Racism (30): What Should We Call Non-White People, and How Do Names Affect Us?

Obviously, “nigger” is out. Initially a neutral term – from the Latin “niger” which means black – it was often used without racist connotation during much of the 19th century, but it became increasingly pejorative and derogatory. Even though it’s still used today by some, shall we say “African Americans”, to describe each other, often even endearingly, it’s done with.

“Negro” also means “black”, notably in Spanish and Portuguese. This term took over from “nigger” and then also from “colored” as the more polite appellation (“colored” was common usage during a few decades at the beginning of the 19th century).

“Negro” was long considered to be the proper English-language term for people of sub-Saharan African origin. This lasted until the late 1960s. Martin Luther King could still call himself a Negro. However, the term was already criticized in the 1950s en 1960s, notably by Malcolm X who successfully tried to redeem the word “black” which was seen as offensive during much of the first half of the 20th century. And indeed, “black was beautiful” during the “black power” era in the 1970s.

“African American” then took over from “black” which went from repudiated to acceptable to repudiated again. (Initially, the term was “Afro-American” derived from “Anglo-American”). “African American” has been the standard term since the 1980s, and it still is today.  “Negro” is now considered to be acceptable only in a historical context, and you should avoid talking about “black people”. African American – a term which for the first time doesn’t reference skin color – was initially hyphenated: “African-American”, like “Irish-American” or “Cuban-American”. This has become problematic very recently in reaction to the belittling phrase “hyphenated Americans“. Hence the recent omission of the hyphen.

Many will see this movement of the language of race as political correctness “gone wild”, but language does evolve and words carry meaning and historical references. Meanings and historical references can influence ideas and behavior. People who insist on using the word “nigger” are likely to have certain very specific ideas about those whom they call “nigger”. And these ideas can circulate when the word circulates. Even those who are tempted to see PC at work here will surely agree that “nigger” is an unacceptable and damaging use of language. But if “nigger” is, then why not also certain other words?

“Negro” was quite often used during the Civil War era and during the Civil Rights struggle, understandably, and was the standard expression in the period between. “Blacks” took over in the 70s, and “African American” in the 90s. “Nigger” has always been taboo in published works.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (65): Grammar?

This has some appeal as an explanation of national differences in poverty and wealth, but color me skeptical nonetheless:

Keith Chen, an economist from Yale, makes a startling claim in an unpublished working paper: people’s fiscal responsibility and healthy lifestyle choices depend in part on the grammar of their language.

Here’s the idea: Languages differ in the devices they offer to speakers who want to talk about the future. For some, like Spanish and Greek, you have to tack on a verb ending that explicitly marks future time—so, in Spanish, you would say escribo for the present tense (I write or I’m writing) and escribiré for the future tense (I will write). But other languages like Mandarin don’t require their verbs to be escorted by grammatical markers that convey future time—time is usually obvious from something else in the context. In Mandarin, you would say the equivalent of I write tomorrow, using the same verb form for both present and future.

Chen’s finding is that if you divide up a large number of the world’s languages into those that require a grammatical marker for future time and those that don’t, you see an interesting correlation: speakers of languages that force grammatical marking of the future have amassed a smaller retirement nest egg, smoke more, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese. Why would this be? The claim is that a sharp grammatical division between the present and future encourages people to conceive of the future as somehow dramatically different from the present, making it easier to put off behaviors that benefit your future self rather than your present self. (source)

I can see what Chen is doing: if your language makes a sharp distinction between past, present and future tenses, then you’re likely to divide your thinking the same way. Hence, you’ll pay more attention to specific concerns in the future. As a result, you’ll plan, you’ll try to foresee future states and you’ll arm yourself against risk. All this will tend to increase your future prosperity. If whole nations act like this because they speak the same language, then this may be an explanation of part of the differences between national wealth.

However, if viewed together with all the other possible explanations of poverty, this one doesn’t really stand out as one that is potentially important. I’m convinced that institutions, geography, trade etc. play a much bigger role, big enough to swamp micro-cultural causes such as language. Also, if Mandarin isn’t “future-oriented”, then how come China is so successful in the struggle against poverty?

