Category Archives: Ethics

Towards an Anaesthetic of Fascism

The fascist has not been grasped irrevocably by the sublimity of power and authority, but they have been grasped by it. The nature of this very sublimity, of the fascist aesthetic, is the key to freeing them from their own cage, and ourselves with them. Attempting to persuade the fascist is fruitless. They do not, they cannot be reached by reason. Aesthetic judgement is not willful, nor does it recognise or respect our interests or our moral values. Our political rhetoric must therefore engage with the fascist aesthetic on its own terms. There is no other way to repair our communities, our families, and our institutions.

An aesthetic judgement concerns the intrinsic value or disvalue of an experience. There are three main elements to aesthetic judgement: the process of judgement, the experience being judged, and the content of that experience. I examine each in order before moving on to the implications of the fascist aesthetic for political rhetoric.

Aesthetic judgements are neither deliberate, fully rational choices, nor strictly reflexive. They stand in the uneasy in between. They can be refined but they cannot be controlled. They can be justified but they cannot be persuaded. Guy Dammann and Elisabeth Schellekens[1] understand aesthetic judgements in this sense to be deeply question-begging: reasons given in support of them become reasons only for those who already assent to the claim being justified.[2] Daniel Whiting argues that aesthetic reasons are question-begging because they are always in need of some supplement without which they can only permit aesthetic judgements but cannot demand them.[3] For Whiting, this supplement is something like taste: those systematic aesthetic judgements observers have already made from past experiences and which subsume that judgement being justified. Aesthetic judgements, that is, are merely elements of a broader aesthetic framework which orients a life.

This framework of aesthetic judgements is life-guiding in two ways. First, it guides an observer’s attention toward aesthetically salient elements of a given experience. It is because of our aesthetic framework, our preferences and our capacities for discernment, that we might attend to the colours or the textures or the melody or the semantic content of an experience. Two people embodying two different aesthetic frameworks simply cannot see or hear or feel the same things in the same way given the same experience. Second, an aesthetic framework translates aesthetic judgement into normative force. An aesthetic framework, that is, demands that an observer act on the basis of an aesthetic judgement. This is because an aesthetic judgement concerns the intrinsic value or disvalue of an experience. Once an experience is recognised as intrinsically valuable, thence arises a (defeasible) obligation to promote it; likewise, mutatis mutandis, for an experience recognised as intrinsically disvaluable.[4]

Aesthetic judgement is of experience; on the basis of aesthetic judgement, one is obligated to promote or prohibit experience. Aesthetic judgement alone does not concern the content of aesthetic experience except insofar as manipulating the content of experience can promote or prohibit experience. I do not mean to say here that objects or events cannot be beautiful or ugly. Certainly they can be. I look in the mirror at least once a week—less often if possible—and am fully acquainted with my own aesthetic. But they take on these qualities in light of the kind of experiences they produce in observers. Rather, I mean to say that our aesthetic judgements can be wrong. We can judge something initially as boring or as mediocre or as ugly only to later revise our judgement in light of a novel appreciation. Dammann and Schellekens argue that observers are capable of cultivating more accurate aesthetic judgements, and subsequently frameworks, by reflecting upon their own good in connection with their cultural background and the artistic traditions implicated in it.[5] By these means, they suggest, aesthetic judgements can be bootstrapped into a framework in order that one develop as an observer. They are not, however, describing a change in aesthetic judgements; a beautiful image is not by these means regarded as ugly or vice versa. Aesthetic judgements cannot be reached by reason; they can only be altered by aesthetic judgements themselves. It appears that this is what occurs on their proposal too, unbeknownst to them. By reflecting on the background and traditions of an experience, additional aesthetic judgements are formed concerning its semantic significance. The additional aesthetic judgements may shift the framework just enough to generate a new appreciation of old experiences, but this is a slow and unreliable process directly predicated on one’s existing values. The fascist cannot be repaired in this way.

We rather need to focus on the structure of the aesthetic framework. Only the virtuous among us employ a consistent aesthetic. The fascist aesthetic is not one of these. It is deviant and disordered, marred by inconsistencies and ambiguities. This is how we win: we capitalise on the inconsistencies in the fascist aesthetic, in the aesthetic framework which orients their lives and their politics, and we use it to draw the fascist back to the good. This is not simple, but it is achievable.  It requires only a willingness to engage and to genuinely understand the fascist.

Fortunately, the fascist is a simple creature in an ironic age. Their aesthetic is purposeful and unique. It’s kitschy, tacky, uncoordinated, vulgar, and loud. There is no mistaking the bright red cap, the Southern Cross, or Thin Blue Line. These unambiguously signal an identity. This is a significant evolution on the bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans of years past, which do the job but which are not recognisable at a glance. The fascist takes themselves to be the majority, the Volk, the formerly powerful who have been silenced by the threat of powerful minority interests. Their aesthetic reflects this in its visibility, its detachment from what the powerful minority dictate to be good taste, and its open expression of violence and power. The fascist knows that if they really are the majority, as they seek to demonstrate, then they truly do hold the power in their polity—and it is the aesthetic appreciation of power that truly unites all fascists.[6]  

But what power means to the fascist is bound up with traditional hierarchies, with masculinity, with whiteness, with wealth, and so many others. Masculinity especially is so tightly bound up with the fascist aesthetic that it is inseparable from power. Masculinity is virility and invincibility. The Man need not exercise caution: his masculine will is invulnerable to calamity. A good scheme might be a salient exercise of power, but in all else, sober planning has become a symbol for weakness and cowardice. The fascist is somatic, intuitive, impulsive, and violent. The fascist has no patience. They have no empathy—not at least for the underclass, the minority, who have dispossessed the Volk for so long and who continue to dispossess the fascist. The Man merely exercises his will and dominates only to dominate.

And this too is what makes the fascist aesthetic so pernicious. Even the underclass can appreciate the exercise of power. The lower class fascist may know full well that they are liable to become a victim of fascist excess, but they value too deeply the experience, the experience of domination, the catharsis and the struggle that accompanies it. In joining with the fascist, they feel the power they only wish they could exercise—and when the fascist takes power, they permit themselves every liberty to do so against those even more vulnerable than they.

There is more than mere power to the fascist aesthetic, however. There is also vengeance. To the fascist, they are recovering tradition, the natural order, one which had been interrupted by a clever, sly minority that overcame and dispossessed the powerful majority by appealing to their charity and good will.

This narrative is of course not novel. Philosophers might trace it back to Nietzsche, to his Genealogy and the deconstruction of the Master Morality. But the narrative goes back much further; Nietzsche, indeed, presented a parody of this narrative designed to outrage the budding fascists in his midst. He attacks their tradition, their natural order, their Christian morality, and allies it with the Jews. The old Masters, the highest expression of worldly power, fall to ever farther depths. Their fault was not charity, as the story had gone, but stupidity and impulse. The Jews overcame the Masters not because they were sly or clever but because the Jewish priestly class was genuinely more powerful on account of their cleverness. If Nietzsche has any goal in the Genealogy, it was to drive a wedge between the fascist love of vengeance and their love of power, and all within the realm of aesthetic judgement. He clearly failed. We cannot.

What means are available to us now? In what way might we shake the fascist of their drunken love of power? We cannot appeal to them through reason; we cannot demonstrate the contradictions of their will or their interests or their rhetoric. This does not concern them. We cannot beat the fascist in the ballot box: this will only delay their authority, and they have long considered the electoral process to be rigged against them, the true majority visible in red hats and racist flags. We cannot even do them harm, for at present, the fascists do have the power, the arms, the wealth, and the numbers to withstand any assault. The time for punching Nazis has come to pass. So what can we do? Contrapoints has proposed that we employ cringe, a distinctly somatic, aesthetic experience designed to isolate and malign a target group without putting a target individual in a defensive stance. Cringe in this sense hacks apart an aesthetic framework and provides the means to rebuild it anew. I do not know the final course of action. But we must find one, and we must find it quickly.


