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HOW PHILOSOPHY COULD SAVE THE WORLD Cultural and Economic Diaspora, Self-sufficiency, Person-hood

Beyond Terrorism

In Canada a busy week began June 2, 2006. Our own brand of home-grown terrorism was discovered festering in Toronto, Ontario. Eighteen mostly young Muslim-Canadians were arrested on suspicion of plotting bomb attacks. Chuck Guite, the man in charge of the federal sponsorship program in the 1990's, was judged guilty of defrauding the government of 1.5 million dollars. A few people were flung from high-rise balconies, and swarmings, muggings, rapes, domestic incidents, road rage and traffic accidents … showed up on schedule.

All standard stuff in a post-modern nation? Perhaps, but I found myself asking a different question.

Is Canada really a nation?

The catalyst for this question was our reaction to the arrest of the suspected terrorists. In possession of 3 tons of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, these worthies apparently planned to blow up the CSIS Center, the CN Tower, the Toronto Stock Exchange and anybody unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity.

All that was missing was diesel fuel - which they apparently intended to purchase as required, or perhaps when prices came down.

Canadians reacted with alarm and outrage, but also with a good deal of the reluctance to offend that seems to be our stock in trade. Within a day there was concern about whether the arrests would heighten border security issues, decrease tourism and further stereotype Muslims. We worried about whether `excessive media attention' would undermine chances of a fair trial. Rex Murphy, host of CBC Radio's Cross Country Check-up, was upbraided for convening a discussion and possibly contravening the accused's right to a presumption of innocence.

While these issues occupied pundits, less obvious damage control measures began. Mosques, imams, the lives of the accused … were examined to see if exculpating explanations could be identified. This is standard procedure whenever citizens get up to no good.  Alcoholic mothers and charismatic individuals are indicted as the reason clans, gangs, cells, factions ... behave badly.

We should not dismiss the potency of such explanations. They exonerated the millions of Germans involved in the  20th century's two World Wars.  We need only think of Hitler, Stalin and Hussein to see how blaming megalomaniacs serves winners and losers alike. How else could the victors of the Second World War have resumed economic and political arrangements with German and Japanese populations? Charismatic leaders mean there is no need to forgive populations for atrocities. The fault reposes with a few hundred, at most a few thousand, individuals - such monumentally evil men and women as were properly dealt with at Nuremberg at the end of the Second World War.  Like Jesus Christ, scapegoats take on the sins of their   communities and position them to sin again.

In fact, scapegoats do not have to be larger than life individuals. Common greed will do, if sufficiently egregious and dramatically presented. Whether those promoted to scapegoat status are villains like Hitler  or garden variety charlatans, human beings have been nominating enough that most of us have successfully evaded responsibility for everything that is going on - even when we are unmistakeably involved as soldiers, workers and consumers.

The premise that makes this possible, and which must be defended at any cost, is that most human beings are neither particularly good nor bad. Along with our tiny accomplishments and virtues, we are really only capable of venal sins - no matter what monstrous machinations are assembled out of them.

The rest of the story explaining blameless complicity is our witlessness - our vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation. Thus, the would-be Toronto terrorists have been characterized as naïve, impressionable youngsters. Their sin was to fall under the sway of cultural oppression talk, the delights of decapitating prime ministers and the seminal reward opportunities awaiting holy warriors.

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As far as I know, no one has asked what would happen if even one imam made the argument that he too had been radicalized as an innocent lad. This would set up the `infinite regress' argument favoured by mischievous philosophy students. As soon as even one such rejoinder is made, imams (substitute your favourite proselytizers) would have to be seen as vectors of ideological contagion rather than point sources. Each imam is now also a victim, and the source of extremism vanishes into the past. The activities of ideologues become analogous to those of HIV/AIDS victims contriving to spread their misery as widely as possible. (The same week, a black man stabbed a Toronto pedestrian, apparently chosen at random, with a hypodermic syringe presumably charged with something infectious.)

We have not had this discussion for reasons worth thinking about. Certainly, preachers, imams, the David Suzukis and Noam Chomskys of the world… cannot initiate such conversations. Individuals must be held accountable if `morally excellent', `morally repugnant', `responsible behaviour', `needs killing' … are to remain intelligible expressions. As soon as ideological fervours are regarded as traceable to conversion experiences or genetic accidents, not only terrorism but ordinary behaviour resolves into outcomes of events, factors and influences. Notions of moral or rational agency, praiseworthy and blameworthy actions … become superstitions.

Since every -ism - including heroism and materialism - depends upon claims that good and evil, sin and virtue … emanate from individuals, the jig would be up.

Managing the tension between blaming and excusing is the balancing act playing out in Canada. However, populations in every nation deflect responsibility upon local charismatics who have been, it seems, seducing, duping or misleading them. At the same time, these leaders cannot avail themselves of such explanations, on pain of collapsing the meritocracy their positions depend upon.

The central tendency of every civilization - the accumulation of wealth and power in a few hands - depends upon getting this right. If the majority are to tolerate the skewed distribution of wealth and power responsible for a great of poverty, impotence and violence, the favoured must be seen as receiving their due. Great virtue and monumental evil must be understood as the accomplishments of moral and rational agents or their maleficent counterparts.

This also means that followers, ne'er do wells, the chattering classes, you and I … have to be disenfranchised as moral and rational agents. As psychologists, sociologists, cognitive scientists … investigate the precursors of behaviour, lives are increasingly understood as webs of wholesome and evil influence melding with modest genetic endowments. Together, these modes of explanation legitimate wealth and power. A small proportion of human beings create themselves in ways transcending explanation; while behaviourism explains, or soon will explain, everything the rest of us get up to.

How do we know which category persons fall into? As luck would have it, circularity notwithstanding, sorting people into wealthy and poor, good and evil … does the job perfectly. The wealthy are the authors of their own fortune. Evildoers are self-starters in the same way, although doubly important in the evolution of rich-poor, leader-follower partitions. As many as necessary are indicted to explain self-serving, vicious, irrational … human conduct. These wretches bear responsibility for maleficent human behaviour, while heroes and captains of industry accept the rewards of leadership, virtue and merit.

Anything not so explained is ascribed to fate, acts of God, or as Mother Nature batting last.

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Everyone knows what at least one side of this equation feels like. Those of us who count ourselves among the innocent majority are grateful whenever some new aspect of human behaviour is characterized as explicable if not inevitable. Such information is coming at a dizzying pace. The National Geographic (Feb 2006) article described a typical couple several years into a relationship: “From a physiological point of view, this couple had moved from the dopamine-drenched state of romantic love to the relative quiet of an oxytocin-induced attachment.”

We do not care that such explanations do not speak of conduct. People conducting their lives can be held to account. Responsibility for behaviour can always be deflected.

It is possible that most of us are as innocent as claimed. Our track record is unimpressive enough. There are questions however. If human beings are as hapless as leader/follower ratios suggest, how is it that hundreds of revolutions have occurred across history? How is it that billions unerringly navigate between the vacuous existence implied by behaviourism and the terrifying responsibilities of moral and rational agency?

The most likely explanation is that most human beings choose subordination, while a small percentage is disposed to take up leadership responsibilities. This `choosing' need not involve deliberation, decision and action. The majority may simply cleave to familiar circumstances and the benefits of having older, wiser, better-educated … individuals at the helm. This strategy almost certainly has genetic precursors reflecting the adaptive advantages of `promoting' experienced, strong individuals to the fore, then tucking in behind them. (Leader/follower relationships seem as universal as Noam Chomksy's innate grammar model of homo sapiens' linguistic capacity.)

Why, then, does anyone take up leadership responsibilities? Eager followers and the many rewards of leadership are powerful inducements. More recently, the post Industrial Revolution world meant millions of followers eager to operate production machineries, consume the results and generate enormous wealth. What has also been causing an explosion of leaders - and a further skewing of what is considered fair in terms of perquisites - is the willingness of `harnessed populations' to trade away claims upon the resulting wealth for opportunities to continue juvenile lives.

This remarkable negotiating stance (a Faustian bargain if there ever was one), has been steadily improving its own appeal. All we used to have to worry about was getting or earning a living, disease and death. The world is now rife with unimaginable weapons, suicidal terrorists for small-budget nations and production machineries rendering most of the things you and I can do obsolete or redundant.

Who could have anticipated that commercial activities would rise to such a crescendo that toxic burdens, climate change and the end of cheap fossil fuel would threaten everything we take for granted? As well, specialization (another concomitant of industrialization), has been creating new requirements for organizers, managers and surveillance. Specialization also perpetuates adolescence. Specialists participate in corporate and national proceedings, enjoy feelings of solidarity and purpose, behave responsibly in job description terms … yet remain childlike with regard to intents and purposes.

These are some of the reasons followers have been finding it necessary to diminish leaders' perceived burden of responsibility. The most interesting strategy involves `wrestling' democratic forms of governance from aristocracies, monarchies and institutions. Democracies claim to distribute responsibilities across populations. This is best understood as a remarkable `reverse scapegoat' ploy - the `chattering classes' offering themselves as ultimately responsible for political and commercial decisions. No one really believes this - least of all the rich and powerful - but democracy provides leaders with `responsibility boltholes'. As well, in democratic capitalisms, the market place is considered no one's responsibility. Adam Smith's `invisible hand' governs microeconomics while investors control corporations through purchasing and investment decisions.

Representative democracy has a further benefit. Infantile populations get to fantasize that they control what is going on, even as they decline to inform themselves about any issue, and refuse responsibility for each and every consequence.

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In spite of winning every battle, leaders are losing the war. The majority have been so successful at cultivating haplessness and innocence that leaders are staggering under burdens of responsibility. Urbanization, specialization, the obliteration of subsistence ways of life … means everything needed and wanted must be manufactured and distributed. Even with democracy in place, responsibility for frightful events still devolves to leaders. Even so, they continue to think of themselves as winners. They certainly regard you and me as losers.

Unfortunately, there are no winners in this story. Nor is there a word for organisms living in symbiotic relationships that are nonetheless cumulatively destructive. Such relationships are a peculiarly human `achievement'. They contain enough immediate gratification for participants that they start up spontaneously. Unhappily, this also means they tend to continue no matter how destructive their consequences. While rich/poor, leader/follower … relationships may appear innocent, they set the stage for internecine destruction. No other species cannibalizes its own the way ten per cent of human beings harvest wealth and power from the rest, leaving only enough so the game can continue. No species could survive, much less prosper, doing so; and there is growing evidence that Homo sapiens cannot either.

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What does this mutual parasitism among rich and poor, leaders and followers, imams and sycophants … have to do with the Toronto terrorists? These relationships corrupt everyone involved; and they hide behind a dangerous confusion about the nature of responsibility. Under a fully developed behaviourism, rich/poor, leader/follower relationships would diminish because their legitimacy would no longer be axiomatic. Societies would only incarcerate individuals for reasons of deterrence and public safety. Punishments would no longer be meted out to achieve justice, although `going through the motions' arguments might continue. (Seeing certain behaviours `negatively reinforced' would discourage others from behaving similarly.) Dysfunctions would be understood as cancerous growths, to be excised or controlled for both patient and public good. Good assessments become more important, not because of worries about improper incarceration but out of concern about the best use of resources and the need to do the best possible job interdicting dangers.

A more subtle consequence of sorting populations into leaders and followers is that the dogmatists and ideologues that then flourish are caricatures of the persons they might have been - a loss to selves and communities. Because they tend to be intelligent and energetic, such people are disproportionately represented in world affairs, and their shortcomings are correspondingly amplified. Under a thoroughgoing behaviourism, such lives would be understood as including personal conversions and episodes participated in as proselytizers. The apparent isolation of conversion experiences (e.g., imams and students huddled together) is illusory. All ideologues operate in the context of one doctrine or another. All require congregations or sycophants to legitimate, sanction and finance `outreach programs'. Thus, cultural proceeding, consuming choices, indifferences and garden-variety jingoism … constitute the backdrop against which extremism flourishes. This is true even if congregations do not actively participate in, even if they conscientiously repudiate, extremism.

