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Charlie Hebdo & The problem of rationality

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 at 8:18 pm
by Borg

I remember discussing the violent reaction to the Danish cartoons with a Lebanese Muslim colleague in Dubai. I was assuming he would condemn the burnt embassies, the people dying, the death threats etc. and say it had nothing to do with Islam. But he didn’t.


Instead he said:
-”Well it worked didn’t it? They won’t do that again.”
I was both shocked and appalled by that response. I tried to say that a violent response to an argument was an expression of a primitive and brutal stage of history. I wanted him to see that the things he liked, the reasons he had moved to Dubai – money, technology and quality of life – were dependent on tolerance and a rational mindset. I argued that there was a connection between financial progress, science and secularism. And that Dubai was enjoying the fruits of rationality without embracing the critical mindset that lead to it.


He replied by telling me a story.
“A man from Hezbollah approaches a house filled with Israeli militants. He is wearing a suicide bomb vest. He walks up to the house and shows his vest. Upon seeing this the Israelis exit the house, and run for their lives. The man proceeds to systematically and calmly kill all of them, one by one. Then he takes off the vest and walks home victorious.”
He smiles at me and concludes:
“We are also rational.”


Ironically – no tragically – he was right. Rationality in itself does not posit objectives, it only states that given objective X method Y is the most efficient way to get there. The Frankfurt school of philosophy was deeply concerned by this lack of morality inside the rational project from the age of the Enlightenment. The school was made up of German Jews who believed the Enlightenment would bring peace and harmony to a secular world. Instead they had to run away from the Nazi totalitarian regime using scientific concepts of race, purity and universality to justify violence against those that didn’t fit the categories. Rationality itself is not enough to bring about a better world. Instead we see that rationality coupled with a self-centered capitalism leads to a homogenous society where nobody is expected to contribute to the well-being of others, and the only duty is to consume. Internet was thought to be the vehicle of democracy and emancipation, but instead it has turned to become a totalitarian surveillance tool serving paranoid nationalistic purposes. It is rationality operating on all cylinders. The objective is not the sustainable well-being of all living creatures, but the short term benefits of a paranoid minority.


The sickness of the soul that gives rise to the kind of violence the world has seen today in Paris is not rooted in a lack of rationality, but in a perversion of objectives. The objectives are rooted in a narrow sense of identity, an exclusive nationalistic, ethnic or religious group identity driven only to care for itself. It is not a higher form of intelligence since it will come back and haunt the group the perpetrators identify with, but it is as rational as the US drone program. (In the name of fighting terrorists, the US gov is creating more US hating militants with every strike. In particular, one of the Paris terrorists said he was  motivated by images of torture of Iraqi inmates at the U.S. prison at Abu Ghraib.)


The sickness is rooted in a narrow sense of identity. A blindness to how we are all essentially the same. A blindness created by centuries of indoctrination of an Us and Them thinking which is equally thriving and flourishing in the West.


What will make us realize we are all connected and that what goes around comes around? What will make us arrive at healthy objectives that we can use our rationality to realize?


It is not naive to care about creating a better future.

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