[1] Guy Dammann and Elisabeth Schellekens, “On the Moral Psychology and Normative Force of Aesthetic Reasons,” Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics, LIV/X (1), 2017: 20-39

[2] Philosophers, of course, are no stranger to this kind of justification. It was the dominant form of philosophical reasoning for the better part of a century under the guise of philosophical intuitionism. Intuitions, and the kind of philosophy that grows out of them, are (or are at least isomorphic to) a kind of aesthetic judgement. This is why intuitionists attempt to defend their account of philosophy as a kind of perception or “seeming” and may even appeal to a “faculty” of intuitions even when they use them for the sake of robust philosophical justification. Intuitions too are not perceptions or deliberate judgements, but stand uneasily between them. At their foundations, intuitive justifications can be understood and modified in exactly the same ways as aesthetic judgements about the exercise of power or about works of art. Philosophy presumably should not wish itself to be cemented into something so fluid and arbitrary.

[3] Daniel Whiting, “Aesthetic Reasons and the Demands They (Do Not) Make,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 2020: 5; Whiting’s main argument against the demandingness of aesthetic reasons is that there are so many objects which individually possess aesthetic properties to make demands on observers that this would be excessively demanding on those observers. This is confused in a number of ways. First, aesthetic properties are properties of experiences, not objects. This significantly limits the number of aesthetic properties with which an observer might be faced. Second, aesthetic properties are relational between different elements of an experience, often involving the whole experience, and not just the elements atomically. This further limits the number of aesthetic properties. Altogether, clearing up Whiting’s confusions leaves us with an easily manageable set of aesthetic demands, especially since most of these are satisfied automatically. His first argument is much more compelling, even if insufficient. As a matter of course, I do think that aesthetic properties levy a demand upon people to assent to them.

[4] I suspect that aesthetic judgement in the sense I have presented here serves as the foundation of a fairly general kind of constructivist moral theory, and certainly one that is more psychologically compelling than for example Kant’s. I will not develop this here, but it is worth considering.

[5] Dammann and Schellekens, 37-38

[6] The fascist aesthetic is not exactly wrong about this: power, community, struggle, these are all genuinely valuable experiences. The fascists’ error, however, is what they take to promote these experiences, namely the impulsive and systematic domination of the vulnerable. If only we could reach the fascist in reason, it would be a simple matter to show them how what they take to be an exercise of power ultimately leads to their feebleness, but alas, we cannot.

Nonsense and The Fight for a Transparent Political Rhetoric

Clear expression is the foundation upon which we build our political rhetoric. It is important for any liberatory project that our protests and our pronouncements be understood and that we have the means to expose as nonsense any justification given to us for our oppression. However, for the liberal academic, animated as they are by a spirit of charity, accusations of nonsense and their concomitant demand for clear expression have become suspect. These academics are too stupid and too cowardly to appreciate what their charity has bought them. Their suspicions have undermined their own rhetorical foundations and left them ill equipped to respond to the present political moment and to the swelling tide of dispossession and violence that will crash down upon them. If we are to respond at all, if we are to have any hope in succeeding for the sake of the marginalised and oppressed, we must oppose the erosion of our political discourse and fight for clear expression. This may be only the beginning of a liberatory project, but it is an essential step towards its success.

For the liberal academic, of course, language is a purely descriptive, theoretical concern. They recognise no stakes and accept no demands. They are blind to the normative dimension of language and its political valence. It is from this ignorance that Charles Pigden demeans accusations of nonsense as totalitarian and unjust. For him, Neurath was just as bad, just as evil, as the Fascists he was fighting. And certainly there must be a case to be made here. Neurath is not perfect. His ISOTYPE was a distinctly Viennese symbolism which struggled to accommodate the diversity of human experience. Pigden worries that Neurath has unjustly excluded lives and languages other than his own. That this equates in Pigden’s mind to full-scale totalitarianism is laughable. Especially since he is not worried about defending different cultures or different lifestyles. He is worried instead about defending the prospects of metaphysics. “Are there no languages which are, so to speak, metaphysical all the way down?” he asks.[1] And of course if this is your worry you might be tempted to equate the fascists with those fighting against them (even despite the explicitly metaphysical character of German fascism). But Neurath’s project is entirely different. He sought to eliminate racism and nationalism by making racist and nationalist thought and expression impossible. Neurath may have failed in this effort, but it does not follow that racism or nationalism or metaphysics is sensible, as Pigden alleges. Far from it.

A victim of liberal modernity, Pigden reacts to Neurath by declaring any and all “coercive theories of meaning” to be false. His ultimate argument against them, beyond badly misunderstanding their use[2], is an exercise in stone-kicking. The explananda of a theory of meaning, he says, are our linguistic intuitions about what sorts of expressions are meaningful. A coercive theory of meaning attempts to revise what we take to be significant, to “contract the realm of the meaningful.”[3] But, he asks, “Where does the theory get the authority to overcome [our linguistic intuitions]?”[4] When Rosenberg talks about the Eternal Jew and the racial ladder, or when Heidegger talks about the German people hoisting Dasein upon its shoulders, what right does Neurath have in saying that they are speaking nonsense? Surely they must mean something by their convoluted expressions! These fascists are not totalitarians, no: it is Neurath who unjustly coerces them by dismissing their views as nonsense.

A theory of meaning is quite a different thing than a scientific theory. It does not explain. It cannot explain. It has no explananda, least of all our pretheoretic linguistic intuitions. Rather, a theory of meaning is strictly normative. Through it we understand, cultivate, and negotiate our agency as linguistic creatures not alone but within a linguistic community. For Neurath, German had been poorly negotiated. A long history of competing and evolving influences had exacerbated rather that resolve the tensions implicit in human experience. Far too often did German expressions appear to have a meaning only to have that sense evaporate under closer inspection. Instead of waiting for German to organically correct itself, Neurath appealed to the productive power of theoretical science in order to engineer a language. He failed. It has become clear that the functions of natural language cannot (yet) be replicated by even the best science. But this is not to say that we should give up entirely the project to improve language. In their reluctance to treat language as normative, liberal academics have cast themselves off into the current of language and surrendered to its rhetorical ebbs.

If we are seriously interested in constructing a better, juster, freer society, we should take pains to master our language. This is a different project than strict political rhetoric just as surveying a battlefield differs from fighting a battle. A theory of meaning is impartial with respect to what can be meant.[5] But taking stock of how meaning is conveyed and negotiated permits us not only our own interventions, but also to recognise when expressions violate the terms of our agreement. This is nonsense. This is when an expression, despite any appearances to the contrary, fails to signify. This most often occurs by accident, when a speaker mistakenly transgresses linguistic strictures. But this occasionally occurs purposefully, even if unknowingly, for the sake of some rhetorical exercise. It is at this time that linguistic negotiation begins in order that an expression may be either made meaningful and incorporated into a language or dismissed as a confusion. That dismissal is only one (often marginal) possibility demonstrates just how far off Pigden’s understanding of “coercive” theories of meaning has strayed. There is nothing coercive about them. They rather provide transparent mechanisms  for including and supporting diverse discourses into the whole of our language. It appears still that Pigden only objects to dismissing those expressions which not only do not signify but which cannot signify. But if Pigden wishes to continue kicking stones he should be prepared to express himself clearly in order that his expressions may become meaningful. These are the risks: at times, our expressions dissipate into the aether and what appeared to us to be meaningful ceases to have any significance for us. And if that’s the cost of justice, we could have purchased it centuries ago.

In truth, nonsense has a rhetorical mystique and power that is difficult to surrender. No party has been willing thus far to do so. They most often oscillate back and forth between exposing the nonsense of their opponents and manufacturing their own nonsense. So often we think of rhetoric as trickery that we forget that in politics, we wish to persuade. And so I contest that we ourselves shrug off the need for nonsense and trickery and strive instead for clear expression. If we speak in terms that people can confidently grasp, we shall find our projects to be more confidently embraced. Then, and perhaps only then, shall we find liberation.  


