So You Love Humanity But Can’t Stand People?
Humanity, when assembled as a state, also finds it hard to tolerate the individual. When should collective interests (e.g. those of a state) override the interests of individuals? Example: Many Americans see “the right to bear arms” as a triumph of individual rights over the collective rights of the state.
Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.
1. We are all reasonable people, until reality closes in
Long ago when I was younger and more naïve I read a Sunday supplement opinion piece which dismissed Karl Marx with the scorching insult that “he loved mankind but couldn’t stand people”. At the time I knew little about Marx or Communism, and nothing about the man’s 19th Century domestic habits, but the epithet* seemed to give me a guilty twinge of self recognition [*widely and wrongly in Google quote searches said to have originated from Charles Schultz through his Peanuts character]. Apparently the quote struck a chord in many people, because it has become widespread. Why is that?
Whatever way you cut it, living amongst other people involves either compromise or abject slavery, unless you happen to be Master of the Universe. This is true on a personal domestic scale, or in most kinds of employment, or as a member of a much larger collective such as a nation state. If we can see the slave-to-master thing as a scale, the posture each of us adopts in each particular role, from householder to citizen, may be quite different. In fact an abject surrender of personal interests at one level may be psychologically compensated for by ruthless domination at another level. Think of the office worm who goes home and beats his wife.
It is a remarkable fact that history’s most genocidal tyrants, as well as any normal garden variety of politician, will usually have a long list of wonderfully sensible quotations attached to their name. They all love mankind. Very rarely indeed do they sound like quintessential godfathers of evil, especially nowadays while sitting around a discussion table in a television studio. Nor is it much of a surprise however that when exercising real-life decisions, the actions of these characters may be at utter variance with their statements in friendly interviews. So do such apparent hypocrites come from another planet, or are they ourselves writ large? I fear that much as I love an idealized “mankind” in philosophical moments, like the politicians, dealing with actual human critters on Monday morning might sometimes draw me to thoughts best not discussed in polite company.
2. A desire for personal freedom Vs collective obligations
The dilemma of a personal ideal uncomfortably challenged by real people leads directly to a second dilemma: that of my personal desire for unfettered freedom of action versus the collective needs of whatever community I may be dealing with at the time – a household, a neighbourhood, a company, a country.
Ideologies, religions and cultural value statements tend to emphasize consistency in this matter of individual versus collective interests, though the dogmas themselves may be anywhere along the scale. This dogma or that will not say, for example, that I’m a good man for being selfless with my family, but a bad man for being selfless in my workplace. The dogma will presume that my selfless/selfish posture remains consistent, or should remain consistent. Of course, except for the occasional ideologue, we all know that such absolute consistency is a nonsense, and may even lead to inhumane outcomes. Our life successes and the opinions of others about our character will turn, in the end, on how we exercise judgement in particular situations, not on abstract statements of values.
What amounts to the exercise of good judgement itself is hardly a universal constant. One man's view of his own smart call can seem like crass stupidity in the eyes of others. The law's view of adequate good judgement as opposed to culpable negligence or irresponsibility is supposedly a distillation through the mind of a judge of "what might be expected of a reasonable man". Judges as a species are hardly known to have a feel for values of the common man or woman though, if there is such a creature. In fairly culturally homogeneous communities the fiction might be enough to muddle through on most of the time. But the communities we live in now are anything but homogeneous. My home, Australia, is host to over 200 immigrant communities. Then there are the countless fault lines between generations, further mixed up with cyber cultures that those beyond a certain age in the main scarcely suspect.
Even apart from exotic modernity, the levels of rule-based requirement that individuals can live with happily runs a gamut from those who relish the chance to exercise personal judgement to those who really only feel secure when every step of their daily lives is proscribed by somebody else's rules. In one of my earlier lives I taught for a while in a high school. The 'A' classes generally liked to know the 'why' of things, and given broad guidelines were happy to go off exploring a project with a minimum of teacher intervention. The 'F' classes would usually cooperate well operating within a very familiar and closely specified framework. They tended to dislike the unexpected, and would soon dissolve into directionless mucking about, even resentful sabotage, if left to work things out by themselves. The 'A' class and the 'F' class are well represented in most societies. No amount of education seems to change it. One consequence is that the rules, or lack of rules, we all live by are always a compromise at the level of wider civil society and politics.
3. What can law and dogma arbitrate?
Individuals make their own judgements about the balance they exercise between public and private interests in whatever roles they play. It can easily happen that those private judgements disadvantage other parties. To disadvantage collective interests is an abstract idea however, not a person to be mollified. “Collective interests” are advocated for by an agent on behalf of other individuals, with or without their consent.