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (33): Nefarious Political Metaphors

I want to go out on a limb here and argue that most if not all human rights violations as they have occurred throughout human history can be explained and have been directly caused by the persistent and widespread use of metaphors. (Which doesn’t mean that there are no other causes).

But before I list some of the metaphors I have in mind, a few general words that may help to explain why I think simple metaphors can do so much damage. The fact that we constantly use metaphors in language and thought may buttress the thesis that they have some effect on our actions. The same is true for the fact that metaphors are not just figures of speech but are cognitively important as well: by claiming that some things are alike – metaphors are descriptions of one thing as something else – they help us understand things.

For example, if we say that compound interest is like a snowball rolling off a snowy mountain side, we use something we already understand – the snowball – in order to understand something else that looked and sounded strange before the application of the metaphor – compound interest. And when we then understand things in a certain way, we act according to our understanding of things – in our example, we put our money in a savings account that offers compound interest rather than in one that just offers a fixed interest on the basic sum.

Or let’s use another, more appropriate example (one which I will return to below): if we have difficulties assessing the impact of immigration on our own society and culture, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave of immigration” can help us to “understand” this impact and to do something about it (stop the wave, for instance). Immigration is like a wave because it’s equally overwhelming and harmful. It’s clear from this example that the word “understanding” should not be understood (pun intended) in an epistemological sense: the point is not that understanding produces correct knowledge about the world, but simply that we believe it does. In this case, I personally think the wave metaphor does not help us to understand the phenomenon of immigration (on the contrary), but many people believe it does and it inspires their actions.

If all this has convinced you that metaphors can indeed cause political actions, then it’s now time to list what I believe have been and to some extent still are some of the most destructive political metaphors in history. (Do tell me in comments if you think of other examples).

Moral Balance

This metaphor is most clearly expressed in lex talionis – an eye for an eye – which is a form of criminal justice that claims to balance crime and retribution. A softer version is proportionality: even if people shouldn’t be punished in a manner that strictly balances out their criminal acts, they should get what they deserve and they deserve tougher sentences when their crimes are worse. There may also be a deeper metaphor at work here, one in which there is some kind of cosmic moral balance that shouldn’t be disturbed and that should be corrected when people do disturb it. Failure to correct it leaves moral imbalances intact, and that is damaging in some unspecified and metaphysical way.

Many people agree that the moral balance metaphor has done a lot of harm in the case of capital punishment, but I argue that it poisons our entire criminal justice system. We shouldn’t incarcerate people in order to punish those who deserve some amount of incarceration proportional to their crime. If we have to incarcerate, it’s because that’s the only way to protect other people’s rights. And this rule would drastically reduce the number of inmates currently in prisons all over the world. It’s fashionable to say that we have come a long way since the time of medieval criminal punishment, but I believe our current judicial practices – even those in “developed countries” – are still among the worst human rights violations in the world.

Bootstrapping

This metaphor is most harmful when it blocks assistance to the poor (and poverty is a human rights violation). It promotes an “understanding” of the phenomenon of poverty that paints the poor as lazy, self-destructive and undeserving people who only have themselves to blame and who could easily save themselves were they willing to invest the necessary effort. This “understanding” obscures many other and often more important causes of poverty and therefore perpetuates it.

Dirt

Genocide, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity are made easier when the target group is persuasively depicted as some sort of “dirt”, “cockroaches“, “vermin” or any other dehumanized entity. The best way to violate human rights is to deny people’s humanity. However, dehumanization also occurs on a much smaller and seemingly harmless scale, in advertising, gender stereotypes, popular culture etc.

The dirt example shows that people often don’t even realize that they are acting on the basis of a metaphor and actually view what is supposed to be a similarity as being an identity. Many Rwandan Hutus implicated in the genocide probably believed that Tutsis and cockroaches were quasi-identical.

The Family

The metaphor of the family of fellow citizens is often used to justify differential treatment of citizens and non-citizens. For example, social security offers protection to fellow-citizens who are nationally the worst off but who are nevertheless relatively wealthy when compared to the poorest in other countries. And development aid is usually much less generous than social security. I would argue for a more cosmopolitan stance as a better means to protect the equal human rights of all human beings.

