Choices

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

“Man is what he eats” is a famous pun from the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Being a defender of materialism, he wanted to emphasize the materiality of human identity, against the idealistic philosophical trend of his time. If eating equals being, however loose that might be intended, choosing what to eat defines to a certain extent what we are. In certain historical periods and places, choices about what to eat have been constrained to the point that the alternatives couldn’t have been but two: to eat anything you could find or die of starvation. But in the world of today, especially in what is called the “western world”, we face the opposite problem: we have an endless amount of things to eat among which to choose, and finding the criteria of choice has become an issue.

Last summer I read an article from Spiegel, about the many ways we construct our identities by means of eating: there are reasons based on health, ethical reasons, religious reasons, and many others. None of these reasons is apparently transparent enough as to give a guarantee that our choice will escape incoherence and inconsistency. One could be tempted to say that the only perfectly rational choice would be to weigh price and value and find each time a solution. But this proposal begs the question of what criteria we should consider to understand value. Again, is it how healthy a product is (its nutritional value)? Ethical considerations? Religion? Else?

In this letter I would like to defend the vegetarian and vegan choice (from now on, VVC) as a rationally plausible one, not strictly insofar as it is ethical, but insofar as it is a cultural phenomenon. To be more precise, I will consider vegetarians and vegans as people who choose what to be by choosing what to eat, namely to give up meat and derived products. The criterion of choice is based on emphasizing ethics, however sharable the ethical considerations might be.

Defending VVC against what, you might legitimately ask? Against the worry that individual choices to contrast vast-scale ethical problems, such as the capitalistic exploitation of animals, offer no solution to those problems at all. This critique is found among people, who are skeptical about the possibility of changing our systems of production without structural changes of the economy. Since individual choices have no influence other than slightly re-orient the market, those choices will always be taken in a capitalistic framework and are doomed to be either irrelevant or just to change the nature of the problem without solving it, say by destroying forests for the mass production of soy instead of directly killing animals.

My defense is simple and I have already exposed it. If you consider VVC as a strictly ethical choice, to be evaluated in terms of its practical consequences, the worry just proposed will be valid. But VVC is also a choice about what certain people want to be: they don’t want to be insensitive to animal sufferings, to waste and to ecological damages. They possibly don’t find any truly successful theoretical or practical solution, but they want to understand themselves as “caring for those matters”. And they find expression of their distress, hopes, value system, etc. in VVC.

This is also a way of putting ethics into practice, however less demanding it might be. It shouldn’t be a way to feel ethically superior, but it is a way to show some sort of “existential commitment”, which resembles a religion, and just like all religions it can sometimes fall into fanaticism. The difference with religion is however, that the foundation of VVC doesn’t come from unconditional faith in a divinity, but rather from theoretical and factual assumptions on reality and coherent and consistent deductions from those assumptions. How far reaching and comprehensive of reality those assumptions are, is certainly questionable. But ethics and rationality require us to get to action, even if sometimes we don’t have enough evidence for stating the perfect morality or perfect rationality of our actions. Likewise, not making a pondered decision, would be clearly more ethically and rationally controversial. There is no escape.

I really don’t see a way of believing that the phenomenon of VVC should be a priori labelled as an irrational trend for rich people, forgetting the “true enemy”. The “true enemy” remains, and VVC is most probably not a way to fight it successfully. But, as far as vegetarians and vegans are concerned, please, let them eat cake (vegan, if necessary).

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Nationalism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

When I was in high school, my philosophy professor was used to remind us the difference between 19th century patriotism and 20th century nationalism. In the 19th century, people all other Europe were oppressed by distant and authoritarian rulers, and longed for freedom and independence. Patriots started fighting for the self-determination of the oppressed, and the liberation of the fatherland (lat. patria). In  the early 20th century, patriotism was replaced by nationalism, a popular movement connotated by aggressiveness and saturated by “identitarian ideology”. The word “nation” means “people”, and nationalism aimed at preserving one people’s identity, even if it happened at the cost of excluding part of the total population, depending on ethnicity, religion, political stands, etc.

I think both ideologies belong to the past and shall remain where they are, for reasons I find very convincing. Patriotism was a movement of liberation, which ended up being on the one hand the utopian dream of intellectual elites, on the other hand a tool for less intellectual elites to gain power. Even if most revolutions failed, many people obtained their independence over time. Later, nationalism got rid of the elitist character of patriotism, at the cost of spreading xenophobia and fascism all other Europe, with the unfortunate consequences we all know.

What I have been sketching, is obviously an over-simplification of history, but the message I think we can agree upon is that the world of today has changed a lot since then. Feeling nostalgia for either one of the two ideologies is not only anachronistic, it is also dangerous. None the less, we see everywhere nationalistic slogans like “America first” (US), “Wir sind das Volk” (Germany), “L’Italia agli italiani” (Italy), “We want our country back” (UK), among others. Why do people still find such ideas appealing? Is there anything intrinsically wrong in the attempt to find shelter in one people’s identity against the threat of globalization?

First of all, we shall aknowledge that patriotism is nowadays impossible to realize for obvious reasons: at least in the western world, there is no patriotic elite anymore, either intellectual or otherwise, who could make sense of the movement. So, everytime we talk about the patriotic ideology referred to the contemporary world, we need to operate an implicit translation to “nationalism”. Nationalism focuses on the identity of certain individuals in a society, united by language, habits, customs and, more often than not, religion. The main idea of contemporary nationalism is that such individuals have a special status in society, which entitles them to “come first” in an exclusive way. “America first” means that individuals with an “American identity” shall be favored in their job opportunities, education, access to health care and other facilities. Other slogans may vary in their degree of xenophobic content, but they equally express the prominence of the national identity over non-national ones.

