A note on identity politics

I concur with the point that, sometimes, the treatment of certain groups can be so cruel and unfair that you need to confront the opponent head-on, for example, the manner in which women (and men) are confronting the patriarchal culture that does not only characterize the business and academic worlds, but also, and to a greater extent, religious societies. This point is, indeed, urgent and highly welcomed.

Still, I think that the concept of identity politics is problematic. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari use the concept of the rhizome to illuminate the distinctiveness and connectivity of the multiple factors that constitute reality. “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance,” they write. This concept helps us view our lives as assemblages or a mixture of words, institutions, social movements, and countless other things that, while related, are also distinct.

For example, in The Trouble with Unity, the philosopher Cristina Beltrán uses Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome to address some of the problems with identity politics. Using a simple example, she mentions the conception of Latinidad, i.e., the notion that all people from Latin America share the same group identity and cultural consciousness. She notes that many commentators tend to assume that Latinos represent a collective identity. Really? Didn’t people read Edward Said’s work? (e.g. his book Orientalism)

A similar appraisal can be observed for various minority groups, which are assumed to be special or unique instead of the more accurate assertion that we are all different people. The problem with identity politics is that it is tantamount to arborescent thinking. At its worst, arborescent thinking can suppress any other identity: men versus women, white versus black, and vegetarian versus non-vegetarian. Identity politics can also create a culture of victimization—something I often witness in Catalonia, Spain. For more than a generation, schools and politicians in Catalonia have fed the people the idea that they are not part of Spain, that Spain steals from them, and that all problems are caused by Spain. The result is that very few Catalan separatists (not Catalans per se) are prepared to take responsibility or are held accountable for their own actions, as Spain is used as a scapegoat.

Critical thinking and self-reflection, therefore, are arguably rare among people who cling to certain identities as a moral refuge. This is probably related to how convenient a certain position or identity can appear, as if by being feminist, existentialist, Catalan, black, or homosexual, we are, in any way, morally better.

Personally, I believe that Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome can help us find and create value in what takes place without being placed into fixed boxes of identity. I urge for a  more humble and inclusive approach. After all, all identities are prisons hindering us to think freely. Or as Michel Foucault once said: What does it matter who is speaking? It only matters because of hierarchies, domination, and a simple lack of equality and imagination.

What is needed is not more identity politics, but what Deleuze called non-communication, “circuit breakers” that may elude communicative control, whereby people blindly say and do what they do because this is what other people do. There is a scary herd mentality among people who cling onto certain identities.

In short: I can’t really identify 100 percent with any particular identity; however, I can empathize and care for all people.

Originally posted as a comment on the APA Philosophy Blog — (you may wish to check out the link for references to articles on identity politics, and other interesting stuff).

What is happening in Catalonia?

The Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza has won many literary prices, including the Franz Kafka Prize, in 2015, and the Premio Cervantes, in 2016. Recently, he published a short essay entitled Que está pasando en Catalunya (What is happening in Catalonia).

Like many others, he wants to understand what is happening in the Spanish region of Catalonia, especially, as he notes, because of the “ignorance” and “prejudices” that affect many people’s images of Catalonia and Spain.

It is a mistake to reduce the Catalan nationalist and separatist movement solely to origins in the Spanish Civil War, Mendoza says. Franco’s dictatorial regime is gone. Since the late 1970s, Spain has undergone a difficult, but also impressive, democratic transition. Many of those today who refer to “Franco’s ghost” never lived under his regime; if they had, they would probably be more cautious when using terms such as “Francoism,” “fascism,” and “dictatorships” so carelessly. At the very least, they would be cautious out of respect for all those who suffered and died during that time.

It is true, however, that Catalonia, like the rest of Spain, suffered during the Franco years. Furthermore, the Catalans suffered with respect to their language, and many Catalans wanted to separate themselves from Franco (as did many other Spaniards). “No one doubts the antipathy of the Franco regime towards the Catalan language,” Mendoza writes. And yet, not all Catalans were against Franco. He continues, “we should forget that a good part of the young (and not so young) Catalans volunteered for the Falangist movement.”

