dogmatism of Lunatic Liberals but also of Crazy Conservatives and Extreme Terrorists.

I often think back of what I wrote about the sheep and the wolf. I think that there are really people in the position of sheep and people in the position of wolves, in the world out there. Oppression and discrimination are real phenomena in the world out there. This means that justice and injustice also exists in the world, independent from how people with different perspectives look at it. Only the risk of the sheep and wolf story is that people start to think again too much in black and white, in simplifications and absolute terms. There is no race of sheep (black people) and a race of wolves (white people). The roles / positions are mainly devided like that at present, but that doesn't mean it's unchangeable. People sometimes wonder how it's possible that the Jews, to whom such terrible things were done in the Second World War, how it's possible that they treat Palestinians badly in the Middle East conflict. This is because these two situations don't have anything to do with each other. It's not in the nature of Jews to be victims of a war and not sometimes at the other side. The nature of Jews doesn't have anything to do with this. Jews have been in a position of victims of a war (sheep) and now they may be in a different position in Israel, that's very well possible.

It's not true either that sheep would be better or more friendly human beings than wolves. We are all completely human and you can find as many good/bad or friendly/unfriendly people among both positions. The roles can always change in the future. So it's not a matter of sympathy or appreciation for the sheep, it's just a matter of a "work of justice", I do what I have to do to contribute to a more just world, as I personally see it.

Alain Finkielkraut warns for this effect of the black-and-white glasses of Lunatic Liberals:
"The left wing, the party of movements, likes its peace of mind. When one chooses the side of the exploited part of humanity, it's difficult to be modest and uncertain. When you defend the oppressed it's difficult to accept the doubts of finity. People often have a need for simplification and a desire for a clear and non-ambiguous judgement. And then there is still the phenomenon of insults. The ability to insult others is the only option that will remain for the classical left wing. Insults are a strange mixture of combativeness and to strive for moral superiority. Without such a feeling of superiority it seems to be hard to speak at all."

And here's a Coldplay text about "seeing the world in black and white" (it's a bit a different theme but still somehow related):

You see the world in black and white
No colour or light
You think you'll never get it right
But you know you might
The sky could fall on me
The parting of the seas
But you mean more to me
Than any colour I can see
All you ever wanted was love
But you never looked hard enough
It's never gonna give itself up
All you ever wanted to be
Living in perfect symmetry
Nothing is as down on this as us
You see the world in black and white
Not painted bright
You see no meaning to your life
Yes you try
Don't you want to see it come soon
Floating in a big white balloon
Or given on your own silver spoon
Don't you want to see it come down
Careful throwing your arms around
Saying not a moment too soon
Cause I feel low

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