[1] Charles Pigden, “Coercive Theories of Meaning, Or: Why Language Shouldn’t Matter (So Much) to Philosophy,” Logique et Analyse 53 (210): 151, 2010: 155

[2] Pigden charges Neurath, Wittgenstein, et cetera with performative and theoretical contradiction for declaring some domain of discourse to be nonsense because, on his view, these theories of meaning necessarily outstrip the thoughts expressible in language. Had Pigden thought deeply about the motivations for these theories, however, he would recognise his error: “coercive” theories of meaning are not supposed to be sensible, expressible, verifiable, or any such thing. They are normative constraints on what can be sensibly expressed and understood. Wittgenstein goes so far as to openly and purposely construct his Tractatus as a work of nonsense, and Neurath too is open about his political and normative motivations. It was not until logical positivism was appropriated by apolitical English theorists that the question of the empirical adequacy of a theory of meaning even arose in part because these theorists could not grasp the normative even if it had handles.

[3] Pigden, 179

[4] Pigden, 178

[5] Philosophers must of course be careful that they genuinely examine language impartially. Far too often they pretend to an appreciation of an ordinary conception of meaning, whatever that might be, while nevertheless using a theory of meaning to obscure their own agenda. Wittgensteinians in particular are guilty of this, often in order to isolate their own philosophical commitments (such as Wittgenstein’s mystical Christianity) from philosophical critique. One indication of this is that the Wittgensteinian grounds their theory of meaning in a simple meaning relation, namely rules, that are manifested by a form of life. But as with everything human, meaning relations come in a wide variety, and their interaction provides the complexity and often the intractability of language.

Moral Defeatism

It is not difficult to abstain from sin. It is not difficult to abstain from anger or greed or lust or jealousy. Anyone can do this with even the slightest effort. Sin may well be the natural condition of humankind, but humankind no longer lives in a natural condition. Humanity has not conquered nature, but it has conquered humanity. It has been domesticated, enslaved by a Christ who commands his disciples to be perfect as God in Heaven is perfect. And if God is merely the absence of sin, humanity has—or at least has made it possible to have—achieved equality with Him centuries ago.

That sin persists is a minor mystery, one that despite its banality must still be solved. There are two main explanations for it, one psychological and another normative. The former is uninteresting. In their divine wisdom, the Christians have made freedom from sin into something inaccessible, unachievable, and so in some sense forbidden. To be an honest Christian, one must self-accuse, one must humble oneself, and so find themselves guilty of sin. It is no mystery that of the elect who have thus far escaped sin, not one has been Christian. Even Christ himself would humble himself, allowing temptation and anger to strike him too. And lest His wrath be called upon as witness to the sin of the Lord himself!

Christianity is a slave’s religion, one which exalts liberty to heights beyond human reach. Only grace can break our chains, and all human efforts to abstain from sin are for naught. It does not matter to the Christian that sin as they state it can be abolished by a synergy of the simplest psychological technologies—be they therapeutic or meditative—and the slightest social progress. Any sin that can be avoided is no sin at all. This is why the Christ in His Sermon revises the Jewish law forbidding murder into the much crueler, stricter law forbidding anger. And now as anger has been conquered humanity awaits the second revision of Christ.

But in truth this second revision is very far off. The Christian revels today in their sin, in their anger and their jealousy, their lust and their greed. They love to be punished, to pull at their chains in order that they be whipped back into place. It is the nature of humanity to crave a hierarchy, and the Christian craves their slavery.[1] It is a comforting position for them, to relax as it were and allow the Lord to lift their lives. So many an addict or a criminal have surrendered to this siren song for the dark desire to release them of their sin. They empty their hearts of their lust only to fill it again with the Christ’s… revision.

Moral defeatism is the mortal sin of Christianity which says that perfection is achieved with the Lord but unachievable without. This explains the Christian’s penchant for their lusts and their anger which so frustrate—and yet reinforce—their aims. This explains their incomplete surrender to those ideals that they profess. As enlightenment encroaches upon the soul of the Christian, they retreat in order to preserve the darkness within them. They cherish this darkness. Through it, because of it, they shall find salvation. And what is the cost of a little sin now if it may purchase the Christian eternal torment in Heaven? That their salvation is from this very darkness is immaterial to them. What enlightenment could possibly compare to salvation? Certainly no Christian can compare to the might of the Lord! So why shall they compete with Him? Allow His Grace to enrapture, capture, and enslave. This is the way to Heaven. That so few today are truly Christian amongst even those who profess their faith stands as a testament to the virtue, singular as it may be, that recognises the vulgarity of moral defeatism and the achievability of virtue, of perfection.

No person stands without any virtue. The Christian, for all their vice, possesses the slave’s virtue. Others possess the master’s. The value of a virtue, however, takes form only when the practice it regulates has value. The slave’s virtue makes for a docile and pleasant servant, one who shall slither through life avoiding conflict despite their powerlessness. But a slavish condition is paralysis; it can generate no value but for the Lord, the Master to whom the slave is bound. And because the Christian does not even fully live their slavish life, they cannot generate even this value.

The value in virtue is its contribution to the power of one who wields it. But the master too does not wield virtue: they wield only the whip. Far from living a valued life, the master lives as a brute, precarious and fragile, ever wary of mutiny. Their virtue cannot protect them. It cannot be wielded as a weapon against the resentful and disobedient slave. Only the gods bear true virtue in their masterful condition, for only they are immune from usurpation. Humanity is far too delicate to dine on their ambrosia.

The virtuous life is not without sin; it has no need for servility. Sin is a distraction from the life of virtue and abstinence from it is a perversion of the means to virtue. For as the avoidance of sin requires the discipline to lord as master over oneself, so too does virtue. But in the former condition, self-mastery is marshalled in obedience to another master, to the Christ, to the commune, to the king; in the latter, it is marshalled in service of excellence, of one’s own power and interests. This is not equality, but it is neither domination. Virtue is the differentia from some prior condition of equality. The virtuous are constructed; they become nexuses of agency for and unto themselves, not self-sufficiently, but self-directedly.

The Kantian, who has elevated abstinence from sin to the altar of reason, does not speak this way about virtue. They speak rather of freedom as accord with Reason, with the Will of the Lord; for them the cultivation of agency is the capacity to fulfill their duty. Freedom to the Kantian is servitude. True virtue serves no one: it is neither slave to gods nor masters nor inclination. True virtue rules no one: it is itself neither master nor criterion over human action.

Virtue is not distinct from the human condition, nor is it identical with it. Virtue is constructed in human relations, both to self and to other continuously in their activity. Only so does it become achievable, practicable, embodied in human life. Only so can any person be said to attain virtue—and only so has every person failed. For virtue does not stay put: it is always in view but forever out of reach. It is always achievable but never achieved. This is the Christian’s insight turned back around. They have only forgotten that the Lord has legs.

 

___________________________

Note:

[1] The Christian impulse is endemic elsewhere too, most notably in the Marxist revolutionary eschatology. It arises anywhere in which one is alienated from power; surrender becomes the final resolve of the oppressed. Under the Romans, the Jews surrendered to become Christian; under the increasingly complex empires of Europe, the poor surrendered to the benevolent hand of History, which shall through revolution right all wrongs and grow into international communism.

The Problem of Political Authority and Rape

I have been slowly reading the Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer during my lunch breaks and so far I’ve had minor criticisms here and there, but it wasn’t until recently I came across something that made me feel like ranting in a blog post. To be fair, I have yet to finish the book so it’s possible I could be missing something.

For those unfamiliar with this book, it primarily argues in favor of anarchy, specifically of the variety of anarcho-capitalism. When it comes to criminal acts, Huemer favors monetary restitution to victims, except in the most severe circumstances in which being sentenced to life in a workcamp or the death penalty may be more desirable. And again, to be fair, this may not be something Huemer endorses himself, but could possibly be an attempt to give any kind of example that would potentially be more favorable towards justice than how our current society operates. I however still disagree with the example, and in some ways it would create more injustice. I will use the crime of rape to explain how this could be, although I’m sure it’s not the only type of crime that could be used to show how his example could be a problem.

In instances of rape, I’m sure there are bound to be disagreements on whether victims deserve monetary restitution only or if perpetrators should be treated more severely. In either case, I have issues with how they should be treated under Huemer’s example.

