Setting the Terms
By Dennis Loo (11/15/13)
Expanded 11/15/13 5:42 pm PST
One of the lessons from the 1960s that needs to be rediscovered by today’s activists and incipient activists is how those who step forward against the norm set the tone overall for everyone else and thereby change the norm.
One of the most frequent, if not the most frequent, complaints that one hears from those who are at least open to radical or revolutionary change is that “nobody else is doing anything.” While this complaint has some basis in reality, it fundamentally misunderstands the situation. The relative quiescence of most people isn’t primarily due to their relative lack of knowledge or apathy, even though those factors, especially the lack of good information, are a secondary aspect of the picture. Rather, the situation we face is primarily due to the impact of the people who set the terms for everyone else: those in leading positions today adopt stances that guide others to accept what are profoundly immoral, unjust, and illegal policies. The political arena is shaped overall at this point by the two major parties and the media and what they present as the parameters of acceptable debate. Their largely falsified version of reality is a major part of the problem.
What the majority does or doesn’t do is fundamentally determined by what those who shape and make public opinion do or don’t do. The problem, in other words, isn’t all of those other people. The problem and its solution lie with those who recognize the appalling state of things. It is they, not the quiescent ones, who need to raise their level of activity in order to lead others and to set the standards for others to see, to be challenged by, to learn from, and to emulate.
By creatively and forcefully setting other terms and puncturing the current political scene we can begin the necessary process of creating a radically different political atmosphere. If the currently relatively small numbers of us who are politically aware do this, then others who are now quiet and suffering in desperate silence will step forward to join our ranks because we will have given them an alternative to rally around.
All social movements and all activists, no matter what their ideological bent, have to cope with the contradiction between their vanguard forces and the rest of the society. Most movements handle this contradiction incorrectly and tail after the masses of people, taking what is already the level of general understanding and trailing after it by restating it in slogans and getting others mobilized to essentially voice what they already believe and understand - or something very close to that.
It is certainly easier to get people aroused about that which they are already fully aware of. Marxists call this mistake “tailing after spontaneity”: taking what the masses are already spontaneously aroused about and mirroring it.
This is not a recipe for carrying forward a struggle that is going to ultimately accomplish anything lasting. The Black Panther Party, to their great credit, handled this problem by the slogan: “Relate to the vanguard motherfucker!”
In some quarters the idea that there is such a thing as an objective reality and such a thing as truth is considered either impossible or foolhardy.
Postmodernists (aka moral relativists) argue that there is no such thing as truth: there are many truths – what’s true for one person is different than what is true for another person. As Jacques Derrida famously put it: “il n'y a pas de hors-texte (there is nothing outside the text).” All that exists are varying interpretations or constructions of reality, but not an independently existing reality that is separate from human consciousness. This perspective is a recipe for keeping different groups permanently separated from each other because according to this view there is no collective experience and no collective condition.
On the other side of this, the moral absolutists assert that Truth also resides in the text, but the text in their case is religious. That text is the Holy Bible, the Koran, the Hindu Scriptures, or the Book of Mormon, etc. Truth resides in the holy texts because the texts are seen as the literal word of God or Allah or whichever deity or deities you believe in. Religious fundamentalists – those who insist that the texts are sacred and immutable truths – are moral absolutists, believing that morality is handed down from supernatural sources and that they have the one true belief and everybody else is damned.
The moral relativists and the moral absolutists are seemingly opposite to each other but actually fully complementary forces. The moral absolutists have unleashed their deeply threatening and profoundly dangerous absolutism in the world, bludgeoning those who stand in their way, determined that they should rule no matter what the cost, utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause, including lying and killing when needed in the greater cause of installing their version of a moral dictatorship. Because postmodernists are moral relativists, they want everyone to do their own thing and regard the moral absolutists as having a right to pursue “their truth.” For more on these matters, see here.
Moral certitude, on the other hand, is needed more than ever. Not moral absolutism, but moral certitude.2
“You cannot reason absent value judgments. We make value judgments all the time. Those who claim not to make value judgments are simply arriving at judgments unaware (or are unwilling to fess up to the fact) that they are making value-based decisions; their decisions are hidden under the mask of 'neutrality.' This is not, however, the same as declaring that there is no such thing as objective reality and that there are only differing interpretations... Objective reality exists outside of my consciousness. Facts exist.
“The world outside of my head is measurable with objective instruments such as a thermometer and scale. Is a temperature of 93°F hot and uncomfortable? Most people think so, but some people like hot weather and find that temperature comfortable. Is two hundred pounds too heavy for a 5’2” person? That depends upon what culture we live in. Weight is a fact. What that fact means is subject to interpretation. For an NFL running back this might be a very good weight. A female of this weight in ancient Hawaiian society was considered sexy because she had access to a lot of food and was therefore privileged.
