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Search for Values - Introduction

Humanities as a field of studies is involved in a 'quest (or search) for values'. They are very difficult to attain, let alone to be maintained. Usually this study course is neglected at university. Given a lack of time and resources but also in not seeing how valuable would be the creation of opportunities to step outside fields of specialized studies to reflect things from a different perspective, 'search for values' hardly figures, if at all in the minds of students when preparing themselves for their respective qualifications. But as a business student experienced like a shock once having experienced such a course, the same must apply to many. For too often they are trimmed to just look for opportunities to earn money and thereby are at risk to neglect not only human values, but who they are and can become if without any ethics.

'Business only' is as wrong as clinging to old fashioned values when in fact reflections from both inside and outside the societies we grow up in should be what forms the self-understanding over time.

The task of Humanities is to allow for the articulation of personal thoughts and thereby learn in the process as well to articulate values. The latter is most difficult to attain since most of the values are simple set as premises to be followed throughout one's life. Yet it is vital for attaining human self-consciousness to know how one's own life links up with the main questions pertaining to humanity.

One of the most crucial questions faced by humanity is the problem of violence. Yugoslavia has demonstrated that over the past four years in more than one way. It has challenged the United Nations and other institutions set up specifically to prevent war, genocide and racial related forms of violent clashes.

The Hungarian writer G. Konrad calls war when based on 'ethnic cleansing' a fascistic way of dealing with reality. It is a kind of assertiveness not wanted but which has been demonstrated forcefully enough by what happened once Yugoslavia started to break apart.

Equally it is worrisome when election victories are secured by politicians who give reason for worries and doubts about all the parties involved in the power sharing complex since they are all engaged in a kind of 'politics' which does not assure upholding the democratic process. Again the Hungarian writer G. Konrad considers it to be quite critical if Fascists can gain access to power with only scant or only mere overt allegiance to democracy.

One analysis of Facism in Germany points out the danger of overlooking certain developments until it is too late to do anything about it. For 'Fascism crept first of all into power before seizing then completely power!' Hitler was more or less elected and then proceeded to dispose of all forms of parliamentary control. He resorted to violence and coercion to make people vote and behave not only in a certain, but more and more in a highly conformist way. People make quite often this mistake insofar as they give in to threats of violence in the hope to avoid thereby violence, when in fact it merely helps to produce more violence, one which suppresses them while being directed at the same time against others in a most inhumane way. That this was a dangerous illusion, shows the history of Germany in terms of what happened between 1933 and 1945. The hope that violence identified first of all wrongly being merely the demonstrators in the streets would vanish if only one strong man rules over all, and thus nothing further would upset their own life, vanished the moment Hitler was in power. It is a dangerous illusion to think such a danger would pass by without further consequences for the entire society. Once coercion rules, freedom is lost. No one dares to speak up against those in power and more so fear, not courage shall rule when abuse of power becomes ever more so the rule. In the end Germans grew to be afraid of themselves. They did not dare to challenge violence in the streets but left it to the Gestapo to rule instead. Hitler's strategy to seize power outwitted even the clever aristocrats who made up most of the High Command in the Military. Their mistake was to underestimate Hitler until it was too late and even Rommel, first much admired, was executed since linked to the plot aiming to kill Hitler. But that attempt, and the only serious one in this history of hardly any resistance against abuse of power, came late in the war, that is in 1944 when violence had turned practically in form of a World War against everyboy and no one was safe anymore.

This negative tradition of letting oneself be coerced into doing something against one's own free will and conscience needs to be treated as a serious threat to humanity. Once people commit doing things even though they know what they are doing is wrong, have lost all effective forms of self control. Their consciousness is gripped by fear. They have lost any courage to stand up for themselves and for human values.

When H. Schmidt in Germany lost a vote of confidence and had to step down as chancellor, he said something of great political significance: 'the political tradition of coercion has to stop'. What he meant has still to be examined since it is still an unspoke about legacy of the new democracy in then only West Germany.

But how to keep up the courage to think and to speak freely, especially if the practice of survival in society has been almost always at best merely pragmatic. The latter implies a giving in to power in order not to jeopardize one's own chances of survival within the system. In short, a person faced with the choice to keep the mouth shut or else loose the job, in most of the cases the choice goes towards staying quiet. Repeatedly those who do speak up are punished in one or the other way, and if not in the short term, then definitely in the long term. Power systems are all about creating prejudices against those with a free conscience and thereby further built-in inhibitions to speak up. This clinging to a job in the illusion one day to say the truth furthers but one thing:a dangerous illusion. Clinging to it will have negative, if not dangerous consequences.

