Article 15: Some thoughts on the ‘Burqa ban’

These observations are mainly the result of a living-room discussion with a European group of friends which took place on Saturday August 3 on the Dutch law passing a partial ban on face-covering clothing, better known as the ‘Burqa ban’. No Muslims or people from backgrounds where Islam is the main religion were present though there was a gender balance in the group. These observations do not lead to a conclusion in favour or against the ban; instead they are remarks which I thought add more depth to a discussion which has been reduced to Islamophobia and uncompromising anti-religious sentiment on the one hand and a myopic insistence on the right to self-determination on the other. I have also chosen not to repeat remarks which I have seen before even if I agree with them or find them interesting.

  • There is a certain irony in this law – which has as purpose to ban certain types of veils – having been adopted by thinly veiling its real intention under the guise of a partial ban on face-covering clothing.
  • The argument that the niqab and burqa should be banned because of the suspicion that women do not choose freely to wear it, but are forced to do so by their husbands brings up the question of why a woman is being punished for the wrongdoing of another person. If the real wrongdoing to be tackled is a threat to the personal autonomy of women, an indicator of which is said to be the wearing of the niqab or burqa, then shouldn’t there rather be a law to investigate those people in the social surroundings of a woman wearing this garment? Of course there would be legal complications for making such a law. However, it is telling that the solution to this supposed problem is not something which by analogy could lead to men coming under scrutiny for potential threats to women’s rights in other areas these seem under threat.
  • Being against a ban does not mean being in favour of the niqab and burqa. One can be against a ban and voice a negative opinion about these garments. There seems, however, to be a striking absence of exactly this sort of negative evaluation of the niqab and the burqa among opponents of the ban. While there is no obligation to criticize them, it is difficult to avoid the impression that rather than not feeling a need to do so, the silence is intentional. A woman’s freedom to wear what she chooses at times seems to be thought of as meaning that if it concerns a free choice, criticism isn’t appropriate. While one shouldn’t be naive about the potential violence of speech, such critical abstinence would be a mistake. Being a free choice does not mean being a right choice. Assessing what is right and what is wrong is part of what public discussion should be about.
  • Clothing is not ideologically neutral. Ideological neutrality is generally accepted on the Left as being a fiction meant to cover up power relations. The Right, on the other hand, usually attempt to preserve the perception of some matters as ideologically neutral. On this topic, however, there is a classic case of Left-Right argumentive reversal. Having decided on the desired position on a topic, an argumentation is construed around it, with the result being that Left and Right switch the form of argumentation they usually employ. While this lack of political character is interesting to point out in itself, the real importance in mentioning this is to get to the following: there seems to be a stubborn unwillingness on the Left to pick apart the ideological fabric of the niqab and the burqa. Once one reflects on their meaning it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that these garments stand for the fundamental illegitimacy of a woman’s presence in the public sphere or even of her existence as such. The language of modesty employed to justify it is little more than a cloak for their misogynistic essence. Even if worn of women’s own volition, the niqab and the burqa seem to be incompatible with progressive values. This does not mean that when one is on the Left one should support the ban. It does bring up the question why this aspect of the discussion seems to be ignored on the Left, whereas the ideological charge of clothing is acknowledged as key in the struggle for gender neutrality.
  • While it is noble to selflessly fight for other people’s rights, it is justified to ask whether it is in one’s own interest. Defending freedom of choice is a general good, but there is a political cost involved in defending the freedom of choice of women who wear the niqab or the burqa. The awareness of this cost should lead to keeping the following question in mind: would the women concerned and their surroundings ever make an effort to defend the freedom of choice of others, be it with regards to clothing or other matters such as sexuality? This does not mean one should stop opposing the ban, but it does mean being realistic about how good an ally those one is defending are.

Note 11: Reconsideration

It was some six years ago that I read an article by Inna Shevchenko, leading figure in FEMEN. Personally I am not a big fan of FEMEN. At times I have found their positions crude, their tactics too eagerly following the logic of mediatization, and their objectives unclear. However, back then, my attitude to FEMEN could better be described as being opposed to them than as “not being a fan”. I was not an anti-feminist, in fact I would have considered myself “on their side”, but there was something which invariably vexed me about FEMEN. They seemed to me attention-seeking and drawing ridicule on feminism. It was from this position of antipathy that I read Shevchenko’s article, judged it, and decided to comment on it. However, irritation is a bad counsellor as I soon enough found out.

