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Cultural Imperialism in Said’s Critical Thought: a Remembrance

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Text too are worldly in as much as they have a way of existing that even in the most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstances, time, place, and society” -Edward Said in The World, the Text and the Critic

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] E [/yt_dropcap] dward Said, even 13 years after his untimely death, remains today a powerful, well-reasoned voice of the voiceless, as well as a courageous critic of cultural imperialism. His mind was like that of Leonardo: where others saw an abyss between East and West, he saw a bridge that needed to be constructed. His serene fair critique of cultures is very much needed as we weather the latest fierce storms in the Transatlantic dialogue and a resurgence of the Cold War.

While writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Vico at Yale University, some thirty five years ago, a book appeared which attracted my immediate attention. But it was not its author, still relatively obscure at the time, rather it was its title which urged me to buy Beginnings by Edward Said. To my mind, that title echoed immediately Vico’s notion of “origins.” And in fact, as expected, Said not only acknowledges Vico as the book’s inspiration and methodology, but dedicates a whole section to him. It turned out to be a kind of epiphany for me, in the same way that Ignazio Silone had previously been, not so much for what the book revealed about the problematic in the New Science that I was then grappling with (i.e., that of transcendence and immanence in Vico’s notion of Providence), but for what it said on the crucial role of the intellectual vis-à-vis the culture he lives and works in.

One of the most pregnant passages in that book is this: “The writer’s life, his career, and his text, form a system of relationships whose configuration ‘in real human time’ becomes progressively stronger (i.e., more distinct, more individualized and exacerbated). In fact, these relationships gradually become the writer’s all-encompassing subject” (p. 227).

Here was a writer who did not see his role as that of the neutral “objective” scholar but as that of the engaged “worldly” critic who refuses to separate his work from his life’s experience. In doing so, Said was able to speak truth to power, rather than merely analyze power. In effect he becomes the well reasoned voice of the voiceless, within the tradition of “the conspiracy of hope” initiated by Ignazio Silone (see his Pane e vino, Fontamara, or Il seme sotto la neve). He therefore succeeds in making his life work relevant to the general public, especially the culturally powerless.

Later on in his The World, The Text, and the Critic Said would assert that not only individuals, but text too are worldly in as much as “they have a way of existing that even in the most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstances, time, place, and society” (p. 35).

And indeed, even if Said is no longer with us in body, his powerful voice is still heard via his texts. He was born in Palestinian Jerusalem, studied there and in Cairo, then moved to the United States. He acquired a “Western” education (Princeton B.A., Harvard Ph.D.), becoming the Old Dominion professor of Humanities at Columbia in 1963. As a displaced Arab and an American citizen studying European literature in America, he became the voice of the voiceless and the dislocated and in as much as he understood well both East and West, he was eminently qualified to bridge those two disparate cultures.

This concept of bridging of cultures is vitally important, at a time when the transatlantic dialogue and relationship can best be characterized as one of mutual suspicion, misperceptions and near political disasters. A turbulent time when the very concept of multi-culturalism is being dismantled.

In one of his essays critiquing modern education, Said mentions that there was a passage on Leonardo Da Vinci by the French poet Paul Valéry which haunted him. In it Valéry describes the mind of Leonardo; its beauty and power and elegance and then says that Leonardo could only think of a bridge whenever he thought of the abyss. Metaphorically speaking, an abyss is the equivalent of what is presented to us as immutable, definitive, impossible to journey on. No matter how deep and problematic the scene that presented itself, Leonardo’s beautiful mind always had the capacity to think of some alternative, some way of solving the problem, some gift for not passively accepting what was given, any hopeless scene could be imagined and envisioned in a different more hopeful, way.

Then Said went on to say that he believes that education at its best should train students not so much in methods and skills but in the ability to see things differently and try ways of constructing bridges across the abyss. For Said knowledge is more than the amassing of information. He quotes Jean Paul Sartre who once said about a friend who had studied at a prestigious scientific college (Ecole Polytechnique): “my friend is really incredibly brilliant. He knows everything. But that is all he knows.” Echoes of Pascal’s “the heart has reasons that reason knows not?”