The same metaphor is used to justify excessive patriotism and the wars that seem an inevitable result of it, as well as authoritarian government by a father figure or by people who think they know better.

The Wave

As mentioned earlier, this metaphor is used to counter immigration, when in fact increased immigration could do an enormous amount of good, not only for millions of poor people all over the world, but also for the populations in the more wealthy destination countries.

The metaphor does some more damage when it’s used in overpopulation discourse. Horrible population control policies are supposedly justified by the “wave” of overpopulation, and as if these policies aren’t harmful enough by themselves, they have disastrous side effects such as gendercide.

The Child

This metaphor has often been used to subjugate women, those supposedly childlike creatures unable to control their emotions or to marshal the forces – physical or mental – necessary for many social roles. Slaves and colonized peoples as well were often viewed as childlike beings in need of the White Man’s guidance.

Conclusion

So, what can we take away from this? It would seem that we can’t do much about human rights violations: metaphors are notoriously hard to weed out and if they caused rights violations in the past they will continue to do so. But that’s not entirely true. While we may not be able to remove certain metaphors from common language, we may reduce their impact on real life events and their salience in certain circumstances. We can chip away at their nefarious role in rights violations, and that’s exactly what we already did in the past.

For example, the child metaphor used to be an important conduit in the submission of blacks, but that’s no longer the case today. The metaphor is still there and is still doing damage (in criminal justice for instance, as an analogy for punishment based on a supposed lack of self-control), but its range has been curtailed. Curtailment of harmful metaphors often means dismissing the similarity between things that a metaphor has tried to establish. For example, if we can show that immigration doesn’t do the same damage to a society as a “tidal wave” but actually has a lot of benefits, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave” can be curtailed.

Other posts in this series are here. More on the effect of language on human rights is here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (30): Language

The effect of language on human rights can be straightforward, as in the case of hate speech. Imagine an individual member of a racial minority living among members of the majority. The latter are constantly hurling insults and hateful bile at this individual, making it almost impossible for her to move about the neighborhood, find employment and do many of the other things she has a right to do. In this case, a particular type of language and a particular use of this language has obvious repercussions on someone’s human rights.

But what I’m interested in here are more subtle effects of language on human rights. Take the example of the gender-exclusive pronoun. In most languages, personal pronouns distinguish male from female, and the male pronoun is the default: when we’re not talking about a specific person, or when we’re talking about a mixed gender group, then we use the male pronoun. (This is similar to the equally common rule that children should get the surname of the father). Attempts to invent and promote gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns haven’t quite succeeded, and the habit of using the female pronoun as the gender-exclusive one is often considered awkward. I also fail to avoid the traditional rule in my writing. In general, this problem is often labeled a fake one, invented by people high on political correctness.

And yet, the problem isn’t fake at all. Compared to other, more extreme uses of language such as hate speech, the harm done by the use of gender-exclusive pronouns may be small, but it’s not negligible. There’s a study here that tries to measure the harm:

Three studies assessed whether a common cultural practice, namely, the use of gender-exclusive language (e.g., using he to indicate he or she), is experienced as ostracism at the group level by women. Women responded to the use of gender-exclusive language (he) during a mock job interview with a lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job compared to others exposed to gender-inclusive (he or she) or gender-neutral (one) language (Studies 1 and 2). Moreover, the more emotionally disengaged women became over the course of a job interview upon hearing gender-exclusive language, the less motivation and job identification they subsequently reported (Study 3). Together, these studies show that subtle linguistic cues that may seem trivial at face value can signal group-based ostracism and lead members of the ostracized group to self-select out of important professional environments.

Another study focused on the use of gendered words in job ads, and found that ads signal whether a job is typically held by men or women. As a result of this signaling, women are less likely to apply to certain jobs, and this in turn perpetuates gender inequality in the workplace. Wording differences in ads affect the job’s relative appeal to men and women, independent of the type of job. The use of more masculine wording such as “competitive” makes traditionally female-dominated jobs more appealing to men, and vice versa.