When dictators like Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong claimed to advocate on behalf of the masses, they had no known citizen in mind. At different times their advocacy might have been entirely a political fiction, or it may indeed have benefited a particular group of individuals, a segment of the population, by asserting the greater good ahead of, say, the personal profit of a factory owner.
The dictator scenario is a rather different situation from where a union organizer, for example, makes use of national workplace arbitration laws to negotiate on behalf of his constituents against a manager who wants to abolish overtime penalty rates. In such a scenario the protagonists are likely to be personally known to each other, with all the dynamics which personal relationship implies, even though the instrument of arbitration is a piece of legislation passed by a remote parliament.
Laws may be a tribal custom, they may be ecclesiastical, they may be dictatorial decrees, or they may be legislated in some kind of democratic forum. Whatever the origins of a law, in the end it claims to define a certain template of relationships between people, or the things they possess. Through the mechanism of allowing a legal company, laws may also create fictional “legal persons” who can enter into relationships with other fictional “legal persons” (companies), or with actual human beings.
Where relationships come into conflict, the general aim of law is to establish some consistency of arbitration between the rights and obligations of conflicted parties. The conflict may be between two or more individuals, or it may be between an individual and some kind of collective interest, or more ambiguously (in terms of natural justice), it may involve the interests of fictitious legal persons, companies.
If the balance of individual interest against collective interests were always obvious, transparent and accepted, few laws would be needed. Since these conditions are rarely met, laws obviously are needed.
The system of legal administration in a country is often called the justice system. It could just as easily be called the injustice system. Although there are common patterns in our social, political and economic lives. we are all different, and the conflicts we find ourselves in are in some ways all different. The legal code cannot take full account of individual differences. It may try to set a common standard for all people and all situations, though in a strict sense that is often not viable. Any legal code has to be a blunt axe.
The administration of the legal code in every culture is given over to individuals, judges, who are tasked with using it as a tool to arbitrate between conflicting parties. That can often mean arbitrating between the personal interests of a defendant and the collective interests of other people, a company, or that abstraction we call a country. It is inevitable that losing parties in such a contest will often feel that an injustice has been done. Usually however they will abide by the arbitration, either under state sanctioned coercion, or because of their broader judgement that accepting the loss of one argument is better than rejecting the benefits to be obtained from being a member of the community.
Of course, potential conflict between individual situations and general administrative rules is one of the constants of living in almost any community. Any one of us can think of a dozen personal examples from any year of our lives. For some, a sense of injustice can drag them into stress related illnesses or depression, while others shrug off such road bumps, or find a detour in life’s journey.
A simple current example from my own life may serve to illustrate the wayward sweep of the law. I happen to have a heavy truck licence. It’s not that I intend to become a professional truck driver anytime soon, but the licence is handy for renting in the case of a house move, or perhaps the option to drive a large recreational RUV (mobile home). Shortly before my 70th birthday a little while ago a letter arrived from the government requiring me to have a detailed annual medical check to retain the licence. This seems like a reasonable idea for the general population. The average 70 year old tends to be a bit shaky around the edges. For me the check itself would be a bit of a joke: I have a resting heart rate of 58bpm, most days run 3.5km before each meal (i.e. three times a day), and do 50 push-ups before breakfast. But here is the rub. A medical check like that was going to cost $140+ , not once but annually. So for the convenience of keeping the licence I am supposed to pay a significant annual fee. The legislators would not have been thinking in those terms, and would not care about odd characters like me. Thus the law suddenly makes an individual a financial victim of general community health standards. What should I do? Eventually I decided to surrender the heavy vehicle licence, but delayed until a few days after the due date (I was in the middle of moving house). The licensing clerk was scornful at my comment that retaining the licence would force me to pay an annual penalty. Moreover, she declared with unique bureaucratic logic, since the submission was overdue I would have to undergo a medical check regardless of whether I downgraded to a car licence. This is the kind of nonsense that leaves swathes of any population hostile to the agents of the law. Well, I sought out a doctor, paid my $140, and duly obtained my completely pointless medical certificate.
On a much more serious scale, age discrimination is becoming a major issue for those people who live longer and healthier lives than their ancestors. As a man of 70, most countries will now routinely deny me a working visa, and institutional employment is almost out of the question in almost any jurisdiction. In the Australian case, if instead of being resigned to unemployment, I decided to make a dollar selling, say, party fairy lights on eBay.com, any profit would be subtracted from my age pension – a penalty for enterprise. The invisible hand of unintended consequences ensures that everyman’s law, supposedly operating in the common interest, makes a zombie of the individual.
