Saturday, January 17, 2009

Leading uneasy lives

An LSE academic (whose name I'll refrain from mentioning here, as it was a private meeting) visited our office last week, and provided us with an interesting description of the world today. He said that a paradigm shift in hard sciences occur when scientists discover internal contradictions in their theories. For a paradigm shift in social sciences to come about, an external shock is necessary. An external shock tells us that the truth about the world is no longer what we thought it was. For the western world, that external shock was September 11th.

It became apparent that the "modern" worldview, which explained the world in terms of "states and failed states" and which was shared by both the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, no longer sufficed to explain what is truly going on in the world today and why. However, the objective truth of the modern world was not replaced by a new objective truth.

Now we are left with post-modernist "accounts," subjective opinions of self-appointed experts, because we often lack hard data about the nature or severity the problems we face. Policy makers and states now use the "precautionary principle," (thanks to the Bush administration) which presupposes that you don't have to wait for conclusive hard evidence to act against a perceived threat. The way "experts" frame the problems, or "questions" at hand, determines our response to these problems. The academic gave the example of HIV/AIDS. Is it a developmental problem or a security problem? The answer we give to this question will determine which actors will tackle it, what they will do to solve it, and what resources will be spent on it. We can think of many other examples. Take terrorism or climate change.

Although we often don't have hard evidence and easy answers, it is still important to try to understand the actors we are dealing with. For example, the West perceives China as a rising power, a competitive force so competitive precisely because it does not respect the rules. But it is difficult for Westerners to convince China that complying with international labor and environmental standards, reining in on corruption and crime, and refusing to deal with the likes of Hassan al-Bashir will be good for the Chinese in the long-term. China needs high economic growth in the short-term to maintain social peace.

Something this academic said about conflicted regions in the world was interesting. He said some problems are "wicked problems," just when you think you find a solution to them, they transform themselves. We think that parties in an armed conflict want the resolution of a conflict, they are ready to put down arms if their demands are met. The conflict is just the means to an end. In other words, we assume that the reason these conflicts last is that conflicting demands cannot be met. Our guest said that the actors in these conflicts often see the conflict as an end in itself. They derive their power from the conflict, the costs of continuing the war is low (as opposed to state actors) and criminal activities sponsor the war. Their stated goals and demands are then just a front.

Here, I'd like to make a broad point about our conscience. We like clear cause-effect relationships to explain the injustices in this world, we like to hold people responsible for the misfortunes that befall them. We (or westerners) say, "Israel is bombing Gaza because Hamas fired rockets at Israel. Gazan civilians elected terrorists, who could not possibly ensure their security. Hamas does not have its constituents' safety at heart, it is simply a pawn in a grand geopolitical game." Having analysed this disturbing issue, we can get on with our lives, feel happy about a pilot masterfully landing 150 Americans on Hudson River. A story we can identify with more easily.

We cannot close the file on these questions with neat explanations. Having born in one part of the world as opposed to another is merely fate, it does not entitle us to more valuable lives. I read in a book philosopher Richard Swinburne's attempt at reconciling the existence of evil and God. God allowed evil to exist in order to give us the choice of not letting it happen. So some people are created merely to present those more powerful the choice of sparing them? If we have any claim at leading meaningful lives, we should at least recognize and be bothered by this randomness, this injustice.

To be fair, our minds are not completely free of trouble. Even if sufferings of innocent civilians far away does not suffice, we are bothered by things we cannot understand and control. We are less worried about natural disasters and illness thanks to scientific progress. But we are scared of what our fellow human beings might do to us. We are scared of terrorist attacks. We are afraid of immigrants. We are wary of the troubles of a financial system that gained a life of its own.

These are the new forces of nature in a post-modern world.

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