In my philosophy class, I just taught Socrates, and the session went really well–the students were really into the discussion. I talked about how he was one of the first “cultural critics,” always helping us to question our preconceived ideas of societal “common sense.” Upon questioning, some of our widely-held opinions sometimes contradict each other, and sometimes they don’t, but even those that don’t should always be kept under the lens of further scrutiny. As Jack Forstman, one of my teachers at Vanderbilt, once said, “Everything human is not divine, and therefore should be subject to radical criticism.”
To apply Socrates, I talked about several cases of today with them, to demonstrate how important I think this is. First, I had sent to my students over email a letter from the director of the ACLU concerning our denial of habeas corpus and due process to hundreds held in places like Guantanamo Bay in our “War on Terror.” And in fact, our government has been trying to go against the Geneva Convention, and also has refused to sign a United Nations pact against holding prisoners secretly. (I have that letter posted on my MySpace blog). All this I find very dangerous–I believe that in many ways, we are entering an Orwellian age.
I said to my students that, if we look at this, we will see that we are defending American values by destroying American values, which could be seen as contradictory. One of my students protested that those rights are only for Americans, not foreigners. But then I pointed out in our Constitution we state “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [we should have said people, but that’s another issue] are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”
Thus, I said to him, you don’t have to agree with me, but I want you to see that Socrates might raise a question about that. We are saying on the one hand that ALL people are created equal and deserve these rights, while on the other hand saying that only Americans deserve basic human rights.
Also to demonstrate this, I talked about a tire cover I had seen on a car recently that had an American flag and read “There’s Only One.” I imagined that, as is often the case in Alabama, perhaps the man was also a fundamentalist Christian. I told my class about how I thought Socrates would approach that through questioning. Surely we would quickly find that the man did not believe there is only one country in the world. So he probably meant that there is only one country deserving of his love. But notice that, if he is a fundamentalist Christian, he also would have to admit he believes in Jesus’ teaching “love your enemies,” which I think would imply “love other countries of the world.” So notice how he might be holding two contradictory beliefs, without even realizing it, because he has never thought deeply about his beliefs: On the one hand, I love only one country. On the other hand, I love my enemies and love all countries.
Of course, if I questioned someone in this way, I might get my ass kicked. 🙂 Which is why I think people like Socrates and Jesus had to drink hemlocke poisoning or be crucified. People don’t like having their “idols” challenged and having to confront some of their contradictory beliefs.
I also apply Socrates personally to two other aspects of our Orwellian age: the mental health industry and the sexual harassment industry. I didn’t talk to my students about this, but I may when I get to feminism. I’ll never forget a doctor telling me, after only talking to me for about four minutes, “You are profoundly mentally ill.” I tried to point out that people like Jesus and Siddhartha had also had profound disconnects with reality, and that I believed I was having a profound religious experience. He said, “They had followers. You don’t.” (As if the only thing that validated them was that they had followers!) But I thought to myself, okay, you’re having this rational conversation with me while claiming that I’m mentally ill? In other words, I believe that he held two contradictory, self-justifying beliefs at once: that I could be reasoned with (since he was trying to convince me) and that I could not (I was “profoundly mentally ill”). I think, rather, that such a position, such a claim of my “mental illness,” supported his pocketbook.
As to the sexual harassment industry, when I was in my 20’s and a very young teacher, I did very naively ask a student out, my only knowledge of that being supposedly “wrong” coming from a Friends episode, where they actually challenged that idea. In no way did I retaliate against that student. In fact, she left school to pursue a music career and even invited me out to lunch (which, sadly, was a set up–she later claimed I had just “shown up” to harass her). Anyway, I was brought up on “hostile environment” sexual “harassment” charges. I do believe I should have been reprimanded and corrected, but considering my age and experience I think they went way over the top: they fired me.
I want to say, before I begin further reflection on this, that I do support quid pro quo sexual harassment law. I do think it is wrong to force or extort someone into sexual relations. I think pressuring someone and then retaliating upon their refusal is very wrong, and that is indeed harassment.
But no, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about merely asking someone out, or telling a joke, and it then being considered “unwanted,” and you being slammed for it: I’m talking about mere “hostile environment” sexual “harassment” law, which I find very disturbing on many levels. And I’m writing a book about it called Witch Hunt.
I can’t go into all my arguments here, but I just wanted to focus on one thing:
What I want to focus on is what they told me before they fired me: “You can’t treat her as an equal.”
Notice how sinister that phrase is in supporting the hierarchical teaching power structure. But notice especially how it goes, ironically, against feminism (“radical” feminism having created “hostile environment” sexual “harassment” law), because feminism is about equality.
So here, perhaps, are two contradictory views of so-called “radical” feminism (not postmodern feminism, which I support): you can’t treat her as an equal, while at the same time we are all about promoting equality.
Once, when I was later denied due process at my Ph.D. program over a similar issue (even though in that case I feel I was again set up by a very cruel and vindictive person), and I complained about it, the school administrator said, “If someone feels harassed, they are harassed.” Of course, I easily turned that argument back on her, and said, yes, okay, I buy that, but I feel that this school is harassing me by denying me due process, and you need to stop.
Therefore, by your own argument, since I am complaining about the way you’re harassing me, then I am right.
That, of course, reduced her to silence.
That argument, “If someone feels harassed, they are harassed,” tries to play on something that is really a tautology, “If someone feels upset, they are upset.” Of course, no one can deny that.
But that is not what that sentence is trying to say, I don’t think, if you look closely, because it is trying to say someone else is guilty. What it says is something like, “If I feel someone has committed a crime against me, then they have committed a crime against me.” Or, put more simply, “If I feel someone has committed a crime, then they have.” Suddenly, and I hope the reader sees this, you have a classic case of Orwellian doublethink, and this relates again to our prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
If we think they are guilty, “then they are.” (No more due process.)
Wow, we would not even need defense lawyers anymore. If I feel someone has committed a crime, then they have. I can take them to court and I automatically win every time. The judge has to admit, well, yes, I feel like that other person has committed a crime, therefore they have. I win. 🙂 The judge would have to say to the defense, well, you really can’t stand against that argument, because you cannot deny the prosecutor’s feeling that you have committed this crime.
So again, something that seems so innocuous at first, “If someone feels harassed, they are,” is actually an ultimate denial of due process.
For it means that the one accused of “harassment” is automatically guilty.
Anyway, I find it interesting that many evils of our day, such as our never-ending “War on Terror,” our mental health industry, and our sexual harassment industry, really end up resting on contradictory ideas when challenged, or when thought about with any modicum of reflection.
I believe Socrates, by helping us to raise questions about what we say we believe and really know ourselves, is so very valuable in this increasingly Orwellian day.