Where Does the Wind Come From?

“Where does the wind come from?” my son asked. I wetted my finger and stuck it in the air. A mild and gentle breeze cooled one side of it. “That side,” I said, pointing nowhere. “OK,” he said.

Afterward, I thought about the problem that arose from the question, “Where does the wind come from?” The wind doesn’t really blow from one mouth. Even rivers don’t have just the one mouth. Rivers are constructed by their surroundings: the mountains, the rain, nearby lakes, and the ocean, to name but a few. There is no origin. Similarly, the wind comes from everywhere and nowhere. 

Perhaps everything comes from there: from nowhere.

Read the rest of the essay in Sky Island Journal

Is this the right way?

Late one August evening in a small provincial town, a woman steps out her front door. In her hand, she holds a slim leather briefcase, probably containing a laptop. When she steps down from the small landing in front of the door, a mild breeze fills the air, gently tousling her long blond tresses. She tries to pull her hair back behind her ears without any luck. From the back pocket of her jeans she pulls out a bandeau and ties those unruly locks into a simple ponytail. Now, with no hair interrupting her vision, she looks first to the right and then to the left before turning around to lock the door behind her. After checking twice that the door really is locked, she rotates to face the street for the second time. 

This time she looks to the left first. Actually, at this point, her whole body shifts as she evaluates the possibility of going in that direction. 

Is this the right way? 

Read the rest of the essay in Terse Journal.

We play to survive

We play to survive.

Play refers to our engagement in an activity, either as participants or active observers. It is normally regarded as a fun endeavor that often results in anger and frustration when interrupted. However, I argue that playing is a matter of life and death. Unlike games, which have a competitive element, play is a joyous activity—and when we get bored, we stop or invent new aspects or dimensions of play. Games, of course, can also be joyful, but they differ from playing in the sense that they stimulate an extrinsic motivation, whereas playing is much more intrinsic. We play because we like to play.

Unfortunately, we tend to play less as we age, perhaps because we lose some of the imagination that makes the play worth playing, and we forget the implicit existential lesson within it. 

Play is a metaphysical activity.

Read the rest of the “Play Is the Metaphysics of Becoming” in Erraticus

Is it happening again?

‘It is happening again,’ says the giant to FBI Special agent Dale Cooper in David Lynch’s mystery series Twin Peaks. This sentence came to me today, as the trial against 12 Catalan separatist leaders began in Madrid. The sentence made me reflect:

Witnessing the Catalan separatists’ campaign for independence, I couldn’t help but recall the warning signals revealed by my old German teacher when he showed us the symbols and manipulation used by German supremacists.

What concerned me was not just the flags; rather, it was their degradation of the rest of Spain while simultaneously elevating themselves. Similarly, when the separatists claimed to be victims, suppressed as an endangered species, I saw no real victims, only a very calculated form of control (I don’t refer to the unnecessary police brutality October 2017, but to life in general in Catalonia, see also Compassion in Catalonia).

I think that the mixture of creating a culture of victimisation combined with establishing a society of control, where our minds are controlled through unconscious social conditioning, is what makes the Catalan separatists powerful, but also scary if one casts an eye over history.

It’s common to view what is happening in Catalonia through the lens of history, especially the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936 to 1939. And it goes without saying that General Francisco Franco ranks among the worst dictators in human history.

Still, some simple facts should be pointed out: today, Spain is not a totalitarian regime; Spain is no more Francoland than Germany today is Hitlerland. Contentions to the contrary are as incongruous as they are wrong.

To clarify another fact: the Catalan language and culture are not under threat today. On the contrary, instead of giving children the opportunity of a bilingual education, most schools in Catalonia teach only in Catalan. Spanish is being taught as a foreign language. Through this, a basic right is being taken away from Spanish citizens.

For the separatists, language is not a means of communication, but an identity marker; it’s a password that separates ‘true’ Catalans from those Catalans who feel Spanish. Hereby, the separatists have – quite paradoxically, in the style of Franco – created a control system that differentiates and categorizes people.

What is needed is not more communication for or against; rather, it’s noncommunication; a reflective pause that eludes the current communicative control in which people blindly say and do what they say and do because this is what other people say and do.

Unfortunately, such a break seems unrealistic. The PR campaign of the Catalan separatists can’t stop without everything collapsing. To make things even worse, the turbulence of the last few years has awakened other nationalists in Spain, such as the political party Vox.

Perhaps, here we are at the core of the problem: All identity markers, whether national or cultural, are prisons. Nothing more than fictions. The problem with the novel written by the Catalan separatists is not that it is full of lies and exaggerations; rather, that it’s provincially tiring because all the characters are stereotypical and far too predictable. It’s a fantasy that has lost its grip on reality.

The challenge in Catalonia – and elsewhere in the world – is to regain trust in humanity. So far, the separatists have mostly promoted distrust in everything and everyone but themselves and their world view. Yet, without basic trust between humans, life cannot function.