What is wrong in thinking that people with a national identity shall be exclusively favored in their own country? Before even answering this question, we shall ask ourselves what “national identity” means. Society is much more diversified and transitory than what identity makes us think of. People responding to criteria of citizenship may not conform to religious expectations, people otherwise culturally “identical” may lack appropriate linguistic knowledge, and wealth may also vary a lot among such individuals, generating a discrepancy too often underestimated.

National identity is not a “marble block”. It’s more like a sandy seashore: the sea constantly sucks in part of it, and constantly delivers new materials. You may still recognize the seashore after decades, but erosion will eventually transfigure it.

The vagueness of identity is not the only reason why nationalism is fallacious. The most important reason, is that society “comes before” individuals and groups of individuals. A society is “already there” and we can either think about it in an inclusive way, or struggle to find reasonable criteria of discrimination. In either case, our political ideas must address the whole of society, and not only part of it. Otherwise we would obtain the “law of the majority”, which equals tyranny rather than democracy. It is precisely because we believe in the general value of democracy that we must oppose nationalism as its relativistic antithesis.

In the past I have been arguing for the centrality of identity in our self-understanding and self-confidence. I have mixed feelings about the topic. I surely think that being discriminated is a very good reason to employ the concept of identity as a means for survival and flourishing. But I have also started developing skepticism about the reality of identity. Very often, it belongs more to our minds than to the external world and, sometimes, a critical eye can demystify its inconsistency.

However, I feel confident enough to say that there is nothing wrong in being proud of one’s country, for pride needn’t be based on nationalism. Irony usually works against taking one’s identity too seriously.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Pride

Dear princess ‘Ishka,

Yesterday I went to the disco with some friends of mine. We had our pre-drinking at Museumsquartier and had time to chill and relax before the crazy dancing. Being relaxed means to me also to let my “gayness” flow freely and abandon myself to somewhat theatrical manners.

M, a friend of mine, asked why I “try” to be gay. Well, that’s not much of a claim, since I am gay indeed and I don’t have to try. But obviously he meant why I “struggle” to appear gay. I found the question puzzling but interesting at the same time. Indeed, how can I be myself if my behavior is “theatrical”, which sounds dangerously related to “forcefully contrived” if not “fake”?

“I behave like that, because I am like this” was my first thought. But that answer is wrong, for one thing is to be “born this way”; another thing is to give a very strong impression of what one is.

We could make use of the insightful concept of “naturalistic fallacy” to understand better this dilemma: what is natural entails no “normative force”. To put it simply, if you ARE something, it doesn’t follow that you OUGHT to be (or do) anything as a consequence (especially in moral terms). If you hold this principle to be true (as I do), then you can see how inadequate my answer to M was: from my being gay it simply doesn’t follow that I ought to act as a gay person.

M spotted some sort of endeavor in me to appear gay. And I admit that sometimes I am not “gay simpliciter”, but I also feel like I ought to be gay. How to make sense of this in front of the naturalistic fallacy?

At a first glance, I could answer “because that makes me feel alright”. But what if I am self-deceived in believing I feel alright? Why isn’t the normative expression of “gayness” a mark of  insecurity and need of attention, rather than of independence?

We need to do better than that. M himself suggested that, perhaps, it helps to strengthen my personal identity. However appealing this answer may sound, we have not made much progress since the strength of my identity could always be an outcome of self-deception. Think for instance at an overweight person who starts believing that all people thinner than him are sick and therefore he accepts his physical appearance. He is self-deceived, but the outcome would still be an authentic reinforcement of personal identity.

These two answers show that normativity could be nothing more than a psychological trick and that I don’t really “ought to be gay”. Either I am self-deceived in believing that the endeavor in being gay makes me feel better or in believing that my identity depends on showing it off as lively, colorful and stereotypical as possible.

I am not convinced by such conclusions. Instead, I do believe that there is something truly normative entailed by “being gay”. But what is it?

Even if I am too ignorant with respect to the academic literature on the topic and I have not yet thought about it more than a couple of hours this morning as my hangover was slowly fading away, I suspect that we can derive from the natural struggle of existing as a gay person the normative force we need.

If your own existence is endangered by the social environment around you, you may develop resilience as a natural response. That is, you learn how to adapt to an hostile environment while staying true to yourself. However, you don’t “naturally” stay true to yourself. You ought to be yourself against social pressure. You ought to take pride in who you are, because otherwise you succumb.

If my intuition is correct, the very concept of “pride” becomes an essential part of yourself, the part enabling your survival and flourishing. And if this is so, the distinction between what is natural and what is normative in “being gay” becomes a strict connection. The naturalistic fallacy stays unchallenged for most of the cases. It simply doesn’t apply in the special case in which it is not possible to naturally be oneself without normatively being oneself.

It’s not possible for me to distinguish an underlying self from my acting under norms regulating who I take myself to be. The fact that I feel alright and that I am randomly cultivating my personal identity are not enough. In order to be authentic, I ought to be proud and that also means that I ought to behave in a way which conforms to my inclinations. Hence, “being gay” doesn’t mean “fake”, but rather “proud” and “auto-nomous”, in the literal sense of “self-regulating”.

This has been only a brief reflection on one of the many meanings of pride, even if not the easiest one. To thank you for your patience in reading it through, I wish you a joyful, extravagant and (why not) theatrical season of pride!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha