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May 2, 2017 / Congau

Identity For Sale

”Be yourself”, we are told. That’s the common refrain whenever they tell us how we should be. Words and images are thrown against us from everywhere praising individuality and flattering us about how special we are. We only have to buy their product and we willingly do so, acting like everyone else and becoming like them. In this self-centered process of finding ourselves we blend in with the crowd. That is all there is to be found in the market place: an identity is for sale for anyone. You can choose it for yourself and it’s cheap.

All the talk about individual autonomy and freedom seems to allow us to pick anything we want including our own identity. But you are already your identity; you are what you are. Choosing, however, means taking something you don’t have already. The market place of identity is trying to lure you into something that you are not, or at least it is highly unlikely that you are what they offer you.

If everyone is unique – and everyone is indeed unique – why is everyone so similar? The times shape our outlook, the fashions lead us in one direction and then in another and most people accompany us on this way. The chance that the latest fashion really suits your personality and true identity is extremely small, and if the current one actually fits you, the next one will certainly not.

But we follow. Our way of thinking changes; our attitude to the world is not what it used to be. Well, the world has changed, you say. It has, but if there is something fundamental about you, something that is your true identity, it cannot be changed that easily.

It is better to be conservative then, never changing your habits and never adjusting your beliefs? No, you may have been wrong in the first place. But to find yourself you must actually look. Don’t accept the model that is offered you for the cheapest price. Resist the simplest solution, resist the time, resist the fashion. You must seek somewhere else. Where to search? That’s a part of the search.  It’s a struggle and it is hard work and it may not even pay off, but at least you don’t accept the lie. You are not what you are not.

May 1, 2017 / Congau

Forming Our Identity

Our identity is what we are; what we really are and not what we think we are. It is a fact. We are made up of our genes and formed by our habits and that is all there is and all there can be. Everything is either nature or nurture.

Does our identity extend to the collective? Is our identity determined by whatever group of people we are related to? In a sense, but that must depend on facts.

What facts? Our genes are inherited from our parents and partly shared with our extended family, so there is clearly something in our blood that defines us. So far that is a fact about our blood. But that fact can hardly be expanded too far. The blood relation that connects us to our family cannot include the nation and the race in any meaningful sense. The similarities of personality that we sometimes see in people of the same family, is in no way found in a larger group, let alone a whole nation. Blood as a physical fact, therefore, cannot determine our collective identity.

That leaves nurture; the development of our habits. Certainly there are customs and patterns of behavior to be observed within a country and people who come from the same geographic environment do have things in common that may be elements of their identity. The language we speak as our mother tongue and the customs we have acquired – those are facts about our identity and they have not been chosen and can hardly be changed.

They are facts like any other physical fact. If your native language is Greek and you have always lived in Greece, then you are Greek no matter how much you imagine that you are Chinese.

We have no choice and therefore there should be no feelings involved. Yet nothing seems to arouse more feeling than this so-called national identity. One is often proud to belong to a certain nationality. How can you be proud of something that is not your doing? Unavoidable facts that are nobody’s achievement should be devoid of feeling for a rational man. But man is not rational and there is war in the world.

We don’t form our identity; our identity is formed.

April 13, 2017 / Congau

The Justice of Power

Might is right. Justice is controlled by power.

Something is right and something is just, but who is to say what it is? Whoever has a gun in his hand? Few think that the violent thug is in a moral position to give people what they deserve, but many think the state can do it. Yet the state is also ultimately based on violent power.

There are good laws and bad laws. Some verdicts are right and some are wrong. Who can tell which is which? You can. At least you can try. At least you may be in no worse position to do it than anyone else. Don’t trust the power just because it has the power.

But many people do. There is a superstitious belief in power. Whatever the law says, they think is right and when the court has spoken, they think that truth has been told. It is legal! they exclaim as a sign of the utmost moral indignation. Yes, it is illegal, I reply, but so what? it may still be right. He has been convicted, they maintain, but what does that prove? It only means that the power has spoken; the power which is in position to punish. Can it really make a better judgment? Is the man with the gun a better judge?

We need a justice system. Or rather, we need a system for distributing benefits and penalties, but it shouldn’t be called justice. There is no particular reason to believe that justice will come out of it; we can only hope.

We need laws to keep order in society, and whoever breaks the law must be punished, not because they deserve it, but because otherwise people would not care to obey the law.

What is a just punishment for theft and murder? Paying back what is stolen is all that simple justice could expect, but more seems to be required for social reason. Murder cannot be paid back in any way, but the state must make the murderer suffer in order to scare away potential murderers. How much is needed for that is a matter of practical calculation. It is not about what is just and right, for might is not right.

April 12, 2017 / Congau

Belief in War

Wars of religion are rare. The Islamic conquests of the seventh century and the crusades of the eleventh probably are examples of mainly religious motivations for war, but it is doubtful if there are many others. A lot of conflicts have had religious components, true, but the main element is almost always political.

The infamous European wars of religion of the seventeenth century, the Thirty Years’ war, were certainly political as petty princes took advantage of the denominational uncertainty to favor their own political ambitions.

In our days also, religious divides sometimes draw the formal lines between conflicting parties, but then they are mostly used as labels for ethnic groups. The civil war in Yugoslavia was between ethnicities that define themselves according to religious affiliations, (there are no linguistic or racial differences between them) yet religion had played a very little role in their secular society.