In both these examples – gender-exclusive pronouns and gendered language in job ads – women respond – or are made to respond – in an unconscious way so as to perpetuate gender inequality.

A similar example of language affecting human rights is called stereotype threat: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent through some kind of preliminary “information” or briefing, then you perform worse at that task. For example, if a group of girls about to take a mathematics test, is “reminded” that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it’s likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have done had they not been told. It’s not difficult to imagine cases in which this can be used in order to perpetuate inequality, submission and domination. (More on stereotype threat here and here).

I just mentioned signaling, and signaling in the more strict definition of the term – engaging in speech or activity not necessarily for the sake of this speech or activity but in order to convey relevant information about yourself (for example, people acquire an education and talk about it not only because they want to be educated but also because they want to signal ability to potential employers) – is yet another example of the way in which language affects human rights. Take the case of capital punishment: I strongly believe that this is not about fighting crime, just retribution or desert, or even anger and revenge. Proponents of capital punishment, by expressing their support for it, signal their own moral rectitude. This is especially important for politicians, elected judges etc. In other words, for those who could, if they wanted, end the practice. (More on human rights and signaling is here).

Obviously, language doesn’t always have a negative effect on human rights. It’s easy to find examples of a positive effect: storytelling can promote empathy, and language aimed at shaming people can rid the world of rights violations when reasoning is insufficient.

Migration and Human Rights (39): The Democracy Argument Against Open Borders

Usually, arguments against open borders and in favor of varying degrees of immigration restrictions are based on economic or cultural considerations. Often, such arguments can be easily dismissed as prejudiced, chauvinist and selfish, and the data don’t support them anyway. However, a potentially stronger argument against open borders is based on the requirements of democracy. It’s potentially stronger because it goes to the heart of the same liberal values that animate the push for open borders.

Central to the idea of democracy is that those who are governed by laws should have a say in the drafting of the laws. In the words of Jürgen Habermas:

Gültig sind genau die Handlungsnormen, denen alle möglicherweise Betroffenen als Teilnehmer an rationalen Diskursen zustimmen könnten.

People are obligated to obey the laws of government only insofar as they have consented to those laws (or to the power exercised in passing those laws). That’s the whole idea behind self-government.

Now, what would happen to this idea where we to open the borders? It’s claimed that the constant coming and going of people that would result from open borders, would make self-government impossible. People would vote on laws that would not apply to them in the future because they come and go, and other people would not be able to vote on laws that would apply to them because they won’t be here yet. Open borders would mean that people are allowed to decide on things they don’t care about and won’t have a stake in. Self-government would not be possible because the “self” that governs would never match the “self” that is governed.

Another democracy based objection to open borders is a practical one. The effective functioning of democracy requires a common language, since democracy is essentially deliberation. It also requires knowledge of the political system and the political culture, and a feeling for what is achievable and acceptable to the wider community. Open borders inhibit this effective functioning.

There are basically two ways to respond to these arguments. First, the arguments seem to confuse access rights and citizenship rights. It’s correct that citizenship in a democracy should be tied to certain conditions, such as knowledge of the language and permanence of residence, and that citizenship is a necessary condition for most democratic participation. I made that argument here so I won’t repeat it now. Suffice it to say that there are good reasons to distinguish – but not separate – different parts of humanity by way of conditional acquisition of citizenship – with each part hopefully having democratic rights within its own country. However, these reasons don’t, by themselves, justify closed borders. Access rights and citizenship rights are different things.

However, as Michael Walzer has argued, when we decide to allow people in but at the same time deny them citizenship, we run the risk of creating a permanent underclass of disenfranchised non-citizens, who live and work in the country but can’t effectively protect their interests through political participation. Hence, an open border policy should also include a pathway to citizenship. The problem is then to strike the right balance between the need for flexible citizenship and the risks to democratic governance resulting from a notion of citizenship that is too weak.