Violence has to be defined, understood and approached from a practical perspective and not only out of logical reasons e.g. wish to uphold state ideology or as the saying goes in Germany that the state must have the monopoly over power equal to violence (Gewalt). By practical perspective is meant the philosophical way to approach someone ready to be violent and succeed in bringing about a calming down. A sober mind results out of a sense of touch of something touches truly the human nature. There is one restriction in this. When the Swedish Minister of Interior returned shocked from an attempt to negotiate with 'terrorists' who had taken a number of people hostage, he made the experience that they could not be talked to. He confronted another kind of silence, one not to be lifted by use of human language and of course human reasoning. But as long as there is a chance for dialogue, this opportunity should be taken in preference to resorting to equally violent means to stop violence. Otherwise it would end in just furthering the spiral of violence.

Unfortunately people once in power no longer reflect conditions of violence prevailing in society. They do not reflect it so much since their own use of power entails already a violent behavior on their part especially if they feel that without resorting to violence, they cannot get their way. Of interest is here that in Germany the need for the state to have a monopoly of power is linked with the ability to push through any law this state has passed. Any inability of the state to do so would be considered a huge crisis. But that is in contradiction to any democratic practice which is based on convincing the others that the law to be passed is not only just, but to be enacted upon for the sound reason of governance by the people.

The moment law becomes a coercive principle, then it is not conveyed by the will of the people, but rather intends to go against, if not break their will as was the case when Thatcher broke up the miners' strike and initiated a new economy more unjust than before to people of all walks of life. As a matter of fact once inside structures of power it happens very often that a kind of lawlessness prevails with a politician claiming to have all the power 'to hire and to fire' as if no constraints on the exercise of power prevail in terms of Rights to work under humane conditions. Whether now working as advisor to MEPs of the European Parliament or at local level in Greece with mayors of a town wielding also such arbitrary power, it means in terms of vulnerability that politics does not heed this special need to safeguard spaces and Rights to express opinions (advise) when especially a matter of conjoining articulation of independent knowledge and political will (influence). Not everything is 'true' or 'right' if it brings in more votes for a politician if he or she supports that specific measure, but then continuity of democracy in terms of how Parliament works is often forgotten when everyone scrambles for just more power and influence.

At individual level especially young people confront coercion in the form of a crude 'either-or': accept the working conditions or go! Posing such illusionary alternatives can already indicate the readiness to resort to violent behavior since without a job and means to earn money any person faces a threat to his or her existence in a society completely dependent upon money to survive. Therefore, it becomes a crucial philosophical question when a decision has to be taken to uphold independent from such a system such knowledge and opinions which do not give in to such a threat. As this links to the search for truth in a reality not ready to reflect itself, the negative outcome of people inside clinging to their established existence while those outside nearly unable to survive and hence a serious split in society must be resolved through a praxis to which more often the arts contribute than any other activity of mankind.

Can these examples be used to extend reflections about the term 'violence' to poetry? As shown by the essay of Brendan Kennelly about 'poetry and violence', the answer has to be: yes, it is possible. However, it is important to recall here what Martin Jay stresses as the crucial difference between artistic and political articulations. While the former may include such a line as 'I shall kill you' when playing a leading role in Shakespeare's McBeth, the latter has another kind of truth implied since the literal meaning of what is being said resonates within reality as concrete intention and thus subject to criminal law if acted upon. Moreover, as the latter example will show, if the threat has been made to coerce the other into doing something otherwise not done, such use of violent expressions to get someone to do something against his or her own free will, would also be criminal. Still, the legal system has no ready answer to the use of force in order to coerce people into doing something in violation of their own free will. Too much subjective interpretation attempts to gloss over that difference between being coerced and doing something out of own free will. If alone the countless cases of child abuse are taken, it is clear that by law any adult engaged in any sexual act with a minor (under 18) violates the free will of that child and therefore there cannot be any talk about 'consensual sex'. Still even here some would argue it is not that obvious what is consensual, what not since many people work under conditions they would clearly define as being coercive, but then, so the argumentation, by necessity the reality is constructed out of the need to earn money.

In some cases that does not leave much choice, so the argumentation would continue. If, therefore, Carlo Penco, Philosopher of Epistemology at the University of Genoa, would refer to his early attempts to discover if there exists a logic free of coercion, and he would most likely refer then to the school of thought interested in developing an 'intuitive logic', then further thoughts should be given to this search for a humane system governed by such a logic rather than by sheer coercion. It is a matter whether people are forced to uphold a system claiming to be independent from them and a system - legal, political, economic - used to uphold the independence of people.

