Cosmopolitan society, the creative uncertainty of freedom — a meditation on the need for peace as we go to war again

Plaque in the church garden
Readings: A saying of Jesus: "Love your enemy. Ask God to prosper those who hurt you. Only then will you be a true child of the father. Loving those who love you needs no reward; even the unrighteous love. What merit is there in being kind to those who are kind to you? Your father is compassionate to all, as you should be" (in "The Sayings of Jesus" translated by Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia, Counterpoint, Washington 1996, p. 27).

"Cosmopolitanism" — from an entry in “A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy”, ed. John Protevi (Yale University Press 2006)

The notion that one’s identity is not determined solely or primarily by any racial, national or ethnic background. Diogenes and the ancient Cynics began the cosmopolitan tradition by forming the notion than an individual could have a primary identity apart from the one he or she inherited from the polis. In de-emphasising the value of class, status, national origin and gender, the Cynics simultaneously placed great emphasis on the value of reason and moral purpose. Here is the revolutionary idea that the Cynics achieved which is a given in the Western concept of personality and its concomitant dependence on dignity: regardless of how much one is deprived of the concrete goods that are constitutive of social identity, one possesses a larger universal identity grounded in reason, moral purpose and, above all, human dignity. Today, when contemporary cosmopolitans speak in terms of a universal human identity that they share with others, they are invoking concepts bequeathed to them by the ancient Cynics.

[. . .]

Cosmopolitans . . . in keeping with the pro-individual stance first evinced by Diogenes, are of the view that human socialisation takes place in a world where human intercourse takes place; in the multiple spaces that we inhabit and among the myriad of human beings with whom we interact and exchange stories, experiences, values and norms.  Strong cosmopolitanism repudiates the tendencies of cultural nationalism and racial ideologies to impute moral value to morally neutral features—accidents of birth such as skin pigmentation, national origin and ethnic background. Strong cosmopolitanism argues there is no one fundamental culture to which any one individual is biologically constituted and leaves the question of identity entirely to the individual. That is, individuals ought to be able to cull their own identities based on the extent to which their experiences and their life roles have allowed them to experience themselves as the persons they take themselves to be, rather than the passive wearers of tribal labels assigned to them by their culture or by the society at large.

From "The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History” (Earl Morse Wilbur, Starr King School of the Ministry, Oakland, CA, Berry Street Essay, 1920)

This whole consideration of the meaning of our history also casts some illumination on the frequently raised question whether our work is not now done and whether it is not now at length time for Unitarianism to retire from the field. Well, if the history of Unitarianism taught us that the principal meaning of the movement has been a purely doctrinal one and that the goal we have aimed at has been nothing more remote than that of winning the world to acceptance of one form of doctrine rather than another; then, if it were true that Protestant theology is now predominantly Unitarian, it would naturally follow that the purpose of our existence had been fulfilled. But if, as I have tried to make clear, the doctrinal aspect is but a temporary phase, and if Unitarian doctrines are only a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom, then our work is not yet finished; in fact, we have thus far done hardly more, as we have removed the obstacles which dogma had put in our way, than clear the decks for the great action to follow.

Address: Cosmopolitan society, the creative uncertainty of freedom — a meditation on the need for peace as we go to war again

As all of you will be aware by now, once again, we find ourselves citizens of a country at war in the Middle East, for the moment, Iraq. Going to war greatly disturbed me back in 2003 and it greatly disturbs me now. Once upon a time I could easily have said a great deal that is conventionally political about all this but I’m not going to do that here because, a) I think conventional left- and right-wing nation-state based arguments about this seem increasingly to miss something primordial and b) because here I want to concentrate on making visible that something more primordial that, wherever you stood, or stand, on this matter (and whether on the left or right), might help bring a tiny bit of clarity to the whole situation and, perhaps, might help us together (left and right) better to decide what might be a better, long-term approach to tackling organisations like ISIS.

