Monday, January 17, 2011

Is Peace Possible? 2

In the fall semester of 2002, as I do at the beginning of every class, I instructed students in World Literature to choose a topic for their term paper.  About one fourth of them chose to research war literature.  In the six years I had then taught these classes, I rarely had a student choose war literature. I asked them, one by one, “Why?” Most said they were motivated by interest in some variety of patriotic feeling:  honor, freedom, love of country and democracy, all culturally conditioned motives.  One said he wanted to explore how soldiers are affected by watching killing and killing in combat.  One, already destined for ROTC, said he didn’t know why.  When asked why he was in ROTC, he said, “For the education.”  Not one said he was motivated by anxiety or other feelings about the coming war with Iraq.  I wondered, Are they freely, rationally, and consciously choosing their topics? 

A lifelong pacifist, I was at that time an uneasy one for several reasons.  I felt that I did not do enough to support my beliefs with action.  I wondered what to do about leaders who unleash such terrible violence upon the world as suicide bombing, the holocaust, and the atomic bomb if we don’t fight such acts by force; and, most of all, I wasn’t then entirely persuaded that violence isn’t such a strong part of human nature that pacifism cannot be more than a fringe ideal of human culture.  In short, I was uneasy because I thought my pacifist will was weak, mostly confined to my beliefs, a mere phenomenon of consciousness as insubstantial as dreams, all in my head.   
That fall I read for the first time Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and was confronted with his extensive and persuasive argument that individual free will plays virtually no role in the fate or actions of human life.  He believes that human fate, both personal and public, is predetermined by innumerable forces beyond individual human will and knowledge, such as unconscious human emotions and desires, family and social expectations, history and the pressure of culture.   If he were to be writing in today’s scientific climate, he would also likely include genetics in that list.
The final pages of the philosophizing epilogue which follows the dramatic action of War and Peace contain a definitive argument for determinism of individual human destiny.    In those pages, Tolstoy explains apparent contradictions in his argument for determinism:

The problem lies in the fact that if we regard man as a subject for observation from whatever point of view—theological, historical, ethical or philosophic—we find the universal law of necessity to which he (like everything else that exists) is subject.  But looking upon man from within ourselves—man as the object of our own inner consciousness of self—we feel ourselves to be free.

The final words in the novel are, “It is [. . .] necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognize a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.” 

If we do not have free will, how then can we be morally responsible as Tolstoy advocates?   Wouldn’t morality itself be as illusory as free will?  And if we do not have the free will to choose peaceful alternatives to violence and war in a world that teaches violence as a way of solving problems, how can peace be possible? 

There are other perplexing problems that complicate the issue of free will.  The evidence so far indicates that Jared Lee Loughner could and did act with a conscious and reasoning free will, made a decision, planned the attack, acquired the weapon.  Yet he is held to be not responsible by reason of insanity.  Paradoxically, many examples of people who do good things and act with impressive moral responsibility, such as those who attacked Loughner,  seem to get there by something innate and wild, something beyond conscious thought and reasoning.  Indeed, they often deny they are heroic because they did not think consciously about it.  I have myself argued elsewhere that “a wild pulse drives civilization as surely as it drives our human heart and passions, a pulse that beats to the rhythms of weather, trees, the smallest animals, and spiraling galaxies.”  At the time I wrote this, I didn’t think of this belief as determinist, but after reading Tolstoy I felt unsure and discovered one more belief to be uneasy about. 

In denying free will any meaningful place in human fate—personal or historical—Tolstoy is a determinist in what he sees as an orderly chain of causation.  The problem of free will and determinism is an old philosophical one that resists resolution.  A variety of philosophers have argued just as persuasively as Tolstoy that free will does exist and can affect human behavior.  In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin gives an intriguing explanation of the contradictions inherent in Tolstoy’s world view:

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” [. . .] There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, [. . .] and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated, and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way [. . . .] Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second. [. . .] Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog. 

Berlin has an extensive discussion of the paradox of free will in War and Peace and of Tolstoy’s obsessive struggle to deny either heroes or villains a significant willful role in public affairs.   He says that Tolstoy never does resolve the dilemmas he has discovered, perhaps set up for himself, in his dedication to finding and telling the “truth” about human life: 

The primacy of [. . .] private experiences and relationships and virtues presupposes that vision of life, with its sense of personal responsibility, and belief in freedom and the possibility of spontaneous action, to which the best pages of War and Peace are devoted and which is the very illusion to be exorcised, if the truth is to be faced.

