Jeffery L Nicholas
Philosophy and social theory
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
Some students at Providence College today occupied the Provost's Office protesting the blog writings of one of the professors at PC. The professor, Anthony Esolen, has written some blog posts for Crisis magazine in which he laments cultural diversity and defends "the Truth of the Catholic Church."
I am addressing this issue in this blog for two reasons: first, because tolerance is the foundation of discovering the truth and, second, because one needs to show how intolerable views that are simply wrong, as Tony Esolen's are, ought to be treated--that is, logically and passionately.
In 1965, Herbert Marcuse contributed an essay to the volume "A Critique of Pure Tolerance," in which he argues that the Left ought not tolerate various views, especially fascist views. His argument is that the administered society represses the reasoning powers of citizens. Further, as Alex Callinicos notes, Marcuse does not trust in the ability of everyday citizens to think for themselves.
Alasdair MacIntyre's response is critical: either we trust in people's thinking ability or we end up being totalitarian like Stalin, who imposed a particular regime upon people. Grounded in Marxian theory, MacIntyre emphasizes Marx's point that the revolution must be brought about by the proletariat.
Our good friend, Paulo Freire, stresses the same point. A revolution that is imposed by leaders on the people does not liberate. Rather, it recreates the forms of oppression.
Liberation requires tolerance, tolerance based in trust. Further, to eliminate someone from debate, to prevent them from engaging in conversation, is to, not only silence them, but to silence ourselves. J. S. Mill has the best insight on this point: none of us have the whole truth, and even those who believe mostly false things have some element of the truth. Esolen should appreciate this point because it comes from St. Augustine.
Of course, in denouncing cultural diversity, Tony Esolen is merely trying to silence others. He does so by pretending that others have nothing valuable to share with us that the "West" does not already have, by contending that TRUTH comes from the Roman Catholic Church and cannot be doubted, and by various slights of hand, shadows, and mirrors. And might I add, very, very bad theology.
Let's take one example of Esolen's reasoning:
That is, supposing that the people of a tribe in the interior of Brazil are compelled to accept cultural diversity for its own sake, rather than merely adopting and adapting this or that beneficent feature of another culture (something that people have always done), will that not mean that their own culture must eventually vanish, or be reduced to the superficialities of food and dress?
Any one who has studied indigenous people know that the problem they face is exactly the opposite of what Esolen presents. Esolen believes the problem for them is cultural diversity. In fact, the fear is that someone will ask them to "adapt this or that beneficent feature from another culture": oil, for instance, or agriculture, which would destroy their way of life. Cultural diversity means trying to understand the values of the other culture and learn from them what truth they have.
Is not that same call for diversity, when Catholics are doing the calling, a surrender of the Church to a political movement which is, for all its talk, a push for homogeneity, so that all the world will look not like the many-cultured Church, but rather like the monotone non-culture of western cities that have lost their faith in the transcendent and unifying God?
Here, we see once more a confusion, really a twisting of words. For Esolen, diversity means surrender to homogeneity.
One should be mindful of this mind trick: it's exactly the same kind of mind trick that politicians pull--or try to pull--over people all the time. "We are pro-life," but we won't fund health care for pregnant women or provide food for babies. "We are pro-choice," but we won't address the fundamental inequality that makes women think they have to get an abortion.
I worked at a Roman Catholic seminary for seven years, and one of the marvelous things about it was its celebration of cultural diversity. We all joined with the Hispanic community to celebrate our Lady of Guadalupe, not white-washed "universally," but as Hispanic people celebrate it. Diversity leads exactly to that.
See, the reason Esolen is able to use mind-tricks is because he fails to define his terms. He wants to use them this way and that way so as to confuse the reader to his real purposes.
Thus, when Esolen writes the following, he is merely trying to "white-wash" China.
Granted that God redeems not only individuals but peoples, so that, for example, China in the arms of the Church will be more truly China than she was before, does not this diversity presuppose the distinction of cultures one from another?
The Church can only make China more truly China if it first accepts China. Esolen's argument is the reverse: only by accepting the Church does China become truly a distinct culture.
But to be more logical, I expect the students--as well as the editors and readers of Crisis--to be able to pick out such oxymoronic sentences as the following:
It remains to be seen how far they will go towards dismantling the most culturally diverse program at Providence College, our program in the Development of Western Civilization.
How can something be culturally diverse if in fact what it is teaching is one culture viz., Western Culture?
Socrates did not tell the Athenians not to listen to other people. Rather, he said, question them. And then he went around and he showed them how to question the cultural guardians of the day.
