My life has not changed at all. As in the last ten years, it is blessed by the stars and eschewed by the men. Be not afraid if time passes and there is no word from me, be not anxious by the tram-station nor blue when you're playing, because I have taken my destiny in my own hands. I have thought in light-years and I have suffered in seconds.
Sometimes I wonder if I should be on Facebook at all. A few days ago I earned a measure of unpopularity for joking on the death of Amy Winehouse, the poor little lamb who was young, rich, famous and beautiful and decided to kill herself with drugs (and apparently it's not funny that her most famous song is "Rehab"... we all know how that goes). Now, I'm fighting against myself not to put up sardonic responses to all the Facebook updates on London riots (and oh, there's plenty... it seems that all of England has gone on a Facebook marathon since the riots began). Possibly the only thing that really holds me back is the fact that I'm not there in person.
The two most popular types of comments are a.) "The situation is awful! [and/or] These rioters are EVIL!!!", and b.) the understanding, liberal, left-wing position, saying that these people are themselves the victims of society, and that we should consider how our governmental system has excluded the very people who are now threatening the rest of us.
For a change, I can't bring myself to like either position. As for the first, to say that rioters are "evil" simply mirrors the action of the rioters, but from the other side. They 'condemn' the shooting of that kid by burning up cars, as we'd expect from people of their social class, and other strata of society 'condemn' the rioting by writing angry status updates on facebook and moralising on newspapers, also as we'd expect from people of their social class. Each to his appropriate means of expression, each feeling self-righteous from their club. Ho-hum. (Furthermore, there *is* the irony of the situation... "Senseless violence puts me in such a rage!" For serious, every time I see those images on TV I want to go out and break stuff...)
I empathise with the 'understanding' position no more than I do with the first, but for different reasons. I simply don't think that this situation is amenable to political readings. While the Conservative government (and most governments in general) is formed of racist bastards who'd willingly drive their societies into such a crock of shit that it would be worth burning the whole thing down, it's not directly related to these riots.
This is not to say that the riots express no political sentiments, much less that they will have no political repercussions. But the way an event such as these riots occurs is determined by a conflation of variables which find their roots all over the place, not just in society but also in individuals and in the environment. More importantly, the way these variables interact is not something we can interpret, determine or control; it is inherently unpredictable. And for this reason it cannot be linked directly to any governnment or political party, present or past.
I know this view will be unpopular, because it's the kind of thing that politicians can so readily use to cop out. Unfortunately, there's no other view that rationally accounts for these events. If there were, these views would also be able to make reliable predictions; instead, all they can do is backwards-rationalise. And that's useless, because it can be done both ways - it's just as easy to say that this happened because the police were never allowed to use force properly, and that if they could shoot on the protesters it would solve it much more quickly, as it is to say that the rioters are the victims of a sick system.
These concerns are exactly what led me to go back and study some mathematics, with the distant hope of getting a degree in the discipline someday. There is a branch that describes precisely these phenomena, and it is called chaos theory. It's connected to the riots for reasons well beyond the fancy name.
Chaos theory deals with systems where (apparent) disorder reigns (in mathematical terms, it's called nonlinearity). It sketches a few ideas, including the collapse of a linear system into nonlinearity, which is what just happened in London, and something else called "sensitivity to initial conditions." The latter principle perhaps best explains why the events in London cannot be traced purely to a political metanarrative.
If a system possesses sensitivity to initial conditions, then micro-changes in the initial settings will translate into macro-changes later down the line. This means that even a small event has the potential to have enormous effects, changing everything in the way we expected things to go. Since it's obvious that interpersonal relations of all kinds (including society itself) make for a nonlinear system, because otherwise they could be predicted and understood very easily, it means that you can't possibly control the direction of history, even on the short-term. This is simply because there will always be some small event that escapes your control and ends up having gigantic consequences.
