Lockdown
100Cyborgs: 81-90

Citizens

Raphael.The School of AthensThe technology of citizenship was one of the most revolutionary transformations in human history. It offered, for the first time, the chance for people to participate in a political body as equals - a concept invented in ancient Greece, expanded in the Roman Republic, and then lost for millennia as the relationship of sovereign to subject became the dominant political regime once more.

We inherited the revival of this citizenship technology, bequeathed to us by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Immanuel Kant and Mary Wollstonecraft. This shiny new model was founded upon the dignity of our free will as rational beings. Kant ‘hacked’ citizenship into monarchies without losing the role of the monarch (a necessary compromise for this change to have been permitted!), while Wollstonecraft thought through its consequences leading inexorably to a citizenship that was available for the first time to women as well as men. Eventually, without any further hacking required, the concept of citizenship extended to all humans belonging to a nation, regardless of their personal circumstances.

Yet now we have hit a crisis in our concept of citizenship, a technological breakdown caused in large but unnoticed part by our wilfully forgetting where we came from. Thus while the fundamental laws concerning citizenship haven’t significantly shifted (except to expressly include those who, philosophically speaking, should always have been included) most of us seem to have rejected the option to be a citizen at all.

We reject leaders whom others elected, and will not follow them.

We reject other people whose political views offend us, and try to rob them of their right to free speech.

And we reject the sovereignty of other countries, and use force of arms to alter their political course even though we are not (and do not desire to be) citizens of those nations.

In short, we reject our opportunity to be citizens at all, and offer in its place nothing but excuses for why our values, our judgements, and our chosen leaders are the only ones that matter.

A person who truly practices citizenship, rather than abusing their entitlements and excluding voices from political consideration, forms a cyborg network with all other citizens within the same nation. I would love to say something trenchant about the moral and behavioural effects of citizenship, but first I would have to find some citizens to observe, and apparently there are none left. We continue to try to reap the benefits of this social technology even while we fatally undermine the radical equality it depends upon. Liberals are just as guilty of this corruption of the technology of citizenship as conservatives, since few liberals care about their nation as such, seeking instead to assert their power everywhere while undermining both free speech and the concepts of nationality that citizenship depends upon.

For the first time in my life, I find myself interested in learning how to be a citizen... but alas, there is nobody left for me to be a citizen with.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #98

Comments

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What does it mean to be a citizen? Without your voluminous background in philosophy, I can only try to synthesize what you wrote: a citizen opposes militant imperialism, supports free speech -- including topics most would find offensive or objectively false -- accepts leaders they themselves did not support, and regards fellow citizens as equals in some holistic moral sense.

Fortunately I suspect that a number of my friends meet your criteria for citizenship, and yet I must concur: my impression is that these qualities in society at large have diminished in the last decade, at least. To the degree that citizenship is receding, I'm inclined to mostly blame modern disinformation-bubbles -- those cesspools of free speech -- to injecting nonsense into the set of facts (eg relatively objective truths) the electorate uses to reason about how to vote, and consumers use to reason about how to spend. (Economic instability stressors and the consequential corrosion of our social institutions also probably don't help people overcome their less-rational and more emotional impulses with considered action).

Can you point to any time or place in history where citizenship as you've defined it was widely practiced? Compared to other periods in history, how bad are we *really*? ;) And what might be done to improve our state of affairs?

Hi Nathan,
This is a huge challenge you lay down here! But I can start with the easy part - when was citizenship as I am discussing it widely practiced? And the answer would have to be: only under highly ironic circumstances! For of course, when there were a good number of citizens about (lets say, the late 18th and parts of the 19th century as a first approximation), they were all white men (!)

The expansion of suffrage has been a wonderful thing (not to mention hard-earned!) - but perhaps the problems that this piece is gesturing towards lie at heart in the dilemma that good citizens are easier to create when all citizens have a similar background. As nations have become more culturally diverse, as gender equality has become more valued, we have faced a fracturing of the common basis for citizenship because we do not know how to form a political community (a demos) with everyone else unless they happen to be just like us! (And of course, nobody is!)

You suggest "modern disinformation-bubbles" are part of the problem... I partially agree, but I also tread very carefully in this area, since in most of the places that people like to point and say "disinformation!" I see a split, cognitive dissonance widening that split, and vast mistakes on both sides separated by that dissonance (although not in a way that means there is no truth about the matter in question, per se). We perhaps might concur that making echo chambers out of social media where all your opinions are echoed back at you are part of the problem - but you might hold out some ideal view of what the true position is in any given case, and here I am likely to break with you because whichever position it is that you want to hold up, it's quite likely I see at least a partially valid counterpoint on the other side of the divide. (Only, I stress, because since Chaos Ethics I have been devilishly focused upon bringing these political and epistemic divides into my awareness... which is more of a curse than a blessing, if I'm honest!)

And yes, even on that topic (whichever it might be).