My failed attempt at humour sprinkled with some whataboutism rightly received plenty of criticism. I learned that, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “the phrasing is the message”. Even if I only meant to say that FEMEN’s tactics aren’t effective due to the pervasive sexual objectification of women, the way I put it did not result in me warning against it, but in sexually objectifying women.[1]

Why this mistake? Though I broadly shared, and still share, common ground with a range of contemporary feminist movements, I lacked both an awareness of the pervasiveness of daily sexism (as different from patriarchal social structures) in the lives of women and a habit of considering my own behaviour as gendered and thus susceptible to sexism.[2] Let me be clear that I do not mean to justify my comment. Instead, I only mean to say that if I had not lacked these two, my mistake would have been less likely to have been made.

With time I have come to reconsider my own statement as more and more of an error. An error both in style and in opinion. Though perhaps understandable, it is not admirable to hope that silence will erase one’s errors. Moreover, for a man to be an ally to feminist movements he needs to admit mistakes such as these. It is these reconsiderations of our behaviour that our contribution lies.

* * *

[1] Whether the criticism that sexual objectification makes FEMEN’s tactics ineffective itself is merited, I will not discuss here.

[2] In addition, I also lacked a feminist conceptual framework, or doctrine, but I do not think that this is either a sufficient or a necessary condition to have prevented my error.

Quotation 9: ‘Anarchy, State And Utopia’ by Robert Nozick

“…Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?

What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide. It will seem to some, trapped by a picture, that nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets reflected in our experiences. But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?

Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance.* This clarifies the intensity of the conflict over psychoactive drugs, which some view as mere local experience machines, and others view as avenues to a deeper reality; what some view as equivalent to surrender to the experience machine, others view as following one of the reasons not to surrender!

We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. We can continue to imagine a sequence of machines each designed to fill lacks suggested for the earlier machines. For example, since the experience machine doesn’t meet our desire to be a certain way, imagine a transformation machine which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us). Surely one would not use the transformation machine to become as one would wish, and there-upon plug into the experience machine!** So something matters in addition to one’s experiences and what one is like. Nor is the reason merely that one’s experiences are unconnected with what one is like. For the experience machine might be limited to provide only experiences possible to the sort of person plugged in. Is it that we want to make a difference in the world? Consider then the result machine, which produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity. We shall not pursue here the fascinating details of these or other machines. What is most disturbing about them is their living of our lives for us. Is it misguided to search for particular additional functions beyond the competence of machines to do for us? Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.) Without elaborating on the implications of this, which I believe connect surprisingly with issues about free will and causal accounts of knowledge, we need merely note the intricacy of the question of what matters for people other then their experiences…


* Traditional religious views differ on the point of contact with a transcendent reality. Some say that contact yields eternal bliss or Nirvana, but they have not distinguished this sufficiently from merely a very long run on the experience machine. Others think it is intrinsically desirable to do the will of a higher being which created us all, though presumably no one would think this if we discovered we had been created as an object of amusement by some superpower-fill child from another galaxy or dimension. Still others imagine an eventual merging with a higher reality, leaving unclear its desirability, or where that merging leaves us.

**Some wouldn’t use the transformation machine at all; it seems like cheating. But the one-time use of the transformation machine would not remove all challenges; there would still be obstacles for the new us to overcome, a new plateau from which to strive even higher. And is this plateau any the less earned or deserved than that provided by genetic endowment and early childhood environment? But if the transformation machine could be used indefinitely often, so that we could accomplish anything by pushing a button to transform ourselves into someone who could do it easily, there would remain no limits we need to strain against or try to transcend. Would there be anything left to do? Do some theological views place God outside of time because an omniscient omnipotent being couldn’t fill up his days?”

* * *

By Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).

Italics in the original. I find this a very convincing undermining of the idea that happiness is the goal we ought to pursue in life. I left out the first and last sentence of the section, which is titled “The Experience Machine”, because in that way it becomes more readable as a standalone text.

Discourse 3: Doubting Israel’s Right to Exist; or, The Continuation of a Useless Debate

The following is the continuation of a useless debate. Or rather, it is the repetition of a useless exchange of words which, colpa mia, never was a debate, but an extensive miscommunication without either argument or inquiry from my side, but simply the statement of dogma.[1] Much of what will follow will be obvious to the point of banality for some while being alien, ridiculous and even infuriating for others. However, I hope that nobody will read this without feeling both. In addition, there is some arrogance in talking about these matters as a gentile who has never even visited the Levant. I am therefore mindful of what Orwell wrote about this, and though I argue in the abstract I do not forget that finally there are human beings behind this concept and for this reason have tried to make bold statements very precise and imprecise statements very nuanced. The central question which sparked this exchange, which is interesting and deserves elucidation, goes as follows:

Is denying the right to exist of the state of Israel anti-Semitic?