The idea of Catalonia revolting against Spain is wrong, because this assumption is based on the naïve generalization of claiming that all Spanish or Catalan people are identical. Spain, as a country, suffered under Franco, just as some Catalans followed Franco freely.

Luckily – and I say this ironically – for the contemporary Catalan separatist, “the habit of adapting history to fit contemporary conviction is a distinctive Catalan identity,” Mendoza says.

Anyone with a little knowledge of what has happened in Catalonia will know that facts are treated with creative elegance that places the separatist within the post-truth, alternative facts, or fake news era. Illustratively, Mendoza draws a comparison between France and Catalonia. While France had a glorious past, one to which we can look for compassion, the Catalans never had one. Thus, “to hide what they considered shameful, the imagination and artistic talent of Catalans has been dedicated to inventing a past that the society would have loved to have.”

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the complexity of the separatist lie is by referring to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” a way of using freedom to deny ourselves the freedom we actually have. This is a strategic way in which some Catalans take away their own responsibility to choose by saying that they have no choice. As a consequence, the independence movement has created a culture of victimization where it is easier to blame Spain than to take responsibility for themselves. For example, blaming the centralization of power in Madrid. Interestingly, Mendoza writes, “if there is place where you can speak about savagely centralism it’s in Catalonia. Barcelona has always scorned the second ranked cities …”

Mendoza describes the Catalans as shy and a group whose thinking is not used to getting very far. “They are practical thinkers, but theory and abstraction bores them.” Perhaps, for this reason, some seem to speak of democracy and freedom that, at most, resembles Orwell’s Newspeak. As Mendoza has written elsewhere, if you can freely demonstrate in the street and participate in the Spanish government, then there is, indeed, democracy. However, if you do not wish to accept that democracy is a long and tiring process, then you simply need to organize an illegal election insisting that it is legal.

To begin with, “the participation of Catalans in the Spanish government was encouraged … during the years after the transition.” Unfortunately, with Jordi Pujol, who served as President of the Catalan Generalitat (i.e. the Catalan government) from 1980 to 2003, a systematic plan towards independence was in place: it was found in schools, the media (Mendoza mentions how the Catalan media outlets TV3 and Catalunya Radio moved from being neutral to “separatist organs”), the local government, and via less involvement in the Spanish government. All activities were aimed at creating a Spanish enemy by altering facts. Then came the financial crisis in 2008, which – as is many other places such as in Madrid, Athens, Lisbon – hit the younger generations, and created a healthy and global anticapitalistic movement that, unfortunately, quickly turned into a nationalistic protectionism.

Using his trademark easy-going style, Mendoza writes that, regardless of the mythical stories that Spain and Madrid is stealing, ”you live better in Barcelona than in Madrid.” The morale is: Life is hard, for all, not just the Catalans.

Towards the end of Mendoza’s pedagogical essay, he concludes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” before adding, “Spain is not a bad country. It could be better.” This is true, but so can Denmark, where I am from, and all other countries. Democracy is, after all, a dynamic process.

Mendoza succeeds in killing a few myths, but whether these efforts are enough to make people less ignorant, only time will tell. Nevertheless, it is good to see that more and more Spanish and Catalan intellectuals are participating in uncovering the political theater, where politicians (most notably Puigdemont & co) play with the Catalan people’s emotions by selling certain beliefs, irrespectively whether these beliefs are true or false.

So, when Mendoza writes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” then he emphasizes that the emotions and beliefs behind the separatist are unreasonable and unjustified, despite how some Catalans feel. Therefore, it is healthy, as Mendoza says, to question our ideas, to explain things to each other, and to eliminate prejudice, ignorance, and incomprehension.

