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writing for godot


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Sunday, 01 September 2019 13:10


Slicing Reality

44. If we are to understand history, then, we must come to terms with the way each age conceives and perceives the world (which brings certain features of existence into visibility and blurs or conceals others). By doing so, we find the interplay between knowledge and power.


45. Unfortunately, Northern scholarship has subdivided the experience of whole areas into neat categories convenient to scholarly classification though not necessarily conductive to a better understanding of reality.


46. Human events, can be viewed at many levels of abstraction, each providing a window on the world. To restrict our view to a single window is to invite partial truths. Half-truths can be dangerous; they can frighten and subdue the uninitiated while legitimizing the interpreters, deforming the moral and political discourse. (Half truths are like half bricks: you can throw them further).


47. Whether a certain development in a society is interpreted as harmful or beneficial ultimately depends on one’s ideological position and one’s class interests. To understand and to change any social situation requires knowledge, not only of the internal dynamics of the situation, but also of the nature of the macrosystem that provides the parameters for that situation. We have to learn to look at totalities, rather than fragments of reality. Therefore, what counts as a fact depends on the concepts we use, on the questions we ask. There is no neutral terminology. There are really no wholly neutral facts. All describing is classifying according to some conceptual scheme. We cannot say what somebody is doing until we know why s/he is doing it. We can neither understand our nature nor our behavior until we understand our motives. Let us face it, we are often more interested in answering questions of fact not involving values, than answering factual questions about values --this clearly applying to human rights.


48. Our intellect divides the indivisible, but such dichotomies do not exist in nature; ambivalence is part of our nature, else we would not have developed a morality. Slicing the world in different directions reveals different patterns. How you see it depends on how you slice it. All you have to remember is that there is more than one way to cut it, ergo, are we asking the right questions?


49. There is the naive perception that, following our example, food and nutrition interventions are intrinsically good; who can be against feeding children? But many do not realize the importance of the social, political and human rights context in which those programs take place.


Moral and Ideological Aspects


50. Intellectual development cannot be separated from moral development. The connection may appear indirect, but I do not see how a deeply prejudiced person could be a good scholar. Who you are and where you stand makes a difference. How does one deal with poverty around the world if, by our behavior, we abet those who favor an elitist, human rights-ignoring and authoritarian view of society and see left wing subversion in every attempt to change the way people have been treated unjustly? Whether we like it or not, what we are morally depends on the choices we make, on the things we actually do.


51. When people hold the fate of others in their hands, semantics become statements of policy. Words have always been ideology and ideology has been policy. It, therefore, becomes important to take a close look at claim holders’ rights and needs, as much as at our moral duties and how they are expressed.*

*: Is subjective conviction all there is to the concept of a moral right? Obviously not, for otherwise any thief who honestly believes that, because he has had a deprived childhood, or because he has been wronged by society, he has a right to help himself to a piece of someone else’s property thinking that that would be morally OK. The subjective conviction that one is in the right gives one the inner strength to do what one is doing. That is an important thing in itself. But for such a subjective conviction to become a moral right, it also has to obtain the sanction of others, even if not necessarily most or even all of them. Such a sanction may convert a Robin Hood from a highway robber into a social rebel, a terrorist into a freedom fighter. A subjective claim can become a recognized moral and legal right by external sanction. But there is another limit to any moral right that determines to what extent it will be sanctioned: its possible conflict with another moral right. When such a conflict arises, the sanction for one right against the other depends, in terms of morality and justice, on what claim is considered the stronger, the more urgent, the less injurious to the other. In terms of political reality, it depends on whose claim can muster more support based on the real interests of those who have the power to grant or deny the sanction. This, then, determines the extent of the moral and legal right the world is prepared to accept.


52. Not only do the relative weights of conflicting moral claims change --political power interests also change. The question thus is, what sanction, moral, legal and political one can get for any new position. Morally, might is not right. Politically, it often is. Perhaps if we have the might, our subjective belief that we are doing no wrong would in time receive the sanction of some and of time itself. But not only do we not have the might to conquer human rights, not only do we not have the power to rally support, and not only does time work against us, but the very attempt to only rely on our moral strength may lead to disaster. It may be good rhetoric to say that we need no one’s confirmation of our rights, that we will in all likelihood win morally, but politically, however, it may bleed us to death. The question is not our right to fight hunger and malnutrition, but how --and that, unfortunately, can not easily be imposed unilaterally. To fight malnutrition we have a supreme moral claim, sanctioned by the entire world. For the preferred alternative, the claim for structural social changes we have no universal sanction. Charity, therefore, is obscurantism, because it really means no solution.


53. Moral values are consensual, and actions based on them are said to be legitimate. It is clear, however, that the moral code of a community also legitimizes established relations of power. A moral code used as an instrument of domination in the hands of the ruling elites is an alienating force; it renders the exploitation of the people acceptable and easier. Therefore, neither moral nor political, the market’s powers are to be seen as purely instrumental, relating means to the given ends of certain people or groups. By responding more and more to the logic of markets, communities are reduced to the functional requirements of consuming, while the roles and moral obligations of citizens are often dismissed as irrelevant.


54. Consequently, a system that has no place for a majority of the people has lost the moral authority to prescribe what should be done. It is by participating in the political life of a community that we acquire a sense of who we are. It is through such a political discourse that a rights-oriented economy comes into being. The right to equal access to the human rights discourse should be the essence of our demands.


