Sunday, 21 January 2007

Who's against the Enlightenment?

Although the Enlightenment is usually depicted as an intellectual movement of 18th century Europe, its ideas were embraced and developed by thinkers and reformists across the world throughout the succeeding centuries. Today the Enlightenment ethos of promoting free enquiry – based on empirical reasoning – to improve social, political and technological practices for the benefit of human wellbeing in general, remains a source of inspiration to many in overcoming reactionary forces.

Yet far from being universally welcome as a decent and positive philosophy of life to be widely disseminated, the Enlightenment outlook is fiercely attacked by a mix of people. But what have they really got against the advocacy for rationality, tolerance and progress? There are at least three different camps.

First, there are the romantic tribalists, people on the authoritarian right who look back fondly to a time when they could be in charge and flaunt their primitive passions without having to seek to understand the needs of the ‘others’ – be these women, non-whites, the poor or any other group which was in those days utterly excluded or ignored. They see the Enlightenment as a bringer of soulless reason wiping away the ties and values which bound people (or their particular sub-set) together. They resent being told to engage with others in reasonable and respectful terms when they want to be left to their long held prejudices to view others as inferior or alien. They think this eradicates what stirs their pride and cultural heritage, when all it does is to facilitate the growth of broader and deeper emotional bonds beyond the flawed ties of inherited bigotry.

Secondly, there are the repressed people on the puritanical extremes of both the right and the left. You can spot them easily by their tendency to rant against the 1960s precisely because that decade embodies the modern flowering of the Enlightenment rejection of false self-denial. The leading Enlightenment figures stressed cordiality in relationships and a sensible exercise of self-control to function as an effective human being, but they refused to accept arbitrary limits handed down to stop people exploring new ways of making life more bearable, indeed enjoyable. And what the Enlightenment celebrated – the liberation of natural and harmless human desires for comfort, excitement and fulfillment – is what repressed puritans detest as mindless craving for pleasures which should be locked away lest civilization collapses under the weight of irresponsibility.

Thirdly, we have those, whose perspective is basically of the anarchic left, complaining incessantly that proponents of the Enlightenment philosophy try to impose a narrow Western-centric viewpoint on the rest of the world. But what is being put forward for universalising is a set of practices which have found to be better for human existence – tolerance for differences, respect for the law, equal treatment of citizens, prevention of torture, etc. It is odd that while these strident relativists should oppose the promotion of these practices (from which they themselves benefit) across the world as a kind of objectionable cultural imperialism, they stay silent about the undeniable desirability of the other fruits of Enlightenment thinking – such as experimental-based medical advancement.

Some critics even randomly select a few features of the Enlightenment and link it to Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism as a way to secure condemnation by partial association. But anyone who views the Enlightenment ethos as a whole will see that it is not about cold reason displacing all emotional ties, allowing desires to run wild without any constraint, or forcing strange Western practices on other cultures in a damaging way. Least of all, its central concern for human decency and free enquiry renders it the firmest opponent of any form of totalitarianism. It is supportive of greater liberty for people to pursue happiness, within a framework of cooperative empirical reasoning, so that all can get a better chance for a good life, and none gets victimized for the class, race or gender they were born into.

People who hate what the Enlightenment stands for have serious difficulties in accepting attempts to break down the barriers in every part of organisation hierarchies, every family, every country, every aspect of social and political life, which still block individuals from developing their capacity to reason, love, and build a better life in partnership with others. They may appear in different guises, but they share a common contempt for the mission to secure human progress through continuous and open learning. At every turn, the Enlightenment outlook must be defended against them.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Aren’t they all Human Values?

Why do people persist in trying to ascribe certain values to particular nations or religions? Decency, honesty, respect, compassion, love of freedom, commitment – can anyone really seriously say that these are found exclusively in a particular country or faith, implying they are not present in others?

It’s obnoxiously erroneous to claim that the propensities to hate, injure, lie, murder, etc. are to be associated with the people who have nothing in common except a geographical commonality or historical link with an established religion. Every country or faith has had its share of shameful deeds perpetrated by some of its members, but it does not condemn for all time every single person growing up in its confines. By the same token, it would be absurd to suggest that because some people have championed good human values, that should be used to trumpet the moral greatness of the nationality or religion of those individuals.

There are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus who hurt others as well as those who devote themselves to helping others. How can any deduction be made to designate some of the religions concerned here as embodying good values as if others were by comparison evil! The only coherent line is between the good humans and the bad. The same is true of patriotic celebration of great national values as if the people of America, Britain, France, or anywhere else wanting to hoist their flag, somehow reflect a range of positive human values in a deeper, more significant way than the people of distant shores. Can this really be accepted as simple, wholesome national pride? Or should it be exposed as barely disguised prejudice which looks down on other countries and cultures as morally inferior?

The golden rule of treating others as one would have others treat oneself is found in all cultures, religions, basic moral teachings in every country on earth. Ideological interpretations or personal inclinations which move some towards self-centred individualism, some towards oppressive collectivism, and yet others towards fair and sincere mutualism, occur in every part of the world with no one having a monopoly over sound ethical dispositions.