Mendoza shows that sometimes thinking is painful. For example, Puigdemont & co use “freedom” and “democracy” as tranquilizing slogans, yet if we pay attention, it’s obvious that their use refer to a superficial understanding (if not simply a nationalistic misunderstanding). At most these slogans are sleeping pills that hinders an open and honest examination of a challenging conflict, an examination that requires empathy and compassion. Elsewhere, I ‘ve argued that compassion is needed in Catalonia, not as something artificial, but as something that arises naturally in complex and tense situations.

A difficult road lies ahead – for all parties.

 

Against separatism

Fernando Savater’s Contra el separatismo is like a breathe of fresh air in a Catalonia marked by years of frustration, hate, manipulation, falsehood, and a scary nationalism.

Savater is a Spanish philosopher and prolific writer, who examines ethical issues. His writing usually covers topics in an existential way; for instance, he explored what makes a life worth living.

Recently, he published a small pamphlet, Contra el separatismo (Eng. Against Separatism). This was a collection of articles that he had published over the last few months in El Pais, La Cronica and La Republica. Most of the articles could probably be found on the Internet, so the necessity of a book is debatable. However, its errand is undoubtedly needed.

The objective of the book is to describe separatism in Catalonia, which is thought to be an increasingly problematic region in Spain since October.

Savater opened his pamphlet with an essay clarifying the difference between nationalism, which he considers to be a “collective narcissism,” and separatism. Nationalism can be either kind or pathologically aggressive. Normally, when we refer to nationalism, we don’t think of special national dishes or sports but something more sinister and dangerous. The Catalan separatists are nationalistic much in the same way that Albert Camus once described a German friend “as someone who loved his country too much.”

Still, Savater stresses that Catalonia is not simply an example of nationalism. It’s even worse. It’s separatism, which is characterized by a hatred towards anything Spanish. This must sound rather harsh for outsiders to hear. However, based on my own experiences while living almost ten years in Barcelona, I must admit that Savater is precise in his diagnosis. Hatred does exist. Some of it comes was frustration, lack of recognition, and some of it is, unfortunately, deliberately passed on from one generation to the next.

Let me emphasize that this hatred exists among the Catalan separatists, but not among all Catalans. Many Catalans view themselves as Spanish. However, the separatists have dominated the public dialogue due to the depth of their hatred. Luckily this seems to be changing as more and more people are able to see a more accurate picture of Catalonia. Additionally, more people are finding the courage to speak out against the separatists’ hateful rhetoric.

Savater writes, “Separatism is not a political opinion or a romantic dream, like nationalism; rather it’s a deliberate aggression, calculated and coordinated against the democratic institutions.” They only focus on their own needs. For example, the former Catalan president Puigdemont implies that he is speaking on behalf of all Catalans even though his viewpoints do not align with more than half of the Catalan population based on the results of the election. Furthermore, the Catalan separatists characterize themselves as victims of the Spanish state. For example, when the Spanish government criticized the Catalan schools in regards to indoctrination practices and the improper use of some teachers’ power over students, the Catalans school spoke about being violated. Rather than critically investigating and reflecting on whether wrongdoings really had taken place, they chose instead to play the victim. I would say that the Catalan separatists are known for a complete inability or an unwillingness to self-reflect.

Savater continues saying, “The devil is, etymologically, the separator, dia-bolum, the one who disconnect and destroys the established bonds. The task of the devil is anti-humanism par excellence, separate those who live together by obeying them to detest one another … painfully discord their hearts.” Again, I believe he is right when I reflect on my experiences. Everything has been reduced to either black or white over the last few months. This is especially true if you’re among the separatists, who often have no decorum when sharing their opinions. It is as if they can’t imagine that anyone would disagree with them.