55. Conversely, we often find ourselves accepting or supporting ‘ethically neutral’ although ‘value biased’ premises. It is in the name of scientific analysis that unemployment, malnutrition and poverty are often perpetuated through the impersonal mechanisms of economic policy and of the market. In ‘the way things areness’, society makes disprivilege look right. Things are ‘explained away’. It is through ideology that societies ultimately explain themselves --and this is no myth.


Are intellectuals promoters of status-quo or of social change?


We Intellectuals

-Are intellectuals a class apart, responsible only to our own inner urges? Are we duty-bound to immerse ourselves in our respective society to articulate consciousness? Or are we to be natural leaders, destined not only to provide the ideas that shape society, but also to make sure that they are implemented?


56. The truth is that intellectuals bend the rules of the discourse to suit their own interests; they argue for what they want to believe. The theories they use consistently tend to provide a justification of the status-quo and of the existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. The judgment depends on whether it conforms to the political convictions of the judges --who are mostly self-appointed. It is precisely because of this that intellectuals in higher education (especially in the US) help reproduce the class system with their right hand --and it is hard to keep the left hand free to foster critical intelligence. There is no such a thing as independent intellectuals floating somewhere above the economic system: they/we are part of it! Some are simply guilty of bad scholarship, which could be improved and be made truthful if only (they) we would reform (their) our methods and expunge our (their) false preconceptions. Few scholars can resist the pressures on them of the scholarly tradition in which they work.


57. Although scholars sometimes carry an ideological debate with the culture that breeds them, they almost never confront that culture with another ideology, with political possibilities that are new or challenging. For without challenging the ideology many of them find abhorrent, they only perpetuate the passivity that has become their central image. Intellectual liberation is difficult to achieve, since many of us are prisoners of our own past training and somebody else’s thought.

We also often use statistical illusions devised by our own academic elites that do not really fit any real-world cases anywhere in the world. Measuring poverty in detail can often be a substitute for, or an excuse for not acting in response to perfectly visible needs. Let us not confuse correlation with cause…


58. Moreover, too many of our economists and too many international organizations are seeking to take the politics out of the political economy of human rights and of the daily decision making process to avoid discord or conflict. Many, if not most, aspects of life should never be decided by the economists’ yardstick only. The abolition of slavery or child labor laws certainly never would have passed a cost-benefit test.

Among others, excessive institutional compartmentalization has separated political from economic analyses resulting in a passive reluctance to call a cat a cat. There is a tendency to stop the analysis where ‘politics’ begins, with formulations like: ‘this, however, is a political question’. Of course, that is where the analysis very often should start. Our task is not merely to reflect the world, but to do something about it. A goal that is not at the same time a process becomes a dogma. It is the ‘principle of recognizing trends and acting promptly at the right time’ that mainly differentiates the politician from the theoretician.


59. Comprehensiveness cannot be obtained by achieving all-inclusiveness of the parts, but by creating a new philosophy into which all parts mesh. The development of such a philosophy has been avoided, because it automatically raises larger issues about the direction of society and challenges the current system. The essence of the matter is the need for new approaches and processes that will help us work towards a society inspired by a different worldview. Think human rights! We need tactics, yes, but first we need innovative strategies. It is more necessary than ever to pass from a state of critique to actual concrete actions. Tactics must be shifted from a defensive position to one that offers positive alternative choices. A positive strategy will be most effective if efforts are made to go beyond the political goal of obtaining the type of lowest common denominator that only serves to alleviate guilt feelings.


Our Inherent Obligations


60. We ought not retreat into helpless passivity, watching the biological, ecological and social system around us deteriorate. We can alter trends and avert catastrophes if we recognize and exercise our own power to make a difference. We all carry around with us a bag of unexamined credos, and this unexamined life is what comes under pressure when we are faced with decisions. One of the greatest challenges facing humanity today is the challenge to meet the inalienable rights of those rendered poor. In that sense, research, even applied, has acquired an elitist character, with little or no relevance to our concern for the real needs of the people.


61. From the effectiveness in combating maldevelopment point of view, international and national meetings have too often become exercises in futility, organized and chaired by the same conservative groups year after year. We must leave behind academicism and begin to look at real people and their needs.


62. Meeting the human rights of the marginalized will hardly require any new knowledge or any new hard technology. However, it will require political solutions that are likely to have a number of technological inputs. But the political solutions are not dependent on first making the technological inputs available!


63. Human rights defined in material terms, delivered by a bureaucracy and planned by an elite can and will create client groups, demobilize mass groups and create new patterns of dependence. Devoid of a clear ideological and participative orientation, human rights risk not clarifying, but mystifying, not mobilizing, but manipulating. Conversely, technocratic basic needs models assume that the problems are largely management gaps within the decision-making groups together with a lack of ability to grasp opportunities by those rendered poor.


64. The perniciousness of the statistical approach to hunger and malnutrition is that it has so many non-solutions built-in masquerading as answers. The most serious of these is the implication that salvation lies in obtaining for the countries rendered poor those features of richer countries, i.e., doctors, hospitals and staff, field services, equipment and a rich pharmacopeia of drugs --which ostensibly ensure health and long life... But ultimately, levels of living standards are determined by national development strategies and the international economic order. Straight public health and nutrition plans, while said to be committed to greater equality, do not contain interventions conducive to attaining the objectives of a more egalitarian society.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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