Monday, May 25, 2015

199. Local initiatives and the elected mayor[i]

Banks are moored in system tragedy, in a web of mutual dependencies, shared thought and habits that it is difficult to change from the inside. That is due, in part, also elsewhere in business, to managers sitting on each other’s supervisory boards, allowing others the games they play themselves, and confirming each other in a world view that is distancing itself from society. They have the nerve to claim increases of remuneration for work that they see as excellent but in fact has driven society into calamity.

Governments are hardly able to intervene and change the system, because they are themselves too close, too involved in it, in revolving-door employment between government and banks, in market ideology, in needing banks for the system to work, and in keeping banks from taking their jobs abroad.

If a system cannot change itself from within, sooner or later people will no longer tolerate it and will seek recourse in new forms outside the system. We see that happening now.

Fed up with the big banks, people are turning away. They seek recourse in crowd-funding or direct contacts between local providers of capital and entrepreneurs. Average profit may be smaller there than in larger markets, since capital providers are fishing in a smaller pond, but in compensation of that risk is also lower due to personal relationships and local reputation systems.

This fits in a broader pattern of decentralization to local initiatives and responsibilities, in health care, for example. Some governments stimulate it, according to a renewed interest in local communities, self-help, and ‘the Big Society’, though there are suspicions that this is a ploy for reducing expenditure rather than improving society.

This development leads to differences between localities in access to services and subsequently also to well-being and prosperity. That is already invoking protest. Yet a new movement seems taking place that will step across. We are on our way to a new diversity where equality of access arises locally but no longer nationally.

Another question is whether this development may not lead to local clientism, where local bobo’s gather too much power and influence. It may also add momentum to the encroachment of criminals on local government.

There is an increasing tendency to favour an elected mayor instead of a state appointed one. In the Netherlands a law is before parliament to give room for it. That seems in line with the trend towards local initiative and responsibility. However, an elected mayor might stimulate local cronyism, and perhaps it is better not to go for it. An above-local, national task remains to monitor and prevent local conditions of cronyism, and appointment of mayors may be part of that.

[i] This item is based on an article that I published with Gert Jan Kats in the Dutch newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad, on 2 May 2015.

Monday, May 18, 2015

198. The violation of free speech

 Free speech is needed for the open debate that I advocate on this blog, to assess ‘warranted assertibility’ (see item 104 in this blog) and to practise ‘debatable ethics’ (item 115). We should allow young Muslims to utter radical criticism of Western society, short of incitement to violence or hatred, and listen to them. However, free speech is not without limit. It is in fact outlawed when it incites to physical violence. But speech itself can constitute a form of violence.

According to the theory of speech acts, initiated by Austin[i], people use language not only to refer to things but also ‘to do things to each other’ (item 25). Expressions can be illocutionary, i.e. directed at an addressee to create an effect in him or her: to attract attention, influence an opinion, coach into action, with suggestions, directions, warnings, orders, threats, accusations, complaints, etc.

‘That is a chair’ mother shouts as her tomboy daughter climbs and capers on it. That expression does refer, to that particular chair, but its portent is illocutionary: don’t climb on it.

So, though different from ‘sticks and stones’, language can hurt.

The upheaval caused by the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, was uplifting, in its outcry of solidarity against terrorist attacks on free speech. It evoked a sense of unity, to protect values achieved in the Enlightenment.

It was also somewhat hypocritical. What if Jesus were depicted as a dissolute vagrant? In the Netherlands it is forbidden by law to insult the royal family. Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is prohibited in Germany. Anti-semitic depiction of Jews as greedy or as perverts causes an outcry. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the French Front National, was convicted for denying the importance of the holocaust. Some forms of advertising are forbidden.

So, what justification is there to condemn and ridicule Muslims when they are affronted by insulting images of their prophet? How can we look down on their sensibility as primitive? How can one ridicule their sensibility while celebrating and codifying one’s own?

And what about the waves of insults, invective and innuendo that arise, swell and  reverberate on social media, which can erroneously but irreparably damage reputations?

I am reminded of Foucault’s analysis of how in growing up and being socialized in the time and place of a culture one assimilates its tacit assumptions, predilections and prejudice. Free speech then in fact entails a demand for the freedom to profess what is congenial to what we have learned to cherish, to ridicule or insult what is foreign to it, and to demand that others tolerate it.

Of course, none of this entails the tolerance of terrorism against free speech. But it does entail willingness not to ridicule or condemn but to listen to complaints against the free speech one employs.

Elsewhere in this blog (item 46) I argued that in evolution humans have developed both an instinct for self-interest and an instinct for altruism within the group one identifies with, at the price of suspicion and discrimination regarding outsiders. That out-group aversion may wield free speech as a weapon, hurting outsiders in the protection of our prejudice. The motives for defending free speech are one-sided and suspect, in part.  

[i] John L. Austin, 1975, How to do things with words, Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

197. Back to Enlightenment values?

In the West, Muslim religious terrorism has triggered a rush to defend ‘our Enlightenment values’. What does that mean? Is it wise?