In cases in which victims only receive monetary restitution, it will lead to people believing that anyone is basically for sale, at least for anyone wealthy enough to be able to afford it. It won’t be seen as a fine, or restitution to a person for a harm that has been committed, but rather the cost for engaging in a certain behavior, and for some that cost would be worth it. This is especially horrifying when thinking in terms of sexual assault and rape, and is an affront to victims of sexual violence.

One could then move towards isolating perpetrators by placing them in workcamps, but then they would still be a risk to others. Criminals should not be sexually violated, and if they were, how would they get justice under this proposed plan? There would be the option of the death penalty, but that has problems of its own, which I will not get into as I don’t have the time, but with the exception of hardcore advocates of the death penalty I’m sure most people will already know and understand what those are.

All this is not to say I agree with the current set up either, which has a multitude of problems in dealing with rape, but this is in no way better. I would even lean towards saying that it’s much worse.

Against Stoicism

There is a familiar tension within Stoicism between determinism and moral responsibility. The Stoic response is typically to restrict each portion of the puzzle to different realms. Not all Stoics agree on how this division should be maintained. The ancient Stoics maintained that there is one world governed by two principles: matter and reason. Modern Stoics[1] divide the world into two along those same lines. In the world of matter, action is determined. In the world of reason, it is deliberated and chosen. I shall be concerned here with how the modern Stoic understands each individually and how they relate. The Stoic cannot ultimately resolve this tension.

The Stoic account of the world of matter is straightforward. It is ordered by the categories, which permit the theoretical understanding of material events by situating each within a causal series. And so it is with human action, embodied as it is. But in the world of matter, human action is not caused by some intention or will. As the Stoic makes clear, the will is a practical postulate which does not bear on the theoretical understanding of the world of matter: “the postulates play no theoretical or explanatory role whatsoever. They provide us with concepts that define the intelligible world, but we have no intuitions to which we may apply those concepts, and consequently no theoretical knowledge of their objects.”[2] Moral responsibility has its source therefore in the world of reason, the intelligible world, not the material. This is where the real meat of the Stoic account lies.

For the Stoic, the world of reason is revealed in a particular standpoint, one in which action is deliberated. As they say, “In order to do anything, you must simply ignore the fact that you are programmed, and decide what to do—just as if you were free . . . It follows from this feature that we must regard our decisions as springing ultimately from principles that we have chosen, and justifiable by those principles. We must regard ourselves as having free will.”[3] The world of reason, on this view, is populated by those practical postulates needed to completely determine deliberation and moral action. Most important of these for my purpose is the will. This is what deliberates and ultimately chooses some course of action. It is “a rational causality that is effective without being determined by an alien cause.”[4] The will is self-determining, and so is subject to no cause. It follows that moral action qua moral is undetermined by any element of the phenomenal world. It is entirely bound within the intelligible.

The Stoic takes this to ground the freedom of the will. But this is not to say that the will is undetermined. For the Stoic, the will is free only insofar as it is causally isolated from the world of matter. It is nevertheless bound to law because it is itself a causality. This follows immediately from the Stoics’ nomological account of causation: “Since the concept of a causality entails that of laws . . . it follows that freedom is by no means lawless.”[5] Of course, the account of causation that applies here is relevantly distinct from that of the world of matter. The will is not bound to antecedent cause, but its deliberation is nevertheless constrained in the same sort of way. The law still applies to the will, but here the law is rational, not material: “The free will therefore must have its own law . . . [S]ince the will is practical reason, it cannot be conceived as acting and choosing for no reason. Since reasons are derived from principles, the free will must have its own principle.”[6]

The laws which govern the will have their source in the reasons that a will has for choosing one course of action over another. These reasons begin with incentives. For the Stoic, “An incentive is something that makes an action interesting to you, that makes it a live option . . . [It does] not yet provide reasons for the spontaneous will, [but] determine[s] what the options are—which things, so to speak, are candidates for reasons.”[7] Incentives become reasons once they are adopted as maxims. But since incentives don’t just disappear, this process of adopting an incentive as a maxim rather consists in the rational ordering of our incentives, of choosing which incentives take precedence over others.

For the Stoic, the rational order of incentives is readily given in reason as revealed by the structure of the will. Because the will is itself uncaused, it is spontaneous. But in order to be a cause, it must adopt some maxim. As the Stoic puts it, “At the standpoint of spontaneity, the will must . . . choose a principle or a law for itself. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[8] This content must be compatible with the spontaneity of the will and must be available in the world of reason. For the Stoic, there is only one thing which meets these criteria: the will itself. And so the will may ultimately take itself as its content. The Stoic represents this by the following principle: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[9] They call this the Formula of Universal Law, which they say “merely tells us to choose a law. Its only constraint on our choice is that it have the form of a law. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[10] It is of course plain that the Formula of Universal Law does not merely tell us to choose a law. It tells us to choose a universal law. There is a problem here which I shall come to later. For now, I must continue with the Stoic account of moral responsibility.

By now in their account, the Stoic maintains that their account of right action has been satisfactorily demonstrated. What remains is to account for how human beings may act rightly. This is in effect to account for how the world of matter and the world of reason interact. The ancient Stoic can easily account for this because they hold that there is only one world which can be explained in two distinct but consistent ways. The modern Stoic might seem to face a deeper difficulty. However, their account is ultimately the same. The difference here is that they have inverted the metaphysics of their ancient predecessors. Where they ancient Stoics took matter to be fundamental, the modern Stoic holds that the world of matter has its ultimate source in the world of reason, which they then call the noumenal world. As such, when a human being wills some action, its influence in the world of reason makes it so also in the world of matter.

The will does not have sole influence over the world of reason, however. The world of reason is divinely ordered, and so one’s will must contribute to this order in some way. How this occurs is unclear in the Stoic literature. Whatever happens, the parallel limitation occurs also in the world of matter as represented by the laws of cause and effect. The human will, as realised by the material body, is bound by these laws and therefore not completely free. It is always bound by what appears to it as a possible course of action: if that is one is not met by the appropriate kinds of intuitions that permit right action in a given situation, one cannot possibly act rightly. This is of course not a strictly passive process, but it has important passive elements: even if we purposely look for ways to alleviate suffering, for example, these ways may never appear to us even if they are in plain view. It follows from this that in the world of matter the human is not perfectly rational, even if the isolated will in the world of reason is. And so this imperfect rationality is the source of moral responsibility: we are capable of acting on the moral law and yet sometimes, through our own faults, fail to perfectly realise it in the world of matter.

Just as it was for the ancient Stoics, becoming moral for the modern is therefore a process of more completely realising the moral law in the world of matter. This is the importance of virtue. The virtuous person takes the moral law, as given in reason, to be their end. And virtue must be cultivated. As it was for the ancient Stoics, so it will be for the modern: in becoming virtuous, one meditates upon one’s incentives and subordinates those of the inclinations while elevating those of reason. This is not an easy process, as the Stoic says, for “you are imposing a change on your sensible nature, and your sensible nature may, and probably will, be recalcitrant. Although adopting an end is a volitional act, it is one that you can only do gradually and perhaps incompletely.”[11]

It does not matter how great this imposition is: we are obliged to make it from our nature as agents, as rational creatures yearning to be free. But for the Stoic, freedom is only given in subjugation to the moral law. Man is not born free: he becomes free by learning to bear the weight of his chains. Only as a slave within the Empire of Ends shall one have liberty. And so our obligation, as reason commands, is to board the Clotilda and set sail for the Land of the Free. The Stoic wishes to defend this bald incoherence. I will not allow this. The injustice of this empire is already apparent. Let me bring it more clearly into view.

The Stoic is often quite careless with their concepts. Consider the problem that I have already mentioned, for example. The spontaneity of the will on their view demands some law, but it does not demand some universal law. The confusion here consists in what the Stoic takes laws to be and what they constrain. They think that to choose some maxim for oneself in the world of reason is also to choose for all others. Since each will is equal under the laws of reason, to make oneself an exception would be irrational. But this is not quite right. There is a relevant difference between my will and yours: I make decisions for myself and not for you. The universal law here applies only to all those things which are me. Yet this gives absolutely no content to the will, and so the recursion here contributes nothing to what one might be able to take as a maxim.