The murder of Mark Duggan is just such an example of a micro-event (all due respect to the Duggans) leading unpredictably to macro-consequences. There is no linear connection between the murder and the riots; if you repeated the event in similar conditions, it would never lead to the same consequences, nor would these riots ever repeat themselves in this form for an analogous murder (or for any other reason). It is no exaggeration to say that without Duggan's murder, today we would not be having all this mess and all these status updates. Nor these disputes and vitriol neither. Nor is there any point in blaming anyone - the police, the government, the culture - for the fact that Duggan was shot. It was itself an unpredictable event determined by a combination of variables which could never have been accounted for and will never repeat themselves (that said, the cop still has to be sent to jail).
And so for all of the good reasons there may be for hating the Torys, these riots aren't one. No-one could have controlled this. No-one could have predicted this. No-one could make it happen again. Some events are just beyond our control. Some systems will just unavoidably collapse, and there will be nothing left for us to do except picking up the pieces.
Past all these questions of linearity, there's another reason why I can't take the Facebook updates seriously, and am instead impelled to make cruel jokes about them. You see, the fact is that I don't respect the media by which the news of them are being reported. This is the reason why I allowed myself to joke on Winehouse's death: because it's no-one's death. No-one knew this girl. No-one had ever even seen her. And yet there is a general expectancy that we should express sympathy, even show reverence. Sympathy to what? To a television monitor? (Think Lady Diana, but with a prettier voice). This is what the media do, and it makes me ill. We live in a world where we know more about the lives of rich people living in other countries than we do about our own immediate neighbours. We sometimes fight and compromise real friendships with real people over our opinions on these electronic ghosts or on their films or on their football teams.
The point that I'm not-so-subtly getting at is that the real bad guys in all this thing are not the hoodies, nor the government, nor Cameron, but the media. When I say the media, I'm referring to the entire culture of virtual communications that was born in the mid-Twentieth Century and exploded in the last thirty years. It is for the media that all of this circus is rolling. It is for the media that these people riot, and for whom we update our Facebooks (which is of course a medium). It's not just that they're most directly responsible for creating the culture and conditions in which these riots evolve (however unpredictably), it's more the fact that they *thrive* on them. The media are LOVING these riots. They love wars, terrorist attacks, serial killers, disasters. They even create them, when they can. And all the coverage they're giving to these riots now are having no effect other than to multiply them exponentially. How do you think they spread to Birmingham and Liverpool and Leeds?
Without the media's (slanted) coverage of Duggan's murder, how would it all have kicked off in the first place? Without the coverage, how could the rioters have felt backed by a political (or anti-political) agenda? Where are they looking for recognition if not in the media, since politics is currently no more than diplomacy with the media? Another Fb status contemned two girls who bragged about "showing the police" that they could "do what they want[ed]". But what and who are they putting up the show for, if not for the media?
But what the media have to do with the riots isn't really the important bit (though seeing the glee of the reporters as they 'condemn' these actions is enough to nauseate anyone). After all, there would be riots even without them, and it's not like they can be predicted anyway. What's worrying is what the media do with us. The way they lead us to interact with things which don't exist and build our relationships with/through virtual avatars instead of real people. Jean Baudrillard, a thinker who was very influential to me and one of the greatest critics of the media-world, once wrote a book entitled The Gulf War did not happen. Of course it enraged everyone, and he responded "Yes - but how many of the people criticising me have had an experience of the Gulf War any different from mine, that is to say, just an experience of media?" I'm not going to go so far as to write that the London riots did not happen, because there's going to be the odd contact on facebook who had a man shouting at him/her from a bike while walking through the park, or someone who heard a siren going through the road or saw a few broken glasses. And as I said at the outset, that's my problem with writing about something when I haven't been there in person. But most of the people who will read this text, including those in London, will have seen zero or almost zero of the riots. Their experience will be of the media - they will have seen the riots on TV, they will have spent hours discussing them on mobile phones, they will have written about it on facebook, they will have followed the news, and now you're reading of them on this blog (heh). These riots are happening on the media - and therefore they're not riots at all. They may take some resources, but they don't damage the system that truly generates and supports them, and that is now gluttonously absorbing their narrative (Live coverage too, baby!).