As the Guardian commentator Simon Jenkins put it a couple of days ago, there is a “moment in any war when peace goes dumb. The cause is just. The enemy is in our sights, and the provocation is extreme. Blood races through tabloid veins. It is white feathers for dissenters.”

I am deeply disturbed that our current government is making peace go dumb by using the kind of rhetoric which makes a false division between ISIS and ourselves and between the “human and inhuman”. They are doing this, of course, because once you have demonised “the other”, it makes it easier to hold oneself up as being more human than “the other” and, let’s not forget, it makes killing “the other” much, much easier.  (Here we really should at least pause to recall Jesus' teaching.)

This process of demonisation always occurs in war but is particularly powerfully at work in the present situation because ISIS are quite deliberately giving everyone the necessary tools to ramp the rhetoric up. As far as we in the west are concerned we find this ramping up is possible because of the dreadful beheading videos ISIS have so far released; as far as those who find themselves face to face with ISIS, they find this is possible because of the almost unimaginably brutal massacres that are currently being metered out to any group that doesn’t subscribe to ISIS's take on Islam.

It is this kind of conscious action by ISIS that is allowing our government to engage so easily in classic “us and them” rhetoric and say the kinds of thing our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, said just a couple of days ago:

“The conflict in Iraq and Syria is shocking the world with its barbarity . . . The cruelty being meted out – beheadings, eyes being gouged out, rape – is horrific. It is literally medieval in character.”

So, to our list of “us and them” demonisations we can now add “medieval” in contrast to our “modern”. Now I don’t want to minimise in any way the extreme violence and cruelty being metered out by ISIS. Nor, actually, do I want to say that there is never going to be an occasion upon which we may have to fight them directly because, sometimes, as a last resort and no matter how much one may regret this, there do come moments when fighting is required. But what I do want to do is minimise — to the point of making it disappear — the idea that ISIS are "medieval" l and that they are, therefore, absolutely and fundamentally different to we "moderns".

Cameron’s claim that ISIS is medieval is false and we need to see through this to a deep structural commonality we share with them. It is worth saying at this point that what is revealed is not, at first, a particularly pretty sight to see. However, as the eighteenth-century French writer, Nicholas Chamfort (1741-1794) saw:

“If one wants to become a philosopher, one should not be discouraged by the first few unpleasant discoveries one makes when trying to understand men. It is necessary, if one is to know them, to overcome the repugnance they cause, just as an anatomist must overcome nature, its organs and his own distaste, in order to become a master in his art.”

What we can see is that we and ISIS share a general background culture of nihilism. The word comes, of course, from the Latin “nihil”, meaning “nothing”, and it refers to the deep sense that life is (or is threatening to become) without any objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. As Charles Taylor says in his important book "A Secular Age" (Harvard University Press 2007):

"We live in a condition where [now] we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety" (p. 11).

Thanks to modern communications technology this condition, of being able to see there are always other alternatives to our own ways of viewing the world, obtains today in nearly every corner of the globe.

Another author, James C. Edwards, succinctly sums up an initial consequence of this, namely, that:

". . . we have left ourselves no intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all. Our 'highest values' compete with the 'highest values' of others on what is looked at philosophically, a perfectly level field of battle" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 47).

This nihilistic mood is, in our increasingly globalised world, a primary mood. Many people (especially those in religious circles) regret this mood and see it as highly negative. However, I'm one of those who does not so view it. I see nihilism as a real opportunity for humankind to bring about a much healthier and radically more democratic and cosmopolitan way of being in the world. Indeed, this positive way of being is where I am going to end up. But, firstly, let's remind ourselves about the two major responses of those who see the nihilistic mood as negative and regrettable: passive nihilism and active nihilism.