This is why it does not matter whether religions recommend peace, charity and good living. In June 2006, after the Toronto eighteen were arrested on terrorist charges, Iraq Shia cleric The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa instructing Muslims to promote peace and security wherever they found themselves. In spite of such protestations, Received Truths situating faithful populations at the apex of Divine pantheons have dismal track records. Such boons only work if regarded as not to be amended in any fashion. As soon as more than one such view exists, peace becomes impossible. One or the other must prevail - by conversion if possible, by extermination if necessary. This is the engine driving the conflict between Muslims, Jews and Christians (a depressing percentage of who look forward to Armageddon during their own lifetime). This is the fatal flaw in the humanist thesis that just a bit more good will and inclusiveness will get needed conversations started.

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There is hope. Otherwise unemployable philosophy students could join forces with behaviourists and defuse ideological confrontations by undermining their premises. This could accomplish a renaissance of distributed responsibility. We need to contemplate a future wherein behaviourism and regress arguments deflect all responsibility beyond intelligible reach. At this point, the need to explain what is going on is recovered. The difference is that we would no longer have deflecting moves to make. Explanations would have to be apportioned among intelligible factors: imams, students, economic, political and cultural proceedings, and what you and I get up to.

In this really brave world, scapegoats could no longer be resorted to. Persons would be understood as amalgams of physical beings, experiences, and influences…. Ameliorative efforts would have no choice save identifying and repairing toxic influences. The `thirst for justice' would no longer sow confusion, fuel `cruel and unusual' punishment or fashion scapegoats out of often unsuspecting individuals.

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Since we are far removed from this circumstance, intellectuals and pundits continue to focus upon blaming and praising. Such analyses allow indicted individuals (sometimes by way of legal representation) to spread responsibility for `actions of interest' - robbing, murdering, terrorists acts - as widely as possible. (There is rarely comparable interest in sharing credit, at least outside of the Grammy Awards.) The strategy is to develop explanations until no significant responsibility remains, but to stop while a `shell person' remains. This `placeholder person' may or may not be `filled in' subsequently, should the `latent individual' choose to embrace a rational and moral life or an evil one.

In spite of logical flaws and a history of complicity in brutality, this way of thinking is robust and pervasive. If individuals do not make such choices, no person exists `to all intents and purposes' and behaviouristic explanations are sufficient. On the other hand, if individuals become `persons of interest', they signal their agent status by acquiring wealth or demonstrating an unusual capacity for virtue or evil.

At this point, activities move from the category of behaviour to conduct. Animals, children, adolescents, psychopaths … behave, or fail to behave, themselves. Persons conduct themselves. Conduct originates within persons. Behaviour can always be deflected upon genetic and external influences, utilizing infinite regress/behaviouristic arguments.

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These two premises underwrite the standard view of human affairs. We move from one to the other according to the needs of the moment. Contradictions are debated, yielding the bedlam of blaming, praising and excusing comprising public life. Judicial conclusions (e.g., the distinction between first and second degree murder) labour to accommodate underlying, incompatible notions of persons. There are political and economic consequences as well. As behaviouristic explanations become increasingly sophisticated, the malevolent are viewed as commensurately competent because they must harness such subtle processes to dastardly projects. A similar evolution occurs on the meritorious side of the scale.

This means fewer and fewer are perceived as capable of harnessing ordinary (blameless) behaviours to the projects they alone conceive and take credit for, or for which they alone can be blamed.

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With such thoughts in mind, we glimpse why we now tolerate concentrations of wealth and power that would have been unconscionable even a century ago. In June 2006, Merrill Lynch reported that there were eight million millionaires in the world - double the number in 1996. This vesting of monumental wealth and power in a few hands depends upon the denial of responsibility implicit in behaviourism on the one hand and the emergence of correspondingly stupendous good and evil individuals on the other.

The trick is to get this right. A complete behaviourism would redistribute responsibility across populations and lead to calls for a commensurate redistribution of wealth and power.

Since this sounds like an excellent result, what's holding us back? An important obstacle is that any such redistribution would require you and I giving up our adolescent pleasures - sports, vicarious sports, getting and spending, gossiping, letting others take decisions and assume responsibilities. Any level of poverty, organized brutality and personal impotence seems preferable to the austere delights of self-reliance and responsibility. What we `really really' want seems to be: "Give me no liberties, or give me death!" Forty million people were killed in wars during the 20th century and between 54 and 80 million in genocides. Whatever their proximate causes, these deaths all involved followers having at one another; at the behest of leaders usually well away from theatres of war and, more often than not, smiling their way to a bank.