But let us go back to Said’s beginnings (also the title of his above mentioned book) from which continuities follow, and apply a non-linear conception of career to his own career. If we take a look at his Ph.D. dissertation we discover that it is concerned with a novelist of Western imperialism: Joseph Conrad. This gives us a clue as to where Said’s “beginning intentions” were in his life-long criticism. Three such can be discerned: 1) a desire to make critical work out of the fabric of one’s life experience, 2) a refusal to separate the imperialism of the mind from that of nations (an eminently Vichian concept), 3) a will to forge literary criticism into an act of political intervention in the production of cultures.

In his very first book titled Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography Said shows how the past was re-narrated (another Vichian concept: history as narration from the beginning) in Conrad’s writings as a remedy of sort for his fear of personal disintegration. Then in Beginnings Said continues his study of the narrativization of personal experience tracing the changes culminating in the modern novel. Eventually he arrives at Orientalism, and culture and imperialism as history through which Western scholars have fictionalized the Orient, in collusion with their governments, to arrive at fictions such as “Arabs” and “Islam.” Those books are now considered by many scholars as foundation documents in the history of post-colonialism. In any case, one thing that stands out in Said’s writing is the notion that the history of cultures and personal histories are hardly separable.

All of the above begs the question: what exactly was the main topic of Said’s life-work? Were I to choose one, it would be Eurocentrism, especially as manifested in imperialism. In the above mentioned early book on Conrad, Said shows that Conrad’s identification with “Europeanism” was an act of secular salvation by which he rescued himself from “the heart of darkness.”

But a shift occurs in Beginnings. Although apparently a history of the modern novel, the book is more properly a history of the imperialism of the mind reducing human subjects to functions of systems. In this respect Said is uncannily similar to Levinas. Be that as it may, in his subsequent Orientalism, Said explores the relation between the production of knowledge and the invasion of territories. He points out that imperialist history is the precondition for European imperialism per se; that is to say, Orientalism precedes the European Empires in the Orient. There was indeed a cultural preparation to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt at the end of the 18th century, just as there must be one before forbidding Moslem women to wear a scarf in public schools. In other words, the imperialism and colonization of the mind must precede that of the physical territory.

A careful reading of Orientalism can teach one how to understand other nations for themselves, rather than through the distorting lenses of Western imperialism. But Said is not just an observer of cultures happy to merely offer a diagnosis of what hails them. He considers it a responsibility of a critic to intervene in the formation of cultures which he sees as a mixture of pre-texts, texts, and para-texts just as Vico saw history as a mixture of pre-narrations, narrations and para-narrations. Genuine intellectuals should be “oppositional” and not mere observers and analyzers.

Beginnings is permeated with this issue of the critic’s responsibility not only to analyze but also to intervene in the discursive formation by retelling its history; retelling the story, so to speak. Said does exactly that in Orientalism. In so doing, much as Foucault had done before him, he intervenes to show how a discourse is formed, thus offering an alternate view of the media’s coverage of Islam. Said is convinced that it is the critic’s responsibility to challenge the hegemonic power of cultural formation because of its “elevated or superior position to authorize, to dominate, to legitimate, demote, interdict, and validate: in short, the power of culture to be an agent of, and perhaps the main agency for, powerful differentiation within its domain and beyond it too (The World, the Text, and the Critic, p. 9).

In a world of political and cultural “correctness,” it was a veritable tragedy to lose a very public intellectual like Edward Said. But I have no doubt that his legacy, like that of a Silone or a Havel, will be an ongoing one. He will continue to be the voice of the voiceless and the dispossessed, in any culture.