This terrible dilemma is never finally resolved. [. . .] Since we are not, in fact, free but could not live without the conviction that we are, what are we to do?  Tolstoy arrives at no clear conclusion [. . . .]
In denying free will, Tolstoy is following his hedgehog vision.  In insisting on moral responsibility, he is the unconscious fox, for choosing moral responsibility is an act of free will, and it yields a multiplicity of moral truths, beliefs, and faiths that drive actions as diverse as those of Mother Theresa’s or a Muslim suicide bomber’s. 
Though Einstein insisted that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” quantum mechanics is discovering a strange universe where events are not ruled by deterministic laws.  In “Free Will,” Sidney Calahan sees this brave new world as affirming the reality of mental phenomena:

Science [. . .] brings us face to face with a universe filled with randomness, variability, chaos theory, and odd quantum effects.  At the same time, psychology has experienced its own postbehavioral revolutions, “the cognitive revolution” followed by the “consciousness revolution.”  People think!  People muse, imagine and plan.  (Calahan)

And people weigh the pros and cons of alternative actions.  They choose, decide, act on their decisions, and monitor consequences.             So, in Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes his survival of the Holocaust by mental activity, his exercise of “spiritual freedom” (47) and “will to meaning”:

We watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.  Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. 
Tolstoy himself dramatizes one of the most memorable acts of freedom in all of literature in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  A few hours before his death, Ivan questions the meaning his life, and then he grows quiet and listens and discovers the answer:  that he has lived his whole life for all the wrong reasons, that love is the answer to the meaning of life.  His final acts are mere gestures, but they are gestures of love he appears to freely choose after about the most intense moral and mental deliberation that we are likely ever to make.  And Tolstoy justifies the civil disobedient act of refusing military service and payment of taxes for military service.  Such a morally responsible act that violates the law must, it seems to me, come from free choice.

But not everyone is able to act on such consciously moral decision making processes as Frankl does,  and not everyone who is able to do so does all the time.  Ivan Illyich does not do so until he, too, has to face a challenge that his customary responses fail to prepare him for.   Even someone as morally righteous as Job fails to become self reflective and self evaluative enough to be truly morally responsible until he is challenged by severe traumatic stress.  But we cannot assume that challenge and stress always leads to freedom.  We know now that many who are traumatically challenged end up with post traumatic stress syndrome and a weakened will rather than a strengthened one. 

The long-standing debate testifies that the existence of free will is hard to prove by empirical methods which depend on experiment and observation of data from the senses or from logic.   But as a mental phenomenon, freedom is as real as all the other abstractions that we find difficult to define precisely or locate in empirical reality, such as citizenship, patriotism, belief, faith, peace.   We will believe by the evidence of common sense and introspection that such phenomena of consciousness are real and influential realities that affect the course of human life and destiny.   Free will is an experience as real as love and rage and dreams. 
I have something of a hedgehog in me, and in my hedgehog ideals I would sweep up all the young soldiers headed for Iraq, Afganistan, or any other war-torn area and carry them away to some safe and remote Eden, but that is just daydream.  In my pacifist actions, I remain an uneasy and wary fox, my moral responsibility and free will continuously tested by experience of the world as it is, a reality more like a night dream, an unpredictable and scary place in which we must often navigate in the dark with senses beyond the five available to consciousness.          

Even so, I exercise my insubstantial free will, join the small band of peace paraders at the bridge every Sunday, work with the county and state Democratic Committees, write for peace, and teach from the perspective that we have free will—the mental faculty to choose from alternatives, to decide, and to act on a decision—and that, like muscles, that faculty must be exercised to be healthy.  We can believe peace is possible because we can imagine the impossible, and we can act on that belief.  We can attempt to influence others to believe and act.  By that process, our free acts can enter the possibly determinist chain of causation and, possibly, change its direction.

© Alice Bolstridge, 2011.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Is Peace Possible? 1

Sarah Palin’s map using cross hairs to target supporters of the Affordable Health Care Act is one of the most stunning images coming from the media coverage of the Tucson shooting aimed at Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her guests.   The explanation that the cross hairs were never meant to suggest rifle sightings is not convincing.  Palin’s follow-up tweet, “Don’t retreat, reload” persuades me that the criticism of her imagery and language is justified.   Nevertheless, it won’t help to scapegoat her or the right wing.  Such rhetoric, the first amendment assures us, that uses images of violence cannot be held responsible for pulling the trigger that killed or wounded those people however stunning and persuasive the image appears after the fact.  

People with the kind of serious mental illness that Jared Lee Loughner appears to have are also, by the legal definition of “insane,” not responsible for their acts.  He may have never heard of Palin’s map and still could have found the cultural ammunition to justify in his fragile mind the crime. 