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Although Canada has not, until recently, been a terrorist target, the country may be increasingly attractive - and not merely because of our proximity to the USA. Within a week of the Toronto Terrorists' arrests, pundits were exploring `cultural vulnerabilities' among second and third generation Muslim immigrants. Such investigations overlook two problems. Fundamentalist views are eminently transportable and inherently resistant to assimilation. To Muslims, Islam makes as much sense in the west as in the east.

Possessing `The Truth' also involves a quid pro quo. One must defend the gift - to the death if need be - and give something back by spreading the Good News.

Although this is true of any dogmatism, the relationship is strongest in religious proceedings. This is why it makes sense to ask whether Canada's `culture of multiculturalism' was a co-factor in the genesis of the Toronto eighteen. Multiculturalism obstructs integration and assimilation because there is no overarching sense of identity or purpose. In the United States, this has not been as much of a problem because the nation has always been a melting pot of diverse ethnic groups. Their motto was E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one), until exchanged for In God We Trust in 1956.

When did you last hear an American wondering what being an American meant?

Another way of thinking about this is to notice that multiculturalism is a logical oxymoron. Immigrants who seek to replicate `old country ways' in Canada could not have `come from' such a nation. They would not then have enjoyed a singular culture to transplant into ethnic enclaves.

Multiculturalism means a patchwork of hyphenated-Canadian communities, whose principal interaction - as described on the CBC Radio program The Contrarians July 4, 2006 - involves eating one another's sandwiches. Such a conglomeration cannot constitute a nation in more than a thin sense.

Even without multiculturalism, there were obstacles to nationhood. Canada is said to suffer from “too much geography and not enough history”. The country is politically dysfunctional because of the relative size of provinces and nation. (The USA has 51 states to Canada's 10 provinces.) Because of this `bred in the bone' imbalance, the federal government is always contending with provinces seized with hegemonic, if not separatist, ambitions. Canada did not come into existence because of revolutionary defiance like the US, or out of centuries of nation-defining events like many European nations. There was nothing like the two thousand years of brutal treatment that welded the Jewish people into a formidable economic and political entity, both before and after the State of Israel was formed in 1948.

Instead, Canada was cobbled together out of a rag-tag assortment of immigrants, United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution and opportunists. Constitutionally partitioned into English and French solitudes in 1867, the `national stage' was set for the pandering to immigrants referred to as multiculturalism. The result is that Canada has yet to grow a distinctive heart. The point is, a nation forever on the verge of Balkanizing is difficult for citizens - whether old or new - to take seriously. This is also a reason for Canadians' terminal politeness, our habit of capitulating to the USA on matters of trade and our uncertain international role. What sinew we have been demonstrating can usually be traced to pressure from allies to put our shoulder to military wheels.

More importantly, these difficulties illuminate the genetic dispositions and cultural processes sorting populations into leaders and followers. Until a few thousand years ago, promoting vigorous and experienced individuals to leadership roles was the best strategy available. What human beings failed to understand was that emerging cultural and technological resources could have been substituted for these necessary but mutually-corrupting relationships. Before cave drawings, books and the internet, the only `cultural resource' available to communities and next generations was living-memory information, and oral tradition myths and parables. Leader-follower patterns were precursors to cultural repositories and educational projects. They made hard-won experiences available to families, clans and communities - usually with strings attached.

The advantages were significant enough that they appear to have resulted in genetic predispositions of the `innate grammar' sort. Certainly our proclivity to tuck in behind even dubious leaders is telling us something about our nature. The same set of dispositions probably figures in our insatiable interest in spectator sports and other competitive events. We seem always on the lookout for people competent to save our bacon.

Whatever the explanation, history demonstrates the terrible consequences of vesting too much power and wealth in too few people. Cultural repositories could have made this dangerous, primitive form of life manageable, if not obsolete. Along the way, doing so would have liberated both leaders and followers to be `all that they could be'.

If this sounds too `blue sky' to be credible, no thoughtful person doubts that deep repairs are needed if human beings are to draw back from the abyss. However it came to be, the marriage of instinctively-driven ways of living with emergent cultures and technologies is an important source of terrorism - and the many other `isms that bedevil us.

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Vernon Molloy

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