Many intellectuals, even among Palestinians themselves, will continue to resent his frankness and his calling a spade a spade. But that is nothing new, it begins with Socrates being branded a gadfly. It behooves us not to forget that truth is an equal opportunity critic. If they were sincere with themselves those critics would acknowledge that Said, as a quintessential humanist, has taught us how to see the foreign Other as oneself instead of constructing him/her as one needs him/her to be for one’s own self-justification. That would by itself constitute a signal contribution to a Western imagination sick with extreme rationalism, positivism and reductionism. Some sicknesses are unto death unless the courage is summoned to reverse them with a reclamation of the very concept of truth. Said can certainly help us do that.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

The ‘Beauty Premium’ and other forms of stereotyping are real, and they’re a workplace problem

John Antonakis

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People say “seeing is believing”, but that’s wrong. The truth is, “I will see it when I believe it”.

As an academic psychologist I have spent years, and run dozens of experiments, looking at unconscious or implicit bias and its consequences. I consider factors such as looks, ethnicity, age and gender, to see if they influence world-of-work decisions such as hiring, promotion, salary. 

The short answer is that all these factors make a difference, even though they play no real role in the evaluated person’s performance. Beliefs guide the facts we see. They shouldn’t, it’s unfair. But they do. The so-called ‘Beauty Premium’ is real, as are a host of other biases.

Taking decisions this way is not unnatural.  Evolution has fashioned us to infer, to fill in knowledge gaps. Is that rustle in the grass the wind, or a snake? Assume, infer, and take the conservative decision. That’s how we survive.

But using inference or stereotypes to guide staffing decisions is not effective because the right candidate may be overlooked and the ‘right-looking’ but wrong candidate selected.

The point is we are very quick to size people up – age, sex, appearance, even height. We fill in the blanks and give them a price tag in a stereotypically consistent way. The problem is that once we decide about something we try to justify it because we don’t like to admit we were wrong.

One study I know asked people to vote on the basis of photos, as if they showed candidates running for public office. Afterwards, the voters were given information about the ‘candidates’ (e.g., political preferences, values, etc.) and then asked to vote again. Despite now having relevant information the voters hardly changed their opinions.

I thought this might be due to past experience – perhaps people have a learned stereotype of what a ‘Leader’ should look like? So I repeated the experiment with small children, too young to have learned bias, showing them pairs of photos and asking who would make the best captain of a boat (a position of responsibility they could understand). I asked some adults to do the same test. The children and the adults chose the same photos. No experiential factor could explain the choices, it had to be nature.

But, perhaps the motivation or education level of the testers played a role? So I did a similar experiment with kids using photos of candidates for elected positions at the Association of Psychological Science (APS). All the voters and candidates were scientific psychologists. But results were the same. When no photo was available in the original ballot material the APS members voted on the basis of publication record (a reasonably good proxy for the knowledge, status, and success of the candidates). However, when there had been photos included in the ballot materials nothing mattered but the face.

Maybe business people would take decisions in a more rational way? So, we asked experimental subjects to look at photos of managers in a large multinational company, and then asked them to judge the mangers for competence and personality. We accounted statistically for everything possible – age, qualifications, and so forth. Those managers who rated higher on looks earned more.

Implicit bias is even worse for women. Factors such as being overweight count against women even more than they do for men. And it’s not just appearance. I worked with a Swiss multinational looking at the transcripts of their internal performance evaluations, and statistically controlled for everything possible.  Men had a much higher likelihood of being described in a positive way; for example, “he really knows how to put his foot down” compared to a similar woman, who “really knows how to use her elbows”.

Age discrimination was also rife across the board, even though for high-level, cognitively complex jobs there is zero correlation between performance and age. In short, age and being male predicted future job and salary levels.

So women (and anyone else who does not fit role expectations) are walking on eggs. It’s a double bind. They must demonstrate exceptional competence to be seen as equal in ability to men, but must also avoid threatening them with competence and apparent lack of warmth, or behaviour that violates social stereotypes.