4. Nation states mandate a broad balance between individual and collective interests, sometimes
The world’s current refugee problems engulf huge numbers of people, and the number of internally displaced citizens in failing states is even greater. In many cases a political state, supposedly representing the collective interests of its peoples, has violated individual rights to the point where large numbers of sometime citizens have fled, often at mortal risk. This has been the case throughout known history, and probably as far back as pre-humans were hunting in packs, but now the numbers of affected people have become overwhelming and globally publicized. These unlucky tens of millions of individuals have sparse protection when pitted against the righteous collective comfort of more prosperous populations in other latitudes. Philosophical arguments about individual Vs collective interests have little currency under extreme conditions. Luck, courage, persistence, are instruments of personal survival when all the rules fail.
The explicit idea of a social contract between the collective interests of a political body, such as a nation state, and particular citizens is fairly new in much of the world. It is scarcely considered in those terms by a large part of the world’s population, and treated with frank cynicism by many of those who have seized power and act in the name of the state. However, in spite of ongoing gross violations of both individual and collective interests, there has been a persistent spread of the idea of “human rights”. It is a rare leader nowadays who talks openly about “the divine right of kings”, as an English sovereign could a mere few centuries ago. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an explicit and now widely known expression of the minimal acceptable relationship between individuals with their interests and the superordinate collective claims of nation states.
The social contract idea in one form or another has far wider currency than it did even a generation ago. This new awareness comes not so much through deliberate civic education as the ubiquity of electronic media. While television was an unrivalled tool to anaesthetize populations with propaganda about the state’s beneficence, it also conveyed the idea that “someone” out there controlling the TV was responsible for the safe and prosperous life of individuals.
With the arrival of interactive media like the Internet and mobile phones, the rulers of nation states and their agents (regardless of whether they were elected) are suddenly finding that they are forced into a dialectic with those citizens and in some ways are accountable to them. The response of a psychopath like Assad in Syria has been to drop barrel bombs on his citizens, a temporary solution that is sure to end badly for the state as well as the citizens. The official response of that vast state called (without a hint of irony) the People’s Republic of China has been some selective coercion, attempts at invasive censorship, but in the end often tacit acquiescence in the expressed will of the people, as communicated through their social media sites like Sina Weibo, WeChat, QQ and RenRen.
5. The right to bear arms
The power of life and death over another person is the ultimate aphrodisiac of power. Like all kinds of power, this control of mortality corrupts most of those who have an easy way to exercise it. It corrupts judgement and it corrupts compassion. It short-circuits creative thinking towards better social and political solutions.
Historically, the leaders of most states or principalities have sought some kind of monopoly on the exercise of lethal force. They have seen this as their best assurance of maintaining power, and the doctrine of “might is right” (technically, fascism) has been a familiar political theme. In the pre-industrial ages, implements of daily use like knives and axes could hardly be denied to common people. However many civilizations did try to enforce social hierarchies which included specifications of the grade of weapons allowed to each, and differential punishments for their lethal misuse. Nevertheless, armed revolts such as peasant uprisings were a constant threat and brought an end to many a dynasty. At the same time, those with weapons of whatever kind saw them as their last ultimate guarantee of life and liberty from both criminals and the predations of the state.
There has long been a distinction in some nations between owning weapons and carrying them in public places. The citizens of ancient Greek states were required to supply their own weapons before joining defensive militias abroad, but forbidden from carrying weapons in public places. “…it was believed that carrying weapons at home would be tantamount to letting weapons, not laws, rule” (Lane 2013). This prohibition on private citizens carrying weapons in public is now common to the vast majority of countries, even those with relatively liberal gun ownership laws. The most notorious exceptions are those states in America which have “open carry” laws based on the 2nd Amendment to the American Constitution concerning the right to bear arms, and it does seem indeed that weapons, not laws, rule far too often in the American way.
The special private weapons situation found in the United States of America carries many lessons and cautions on problems of governance. Since the 2nd Amendment is framed explicitly in terms of the rights of the individual versus the collective interest of all in the form of the state, it bears directly on the topic under discussion.
The American gun debate also throws into stark relief a three way conflict between the individualist claims of gun owners, the growing outrage amongst large numbers of Americans who feel threatened by daily firearms carnage in their communities, and the legal-political system which claims to represent the interests of all citizens. The overall legitimacy of the American legal-political system is at high risk in this contest.
