Monday, December 29, 2014

How to celebrate Christmas

German and British soldiers meeting each other, Christmas 1914

For most who read this blog Christmas will already be past, in case they celebrate it; for some others it has yet to come. How did or do you celebrate it?
Wittgenstein didn’t like to celebrate Christmas with his family in Vienna. It made him depressive and often it wasn’t a really enjoyable affair. But as it happens in such cases, it was difficult not to go to the yearly family reunion. In order to make the meeting more pleasant, he wrote in November 1929 to his brothers and sisters:
“It is impossible not to see that we are able to do that just on this evening what we couldn’t do and didn’t want to do during the whole year, namely the five of us being together without the company of friends,”.
I do not know how Wittgenstein celebrated Christmas that year. I suppose it was with his brothers and sisters and without friends. But this passage has a clear message that is wider than just the private question for the Wittgenstein family how to pass Christmas in 1929. It says: Sometimes we need mediators to solve our problems or at least a little help from a friend, also for small problems and also for celebrating a merry Christmas or maybe just then, since Christmas is a call for peace.
However, for many people “peace” just only day is nothing else but another word for “truce”: a temporary stop of quarrels or hostilities. That’s what we often see in war. An agreed Christmas truce has a clear beginning and a clear end. When Christmas Day has passed the acts of war will start again. It’s better than nothing, but has it anything to do with the idea of Christmas? I think it hasn’t. When during Christmas 1914 – so exactly hundred years ago – Allied and German soldiers fraternized for some days on the Western Front during the First World War, they were serious and really wanted that this would mean the end of this war, I think. But they were forced to fight again after some days (but at some places this unofficial truce lasted even two weeks) and the worst of this war was yet to come. During Christmas 1915 and later measures were taken by the higher authorities to prevent new fraternizations. Nevertheless, although it doesn’t look like that at the moment, the world has become less violent since the days of World War One (see my blog dated May 27 and June 3, 2013).
And how will you celebrate the turn of the year and what will be your New Year’s resolutions? Anyway, Happy New Year first of all, and then we’ll see.

Monday, December 22, 2014

“He that injures one threatens many” (Francis Bacon)

Once I wrote in a blog: “Trust is relying on the reliability of another, for example that she or he will do what s/he says, without having any explicit guarantee that the other will really carry out what s/he is expected to do.” Of course, there are many rules and regulations in society that prescribe what to do or not to do in certain situations and that can and will be enforced when they are broken. Nevertheless we need trust, for in practice not all rules and regulations are enforced or the enforcement is so complicated that it is better to avoid it. Moreover, not everything can be regulated. So, in order to make that social and individual relations go smoothly we need trust. From that perspective trust is the lubricant for society.
The basis of trust is often quite vague. Usually it is not more than trustworthy behaviour in the past by the person you trust; his or her “trustworthy” appearance; sweet-talk or a good story that someone tells you in order to convince you of his trustworthiness; and so on. In fact, trust rests on trust till the opposite has become clear. In old films it is so simple: scoundrels look like scoundrels and good guys or girls look like good guys or girls and they behave that way. But, alas, reality is not that simple, although many people (unconsciously) think so as psychological tests show: Being a good-looking person is an asset in order to get things done, for being good-looking and being considered trustworthy are things that tend to go together.
Several factors can undermine trust. So the more rules and regulations there are in social life the less trust there is. The reason is that they subvert intrinsic motivation and make people calculating, often at the cost of others. Another trust undermining factor is – it’s clear – known untrustworthy behaviour in the past, like not keeping one’s appointments. A third factor is not correcting mistakes when others are involved especially if the person who made the mistake acknowledges having made the mistake. A fourth trust undermining factor I want to mention is money: Also when money is involved in executing an agreement or a promise, people tend to become more calculating. Money put relations on a business footing and then people behave accordingly.
And there is corruption. Not only is it so that corruption makes that relations become a matter of tit-for-tat or that it can lead to clientelism. It leads also to exclusion of individuals and groups from social favours or things they need in case they do not have the money for paying bribes or do not have the relations needed for getting things done. Corruption leads to social inequality and in the worst case to violence as well. That’s why already Montaigne protested against the corruption he saw around him. But since corruption cannot be practised openly, corrupt people try to prevent that they are exposed as corrupt, often by corrupt means, or, if they are politicians, by moulding the law to their will and by limiting the freedom of the press or the freedom of demonstration. Just these days again, we see this in Turkey by the arrest of journalists or in Spain, where the government wants to make stricter laws for demonstrations (just now that the governing Partido Popular – “People’s Party”– is involved in so many corruption affairs).
These are only some factors that undermine trust, for there are many more. Trust looks often like a concept escaped from a fairy tale. Isn’t it so that in the end nobody can be trusted and that, in the end, we have to behave as if it doesn’t exist? That human relationships are actually not more than a kind of business? Maybe they are, but when thinking of trust and untrustworthiness, the words of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) certainly apply that “Multis minatur, qui uni facit injuriam”, or in English: “He that injures one threatens many”. Untrustworthiness destabilizes society. Judge yourself and take a look at this website, for instance, where the 2014 Corruption Perception Index is presented: .