Secondly, the central idea of democracy – that people governed by laws should have the right to participate in the framing of those laws – can be used to argue in favor of rather than against open borders. A decision by one part of humanity to exclude others from a certain part of the earth’s surface clearly violates this central idea. The potential immigrants who are excluded obviously don’t have a say in this decision, and yet they are governed by it. If they had a say, they would probably carry the day, given their numerical strength.

Some would claim that it’s foolish to allow potential immigrants to participate in such decisions. Would we allow a mob of homeless people, demanding access to our house, to vote, together with us, whether or not they have a right to access? No we wouldn’t, but the analogy is baseless. We do have a legitimate property right to our house (at least most of us do), but the citizens of a country don’t have a similar right to a part of the surface of the earth.

It’s of course an open question how we would practically organize such a common decision. Perhaps we should take the next logical step and institute some kind of federal world democracy. But that’s for another post.

More on open borders here.

Cultural Rights (11): Genocide

 

Genocide is the deliberate, systematic and violent destruction of a group (an ethnic, racial, religious, national or political group). This destruction can take many forms:

  • the outright murder of (the majority of) the members of the group
  • inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction
  • measures intended to prevent births
  • systematic rape as a means of terror and a means to “dilute” the identity of the group
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
  • destroying the (cultural) identity of the group (forceful assimilation; imposition of a language, religion etc.)

“Systematic” is important here. Short-term outburst or pogrom type actions will probably not amount to genocide.

The “intent to destroy” is also crucial when labeling actions or campaigns as genocidal. The destruction, however, doesn’t have to be physical (i.e. large-scale murder). As is obvious from the list above, cultural destruction or destruction of the groups’ separate identity is also genocide.

Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide is

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group…”

The “in part” bit has led to some confusion. When is the part of the group that is being destroyed big enough to warrant the label of genocide? There is still some discussion about absolute numbers of victims, percentages of the total population of the group, degree of killing in the territory controlled by the killers etc.

Of all the generally recognized genocides that have taken place throughout human history, the most infamous ones occured in the 20th century (the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Stalin’s forced famines, Mao’s Great Leap Forward etc.).

Before a genocide is actually carried out, the perpetrators usually take a number of “preparatory” steps:

  • dehumanization of a group (vermin, insects or diseases…)
  • promotion of narratives of “us and them
  • hate propaganda, polarization
  • criminalization of a group (group has to be eliminated “in order that we may live”; them or us)
  • identification of victims (“yellow star”)
  • concentration of victims (ghettos)
  • mobilization of large numbers of perpetrators
  • state support and logistical organization (arms, transport, training of militias etc.)

The causes of genocide are often hard to pin down. They include:

  • long-lasting tensions
  • imbalances in political power
  • imbalances in wealth or economic power
  • scarcity
  • religious incompatibilities
  • indoctrination and propaganda
  • civil war
  • ideals of cultural purity and autonomy
  • ethnological constructs (e.g. the creation of “hutuness” in Rwanda) which get a life of their own
  • colonial heritage
  • outside indifference
  • etc.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (1): Thinking (the Public Space and Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Thought)

Human rights have many functions, but their most important one is perhaps the institution and the protection of a public space and a public life for every individual. This is especially true of freedom rights or civil rights (which of course also institute and protect a private space, in particular by way of the right to privacy and the right to private property). These rights protect public life because public life guarantees a number of important human values such as the ability to form, experience and preserve an individual as well as a collective identity and the ability to think more or less correctly. I will use Kant’s philosophy to substantiate these claims.

Public life as such is not dependent on human rights. There is publicity in states which do not protect human rights. The advantage of human rights is that they are equal rights. They try to protect public life and the values attached to it for every individual in an equal way. We can of course have a perfectly happy life without having a public life, but then we relinquish the values that are protected by this public life. It is also true that we can have a public life without the protection of a state and its legal instruments (such as human rights, judges, police etc.). However, public life would then be fragile, uncertain and unequally distributed among individuals.

I am conscious of the fact that not everybody will be convinced by this justification of human rights. Those who desire nothing but a completely private life or a hedonistic life devoid of any public communication or political involvement will be disappointed. However, I am sure that, once I have explained the meaning of the words “public life”, most of the people in most cultures of the world will agree that they refer to something valuable. Which, of course, does not mean that they will agree that there is a link between these concepts on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other hand.