I've explored something of passive nihilism with you a number of times before because it has been the primary response in the liberal circles in which we mostly move. I appreciate that facing up to this tendency is not always comfortable for us, however, we must do it because whenever this passive nihilistic approach is adopted there develops what has, following Nietzsche, been dubbed a European or American “Buddhism” (not, of course, to be confused with other kinds of deeply located European and American socially engaged Buddhisms). To cite Simon Critchley, what this means is that “In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island” ("Infinitely Demanding", Verso Books, London 2007 p.5). The result is a “contemplative withdrawal, where one faces the meaningless chaos of the world with eyes wide shut” (ibid. p. 39). By the means of certain kinds of dislocated “pure” meditation and/or excessive consumerism the actual state of the world and its general nihilistic mood can, for the most part, simply be put to one side and forgotten.

Let's turn now to active nihilism. Simon Critchley notes that “the active nihilist also finds everything meaningless, but instead of sitting back and contemplating, he tries to destroy this world and bring another into being.” He feels that in our age the paradigmatic example of this is Al-Qaeda [and today we may add ISIS] and he goes on to say,

“The legitimating logic of Al-Qaeda is that the modern world, the world of capitalism, liberal democracy and secular humanism, is meaningless and that the only way to remake meaning is through acts of spectacular destruction, acts which it is no exaggeration to say have redefined the contemporary political situation and made the pre-9/11 world seem remote and oddly quaint. We are living through a chronic re-theologisation of politics” (ibid. p.5).

The brutal actions and words of ISIS clearly fit into this category of active nihilism. (And please note that people can, and do, move between passive to active nihilism).

Although all this needs a much fuller exploration than I can offer here, I hope that this is enough to help you see that there exists a deep structural relationship between passive and active nihilists, between a contemporary western secular approach and the approach of ISIS.

You see ISIS is not a medieval organisation at all but is thoroughly modern as we are — we are two sides of the same coin — and it seems to me that they are as disconcerted and/or scared as we are to discover there is no longer any “intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all.”

Our going to war, yet again, does not address this structural fear either in the members of groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda or in ourselves. All that going to war can achieve, falsely and highly destructively, is to inject a temporary sense of meaning into our lives, and the lives of the members of ISIS, through some claimed “justness of our cause in destroying the evil other”. Marx talked about religion being the opium of the people but, for our nihilistic age, engaging in our current conflicts to avoid dealing with the deeper fear I have just pointed to, seems to me to be more like the crack-cocaine of the people. (Crack, for those of you who don’t know, releases a large amount of dopamine into the brain which instantly induces feelings of euphoria, supreme confidence, alertness and increased energy. The trouble is that one's high only lasts a few minutes after which time dopamine levels in the brain plummet, leaving a person — or culture — feeling depressed and low. This is not a good strategy in the search for global meaning, wholeness and peace, it really isn’t.)

I can now move to the hope I alluded to in the middle of this address, namely to suggesting a way of proceeding that doesn't ignore our nihilist mood but which, instead, uses it to locate and firmly ground a more active, loving, just, democratic and cosmopolitan way of proceeding.

Nihilism’s greatest achievement has been the removal of absolute hierarchical certainties and, in doing this it simultaneously left us the gift, to borrow a phrase from the sociologist and great advocate of cosmopolitanism, Ulrich Beck, of “the creative uncertainty of freedom.”

The pressing question before us all — whether ourselves or members of ISIS — is how do accept both the loss of old absolutes and the giving of this new gift — the creative uncertainty of freedom?

This question is not answered, in fact cannot be answered, by war but only in times of peace, and this is why peace must not be allowed to be made dumb.

Our contribution to a long-term answer is two fold — firstly, it is continually to remind our society and its politicians that peace not war is required and, secondly, it is to be found in what we have discovered in our own communities’ history, namely, that doctrinal aspects (such as those currently promulgated by religious fundamentalists of all stripes) are but temporary phases in human life, by-products of a larger movement, namely the human quest for spiritual freedom.

Having experienced this ourselves we have a strong sense that Earl Morse Wilbur was right, “our work is not yet finished; in fact, we have thus far done hardly more, as we have removed the obstacles which dogma had put in our way, than clear the decks for the great action to follow” — the great action of building a cosmopolitan future in which there is a corporate embracing of the gift that is the creative uncertainty of freedom.
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