Above it all, I don't want my opinion and view of these riots to be shaped by the media. I don't want them to present me what they have on offer ('condemnation,' 'compassion,' 'full force of the law') and then make my choice, as though reason were a digital menu to be leafed through with your remote. I know it doesn't take the media's susurration to condemn vandalism, but think of it - without the media to show you the images, what would you condemn at all? Without Facebook, what expression would your indignation find outside of real confrontation with real people?
I realise this view is not a very attractive one, because it leads to some pretty sad conclusions. One of these, in my case, has been an almost total disenchantment with the political and communication system. I don't read newspapers or follow the news anymore, I never watch TV except for the odd football match, and I don't even feel particularly impelled to vote. This isn't just due to the fact that I can't find a political party that actually represents me (you know... one that believes sincerity is an important value?), not in England nor anywhere else, and especially not in the fen that goes by the name of Italian politics. It's an actual disgust with the institution itself. And yes, I agree that we have a moral obligation to be involved in politics - but that is exactly the point. That's what they have taken away from us. There is no involvement or engagement with politics anymore; there's only engagement with the media. To say that 'we follow politics' only describes your way of interacting with the chosen combination of media. Even when you vote, what are you voting for if not a group of specialised actors performing together for the media? There's only an economy of signs left, truths and words prostituted to the service of indifferent stage-lights that chew people up with their dreams and feelings, and then refuse even to spit them out. Thank you, but I'd sooner take exile.
1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
2. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well.
These two sentences sum up in my opinion the great contribution of Christianity to Western ethics. They sound like two separate ideas, but they are very closely linked.
"Turn your other cheek," which I shall abbreviate to the TOC principle, is another way of saying that force does not equate to moral legitimacy. (This is the opposite of the Nietzschean position of "might makes right" which I discussed in the last entry). And it is right, for the simple reason that if you're using force on another person, then you're simply doing to him/her what s/he could have done to you if s/he had greater force him/herself; and if, in his/her position, you would register the situation to be 'unpleasant' or 'bad' or 'evil', then s/he will do the same when s/he is the victim. So by exerting force, you are not removing the 'bad,' you are simply standing on the other side of it. If you want to do something good rather than bad, then you have to find a way of settling your differences which does not involve force. (Once again, this does not invalidate Nietzsche's statement, it simply offers an alternative to it; because it presupposes that your opponent is your equal, which is not necessarily the case, and certainly not according to Nietzsche).
This is why the verse "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is connected to the TOC. Because both are based on the idea of an equality between two subjects, and on the need to accommodate differences in a way that is correspondingly equal to both sides, rather than unbalanced in favour of one or the other.
Just to be clear, this is not a principle that originates from Christianity. Aristotle already promoted the idea of justice as equality/equivalence in the Nicomachean Ethics, to mention but one prominent example. But I shall refer to the TOC and similar principles as representatives specifically of the Christian ethic, even if Christian doctrine and history aren't always in total harmony with them, because Christianity is responsible for crystallising them in the Western subconscious and giving them primacy. In other words, they did more to popularise and spread these concepts than anyone else. (For similar reasons, I referred to the "might makes right" principle as Nietzschean in the last article, even as I insisted that Nietzsche's actual ethics were more complex).
Even if you do not accept the idea that all humans are equal (and indeed it can only be accepted in principle, because in practice people are defined by their very differences, which are also inequalities), the Christian principle remains more than just valid - it is utterly inescapable. Atheists like to indulge in negation here, but there's no getting round the ethical preeminence of the Christian principle. This is why.
The discipline of ethics is informed by the question of how things *ought* to be. In other words, it relies on a projection. The opposite of this is how we think that things *must* be, and indeed are. The latter state of things is called determinism. (The opposition of personal projections versus determinism also gives rise to the problem of free will, which I shall not discuss here).
It is possible to favour determinism over projection (Dionysus over Apollo); and this possibility allows for the Nietzschean position, where power is favoured over morality. But as we have seen, this is not an ethical choice at all. Indeed it is *not a choice,* precisely because it is deterministic, and therefore it cannot be a projection (a choice implies a projection). Even just considering the question of 'how things must be,' or trying to understand or calculate it, is already an act of projection, and is therefore already an ethical act. This convoluted problem led us to the conclusion of our first entry, when we said that the two poles cannot exist separate from each other, and indeed both ethics and determinism coexist in us without our being able to settle on either. On, in and with this duality is formed our conscience. (And this is why Apollo and Dionysus are my choice of gods over those offered by monotheism, but that's a different story).
