Sunday, July 24, 2016

Shades of white

If people say that a statement is true, they suppose that there is a situation that really exists and that it is correctly described by the statement. As philosophers say: There is a correspondence between the statement and the fact or event. That’s why they call it the correspondence theory of truth. This theory has especially been developed by the Polish philosopher Alfred Tarski and it made him famous. As he said it “ ‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.” There seems to be nothing as true as that, but is it?
Take for example the question, who was the first soldier fallen for France in the First World War. Actually it is so that I had to think of this correspondence theory of truth when I read a book by the Dutch author Theo Toebosch about the first fallen French and German soldiers in this war. Let me concentrate on the question of the first fallen French soldier. Generally it is recognized that the unlucky man was the French teacher André Peugeot, who was then a corporal in the French army. The event took place in Jonchery in the French department of Haute-Marne, near Switzerland. When on August 2, 1914, Peugeot tried to stop a German reconnaissance patrol on French territory, he was killed in action. It is remarkable that in this action probably Peugeot killed also the first German soldier fallen in this war, namely sublieutenant Alfred Mayer, and that it was Mayer who had killed Peugeot. But that’s another story.
It seems clear what happened, but there is a problem. Peugeot was killed when France was not yet officially at war with Germany. Germany declared war on France only on August 3, although the German patrol was already one day before on French territory. That’s why Peugeot has the “honour” to be the first killed soldier. But then there must be another soldier who was the first one killed when the war “really” had begun. It was Fortuné Emile Pouget, killed by a bullet in the back of his head near Pont-à-Mousson north of Nancy on August 4, at 11.50 a.m. Since France always has stressed that it was only from August 3 on at war with Germany, it should be obvious that Pouget was actually the first Frenchmen killed in World War One. But on the other hand, the fighting near Jonchery was a real war action related to the whole range of events that we call the First World War. Should it have played a part when calling Peugeot the first French soldier killed that he was actively fighting when shot while Pouget was a passive victim, so that it was easier to make Peugeot a hero rather than Pouget?
And there is more, for some sources say that Peugeot was killed by mistake by his own men. Probably it is not what happened, but it’s a real possibility. And what to think of Mimoun Benichou and his comrades? As Toebosch tells us, he was one of the seventeen Zouaves killed in Philippeville in Algeria on August 4 at five o’clock in the morning, when the canons of the German cruiser Goeben bombarded the town. So, it happened before Pouget was killed. Note that there is a monument on the place where Pouget was hit that calls him the first French soldier killed in the war 1914-1918. Why is Benichou not honoured as such? Because he was from Algeria, and although Algeria was a part of France these days, was it really France ... ? It has the air of a political choice not to call him the first fallen.
But this blog is not about political choices. It is not about the problem who was the “real” first French soldier killed in World War One. I leave this question to be answered by others. Moreover, also whether Alfred Mayer was the first German soldier killed in this war is a matter of interpretation. And that’s what this blog about: About interpretation – and also about choices – and the relation with truth. What this instance illustrates is that there are no simple truths; there is no simple correspondence with reality. What is true is always a matter of interpretation. War is not just a matter of declaring war (even less so today), so whether Peugeot or Pouget (or Mimoun) was the first French soldier killed in WW 1 will always be controversial. Truth is a matter of interpretation and by that also a matter of choices (which may be political choices). What’s more, even if snow is white, there are always shades of white. Snow looks different in the shadow and in the sun and isn’t it so that on a photo snow sometimes looks blue?

The facts (sic) of my example are from Theo Toebosch, De eerstgevallenen. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2014.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Commemoration and remembrance

Memorial service for capt. Emile Driant, fallen in the first days of the Battle of
Verdun, Feb. 22, 1916 (photo taken Feb. 24, 2012 at Nancy) (see note below)

