By Tariq Ramadan
Tuesday 29 December 2009
The increasingly universal human being is becoming simplified, devoid of complex ideas and nuances
There are various ways of appropriating the universal, claiming to have a monopoly on it and then establishing a hierarchy of values, civilizations and cultures. This sometimes involves forcing it on others without further ado … ‘for their own good’, of course. In the realm of the universal, the most natural, if not the least dangerous, attitude consists in reducing the range of possibilities to one’s own point of view: my truth is everyone’s Truth, and the truth for everyone, and the values that derive from it are, a fortiori universal. In that case, order is imposed from on high and Man adopts, for himself and with confidence, the viewpoint of God or the absolute. All religions or spiritualities run the risk of being distorted in this way: because we look down the mountain from the summit, we deny the very existence of the many slopes that constitute its very essence and give it its human perspective. If we attempt to use the common faculty of reason to elaborate a universal, the phenomenon is markedly different, but the outcome is the same. As we make our way to the common good of Men, we accept, by definition, the existence of a multiplicity of viewpoints, the need for postulates, doubts and even the paradoxical contradictions of analytical reason, irrespective of whether or not we believe in the existence of a truth or meaning. We can establish the principles of immutability and change in the same way as Socrates or Aristotle, or establish a framework of reference and hierarchies of truth as we go in search of the first Reality, like al-Kindî (ninth century) and then Ibn Sîna (Avicenna: 980-1037) We can, like Descartes, determine a strictly rational method and maxims, or begin by observing the truths empiricists like Berkeley and Hume derive from what they call sense-data. We can in fact start out from a thousand philosophical postulates and theses, and construct so many truth-systems that their very number signals their relativity. When we are climbing a mountain, we accept that only one side of it can be observed. There is still a danger that we will think that, whilst we accept that the mountain has many slopes, only one path actually leads to the summit … the path we are taking. Even though we accept, in theory, that there are many hypotheses and many truths, there is a danger that, in practice, we will assume that our certainties and truths are exclusive. Or that we will pass a final judgement on those who seem to have taken a different path: they are ‘alienated’, to use Feuerbach’s categories, or what Sartre describes as minds that have been colonized by ‘bad faith’, or even as ‘cowards’ or ‘bastards’. Given that we alone can reach the summit, even though we are armed with the faculty of a reason that is shared by all, it therefore seems almost logical to think that the values that we discover or elaborate are naturally those of everyone. The terms of the equation are perfectly clear: the universal of reason quite naturally has to be accepted by all rational beings. If that is not immediately obvious, the passage of time will make it so. That is the meaning of Auguste Comte’s theory of the three stages (theology, metaphysics and positivism). According to Comte, there is ultimately only one path, and not several, and some civilizations are simply ahead of others. For Comte, positivism is the ultimate realization of philosophy. Fukuyama translates this idea into political terms when he announces the ‘end of history’ and claims that the West is showing the way. This is not, then, a matter of diversity, but of temporality and historicity. It is quite simple: some are seen to have gone further down the road of human progress’s linear evolution and will reach the universal before others. We cannot criticize those who support this approach for appropriating anything, for having established illegitimate property rights or for claiming to have a monopoly on the universal: like Rousseau, they accept that the fruits belong to all, and the earth and the summit to no one … the only problem being that only their path leads to the earth, the fruits and the summit. And that they got there first …This is a matter of point of view.
It has often been said that religious minds or people of firm convictions are the most likely to surrender to the temptation to appropriate the universal and to assert that they have a monopoly on it. That is quite true: if we believe in one God or in the one Path that leads to truth and fulfilment, there is a real temptation to speak for or in the place of the God in whom we believe or in the name of the spiritual Truth we support; the history of religions and civilizations is adequate proof of that. And yet we have often seen people taking a very different stance. There are religious and spiritual thinkers who are so acutely aware of the danger of becoming inquisitorial and totalitarian that they have always striven to emphasize the values of diversity and of listening to others, who have firmly rejected the need for coercion and respected the multiplicity of religions, Paths and points of view.. At the opposite extreme, we have seen rationalist, sceptical, agnostic or atheist thinkers claiming to be open-minded, and then coming around to the view that the very idea of their own open-mindedness gives their status and their values a natural superiority. The cult of Reason that emerged from the French Revolution had its moments of terror too. Because they confuse self-doubt with open-mindedness towards others, some rationalists and sceptics succumbed to the same temptations of exclusivism, not in terms of the universal in itself, but in terms of the one path that leads to it. That is the paradox of those who believe that there is only one way to have an open mind.
The common feature of the various attitudes that gradually lead to monopolization of the path to the universal has less to do with the object of the quest than with the disposition of the intellect that goes on it. Points of view are determined by states of mind: all these attitudes have succumbed to the dogmatic temptation that colonizes the intellect. In that sense, the dogmatic mind is not necessarily a religious or a believer’s mind, and it is quite capable of influencing very rational intellects. The characteristic feature of the dogmatic mind is its tendency to see things from one exclusive angle, and to think in terms of absolutes: the dogmatic mind thinks that it is God and passes judgement from on high and in the name of eternity, just as it thinks that it is the absolute viewpoint (Bergson sees this as a contradiction in terms) and the only centre of what is seen and what there is to see. Exclusivity is its territory and its property, and the universal is its ideal: its truth alone is true, its reasons alone or rational, and only its doubts are certified.
The dogmatic mind displays, moreover, one further characteristic. It would be a mistake to think that it accepts the existence of only one point of view: the dogmatic mind is a binary mind. Whilst it states that its truth is the only truth, that its Way is exclusive and that its universal is the only universal, that is because it stipulates – at the same time—that anything that does not partake of that truth, that path and that universal is, at best, absolutely ‘other’ and, at worst, culpably mistaken. This simplistic state of mind can sometimes be astonishingly sophisticated; it is, to say the least, disturbing, to observe, at the heart of postmodernity and globalization, the rise of mass movements that are, in varying degrees, intellectualized or emotive, that shape dogmatic and binary minds that are increasingly incapable of accepting the complex multiplicity of points of view, paths and ways. It is as though mass communications, with their colossal powers, their capacity to bring psychological pressures to bear and the uncontrolled complexity of their power to influence us, had shaped a new ordinary human being, in both the East and the West, the North and the South. This increasingly universal human being is, like his fellows, in danger of becoming simplified: we are seeing the global birth of a binary mind that is increasingly devoid of complex ideas and nuances, easily convinced of the truths it is told again and again, colonized by perceptions and impressions that are as intellectually vague as the way it judges others is cut and dried and final..