But as long as we're making an ethical choice or decision, it will always harken back to the Christian paradigm. We can define this either as the "Do unto others" or as the TOC, it doesn't matter - both go back to pretty much the same idea. And this idea can be expressed as follows:
Nature red in tooth and claw makes us fight. It makes conflict part of our necessary behaviour. We overpower the weaker members of our species (or other species) in our struggle for resources as part of the process of evolution. Therefore fighting is an expression of natural laws. And since nature is just another word for determinism, seen how it is just a chain of cause-and-consequence events with no *projection* in it anywhere, then the only way of making a choice which is not deterministic when faced with the possibility of conflict is by *not fighting.* Now an ethical choice is, by definition, a choice which is not deterministic. Therefore the only truly ethical choice faced to a situation of conflict is not fighting.
If you didn't fully understand the above paragraph, I invite you to read it again: in my opinion it is crucial to all moral systems and it is at the heart of Christian ethics. (This has nothing to do with Christianity as a religion; as I said, I'm using the term for convenience, but the ethical paradigm itself doesn't require the details of Christian history, theology or cosmology to be true (or not); it holds even without all of these things. Indeed it holds even if there is no God, simply by its own internal congruence. You cannot do without the Christian principle).
By choosing not to fight, you are assuming onto yourself the suffering that will necessarily result from the use of force (the alternative is to use force yourself and impose that suffering on the other). If you assume, accept, withstand the pain that the other would have to feel, you are undergoing the choice that Christ made on the cross. You are assuming onto yourself the pain of others. By doing this, though the suffering still subsists, the evil does not - because it is no longer a 'necessary' suffering, but one that is chosen with consciousness. In other words, it is no longer deterministic; it is congruent with your projection, and therefore the situation is 'ethical.' You have annihilated the 'bad' aspect of the scenario that one of the two participants in the conflict would have had to experience, if it had been resolved by a mutual use of force. You have truly done the good thing.
But, and here's the rub - even as this principle is inescapable, it is not exhaustive. Indeed there is a point at which this principle dies out, no longer becoming functional or applicable, and we shall now look at where this point is exactly. This is, really, the entire subject of this post (and it took me more than half the text to get there, so forgive me).
Something surprising in our philosophical tradition, at least in my experience, is how rarely people have acknowledged the proportional aspect of ethics - by this I mean that it is valid in different ways at different scales. Perhaps seduced by the (typical) Apollonian unitary dream, most of the writers I've read work under the assumption that what is right for one person will be right for ten people, and also for the whole of society. Plato is especially guilty of this, as he projects in the Republic a whole ideal society working in the same way as one ideally virtuous individual - and he seems to think this congruence makes his theory particularly full of merit. Indeed, this is the common idea behind an ethical principle: that it should always be true, no matter what. (This is the trap awaiting all proselytes of Apollo... though there are no ethics without Apollo, on the other hand if you follow him too far, he will lead you to this flattening out of differences and these universal generalisations which remove the practical uses of ethics in the first place).
In reality, ethics are every bit as relative as space and time. The great difficulty when it comes to morality is understanding how it changes when the variables of a situation, and the number of people involved in such a situation, change. I don't think a law can be found that solves this problem (for reasons that I may or may not expound on in a third post in this series). But the relativity of ethics is unquestionable, and it finds an excellent expression in the problem of war. If you transpose an argument from between two people to between two nations (or vice versa), you will see that the parallel does not hold when looking for solutions, simply because the responsibilities involved are different, as are the means of interaction. The fact that it may be right, for instance, for one of the men to solve it by punching the other in the face, doesn't mean that one of the nations is entitled to declare war; because in this case the result wouldn't be just a bruised cheek, but people actually dying. Conversely, if it's wrong for one of the men to solve the dispute by killing the other, it doesn't follow that it's wrong for one of the nations to declare war; because the nation losing the war isn't "killed" as a nation, though it may be impoverished.