My position on this is affirmative: it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence of the state of Israel. To establish why, the following needs to be defined more precisely:

  1. What is meant by “anti-Semitism”?
  2. What is meant by “the state of Israel”?
  3. What is meant by “to exist”?

For first of these I will follow the understanding of anti-Semitic as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA):

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The reason for choosing this definition rather than another is that is has a broad support in inter- and supranational fora; includes not only physical, but also discursive violence; that it includes expressions of anti-Semitism which are directed towards non-Jewish people, but make use of anti-Semitic tropes or presume people to be Jewish; and that by not pinning down what perception this “certain perception” is, takes into account the ever-shifting form of anti-Semitism.[2]

I would like to address the question of what is meant by “the state of Israel” by going through the following steps, which are meant to go to the essence of what is meant by the concept:

  1. By “the state of Israel”, we firstly mean a state. That is, an entity which has territorial basis which can exert a monopoly of power over it.
  2. By “the state of Israel”, we do not simply mean a state which bears the name of Israel. If a state, say the Republic of Ecuador, would rename itself Israel, without any connection to the Jewish people, it would not be the state referred to in the central question. If the state of Israel were to rename itself, it would still be the state referred to in the central question.
  3. By “the state of Israel”, we do not simply mean a state on the territory of the current state of Israel. If there were a state on this territory, named Israel, without any of the other characteristics – social, legal, political or otherwise – of the current state of Israel, it would not be the state referred to in the central question. Instead, we mean a state which happens to be on the territory of the current state of Israel, which has other additional characteristics to this.
  4. By “the state of Israel”, we do not just mean a state with a significant Jewish population. Were the Republic of Ecuador, for example, to invite Jewish people into it with as result it becoming a country with a significant Jewish population, it is still not the state referred to in the central question, though it might be anti-Semitic in this case to deny its right to exist (replace Ecuador by Belgium, and one sees why this is not necessarily the case). However, despite not being a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one for being “the state of Israel” referred to in the central question. It is not sufficient, because it alone will not capture the essence of why it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence to this state. It is necessary, because we are not referring to an abstract entity, but a really existing one. 
  5. By “the state of Israel”, we also do not mean a state which is the nation-state of the Jewish people, as “the state of Israel” which is referred to in the central question was not explicitly defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people until 2018. Instead it was left ambiguous. That means that having the feature of being a nation-state is neither a necessary nor a sufficient characteristic to define the entity which we call “the state of Israel”.
  6. Most importantly perhaps, by “the state of Israel” referred to in the central question we refer to a polity, which is distinct from the politics and policies of said state, because the politics and policies of said state can change without the polity itself necessarily changing (which does not mean that a change in politics and policies cannot conceivably change the polity). That means that if we treat the question “Is denying the right to exist of the state of Israel anti-Semitic?”, we do not say “Are denying the right to exist of the politics or policies state of Israel anti-Semitic?”. However, the politics or policies of the “the state of Israel” can be referred to as reasons for denying its right to exist, though this does not mean that it justified to do so or excludes the denial of its right to exist from the characteristic of being anti-Semitic.
  7. Instead, what is properly meant by “the state of Israel” which is referred to in the central question is a state which has the characteristic of being a “Jewish state”. That is, a state where the monopoly of power is directed towards enabling the exercise of the right to self-determination of the Jewish people, and which has a significant Jewish population

Before continuing to the third part of the central question which needs to be elucidated, I need to do a little excursion for some surprising objections I have heard: that it is open for interpretation if there exists a Jewish nation, because there are Jews who oppose the concept of Jewish nationhood. Or, that a state where Jewish people can exercise their right to self-determination isn’t possible, because as Judaism is a religion there is no such thing as the Jewish people, like there is no such thing as a Catholic people.

As to Jewish nationhood, we can fall back on Benedict Anderson’s classic definition of a nation: “an imagined political community – and both imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” That is to say, there is such a thing as a Jewish nation, not because of any historical, ethnic, linguistic coherence between a group of people, but because a body of people hold it to be true that there is such a thing as a Jewish nation to which they belong. The presence of people who are presumed to be members of the nation, but argue against its existence is of no consequence for the existence of this nation as long as this body of people holds on the idea that their nation exists. It is reasonable to presume that there is the number of Jews who believe that there is such a thing as a Jewish nation which they are part of is larger than some of the smaller nations which exist. Thus it is unreasonable to state that it is uncertain if such a thing as a Jewish nation exists.

