Author Archives: Q

A few thoughts on reciprocity

One of GA’s important insights is that a conversation, as an exchange of words, is analogous to other forms of exchange including market transactions. And that such exchanges function to defer violence when they include a degree of reciprocity. What makes an exchange “reciprocal”? In a conversation, that means that I am willing to hear what others say (seriously hear, take into consideration in my responses) in exchange for the same from them. In an economic transaction, that means that the transaction is accepted by both parties as mutually beneficial. In general, we can say that an exchange is reciprocal when it is freely entered into (and it can be exited at any time), and it is perceived as “fair,” or mutually beneficial. To some extent, such exchange is its own goal. But in the public sphere, say the letters section of a newspaper, people exchange words for a definite purpose, which is to convince others of one’s point of view.

In the classroom, the student exchanges money, time, and attention for specific goals: knowledge and skills which may be valuable in various ways. The teacher provides students the opportunity to learn knowledge and skills. The benefit may be economic or not. Knowledge and skills can be intrinsically valuable apart from their economic exchange value.

The ideal of “student-centered learning” is valid, in my view, because student engagement is the sine quo non of learning. As the saying goes, I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. As Socrates demonstrated long ago, dialogue is productive of knowledge. Socrates’s “teaching” was based on his desire to learn. He asked his interlocuters to teach him. His teaching was open to learning. Socrates can be said to have invented the idea of student-centered learning. Some professors take the Socratic ideal to mean that knowledge is “constructed” and lacks any objectivity, but I’m not in that camp; although I agree that ultimately everything is up for debate, if the interlocuters make that choice. We can make more progress, however, by agreeing on some basic premises, just as Socrates established agreement on basic facts or claims, then moved on to further questions and logical consequences.

GA also tells us that all human interactions are subject to resentment, and this includes classroom interactions. People tend to generalize about their experiences with authority figures, so that resentment for teachers may reflect their experience with prior authority figures more that any particular teacher. Teachers need to remember this sometimes.

Open-ended learning is one goal of education, but there are also knowledge and skills which have been refined and tested over thousands of years, the value of which find wide acceptance in a variety of spheres, including economic. Students pay for time with a teacher because of his/her expertise in accepted knowledge and skills.

The point I want to make here is that reciprocity is relative to the goal of a particular exchange. Reciprocity in the classroom is not achieved by accepting the student’s opinions as equal to the professor’s knowledge. Reciprocity is achieved when the exchange (of student’s time, money, and attention for the learning opportunities provided by a teacher) is entered into freely and perceived as fair.

The goal of education, for students, is learning, in the form of knowledge and skills. The problem arises when the goals are not well-defined. In schools, there are a multitude of pressures for lowering the standards of knowledge. Acquiring knowledge and skills is extremely difficult, and not every student is willing to make the sacrifice. The value of the targeted knowledge and skills is not accepted by many students and, now, professors too. This situation leads to a lot of resentment and the perception of unfairness. The problem, in my view, comes down to assessing the students’ knowledge and skills. And we can’t do this without some kind of standard. Learning goals in education are generally defined very vaguely. Students often perceive the assessment of their learning as completely subjective: “the professor didn’t like my paper.” As if the grade was given on purely subjective grounds. For now, this is an insoluble problem, because professors can’t agree on what specific knowledge and skills are necessary and valuable, or what the standards should be; students, of course, follow suit. There are larger social and economic pressures which foster this situation. However, having clearly defined and transparent goals for a particular class, and applying those standards impartially, will help defer resentment. Professors can do this now, despite the larger social situation. Professors, however, need the support of colleagues and administrators in order to maintain high standards. The general trend is towards the lowering of standards, for a variety of reasons.

Girard on the Passion

Rene Girard’s take on the Passion is, on one level, desacralizing. The Gospel narrative of Christ’s persecution, torture, and execution reveals the perspective of the victim—the victim of sinful men acting as representatives of corrupt religious and political institutions. He didn’t deserve his crucifixion. We can see the “scapegoat mechanism” in action.

It’s ironic that Girard posits the scapegoat mechanism as the origin of our idea of god, and yet that the true God, when he came to earth, would be scapegoated and then deified. I don’t think Girard ever fully came to grips with this irony and its implications. He just regarded it as a profound mystery. But maybe there is a poetic meaning (I don’t say “justice”) in this irony.

For Girard, the Passion is the world historical event of events: revealing “things hidden since the foundation of the world.” Girard argues that our political structure and social order is based on sacrifice and/or scapegoating, in one form or another. The revelation of the truth of scapegoating upsets that structure and inaugurates a new age. The mimetic power of scapegoating and sacrifice is so powerful and mesmerizing that only God, in the person of the Son, could reveal its truth. So Girard reasserts true divinity, even as he demystifies the false sacred and false gods.