Democracy is the ongoing organisation of disagreement. For example, I disagree strongly when artists and comedians in Spain are hindered in their right to express themselves freely – including when they criticise nations, politicians, and religions. But I also believe that people who deliberately violate the laws of the constitution should be held juridically responsible. To violate the law is to disrespect the principle of the equality of all citizens. Since all human beings are, by definition, different, the only thing that makes us the same, socially, is the law.

A democracy stresses that we are in it together. All of us. Equally. Here and now. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catalan, Danish, a man, a woman, white, black, speak this language or that. Writing this seems embarrassingly banal, yet I see many around me who appear to have forgotten this fundamental concept. For this reason, ‘it is happening again’: the victimization, the exaggerations, the lies …

This opinion was first published in Spain in English, 17th February 2019

Does Santa exist?

Does Santa Claus exists; or as some prefer to put the question: Is the world an illusion?

Yes is the answer. I don’t necessarily understand the word illusion as being a false idea or belief, rather I claim that illusions are not false per se.

Allow me to clarify. I don’t believe that the world is given, I doubt that an unchangeable certainty exists, save that we shall all die one day. I don’t believe that empiricism can be reduced to what can be observed, that is to say something which can be weighed  (e.g. chairs or tables) or measured (e.g. the distance to a chair). Rather, like the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, I concur with the idea that what we call empirical might also be subjective, even illusionary, like a thought, a hallucination, or a picture. In that sense, an illusion can be seen as a force that works within the real, making the real more real or enhancing the world. 

Another way of saying this would be to claim that Harry Potter, Santa Claus, a unicorn or flying dragons are real. They all exist, not only in the sense that it makes sense for me to mention them here, but they can also serve as a way of understand or describing aspects of this world. Harry Potter is just as real as black holes! Or take money—a rather useless piece of paper or digital number in your account—many people believe in the value of money because it works. I can change a five Euro note into six beers or three red roses. Actually, money is just as real as Santa Claus! Just by writing and sending him a letter, many children experience that he works. Just by buying presents, many parents confirm his existence.

Whether the world is an illusion or not is a metaphysical question, a metaphysics of being versus one of becoming. According to Popper, metaphysical questions can’t be proved, only be more or less convincing answered based on our experiences—including one that takes illusions or hallucinations serious. Furthermore, there are also some practical consequences related to our metaphysical belief. For example, a too rigid belief in a given world architecture, easily leads to stubborn attitude toward being true or false, right or wrong. Perhaps what we witness in today’s  identity politics, exclusive moralism, and fanaticism? 

A metaphysic of becoming is more humble, when various potentials, movements, hallucinations, or illusions are actualized (and accepted) as real due to their capacity to change how we see and understand reality. If I’m right about this illusion, assuming that is even possible, then it confirms that life as such can never be owned or grasped fully. All we can do is make room for that which brings life—and here illusions are just as powerful as hardcore science.

#MeToo exists in an ethical twilight zone

What do we think about when we think of the #MeToo movement? #MeToo is many things—it’s complex and conflicting; it addresses our collective memory (or lack thereof) and history; it touches upon social and economic class, religion, race, and, of course, most of all on gender. And it touches upon the glue of our society: trust.

A few weeks ago, I heard that the Boston Review had decided to keep the writer Junot Díaz on as a fiction editor. Yesterday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cleared Díaz of allegations of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse.

In many ways, the whole “Junot Diaz case” can be placed within the post-truth era of fake news, which again is one of ethics. For example, the journalist Ralph Keyes claims in The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, “Deception has become commonplace at all levels of contemporary life.” He goes on to consider that we may have reached a stage in our social evolution that is “beyond honesty.”

The era of post-truth is also an era of moralism. Everything is too easily reduced to good and bad, as if no grey areas exist. This is also part of the rigid identity politics that characterize US politics today, which far too often produce a mindless label—as if only a black person can speak against racism, a homosexual against homophobia, a woman against male abusers. Such assumptions show a lack of imagination. They also avoid staring at all the grey areas. For example, the grey areas are probably the weakest points in the otherwise powerful and very welcome #MeToo movement, in which the Junot Díaz case can be placed since it deals with a man of power accused of behaving badly.

Morality typically deals with whether something is right or wrong. However, being moral is not always the same as being right. For example, a story isn’t true because its moral is, and vice versa. Furthermore, morality is not something unchangeable; rather, it’s a social artefact. Our moral norms change as a result of new knowledge. This knowledge, of course, should be convincing, valid, reliable, and trustworthy. Unfortunately, lack of trust seems to be the protagonist in this particular case.