The Enlightenment produced absolutes of rationality (Descartes, Spinoza), morality (Kant), justice, and democracy.[i]

Absolutes claim to apply forever and everywhere, universally. Mathematics provided the model (Spinoza’s Ethics was presented as ‘in the manner of geometry’). If our own values are absolute, then different values of others must be not just wrong but deviant. This is counterproductive, branding alternative views into heresies. It is fundamentalist, by which we practise what we condemn the religious fundamentalists for.  

Thought has not stood still since the Enlightenment. Romanticism arose partly in opposition to it. However, Romantic thought bred its own form of fundamentalism, as in Rousseau. I discussed problems with the Enlightenment, and tensions with Romanticism, earlier in this blog (items 21, 77, 116).

Charles Taylor (2011) noted that in contemporary society there is an uneasy mix of ideas from Enlightenment and Romanticism. From the Enlightenment we have ideas of rationality (rational design, rational choice, efficiency, rigorous analysis, …) and of individual autonomy. From Romanticism we have diversity, feelings and emotions, realization of the authentic self, self-expression, a sense of adventure, return to nature, and an urge to belong to a larger, coherent whole (such as the nation, blood and soil) …

The Enlightenment is found in science, economics, management, and increasingly also in rational design in public administration (e.g. in health care, education, …). Romanticism is found in the private sphere of self, family, friends, clubs, … This yields a tense combination of opposites.

Existentialist and post-modern thought, in opposition to the ‘grand narratives’, arose in large part in recoil from the horrors produced by absolutist Enlightenment as well as Romantic thought, in wars and totalitarian ideologies.

The realization grew that absolutes not only of God, but also of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are illusions. That bred nihilism: despair of achieving them or even of their value. And that has indeed weakened Western moral vigour.

But, as discussed earlier in his blog (items 143-148), beyond nihilism, following Nietzsche, one can accept, even rejoice in the demise of absolutes, in what I have called ‘imperfection on the move’.

In the light of this, what does it mean to ‘defend Enlightenment values’, and what is the purpose?

It could mean an even further intensified pursuit of rational design, efficiency, and control, and neo-liberal market ideology, at the expense of what Habermas called ‘the life world’. Is that what we want? Isn’t this one of the very reasons, or excuses perhaps, why Muslim terrorists turn away from Western culture?

In this blog, and elsewhere, I argued that the most viable notion of rationality, in view of problems with notions of knowledge and truth, consistent with the notion of imperfection on the move’, is that of ‘being reasonable’, engaging in dialogue with people who think differently, to learn from differences in perspective. That form of rationality makes the best, I propose, from the heritage of the Enlightenment, modified with subsequent thought.

None of this entails toleration of terrorism, but it does imply an effort to understand what motivates it, and to face the imperfections of our own ideologies. It is an old military wisdom: understand your enemy. In order to better fight him. But also to see what weaknesses on our own side prod and nourish him. In order to quell his growth while improving ourselves. 

[i] There are exceptions. To David Hume, ‘reason is the slave of the passions’.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

196. Trust under stress

Under stress, what happens to trust? Does it collapse or does it become stronger?

Earlier in this blog, I argued that underlying trust and distrust there are two frames of  mind: a self-interested frame, guarding one’s resources, and a solidarity frame as a basis for the give and take of trust. It seems that in human evolution we have developed instincts for both.

Under threat of survival, then, one might expect that the defensive frame of guarding one’s resources wins out over the solidarity frame, making trust fragile.

On the other hand, especially under stress, in a crisis, people may need each other more, and will simply have to make trust work.

When the one, and when the other? It depends on whether there is a zero-sum game, with the gain of the one occurring at the cost of loss to the other, or a positive-sum game where collaboration yields gain for both.

For example, when a firm is in crisis and needs to lay off employees, rivalry may arise between them as to who will stay and who will go. Collegial solidarity and give and take corrode.

Unless it is precisely collaboration and give and take that may overcome the crisis.

But is this, the occurrence of positive or zero sum, always a given, something external, or is it also, to some extent at least, something made, something one develops?

Crises increase uncertainty, things are happening out of the ordinary. Existing protocols no longer work. The basis for monitoring and judging the actions of others falls away. Outcomes are unpredictable, and one needs to focus on the quality of process rather than on the desirability of outcomes. One has to improvise and explore actions that fit the specific, unknown situation. It helps when earlier one has developed sensitivity to context.

Trust also requires empathy, the ability to imagine oneself in the shoes of the other, and that also requires sensitivity to context, to the specific conditions that affect the position, the perspective of the other.

Empathy, plus a sense of quality of process, and sensitivity to context, develop in the development of the art of trust.

Trust is not a scarce resource that is depleted in its use. It may increase, deepen, become more robust in its use. The joint solution of problems on the basis of trust deepens trust.

By accepting the risk of collaboration, in trust as a leap of faith, with the ability and wisdom to deal with it, one develops positive sum games in profiting from each other’s differences, in the novel combinations of thought and practice that yield innovation and the joy of creation. And it yields the skill and competence to better deal with the uncertainties of crises.

So, the advantage of a culture, habit, and skill of cooperation, in give and take, empathy and the skill of trust, is not only valuable in itself, in developing inventive novel combinations, but also creates robustness under crisis, in resisting the collapse of trust, and possibly even deepening it.