Girard’s interpretation contradicts traditional (substitutionary) theories of the Atonement, that “Christ died for our sins,” a theology that seems to assume a “vengeful” God who demands retribution, without any consideration of the guilt or innocence of the victim. In practice, Christians have evaded responsibility by blaming the Jews and Romans for Christ’s death.

For Girard, the Passion is a heuristic, in a radical sense: a revelation that makes continued scapegoating unconscionable. Of divine origin, but ultimately its meaning is rational and cognitive. So radical is the hidden truth of sacrificial religion (and related institutions) that it required the spectacular paradox of the God on the Cross to communicate its meaning. I understand that a theologian was able to convince Girard (after the publication of Things Hidden) that the substitutionary theory of the Atonement has some validity, but I’m not familiar with the argument, so I refrain from comment.

In any case, by demystifying “sacred” violence as human in origin, the Crucifixion confronts humans with their own violence, allowing them to recognize the true God, and seek salvation through faith. In this sense, Girard reaffirms the basic Christian message of repentance and faith.

Reflections on the Passion

In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novels, some aliens hear the story of Christ, and their take on his story is that the people who crucified Jesus picked the wrong person to crucify, since Jesus’s dad, unbeknownst to them, is the most powerful being in the universe, and so, his cruficiers were going to be in big trouble. The moral of the Passion story, for the aliens, was to be very careful about whom you crucify, because you don’t want to get into trouble with his or her relatives. Girard pointed out that the scapegoat victim is usually someone without any powerful connections, in order to avoid this kind of retaliation.

The aliens proposed a revision of the Passion story, in which Jesus was just an ordinary person who was elected, by divine fiat, to be God’s Son, either before or after the crucifixion. For the aliens, this would yield a more satisfactory moral: don’t crucify anyone, because anyone could be chosen as God’s Son. The aliens’ revision is to some extent a legitimate interpretation, since the Bible clearly suggests that we are all God’s children, even if we are not the “only begotten Son.” I believe Vonnegut’s ideas here play into scholarly reconstructions of the earliest (1st century) Christian theology, by which Jesus was elected or raised to Sonship by God, not descended from heaven via the Incarnation. More to follow.

Roots of PC (continued)

In a book written 28 years ago, David Pryce-Jones critically examined contemporary Arab societies, their pervasive violence and lack of economic-political progress. He also analyzed how the West enables Arab corruption by our tendency to self-criticism, what is sometimes called “white guilt” (The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones [Ivan R. Dee, 1989]).

In the following passage, Pryce-Jones looks at the international context for the emergence of the PLO in the 1960’s: their rise to a political importance radically disproportionate to their objective significance on the international stage:

At the onset of industrialization in the nineteenth century, a sense took hold in Europe that a wrong turning was at hand. People of influence believed that in factories and cities the masses were being submitted to a life more abusive than the customary ways. Consequent attitudes of willful pessimism can be seen with hindsight for the romanticism that it was.

After the Second World War, once again people of influence questioned values everywhere in the West, creating another climate of pessimism which was contrary to the evidence. The West, it was widely argued, had acquired scientific and manufacturing power on a scale that was dehumanizing, irresistibly eroding other cultures and even threatening its own progress. In this view, those who opposed the West were to be encouraged and welcomed, no matter what their purpose of motivation might be. Defined simplistically as an assertion of Western power, colonialism was hastened to its close in this climate.

Citizens of democracies incline to attend to their critics and to accommodate through intellectual speculation even the most hostile views. Elements of doubt, therefore self-doubt too, must always be in play within democratic societies in the process of opinion-forming. With hindsight again, the West since 1945 can be seen in reality to have entered a new industrial age of exceptional vitality, leading to increasing choice and freedom. Temporarily, the unexpected confrontation of the Cold War had proved unnerving. To applaud experiments in collective socialism or communism alien to democratic traditions and values, to praise the China of Mao Ze-dong and the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh or the expedition of Che Guevara into the Andes, to conceive that the “winds of change” detected by Harold Macmillan in Africa were autonomous and beneficial to Africans, to listen either with fear or joy to Khrushchev’s threat that the Soviet Union would bury the West were facets of latter-day romanticism. Imminent doom had its Byronic fascination. In any case, to believe that the blame for the ills and barbarities of other nations or cultures lay with the West was another instance of Eurocentric self-importance, a gratuitous posture.

