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New Social Compact

The Cultural Anthropologist as Philosopher and Conspirator

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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On the European side of the Atlantic one hardly ever hears mentioned the contributions of American academics to the fierce debate on multiculturalism going on in Europe. Given that America is a symphony of cultures, or a nation of nations, it seems obvious to me that the American contribution to such a debate would prove at the very least valuable, if not essential.

Alas, that is not always the case, more often than not it is simply dismissed with spurious condescending charges that somehow American popular culture has vulgarized and reduced to a lower common denominator the more sophisticated culture of Europe.

The above may contain a kernel of truth but it is that kind of rather superficial analysis that, in my opinion, renders a great disservice to any serious dialogue on multiculturalism between the two sides that that ought to be going on but is often missing. I’d venture to say that frankly, this phenomenon smacks of elitism and condescension. When Matthew Arnold finally visited America in the 19th century he realized that his own European culture had fed him with many misconceptions about America and changed his mind on quite a few of them.

After Croce in Italy, the intellectual that did an great deal of work to popularize Vico in America was Giorgio Tagliacozzo who ailed from Italy but lived and worked in America for many years and via Vico was able to build a crucial bridge of cultural understanding between the two continents.

Indeed, there is much more to American culture than Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Las Vegas, or making money on Wall Street, and global business and the assorted vulgarities of popular culture and entrepreneurship, as the caricaturists love to assert. Unfortunately a President Trump will be the icon of that sort of culture for the forseable future.

Nevertheless, I am always bewildered, whenever I visit Europe, at how many Europeans, who consider themselves well educated, have no inkling of the fact that Disney and Las Vegas are not the whole of American culture, and not even an important part of it, even if millions of Europeans flock to it every year and then proceed to make negative judgments on the whole culture. Admittedly American culture is slightly different from European culture, if for no other reason that it has the Afro-American and the Native-American and Asian-American component, but I would submit that it is a culture worth knowing on more than a superficial level.

I’d like to now introduce to the MD readership Claes G. Ryn, another American author and academic who originally was a European ailing from Sweden, but was educated in America (Ph.D in 1974 from Louisiana State University) and subsequently taught at the University of Virginia and Georgetown University. He presently teaches political philosophy and Ethics at the Catholic University of America. One of his later books is A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World (2003), a highly commendable book on the subject of historicism and multiculturalism. He is also the editor of the academic journal Humanitas and president of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters.

Ryn’s fields of teaching and research include ethics and politics; epistemology; historicism; politics and culture; the history of Western political thought; conservatism; the theory of constitutionalism and democracy. He has written on ethics and politics and on the central role of culture, specifically, the imagination, in shaping politics and society, has sought to reconstitute the epistemology of the humanities and social sciences, paying close attention to the interaction of will, imagination and reason.

Most importantly, he has criticized abstract, a-historical conceptions of rationality as inadequate to the study of distinctively human life and to the study of real universality. He has argued that there is a much different, experientially grounded form of rationality, the reason of philosophy proper, that is capable of at once humble and penetrating observation. He has therefore developed a philosophy known as value-centered historicism, which demonstrates the potential union of universality and historical particularity and is redolent of Vico’s philosophy. In political theory he has been a sharp critic of Straussian anti-historical thinking and so-called neo-conservatism.

Many in the Western world trust in “democracy,” “capitalism,” “liberal tolerance,” “scientific progress,” or “general enlightenment” to handle this problem. Ryn argues that the problem is much more complex and demanding than is usually recognized. He reasons that, most fundamentally, good relations among individuals and nations have moral and cultural preconditions. What can predispose them to mutual respect and peace? One Western philosophical tradition, for which Plato set the pattern, maintains that the only way to genuine unity is for historical diversity to yield to universality. The implication of this view for a multicultural world would be a peace that requires that cultural distinctiveness be effaced as far as possible and replaced with a universal culture. Undoubtedly, the Enlightenment set the pattern for this view.

A very different Western philosophical tradition denies the existence of universality altogether. It is represented today by postmodernist multiculturalism—a view that leaves unanswered the question as to how conflict between diverse groups, especially when originating from religious principles, might be averted.