The American Constitution has been promoted for generations as a guarantee of “freedom” beyond challenge. Thus the Constitution has much in common with other canonical documents such as the Muslim Koran, the Christian Bible, and so on. The commonality is to do not with particular wording, but with the psychology of those who turn to such documents to defend their own particular arguments.
Any search on the Internet on “the right to bear arms” will throw up innumerable links to American commentators mostly claiming that the American Constitution gives them a sacred unchallengeable and unchangeable right to carry personal weapons. To the extent that they acknowledge the plague of domestic deaths and massacres sourced in firearms, their solution is an even greater proliferation of weapons. These are Americans in an arms race with themselves.
In early 19th Century America, before personal firearms were readily available to folk of ordinary means, weapons of personal choice were mostly large knives, like Bowie knives. The old aristocratic perversion known as the honour duel had become a common excuse for ordinary unruly men to get into lethal fights. Their weapons of choice in these brawls were knives, to the extent that many American states passed laws banning the possession and carrying of certain kinds of knives. This was generally thought to be a good thing. Little was heard of appeals to the Constitution’s “right to bear arms”.
However, after the American civil war (1861-1865) large numbers of firearms became available to common people, and advances in weapons technology led to widespread marketing of these guns. At this point something curious happened. Many states passed legislation allowing citizens to carry guns, and this legislation was duly justified by the Constitution’s 2nd Amendment. What the legislation did not say, but everyone knew, was that white men generally had the financial means to purchase guns, but that black and Hispanic men generally did not have this kind of money. Black and Hispanic men usually used knives in assault and self-defence. Legislation banning knives tended to stay on the statute books.
The United States was established (like many another state) through the violent seizure of land, and much of its early economy was based on slave labour. The American people have never escaped psychologically from the legacy of violence and racial conflict. The “right to bear arms” in America is essentially an argument from race fear, dressed up in the language of individual rights. With 5% of the world’s population, America has 25% of the world’s prisoners, over 60% of them people of colour, even though blacks and Hispanics constitute only 30% of the current population in USA.
6. Military adventurism trashes social trust
Since September 2001, when al-Qaeda operatives flew jetliners into the Twin Towers Trade Center in New York, a large segment of the world news cycle has revolved around terrorism. This political obsession with terrorism has emerged in the absence of armed conflict between major states, but gave rise to the American invasion first of Afghanistan, then of Iraq on the pretext of eliminating safe retreats for terrorist forces. In fact neither of those states, however distasteful their governments, were sponsors of al-Qaeda, while strong circumstantial evidence seems to indicate that state elements in Saudi Arabia or even the United States may have been part of that particular terrorist undertaking. American military forces in Afghanistan and particularly in Iraq enjoyed apparent tactical successes, and catastrophic strategic failure (by now, after the Vietnam War, a familiar pattern). A direct consequence of the criminally inept political intervention in Iraq by the United States and its allies has been the emergence of the violent millenarian religious movement, The Islamic State, initially in Iraq and now in Syria, bringing a reign of terror upon those luckless populations, and a major refugee exodus.
A correlate of Western military intervention in the Middle East has been a rather hysterical focus on terrorism in the domestic political narratives of many democratic states, and especially America. This in turn has led to an expansion of so-called “security” operatives and domestic surveillance activities in Western states to a point where the legal right to a private life has been seriously eroded and the political atmosphere at times approaches the intrusiveness found in one-party dictatorships. Long held expectations of the rights of the individual, such as habeas corpus, have been grotesquely undermined in the name of security. A close look at actual terrorist related incidents in Western Democracies will quickly show that they are a rather minor policing issue, similar to those which have existed since the 19th Century or earlier. Electronic media, the news cycle and opportunistic politicians have generated a huge beatup on freelance terrorism. Historically and currently the major sponsors of terrorism have always been, and are, state actors.
The focus of this particular essay is the never-ending contest between individual interests and collective interests. We have seen that this is a multi-faceted issue intersecting with every level of a person’s life. As we deal with larger and larger social units trust becomes harder to maintain. Without trust however, relationships of all kinds become extremely inefficient. The preceding account of the 9/11 al-Qaeda incident and its aftermath illustrates just how trust in Western governments has been undermined by their poor judgement, or the political malfeasance of their leaders. This has large consequences for civil society. For a hint of what those consequences can amount to, we only have to look at a country like China, where public trust is simply non-existent, so that every action in business and civil life is hugely and unnecessarily complicated.