As to the latter, there is the problematic status of the word “people”, which cannot be taken to be synonymous with “nation”. However, the issue with this statement can be addressed in other ways. First, while there is a Jewish religion, there have been too many Jews who were either atheists or adherents of other religions, there is too great a secular Jewish tradition loose from Judaism, to realistically claim that one needs to be an adherent of Judaism to be a Jew. Second, Judaism, though not without a history of proselytism, has historically not had the universalist aspirations of some other religions. That is, there is no appeal to peoples in Judaism. Instead it is a religion which is the reserve of a specific people. This means that it is not possible to exclude the concept of a Jewish people from Judaism, since it is a religion which presumes the existence of that people. Thus the status of Judaism as a religion, does not entail that Jews cannot have the status of a people.

Thus, we come back to the question of what is meant by the existence of the state of Israel. It can reasonably be thought to mean the possession of the essential features which define the state of Israel. Based on the discussion above, “the state of Israel” can be said to have the following essential features:

  1. The capability to exercise a monopoly of power over a territory, i.e. statehood;
  2. The capability to exercise the right to self-determination of the Jewish people;
  3. A significant Jewish population.

These features constitute, in my understanding, the core of what “the state of Israel” currently is properly understood to mean. As the concept of “the state of Israel” is a social construct, these features are contingent. As such, “the state of Israel” can gain features. An addition of features does not necessarily imply the loss of the current essential features, though it has consequences for what we understand by “the existence of the state of Israel”. However, as we are still not referring to an abstract entity, but a really existing one it cannot reasonably lose one of the features outlined above without leading to the end of the existence of “the state of Israel”.

Having stated all this, the question “Is denying the right to exist of the state of Israel anti-Semitic?” can be answered.

It hopefully does not need explanation that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence of the state of Israel if this means denying the right of an already present significant Jewish population to reside in an area. If one holds this to be the case, it means believing that the Jewish population in Israel can legitimately be removed from where it currently lives on any basis while one does not deny the right of an already present population to reside in an area in its entirety.

It hopefully does not need explanation that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence of the state of Israel if this means denying the right of self-determination of the Jewish people. If one holds this to be the case, it means believing that the Jewish people can legitimately be denied the possibility to determine their own political status and to determine their own form of economic, cultural and social development while one does not reject the concept of the right to self-determination in its entirety.[3]

It does need explanation that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence of the state of Israel if this means denying the right to the already existing capability to exercise a monopoly of power over a territory. Important to remember here is that this capability is comes forth from the right to self-determination of one’s political status. If one holds this to be the case, it means believing that the institutions which currently enable the exercise a monopoly of power over a territory can legitimately be dismantled, without regard to the right of self-determination of the Jewish people, while one does not entirely reject the concept of monopoly of power over a territory or the concept of the right to self-determination. Thus the opposition to the statehood of Israel being anti-Semitic or not stands in function to its relation with the right to self-determination.

Thus, we can answer the central question by saying: yes, denying the right to exist of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic, because:

  1. one cannot reasonably conceive of the state of Israel without relating it to the right of self-determination of the Jewish people or the already present significant Jewish population within its territory;
  2. one cannot reasonably argue that to deny its right to exist means arguing that it ought to encompass more features than it currently does;
  3. one cannot reasonably argue that, stated in the form discussed here, it is the particular expression of a general statement against the right to self-determination or the right not to be displaced;
  4. one can reasonably conceive this statement to generally be understood to mean that the current state of Israel’s existence is seen as, at best, a favour, because of it’s nature as Jewish, which can or ought to be retracted.

As conjecture is common when discussion Israel, let me clearly state what the above does not mean. It does not mean that it is anti-Semitic to be against the politics and policies of Israel, especially that politics and those policies connected to the persistent and intentional violation of civil and human rights, the climate of racism and colonialism, and the oppression of the Palestinian people. It does not mean that it is anti-Semitic to point out that much of what denying the right to exist of Israel would mean were it implemented is in fact what constitutes the oppression of the Palestinian people. It does not mean that it is anti-Semitic to be in favour of the right to statehood, of self-determination, of continuing to reside where they already reside or even of the right of return of the Palestinian people. It does not mean that it is anti-Semitic to question the territory over which the state of Israel has a monopoly of violence as opposed to the principle of being able to have a monopoly of violence. It does not even mean that it is anti-Semitic to think that, were it possible to repeat the past, it would be undesirable to establish the state of Israel in the way it has been established. It does not need to mean that to disagree with Zionism is anti-Semitic, though there certainly is anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. Nor does it mean anything else than simply this: that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right to exist of the state of Israel.

* * *

[1] I do not mean dogma in a derogatory sense, but simply as a label for a position within a collective of opinions: a necessary and non-negotiable position on which compromise, as far as the content of the position is concerned, is not possible.

[2] In the same way a non-Muslims can be the victim of Islamophobia when they are targeted for being presumed to be Muslims.