Ryn questions both of these traditions, arguing for the potential union of universality and particularity. He contends that the two need not be enemies and mutually exclusive, but in fact can complement each other. Cultivating individual and national particularities is potentially compatible with strengthening and enriching our common humanity. His book embraces the notion of universality, while at the same time historicizing it. His approach is interdisciplinary, discussing not only political ideas, but also fiction, drama, and other arts. To be sure, this is an approach proposed by Vico in the 18th century, and by Croce in the 20th century.

Ryn’s discussion of modern democracy emphasizes that popular government can assume radically different forms, only some of which can be judged compatible with a higher, ethical striving. Theories of what he calls plebiscitary democracy assume romantic and utopian notions of human nature and society. Constitutional democracy is based on a more realistic view of man and is more consonant with the actual moral terms of human existence. This form of government has demanding moral and cultural preconditions and is endangered wherever those preconditions are not satisfied.

In the year 2000 Ryn gave the Distinguished Foreign Scholar Lectures at Beijing University, which also published this lecture series in Chinese translation as a book, Unity Through Diversity (2001). He has lectured and published widely in China. In 2007 he gave a keynote address at the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing. The Chinese edition (2007) of his book America the Virtuous became one of the most hotly discussed in China. Dushu, China’s preeminent intellectual magazine, described it as “the kind of classical work that will be read over the generations.”

The above background ought to convince the reader of how important is Ryn’s thought for present philosophical political and ethical concerns. I believe that his most signal contribution is in the field of historicism, or the restoration of Vichian historicism in an academic world devastated by a-historical abstract Cartesian absolutistic thought. In 2005 Ryn published a devastating critique of Straussianism in Humanitas (Vol. XVIII, n. 1 and 2) in an article titled “Leo Strauss and History: the Philosopher as Conspirator.” The article points out how dangerous it is for those teaching philosophy to choose a pet philosopher (in Strauss’ case, Plato) from the ancient world and subsume the whole philosophical enterprise to his thought as a sort of footnote, as if nothing had been thought and nothing had happened in the field of philosophy in two thousand plus years.

Here is a selected but relevant excerpt from the article which renders the idea and hopefully will motivate the reader to pick it up and read it in its entirety:

“So radical and seemingly forced is this dichotomy between philosophy and history that one has to suspect that its origins are mainly non-philosophical. The dichotomy seems to have more to do with a felt need to discredit tradition, presumably to advance a partisan interest. It might be said that Strauss and the Straussians are simply following the pattern set by Plato, who also taught disdain of what he thought of as history. But Strauss is presenting his arguments more than two millennia after Plato, and in the wake of philosophical developments that can only make the adoption of a Platonic conception of the relation of history and universality appear to the philosophically educated to be archaic and far-fetched.

Strauss is also more radically anti-historical than any ancient Greek could have been. It might be retorted that Strauss and the Straussians are not alone today in ignoring centuries of philosophical development, but this means merely that the question of extra-philosophical motives must be raised with regard to others as well. It is not uncommon in intellectual history for groups to avoid facing up to profound philosophical challenges to themselves by acting as if nothing had really happened and by hiding behind some old, more pleasing figure who is accorded the status of unimpeachable authority and is interpreted as representing just what the group thinks he should represent. This is philosophical evasion, group partisanship intensified by intellectual insecurity, for which the particular group pays a high price in the long run. Strauss’s exaltation of Plato, as he chooses to interpret him, would appear to be in large measure an example of such evasion, however helpful it may be in discrediting tradition and dislodging corresponding elites.

Though not a philosopher in the more narrow, ‘technical’ sense, Burke sees deeply into the connection between history and universality. Other philosophically more systematic and conceptually precise minds, including Hegel in the nineteenth and Benedetto Croce in the twentieth century [and I would add Vico in the 18th century], have, in spite of philosophical weaknesses of their own, provided a more penetrating account of what Burke understood more intuitively.