The only 'slam dunk' issues in terms of the truth of the situation are those that nobody wants to even think about, such as (say) limiting by manufacture the speed of cars to 30 mph. (A pet concern of mine, but relevant here so please bear with me.) It is unthinkable (apparently)! Even though it would save 1.5 million lives globally every year, and a great many of them young people. But it turns out people aren't half as interested in saving lives as they claim to be... they prefer to choose which causes of death to elevate to importance rather than accepting the grim truth that every cause of death matters, and then dealing with the complexities of that situation honestly. The point being: the politicised issues have destroyed the path to truth out of the passion to implement while the unpoliticised issues can get to the truth but cannot get implemented. What a mess!

We certainly will not restore citizenship by deciding upon the truth and then working to enforce it. Indeed, precisely the message of this piece is that trying to do this is exactly what has undermined citizenship... The problem is in being able to listen to people you disagree with, because if you cannot do this you cannot form a demos. And right now, I worry that no nation can.

Many thanks for choosing this piece to respond to! I wasn't happy with its pessimistic tone and I hope to do better with this issue now I see that the root problem is with the sciences (or rather, with epistemology which poor philosophy of science has obfuscated). Anyway, I'll wade in on this in January, so please stay tuned! :)

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Thanks for the fascinating response, Chris! (And no worries if you haven't the time to respond to this comment; it sounds like you're juggling a tremendous number of things as always!)

With regard to disinformation on the internet: I agree that echo chambers are bad, and while I'm inclined to err on your side of (some might say extreme) tolerance for others' viewpoints, I stop short of personally approving of discourse that's factually false (like Flat Earth), or that -- like the many supposed global Jewish conspiracies -- are utterly lacking substantive evidence, but abundantly supplied with racial and religious animus.

As an American, I've grown up with and continue to support my nation's Constitutional stance against government censorship -- but as an individual, for what little it's worth, I consider these sorts of discourse destructive.

You correctly point out that our society is more interested in faster travel than saving 1.5 million lives a year. This is /at best/ questionable. :/

Social heterogeneity certainly seems to make it harder to maintain a reasonably well-functioning political community -- which bums me out, since I like a diversity of perspectives. At least learning how to disagree less dysfunctionally seems to be somewhat in the public conversation(1).

I'm very interested to hear about your latest thoughts on the philosophy of science come January!

Cheers,

Nathan

(1)
https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-highest-form-of-disagreement/531597/
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/erisology-the-science-of-arguing-about-everything/586534/

Hi Nathan,
The trouble with wanting to censor 'factually false' discussions is that this seemingly logical position leads very rapidly to disturbing nonsense, and policing falsehood requires an authority on the truth that is more problematic than anyone tends to consider.

Many thanks for continuing our conversation... whether or not I 'have time' to reply to comments, I reply to comments - because comments are the lifeblood of the blogger's experience. Time spent replying is never time wasted. It is the point of the exercise! So it's always only a question of how long it takes me to get to the comments, and never a question of whether or not I'll reply... I'll reply. Just not always promptly! :)

With regard to disinformation on the internet: I agree that echo chambers are bad, and while I'm inclined to err on your side of (some might say extreme) tolerance for others' viewpoints, I stop short of personally approving of discourse that's factually false (like Flat Earth), or that -- like the many supposed global Jewish conspiracies -- are utterly lacking substantive evidence, but abundantly supplied with racial and religious animus.

Some would call my position 'extreme', aye, but I would suggest that my position is the only tenable position on free speech i.e. that it should be free, since otherwise we do not have it at all. The laws of all nations draw a line solely at defamation (false statements made to hurt individuals) and incitement (statements made to provoke harm). I am open to discussion on those two boundaries; I am not enormously open to arguments against free speech, and much less to attempts at undermining free speech for the sake of 'good causes', which are legion at the moment, although I'll always listen to any argument someone wishes to marshal.

Flat Earth is an interesting discourse to single out here... what harm is this perspective alleged to cause? You want to say it should be silenced because its 'factually false'. That makes me want to ask 'who is to arbitrate what is or is not factually false...?' It is no good pointing to scientists as if they had a magic ability to determine truth - they do not, and most would freely admit it. Indeed, establishing truth or falsehood requires considerable application, and seldom results in definitive answers except in relatively trivial cases. No matter how absurd claims of a Flat Earth may appear, I find it hard to believe that Flat Earthers are a significant source of harm, although I would listen to any case someone wanted to make in this regard. Still, a boundary here turns swiftly ugly.

If Flat Earthers are to be silenced, do we also silence Australian Aborigines regarding the sacred nature of Uluru? After all, this is not something we are likely to endorse as "factually true". What about those on either side of the abortion non-debate? Who is to decide what is "factually true" in such a context, where conclusions flow from prior assumptions about life, death, humanity, personhood, freedom, and murder? A great many issues are not matters of fact, as such, but questions of metaphysics - and learning how to distinguish metaphysics from testable questions is a skill that is not often taught, is in dangerously short supply, and yet might indeed be absolutely essential to any kind of democratic citizenship in a world of immense and ever-growing cultural diversity.