Human rights protect our public life, but why do we need a public life? And what is this public life? How does it protect certain values, and how is it protected by freedom rights? Let me start with the first two questions. A public life is a life dedicated to publicity, to public deeds and words, not necessarily in an active way; for most of us maybe only in a passive way. Publicity is open interaction, taking place between as many people as possible and with as little limitations as possible. Hidden, private, secret, clandestine or prohibited interaction is not public interaction.

I will not use the word “public” in the legal sense. Public law regulates the relationships between the citizens and the state (for example criminal law, constitutional law etc.), while private law regulates the relationships between citizens (for example the law of commerce or the law of succession). This legal way of understanding the word “public” is too limited for my purpose. This legal definition also leads to confusion. Hannah Arendt (1992:95) states – and I agree – that the separation of church and state has not transformed religion into an entirely private or intimate affair. Only a tyrant can destroy the public role of religion and churches and can destroy the public space where religious people meet. However, because of her purely political interpretation of the word “public” – the public domain is the political domain, and nothing more – she is forced to use the awkward expression “secular public space” in order to describe the sphere of politics or the state, and the equally awkward expression “religious public space” for the space left vacant by politics in a system which is characterized by a separation between church and state. She seems to define the word “public” in a very limited way (public = politics), but also speaks of “all forms of public relationships, social as well as political” (Arendt 1990:170). Habermas struggles with the same contradictions: his “‘öffentlichkeit” is a space where private citizens can act in a critical way towards the public/political domain. Castoriadis similarly reduces the public to the political:

The emergence of a public space means that a political domain is created which ‘belongs to all’. The ‘public’ ceases to be a ‘private’ affair – of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the experts. Decisions on common affairs have to be made by the community. Cornelius Castoriadis

A public life, in the way I understand it, consists in the first instance of sets of relationships between citizens, although the relationships between the state and its citizens can also be part of a public life (especially in a democracy; democratic political life is a part of public life). The public space is larger than the space of politics and the state (although in a democracy the latter is part of the former).

Human life is of course impossible without relationships. We all live in society. No one is self-sufficient or “atomized”. Man is always a fellow man; existence is always coexistence. Other people are there before we are and we continuously profit from their achievements. We need interaction and communication with other people – first our parents but not just our parents – in order to be able to think. Moreover, thinking has to transcend the private sphere because it is dependent on other people besides our relatives, friends and private acquaintances. It needs public interaction, not just private. The ability to think is not created and developed in any arbitrary group, but only in a community – if possible the world community – in which publicity reigns and in which there are rules and laws that can enforce this publicity. Immanuel Kant correctly stated that the authority that takes away the freedom of expression also takes away the freedom to think, a freedom usually considered to be inalienable (Kant 1992:87). Thinking needs the public use of reason. Thoughts are not something you develop on your own or in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts. (Or, which can be the same thing, you need to read books. Books are thoughts made public, which is why they are called publications). Listening to as many thoughts as possible, expanding the sources of thoughts and information, can only be done by making them public. Thinking, the inner dialogue, is always the result of a public dialogue. How much would you think if you would never speak to anyone, or even if you would always speak to the same, small and private group of people? Thinking needs thoughts that come from outside of your own limited group. Hence thinking needs human rights.

However, not only the ability to think as such, but also the ability to think in a more or less correct way, with as few mistakes as possible, depends on publicity, which is another thing we learned from Kant. By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves. This means that you confront – or prepare to confront – other people and their (possible) objections, not only in order to disprove their objections, but also in order to disprove or possibly improve your own opinions.

Publicity improves the quality of thoughts both because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of a posteriori testing by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

A particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension. Immanuel Kant

If you want to improve the quality of your thoughts, then you need publicity on two levels: first you have to make your thoughts public, and then you have to listen to public objections and arguments. This means that you as well as your opponents must have the right to be heard and to defend arguments.