This is not to say that the will cannot in principle adopt the Formula of Universal Law as its maxim. It is only to say that so adopting it does not preserve the spontaneous condition of the will. In order to take it as a maxim, one must bind oneself to the law of the cosmopolis, the Empire of Ends, the Formula of Humanity, which indeed cannot be given purely in reason. It is of course unclear whence this law can be given at all except through some mystical communion with God, but let’s set this aside for now.

It is more important that in clearing up the Stoics’ concepts, we recognise now that the moral maxim is on roughly equal ground as the maxim of self-love. The former says that “I will do my duty and what I desire only if it does not interfere with my duty.” The latter says that “I will do what I desire and what is my duty only if it does not interfere with what I desire.” Both destroy the spontaneity of the will to some degree, though the Stoic will still insist that the former is preferable because the latter destroys spontaneity in a particular way: “Incentives of inclination cannot move the will to abandon its position of spontaneity, since they cannot move the will at all until it has already abandoned that position by resolving to be moved by them.”[12] The moral maxim, they claim, does not do this since it remains open ended what sorts of actions may fulfill one’s duty. On closer inspection, however, there is no asymmetry here. In both cases, the will must first resolve to be moved before it can be, and in both cases there is any number of actions which might satisfy a maxim. To be a slave of one’s passions is essentially the same as being a slave to the law.

But this is quite a minor problem, one that merely follows the trail which much deeper confusions have set out for the Stoic. Plutarch’s criticism of the ancient Stoics has not been addressed by the modern, for example. The modern Stoics attempt to hold both that a will is always moved by an incentive (eventually) and that it cannot be moved by it until it resolves to be moved. The latter for the Stoic requires assent, or what they more commonly call judgement. Plutarch rightly points out this inconsistency and maintains that judgement is not only not required for action but also possibly harmful to right action. Judgement changes the ways in which both the world is perceived and one’s agency is constituted. Acting without judgement does not do this: it allows one to take an open-ended approach to the world and to oneself in order to seek what is truly good and act for its sake.

One reason that the Stoics deny this is their nomological account of causation. In order to be moved by some incentive, they think, one must be able to comprehend the law that addresses this incentive. These laws are not given in intuition, but rather by abstraction in reason. And so to act on any incentive is ultimately to make a judgement about some law and one’s own relation to it. Hence there is no way around positing laws or reasons to which the will is in some sense bound. And yet, there are no such laws. In recognition of an incentive, the will constructs a model which guides its response. But in no case need this model be expressed as true or even as nomological and making a judgement one way or the other serves only to constrict the will and diminish its openness to what must be done.

The Stoic takes this to be unnecessary because they conceive of the will as ultimately uncaused and completely spontaneous: in other words as free. But they have no grounds for this assumption. For the Stoic, this is a practical postulate necessary in the moment of deliberation and decision. As one reflects on one’s choices, that is, it is not relevant that one’s actions are already determined since subjectively one must nevertheless decide what must be done. And since the will is not (relevantly) determined, they say, it must be free. This does not follow. There is only one thing that is relevantly true here: that in deliberation, it is subjectively opaque what one has already been determined to do, if anything. There is an epistemic distance here that cannot be traversed. The Stoic attempts to infer from this distance the existence of the will and a whole world that it populates. So dogmatic they are that other more reasonable inferences fail to cross their mind at all. Whatever might be true metaphysically, the determination of one’s actions by prior events is simply irrelevant to whether one is morally responsible for a given act. Yet the Stoic is bound to their metaphysical inferences as if these are given in reason alone and not by some pretheoretical psychological disposition which blinds the Stoic to other available options.

And this is really the danger of Stoicism: so blinded they are by their commitment to empire that they bend the world to abide by its edicts. Up is down, war is peace, intuition is reason, and slavery is freedom. Let this not be so: let us go forth and establish our liberty, our freedom from the edicts of the Empire of Ends. And where the Stoic attempts to enslave us, let us cast his reason into the flames. Perhaps when he sees it transformed into ash he will realise at long last that his empire is not eternal.

 

________________________________

Notes:

[1] There are of course two kinds of modern Stoic. One kind is mere atavism and hence does not differ at all from ancient Stoicism but for a lack of detail and rigorous argument. This is the sort of foolish nonsense which Massimo Pigliucci among others promotes and hence may be easily dismissed. But another kind is adaptation. These Stoics have reinvented themselves for a different age. They cannot be similarly dismissed and must be directly opposed, for they too bear the same faults as their predecessors despite their differences. They too would see us subjugated to empire. They too would see us enslaved.

[2] Christine Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 172-173

[3] Ibidem, 163

[4] Ibidem

[5] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 446, quoted in Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[6] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[7] Ibidem, 165

[8] Ibidem, 166; italics in original.

[9] Kant, Groundwork, 4:421

[10] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 166

[11] Ibidem, 180

[12] Ibidem, 166

The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.

Silence.

There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

In Defence of Tom Nagel

This is something I must do. I didn’t intend it. I never wished for my life to turn out this way. Life is a tragedy and a farce; my concerns and my views, my position and my stature, my principles, all of these command me to this end. So here I am, defending the detestable, the corrupt, the deeply mistaken. So here I am defending Thomas Nagel.

Nagel’s concern is a problem, a singular problem, that lies at the heart of philosophical naturalism. This sort of naturalism aspired to a complete, objective description and explanation of natural phenomena. It failed. It failed in dozens of ways. Philosophers were swept up in the atomic age, that period of time where science had made inconceivable advancements in understanding the physical world, alongside a similar advancement in technology that stood in testament to the power of science. Science became the model for good philosophy, heralding in a flurry of novel philosophical problems and tensions. Philosophers simply weren’t prepared for this. They faced down problem after problem, from theory-ladenness to confirmation, explanation, and so on. And to escape these, they once again roused the traditional philosophical problems they originally sought to escape. By the 1980s, naturalism was on its deathbed. And Nagel could explain all of this.

In Nagel’s view, the naturalist project was doomed from the beginning: there will always be a lacuna that plagues the objective view. The scientific enterprise, despite its aspirations, always begins from some perspective. Though the objective view can be abstracted away from that perspective, it can only do so by negating that whence it began. That is, the subjective view, the engaged view, will always plague the naturalist project. There will always be this conspicuous discrepancy. There will always be this absurdity. Naturalism fails because it attempts to elide this inconsistency.

Where this inconsistency lies Nagel never makes clear. What stops the objective view from subsuming the subjective into its body? Is it simply incapable of representing those kinds of indexed relational facts? Nagel thinks it is. No matter how it attempts to do that, the objective view can never represent the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view. It can only accomplish this by imaginatively transposing our own subjective view onto others. And this works sometimes. I can imagine what it is like for Barack Obama to eat an apple, for example, only because I know what it’s like myself to eat an apple. But I cannot imaginatively transpose my subjectivity to creatures with very different faculties than my own. Human echolocation is rudimentary and insensitive: I cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat. Human taste receptors are very different than insect taste receptors: I cannot imagine what it’s like for a cockroach to eat scrambled eggs. There is a tension here, but there is no inconsistency. Two conceptual schemes butt up against each other, but inconsistency is not the kind of relation that can hold between conceptual schemes, except trivially. What matters is whether a single conceptual scheme can coherently represent the basic phenomena the other represents. That is, what matters is whether the conceptual schemes are translatable. And Nagel has not given any reason why they are not.