One of the weaknesses of modern American intellectual conservatism has been its failure fully to absorb the historical consciousness that gave rise to and gave distinctiveness to modern conservatism. A certain resistance in the Anglo-American world to philosophy above a certain level of difficulty helps explain this problem. One finds, for example, in a thinker like Richard M. Weaver a failure similar to Strauss’s to grasp the possibility of synthesis between universality and the particulars of history. To be sure, that deficiency does not make Weaver as unfriendly as Strauss towards tradition, but, although Weaver himself may not recognize it, it does give tradition a philosophically precarious existence. The absence in Weaver’s thought of the idea of synthesis makes him see the need for a choice between ‘imitating a transcendent model,’ which is to him the appropriate stance, and giving prominence to individuality.

What will invest life with meaning is ‘the imposition of this ideational pattern upon conduct.’ To Weaver, ‘ideas which have their reference to . . . the individuum . . . are false.’ Echoing an ancient notion that had long been challenged by historicist philosophy when Weaver wrote, he asserts that ‘knowledge’ has to be of the universal, not the individual. He decries ‘the shift from speculative inquiry to investigation of experience.’ That universality might be a concrete, experiential reality rather than a purely intellective, a-historical truth does not here occur to him.

Eric Voegelin provides a much needed counterweight to the abstractionist intellectual trend that affects even a thinker like Weaver. Voegelin does so by drawing attention to the experiential reality of what he calls the Ground. Unfortunately, he at the same time and inconsistently gives aid-and-comfort to anti-historicism by propounding a notion of radical transcendence. That notion, too, tends to rob history as such of meaning and contradicts the possibility of incarnation. Straussians and Voegelinians find common ground at the point where their respective positions are philosophically the weakest. Straussianism has been able to invade American conservatism on its philosophically perhaps most unprotected flank, which is its halting, fumbling conception of history and its correspondingly weak notion of universality or ‘higher values.’”

A rather long quote, but perhaps necessary to make the case that indeed Ryn may have it on target in insisting that Philosophy and Cultural Anthropology are the sine qua non for a recovery of what is best in Western Culture. Some have called the approach a conspiracy, a conspiracy of hope.

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

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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New Social Compact

Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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New Social Compact

Call for Action from Leaders and Business on Violence against Women

Newsroom

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Spiralling levels of violence against women in Africa require immediate action from governments and businesses, including tangible measures to create safe spaces, experts from across the continent told the World Economic Forum on Africa today.

Protesters in South Africa have taken to the streets and social media to demand action, following the rape and murder of a Cape Town university student who was attacked in a post office. Uyinene Mrwetyana was just the latest of many victims of brutal assaults in a region where approximately 45% of women and girls over 14 years have experienced physical or sexual violence.

“I’m dumbfounded by the idea that we can continue with business as usual,” said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso, Director of African Monitor, who urged technology companies to take a lead in delivering solutions. “It would take a click of a finger for a tech company to say we are going to deploy a software that can assist us with an emergency response system for poor women in South Africa free of charge.”

The potential for technology to help in the fightback highlights the need for businesses to think creatively, given that cyberbullying can also contribute to discrimination in the first place. Mniki-Mangaliso said the wider business community should also step up to the plate by backing a gender-based fund to address the deep-rooted problems behind the rising tide of physical and sexual assaults.

Hafsat Abiola-Costello, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Africa Initiative, said Africa could learn from China, where decisive action was taken to ban harmful practices like foot binding and polygamy. African governments, by contrast, too often fail to enforce bans on polygamy or genital mutilation, thereby reinforcing a culture of discrimination against women that becomes embedded from childhood.

The failure to protect women is not just a moral issue; it also comes with a high economic cost. “Who drives African communities? It’s our women. Our women can drive Africa’s development, if given the chance, if protected, if their rights are respected,” Abiola-Costello said. “Africa missed the first industrial revolution, we missed the second, we missed the third. If we don’t address this issue, we will miss the fourth.”

Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, who spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria and is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, said calls for women to help drive African development will simply ring hollow if violence is not addressed. “The world lacks the moral pedestal to stand on to ask girls to aspire if we cannot have the back of those who are vulnerable,” she said.

With 16,000 deaths due violence against in women every year in South Africa alone, Akudo Anyanwu, Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Our presidents and the leaders in government need to come out and take a position. We need to have our leaders come out and call crimes a crime.”

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