This is the link between publicity and human rights. Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights and in particular freedom rights can help to achieve this (Kant’s imagination can also help but is probably not enough). Putting yourself in the place of someone else, looking at something from another point of view or another perspective helps you to better understand things, just as looking at an object from another point of view helps you to better perceive the object. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

Thinking correctly means thinking in community with others. Of course, I use the word “correctly” not in an absolute or scientific sense. The debate is open-ended, new arguments or new objections can always emerge and can lead to an even better understanding. Correctness in this sense can only be an approximation.

If you consider thinking and thinking correctly to be valuable activities – and it is hard not to, because without thinking you cannot consider anything – then publicity or public life as well as the rights that are necessary for its protection must also be valuable.

The fact that thinking is not an isolated business contradicts a well-known intuition.

Thinking . . . is the silent dialogue of myself with myself . . . and . . . is a “solitary business” . . . Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. Hannah Arendt.

But not only afterwards does the thinking self leave its solitude. Before thinking can begin there must be some kind of public interaction (e.g. reading books, the public ideas of others).

I have said before that we should try to expand the public space beyond the national boundaries. Ideally, the other people who we need to think and to think correctly are not only our compatriots but also the rest of humanity. A global public space is the natural consequence of the widest possible extension of sources of thoughts required for thinking and the widest possible confrontation with counter-arguments and different points of view required for the correctness of thinking. Only by living in this kind of global public space can we hope to become Kant’s world citizen or “Weltbetrachter” and can we avoid national prejudices or national one-sidedness. The western feeling of superiority, for example, needed colonization to become aware of its errors. Both the private sphere and the national sphere have to be transcended in order to transcend our curtailed, narrow-minded, one-sided, prejudiced and unthinking existence. A life completely dedicated to intimacy, to that which is your own (“idion” in Greek), far away from the common world, is by definition an “idiot” life (Arendt 1983:76). The same thing can be said of life limited to a (national) group.

As for human rights, it is quite certain that they cannot do their job in the global public space as well as they can in the national one. It is difficult to enforce the protection of public communication between an American and a Chinese, even in the age of the Internet. The best we can hope for at the moment is the establishment of a chain of national public spaces protected nationally by national human rights instruments, although one should not underestimate the effect of cross-border action in favour of human rights. Ideally, human rights can only be justified when they are applied globally. A purely national application in the midst of an anti-human-rights world would lose much of its meaning if we accept the justification based on thinking.

John Stuart Mill has given another reason why human rights promote correct thinking. An opinion is not a purely personal possession and the act that inhibits the possession or the expression of an opinion is not a purely private crime. Suppressing an opinion is a crime against humanity. If the opinion in question is correct, we make it impossible for humanity to distinguish right from wrong. If the opinion is false, we make it impossible for humanity to make what is right more apparent by confronting it with that which is wrong.

Public life also plays a part in the development of an individual’s identity, at least to the extent that this identity is consciously created at all. Establishing your identity is intimately linked to thinking and, in the same way as thinking, it is not a purely private, individual or inward activity. It takes place in society and in the institutions of society. You become who you are by thinking and by developing your ideas. To a certain extent, your thoughts, ideas and convictions determine who you are, determine your identity. If thinking depends on publicity, then identity or personality as well depend on publicity.

You also become who you are by expressing yourself, by saying, doing or making things visible to all and by distinguishing yourself. All this implies the existence of a public or an audience and hence implies a public life. Thoughts take shape only when they are expressed or prepared to be expressed. By expressing and showing yourself, you make things public about yourself, things that were a secret before, sometimes even a secret to yourself. In this way, you get to know yourself and you shape your identity.

Furthermore, you shape your identity by looking at others, by studying them, by following them or by wittingly contradicting them. An individual identity needs a group in which there is a public life in the sense of showing, listening, following and contradicting (although groups are of course also the product of individuals). “Polis andra didaskei”, the individual is shaped by the “polis”. The identity of a member of a socialist party is profoundly shaped by his or her membership. We are who we are because we are part of a group. Belonging is not only a psychological or emotional need. It also shapes our identity. Hence the importance of the right to associate.

