30 June 2008

Cultural relativism of values

It's deplorable, the reluctance to acknowledge the objective value of an idea simply because the idea originated in a culture other than one's own. I have in mind the Chinese government's claims that principles such as freedom of thought and speech, individual rights and various expressions of liberty (especially with regard to information access, the press and journalistic integrity) are irrelevant to the Chinese people simply on the grounds of their alien, Western origins. By implying that such values are 'culture specific' and 'relative' to a particular society or milieu, the Chinese leaders seek to undermine the very natural, objective, human inclinations of the Chinese people towards liberty and the sovereignty of the individual in matters pertaining to his own life and happiness, bearing the 'do no harm to others' qualification.

This 'culturalist' attitude is narrow-minded and betrays the vanity of those demonstrating it. Imagine if, upon their discovery, a non-Chinese were to refute the value of paper or the magnetic compass simply because such things were born of the ingenuity of the Chinese (therefore alien to the non-Chinese) mind. To take such a culturalist stance shows a blinkered view of ideas that contribute to the good and add to the marvelous storehouse of human knowledge and experience.

The value and social relevance of any idea should be deduced from its utility and consequences, independently of its culture of origin. All ideas spring from a human mind, and should be accounted good or bad based on the idea's effect on the human condition.


Artistic credibility in photography

I'm at the NGV viewing a photography exhibition (black and white, early 20th century) and it strikes me that there are two determinants of the photograph's 'respectability': the framing and the level of effort or technical skill involved in the photo's creation. I say this because in this age of easy-to-use/produce digital photography, a modern photo bearing similar 'artistic' qualities to that of the 20th century photos doesn't occupy the same exalted level of credibility or status simply because of the comparatively effortless process of producing the modern digital photo.

This 'demotion' in rank is compounded if the modern digital black-and-white photo isn't haloed within a frame, preferably of a sombre wood construction. Oh, and having plenty of white or off-white space between the photo and the frame (to let the photo 'breathe' you see) is a necessary element of credible art photography.

Frame any image and its rating on the 'credibility-o-meter' jumps up a few notches.



Much symbolism insults the intelligence. Objectivity is missing in many interpretations and the inconsistency of meaning across different cultures refutes the alleged 'universality' of many symbols.

As a means of communication, symbols are valid if they bear a recognisable resemblance to that which they symbolise. The stylised male and female figures for washroom signage are examples of coherent symbology; the red rose symbolising romantic love is an example of the opposite. The association between the rose and romance is weighted with cultural and historical chains. Such a 'symbol' would be incoherent to an outsider who isn't initiated in the culture-specific visual language that is the context for the 'rose for romance' symbolism.

Coherent symbols are truly universal because they derive their form and meaning from objective reality, while limiting subjective interpretation based on a whim. Such symbols are the common property of all humanity for their validity does not depend on the cultural or charismatic power of any particular society, individual or organisation. No single creator or group of creators can claim authorship of a universal symbol, unlike the corporate logos that saturate the physical and mental environment. To put it another way, a society, individual or organisation may have the power to propagate incoherent symbols whose meanings are dictated by their creators (or owners, as with corporate logos that 'symbolise' the company's carefully constructed image and associated values), but coherent symbols and their meanings are independent of anyone's agenda. No person, group, government or corporation is powerful enough to switch around the meanings of the male and female washroom signs (at least without intending ironic humour), or convince people that the sign depicting a stylised airplane on the highway represents a train-station.


Inconsistencies, contradictions

Human inconsistencies and contradictions are arguably unavoidable, but virtue consists of making an attempt to recognise our ethical contradictions and resolve them. The moral agent (that is, any human being) who has no qualms with both harming and healing others is inferior in character compared to the one who does his best to resolve his ethical inconsistencies, choosing the good and avoiding the bad as consistently as possible.


The philosopher-king - an unrealisable ideal?