From talking about commemoration in the sense of memorialization to talking about remembering is only a small step. Commemoration is remembering in a certain way. When you commemorate you bring to the mind something that happened, often together with others, although the latter is not necessary. Usually we don’t commemorate the complete event but only certain aspects. Take, for example, how the Netherlands commemorates the Second World War. In the evening of May 4 the Dutch remember the people fallen or killed in that war, on May 5 the liberation, the end of the war, is celebrated. In other countries it’s done on the same day but never at the same time.
People who organize a commemoration for the first time, say one year or several years after the event, often still remember what happened because they went through or saw the event that is literally remembered (recollected) or they have known the person or persons remembered. We can say that a commemoration is then an institutionalized remembrance (recollection). But when a commemoration is not once-only but becomes a tradition, the number of people who actually saw the event or knew the person(s) remembered gradually disappear and the commemoration is performed by people who know what happened or who know the person(s) remembered only from stories, oral or written: the remembrance becomes derivative or secondhand.
Actually this is not very different from how I remember from my own personal experience. Experiences are stored as memories in the mind and when they are called up they become remembrances of what happened. But how are they called up? If memories are not triggered they fade away and will be forgotten and lost. But how to prevent our memories from being lost? There is a simple solution , or so it seems: Write them down or make a picture. Then they are stored for ever, like information on the hard disk of your computer. Just as you can look for secondhand information by calling it up from your hard disk (or from the “hard disk” of the Internet), you can call up your memories by opening the notebook in which you have written your experiences or by taking your photo album. I often use the second method. When I look at an old photo taken by myself I often immediately know what it is and where I have taken it and under which circumstances. However, there is something strange: Usually I know only the story directly related to the photo and not its wider context. About the way I came there on the site I often have only vague remembrances. So, if I see a photo of my mother, I remember, for instance, that I took it on a trip with her – and that she enjoyed such trips – and I know yet the exact location, but I hardly remember which trip it was, about when and such things, if I do at all. Actually, I remember things that a lot of other people could read from that photo, too, especially if they know me. In that sense, my remembrance has a shade of being secondhand. Then it’s only one step from seeing a photo and knowing that you have taken it, where you have taken it and so on, to thinking that you have taken the photo and know the circumstances that you have done it: You have become a false witness of your own experiences. I think that it’s something that happens more often than people realize. But if the remembrance called up is true, it can become a kind of personal mini-commemoration: If you are in the mood or have an urge, it’s often good to take old things in your hand, your photos of something special or not so special, or your notebooks with what you did, and give the past a moment’s thought as we sometimes do with others in a public ceremony.

Note: Actually I should have put here another photo, but since I don’t want to publish too private photos on the Internet, I have chosen one of a public commemorative ceremony.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Commemoration and time

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (France).
The detail in the right upper corner of the photo shows names
 of soldiers written on the memorial (since I took this picture,
 the memorial has been cleaned)

Times are changing. What once was obvious will sooner or later disappear. New phenomena will take their places. Passages, shop windows, coffee houses and street cafés, and souvenir shops as well are relatively new phenomena. Or take sending view cards when you are on holiday. It came up with the rise of mass tourism but now in the age of the mobile telephone it’s disappearing and it is replaced by phone calls, SMS messages and the like. As such tourism is a new phenomenon, which finds its origin at the end of the middle ages, when people begun to travel for educational reasons. Shop windows are typical of mass society. When products are produced on a massive scale you have to sell them and in order to sell show what you have and seduce people to buy it. That’s what happened at the end of the 18th century when the shop window was invented and gradually became to dominate the street scene in the centres of big cities. But do they have a future in this time of Internet shopping? Now we see already that many shops are closed, since people increasingly buy on line: The shop window is replaced by the screen of your computer or mobile. It will have consequences for the way city centres will look like. When shops disappear, shop windows will disappear, too. Only some types of shops will remain, namely those with products you want to see “live” or where you go for the fun of shopping. Cloth shops are of that kind. But even then probably the traditional shop window will change. It can already be seen in shopping malls: The separation between public space and shops becomes diffuse. More and more shops there have open entrances. There is no demarcation anymore between shop and public room (the “street”). Then there is no need for the usual shop window. The shop has become shop window and selling place at the same time.
Another phenomenon that has changed during the ages is commemoration. It has become a mass phenomenon as well. Don’t misunderstand me; it’s not negative. I just think that it’s a positive effect of the massification and democratization of society. Commemoration is as old as history and much older. People want and wanted to commemorate especially the dead and so they build and built monuments for them - monuments that often withstood the ages, like grave mounds and pyramids. These examples also illustrate that commemorating was often an affair of the wealthy and powerful. It’s not that the common people didn’t commemorate but only the rich and powerful could afford to build monuments that remained. Besides grave monuments, also war monuments that show the power and victories of the rulers and generals are already as old as history. The Egyptian obelisks are of that kind as are the Roman triumphal arches.
Now I must fly through history and ignore the little monuments for the common people. They certainly existed, although many have been lost, but think of the crosses in Christian countries that you find everywhere on places where something important happened in the past, like on cross roads or just somewhere in the field. But the real democratization of commemorating took place since the French Revolution, two centuries ago. If we take war monuments, since then not only the victorious generals are commemorated and get their memorials but also the ordinary soldiers. They are no longer simply thrown in anonymous mass graves, but they get their individual graves in grave yards. If their names have been lost, they get a decent grave or if buried in a mass grave, the mass grave gets a more or less striking monument. There are even monuments for the unknown soldier. And people do not talk only about the political or national aspects of the military facts (victory or defeat) but also about the bravery and sufferance of the individual soldiers. Commemorating is by everybody and for everybody.
Such thoughts came to my mind when the Battle of the Somme was commemorated on July 1. Although commemoration is still often by the elite and for the elite (and also often used and misused for political purposes, already since the first monuments were erected), commemorating has been democratized as never before and has become a mass phenomenon in the positive sense: Ordinary people are increasingly involved. Commemorating as such is an eternal phenomenon but the way we do is the product of the time we live in. For where, to take an instance, do you find a Roman triumphal arch with the names of the fallen soldiers written on it like, for example, on the Thiepval memorial to the missing of the Somme battles? Times are changing also for what is everlasting.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Freedom not to conform

