In one of my earlier posts I expressed considerable concern about the various speculations that enable so many of us to justify our neglect, disregard, exploitation and indeed destructiveness of one another by using a variety of ploys that allow us to claim that it is not we who are responsible for the effects of what we do. Such denials can quickly polarize us along the lines of what, in MSOU, I characterized as symmetrically collusive activity. (For those of you who have yet to read the book, I should explain that symmetrically collusive activity refers to our tendency to protect our continuities of identity––that is, who we define ourselves to be––by pointing an accusatory finger at another or many others, whom we see as obstacles to our own fulfillment, and who then reciprocally point their own fingers back at us. I guess an even more powerful term might be "reciprocal blaming." (Bear with me . . . the book itself is much more lucid!)
With respect to reciprocal blaming, I won't retrace the history of reactions to Zygmunt Bauman's thesis about the Holocaust, which resulted in disputes about ultimate responsibility, but I think it is important to register the way in which his formulations on "liquid modernity" tend to support another unfortunate polarity, that is, one that permits us to lump together outcomes of goal-determined activity, and outcomes that result from unintended "emergent" processes. It is hard to escape the conclusion that emergent social processes are indeed beyond our ability to control or predict them. Are we necessarily, then, truly responsible for the unintended consequences of our attitudes and our actions?
I believe we are, but our responsibility for them must not only take into account our absence of intent; it must also deal with the very ignorance or denial of our ability to produce unintended consequences.
Many years ago, in a meeting with my colleagues at the University of BC, a very senior colleague expressed his frustration with the prescriptive limitations of "systems theory." I can't remember the exact words, but I do remember the exasperation . . . It went something like this; "It's all very well to declare that everything is connected to everything else, but where does that leave us?" The outcome of such exasperation is often, I suspect, a jump into activity of some kind that does seem to contain the potential of having a significant effect. In a profession such as mine, in which one's very identity is connected to whether or not one can make a difference in our society itself, this can be a very powerful determinant of action.
It doesn't do to overstate the specifics of the case, however. All of us define ourselves in relation to our effectiveness in achieving the goals we set. It is for this very reason that what we conceive as do-able or not do-able is so important for us–– and that takes us directly into the issue of what we have power to affect.
This is the overall context, then, in which we define ourselves as having or not having "free will." Bauman draws our attention to the social consequences of people having no significant ability to affect the direction of their lives, but his message easily distracts us from paying more attention to the manner in which so many of us acquiesce in socially determined definitions of what does indeed constitute an effective life. Bauman's major thesis seems to be that we are relatively helpless to refute the validity of those definitions, or rather, perhaps, that we have now gone far beyond any viable opportunity to do anything about them. One particular outcome of such thinking is that large "social" forces, like "consumerism" can take on the same kind of aura as factors in Nature itself that are simply "givens" of our lives.
Here's the nub . . . In spite of John Stuart Mill's warning in the first paragraph of On Liberty, many of us still confuse the constraints on the choices available to us with a constraint on our capacity to choose. All of us are of course constrained by different circumstances in our lives, including those resulting from the actions of others, but none of those constraints is a constraint on our capacity to choose. On our willingness or unwillingness to consider particular choices it clearly is. However, in such circumstances, we are still choosing. One of the most moving documentations of this is to be found in Viktor Frankl's wonderful book Man's Search for Meaning, which dealt with the very different manner in which occupants of the Nazi concentration camps defined their own identity as responsible actors. Frankl himself is a prototype example of how such attitudes contributed, not always to survival, but almost certainly to the survival of those who did.
To bring the issue of the freedom to choose into our crucial present, it's useful to consider Tauriq Moosa's commentary on the issue at:
The context in which Moosa frames his commentary is very much a Hobbesian one, in that he is concerned with how external controls, exercised in the first instance by the state and then more indirectly by established majority opinion, affect what we actually decide to do. Unfortunately he does not explicitly consider attitudes themselves, and how they are derived. Implicitly, he does, and, correctly, I think, urges us to expose those attitudes to scrutiny and criticism. What he does not pay sufficient attention to, I think, is the manner in which we ourselves are served by our collusions to protect belief. His language still seems to be attached to the necessity to identify an enemy which is outside ourselves. I deal with this particular attachment to attitude in MSOU, but it needs to be constantly kept in the forefront of our awareness if we are to engineer a more humane world than the one we have at present.
I guess what I really want to stress in all this is that it is we, together, who determine the overall context of our lives. It is we who constitute both our immediate and our global society. It is our choices that have led to rampant consumerism, and acquiescence in the global processes that put our whole species at risk. And it is we who together need to take responsibility for finding the way to change them.
To claim that we are no more than helpless victims of providence, our genes, or the gods, is dangerous nonsense.
More soon . . .
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