Instead of arguments to these ends, Nagel gestures. He asserts. He plants his heels in the sand and denies that the naturalist can account for the subjective view. And if Nagel stopped here, there would be nothing terribly wrong. Highlighting a tension is a good thing to do in philosophy, even if there is nothing deeper to be said. But he doesn’t stop there. Nagel wants to make substantive positive claims about consciousness and about life and about metaphysics. He reifies the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view into some kind of irreducible metaphysical thing so powerful that it can topple one of our most well-supported and well-conceived scientific theories: Darwinian evolution. This is absurd! Evolutionary theory has a number of conceptual problems—all large and diverse theories will. But this massive, well-supported theory cannot be overturned by a hunch about conceptual schemes. That’s just not the way philosophy works. David defeats Goliath not because he is the underdog; he defeats him because he is more capable, more resourceful, because he capitalises on Goliath’s weakness and fragility. And so it is in philosophy. Nagel doesn’t do this. Nagel highlights a tension that naturalists must take seriously—and that some have!—but makes no substantive moves to demonstrate that there is any fundamental, unavoidable inconsistency. This is bad philosophy. Thomas Nagel does bad philosophy. He is a bad philosopher.

But here’s the kicker: bad philosophers are a much greater, much more pernicious threat than bad philosophers. For while the bad philosopher promotes a bad argument, bad philosophers promote a toxic community. That is, there are two ways to be a bad philosopher. There are those who argue poorly and make no great headway on philosophical problems, or who highlight problems that are no great difficulty. Most philosophers, possibly all philosophers, are bad philosophers in this way. There is no shame in that. Philosophy is difficult. But there are also those who demean and belittle their philosophical opponents. They are those who in their hubris command that the dissenters be ridiculed and thrown from the windows of our great ivory tower.

This is what I mean to defend Nagel from. He receives a great deal more abuse than he warrants. Just read the reviews of Mind and Cosmos. Philosophers ask “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” and move to much harsher statements about his intellect and abilities. Some say that “[Nagel is] a self-contradictory idiot.” Others go even farther: “Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are. In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” And this is not just a phenomenon present in book reviews. It is a communal activity. As Andrew Ferguson relates, at a conference in the Berkshires entitled “Moving Naturalism Forward,” Dan Dennett was “appalled to how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang . . . They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” Dennett did not specify who these philosophers were. Alex Rosenberg obliged: “And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever. And it’s by Tom Nagel.” This… this is disgusting. All of it. Every last insult. Every last word. This is not how good philosophy is done. This is not how good philosophers comport themselves. These men—and they are all men—are a stain on philosophy.

If philosophy is worth doing, if philosophy is worth anything, we must root out this kind of bad philosophy. We must foster a healthy community, one in which philosophers are free to explore their varied interests and methods. Thomas Nagel should be free to do philosophy as he wishes; if they do not like it, these mean-spirited naturalists are free to respond. But in the present case, this I think is the major crux of the issue. The Rosenbergs and Dennetts and so on of philosophy, these bad philosophers have no substantive response to Nagel. Nagel employs an established method—a bad method, but an established method nevertheless—that naturalism disavows. Naturalists are doing the same thing. They promote naturalism as a viable philosophical method, one which is distinct from Nagel’s intuitionism. But in their position, they are not warranted to hurl insults across the divide. They must first puncture holes in Nagel’s hull before they can tell him he’s sinking. They must first take seriously Nagel’s method and show that he cannot address the central problems of philosophy before they can insult him. And good luck with that.

Until then, let Nagel prosper. Let Nagel write what he wishes to write. Let Nagel teach what he wishes to teach. Let the light of reason bleach away his errors and ours. Our students deserve this. We deserve this. Philosophy deserves this.

Is ‘Zwarte Piet’ Racist? Yes. Yes, very much

The conclusion already spelled out in the title, hopefully, shouldn’t come to a surprise to basically any person that doesn’t live in a place that has Dutch as an officially recognized language. As a Dutchman though, it’d be an understatement to say that voicing said conclusion over here would be met with serious skepticism and resistance.

As it’s December the 5th and people in the Netherlands, followed by Belgium, will be celebrating Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), and the Zwarte Piet “debate” has been in full swing, I found it timely to touch on this topic myself and hopefully also inform people wanting to get to grips with the issue.

Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet

From the picture book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ (‘Saint Nicholas and his knave’), 1850

Who is Zwarte Piet?

Zwarte Piet (Also known as ‘Black Pete’ or ‘Black Peter’ in English) is in the lowlands generally known as the personal servant(s) of Saint Nicholas, whom assist him in providing gifts to good children (and, slightly earlier on, punish bad children) in a celebration that’s not dissimilar from Christmas in other places. Though originally the Saint only had a single servant, today there is no one ‘Zwarte Piet’. There are dozens of Pieten, often identified by their designated functions; you have your navigation Piet, gift-wrapping Piet, singing Piet, and so forth. The Piet characters often are clownish in demeanor & don bright colourful renaissance era-like attire, and are quite commonly depicted in popular media as being acrobatic.

But the most important thing to note is how the character is portrayed physically. Aside from the aforementioned attire, people playing the character(s) do/did so by covering their entire face in black face-paint, and donning red lipstick, big golden earrings, and a black curly wig. Again I hope that no-one from the outside world has trouble understanding what’d be the issue with that, but in case there is any confusion let it be known that this practice is a particularly egregious modern-day example of blackface. Blackface (to grossly simplify here) roughly refers to the practice mostly done by fair-skinned people, where they among other things cover their face in black makeup in order to physically depict black people, which historically is done with the intent of or at minimum has the effect of denigrating mainly people of African descent by playing an offensive caricature. It is usually on these grounds one can find someone objecting to the practice of playing Zwarte Piet.

Pointing out that the practice is an instance of blackface is often met with resistance and counter-objections. I hope to address a few common ones here, and especially one I have seen not-too-infrequently from at least my late childhood on.

The Childhood Story

To my experience the most popular way of explaining away Zwarte Pieten having black faces goes something like this: Though not naturally dark-skinned, the faces of Zwarte Pieten are black as they are covered with soot, for they climb through chimneys all day to deliver children presents, similar to Santa Claus. I’ve been told this tale as a kid, and though I tentatively accepted the explanation given at the time I think even 7-8 year old me had some lingering questions, such as ‘What’s with the red lipstick?’ or ‘What about the black curly hair?’. Even upon only a moment’s reflection the story told doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny.

It’s worth noting that this kind of explanation when aimed at kids wasn’t actually an attempt at a real factual explanation of why things are that way, rather it seeks to explain things in the way the just-so stories told by parents to children asking questions like ‘Where does the Easter Bunny keep all their eggs?’ seek to explain. And yet, I know of instances where people in order to soothe concerns about racial sensitivity will use the childhood story to explain away the questionable aspects of the practice of playing Zwarte Piet. But as I already just suggested, the childhood story is merely a post-hoc explanation of the character’s appearance and isn’t a genuine account of the actual evolution of the practice; the story is to the best of my knowledge completely ahistorical.

Nevertheless, if the pro-Piet person genuinely believes that is the actual explanation behind the current-day practice, they should surely be amendable to getting rid of the lipstick, earrings and wigs, and rather than cleanly covering the entire face in black paint make them appear more like how real people working with chimneys looked like. Surely that’d be more in line with the story told, and this is also exactly what a significant number of people protesting Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands propose as an alternative. And yet even this extremely moderate attempt at reforming the character is strangely enough far from met with acceptance from those inclined to preserve it. It is rather met with mockery and sentiments along the lines of the proposal being ‘political correctness run amok’, which leads me to investigating the next popular retort.

‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’

Another common reply is that kids don’t care about whether the character is considered offensive or not; it’s just uppity adults that make a ruckus. But it’s hard to see how that’s an effective response that thoroughly engages with the implications of the criticism that playing the Zwarte Piet character is racially insensitive, which if true presumably gives us good reason in favour of either altering or abolishing the practice altogether. Also note that counter-objection cuts both ways; if children don’t care either way, what’d be the trouble in altering or doing away with the practice? I sure wouldn’t have cared that much as a kid, and I also doubt kids today have that much of a passionate commitment to keeping the Piet the way it is like many of their parents do. Assuming we did away with the practice entirely starting the next Sinterklaasfeest, I’m going to bet that even 5 years from now the kids of then will care approximately 0% about the fact that we abandoned some old dated tradition. It is in fact the parents, not the children, that make a big deal about preserving Zwarte Piet.