When Greece is facing its debt in 2010, then many say by being forced to go to the International Monetary Fund and forced to accept measures as dictated by this organisation in order to get with their financial assistance out of this debt crisis, it means giving up sovereignty i.e. independence. However, Greece ended up among other reasons in such a dilemma by having joined the Euro zone without there being in place a new accounting system. Anything going beyond the national sphere of influence of own policy instruments e.g. devaluation to off-set a negative balance of payment is not possible under these new economic conditions, means there has to be in place another kind of accountability and therefore as well accounting system to realize who suffers losses and who makes unduly gains at the expense of everyone else.

It is easily said that pursuit of only money ruins anyone as far as human values are concerned. If only business and commercial interests are allowed to dominate public and private life, then the shortcomings of such a society are obvious: many more people are impoverished and suffer under unacceptable living conditions while a few enjoy such wealth as if the Shah in Persia or the King in France or a oil millionaire in Texas. The 'Wealth of the world' is spoiled by particular greeds and specific interest groups taking advantage of an overall situation which does not allow international governance even though Human Rights are based on the premise that values such as freedom, equality and brotherhood are universal. That was at least the belief of those who supported the French Revolution but which was never realized to any degree of validity. One reason for this failure was that people did not recognize each other as 'citizens of the world' but fell back once again to their own entrenched logic of particular interests, including the French way as subject to a specific interpretation of the 'loi' or law.

How then to link philosophy to such studies of Humanities which would allow a search for values to become a core course in every study program? Why are university presidents and boards not convinced studies must not be reduced to producing a future intelligence which is locked into only certain ways of doing things? Are they so much afraid of independent knowledge even though it would be the task of universities to give back to society, as Klaus Heinrich would put it, the knowledge society needs to know what it is doing or what is being done in its name. Successful models are hard to come by but Bertrand Russell was correct in saying the fathers of Fascism were already those brilliant minds which engaged themselves in scientific research after the end of First World War having demonstrated what power can be gained over the masses of people by technical means, but they did so without any 'ethics'.

Thus the relationship to values must be found through studies and discussions. And can this be brought about by comparing, for instance, the meaning of 'violence' in Ireland when compared to other European countries which were horrified by the violence everyone experienced during First World War? In Ireland violence was used to emancipate oneself from the much hated British yoke, while the Loyalists joined the British army to fight in the trenches. To the latter group this meant violence equals loyalty to the crown, a value still upheld to a high extent in Northern Belfast where for years this unbridgeable difference in violence as a positive meaning prevented both the IRA and the Loyalists from questioning the violence they subjugated each other to.


Example of misconception of violence: See Belfast wall mural linking violence of First World War to the present as part of the Loyalist declaration of allegiance to certain values.

Behind such a question stands much more than mere violence as physical act. It includes the avoidance of key questions and the failure to have a public debate about these matters before any actions are decided. Underlining the failure to uphold the democratic process is really the failure to convince people how crucial it is for their lives to seek political solutions in a non-violent way.

Such a failure spells more trouble lies ahead for the already struggling democracies due to their legitimacy deficit. That includes a lack of freedom, including the loss of freedom to seek non violent solutions. Instead of seeing challenges, they are translated into threats and rather than exercising body and mind in a democratic way so as to stand to rational reason when it comes to doing things, irrationalities become 'avalanches of stupidities' (Adorno & Horkheimer).

Jean Pierre Faye in 'Totalitarian Languages' shows how this fuels hatred ready to unload at any given moment against a suitable scapegoat i.e. the Jewish people then, the foreigners today. When perceiving the many areas of conflict which exist in the world, then violence is also inherent in such structures designed to prevent a peaceful solution to these conflicts.

Violence in abandunce exists not only in the shanty towns of Mexico City or in the trafficking of women and children across countless borders, but also where such conditions prevail that threats and coercion prevail in the streets, at school, at work and at home. Negative profits reaped from such situations as the opium trade underlines further trade in weapons but does nothing to further peace.

It takes someone like Nelson Mandela to come through all violence and prejudice, racial convictions and distortions of reality - how long was he framed as 'terrorist' - and create conditions for a culture of redemption and a Commission of Truth to deal with the past, but without further manipulation, revenge and destruction.

Something along those lines is attempted in Belfast with the so-called peace process after finally the Friday agreement was reached. Since then the two communities have embarked on a power sharing type of governance. It follows the aim to build up so much trust, that they could eventually control their own forces of police and thereby the very violence in need to be tamed. Naturally this process is by far perfect and trust building efforts need to continue and be substantiated, if a civilized state can guarantee peace and good governance.

Hatto Fischer

Athens 1992 (updated 2010)

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