Furthermore, Savater mentions that the Catalan separatists seem to excel in post-truth. For example, the fact of having an emotion depends on what the persons’s beliefs are, not whether these beliefs are true or false. Puigdemont excels in playing with emotional statements in order to establish and control certain beliefs by awaking certain emotions, for example, hate and mistrust. In the eyes of Aristoteles, Puigdemont is an irresponsible leader because he doesn’t care about the truth, only his political objective. Some other emotional claims made by the Catalan separatist are that they have compared themselves with Kosovo or Tibet, and have suggested that Puigdemont is a martyr like Nelson Mandela. Of course, this only shows their total ignorance and a lack of respect. Mandela fought heroically and inspired others to fight against a racist-regime. He fought to heal his country and to bring black and white people together. I assume that the separatists’ hatred blinds them to notice the clear differences between Puigdemont and Mandela. At times, living in Catalonia is like being part of an absurd theater.

Savater touches upon many things even though the text is short. He mentions how the Catalan separatists have tried to use the Catalan language as a racial marker. He points out how the education system usually is the first priority for every democracy. Of course, at this point, he could emphasize that the only reason why the Catalan school has been able to indoctrinate its students is because the Spanish government has neglected Catalan schools for so long. The problem, however, is not that the Catalans want to protect and cultivate their language and culture; rather when this care becomes exclusive and mean toward what is Spanish.

Apropos the educational system, then it is scary to meet young people in Catalonia who are not aware that the Spanish Civil War was a war where all of Spain was fighting Franco, not just the Catalans. Many young people in Catalonia are not aware that the last city to fall to Franco was Madrid, for example. It is also scary to witness the hatred towards Spain and everything Spanish, from language to football jerseys and even a refusal to travel around in Spain. I have met grown-ups who claim that all Spanish people are fascist. Parents don’t want their children to speak Spanish even though many other parents elsewhere would love their children to master two languages.

Savater also addresses the Catalan media. He argues that EITB, TV3, Catalunya Ràdio are manipulative and indoctrinating. Even the children programs on TV3 try to manipulate the children. How it is that parents accept this is beyond my imagination.

Savater lists seven reasons why separatism should be fought and prevented in the future:

  1. It’s antidemocratic.
  2. It’s reactionary in its beliefs in one land, one ethnic identity, and one language.
  3. It’s antisocial.
  4. It’s ruining the economy.
  5. It’s destabilizing
  6. It creates bitterness and frustrations.
  7. It creates dangerous precedents.

In a modern democracy, all citizens should be equal regardless of their birthplace, language, gender, skin color, their religion or philosophy. All of these qualities or characteristics are relevant to your personal biography, Savater says, but they should not give you extra influence as a citizen. In a democracy, all people have the same rights. In a democratic state, there are no Catalans, Spanish, or Danish people just like there are no white, black or Hispanic people. There are no homosexual or lesbians either. In the eyes of a democratic government, these identities are not relevant. People are all just people. Unless, of course, you’re a Catalan separatist.

Against separatism is an important pamphlet despite its short length. Mainly because the intellectuals in Spain, including the artists, have been neglecting or ignorant about the Catalan and Spanish problem for too long. The politicians could look toward Nelson Mandela as a role model and help to initiate the reconciliation process. Heal the country with compassion.

Also, I believe that artists can change how we see things, can help us to better understand differences. Art can open up our minds. It is their responsibility to shake our old habits and to assist in our growth. Nurture empathy and compassion. This is needed in Spain where the wounds from the civil war are still present. There is an explicit hatred existing among some, not all, Catalans towards the rest of Spain. Savater has illustrated that he has the knowledge and the courage to address this. I would embrace his pamphlet even for this reason alone.

With this publication, Savater has made it possible for me to focus on more gratifying issues than the exhausting political situation in Catalonia. For that I’m grateful.

Contra el separatismo

Earning to Give

In The Most Good You Can Do, philosopher Peter Singer tells us how we can all do better through “effective altruism”, which he describes as a solidly ethical way of living.

