Archives for posts with tag: individual responsibility

Monotheists insist there’s only one.

I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me.”

– And why would this be of any interest?
– All current civilizations are off-springs of an Weltanschauung built on ‘monotheism’, aren’t they?
– Really?!? How about India? China? The Buddhist countries?
– Have you noticed the scare quotes? In my book, Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism are all forms of monotheism. Atheism also qualifies as such.
– ?!?
– I’ll make that point a little later.

Then, if monotheists insist there’s only one God, which one of them is the ‘real McCoy’?

“The real McCoy” was the inventor Elijah McCoy, born in Canada in 1844. He had many different inventions including an ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Other companies copied his devices, but these never worked as well as Elijah’s so people would say, “I want a… , and make sure it’s a real McCoy.”

When humans had first became conscious, as in aware of their own frailty, they needed a way to assuage their new acquired scares:
‘What would happen if the Sun will not come up tomorrow morning? If spring will never come back? If Mother Deer will not allow me to hunt another of her children?’Mother
So they started to raise prayers towards the Sun God. And towards other various agents held responsible with diverse aspects of human existence. Nowadays known as ‘totemic figures’.
Please note that each totemic figure was simultaneously responsible for one aspect of the human existence and the ‘founding father’ of a certain group of people.

After the advent of agriculture had transformed everything – including human social arrangements, things dully changed.
Agriculture gave birth to private property. Individuals needed to know which was their land and who owned the harvest. Otherwise, why bother?
Private property needs to be protected. Which demands a certain social structure. A hierarchy of social roles.

Around the Mediterranean Sea – due to geographic conditions, the ‘top brass’ were never that far removed from the ‘bottom’ as to make them ‘impervious’ to the social reality. Hence the hierarchy of Gods. Belonging to successive generations. Very similar to the succession of the dynasties which ruled the ‘land under the sky’.
At the opposite end of the Euro-Asian continent, were the emperor was further removed from the vulgus, things took a different path. Since no communication was any longer possible – between the ordinary people and the rulers/gods, gods and rulers were melted into one. Confucianism mandated that people cherish their ‘elders’.
Meanwhile Buddhism made away altogether with gods. And rulers.
The most interesting situation had evolved in India. Due to the high density of population – coupled with the diversity of languages/subcultures, the local leaders continued to be in touch with the general population while the highers up were equally insulated as their Chinese equivalents. Hence the survival of the plethora of Indian gods coupled with the advent of karma. The concept of individual responsibility for ones own fate.

The individuals’ responsibility for their own fates…
This being the common place between all ‘monotheistic’ religions. The way I see it, anyway. All three ‘sisters’ relying on the Holy Book, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism… Atheism…

So, then again, how many Gods are out there?

Or, more likely, how many images of the same God – a.k.a. ‘reality’, have we, humans, carved out? Out of the before mentioned reality?
How many faces of the single reality available have we been able to identify? According to the prevalent local circumstances?

And how much more time do we need? To understand that we live under the same umbrella? According to the same set of broad rules?
Which makes us all members of the same family?
Children of the same God?

For how many times each of us has moaned, in true disbelief, ‘why is this happening to me?’. Or at all.

“I emerge from this conversation dumbfounded. I’ve seen this a million times before, but it still gets me every time.
I’m listening to a man tell a story. A woman he knows was in a devastating car accident; her life shattered in an instant. She now lives in a state of near-permanent pain; a paraplegic; many of her hopes stolen.
He tells of how she had been a mess before the accident, but that the tragedy had engendered positive changes in her life. That she was, as a result of this devastation, living a wonderful life.
And then he utters the words. The words that are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence:
Everything happens for a reason
. That this was something that had to happen in order for her to grow.

That’s the kind of bullshit that destroys lives. And it is categorically untrue.”

In a sense the post that prodded me into writing this (Everything doesn’t happen for a reason by Tim J. Lawrence) is akin to a self supporting fallacy coupled with the kind of honest, well intended error all of us somehow feel is wrong at the very time we are doing it yet we cannot help ourselves to stop doing it.