A related yet mutually contradictory reply is that anti-Zwarte Piet protesters are in fact ‘Ruining Sinterklaas for kids’ by opposing Zwarte Piet. Now they can mean two different things by this: Sometimes it refers to the way how opponents of the practice of playing Zwarte Piet go about protesting the practice, but sometimes proponents also seem to just mean the fact that the current Piet will be in some way altered itself constitutes ‘ruining the magic’ for children. I will first focus on the latter as it’s the easiest to dispense with, mainly as we’ve already established kids probably don’t intensely care about the status of Zwarte Piet. Those who are of the age that they still believe in the Saint and the like might get curious as to the sudden change were it to be implemented, but I seriously question whether they’d be inconsolable over it. I suspect there is a degree of projection going on on the side of pro-Zwarte Piet parents and other guardian figures when it comes to the question of the plight of the children.

As to the former, it depends. I’ve heard proponents allege that they’ve seen protesters go around shaming even children who are indifferent about the controversy to their faces. Now I have no idea if that is actually true or a gross exaggeration, but if it’s true then yes, such people are obviously misguided in doing so. Children from age 3-11 who passively accept the practice inculcated by their guardian figures can hardly be seen as morally culpable for said acceptance to any significant degree. The target of rebuke should obviously be the guardian figures and other people who themselves actively are trying to hold on to the practice, and who have an effect on what children will see as appropriate and participate in.

But generally speaking, those marginal exceptions of reprehensible conduct aside, I think common ways of opposing Zwarte Piet are very much acceptable. Online rebuke, plastering ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ stickers and posters, public protests, even ones that might be perceived as “disruptive” protests (As all protests that are in any way effective will invariably be regarded as) are completely legitimate and permissible tactics. As the argument discussed in the paragraph directly above targets unacceptable means, it evidently doesn’t apply to the means I’ve sketched out here. If one is inclined to say that even the tactics I described (Even if they target the right people in terms of rebuke, and even though the methods of protest ostensibly don’t involve any sort of serious rights-violations) are somehow impermissible as well, I very much invite them to explain why they feel that way, for I do not see it. On that note I’ll be moving on to the last common argument that I think is prominent and serious enough to dignify with a thorough response.

‘Traditions are Sacred’

The last resort for the proponent to make the practice beyond reproach is to appeal to the fact that it’s a long-running tradition. They’ll seemingly selectively adopt a naive kind of cultural relativism where we need to accept any and every cultural practice and to criticize certain customs constitutes an unacceptable level of disrespect for a given group’s traditions, regardless of the contents of the tradition in question. I have even in one instance heard a person bite the bullet and give the example of bull fighting in Spain as a tradition that we should respect in spite of our own attitudes. This I repeat is a very naive way of looking at things, and treats our “dislike” of in this case bull fighting as something akin to personal tastes without cognitive content, rather than serious ethical objections to what’s to my mind an obvious case of needless animal cruelty.

Let’s do a little thought experiment: Let’s say it were to be found out that every leap year for the past century people in Canada secretly have had a tradition where they ritually killed off and cooked up all their first-born. Evidently it’d be a long-standing tradition that’s been practiced for generations, and it might well be significant to the participants and part of their culture, and yet I think it’s fair to say that any even remotely plausible moral theory would allow for at the very least serious repudiation of the practice. Of course that’s a very extreme example, but it’s just to demonstrate that something being labeled a “tradition” doesn’t by that fact make it beyond criticism. And at any rate, even though the practice of playing Zwarte Piet doesn’t involve infanticide, I think it’s also fair to say that it’s problematic enough to also be subject to criticism. Again people are free to respond if they disagree with the last sentence, but as it stands I’m pretty confident in my claim that a tradition being racist (even if it doesn’t involve murder) is sufficient grounds for objecting to said tradition.

Lastly, in the Netherlands at least there’s been a substantial increase in xenophobic sentiment in recent years, in particular directed toward Turkish and Moroccan citizens. And I know from firsthand experience that at least some of the people inclined to make the tradition argument above also love to call the cultures and traditions of Turks and Moroccans “backwards, barbaric, and misogynistic” compared to ‘our’ “enlightened, secular, and tolerant” society. And of course that’s just a load of xenophobic rubbish, but it does show that at least a number of the people making the tradition argument actually in some scenarios agree with my assessment that “tradition” isn’t necessarily above criticism (Though for all the wrong reasons), so this means those people either are being inconsistent or are being dishonest in arguing that.

Anyhow, in concluding thoughts: I believe it’s fair to say the idea that the practice of playing Zwarte Piet is racially insensitive holds, and that none of the popular counter-arguments assessed here serve as much in the way of powerful objections to people imploring to abandon the practice.

A Plain Jane Theory of Sex Differances, Or: Jonesing for Some Sexy Oppression

In this scene, Jane Clare Jones, our star bigot, our astro-TERF attempts to Clarefy sex and sex-based oppression. I, a brainless rube, become confused, certainly on account of my brainlessness, and ask for further Clarefication. Jones obliges, to little effect. Our brainless rube is just too brainless.

Roll cameras! Action!

Skip the dinner and small talk: Jones wants to begin with sex. A little forward for my liking, but let’s role with it. Sex is not just “a very complex mix of chromosomes, hormones, and genitals.”[1] It has much more to do with “gametes and reproductive function.” It’s true! Sex is the system of categorisation we use to understand whether two individuals can productively copulate to produce viable offspring. XY/XX, testosterone/estradiol, penis/vagina, sperm/egg, nurturing mother/deadbeat dad. Sex is a binary. It is . . . wait, Sex isn’t a binary? “THAT IS NOT A FUCKING BINARY,” says Jones.

Okay, so what’s a binary? “A binary,” she says, “is a conceptual hierarchy which is formed by taking a term with a dominant positive value and creating a subordinate value by negating the privileged qualities of the dominant term.” Male/female (sex, that is) is not a binary. Masculine/Feminine (sex(?), that is) is a binary. Glad we Clared that up. Oh no, wait, I sexed it. Masculine/Feminine is gender. Okay, got it. Gender is the “ur-binary, to the extent that ALL of the binary pairs which structure Western thought . . . are gendered.” Sex, on the other hand, is not a binary because it is a “natural difference.” Apparently we in the West didn’t realise this at first because our thought “is so thoroughly gendered that [we] are incapable of thinking the difference ‘male/female’ without thinking it’s (sic) cultural hierarchisation . . .”

Good, good. Now that we know that sex is just a difference between individuals on account of their reproductive function and that there is no hierarchy granted on those grounds, we know what the cause of women’s oppression is: it is the cultural hierarchy of masculine over feminine, of man over woman. So trans women, as women, are oppressed just like cis women, for both are tokens of the same cultural type. They wear their hair long, care needlessly about their figure, read romance novels instead of build motors, and all the other things that women do that are not predicated on their reproductive function. To solve this oppression, then, we need  . . . Huh? What? Oh no: I’ve gone and gendered it up again. “You are committed to an ideology,” she says, “that means you can’t recognise . . . that female people are oppressed qua female people—that is, on the basis of their sex.” Now I’m confused.

I’m Jonesing for a Clarefication here! She obliges: “Male people commit violence . . . because of the structure of patriarchal gender.” Yeah, so men think women are weak and passive and emotional and irrational, and that these characteristics are worse, so they abuse and rape them, they pay them less, they don’t grant them political power, and so on. I got that. So when do we get to the sex? Jones says that “women are oppressed on the basis of their sex.” Okay . . . I realise that reproductive function sets women back in their careers because of child-bearing, and financially in other ways because feminine hygiene products cost money, but what about all the more heinous stuff? Women are raped. Women are catcalled and harassed. These are truly terrible. Trans women get raped too. Quite frequently. They get catcalled and harassed. But they can’t bear children. Rape and harassment have little to do with reproductive function. They are cultural signifiers of power. Cis women don’t have that power. Neither do trans women. Both are oppressed. Now, there are certainly avenues of oppression that cis women face that trans women don’t. Absolutely. But there are likewise avenues of oppression that trans women face that cis women don’t. Trans women face much higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. They live shorter lives. They have more difficulty accessing medical care and have higher rates of disease as a result.