“We can declare with certainty that people need clean water to live and that if they do not have access to clean water that they will surely die. We can further say that more than twenty-five thousand children die every day in the world due to diarrhea and related conditions caused by the lack of access to clean water. Some people—such as myself—would consider this fact criminal, given the state of technology today. Other people regard the more than twenty-five thousand daily deaths as perhaps unfortunate, but no cause for alarm. Better those children than their own children, they think. Still others would regard this fact as the product of karma—these children did something bad in a previous life that is now causing them to die this way. The meaning of that factoid, in other words, varies widely. The objective world, as the existentialists argue, does not contain meaning. Meaning is something that human beings impose upon the objective world.” (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 24-25)
As I have written elsewhere, for example, here, meaning is something that cannot be divined through holy books, nor can it be found through sheer reason. This is because meaning is a meta-level above material reality: for something to be for something else, that is, for something to have a purpose, you have to be viewing that something from a different level, a meta-level, from it. Because the Universe is all that there is and there is nothing outside of it, the Universe itself cannot and does not have any meaning or purpose other than its being. It is. That is all.
Humanity, however, seeks meaning and purpose.
How can one decide between one person's meaning (paradigms) versus someone else's? Whose paradigm is better? This is a question that there is no way to answer from the standpoint of proof. There is no hierarchy between differing meanings. No one's meaning can be said to be better than someone else's and you cannot rationally prove one to be better than the other. Reason cannot resolve this problem, as Godel proved.
There are, however, different consequences that flow from different meanings and different paradigms are built upon different assumptions. These consequences are actually relatively easy to see and evaluate.
The basic difference between the two major paradigms is as follows.
There are those who adopt the philosophy that life is about their own personal comfort. If things are good for them personally and for those near and dear to them, then it doesn't matter that much to them what is happening to others outside of their inner circle of friends and family. If they are all right, then other people's issues are not their concern.
Then there are those whose approach is that life is about fairness and justice for everyone. For this latter group, if they are personally well off but others are not, then they are genuinely concerned about the situation for others. What matters most to them is not their own immediate situation but the collective welfare.
When, for example, Occupy Wall Street was still holding Zuccotti Park and drawing people to it, some celebrities such as Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon expressed their support for it. Some people ridiculed this, such as Piers Morgan when he had Moore on as a guest on his show, saying that millionaires like Moore and Sarandon must be hypocrites since OWS stood against the vast inequities of power and wealth and therefore unless you were prepared to give all of your wealth away to OWS, then you must be a hypocrite. This attitude makes sense from the premises of those whose philosophy is me-first. They cannot conceive of others behaving in any other fashion than that of me-first so they can't really understand why someone might do something that doesn't further their own narrow self-interest. Therefore anyone who claims to be acting on behalf of others must be a hypocrite.
You cannot prove that either paradigm is morally better because the criteria you would use would be subject to the assumptions and radically different perspective of the two paradigms themselves. What you can do, however, is trace the consequences that flow from the two different sets of assumptions inherent in the two perspectives. And one can argue, as I do, that humans are first and foremost social beings who can only survive and thrive based on our inter-connectedness. You can argue that behaving as if one's personal interests are more important than anything else, including the collective welfare, violates the basic principles by which humanity exists. This does not prove that the me-first doctrine is irrational or immoral. You cannot prove that someone else's behavior is immoral except with reference to certain value-laden assumptions that are not subject to mathematical proof. You can only decide these matters having made a value-situated choice. Making value-based choices is something that we can never get away from.
"People who have lost the ability to determine right from wrong due to a brain injury but who retain the ability to reason have been found to be unable to reach conclusions, even though their reasoning capacity is intact. Vulcans of the Star Trek saga, who supposedly are purely rational and unemotional, in other words, could not exist." (GDS, p. 24)
The above is one of the reasons why the libertarian dream of everyone getting to do their own thing is not a practical or wise policy. Not everyone in a group is concerned about the collective welfare and if they are allowed to do what they want, then they will injure others by their self-centered behavior. Those who should be leading society and setting the standards for others should be those who are most concerned about the common good. One feature to the problems we face today is that the people who are in charge are driven by a philosophy of narcissism. The system of capitalism and imperialism that they personify operates according to this ethic. And that ethic is destroying the planet and ripping up the social fabric. You cannot fix it by merely putting other people in charge. You have to change the whole system.
1 My students are a good example of the impact of the lack of knowledge. Many of them are stunned to learn things that they did not know before. For example, when they learn about the actual content of Obama’s foreign and domestic policies and compare that to what they learn about the true depraved depths of Bush’s policies, they realize how misinformed they have been by mainstream accounts. The public cannot be blamed for not knowing that they do not know certain, crucial, life-changing, things. They do not know that they do not know those things. That is why those who do know these kind of things have a responsibility to bring that to those who do not know these things. And as you do that, you will run into the fact that for some, their lack of knowledge about what's really going on is tied to their material advantages: they are privileged and advantaged by the distorted distribution of resources. They willfully refuse to see what's true because the truth does not advantage them in the narrow personal sense. And those people it's largely a waste of time to try to enlighten. Better spend your time reaching out to those who are not willfully ignorant and who, when they find out what's really afoot and why, will act accordingly to change that.
2 I am taking this phrase from Bob Avakian. My interpretation of its meaning does not necessarily reflect his