The problem with 'factually false' as a criteria is beautifully indicated by a recent hot button topic, namely face masks. Of course, even evoking this shibboleth risks a breakdown in our ability to talk to one another! The two rival camps are so locked into cognitive dissonance that discussion has become impossible. Nonetheless, I'll trust you to open your mind at least wide enough to look at this problem from my rather odd vantage point, whatever your own perspective might be.

At this time, it is either factually false or else factually indeterminate that masks "save lives", despite millions of people repeating this mantra for most of the last year... there is existing evidence that this claim is implausible (i.e. factually false), and there is counter-evidence that sketches the possibility of a rival understanding (i.e. factually indeterminate, at least until further research is conducted).

Yet, who is to rule on the truth or falsehood of claims such as these? Indeed, this specific issue - which is far more complex than most people seem willing to acknowledge - is an excellent example of why 'factually false' is a concept that cannot help us much as citizens.

For context, a few points of reference from the medical discourse. On the matter of the facts with respect to non-cloth masks, see this paper from November 2020:
https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006207.pub5/full
This is, from at least one perspective, the best evidence we have at this time on the question of the efficacy of (non-cloth) masks against respiratory infections.

On the matter of the facts with respect to cloth masks, we may have to await the Guinea-Bissau trial results in the Summer of 2021, but the current paper trail already suggests cloth masks perform worse than control, the implication being that deployment of cloth masks do not "save lives" but might in fact "cost lives" e.g.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4420971/
That was, in fact, the state of this research topic in 2019, a point repeatedly overlooked in discussions since.

(A deeper truth here, however, is that assessing which actions "save lives" and which "cost lives" is a terrible way of analysing medical interventions, since it misunderstands the very nature of the multifarious risks entailed in enacting medicine...)

The truth of the matter here is that discussion on the topic of masks has confused different kinds of evidence; has mistaken an untested hypothesis for a proven theory; has failed to integrate objections; has ignored the state of the existing research; has attempted tacit censorship of contrary claims; has deployed rhetoric to block the pursuit of the required research - in short, it has ceased to operate as a scientific subject altogether for most of the people being vocal on the topic. The whole issue has become an epistemic quagmire, a kind of distributed disaster of misplaced certainties - and this is sadly the case on both sides of the non-debate.

Who is to police the facticity of such matters...? You want to say that the "factually false" should be suppressed and (by implication) censored but such a position requires an authority to determine the facts. And we do not have that. Indeed, as 2020 has amply demonstrated, we are nowhere near as capable of determining the "factually false" as we tend to pretend. The moment we wade in on a topic having decided what is or isn't true, we seemingly remove from ourselves the capacity to investigate honestly the truth or falsehood of the topic at hand!

So what should happen? By implication of your position, we should censor the factually false position. But at this time, based on the balance of evidence so far, the factually false claim would appear to be "masks save lives" (although that could conceivably change with new evidence, but this camp has commissioned very little research to defend its claims...). I don't know your position on this issue, but I'll play the percentages and guess that you have been advocating this very claim yourself, or at least siding with it. As such, hearing it suggested that your position should be silenced is unwelcome - all the more so, the more convinced you are that your position is factually correct.

What do I say should happen? That we should be permitted to disagree on this issue. That counter-arguments should be heard, that ambiguities should be explored - and thus, that the sciences should be allowed to operate without the intolerable burden of having to police politics, something they are miserably ill-equipped to achieve. The reason the question of the efficacy of masks has become such a minefield (and the differences in efficacy between different kinds of masks and different contexts for their use has become so hopelessly blurred!) is that everyone has decided for themselves what is "factually false" - and having done so, we are now almost entirely prevented from discovering and communicating the truth of this subject. What a mess!

Note that I'm not saying "don't wear masks", nor am I saying "wear masks" - all I am saying in this regard is: please can we do the research, and please can we acknowledge the research already done...? How astonishing that this could ever become a controversial claim! And yet, so it has.

Alas, what this sorry debacle has driven home to me is that we are much worse at disagreement than we thought, and this situation is not looking likely to improve any time soon - a new field name doesn't strike me as an answer, but I'm open to all attempts, more or less, to get us back to a place where being citizens is even possible.

I hope these discussions help make clear why my position of "extreme tolerance" might be required for any viable notion of citizenship to emerge. The moment we cede political discourse for preset answers we collapse the possibility of democracy, just as we did over the issue of masks where discussion became almost instantaneously impossible and the truth became sadly irrelevant all too quickly.

I realise by even mentioning the face mask issue I run the risk of destroying our conversation and replacing it with an argument over face masks. That would be a shame. But it is too good an example of the problem with "factually false" for me not to draw against it. Yet please accept my apologies for even going here, since I know that having done so we may no longer be able to talk about what actually matters on the topic of citizens... such is the immense power of intolerance of disagreement to end democratic citizenship completely. On this subject, I am very much afraid of what I have witnessed in 2020.

To be citizens together we do not need to establish a 'book of facts' to follow - indeed, such a form of government would only be a kind of theocracy in disguise. What we need is the very possibility of respectful disagreement. And at a time when neither respect nor disagreement seem to be permitted, I fear for the very notion of citizenship.

Many thanks for continuing our discussion,

Chris.

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