An experiment run by a professor at Yale University demonstrated the penalty for violating these social norms. One male and one female actor were each asked to record two versions of the same interview, one where they were calm and one showing some anger. Their answers were the same so rationally, the man and woman should have been ranked the same in the same condition. But it turns out that if a man shows anger it is interpreted completely differently. Men can show their “guts.” Women are not allowed to show anger because they are supposed to be nice, nurturing and kind. When subjects were asked to rank the two actors, the man was seen as higher status and more competent, and offered 50 per cent higher salary. The woman was seen as out of control.

There are ways to reduce bias in the workplace. The first is to be aware of your own biases. Then you can take steps to eliminate them and so reduce discrimination.

Second is accountability.  Decisions need to be justified, with objective indicators. Be aware that every piece of information can introduce bias. How the call for applications is made – certain words will attract or discourage women. What information applicants are asked for, including photos, can matter. Who does the initial screening, and is it objective or just personal opinion?  Are the screeners different from the interview panel?  Are the same interview questions asked of all candidates and is the information aggregated independently? Are validated psychometric tests used (e.g., the most used test in the business world, the MBTI, is actually useless; it has no predictive validity).

Data is also key, it allows us to track what is happening, reveals unconscious bias and creates awareness.

Finally – men. We are part of the problem but also part of the solution. If we champion the cause we can reduce these biases. This is our problem too, not just a problem for women or minorities. Taking decisions correctly is not only the ethical thing to do, in the long run it is the economical and rational thing to do.

Source: ILO

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New Social Compact

Rising human trafficking takes on ‘horrific dimensions’

MD Staff

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A new UN report published on Monday shows that human trafficking is on the rise and taking on “horrific dimensions”, with sexual exploitation of victims the main driver. Children now account for 30 per cent of those being trafficked, and far more girls are detected than boys.

The study from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC, draws on information from 142 countries, examining trafficking trends and patterns. Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of UNODC, said that “human trafficking has taken on horrific dimensions as armed groups and terrorists use it to spread fear and gain victims to offer as incentives to recruit new fighters,” citing child soldiers, forced labour and sexual slavery as examples.

While the average numbers of reported victims had fluctuated during the earlier years for which UNODC had collected data, the global trend has shown a steady increase since 2010. Asia and the Americas are the regions which have seen the largest increase in the numbers of victims detected, which may be explained by improved methods of detecting, recording and reporting data on trafficking – or a real increase in the number of victims.

Most victims of trafficking detected outside their region of origin are from East Asia, followed by sub-Saharan Africa: whilst there has been an increase in the number of convictions for trafficking in these regions, the study concluding that large areas of impunity still exist in many Asian and African countries, and conviction rates for trafficking remain very low.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is the most prevalent form in European countries, whilst in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, forced labour is the main factor driving the illicit trade. Women and girls make up most trafficking victims worldwide: almost three-quarters of them are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 35 per cent (women and girls) are trafficked for forced labour.

Armed conflict the focus

The main focus of the report is on the impact of armed conflict on trafficking. In conflict zones, where the rule of law is weak, and civilians have little protection from crime, armed groups and criminals may take the opportunity to traffic them. One example given in the study is the phenomenon of girls and young women in refugee camps in the Middle East being “married off” without their consent and subjected to sexual exploitation in neighbouring countries.

Addressing human trafficking is a key part of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda, requiring Member States to monitor progress in tackling the problem, and report the number of victims by sex, age and form of exploitation.

However, significant gaps in knowledge remain, with many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and some parts of East Asia still lacking sufficient capacity to record and share data on trafficking in persons. “This report shows that we need to step up technical assistance and strengthen cooperation, to support all countries to protect victims and bring criminals to justice, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Mr. Fedotov.

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New Social Compact

Human Trafficking: An ordeal to reckon

Muhammad Usman Ghani

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Our globe is prey to the multiple ordeals – terrorism, surging poverty, soaring unemployment, global warming, conflicts among the countries, and refugee crisis are the names to few. Every individual is mindful of such calamities. However, amongst most appealing tribulations that our planet is confronting, which is mostly depreciated, or even obscure to many is of human trafficking. In the contemporary world, human trafficking is tantamount to modern slavery. Slavery is forced labor under a threat of brutality that traces its lineage from the era of colonialism and imperialism. Racism, which was the subliminal base of slavery, is still very much active in the present times and strengthens the ethnic perplexity.