When profiles of Obama's first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, noted that he once sent a dead fish to a pollster who displeased him, a characteristically subtle statement carrying more than a whiff of malice and murder, it was considered a charming example of excessive - and creative - political enthusiasm. When Senate candidate Joe Manchin dispensed with metaphor and simply fired a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill - while intoning, "I'll take dead aim at [it]" - he was hardly assailed with complaints about violations of civil discourse or invitations to murder.

Did Manchin push Loughner over the top? Did Emanuel's little Mafia imitation create a climate for political violence? The very questions are absurd - unless you're the New York Times and you substitute the name Sarah Palin.   (Charles Krauthammer,

Yes, Charles Krauthammer, Emmuel’s little Mafia imitation does, along with all other such metaphors and acts of violence (legal and illegal), create a climate for political violence.  The question is not absurd.  What is absurd is the assumption that any person, especially those with severe mental illnesses, can act totally outside of the influences of culture.  After the civil rights movements with their consciousness raising, most of us no longer question the centrality of language in creating a climate that influences all of our behavior.  Most of us have learned to moderate our language when speaking of civil rights issues.    Certainly, we ought not to scapegoat Sarah Palin, nor Emmanuel, and we must forgive them; they too are cultural creatures.  But we should not excuse them, and we should judge their language. 

People like Loughner are like canaries in the mine.  They point to the vulnerabilities and dangers of our whole cultural climate.  Loughner does not act in isolation but rather within a cultural context of language, stories, images, policies, and practices, from both the left and the right, that encourages the use of violence.  From the macro global to the micro local, war, assassination, suicide bombings, torture, talk show hosts, Internet games, abusive political talk, and a seemingly infinite stream of imagery persuade too many that violence is not only effective to resolve fears and solve problems; it is also, in the power fix it can give, sexy and fun.  It sells.  It makes a lone gunman famous.

We may never know all the specific motivations of Jared Loughner, but we can already make educated guesses from what has been released about him that he was culturally influenced.  He feared the government, a fear he shares with a large and public segment of the population. With a semiautomatic pistol, a cultural tool, he claimed at least one moment of power over at least one government representative and her local entourage, and he gained quite a few moments of fame.  He forced the world to acknowledge him.  Who knows how many images from movies, TV, Internet games, and other media outlets feed into and support his actions, but it is safe to assume the number is huge.  How could it not influence him?
In view of the pervasive cultural climate of violence, is peace possible, or must we accept a large measure of violence as part of the human condition?  A number of people have attempted to discourage my pacifist activity with some version of the assertion, “You can’t change human nature,” an old refrain that began likely with the original-sin doctrine and underlies the insistence that life is a dualistic fight between good and evil.  Thinkers in the study of human nature have argued various positions about the nature-versus-nurture controversy.  Konrad Lorenz believes violence is deeply rooted in human nature and it has survival value.  Ashley Montague says no behavior is instinctual in human beings, that every action is affected by learning.  Margaret Mead uses field studies to support her argument that war is an invention practiced to resolve international conflict because a better solution has not yet been invented.  Edward O. Wilson says we are products of “bio-cultural evolution,” and all human behavior is affected as much, maybe more, by culture which is learned as by genetic inheritance.   Recent brain studies show that the brain is a plastic organ subject to change throughout life.  Its structure, chemistry, and activity are all affected by experience and learning.   Both Wilson’s work and brain research suggest to me that even a person with serious mental illness and impulses toward violence will make more peaceful choices if there is no cultural encouragement for violence and if there is powerful cultural encouragement for peace.  

My own analysis after reading widely in the area is that 100% of limits and possibilities of human behavior is determined by genes, and 100 % of human action is determined by the interaction of biology, experience, learning, culture, and choice.   Many argue, the famous pacifist Leo Tolstoy among them, that choice itself is not possible because human will is not, contrary to the teaching of the Judeo Christian Bible and promises of our constitution, free.  But that is a subject for another blog post.  Until I see better evidence than I have thus far seen, I will act as if I have free will.  And I will argue that culture has a powerful and in many cases determining effect on human behavior.  When Sarah Palin’s spokesperson asserts that there was no intention of suggesting rifle sights in that map, and when Jared Loughner selects a congresswoman to target and pulls the trigger, it is hard for me doubt that both the map’s composition and the shooting were affected by powerful and likely unconscious cultural influences that support and sustain violent action. 

It looks like peace is not possible without a sweeping global transformation of culture.  But transformation is possible because all of culture is learned.  Human nature can and does change.   The moderation of language that accompanied the civil rights movement has helped to change the culture in a more peaceful direction, at least in some areas.  So I will continue my pacifist activity, and it doesn’t matter if I will likely not see much transformation happen in my lifetime.  It doesn’t matter because I can not think of anything better to do with my life.

© Alice Bolstridge, 1-11-11