Monday, December 15, 2014

When prophecy fails (2)

If you are a bit interested in psychology and especially in social psychology, I think that the first thing you will think of when hearing the name of Leon Festinger is “cognitive dissonance”. It is the central concept in a theory that he developed with his team. In a nutshell, the theory says that we try to adapt our interpretation of the facts to our beliefs if the facts don’t fit the beliefs, while to an outsider the other way round would seem more rational. Of course, adapting your beliefs (and the actions that follow from them) to the facts is also a kind of dissonance reduction, but adapting the interpretation of the facts to the beliefs happens so often and is so remarkable since it seems so illogical, that the theory of cognitive dissonance has become almost synonymous with a theory that explains this irrationality. To give an example, when a smoker reads a research report on the bad effects of smoking, of course, he can say “I’ll quit”, but there is a big chance that he’ll think that the research is not right or that there are also positive effects of smoking, for instance because his grandfather, who was a fervent smoker, has become hundred years old, or which other positive reasons for smoking may come to his mind. For this blog I’ll understand cognitive dissonance in this limited way.
Festinger is not only known for the theory of cognitive dissonance but also for having promoted the use of laboratory experiments in social psychology and for his methodological contributions to this approach. However, one experiment that brings to light a certain phenomenon is only one experiment, and since an experimenter can make mistakes, in many handbooks on methodology it is recommended to repeat experiments in one way or another. This can be done by replicating the original research as exactly as possible or by trying to get the same results by using a different design or otherwise. If the new research confirms the original results, it has become more likely that the theory tested is true. If it doesn’t, we have a problem, and we have to find an explanation for the difference (the cognitive dissonance has to be reduced, so to speak, if we use the concept in its broad sense, so including the idea that the original theory may be revised as well). Of course, it is possible that the repetition of the original research in one form or another was not correct, but this is only one of the options that may explain the difference with the original results.
Be it as it is, as Ruud Abma notes in an article on replication in psychology, just the latter, namely seeing a replicatory study as imperfect in case of non-confirming results, has become tradition in social psychology. So what did Festinger write in his article “Laboratory experiments” (published a few years before the famous When Prophecy Fails by Festinger et al., in which the theory of cognitive dissonance was expounded)? Indeed, that negative results not conforming to the expectations probably mean that the experiment had not been done in a careful way and that the manipulation of the research variables by the project leader had not been effective. In other words: Adapt the facts to the theory. Is there a better proof of the theory of cognitive dissonance?
L. Festinger, “Laboratory Experiments”, in: L. Festinger and D. Katz (eds.), Research methods in the behavioral sciences New York: Dryden, 1953; pp. 137-172.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Reality behind words