The parallels between individuals and nations simply do not carry over. The same is true for the rapport between individuals and smaller groups of people, or between city-states and nations.
One film that illuminates this relativity wonderfully is Seven Samurai, one of the greatest movies ever made (if not the greatest). It tells of a village recruiting Samurais to defend themselves against a band of brigands - a small-scale war which reproduces, in its epic three-plus hours of sword-clashing and dialogue, the entire spectrum of ethical choices from those of the lone individual to society's as a whole, and the way they interact and clash and come together in the same historical moment. It was the first work of art that convinced me that, for all of my extreme pacifism, war can indeed be right in certain circumstances.
It should be noted that questions of scale and measure also come into play when considering not just the relation between two opposing agents, but also the potential consequences of their actions. What do I mean by this? I mentioned that the only ethical choice when presented with a conflict is *not fighting,* but that is under the condition that the consequences of the conflict will be equal for both the participants (in the same way that it presupposes that they be equal as human beings). But if you're engaged in a dispute with someone and you know that if you lose, you get killed, while if your adversary loses, he is only deprived of his car, then of course you would be justified in exerting force to solve the conflict. This is an example of the limits of ethical principles - while they're universal on paper, the 'equality between subjects' that they necessitate is almost never actualised in the real world. Ethical principles are an Apollonian projection, and Apollo is always a fiction. This is why there is no 'ultimate morality' of the type that religious people so often call for.
Suppose, then, that you postulated a scale for ethics. The ethics that apply to only one individual are level one. For two to five individuals it's level two. For six to thirty individuals it's level three. And so on. (These numbers are hypothetical - the actual ratios cannot be determined numerically, or if such a thing is possible, I have no bloody clue how). Morality changes and has different rules depending on which 'level' you're at.
The great limit of Christian ethics, then, is that *they only apply to level one.* Christian ethics are inescapable as individual ethics. As long as you're alone, they apply, and are in fact impossible to confute. There is no other choice you can take that is right, but the choice of Christ. But as soon as you enter a situation involving a larger group, they fail to apply. For instance, if you marry and have children, and an individual comes over and starts harming your wife and/or kids, you are not only justified but compelled to stop him, by means of violence if necessary. This seems intuitively obvious, and it is easy to explain by our principles, too: by applying the TOC on your wife and kids, you allow the suffering to subsist on someone who cannot or does not assume it - and therefore the 'evil' remains. (Unless the wife and kids themselves ask you not to intervene - in which case they are assuming individually the TOC, but while this could be true of your wife, it cannot apply to children). And so you *must* fight. Fighting is the right thing to do, and turning the other cheek is the wrong one. The Christian paradigm fails.
This does not delete the contribution of Christianity to our ethical systems. Not at all. But it does put it into perspective. The ethical system proposed by Jesus Christ is individual, not collective. Individual and collective ethical systems are two different things, and Christ has nothing to say or teach on the latter. It would not have been the right thing to do, for instance, if Churchill and Roosevelt had applied the TOC at the national level when faced with Adolf Hitler. Despite my own loathing of violence, an ethical system claiming that violence is always evil is simply not adequately nuanced - and therefore flawed. It is, at best, an Apollonian fiction.
The conclusion that I'm driving at is similar to the one with Nietzsche in the previous blog post. I'm not making an absolute conclusion either way. I'm not saying "the Christian principle is wrong" (or right). I'm saying we need it, and we need to study it and learn (from) it, but no more than we also need opposing ethical systems - including the (apparently incompatible) Nietzschean one. If we are to face the world, with its infinity of different situations and challenges, then we need an equally flexible moral understanding of it. "Flexible" doesn't mean that we can do whatever feels most convenient according to the situation. It means that it accounts for both the Apollonian and Dionysian poles in our psyche, both ideal and compromise, both ethics and power, both purity and experience, both what ought to be and what must be. We must know how to stand firm at the right times, and how to compromise at others. Neither the light nor the darkness are the answer to anything, for both leave us blind; it is only in the balance between the two that the human being is realised.