An education from Providence College should--and does, from the evidence I've seen, including student occupations of administrative offices--prepare students to question just as Socrates did. For that, we must have tolerance, because without it, it is much too easy for one to become totalitarian in the name of "truth" and "diversity."
We are nearing the end of National Midwifery Week, so I want to leave you with something positive, something to continue motivating you to ask questions for your own care.
Midwifery is, not simply good health care, better for the mother and child and family, better for the community, but it is pro-woman. I've alluded to this before: the first role of the midwife is to help the mother trust herself and trust the natural process. The first role of the midwife is to empower others.
What we see in the US system is quite different. The system is based on fear: a fear of death ultimate, but that manifests as a fear of litigation and a fear of loss of control. Watch videos of women delivering and you will hear guttural--beautiful--noises coming from them. They are able to let go. Yet, we fear when to let our bodies go so often in this controlled society. We fear being too fat or too thin. We fear being sued because we have no control over the situation, so we try to tighten the screw. But like any normal screw, over-tightening leads to stripping the screw of its natural form, making it incapable of functioning. So we discard it.
The primary virtue--to be a little philosophical--of the midwife is trust. In the basis of that trust, she is able to help the laboring mother listen to her body, to trust what the body is telling her. Some times, the body tells her that it needs some medical help. That empowers the mother to exercise her agency, by listening to and trusting her body. She can make a decision grounded, not in fear, but in love and honesty.
I don't mean to romanticize the labor and birth. It's painful. Nor do I intend to demean any one who desires to numb the pain through an epidural. Rather, I'm simply inviting people to consider other possibilities. Possibilities grounded in the empowerment of women and of families. I've talked about the dominance of science in our country and asking ourselves where science and technology fit in human life. That is all I am doing here: at what point does technology and medicine in the birthing room support human life and at what point does it detract? A midwife is one of the best, if not the best, guide in helping to answer that question.
Robbie Davis-Floyd provided the first lecture at the HBHE conference on the three models of birth: the technocratic, the humanistic, and the wholistic. Robbie has worked long to spell out the technocratic model of birth, especially in Birth as An American Right of Passage. My comments here compliment and supplement hers, especially in light of the conference.
The technocratic model sees the human body as a machine, birth as a mechanical process, which typically is seen as breaking the machine or needing technology to assist in the mechanical process. This model dominates Western, modern culture. Since the rise of modern science and Newton's founding of universal scientific laws, we have viewed the world as a machine, which inevitably meant that we human beings were also machines. This worldview led to the problems of modern philosophy: Descartes' dualism which separates out the "soul" from the machine of the body, and Kant's noumena, which separated out free will from the every day world. When we examine the machine--the human body--we can find no ghost in the shell.
But of course, once we've given up the ghost, it's easy for us to think of ourselves as robots, to buy into the idea of the "selfish gene," for which our bodies are mere conduits of the will to live.
My work has focused on the underlying issues, specifically subjective rationality. Technological rationality is just one form of subjective rationality. As I define it in my book, subjective rationality is when reason is seen as merely instrumental or classificatory. That is, reason is only the slave of the passions, as David Hume says, and can tell us only how to get from A to B or how to classify objects. To have a healthy birth, we must be able to classify health: it's a certain heart rate, a certain color to the skin (measurable of course), a certain way the blood passes out of the foot when pricked. How do we get a healthy birth? We use our best technology to produce the results we want.
The problem is that subjective rationality is empty of ends. Thus, any ends are justifiable! Treating the mother like a machine, removing her agency, by, for example, giving her Twilight Sleep, or simply declaring the birth a danger and thus requiring a C-section, is justifiable because it serves the pre-given ends of the medical--technological establishment.
The rather abstract point I am making is this: we need, not only new values, but new ways of reasoning. We need to recognize that we can evaluate some ends as unjustifiable. As I define it in my book, reason is rather the giving and evaluating of reasons, of ends, and of values.
Here is where I think I disagree with something Robbie said in her talk and states in her book. She affirms that she would never question the way a woman gives birth. That is a personal choice. On the one hand, this claim is obviously true: we must all make our best decisions about what is right for our own health. On the other hand, though, it subtly gives the game to the subjective and technological rationalities. It does so because it refuses to question. In short, it reduces to emotivism: the idea that all values are based on mere emotion.
Yet, what we have to do is understand that emotivism is a terrible, terrible way to live. It turns us into either vampires or zombies (the subject of the book I am currently working on). It allows us to live as machines. It allows us to leave our encounters with the divine unquestioned. It allows us to escape responsibility. Emotivism, in short, leads to the technocratic model. In order to overcome that model, we must first overcome emotivism.