But we also are who we are because we revolt. People should therefore be allowed to leave groups. Because groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity (they can for example be ideological “schools” or dogmatic churches enforcing conformism), it is important that membership is free and that the communication which takes place inside these groups, is as open and as free as possible. Groups should allow members to hear outside information. In other words, groups should have a public character on top of or instead of their private character.

It is useful to point out the difference between identity and individuality. Identity can imply conformism, wittingly or unwittingly. You can define your identity by conforming to a group with a certain identity that you either like or imperatively adopt because of education, propaganda, brainwashing etc. In the latter case, you have an identity, but not necessarily an individuality. You can only have an individuality if:

  1. You consciously choose the identity of a group as a consequence of reasoned reflection of a public nature (of the kind discussed above); and
  2. You have personal and unique characteristics on top of the identity of the group you have decided to join, and this is not as evident as it sounds given the power of some groups.

Conforming to a group in order to acquire an identity is very important to most people, and rightly so, at least as long as there is room left for individuality. Most people do not feel that their personal uniqueness is enough to give them an identity. They believe that only a link between them personally and something outside of them that they consider to be important – for example socialism – is able to give them an identity (Charles Taylor 1994:46). Most of the time, establishing this link can best be done by joining other people with the same idea – for example the community of socialists. This feeling of belonging to an important group also guarantees that the rest of the world is aware of your identity. The feeling of belonging to something important is crucial here. You do not have an identity because you belong to the community of people with red hair. But even the individual identity or individuality can only exist because of a link with something important, such as an event you have witnessed or caused etc. You do not have an identity because you are the only one with blue hair. Your individuality is not the consequence of a unique but arbitrary characteristic, event or sequence of events.

The process of shaping an identity through group conformity requires publicity and human rights. Groups must be allowed to exist, to make publicity for their identity, to convince people to join them etc. All these things are explicitly provided for in human rights. The process also requires democracy because it implies an egalitarian society. You cannot at the same time emphasize the importance of people shaping their identity and individuality, and accept a hierarchical society in which identities are automatically determined by social position, role or activity. A democracy, moreover, needs groups because it needs majorities, minorities and political parties. And because it needs groups, it tends to protect groups.

It is clear from all this that language and therefore also education and the struggle against illiteracy are extremely important for public life. Language is more than just an instrument to represent or translate reality or to transfer messages (Taylor 1994:10). It also has the power to constitute the human person, to express, understand and develop our personality or individuality, to promote thinking etc. Language, therefore, also creates reality.

The fact that public life and the values resulting from it require the presence of other persons and meeting other persons, does not exclude the possibility of solitude and even loneliness. The presence of others can be indirect, for example by way of a book. Sometimes it is even useful to be alone, for example when we want to study, to open up sources of ideas and information etc. This kind of solitude is not the same thing as the absence of relationships. It is not a private solitude, but a public one, if I may say so, because it requires the presence of a book; and a book is a public thing (it is a “publication”, the thoughts of someone made public). It is the indirect presence of another person.

Proust . . . ne croyait plus en la conversation ni d’ailleurs en l’amitié. C’est même de sa longue pratique de la parole vive qu’il avait tiré, contre Sainte-Beuve, la certitude d’un abyme entre le moi social et le moi profond. Mais justement les livres sont silencieux et leur auteur absent. On peut donc les aimer sans faire de manières et sans s’inquiéter de ce qu’ils ont pensé de nous: “Dans la lecture, l’amitié est ramené à sa pureté première. Avec les livres, pas d’amabilité”. Et c’est la même image que l’on retrouve chez Arendt quand elle définit la personne cultivée comme quelqu’un qui sait choisir sa compagnie “parmi les hommes, les choses, les pensées, dans le présent comme dans le passé”. Alain Finkielkraut

Reading means having a public life because it means participating in a public phenomenon, namely the published book. This is apparent in the description of the community of readers as the “public” of the writer (it is maybe even more apparent in the French language in which “le public” literally means the audience or the readership). A public space does not only contain people who disclose something. It also contains the people to whom something is disclosed. Persons who never meet each other can have a conversation and can even arrive at a common opinion.