Tranchée de la Soif (Trench of Thirst) near St. Mihiel, France

When we read about what happened, reality is often screened off by a factual description and by figures. What has happened looks often so simple as if there is not much emotion and misery behind it or, otherwise, as if not much joy is involved. In history books war is usually reduced to political conflicts and negotiations, to military movements, strategy and tactics, and to dates. As if not many soldiers were involved with their daily pains and sorrows, not to speak of the inhabitants of the invaded countries and their destroyed possessions. Or a reform of the social care system in a country is seen as nothing but a parliamentary debate and the reduction of costs and seems to have nothing to do with people who need help to have a wash or go to the toilet or, a bit less dramatically, to get the house cleaned. Or, a third example, as if there are no tears of the winner and the loser and much effort as well behind the sports results in a newspaper. Therefore I like to read diaries and autobiographies written by persons who went through the events and facts, preferably if they are a kind of live report; written from the first-person-perspective, as philosophers say. They give me so much better a feeling of what actually took place. They tell me the personal experiences of the human beings that lived the moments behind the dry descriptions. I think it makes me better understand what occurred, even though I do not shun traditional history books, for example, for getting a grip on the main lines.
In his Notebooks of an Infantryman, describing his experiences as a soldier during the First World War, the French captain Charles Delvert writes:
“Yesterday captain Seigneur has fallen. No longer I’ll see his good big eyes. He was cool-headed, elegant, and polite in an excellent way. Now we are only six in the regiment that has seen Ethe. Out of fifty-two combating officers. The others have been killed, were injured or have been evacuated. One sees how terrible losses there were in the first two months of the war ...
But as Voltaire said already, it’s all about understanding what the sense of the words is. It is because one sees nothing behind the words that the history of wars looks so little tragic to us.
For example, you read: ‘The regiment has held the position during the whole day’. This looks very simple to you. However, the point is what the word ‘hold’ involves. I have just ‘hold’ the Haussu Farm during a whole day and I know what this dull word means. It means to stay in the trenches without moving, be prepared to receive, with gunfire, the whole attacking infantry, and that under a deluge of iron and fire.
Since eleven o’clock till the night percussion bombs, shrapnel shells, machine-gun bullets rained on our heads. The two companies that were in the farm ... have withdrawn – read ‘have taken to their heels’ –. I have received them in my line and I have gone on to ‘hold’ the position. Soon the farm has burst into flames, producing enormous clouds of smoke.
In the evening we lay down in the wet meadows, still in our positions, in a night lighted by the shine of the fire burning behind the triangle of the roof silhouetted against this shine.” (Charles Delvert, Carnets d’un fantassin, Les Éditions des Riaux, 2003, pp. 113-114)
As Delvert shows here, the holding of a military position is not simply a series of words in a report or a remark in a history book, but it is full of danger, emotion and personal experiences. I think that what Delvert points out here is true for any report or story written from a third-person-perspective, i.e. from the perspective of the outsider or data gatherer. We tend to forget it but stories in any form whatever always refer to what agents and their witnesses actually lived through, and behind the so-called facts and events there is often blood, flesh and tears or a smile or a whoop of delight.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Passages (4)

Passages, as I can summarize the past three blogs, are a kind of non-places where you have to spend some time when being between a past destination (the place you left) and a future destination (the place of your planned arrival); that are ahistoric; and that make you into an isolated no-one (someone with no identity without any relations with the others around unless they are your “co-passengers”, i.e. the people you are travelling with or what else you are doing there in the passage-space). Moreover, passages are constructed non-places: they have been made as passages as ways for directing and guiding people. The most conspicuous examples are roads for through traffic, like highways, and waiting rooms. I’ll not try to give an enumeration or classification of kinds of passages but what strikes me is that the phenomenon of passages looks like a modern version of the Panopticon that has been designed by Jeremy Bentham around 1790. Some readers may remember that long ago I have talked already about the panopticon, namely in my blog dated Dec. 21, 2009. For those who don’t I’ll repeat what I said there (the quotation is from Elisheva Sadan, Empowerment and Community Planning, e-book version, 2004: ; p. 62): “ ‘The Panopticon is an eight-sided building surrounded by a wall, with a tower at the center. The … occupants of the structure sit in cells located on floors around the wall. The cells have two apertures – one for light, facing outwards through the wall, and one facing the inner courtyard and the tower. The cells are completely separated from one another by means of walls. … Overseers sit in the tower and observe what happens in every cell. The [occupants] are isolated from one another, and exposed to constant observation. Since they cannot know when they are being observed, they supervise their behavior themselves.’ As Foucault in Discipline and punish (Peregrine Books, 1979: p. 200) explains, the structure can be used ‘to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy’ ”, or, as I had added there, any other person that you want to observe in this way. Essential for my comparison is that a panopticon is based on the idea of secretly observing and controlling what people do. What I also added there, but what I want to repeat here only as something to think about: From that perspective, a panopticon is nothing else but Big Brother before the expression existed.
Why are passages as defined here like a modern version of Bentham’s Panopticon? It’s true that you are not forced to travel from A to B or what kind of activity you do so that you need to use a passage. (But was a prisoner forced to steal or murder?) But once you have left A – and in what follows I’ll substantiate my point with the traffic case, but I think that it is easy to extend it analogously to other cases – you are almost coerced to do what the road planner (so actually the State) wants you to do on pain of traffic jams, long driving times, being lost and other unpleasantnesses, including fines sometimes. Road signs and route signs, traffic signs, roundabouts, feeder roads, highways and what more discipline the traffic to follow the prescribed roads. And like prisoners in a prison, most drivers voluntary obey the orders given by the signs and signals for, as said, not doing so is punished somehow. The comparison with the Panopticon (and Big Brother!) is even more real: Everywhere surveillance cameras keep an eye on what you and the other drivers do so that it is possible to intervene if considered necessary, for instance by adjusting the speed of the drivers with road signs or traffic lights or by sending police or road workers where problems have been seen or are to be expected. Everyone is visible with the exception of the Regulator. Every driver is the object of information and discipline but not a subject of communication (you are just said or pushed what to do; never asked). This is the guarantee of order among this collection of isolated individuals in no-one’s land like in Bentham’s Panopticon (cf. Foucault id. pp. 200-1).