The Palestine Liberation Organization was a phenomenon of this aberrant period. (280-1)

Pryce-Jones calls this an “aberrant period,” but the tendencies he describes have proven to be a veritable juggernaut in Western society in its relation with any group that differs by race, ethnicity, and so on. He traces the roots of “white guilt” to Romanticism, which is accurate I believe, and the connection could be explored further.

The Roots of Political Correctness

In Terry Teachout’s recent article, he shows that past members of two great orchestras, in Vienna and Berlin, acquiesced and in some cases participated in anti-Semitism during the Nazi reign in Germany and Europe.

We know that most Germans of the time were at least acquiescent in the attempted genocide of the Jews, but we may not have known that also were the accomplished musicians of these orchestras. Hitler is famous as a failed painter, and this article is a valuable reminder that success as an artist does not preclude racism. We can assume that these musicians were cultured and intelligent people, well-respected, who presumably had what they thought were good reasons for acting, or failing to act, as they did. And this should serve as a warning to all of us, that we remain susceptible to the rhetoric of prejudice and scapegoating.

The message here is important but capable of distortion. It has degenerated into the assumption that anytime we find one group that is less powerful or successful than another group in any given society, the less powerful group must be persecuted victims. Eric Gans views our current victimary culture or Political Correctness as a reaction to the Holocaust. And the message of the persecuted minority is not unique to the Holocaust. We find it in the Bible, with the persecution of the Israelites by the Egyptians, and the persecution of Jesus and his followers. In American history prominent examples include Jim Crow laws and the McCarthy Congress investigations of suspected communists.

Narratives of persecution today are ubiquitous. Ethnic and racial minorities, females, LGBT, the 99% and so on are supposedly persecuted mercilessly today, even when they are prosperous and middle class. These groups are assumed to be the modern equivalent of the European Jews during the Holocaust. As a result, anyone who opposes illegal immigration is by definition a racist, and anyone who opposes gay marriage is a Nazi. Since protesting the Nazis during their reign by any means including violence was justified, today’s SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) feel justified in using any means for protesting today’s supposed Nazis. Ironically, Jews do not enjoy any protection by SJWs, simply because they are more powerful than the Palestinians, despite the fact that they have helped the Palestinians more than any Arab country (not to mention the PLO and Hamas), and despite the fact that they are a tiny country surrounded by larger and more numerous hostile neighbors.

Here is a defense of violence and the violation of basic human rights from a liberal journalist:

While we may want to rely on a rights defense in court, where First Amendment activity is threatened, our defense of dissent outside the courts should not be limited by what the state deems defensible by metrics of human or civil rights. A rights discourse, for example, would not defend the deliverer of that glorious punch to neo-Nazi Richard Spencer—it would, in fact, defend Spencer.

Spencer is literally a Nazi, so he is, rhetorically, a safe target, but SJWs also target innocuous figures like Charles Murray with violence, or anyone who doesn’t fit the SJW’s political agenda. Note the euphemism for violence as a “defense of dissent.”

The message taken from the Holocaust is “don’t be on the wrong side of history.” The orchestra members who submitted to the Nazis, and the American politicians who resisted Civil Rights legislation; today they look like idiots or worse. But how to know which group will turn out to be the Nazis and which group will turn out to have been unfairly persecuted? Rather than use any moral or rational criteria, the assumption today is that the weaker group is always morally justified, and the stronger group must be attacked and brought down. But is the less-powerful group always oppressed? In America, ethnic and racial minorities, females, LGBT, are all accorded extraordinary advantages in many respects. In academia, the courts, the job market, and the media they are the privileged class; any public expression of skepticism about their supposed victimization is punished mercilessly. If SJWs were truly concerned about empowering minorities, I would not have any problem with their words and actions. But there is a steadfast refusal to look at the real causes why some groups of people are less successful than others. Instead, there is a blanket assumption that the less-powerful must have been unfairly discriminated against. Any discussion of personal responsibility is dismissed as racist, sexist, classist, etc. This willed blindness makes the problem worse.

At the bottom of liberals’ political correctness is a vanity for their supposedly iconoclastic moral virtue, a selfish desire to be perceived as bravely defying “the man,” and a cowardly fear of being accused of racism or whatever. Questioning what actually constitutes racism in any particular case is taken as evidence of racism. The PC crowd enjoys a rhetorical advantage because we must admit that no instance of actual discrimination should be tolerated, but they refuse to admit any discussion of what constitutes actual discrimination in any given case. The SJWs have claimed the moral high ground, so that opponents of PC appear to be on the “wrong side of history,” but which is really just the accepted media-narrative of the moment.