7. Your secrets are our secrets
The role of the Internet and electronic media in private lives has exploded since the turn of the new millennium in 2000. This new universe of experience happened to coincide with the national security hysteria referred to in the preceding section. Security obsessions and the Internet have been a combustible mix. Predictably perhaps, in a fresh environment without effective controls on their actions, the agents of governments have largely ignored the interests of individuals and abused privacy rights on a huge scale. They had done this precisely because they could get away with it. These supposed security agencies have also ignored the collective interests of their host populations, partly because their leaders lacked the sophistication to properly understand the real meaning of collective interests, and partly because their focus was on a professional goal which overrode wider concerns.
In 2010 the co-founder of Wikileaks, the Australian, Julian Assange, published a trove of U.S. military and diplomatic documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, an American soldier. The saga following this action is too complex to explore here. It was however the beginning of a deluge of public critique which has subjected the whole enterprise of national security organizations and their rationale to much needed public scrutiny. In 2013 Edward Snowden, a computer specialist, former CIA employee and security contractor, used Wikileaks to leak a large amount of classified information from the American National Security Agency. This information revealed widespread global surveillance programs which routinely violated the privacy of millions of individuals with little constraint. This has had major political consequences. However, governments in general (including both big political parties in Australia) have been unforgiving in their condemnation of Manning, Assange and Snowden, or anyone like them. The most reasonable conclusion is that governing classes are obsessed with their own personal security, not the real security of the populations they claim to be representing.
Manning, Assange and Snowden are three very different people. Yet in their own ways, each showed extraordinary courage in putting the real collective interests of the human beings they knew about ahead of their own personal safety and happiness. This is more than we can expect from most ordinary men and women, even in those rare instances when they can see large public interests at stake. Most of us will continue to get by day to day, making household, friendship and employment choices which are sometimes entirely selfish, and sometimes make a small sacrifice towards a wider community.
Reading List* (other suggestions welcome)
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Howerton, Jason (Mar. 9, 2015) "Major Survey Finds Surprising Trend in Gun Ownership [in USA]" The Blaze website, online @ http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2015/03/09/major-survey-number-of-americans-who-live-in-household-with-at-least-one-gun-is-lower-than-ever-before/
Jackson. Gabrielle (15 October 2015) “It's clear the nanny state works when food health values are written in the stars - Ten months into the food-rating scheme, global food groups such as Nestle and Kellogg’s have altered ingredients to secure a higher health-star ranking”. The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/14/food-health-values-star-ratings-australia-nanny-state
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Philipp, Joshua (September 9, 2015) "Spy Software Found Preinstalled on Lenovo, Huawei, and Xiaomi Smartphones". Epoch Times online @ http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1748900-spy-software-found-pre-installed-on-lenovo-huawei-and-xiaomi-smartphones/
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Power Cube (2015) “Analyse Power”. Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK website online @ http://www.powercube.net/analyse-power/
Power Cube (2015) “Gramsci and Hegemony”. Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK website online @ http://www.powercube.net/other-forms-of-power/gramsci-and-hegemony/
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Wikipedia (2015) “Antonio Gramsci”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Gramsci
Wikipedia (2015) “Ayn Rand”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayn_Rand
Wikipedia (2015) “Chelsea Manning” (a.k.a. Bradley Manning). Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chelsea_Manning
Wikipedia (2015) “Cultural Hegemony”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_hegemony
Wikipedia (2015) “Edward Snowden”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden
Wikipedia (2015) “Elinor Ostrom”. [Nobel laureate in Economics: “Her work has considered how societies have developed diverse institutional arrangements for managing natural resources and avoiding ecosystem collapse in many cases”] Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elinor_Ostrom
Wikipedia (2015) “Julian Assange”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Assange
Wikipedia (2015) “Social Dilemma”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knife_legislation
Wikipedia (2015) “Overview of gun laws by nation”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overview_of_gun_laws_by_nation
Wikipedia (2015) “Social Dilemma”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_dilemma
Wikipedia (2015) “The Common Good”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_good
Wikipedia (2015) “Trade Union”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_union
Wikipedia (2015) “Tragedy of the Commons”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons
Wroe, David (October 13, 2015) “Terror-related evidence could be kept from 'control order' subjects”. Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/terrorrelated-evidence-could-be-kept-from-control-order-subjects-20151013-gk87di.html#ixzz3oUjBbtj7
Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).
So You Love Humanity But Can’t Stand People? ©Thor May September 2015