Is it not time to recognise that there is in fact a considerable consensus over the positive values associated with the human race? Compassion, fairness, honesty, defiance against tyranny, the pursuit of happiness, care for dependents, these are not values of any single country or religion. They are human values, and they set the standard by which we judge ourselves. Of course we don’t all succeed in living up to them consistently, but the failure is a personal one. Our race, country, religion, may through the long course of history have been associated with deeds, good and bad, but each of us has our own responsibility to live up to the best moral aspirations of our times.

If we want to strengthen the moral character of individual citizens, or enable them to live in harmony and cooperation with each other, the last thing we should do is to single out one country or religion and celebrate it as the torch bearer of good values. What we should do is remind everyone that we all – regardless of our national, ethnic, religious roots – share an inspiring range of human values. And to live in accordance with these values is the basis of our true moral solidarity.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Why tolerate the Power Gap?

In every sphere of life, if some become too powerful in relation to others, the risk of injustice and oppression surges to intolerably high levels. In international relations, once the balance of powers is lost, hegemony and aggression show their ambitions. For centuries, nations have known the importance of not allowing a small minority to attain the capacity to invade others at will. In the privacy of our homes, exclusive male domination of households has for a long time put women and children at the mercy of many arbitrary domestic rulers. Across the world, the rebalancing of power in families has a long way to go.

But even though an increasing number of people recognise the need to close the gap between those with too much power and others who stand in their shadow, our global economy is built around a widening power gap between those with ever accelerating wealth accumulation and those who drop by comparison to growing insignificance.

Richard G. Wilkinson has shown the indisputable correlation between income inequalities and social problems such as violence, poor health and discrimination (see his book, ‘The Impact of Inequality’). There is mounting evidence that the greater the gap between those who are richer by the day and those left behind, the more likely the quality of life will sink. For those pushed down the hierarchy, there is the loss of self-esteem, loss of efficacy to control their destiny, fermenting resentment against being marginalized. For those climbing to the top, there is dwindling sensitivity to the needs of others, naïve embrace of ‘equal opportunity to climb’ as a bridge to a fair society, and obsession with pushing their own agenda as the only respectable one in the world.

Hurricane Katrina illustrated all too vividly how in the most unequal city in the most unequal developed country in the world, a rich nation could so readily see the wealthy escape while the poor drown.

We’re not asking for everyone to earn the same, just to close the insanely widening gap. Do people really need to earn 1,000 times more than others to be motivated to do things which benefit society? For many doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers, their readiness to help others is not limited by the desire to be richer than everyone else within a hundred mile radius. A world in which the richest is no more than 100 times wealthier than the poorest is not going to implode – only deranged modern descendants of Midas might think that.

The power imbalance between countries, regions, households, and individuals is all inextricably linked with the power gap fuelled by the obsession to attain superiority through wealth accumulation. There is nothing more urgent now than to begin to reverse the growth of the power gap.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Is Redemption Possible?

The media have fed on the death of Saddam. A tyrant has been executed. & the world should rejoice?

Is it ever possible for people, whatever evil deeds they have committed, to attain a deeper realisation that they have been wrong and that they should repent so as to change their ways? Except for those who believe that no evil-doer can ever sincerely embrace repentance, it has to be acknowledged that a change of heart is a possibility.

And with that possibility in place, what could justify its removal? Of course, when faced with an imminent threat, and we have to strike back to save the life of oneself or others, we can say that killing the perpetrator is a necessary option. But in many cases, the wrongdoer is in custody already. The crime, once established, can be granted as horrific and beyond excuse. In time though, if the spirit of humanity engages with the convicted, enables him to face up to his guilt, to initiate a change in his moral constitution so that he craves for nothing more than a transformation of his character, can we not allow that he may reach a point where his journey on the path to redemption is beyond doubt.

Some may say that there are villains so vile that they will never change. Let us not argue if Saddam is one of those - but in general, how do we tell those who may change, who indeed are changing, from those whose soul is rotten to the core? One argument would be to say that only those who beg others NEVER to forgive them, who demand to be executed or never to be released, can be truly regarded as having genuinely repented. Thus we have the eternal condemnation paradox - only those who can convince us that they must be condemned for all time deserve to be condemned no more.

Most of us do not want to forgive evil people. We want to see them punished - nay, suffer. But if we can choose between redemption for the wicked and their persistent suffering, which one should we choose? At least those who concede that the precise choice would have to be informed by the exact circumstances have moved from retributive hatred to restorative empathy. Let those who feel no remorse suffer - but respond to those who are capable of being redeemed accordingly too. And how can we tell if there is a chance of redemption if there is no reaching out to them.

Lord Longford was criticised and ridiculed for his concern for Myra Hindley. But if the door is forever shut on the possibility of redemption, no one could ever come through from the other side.

To save the good is a moral imperative. To reach out to those who could yet be good is no less so. But can we ever learn to differentiate when the bad can and should be given a second chance to amend for the evil they have done? Just because not everyone is redeemable (some may dispute that), it does not follow that none is.