05 April 2007

05 April 2007 – A few scraps of theory

In college, I was not the best student of political theory. I had interest aplenty, but lacked patience. I could not tolerate the dense texts of mid-nineteenth century Continental philosophy or the even more opaque bloviations of twentieth-century American postmodernists. I became notorious for walking out of lectures that bored me. I earned good grades, but retained little of what I had supposedly learned.

Some of it was probably worth forgetting. In the intense introductory tutorial of Harvard’s Social Studies department, for example, we were forced to read three weeks of feminist theory, culminating in Catherine MacKinnon, who borrowed Marx’s false labor theory of value and substituted pornography for capitalism as the system that defined relationships between human beings in contemporary society.

Those texts have since been discarded from the syllabus, but students are still subjected to a steady diet of left-wing thinkers whose arguments are not only wrong but also indigestible. MacKinnon, for one, has been replaced by Rousseau, who preached submission of the individual to the general will. The only conservatives students encounter are Hobbes and Burke, and they have been dead for centuries.

There are a few classical liberals around: Locke, and Mill, and Tocqueville, for instance. But we never had Popper, or Hayek, or Berlin. In the old days, Harvard students suffered through Latin and Greek recitations, but the conformity that is enforced in the so-called liberal arts curriculum is possibly worse. I happened to avoid Nietzsche only because a visiting professor substituted Gandhi instead.

Still, I managed to survive the intellectual shipwreck that was my education by clinging to a few pieces of driftwood. One was Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, which I read for a class that I later dropped. The other was a book by Jurgen Habermas—all right, a book about Jurgen Habermas, a secondary source I bought because I could not hack his Theory of Communicative Action on my own.

Arendt addressed the law of unintended consequences as one of the most difficult problems human society has had to solve in order to survive. The “uncertainty of outcomes,” she argued, made human action and speech futile. Ancient Greece found an answer in democratic politics, while Jesus of Nazareth proposed forgiveness as a way to break the cycle of action and reaction, of vengeance and retribution.

The combination of these two ideas is powerful, because it suggests that the role of democratic institutions is not just to govern but to forgive. They do this by providing the “space of appearance,” in which the relationships among citizens are affirmed. Making these relationships public and political makes them real, and we can know what is real only when public institutions ensure that words correspond to deeds.

All this sounds very complicated, and it is very likely that I have got Arendt entirely wrong in any case. But what these ideas suggest—or my interpretation of them, at any rate—is that political consensus is a very important means of creating social reality. That conclusion led me to think about the important role public negotiating institutions have played in supporting peace processes around the world.

By making peace public, these institutions make it real. And by excluding violence, or parties that have not yet suspended violence, public negotiating institutions deprive it of political legitimacy. They literally break the vicious cycle by enforcing forgiveness—or, at least, the necessary preconditions of forgiveness. They also provide a platform to the silent majority that is terrorized

I took two ideas from Habermas. One was that individual people, through their free speech and free actions, create a space called the lifeworld in which they relate to one another. The state, on the one hand, and the market, on the other, represent forces that arise in the lifeworld but then try to “colonize” it by enforcing their own ways of organizing speech and action. That means we should be skeptical of both.

The other idea is that human beings communicate on three levels at once. One kind of speech simply refers to the world of facts: “It is hot today.” A second kind of speech, implicit in the first, refers to the relationship between the speakers: “[I am warning you that] it is hot today [because I care about you].” And a third refers to the speaker’s own feelings and sincerity: “[I truly believe] it is hot today.”

I have found these concepts useful in understanding failed communication. For example, it is terrible to have an argument with someone over e-mail because it is easy to send nasty messages but impossible to take them back. Face-to-face, people are mindful of the need to maintain the relationship that sustains the conversation, and to convince others of their sincerity. These dimensions are absent from e-mail.

Similarly, Habermas’s idea is useful in understanding negotiations between hostile parties. Not only do they have to find a way to communicate about, and agree on, the facts at hand, but they also have to build some kind of relationship in order to speak to each other. Most difficult of all is the task of the third dimension—creating trust that is real and durable and that can survive external shocks and disruptions.

So there they are—the shallow foundations of my thinking about the peace process, a few scraps of theory that guide and explain the way I interpret real-world phenomena like the Oslo accords. If these concepts are in any way useful, then maybe my education was not entirely wasted—though I should add that these ideas came from books I was not meant to be reading. Then again, perhaps that is no surprise.


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