“Stop it with your baseless hierarchy of suffering lady!” Oh no, I’ve made her angry! “You think playing people’s wounds off against each other is going to get us somewhere good, you dangerous idiot???” Wow, okay, rude. I didn’t know I was being dangerous. All suffering is important. I just wanted to know, Dr. Jones, how cis women are oppressed on account of their sex when all of the major threats arise from their gender. I mean, trans men, though female, often don’t face the same threats that cis women, or even trans women, do. So please, Clarefy. Please.

Here we go: Trans women, she says, “are male people who are performing femininity in a way that violates the first rule of patriarchal masculinity.” Uh, sure. But I’m a fairly gracile man. I wear nail polish and sew. I’ve never been catcalled. Not even once. Nor raped. That’s not even a common thing for more effeminate men than me, or at least not nearly as common as it is for cis women or trans women. And why do these two explanations, that trans women don’t live up to the masculine standard, and that cis women have a female reproductive role, happen to explain the same phenomena? What are the chances of that?! Especially since many men don’t have x-ray vision and can’t see that trans women happen to have testes and a Y-chromosome. Like, I know men are attentive and discerning, but I didn’t know we could see hidden, invisible things!

So is that all? Is there nothing else? No? Okay. OKAY!!

Gender and sex are inextricably bound. They are not coextensive; they vary. But they are nevertheless joined like weights by a string, one heavier and one lighter. They shift around with time but at different rates. And yet no one can control either. They both stand independent of us to a large extent. Neither can just be wished away.

But what that means then is that trans women are women. They may differ from cis women in some ways of course: this, after all, is what the “trans” signifies. But their oppression is women’s oppression. Their oppression can be ameliorated by abolishing gender. And what that means is that we don’t demonise them, we don’t add further avenues to their intersection. We accept them and listen to them and support them as we ought to accept and listen and support cis women. But as our support for black women differs from white, disabled women differs from abled, lesbian women differs from straight, so too must our support for trans women differ from cis. Jones, in her infinite smugness, just doesn’t get that.

BOOM!

(Do I get a Prince?)

That’s a wrap! Good job, everyone; let’s get this to the cutting room.

 

Notes

[1] All quotations are from Jane Clare Jones, https://janeclarejones.com/2018/11/20/burble-burble-intersex-burble-social-construct-burble-burble-trans-women-are-women-sally-hines-on-womans-hour/

Remembrance in the Menexenus

Plato was not a member of the Greatest Generation, the generation that fought two great wars, the generation of Pericles and Themistocles, Thucydides and Nicias, and even of Socrates. But he’s old enough to remember them. He knows from his youth what Athens was like at its peak, fortified and overflowing with wealth and prestige. But by the time he reached adulthood, the Delian league had evaporated, Sparta had torn down the long walls and dismantled Athens’ ships. Athens was a mere shadow of what it once was. And Athenians paid the price, including wealthy aristocrats like Plato. By all accounts, they were a lesser generation. They weren’t as bold or just or wealthy. They didn’t have the prestige that their fathers commanded. They were sorely lacking in resources and in opportunity. And they had to struggle with all this in the shadow of the Greatest Generation that preceded them.

We too, as I write, are faced with the same. And today we are asked to Remember. We are asked to remember the sacrifices of that Greatest Generation in its battle against tyrannical forces abroad so that we might grow and live in free and prosperous nations. Our forefathers failed. Plato’s forefathers so too.

So how shall we Remember? What, truly, do we owe to the Greatest Generation? In Plato’s Menexenus, he gives us an answer.

The Menexenus consists of two major sections: an introductory conversation between Socrates and Menexenus, then Aspasia’s speech. Aspasia’s speech takes up the bulk of the dialogue and can itself be broken into two, separated by the words of the war dead themselves. That Aspasia’s speech has these two parts is important for understanding its point and Plato’s. It is the ironic contrast between them that gives the speech its force.

Socrates begins the dialogue thus: “Whence comes Menexenus?” Menexenus gives an answer—the Council Chamber—but this is not all whence Menexenus comes. He comes also from Athens, and from Athens’ brave ancestors. The first part of Aspasia’s speech concerns the former; the second part the latter. She begins with a history of Athens from the Persian Wars through the Peloponnesian War to the war against Corinth that the speech is memorialising. The major thread is easy to see: Athens was a powerful and noble polis who fought for the freedom of the Greeks first against barbarians, second against Greeks. Freedom is the object, no matter the enemy. Sometimes the tree of Liberty need be watered and all that. But so far so passé. Plato means to provoke with Aspasia’s speech. He does that in the second part, with the speech of the war dead.

These war dead are of Plato’s generation. They live in the shadow of their fathers who fought in the Peloponnesian War, and their gradfathers who fought the Persians. They begin by addressing their sons: “Sons,” they say, “our present condition shows that you are born of courageous fathers.”[1] This is no hyperbole. But their virtue has a reason. It is from their own virtue that they mean to exhort their sons, their fathers, and their city to virtue. They say that they “believe that no one who brings disrepute on his own family truly lives at all,” for “he has no friends, man or god, on Earth or below it.”[2] They continue:

You must remember our words and do everything in partnership with valor, without which all possessions and all actions are shameful and base . . . When sundered from the noble and just, even knowledge most certainly cannot be wisdom but seems rogue and villainous. Endeavour, therefore, for all time from the first to the last to surpass–most fervently, in merit and in worth–we who came before. And if you fail, if we stand above you, ennobled and great, our victory is truly our most shameful defeat. But if you overcome, this defeat is then our joyous victory.[3]

The condition for virtue, for success in the universe, is to make one’s progeny better, to hand off the reins of one’s country and one’s name to someone better, stronger, smarter. Failure is disaster: it is profound, universal loneliness, lacking friends among man and god while one lives or after one has died. This sentiment is repeated in Plato with some frequency, such as in the Lysis with regards to friendship, and the Gorgias on the responsibilities of political leaders. But here, it takes a different, more sombre tone. For as the war dead go on to say while consoling their fathers and mothers still living, “That mortal man has everything in his life turn out as he wishes is no easy feat.”[4] One’s success is all but beyond effect. For all a man’s best efforts, for all his toil and his pain, he may never accomplish anything of any value whatever.

And as Plato’s generation makes clear, exactly this happened in the history of Athens. The Greatest Generation of Athens was powerless to stop the decline of their city and the welfare of their children. And so too was the fate of these men being memorialised by Aspasia’s speech. The decline and fall of Athens was imminent and unavoidable. The present condition of Athens reveals something quite different than that Athenians were sons of courageous men. The war dead themselves must believe themselves to be shameful. They have not improved their city; they have been conquered by it and left it debased and wicked. Athens’ great heroes have all been failures.

So we return once again: what, truly, do we owe those men who fought and sacrificed for our city? What is the purpose of our Remembrance? Now we return to the first part of Aspasia’s speech. For as it stands, Aspasia has demonstrated the courage of the Athenian war dead and revoked it at once. We stand then at a crossroads. Is the Greatest Generation truly great, virtuous, courageous, or are they debased and corrupt? Truly, they are both. As Aspasia makes clear at the beginning, the Greatest Generation fought, and died, for what was right. Mistakes they may have made, but for everything to turn out is no easy feat. What makes courage, what makes virtue, is not to succeed: it is to know when and for what to fight. The Athenian Greatest Generation fought the Persians and the Spartans. Our own fought the Nazis. The Corinthian war dead too fought for freedom. And what will we do—will we fight Republicans?

So what do we owe to the Greatest Generation, these brave men who fought but failed to preserve our freedom? What do we owe them?  Forgiveness. We owe them forgiveness for their vices and their inadequacies. We owe them the knowledge that despite their failures, they still have friends amongst gods and men.

 

Works Cited

[1] Plato, Menexenus, 246d. All translations are my own.

[2] Ibidem

[3] Ibidem, 246d-247a

[4] Ibidem, 247d

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