[3] For the basis of this definition of self-determination see the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Quotation 8: ‘On Evasive Thinking’ by Václav Havel

“Some time ago, as we know, a stone window ledge came loose and fell from a building on Vodičkova Street, killing a woman. Not long afterward, an article appeared in Literarní noviny commenting on the event, or rather on the spontaneous wave of outrage that followed. The author began by assuring us that window ledges ought not to fall, that it was entirely proper for the public to criticize such things, and how wonderful it was that we could openly criticize such things today. He then went on to talk about the enormous progress we’d made as a whole, and to illustrate this he mentioned that whereas before, young girls used to wear duffel coats, today they dress in the latest Parisian fashions. This rather graphic example of the achievements of our time ultimately led him to ask whether there wasn’t, after all, just a little bit too much criticism, and he appealed to us not to limit ourselves to what he called local matters, but to focus on themes that were more worthy of the dignity of the human mission and more appropriate to the humanistic notion of man. He concluded with a challenge to literature, too, to free itself from all petty, local, municipal matters and to begin, at last, to deal with mankind and our prospects for the future.

Fortunately, the public opinion to which this author had appealed ignored his advice and last week, when a second window ledge fell on Spálená Street and killed someone else, an even greater wave of outraged protests followed. As it had done many time before, the public again showed more intelligence and humanity than the writer, for it had understood that the so-called prospects for mankind are nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry about who might be killed by a third window ledge and what will happen should it fall on a group of nursery-school children out for a walk.

If the author of the article were a cold cynic, fully aware of the amoral implications of his conclusions, his piece would have been no more than a harmless oddity meriting scant attention. But – and this is what is tragic about the whole affair – it was written with the purest of intentions, in the sincere belief that it was contributing, albeit tactically, to a good cause.

Here is a clear example of how any intention can become its exact opposite if it is carried forward in the conventionalized, pseudo-ideological thinking that has become so dangerously domesticated in all areas of our social life. and thus crippled its capacity to intervene in that reality effectively.

This happens chiefly through a ritualization of language. From being a means of signifying reality, and of enabling us to come to an understanding of it, language seems to have become an end in itself. In this process, language – and, because it is related to it, thought as well – may appear to have increased in importance (the duty to name things having been superseded by the duty to qualify things ideologically), but in fact language is thus degraded: the imputation to language of functions that are not proper to it has made it impossible for language to fulfill the function it was meant to fulfill. And thus, ultimately, language is deprived of its most essential importance.

Notice, for example, how often the words we use these days are more important than what we are talking about. The word – as such – has ceased to be a sign for a category, and has gained a kind of occult power to transform one reality into another. Arguments are not carried on through ideas, but through concepts. We need only to use the magic word “disproportion,” and something unforgivably half-baked is suddenly not only excused but may even be raised to the level of an historical necessity. Sadism need only be cloaked in the grandiose notion of an “offense against socialist legality” and suddenly it ceases to appear to us in such an evil light. It’s enough to call a fallen window ledge a “local matter,” and criticism of the way buildings are maintained as “municipal criticism,” and we immediately feel that nothing so terrible has happened. It’s enough for a good old fireman, a quite ordinary man whose job it is to put out fires, to be called an “incendiary engineer,” and immediately we not only think of him as having some higher function, we also begin to be somewhat afraid of him. And finally, when you need to save money by leaving the upkeep of buildings not to a superintendent, but to a voluntary brigade of doctors, lawyers, and office clerks working on weekends you need only to call it “socialist maintenance by the tenants” and a doctor chipping away at a rotting window ledge on his building is warmed by the feeling that in doing so, he is helping to fulfill some higher phase in the development of socialism.

Such verbal mysticism, of course, is a rather simple and transparent trick. What is more dangerous is the manipulation of certain established relational schemata.

A typical example is how reality can be liquidated with the help of a false “contextualization”: the praiseworthy attempt to see things in their wider context becomes so formalized that instead of applying that technique in particular, unique ways, appropriate to a given reality, it becomes a single and widely used model of thinking with a special capacity to dissolve – in the vagueness of all the possible wider contexts – everything particular in that reality. Thus what looks like an attempt to see something in a complex way in fact results in a complex form of blindness. For if we can’t see individual, specific things, we can’t see anything at all. And the more we know only what is apparent about reality, the less we know about reality in fact.

This mechanism can clearly be seen at work in the article I was talking about: the falling window ledges and criticism of the condition of the facades are set so masterfully in the context of the world that we end up with the powerful feeling that if window ledges were not falling off our buildings in Prague we would have long ago been involved in World War Three, so there is something healthy in the fact that they are falling.