The current war in Syria is a messy composition of groups based partly on ethnicity, partly on religion, but mostly it is about crude power as always. The IS with its fundamentalist Islamic ideology only entered the scene after the conflict had started. It is also to a large degree based on ethnicity and in any case they are quite busy fighting their co-religionists.

The most important question about any war should be: What are they fighting for? But curiously it seems like the closer you look at a conflict the more the answer eludes you. One would think that if anything was worth fighting for, it would be one’s deep convictions and beliefs. Going to war for your religion would have made sense somehow if that had really been the reason for wars. But it isn’t. The reason mankind can’t get along is not that there are fundamental differences in their convictions. Those differences exist of course, but that is usually not what causes conflict. It would probably have been too rational for an animal like man if that had been the case.

We certainly are ridiculous animals , getting at each other’s throats for no good reason. But at least we shouldn’t be afraid of believing in something since our beliefs are not the real reason why we can’t get along.

April 11, 2017 / Congau

What We Can Do

”I’m so small, what can I do?” Answer: Nothing.

I’m sorry, you didn’t expect that, did you? You thought I would flatter you like everybody else telling you that though you are small you can add your little share and together we will make the world a better place. No, I’m not saying that.

I will not lie to you. The world doesn’t look so great and it may not get better. Do you find that depressing? Well, what I can say to console you is the opposite of what you often hear, and I think that’s actually more encouraging. You can do nothing for the big world, but you can do something for people around you.

Isn’t that the same, you say, you contribute your part and then… No, stop! If you let your little good deeds depend on the big global world, you actually take away the moral worth of your action. If you are making one human being happy, you are doing good just because of that one person’s feelings, not because he is a representative of mankind. Mankind has no feelings. Your tiny addition to the well-being of the world is completely irrelevant, but what you can do for one person may be huge. If you save one human life, that is everything for that person, but it is nothing for the world.

Just keep it on that level then. Don’t think about what you can do for the world. Don’t ask what you can do for your country. You can do nothing. You can do nothing for any collective; you can only help a person.

Global thinking takes away much of the moral worth of an action because it doesn’t do any do any good for anyone in particular; it doesn’t create any personal happiness.

A moral action should be considered in itself, not as a contribution to some large and obscure project. In that perspective it slides into insignificance and becomes nothing. We are small and should stay small. Only then can we do something.

April 10, 2017 / Congau

What Is Freedom?

Freedom is to do what you want. It couldn’t be simpler. Don’t add “as long as you respect others” or “as long as you are responsible” or as long as anything whatsoever. Freedom is what it is: The absence of any restraint.

The problem is not freedom; the problem is what we want. What do we really want? What is our true will?

We may be wrong about our desires. We have all sometimes wished for something, but then, when we got it, we realized that it was not what we actually wanted. Maybe we were deceived by our own imagination or manipulated by others or possibly both.

Our range of choices, though potentially vast, is made narrow by the monotony of our habits and expectations. The will is deformed by all sorts of constraints and then it is hardly possible to be free, is it?

What is freedom? It is to know what you want and then do it. How do you know what you want? By knowing yourself. That is an incredibly difficult task and it is made even more difficult by the social pressure of conformity. All human beings are unique and it is highly unlikely that your true self would fit any of those ready-made shapes you are offered.

However, there is such a thing as a common human psychology and certain patterns are true for all people. If we at least respected some general recommendations of mental health we could still achieve some freedom. But even that is neglected.

We do things to ourselves that are obviously not healthy; things that we can’t actually want. Often it is our very freedom that makes it possible to choose those things which we don’t really want. When we are free to do what we want, we do what we don’t want.

Then the whole initial definition seems to be distorted and it becomes: Freedom is to do what you don’t want. Of course that is nonsense, but it illustrates the dilemma. If people are given full freedom, they will do what is not good for them, that is, they choose what they don’t want so they choose not to be free. If they don’t have freedom, they may be led to do what they want and thereby be free even if they are not free. In any case they can’t be free. What then is freedom?

April 9, 2017 / Congau

Communal Responsibility

Do we have a responsibility toward society? Not really. We are all a part of a society, whether we like it or not, but that part is microscopic and disappears in the huge and faceless mass. No one cares about anyone in a society composed of statistical pieces that are counted, but count for nothing.

You can’t have a responsibility toward such an anonymous monster. You live there because you have to live somewhere. It may be true that you use the public roads and some other facilities, but that is just because you can’t avoid it and what is unavoidable can put no obligation on you.

We have a responsibility for what we do, but not for what we are forced to do. If society is forced upon us, it can’t demand any responsibility from us. There may be no realistic escape from society, but at least it could leave us alone if we want to.

It’s not that we want to be alone. We want people around us; real people, that is. We want to form a community with them; a real community, not a formal society.

A community is made up of active members who share their efforts with the others so that they really have it in common. The people around us who we actually communicate with and have as companions, they are the ones who belong to our community and toward them we have a genuine responsibility.

The grand society at work, the powerful state that makes its citizens labor for some idea of national greatness, that may cause emotions in times of crises and on national holidays, but as a community it is an illusion. The state has never done anything for you; it can’t because it doesn’t know you.

You are not even an insignificant pawn in the social game; you are a straw in the wind, for the state doesn’t know that you exist. It knows nothing and it certainly has no feelings since it is not human. A machine cannot impose duties on you. You are not responsible for it.

A community is different. It is made up of human beings. You talk to them and they know you. You co-operate with them, make plans and agreements and promise mutual assistance. You trust them and they trust you and they must not be betrayed: You have a responsibility.

We have a responsibility toward our community.