In these blogs I have talked about Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, who have shown how easily people submit to the authority of other people and how they tend to behave cruelly if the situation is there and if they have the power to do so. I referred also to Hannah Arendt, who has dedicated an important part of her work to the question why people do what other people tell them to do even if it should be clear that it’s morally wrong. She called it the “banality of evil”. However, when reading Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Political Emotions I realized that I didn’t mention at least one important researcher in this field, to whom she dedicates several pages: Solomon Asch. There is no excuse that I didn’t, for already during my study at the university I became acquainted with his work. Even more, Asch’s work, which dates from 1955, is one of the most famous studies on submission to authority and conformity. Although there were already many studies on conformity then, Asch realized that their conclusions had not a solid experimental base. That is what he wanted to provide with his investigation. Here I’ll not discuss Asch’s study in detail but present only the main lines.
The most striking result is that people tend to conform to the majority, even if it is wrong. Asch studied small groups. One person was the test subject and the others were accomplices of Asch. If all accomplices gave the wrong answer to a test question, the test person tended to give the wrong answer as well, even if it was clearly wrong. On purpose I write “tend”, for unlike what some summaries of Asch’s experiments say, many test persons answered independently. But at least a third gave way to group pressure. A minority of that size can be more important than it seems on the face of it, if one realizes that such a minority – the number of votes he received in a parliamentary election – brought Hitler to power in 1933.
Asch subjected the testees not only to the group pressure of one against all. For what would happen if the correct answer to a test question was supported by at least one other person in the group, although all other stooges of the researcher gave the false reply? Then we see that the test person regains his independence: He (or she) answered again what was correct. This remained so even if Asch’s accomplice who gave the right reply left the group after a few tests with a good excuse (if he simply left without an apparent reason, the test persons tended again to conform to the others left on the questions that followed, even if all of them gave the wrong answers).
I think that Asch’s investigation is relevant when one wants to know why people obey to authority and conform to the majority, even if a society is not the same as a small group. The research gives insight into the processes that make people cave to pressure, also if they know that the others are wrong. Although there are always dissidents in a society, the pressure of the majority who follows the leader or an authority can be so high that people comply. On the other hand, just the presence of dissenters can be important: Dissenters, especially when they are visible, can make that people make their own choices and express them against a pressure to give way. It’s one of the conclusions of Asch in his investigation. As Nussbaum puts it: “Group pressure is dangerous under all circumstances, since it is an impediment to truth telling. ... [Therefore] all decent societies have strong reasons to nourish and reward dissent and critical thinking, both for its intrinsic importance and for its effect on others” (p. 193). Or in Asch’s words: “Life in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consensus, to be productive, requires that each individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight. When consensus comes under the dominance of conformity, the social process is polluted and the individual at the same time surrenders the powers on which his functioning as a feeling and thinking being depends.” Independent opinions are important plus the possibility to express them freely and without fear of penalty of any kind, including the pressure to conform.

Sources: Solomon Asch, “Opinion and Social Pressure”, on website .
Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Political Emotions. Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge, Mass. etc.: Harvard University Press, 2013.