If it was taken for granted that aboriginal, social man somehow managed to throw himself together a shelter that would not fall on his head, then it mus be taken equally for granted that in a modern socialist society should be able to provide people safe passage through the streets. This is where the whole thing begins and ends, and all the other “ifs, ands, and buts” are just attempts to muddy the water, cloud over the matter, and change the subject. Factories, housing estates, and power dams are no doubt wonderful things, and we must even appreciate the fact that girls no longer wear duffel coats, but this has nothing to do with window ledges. When we talk about window ledges, we should talk about window ledges and not bring the prospects of mankind into it. And if we do, then only in the sense that in the given context, people have only tow possible prospects: either the window ledges fall on them or they don’t. And in any case, who knows whether the preventative maintenance of facades in Prague was not the neglected precisely because someone, somewhere, was waxing eloquent about the prospects for mankind instead of paying attention to where particular men and women live.

Everything is related to everything else, of course. But still, I fear that Engels would want to retract that idea if he knew what use it would eventually be put to – that is, allowing everyone to talk about something other than what he ought to be talking about.

The application of this false contextualization in the casual field is usually accompanied by its application in the historical field: delight in the fact that today – as opposed to recent times – one can bravely and publicly criticize falling window ledges derives from a comparison that, while based on history, is so pointless that it inevitably leads to the quite ahistorical and absurd impression that such criticisms are not something every society takes completely for granted, but rather an admirable and original achievement of the present stage of socialism. But what kind of socialism is it that takes something so obviously normal for an achievement?

Another characteristic mechanism of this dematerialized way of thinking is something that, for my own purposes, I have called “dialectical metaphysics.” By that I mean the type of fetishized dialectics that – by freezing into formal phraseological schemata – degenerates (dialectically) into the pure metaphysics of vacuous verbal balancing acts, expressed in constructions such as “on the one hand – but on the other hand,” “in a certain sense yes, but in another sense no,” “we must not, on the one hand, overestimate, nor, on the other hand,” “though some characteristics, in a certain situation, may – other characteristics, in another situations, may also…,” and so on and so on.

When we lose touch with reality, we inevitably lose the capacity to influence reality effectively. And the weaker that capacity is, the greater our illusion that we have effectively influenced reality. Just think, for instance, of how confidently we make predictions about what will be, and with what remarkable precision we can interpret, explain, and classify what has already happened. Yet we never seem to notice how suspiciously often what happens – in fact – does not conform to what – according to our prognoses – was to have happened. We know why it had to be different. The only thing that causes trouble is knowing what will really happen. To know that assumes knowing how things really are now. But that is precisely where the catch lies: between a detailed prediction of the future and a broad interpretation of the past, there is somehow no room for what is most important of all – a down-to-earth analysis of the present.

And so, in the end, the only thing that fails to conform to our wishes is reality. Not surprisingly: we don’t have time it. In any case, it’s generally recognized todya that it’s better to plan less, but on the basis of genuine research, than to indulge in unbridled planning and then to explain to people every two weeks why some basic commodity is unavailable. It is probably less important that someone be willing or able to explain, in terms of a world view, why a window ledge fell into the street, than it is for him to know that measures to take ensure that the Jurásek Bridge, for example, won’t collapse in ten years.  In any case, anyone who has the latter ability will not, on the whole, require the former.

If I were to give a name to the collection of though mechanisms I’ve been talking about, I would call it something like “evasive thinking.” That is, a way of thinking that turns away from the core of the matter to something else – from a fallen window ledge to the prospects for mankind, from the word “laziness” to the word “disproportion,” from the word “cowardice” to the word “tactics,” or from the concrete fact of personal guilt to the abstract category called “the atmosphere of the cult of personality.” If, for instance, one quite logically says that a power dam was built by people and not by “the atmosphere of enthusiasm for building,” one must also admit that the false testimony and forged documents of the showtrials were not created by the atmosphere of the cult of personality, but also by concrete people. To say anything else is pure evasion.

We live in a time of struggle between two ways of thinking: thinking evasively and thinking to the point. Between half-baked thinking and consistent thinking.

We live in a time when reality is in conflict with platitude, when a fact is in conflict with an a priori interpretation of it, when common sense is in conflict with a distorted rationality. It is a time of conflict between theory that plays fast and loose with practice, and theory that learns from practice; a conflict between two gnoseologies: the one that, from an a priori interpretation of the world, deduces how that reality should be seen, and the one that, from how reality is seen, deduces how that reality must be interpreted. In my opinion, we can replace the first gnoseology – the metaphysical one  with the second, the dialectical one.”

* * *

By Václav Havel in Open Letters (1991).