“Post-truthfulness exists in an ethical twilight zone,” Keyes writes. “It allows us to dissemble without considering ourselves dishonest. When our behavior conflicts with our values, what we’re most likely to do is reconceive our values.” Keyes’ point is interesting. One of Díaz’s main accusers was the writer Carmen Maria Machado, who referred to a Q & A session she had with Díaz, where she claims he was “abusive”, “bullying” and “misogynist.” However, when confronted with a recording of this particular discussion, Machado was forced to admit she had been exaggerating, saying, “I’m not a victim of Junot Díaz. I’m a female writer who had a weird interaction with him.”

Weird, of course, is not necessarily misogynist.

Why did she lie? Did she deliberately stretch her wording to fit the #MeToo vocabulary? So far, Machado has not apologized—perhaps because she is afraid of people’s hate and judgment, or afraid of losing face, or afraid of being accused of lack of empathy. Or, maybe, she doesn’t care, maybe she distrust the institutions who cleared him… no one knows. However, what’s “interesting” is that Machado’s accusations violate trust, which we all need to coexist, regardless of age, gender, religion or sexual orientation, etc.

In an essay entitled “Truth and Politics“, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and that facts themselves are not in dispute.” Truth, therefore, is not the same as having an opinion. For example, Machado might have the opinion that the she was verbally abused, but in reality she is fictionalizing the truth, or creating “alternative facts” as we call it today.

***

The Danish philosopher K.E. Løgstrup said that trust is elementary or fundamental to human existence. Would I leave my three children at a public school every morning if I didn’t trust the teachers? Would I cross the street with them if I didn’t trust people to stop their cars at a red light?

Trust binds us together. It affects marriages, friendships, parents, and society, including politicians and scientists who inform us about the ecological disasters that humans are creating. Løgstrup emphasizes that human interdependence only works if we trust one another. Trust allows me to surrender myself into the hands of another, to make myself vulnerable, because I expect a respectful, compassionate, and trustful feedback.

Therefore, when Carmen Maria Machado lied about Díaz, it was not just a little white lie. Her words impacted everyone. Not only because she accused a well-known writer but because we trusted her. Some may have been skeptical of the validity of the accusations—thinking of sensationalism, etc., but, at the same time, #MeToo taught us the importance of believing the girls and women who had come forward so courageously. For too long, the victim has suffered unnecessarily because being a victim has been associated with shame. Shame is the reason why many women (and men) and children don’t tell about abuse.

When I discovered that Machado lied and didn’t correct her words until she was confronted a month later with an audio recording of the interview, she became less believable. When she was confronted with a recording, she appears annoyed and defensive but, surprisingly, she also appears to be angry for being exposed. “Stop lecturing!” she said. “That’s what’s so fucking weird. The level of condescension.”

And this is perhaps the saddest part. It may cause people to doubt the sincerity of #MeToo. Machado’s behavior perfectly fits with our cultural acceptance of lying. As Keyes notes in The Post-Truth Era regarding the rise in the use of euphemisms for deception: “We no longer tell lies. Instead we ‘misspeak.’ We ‘exaggerate.’ We ‘exercise poor judgment.’ ‘Mistakes were made,’ we say.” It’s as if we—many, at least—have become careless of what is true or not true.

If we want to change society into something better—a society based on equality, respect, and compassion—then we must trust one another. Trust is also the foundation of critical thinking because we assume that people say what they mean for the sake of the truth, not their own agenda (read: self-serving).

We become wiser by admitting our mistakes, that is to say be accountable for our actions and words, but also by acknowledging all the grey areas when it comes to human interaction, not just between men and women but between all kinds of identities—gender, race, age, culture, beliefs, etc. Let’s not forgot that all identities are prisons. They might make us see something more clearly from our own point of view but are often blind to a lot of other aspects. Let’s not forget that men and women should be able to discuss things without fearing being labeled misogynistic. Let’s not forget that nothing is ever completely black or white. Sometimes women lie, use their power; sometimes men are falsely accused.

The great writer Terry Tempest Williams once said that she wanted to bear witness to both the beauty and pain of our world in her writing. By “bearing witness,” she said, “the story told can provide a healing ground.” With regard to the case of Machado and Díaz, healing arises if their conflict is not used to draw a deeper ravine between genders but, instead, to acknowledge that all parties have suffered, and that trust is only gained through apology and change of actions that will make the grey areas less grey.

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).

We’re All Accountable

… From my essay on sexism, morality, identity politics, and compassion:

“I remember Rebecca Solnit saying something about men being the problem—not all men, but men. And she’s almost right. Because men, as philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said about women, aren’t born men; they become men. Weinstein didn’t come into this world as a sick misogynist. He, like all those like him, was formed by the culture in which he was brought up.

Luckily, I think, I spent a lot of time with my mother and my sister. Yet, many small boys spend time with their mothers, and less time with their fathers … or, at least, they used to. Does this mean that even women—some mothers—are favouring their sons? Encouraging them to see themselves as better than girls? Telling their daughters to passively obey?”

Read the entire essay here.