For those who are unfamiliar with Singer, he is a prominent ethicist, a utilitarian who has written about animal liberation and practical ethics, which is the practice of applying ethics to our daily decisions.

Singer describes “good” as a world with less suffering and more happiness. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…the more people clappinimages-1g, the better.

In The Most Good You Can Do, Singer takes on the roles of preacher, salesman and philosopher. The book is not about philosophy; instead, Singer writes to inspire people to become more qualified philanthropists. He wants to convince us that we should earn more money so we can donate more money. The premise is that living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.

What is the most good? Effective altruists think more about the number of people they can help than about helping particular individuals. The numbers are reflected in their donations; they give money to those organizations which they believe will do the most good. Effective altruism is ethical investment where the return on investment is the greater good of the many.

Singer mentions several individuals who are effective altruists and lists organizations that can help one decide where and how much money to donate. His message is that it is ethically good to earn to give, and one should use one’s reason more than one’s emotions when deciding where to donate.

“Earning to give is a distinctive way of doing good,” Singer writes. When I read that I can’t help thinking of the Catalonia region of Spain. Around 50 percent of the voting Catalans seek independence from Spain because, for example, the region pays 10 percent of its gross national product to the rest of Spain. Few mention that the rest of Spain is less fortunate compared with Catalonia, with its attractive Costa Brava coastline, numerous museums and frequent great football games. Sharing with non-Catalans doesn’t seem to be an attractive option.

Another way of illustrating this involves different forms of empathy, such as:

Empathic concern– the tendency to experience feelings of warmth and compassion for other people.

Personal distress– feelings of personal unease and discomfort in reaction to the emotions of others.

Perspective taking– tendency to adopt the point of view of other people.

Fantasy– tendency to imagine oneself experiencing the feelings of other people.

The first two terms refer to emotional empathy, or one’s manner of feeling about others. The last two refer to cognitive empathy, or “knowing what something is like for another being.”

Emotional empathy can be related to Catalans who want to become an independent country; they still seem traumatized by the Spanish Civil War, and define themselves negatively, as not Spanish. They feel warm toward full-blooded Catalans, but have varying degrees of discomfort about the rest.

Singer contrasts emotional empathy with cognitive empathy. This is where numbers affect us more than the individuals with whom we identify. For example, a cognitive empathizer would recognize that during the Spanish Civil War, the entire country suffered. The war was not a football match. Spain bled, not just one region.

Singer quotes psychologist Paul Bloom: “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family–that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”

Singer argues convincingly in favor of reason over emotion, but reason and emotion are not necessarily contradictory. Let me use Catalonia again as an example. Communism did not work worldwide because it was not based on compassion and love; it was based on class struggle and dictatorial control, which in the end failed, as the Dalai Lama once pointed out. Similarly, the Catalan project is based more on financial greed than compassion. If the Catalans were effective altruists they would still be proud of their industrious attitude, but only because they could do good with their money, for example, donating to regions in greater need. More developed empathy–all four varieties–combined with reason would make Catalans less protective. More generous.

Altruism, Singer writes, is contrasted with egoism. However, altruism does not require unrealistic self-sacrifice. One may realize that it is possible to share one’s fortune with those less fortunate. Perhaps, one might even realize how everything is interconnected.

Thomas Aquinas was quoted as saying “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need, because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need.”

In that vein, Aquinas would not likely have thought it wrong of anybody to take what they need from Singer’s book, particularly if it meant learning how to help others. If you would like to see whether Singer’s book has something in it for you, visit these homepages:

http://www.effectivealtruism.org/

http://www.givewell.org/

Posthumanism

Once upon a time the human was at the center of the universe. Now, the unified and autonomous human subject is a myth. “There is no more a sovereign subject,” Pramod K. Nayer writes in Posthumanism. Humanism has reached its end. A new era has emerged. It’s called posthumanism. It has to do with coexistence, that is, the relationship between human and nonhumans … Read the rest of the review  here.