Italics in the original, underlining added by myself. The above text is the first, more theoretical, part of Václav Havel’s 1965 Speech at Union of Writers. Despite being written as a critique of people’s mental state during really existing socialism, I find this text to have a certain timeless quality. In addition, it is a criticism which transgresses our established political patterns. Whereas one would perhaps first want to read in this text a critique of political correctness avant la lettre, but at the same time one is reminded of those who deride the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “all lives matter” when one reads “When we talk about window ledges, we should talk about window ledges and not bring the prospects of mankind into it.” This makes “evasive thinking” a very fruitful concept both for analysing politics and for maintaining ones own mental and moral discipline.


Article 14: The Notre-Dame fire: from kitsch to evasive thinking

When we witness a disaster taking place, be it small or large, an urge to speak out is a common and natural reaction. When small, it does not feel right that others should continue their life in ignorance of this event. When big it is as if we diminish its importance with our silence, though we know that all of us are current to what has taken place.

I suppose it is from this sentiment that flowed the hundreds of thousands of posts on social media when the Notre-Dame de Paris burned last week. At first, I found it touching how people concerned themselves for its fate. I myself felt surprisingly shocked, agitated and genuinely sorrowful for what happened to the cathedral. for the potential destruction of so much art, for how irretrievable that which was lost is, and, not insignificantly, for the reminder that preciously little in our lives and our world are permanent or certain. It reminded me of a tenth century Old English poem, The Wanderer, which goes:

“In the earth-realm all is crossed;

Wierd’s [“fate’s”, TV] will changeth the world.

Wealth is lent us, friends are lent us,

man is lent, kin is lent;

all this earth’s frame shall stand empty.”[1]

It did not take long, though, before the various messages coalesced into an undifferentiated mush: “The Notre-Dame, how terrible!” The uniform display of mass soppiness, often spiced up with some egocentrism – “the Notre-Dame, where I was, how terrible!” – has turned tragedy into kitsch. Do not mistake this for a misanthropy. I will not launch into a diatribe of herd mentality, nor will I attribute cynical motives to those who placed such messages online. Nevertheless, it is hard to come to terms with the tendency of social media to turn mass events into farce so easily. How to maintain dignity – of our own, of society, and of all directly affected by such a disaster – in such a democratically mediated environment?

It is certainly not by adopting the attitude of those who, almost right after the event, started judging, sneering at and even mocking the public expressions of dismay at the cathedral’s burning. This “hypercritique”, so to speak, at first seems to consists of little else than whataboutism. It is contemptible for its pretence of being a serious form of criticism while it is just as blasé as the expressions it attacks. Its ready-made conceptual framework does not serve to question how we though about events, but how we categorize them. It does not treat events on their own, but instrumentalizes them as tools to be used in a broader tribal conflict, thereby diminishing them.

However, it is not a sign of intelligence, independent thought or a critical attitude to proclaim that “people should pay attention to ‘X’ [the unrest in Sudan, the war in Yemen, the burning of African-American churches, etc.] instead of to the Notre-Dame fire”, because it is not a critique of how our media works or of the lack of attention to these issues. It is a condemnation of the attention for the fire as such. A condemnation, moreover, which seems careful not to consider the object of the event itself, not to consider what has been burned. It is “a way of thinking that turns away from the core of the matter to something else” which Václav Havel termed “evasive thinking” in 1965. It is a concept which, despite its age, is still very current and the operation of which Havel described brilliantly:

“…the praiseworthy attempt to see things in their wider context becomes so formalized that instead of applying that technique in particular, unique ways, appropriate to a given reality, it becomes a single and widely used model of thinking with a special capacity to dissolve—in the vagueness of all the possible wider contexts—everything particular in that reality. Thus what looks like an attempt to see something in a complex way in fact results in a complex form of blindness. For if we can’t see individual, specific things, we can’t see anything at all. And the more we know only what is apparent about reality, the less we know about reality in fact.” [2] (Emphasis mine.)

It is this effort to avoid seeing matters in their own right, which makes the hypercritique of the Notre-Dame fire not mere whataboutism, but a form of evasive thinking, and which makes it so objectionable. However, here too it remains important to avoid the traps of cynicism and misanthropy “and this is what is tragic about the whole affair – it was [stated] with the purest of intentions, in the sincere belief that it was contributing, albeit tactically, to a good cause.” Evasive thinking is not an error of error of intention, it is an error of thought. [2]

It is important to note the difference here with the remark that the speedy donation of hundreds of millions for the restoration of the Notre-Dame de Paris shows that the rich can clearly and easily contribute more to the challenges faced by our societies. This does not mean to say that “X” should have been done instead of these donations, but that they demonstrate that it is possible for the wealthy to contribute more on “X”. It does not attack the legitimacy of restoring art, but supports the idea of the responsibility of the wealthy towards society. It does not evade what is at hand, but moves on to the next.