Is it necessary that the true philosopher, the individual who pledges himself to wisdom, to truth, to love, beauty and objective values, is unable to achieve political power and thus influence society to recognise, cultivate and defend the good? Is his very fidelity to virtue an insurmountable obstacle that blocks him from leading society towards a nobility of character? Is the contemplative, virtuous mind doomed, in Socrates's words, to be 'deserted, lonely, and neglected' because he 'leads a life opposite to the needs of the masses' and doesn't betray his principles to pander to their folly and delusions?

The mob, the masses, the collective

There's a repulsive element in large numbers of people supposedly united for a common cause. When wisdom and reason are abandoned and solidarity is adopted for its own sake, regardless of the validity of its premises, the mob becomes a spawning pool for unbridled passions and zealotry. I have tasted of such seemingly sweet fruit, which intoxicates with its illusion of certainty, seduces with its attractive facade of infallibility. The crowd encourages a natural multiplication of error, of blind belief, of desperate stupidity.

Far more good is done through individual action and commitment that doesn't depend on the security blanket offered by the chanting, gesticulating masses for its strength. Collectives have always been vulnerable to the skilled manipulations of a clever demagogue (or gang of demagogues). Gather a crowd in one location and they are at risk of succumbing to theatrics and bombastic rhetoric that fans their irrational fears, hatreds and desires. It's as if the mass of people act as conductors of overcharged emotional electricity, filling the very atmosphere with sparks that could start a conflagration.


Elitism, moral and intellectual

How a person responds to an intelligent, confident, sensitive character that they encounter speaks volumes of their own bent of mind. If they react with feelings of inadequacy, envy or resentment they confess a lack of respect for such virtues as intelligence, confidence and sensitivity. If however they should feel admiration and even joy at having the opportunity to learn valuable lessons from such a great mind, they themselves possess a degree of that greatness, that nobility, of character. A virtuous person is quick to recognise the good in another, and will encourage that good to flourish or emulate it to their own betterment.

Thomas Mann, the German novelist, wrote that "in a democracy that does not respect intellectual life and is not guided by it, demagogy has free rein, and the level of the national life is lowered to that of the ignorant and uncultivated." The same observation can be made of the individual; a person who holds scant regard for intellectual, reflective endeavour lowers his character to the detriment of his potential for fulfilment and happiness. Thus degraded in mind, he becomes a source of life-negating forces that act on those he comes into contact with, on society at large and on the global community.

There is a pervasive aversion to any form of elitism, which is a symptom of egalitarianism gone amok. This climate of often unwarranted hostility towards the best and brightest minds contributes to a widespread dumbing down of culture as ever growing numbers of philistines sneer at any display of intelligence and hold the educated mind in contempt. Mann wrote that "this cannot happen if the principle of education is allowed to dominate and if the tendencies prevail to raise the lower classes to an appreciation of culture and to accept the leadership of the better elements." This last line must be qualified; such leadership should only be accepted if it is worthy of respect and admiration, if it is a leadership based on virtue and a dedication to the highest humanistic principles as determined by the nature of humanity itself. To discover what these principles are that any leadership must uphold, Alexander Pope gives us a nudge in the right direction in his 'An Essay on Man':

Know then thyself,

presume not God to scan;

The proper study of Mankind

is Man.


Ceremony and ritual

People reveal a weakness of intellectual integrity when they engage in ceremonies with artificial meaning injected into otherwise empty gestures. Rituals pregnant with mystical 'power', initiation and marriage rites replete with vacuous symbology, repetitive motions and noises designed to numb the thinking mind and anesthetise the sensitivity of reason; such group activity is a display of its participants' desperate need for that comfort drug called 'acceptance', that appeasement of anxiety called 'approval' from the social construct, the 'authority' as described by thinkers like Erich Fromm.

Those engaging in rituals and ceremonies of the aforementioned kind give a soundless cry of helplessness, a silent shriek of impotence. They confess an inability to live autonomously, to be the architects of their own meaning. Instead they surrender their powers of self-creation to the group in a pathetic attempt to escape from what is to them the unbearable burden of personal responsibility and accountability for the value of their own lives.