Human trafficking usually refers to a process under which individuals are placed or maintained in an exploitative condition for economic upkeep and violation of human rights. Every country in the world is vulnerable to human trafficking. Millions of kids, adult females, and men remain to be trafficked every year in all regions and in many countries of the world. Victims may be trafficked within the country or across a border for various uses. It includes forced and manipulative labor in agricultural fields, farms and private homes; forced marriage; sexual exploitation, and organ dismemberment. Around 40 million people are shackled in the chain of modern slavery worldwide, in which the Asia-Pacific region has almost 56% of trafficked persons. Women and girls are the prime victims of the market for human trafficking. According to 2018 report of Global Slavery Index, the countries which are home to the modern slaves are North Korea with 10% of its population, Eritrea (9.3%), Burundi (4%), Central African Republic (2.2%), Afghanistan (2.2%), Mauritania (2.1%), South Sudan (2%), Pakistan (1.7%), Cambodia (1.7%), and Islamic Republic of Iran (1.6%) respectively. These countries suffer from income inequality, discrimination in class, sects, and entrenched corruption.

So, one’s mind must be curious that why this menace has clutched the world with such an immense extent. The answer has multiple driving factors behind it, as human trafficking is a highly lucrative crime and produces $150 billion per year. Human trafficking takes place on many purposes, such as demand for cheap labor including the child or forced labor, demand for sexual exploitation, and demand for organs removal to name few.

The United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report identifies that the most vulgar strain of human trafficking is sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking prey is maneuvered or forced against its consent to absorb in the sex exploit or to be prostituted for the money. Sex traffickers often use threats, violence, and the promise of love and affection to lure the victims. Such exercises frequently transpire at motels, rest areas, individual halls, street corners, and truck stops. Out of $150 billion, sex trafficking within the prostitution industry yields $99 billion.

Forced or cheap labor occurs in many forms, like the application of coercion or deception or force. The victims are induced to work for mere less or no money as their earnings. Labor traffickers often make hollow commitments of a high-paying job or impressive education or travel possibilities to entice people into awful working conditions. These victims can be found in manufacturing plants, farms, brick kilns, and building sites.

Multiple factors lead to human trafficking and vary from country to country according to the conditions and affairs of the state. Though, on common ground; privation of human rights, poverty, disequilibrium in social and economic affairs, political upheaval, natural disasters, and, civil unrest attribute to human trafficking. Wars, conflicts between countries, civil strife commence displacements of masses making children orphans and leaving them susceptible to human trafficking. Most of the times, parents contribute to human trafficking too. On the score of impending poverty, parents merchandise their children with this notion that their children might access the bright future.

The menace of human trafficking accommodates devastating repercussions economically and socially. On societal fronts, it undermines family ties and child neglect, and the victims who manage to escape from the trafficking often plague stigmatization. From the economic aspect, the countries which are reeling under the vicious cycle of human trafficking they lose the human resource. According to the US Department of State, child labor negatively influences their future productivity which would otherwise be put into good use.

Human trafficking affects not only the social and economic specters but also affects the health of individuals which undergo it. Adult females and children trafficked for the intentions of Sexual exploitation are at the risk of HIV/AIDS; with this when they are exposed to violence and barbarism, they sustain severe injuries which impede their mental and physical development.

To curb human trafficking the UN and the world countries have taken multiple steps. The Global Action to Prevent and Address Trafficking in Persons (GLO.ACT) and the smuggling of migrants is a four-year (2015-2019) joint initiative by the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It is implemented with a conglomeration of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The UNICEF accepts donations and provides training manuals on the subject of human trafficking.

Along with it, there are several functioning organizations worldwide that help citizens fight against human trafficking. However, despite the active roles of numerous organization of the world, the menace of human trafficking persists. To eradicate this menace, individuals and their government must cooperate with each other, so that future generations can be saved.

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