I write this, because this is not the first time that I have noticed these tendencies play up after notable events, because my frustration with them has grown and because I am not succeeding in developing my thoughts on how to speak when confronted with disasters such as these. Perhaps it is simply best to remain silent, but if so: how?

* * *

[1] Anonymous (2013). The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

[2] Havel, V. (1992). Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990. London, United Kingdom: Faber & Faber.

Article 13: Een repliek op Adriaan Schout

Europese politici hebben een dringende oproep ontvangen van Adriaan Schout: stop met Europese waarden te thematiseren, opdat de Europese Unie niet uiteen zal breken (Stop met valse retoriek over Europese waarden, 22/1). Problematiek rondom de rechtsstaat in Europese lidstaten, de verdeeldheid over verdere Europese integratie of populisme zal er niet door verdwijnen en het enige resultaat kan teleurstelling zijn. Veel beter is het om vast te houden aan het huidige en nuchter door te blijven “polderen”. De EU, in de kern een “pragmatisch overlegsysteem”, is nu eenmaal niet geschikt voor dit soort hoogdravende vergezichten, aldus Schout.

Hij gaat in zijn analyse echter voorbij aan rol van de huidige invulling die de EU krijgt in het veroorzaken van deze problemen. Schout heeft gelijk: de EU is momenteel veeleer nog een pragmatisch overlegsysteem, maar de Europese integratie is momenteel dusdanig ver gevorderd dat dit niet langer houdbaar is. Wat men doorgaans populisme noemt, wordt gevoed door de discrepantie tussen een EU die veel doet en burgers die slechts beperkt hun engagement kunnen uiten. De Europese burger heeft daarentegen recht op en behoefte aan politieke betrokkenheid bij de Europese politiek. Dat begint met Europa opnieuw te benaderen vanuit onze waarden.

Niet het bespreken van Europa in termen van waarden zal de burger teleurstellen, maar juist het uitstellen ervan. Nationalistische politici begrijpen dit, zien Europa als een waardengemeenschap en beloven hun waarden in de praktijk te brengen. Om dan aan andere politici te vragen waarden links te laten liggen, is het prediken van bewuste machteloosheid.

Hetzelfde geldt voor de problemen rondom corruptie en de afbraak aan de rechtsstaat en mensen- en burgerrechten in verschillende landen. Als wij onze waarden niet op tafel te leggen, verlammen wij onszelf in de strijd hiertegen. Ruimte voor de lidstaten is belangrijk, maar dat mag niet betekenen dat we onze ogen sluiten voor misstanden. Pragmatisme moet niet omslaan in relativisme.

De noodzaak van een dialoog over Europese waarden

Europa zal dus een gemeenschap van waarden zijn, of het zal niet zijn. Dat betekent niet het overboord gooien van het pragmatisme waar Nederlanders zo aan hechten en om gewaardeerd worden, maar de erkenning dat ook stapsgewijs pragmatisme waardeoordelen met zich meebrengt waarover reflectie door de Europese burger en de Europese politiek gerechtvaardigd is. Het heeft geen zin hardnekkig vol te blijven houden dat geleidelijkheid per definitie waardeneutraal is.

Daarmee is niet gezegd dat een kritische blik op pleidooien voor een politiek van waarden niet nodig is. Schout heeft gelijk om sceptisch te zijn over de hoge woorden van Europese politici. Lippendienst aan waarden is inderdaad een verleidelijk alternatief voor het confronteren van meningsverschillen. Daarnaast is een retoriek van waarden op de korte termijn een verleidelijke placebo voor een politiek en een beleid die gestuurd worden door die waarden. Het debat over onze waarden moet daarentegen een springplank vormen voor een eerlijke discussie over waar wij met Europa naartoe willen.

Dat daar verschillende ideeën over zijn is geen existentiële dreiging, zoals Adriaan Schout aanneemt, maar de brandstof voor een Europese politiek. Want ondanks de substantiële verschillen tussen de meeste politieke stromingen, in en binnen de lidstaten, hebben wij Europeanen een gedeeld streven naar een gelijkaardige levenswijze die het resultaat is van een Europees canon aan sociaal en ethisch gedachtegoed. Dat subsidiariteit en diversiteit, waarden waar Schout zich impliciet op beroept, leidende begrippen blijven voor de EU, dat staat buiten kijf. Echter, om tot een houdbare en democratische EU te komen is het noodzakelijk om een dialoog te beginnen over de betekenis van al onze Europese waarden.