By seeking to 'lose' themselves in inane ceremony as a way of attaining salvation, as a way of entering the blissful place of the 'chosen', ritualists do indeed attain their goal; they lose their authentic selves. The tragedy is that they don't see this as a bad thing. Self-annihilation is actually what they desire.


Theologians and mystics = naked emperors

For all their scholastic titles and awards, theologians are nevertheless conmen, though perhaps unwitting ones. Like astrologers, feng shui 'experts' and spirit mediums, they are naked emperors whose influence grows in proportion to the number of gullible folk who uncritically accept their proclamations. I've recently purchased an English translation of Michel de Montaigne's 'Essays' by M.A. Screech, who is, among other impressive titles, an ordained Catholic priest. Dr Screech is a regrettable example of a highly educated, articulate, intelligent individual who subscribes to mysticism and supernatural abstractions, holding onto such pearls of wisdom as 'all knowledge is merely opinion' and insisting that truth is revealed (presumably by the Catholic conception of God), not arrived at through Man's oh-so-fallible powers of reason.

This insult to my intelligence (a faculty for which my pride in is considered a Christian sin) comes right after I've read John Gribbin's fantastic book on the history of science, a field of endeavour whose participants - unlike Dr Screech and his fellow mystics - know all too well the possibility of arriving at certain knowledge, objective and indisputable given the available facts, through the diligent gathering and careful interpretation of empirical evidence, with Man's reason and his senses as indispensable tools.

Get enough people to believe in fairies and we'll have esteemed fairy-ologians holding forth with unmerited authority as they split hairs over the physiology and metaphysics of goblins, ghosts and ghouls. Meanwhile the epistemological progress of humanity is retarded as the naked emperors are lavished with undue attention and rewards, both material and psychological.



Much evil has its origin in the sweeping generalities people are prone to make with regard to their fellow human beings. The categorisation that often occurs unconsciously and is seldom supported by facts comes far too easily to the primitive aspect of the human mind. Where once in our evolutionary history such a prejudiced 'in-group/out-group' classification mentality served to protect the group from potential enemies competing for limited resources in a harsh environment, in more materially secure times this very same attitude can be an obstacle to goodwill and peaceful co-existence between people from different cultures.

What many people, especially those apt to callously toss out catch-all statements, fail to realise or admit is that generalities are ultimately inaccurate, since they fail to take into account the subtleties, idiosyncrasies and the inherent differences among individuals. Intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that the only reason we resort to generalities is purely for convenience. It's expedient for one trying to make a point about a certain 'collectivity' of anonymous people to simply blanket them with a blithe generality. That way one is spared the effort in considering the exceptions to the rule, the complexities, the nuances, the individuality of the persons in the targeted collective. And chasing after expediency for its own sake has often birthed poorly thought out decisions with tragic results.

What is needed is for us to develop an aversion to generalities and recognise that proper evaluation and judgment applies only to the ideals, beliefs and actions of individuals. Appraise the moral character of the person instead of that of his arbitrarily assigned 'group' that he supposedly belongs to. This applies even if he himself subscribes to the notion of being a member of such a group. His error of reasoning need not be ours.


The book is immortal

Not all areas of human endeavour and their technological fruits are fated to progress indefinitely, progress in this context taken to mean radical innovation, a revolution of ideas or a paradigm shift. Take the printed book as an example; for all the conceit of futurist designers and technophiles proclaiming the ascension of the digital 'book' or e-book (whether conceived of as pages on a computer screen or a more tactile, flexible LCD 'scroll'), the comparatively modest technology of the printed-and-bound book remains unsurpassed in efficiency, portability, elegance of interface and aesthetic quality.

The book is immortal. Long after the self-promoting cacophony of e-book prophets has, with the help of hindsight, been shown to be but a hiccup in the history of the written word, people will still be flipping pages at their leisure, though those pages may be constructed of some wondrous material beyond our current imaginings.