What HBHE did was provide us with new ways of reasoning based on new ends, new values. The task is to take that out into the world, primarily through education, whether formal or informal. Those who teach birth classes must fight long and hard to undermine the culturally ingrained subjective rationality. They must do so by beginning to question their own way of reasoning. Subjective rationality has its role in human life. We have to be able to move from one place to another. But the more important process is to determine whether what we are moving toward is a good end or not.
During several sessions, we heard about the need to resurrect and preserve the traditional forms of midwifery. We also heard about the need to synthesize the traditional ways with science. Michel Odent spoke of this mixing some In his call for a new metaphor to drive our lives, one away from domination and to symbiosis, of which I wrote here. The other expressed beautifully by Romiro Romero from Colombia was the need to incorporate the medicine of today with the healthy traditions of the grandmothers. He wants us to plant new seeds which we will see sprout fully in nine generations.
I've written on traditions and science before. But let's put this in context. People in modernity wanted to cast off the traditional knowledge. For Kant, enlightenment was the breaking free from self imposed chains of listening to others. For Descartes, we had to throw out all of our previous beliefs and build them on the foundation of knowledge. We must remember that these philosophers and others had good reason to make these calls. The Church and the political reality had grown oppressive, untrue to human nature.
Yet, what we are reminded of by people like Romiro or Angelina from Mexico, is that we have thrown out the baby with the placenta--literally. We yank the baby from the womb to cast it immediately away from mother's milk into a cold, scientific instrument to weigh and measure and classify and organize it. That is the domination of subjective rationality which I have attacked in previous blogs and other writings.
Traditions, rather, living traditions are people discussing-yes, arguing, but also clarifying and developing-- agreements--wisdom--about the good life and good practices. Living traditions are about loving life. So when the Catholic Church in previous centuries, and other witch hunters, denied life to individuals, it was no longer living. What we desperately need are to revive and resuscitate these living traditions to learn from them, as I argued in my book. This resuscitation requires a wholistic vision. We must reject the inhuman values of modern science and replace them with the human values of living traditions--of the indigenous people of Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Scotland, the Lakota and the Cherokee.
These new values mean that we do science differently. And they mean a rejection of capitalism.
They mean simpler, but not primitive, lives.
And they must be grounded in the ground--living with the earth, loving the earth, for we are flesh of the earth, living earth breathed to life by God with each breath of each atom.
Please join us: Heal Thy Birth; Heal Thy Earth.
One of the more philosophical, which is not the say better though this one was good, talks this week was on the symbiotic revolution by Michel Odent. Odent is a French doctor who founded the primal health research site which collects data on research studies in health.
Odent spoke about the Neolithic revolution and the changes it brought to humanity 10k years ago. The move to agriculture also entailed a move to hierarchical living, patriarchy, and, under it all, a domination of nature. I believe that Odent is on the right track here. The domination of nature is not typically seen in nomadic tribes. This point requires rethinking what shamanistic magic was about. Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that the shaman was trying to control nature. If so, we might want to carefully distinguish controlling nature from dominating nature, which is the heart of modernity, as I've discussed to some small extent in my book.
Odent suggests that what we need is a symbiotic revolution. For Odent, symbiosis refers to the harmony of organisms living together. His main metaphor involved the microorganism a in the human gut. These help human beings to digest food.
Again, I think we need a more harmonious relationship with nature--one of the reasons I find the Lakota way of life beautiful. Yet, I'm not sure if "symbiotic" is the right word for this revolution. For one, as a fan of Spider-Man, I am reminded of the symbiotic relationship between Venom and its host. Venom cannot survive without a host, but in joining that host, tends to take over. Thus, Spider-Man becomes a dark character when joined with the venom symbiot, And in scientific literature, the term symbiosis is disputed. For some, it includes the parasitic relationship.
More troubling for me was Odent's example of the micro-organisms in the gut. I don't think we want to compare human beings in society to micro-organisms in the gut.
These issues might simply be over-stating the metaphor. Perhaps in our times, every metaphor will have some negative connotations. Domination of nature is more than a metaphor, of course. It has been a way of life. What we need is some more synergetic way of living with nature.
On that point, I hope you agree with Odent and me.
Jeffery L. Nicholas (Ph.D philosophy, University of Kentucky) is an associate professor at Providence College and an international scholar on ethics and politics. He serves as research associate for the Center for Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics at London Metropolitan University and a foreign research associate at Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá Colombia. Dr. Nicholas is co-founder of and executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry. He is the author of Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre's Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), as well as numerous articles. Dr. Nicholas writes on midwifery and birth, the common good, friendship and community, practical reason, and Native American philosophy. He aims to develop a philosophy of integral humanism that synthesizes the philosophical traditions of Alasdair MacIntyre, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and Feminist Care Ethics.