if i were a monster…i would hide it

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We were discussing Truth and Reconciliation committees in my class on History and Public Policy yesterday, focusing mainly on South Africa and East Timor, as these examples were the subjects of assigned readings. The last half-hour or so of class became a number of students engaging in protracted denouncements of the Western World’s collusion in these atrocious (note my use of the word atrocious here…it’s important for the continuance of this discussion) events in the name of the Cold War and economic prosperity for first-world countries.
Whenever actions start to get painted in black-and-white terms for entire societies, I end up arguing for a position that a lot of people find untenable and, apparently, monstrous, but I think today in class this reached a new level. I can’t decide (and would love to hear a recording or transcript of how I actually put this argument that the reaction was such) whether I said what I meant to say or whether my point came out garbled, but I had intended to claim that though the very unfortunate consequence of these actions, mostly made by our governments, was large-scale oppression and oftentimes violence in remote counties, these actions also CAN be argued as what sustained liberal democracy against what was at least then a very real threat of spreading communism. I think this dual somewhat good vs. horrifically bad result is what makes our society moral responsible at all for the actions (as we clearly reap the benefits), but denying the benefits entirely makes moral condemnation too easy.
If this is what I said, and I will admit I may have garbled it at the moment, do you interpret such a statement as a claim that it was RIGHT for the American government to support the Argentinean government’s “disappearing” tactics?
I was trying to lead to what I believe to be a finer point about morality – in everyday life completely moral behaviour is impossible, as inevitably someone gets hurt in a lot of choices we make. There is no way to make the RIGHT decision every time because the factors are too great – I’m talking about the decisions like what food and clothes to buy, which of the homeless to give your spare change to, how long to stand in the shower, how high to set your thermostat, which restaurants to frequent, which friends to see and what to say. I am always amused that people will attack Kant’s categorical imperative as impossible to apply for this very reason and then advocate judging societies based on such a demanding conception of justice.
I’m very ambivalent about treating governments and societies as moral entities. Morality seems an inherently personal thing. When blown to a societal level it can actually make some sense to claim obligations can be owed to the dead, because at least one of the bodies occupying the perpetrator-victim dichotomy is still in existence (the government). However, I don’t believe in an after-life and thus, I don’t understand how something can be owed to a non-existent individual. We owe things to ourselves…and to the living victims of poor choices; however, to unequivocally condemn actions made in the name of what was considered a greater good at the time is to deny our history as much as ignoring the crimes this action resulted in. We CAN condemn them, but we must understand HOW this situation came about and “poor government” is a meaningless concept.
I can’t conceive of what the present would be like without the Cold War. Contemporary society has been profoundly shaped by it. To belittle the fear (even if only paranoia) felt by the people who made these morally reprehensible decisions is to not truly understand how they came about and, thus, to open ourselves to a renewal of the same process. It’s just too easy and morality shouldn’t be easy, should it?
Furthermore, in this discussion, I have yet to encounter one concrete solution for overcoming the conditions that permitted these actions and the consequences hidden from the public or veiled in euphemism. I would like to propose one: “states of emergency” should not be. The abuses that result from a suspension of the democratic process, when you look back, are too overwhelming to be compensated for by their successes.
And lastly, let’s say I didn’t express myself correctly…said something I didn’t intend to, and my classmate who attacked me after class because she was deeply offended by my defense of the massacre of 30 000 Argentineans in the name of liberal democracy was a valid reinterpretation of what I actually said as opposed to what I meant to say…WHY WOULD I EVER SAY THAT? Do people really think that there are students walking around in our institution who are glad these people died? Who think it was okay? Oddly, when I hear someone saying something they likely don’t intend to say…I end up commenting aloud “digging a hole…” to imply they have unwittingly gone astray by including arguments they likely don’t actually espouse in order to support the other argument they do. The narrative and rhetoric of some of these claims are imbued in the language; it’s difficult to avoid them. I don’t presume people are monsters, but rather not perfect nor able to think each point’s implicit underpinning through to the end in the ten minutes of reflection before putting up their hands in class. Rejecting their point outright without giving them a chance to re-assess is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Then again, I guess that’s what my original point about these atrocities was.
So, to recap: I DO NOT BELIEVE THE CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY COMMITTED IN THE NAME OF DEFENDING CAPITALISM AND/OR LIBERAL DEMOCRACY WERE GOOD. HOWEVER, I THINK THE WHOLESALE CONDEMNATION OF EVERYTHING THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT DID IN THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY IS ENTIRELY UNPRODUCTIVE TO OUR GREATER UNDERSTANDING, TOO SIMPLISTIC AND EVEN DANGEROUS.

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3 thoughts on “if i were a monster…i would hide it

  1. I feel like I have to say something, but I don’t know what. In a way, I wish I had witnessed this whole event. In another, I’m very glad I didn’t. Even though life is black and white, some people treat it that way, and we need to accomodate for them, I think.

  2. In the words of my buddy Matt Stover: “It is an unavoidable fact that moral clarity in an unambiguous world just isn’t very interesting. Or interesting at all.”

    Which is to say, unnuanced, black & white world-views aren’t very conductive except perhaps to assign blame.

    Also, in life it’s good to remember: There is what people say, and what they mean to say. For the sake of trying to understand others, one ought to put in all the effort they can to realise that people fudge words. Look for the meaning which a given person is attempting to communicate. And always ask questions, to get closer to that sought-after meaning, rather than jumping and judging.

    Furthermore, I’m starting to think that perhaps the following comment – “[I]n everyday life completely moral behaviour is impossible” is something that we desperately need people to understand over here. The amount of blathering about moral clarity and certainty is almost as shrill and irritating here as it is from The Centres of Moral Clarity in North America.

    Just a thought.

    Otherwise – everything you stated was well said. Huzzah!

  3. I hate to have to step in and shed some light on what seems to be becoming a tunnel-visioned misappropriation of terms, but Heather and Ilya, you’re conflating morality and ethics and private and public.
    Private morality exists, and, unfortunately, can remain uninformed by public morality. A public morality probably cannot exist, but public moralities definitely do.
    Ethics, on the other hand is what makes it all so tricky. While morality implies that there is a correct means and end for everything, ethics is a matter of trying to achieve it
    I believe it was Descarte who said that if he knew the position of every single particle in the universe at any one instant, he could predict the outcome of every event until the end of time. Well, what cocky genius with a complete understanding of the functioning of the world couldn’t? But then explain to Descarte about the microscopic or quantum strata. Could he still make that claim? No, because he can only make sense of one system at a time.
    The same goes for ethics. If I have a complete understanding of a moral system and I try to apply it to (to use a microcosmic example) my family, already I run into trouble; not because one of us is wrong or does not have a proper understanding of morality, but because we have different understandings. It may happen that one is more complete or encompasses the other, but the problem with public morality is that it’s never agreed upon by all and only publicly conceeded in resignation.
    Did the American government do the right thing? Yes. Did they do the wrong thing? Yes. Is it a moral issue? No. Is it an ethical dilemma? Yes.

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