Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wendy C. Hamblet's "Emmanuel Levinas: From "innocent violences" to the ethical "just war"

Hamblet's essay (in Philosophical Perspectives on the War on Terrorism Gail M Presbey, ed.) begins by explaining that according to Levinas, existence is more or less zero sum and thus all living is murder because your life must come at the expense of someone else's. Moreover, without reference to the other we necessarily do not recognize this obvious fact. Western civilization as a whole is actually built on a bedrock of callous violence as witnessed in Homer's Iliad; where the heroes who often have an opportunity not to kill enemies, do so nonetheless. This is consistent with Hitler's Nazism and Western civilization is poised to repeat the Holocaust unless we cease to value the heroic ethos. But, Hamblet claims, Levinas does leave open a space for life not being inherently murderous if one can actively cultivate an extreme passivity, especially toward their oppressor.

In her quick Levinasian analysis of the Iliad she issues a blanket condemnation of each of the heroes for failing to make the right choice. What bad choice did they all make? In each case the hero ends up killing someone - each hero failed "to respond in a human way to his pleading victim" and thus "violence is the sole victor . . . Never does it occur to the hero that snuffing out the life from a defenseless suppliant is an inherently cowardly act." (p. 414)

Of course this assumes that there is a "human way" of responding to a pleading victim. It also assumes that Hamblet and Homer share the same concept of "victim". The picture we get of the ancient world, especially as it comes to us from Homer is that the line between victim and aggressor is unclear, even to the participants. We also get a clear picture that the role violence and death, and even life itself, played in the ancient world was not the same as the one it plays in ours. Both the victims and perpetrator of violence perceive the other in a different way today as they would have in the past. As such, a Levinasian analysis (which would presumably include the usual insistence on infinite responsibility for the other. . . ) still must be understood differently today as it would have been in Homer's time.

The objective content of the subjective nature of violence is forever shifting in ways that reflect the social circumstances. After all, people in the ancient world had a more intimate relationship with violence than did Hamblet or even Levinas. In the ancient world many more individuals were acquainted with violence as a way of life, not just as an occasional breach of the peace that takes a few years of their lives every generation or two. People in the ancient world knew violence as a way of life; they understood violence both as victims and also as perpetrators. One does not expect ancient literature to reflect any squeamishness about violence.

Levinas himself saw violence first hand under the Nazis. But Hamblet cannot even pretend to understand it. In a society like the one she lives in (Canada) freedom from violence is guaranteed (or at least well protected by) - for starters - a standing army that has 87,000 people who stand ready to do extreme violence on her behalf. This protects citizens from all knowledge of violence but then puts them in the naive position of being unable to understand even the role it plays in ancient literature. Not to mention, Canada was settled by people who essentially quashed the ability of the indigenous people to use violence against her long before she was born. Also, a police force and serious law enforcement and forensic infrastructure to make sure citizens are protected against domestic violence. Moreover now citizens have many of their material needs met by a huge bureaucracy who pretty much all make sure that they have all their material needs met thus making moot the need to use or even understand the context of most violence. Modern Canadians are able to subcontract out their violence to paid police forces who are authorized to use force and presumably have a large amount of superior firepower at their disposal. And if there were someone who were to so much as insult her race, steal her possessions, or sexually assault her, her modern nation state would seize the offender and lock them in a cage until such time as he was deemed fit to roam the streets again.

The heroes of the Illiad did not have the option to have others commit or threaten violence on their behalf. They had no one to cleanse "their lands" of undesirables. They had no way of having their material needs met by others. They had no way of ensuring their children's' safety. They did not have trillions of dollars at their disposal rearranging the world so that they were insulated from the stark realities of pre-modern society. Living was harsh. Life really was mean, nasty, brutish, and short regardless of where you lived and who you were. And to contemplate the otherness of the oppressor is to court your own nonexistence.

But let me get to Hamblet's main points. I take it that her main point is to argue - from a Levinasian standpoint - that as long as we value a "heroic ethos" we stand poised to repeat holocausts. As a corollary, the US is clearly guilty of such things and she gratuitously points out, even the German Justice Minister has compared Bush to Hitler. (p. 418) (As a German government official, undoubtedly I suppose, he should know!)

The Levinasian strategy she recommends (which she somehow finds radical (p. 416), though to me seems like a rehash of Levinas) is for the hero not merely to "lay down his weapons and show the greater courage of resisting the urge to violence" but moreover "he would need to resist the comfortable disposition toward mere life and actively cultivate the human life, even at the great risk of thinking. . ." And a thinking being would "need to assume responsibility even for the irresponsibilities of the other, more dangerous passer-by, heroes and other enraged torturers who delight in the crushing of innocents.

It does sound like she is advocating that we take responsibility for the Uday and Kusays of the world, for the genocidal Saddam Husseins of the world, and look in the face of their victims. Of course she thinks that this must only be done in a non-violent way. But this strikes me as problematic for a number of reasons. First, I do not know what it means to take responsibility for another. Does that mean I bear the moral or legal burden for what they have done? That seems like a statement in contravention of all intuitions about law and ethics. It is also just simply bizarre. There is this idyllic philosophical position taken that claims that it is our virtues of manliness and heroism that cause us to start wars. This ignores the complexities of the real world, and then the position is used to justify a condemnation of real individuals (and fictitious ones) for not meeting this impossible philosophical standard. Moreoever in the modern era, those who start wars are never the same as those who fight in them.

We have to care about the Other, Hamblit belives, even as the other is shooting at us. Failure to live up to this clearly shows that Bush is like Hitler. (This is Hamblit, not my sarcasm.) I assume she sleeps well knowing that she is morally superior to the ancients who had to fight for their very existence.

As the paper clearly illustrates, it is much easier to look at peoples of other places and other times and condemn them than to try to understand their place in history. It is easy to ignore and even condemn the military underclass in our society than to contemplate what life would be like without them. This essay exhibits both ivory tower idealism and moral imperialism of the worst kind.

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