So, why is all ‘this’ happening to us?

Basically there are three main stances on this.

The staunch believers are convinced that there is a grand scenario that ultimately decides our fates, down to every minute detail. You can find here, mingled together, religiously motivated people, convinced that ‘God’ has preordained their entire lives well before they were even born, rubbing elbows with the scientifically minded who are convinced that everything that  had ever happened went on according to an uninterrupted chain of causes and effects which can, only if we were able to find out how, be followed down to the root of all things. To even before the Big Bang?

The amoral ‘happenstancers’ believe that  ‘Lady Luck’ is blindly leading us down the path to exactly nowhere, hence ‘it’s up to each of us to make the best of it’. Sometimes up to callously disregarding everything else but their own whims.

The agnostics have figured out that while it is impossible to know/understand the ultimate cause for anything, from time to time it happens that each of us has a glimpse of understanding about something. And that however incomplete, that piece of understanding might  prove itself to be useful, even if temporarily.

Most of you have already noticed that the first two positions are at the very extreme ends of the spectrum and are held, in earnest, by relatively few people.
And that most of us – despite our professed affiliations, belong, in reality, to the third category.

Before proceeding any further I’m going to make a small detour here and note that ‘science’ itself was invented by Christian scholars trying to make sense of God’s ways. Hence no wonder that the ‘scientific minded’ cannot see eye to eye with the ‘believers’ – new converts are looking down in disdain to their old religion, and that both partake in the conviction that ‘there must be something behind what is readily visible’.

The link between all these three categories, between the first two who already have a strong conviction about things and us, the run of the mill people who are sometimes taken aghast by what is happening in our close vicinity, is that all humans need to make at least some sense of things before learning to live with them. And with their consequences.
And since no two normal people are alike there never was a one size fits all narrative able to cover, efficiently enough, all situations that ever occurred to us.

That’s why I simultaneously agree with Tim that the best thing to do when something happens to somebody I care about is to simply say I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you. and disagree with him when he says that all other things that get said in times like those are wrong.

The fact that my experiences/opinion on the matter happen to fit his doesn’t mean that we are both right, nor that our take on things that already happened to us might fit all other things that might happen to all other people. So I find it just a little presumptuous to discard all other opinions simply because they are different from ours.

Now, that I’m nearing the end of this post, let me discuss a little the pretext shared by both our posts: ‘Is there a reason for anything?’

Well, the answer for this depends heavily on what you mean by ‘reason’.

Is there a cause for anything? Most certainly ‘yes’, regardless of whether you believe that that cause to be divine, completely aleatory or any combination of these two.

Or is it that we’d better ask ourselves if there’s a ‘motive’ behind what’s happening to us?

Another thing that is common to most people is their tendency to blame others when thinks go bad and to claim more merit than it’s their due when things go well.
That’s why so many of us find it difficult to assume individual responsibility for our own mistakes and for putting ourselves in harms way – even when that responsibility is only partial.
Along the same psychological mechanism many of us cannot accept the very notion of ‘blind’ bad luck. While cashing a lucky lottery ticket is accompanied by nothing more than a self congratulatory slap on the back, and no soul searching questions get to be asked on the occasion, every time we as much as catch a cold in a very bad moment we wrench our hands in self deprecation: ‘what was it in my head that drove me to go in such a germ infested environment?’.

So, while I cannot rule out the existence of the famous Grand Design that I mentioned earlier, it seems obvious to me that only some things happen for a motive. Or that sometimes there are one or more motives which tilt the table in a direction or other. On the other hand what each of us does in each circumstance might have a huge importance. And sometimes both our efforts and the ‘motive’ responsible for the general set-up are rendered inconsequential by some haphazardous  occurrence.
For instance Romania endured the Soviet yoke simply because of its geographic position, because Stalin-ism was an aggressive creed and because the West was too tired shortly after the WWII to do something really meaningful about the Soviets extending their influence beyond where it was welcomed. At the same time the manner in which communism had influenced our destinies depended a lot on individual decisions – ‘theirs’ but also ours – and on pure luck.

That’s why I fully endorse Tim when he says that it’s extremely important for us to act appropriately whenever something nasty happens to those living inside our reach and that we should carefully select those whose presence we accept around us when something nasty happens to us, while I cannot accept his insistence that there is a single ‘appropriate’ behavior in all circumstances.


It is up to us to decide how we put traditional precepts into practice!

islamic law about marriage

And what is there to stop the father from accepting her choice except for his ego or self serving interests?

Click on the picture, watch the video and then tell me what ‘higher instance’ forced any of those people to do what they did, to make the choices they made..
All individuals featured in this video belong to the Afghan people and, presumably, to the Muslim faith. Yet their attitudes cover the entire spectrum. Don’t tell me there is no such thing as free will and individual responsibility.

What forced the father to give away his daughter as compensation for his son’s “sins”?
Peer pressure?!? (‘Relatives’ that may become belligerent if their demands are not met.)
But who are these ‘peers’ if not human beings themselves?

When are we going to understand that we can not quell yesterday’s conflict by inflicting fresh sufferance?
This just doesn’t work!

At some point the significant individual involved in a situation will have to make the relevant decision.

And here comes the difference between a human and a horse.

The horse will wait until it becomes thirsty, no matter how ample opportunities to drink would present themselves before him while the human will first make sure that the water is safe to drink and only then decide what to do: drink pre-emptively, fill a flask, take a nap by the spring…

The point I’m trying to make here is that while animals, no matter how ‘sophisticated’, act according to their instincts (or ‘training’) we humans sometimes act instinctively/emotionally and some other times ‘rationally’ – we ‘identify opportunities’ and try to use them to further our goals.

And here lies the watershed…

Our ‘rational’ decisions can be good or bad and there is no real way to tell before hand which is which. Hence the ‘primum non nocere‘ (“first do no harm”) rule used by the professional healers of this world.
The problem with our rationality is that we  never have all the pertinent information at our disposal, enough time to process whatever information we do have nor the wisdom to realize the first two limitations. And this is why we too often proceed as if those two limitations never existed….

Why haven’t we failed miserably until now? (Miserably enough as to never be able to stand up again or to finally learn the lesson?)
Because we relied heavily on ‘tradition’/’religion’. Usually these two are taken together but I prefer to treat them separately. You see, it is true that both of them are nothing but information accumulated in time as a result of the social cooperation that takes place even without us being aware of it but there is a fundamental difference between them.
‘Tradition’ usually has to do with ‘technology’, the way we do things, while ‘religion’ (which comes from the Latin word ‘reliegare’ = ‘connecting to’) is mostly about sharing a common understanding of the world and acting, collectively, according to that ‘Weltaunschauung’.

And here comes the interesting part. Being the member of a certain religious cult/church is nothing but a set of circumstances. Each individual is ultimately/personally responsible for the path he chooses ‘inside’ his religious tradition, for the way he interprets/acts upon the religious teachings he has received during his upbringing.

moderate Islam

And this is exactly why I am in full agreement with Erdogan: “There is no moderate Islam. Islam is Islam”.
You see, I grew up in communist Romania and in those times we had a saying that went like this: “it’s not the “ism” but the “ist” who causes the trouble!”.

When placed in a certain situation some people act naturally – they drink if they feel thirsty – or they may decide to use whatever opportunity they identify in order to further their goals.
You can study communism in a library or conspire to impose it on people exactly as you can practice Islam in your community or try to impose it by force to all your neighbors.
It’s neither  ‘communism’s nor ‘Islam’s fault, it’s the communists who cannot understand that communism doesn’t work and the hard-line Islamists who fail to understand  that by acting exactly as the Catholic Inquisitors did during the Dark Ages they’ll eventually drive their flock away from their pulpits.

The real problems arise from the arrogance that blinds those “ists”, individuals so ‘concentrated’ on their self-assumed/assigned goals (no matter if they are well intended, like trying to spread – by force – the wealth around and to – administratively – reduce social inequality, or on the contrary – obsessed with becoming filthy rich at the expense of everybody else and/or accumulating dictatorial power over those around them) that they forget/fail to realize that human rationality is inherently limited. And so they fail to understand that ‘the law of unintended consequences’ will eventually bring them back down to where they belong – with a bang!

There are three sets of social circumstances that these kind of ruthless ‘political actors’ perceive as opportunities: inflamed nationalistic feelings, strong religious beliefs, wide spread social malaise due to economic hardships.

For instance the French Revolution (remember, today is Bastille Day) was fueled by the desperation that ‘doused’, at that time, the French people. They were not only hungry but they also felt abandoned/neglected by their rulers. Marie-Antoinette, the French Queen beheaded during the Revolution, was described as being so callous/ignorant of the real life of her subjects that when informed that her people didn’t have enough bread she interjected: ‘Let them eat cake instead!’
Some historians debate whether this really happened, one of their arguments being that the same words have been attributed to many other historical figures that lived before her but the simple fact that the utterance itself was so widely circulated remains and speaks volumes.
A century later Lenin was able to manipulate the same kind of public sentiment and imposed the Soviet rule over the Russian imploded empire while Ataturk, the leader of the Young Turks, fashioned the freshly minted Turkish nationalism into the glue that held together, until recently, the modern – and secular – Turkish state that succeed the ailing Turkish empire by 1925. It is often forgotten but if we really want to understand Turkey we should always remember that until the late XIX-th century it still was a feudal empire and the social costs of such a short/hasty transformation into a modern nation state were tremendous. Unfortunately in the last decade Erdogan has been working hard, with the unwitting help of the Euro-skeptics who reject Turkey’s efforts to join the EU, to replace secular, and relatively moderate, nationalism with religious zealotry as the backbone of the Turkish republic.
Coming back into Central Europe we have the classic example of how Hitler used nationalistic tensions exacerbated by the economic crises deepened by the unwisely imposed war reparations to implement his demented dream of a Reich that was supposed to last for a thousand years.

The same process is happening again, under our own noses. This time all three ‘components’ are present. The economy of the region is in shambles, arguably because of foreign intervention, nationalistic tensions are rife while religious ones are heated way beyond boiling point.
So why wonder that the al-Baghdadi led Isis uses Islam as a pretext to impose a new dictatorship in a region that has no real need for another one?

“Though al-Baghdadi constantly invokes the early history of Islam, the society he envisions has no precedent in history. It’s much more like the impossible state of utopian harmony that western revolutionaries have projected into the future. Some of the thinkers who developed radical Islamist ideas are known to have been influenced by European anarchism and communism, especially by the idea that society can be reshaped by a merciless revolutionary vanguard using systematic violence. The French Jacobins and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guards all used terror as a way of cleansing humanity of what they regarded as moral corruption.

Isis shares more with this modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West. And it’s not just ideas and methods that Isis has taken from the West. Western military intervention gave Isis its chance of power.”

Now it’s up to us. Just as our great fathers used the opportunity presented to them at the end of WWII and helped Germany refashion itself, both economically and socially, by including it in the Marshall Plan instead of making it pay for the rebuilding of the war ravaged Europe we should try to help the peoples in the Middle East find their own respective ways instead of impose on them whatever we might think it would be better for them. And I mean real help, not just let/prod them fight each other to exhaustion.
In fact it would serve our interests also.
The Balkans were considered the powder keg of Europe and indeed the tensions accumulated there helped ignite the WWI. After communism imploded those tensions resurfaced precisely because the previous arrangements were imposed, more or less, from ‘above’. Exactly as the map of the Middle East was drawn by Sykes-Picot.
No, I’m not advocating wholesale dismantling of borders, as it happened in ex-Yugoslavia. If they find a way, by themselves, to preserve the present situation we should encourage and help them to do so. But we should never try to impose something on them just because we consider it would serve our (short term at best) interests.

Lebanon might serve as a good example, both to them and to us.

It won’t be simple, every major power has vested interests there, including Russia, but it can, and should, be done. Specially since the the alternative would be horrible.

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