Practical dialectic - PART 2: To save one is always better than to save none
Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto
Creativity refers to the potential to produce novel ideas that are task-appropriate and high in quality. Creativity in a societal context is best understood in terms of a dialectical relation to intelligence and wisdom. In particular, intelligence forms the thesis of such a dialectic. Intelligence largely is used to advance existing societal agendas. Creativity forms the antithesis of the dialectic, questioning and often opposing societal agendas, as well as proposing new ones. Wisdom forms the synthesis of the dialectic, balancing the old with the new. Wise people recognize the need to balance intelligence with creativity to achieve both stability and change within a societal context.
- From What is the Common Thread of Creativity - Its Dialectical Relation to Intelligence and Wisdom by Robert J. Sternberg, Yale University (April 2001, American Psychologist)
Where do we find ourselves now?
I may look to have shifted my focus from evolution to dialectic. But believe me, I'm still on evolution and will stay there until the day I finally write myself off. It's hard to explain why I feel that way, but I think it will make a big difference to my last glimpse of the world whether its residents are heading for an advanced stage of evolution or quickly reversing the process of evolution in the last 70 million years as if in the fast-motion trick. Now I'm not concerned about anything else. What good would it do to go find another foe when I'm already bogged down in the endless battle against small-time thieves in the municipal office?
Rest assured, however, nobody begs you to remain a human being if you don't feel like it. I just want to find it out.
Some of you will say, "Don't worry, we will never be tailed animals once again." Maybe you are right about tails. Yet there's no denying some of us look very close to the tailless monkeys, i.e. apes.
It's also useless to resort to our ability to recognize ourselves in the mirror as if it were a distinctive feature of mankind. Apes and many other animals have the same sense of self. Actually the only thing that separates humans from apes is dialectical sense of self.
In his Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre gave man two attributes, lêtre-pour-soi (being-for-itself) and lêtre-pour-autrui (being-for-others.) The real implication of his ontology is that among many other "social animals," human beings are the only species that can interact dialectically with others, and their own selves at the same time.
In order to find out how people are actually communicating among one another, I have collected a variety of specimens on the web and in the streets in the last nine years since I started blogging. By now I have concluded from my observation that I'm not fretting over nothing. 99.9% of participants in online and offline discourse are just shuffling second-hand information purely on an ear-to-mouth basis even without noticing that's what they are doing.
You may say, "But, in fact, we are the only species which is able to do cross-border communication through the network of personal computers, for instance." If you are stupid enough to believe in the same old myth about information revolution, I recommend you read my essay titled The Death of the What?. Unless something vestigial is growing too fast in your brain, you will understand these technologies are all misused, or underused at best, simply because dialectical interactions between the developers and users of new technologies are missing there. Essentially that's what Karl Marx noticed at the height of the First Industrial Revolution one and a half centuries ago.
You will still insist: "What about our ability for trans-cultural communication? Can a chimp effectively communicate with an orangutan?" Let's face it: YES, they can do what we are doing between two peoples with different cultural backgrounds. As I told you here, the "machine translation" available on the web is nothing but a disaster. Now it looks as though Google Japan gives a dictionary to a chimp to have him translate an English text into Japanese, or vice versa. Just for example, the Google chimp totally destroyed my recent post titled Embroideries on a big canvas like this. In theory, even translation between a low-context language and a high-context one should not be an impossible task. But in reality, it is.
Almost for the last six decades, nation's "top-notch" computer scientists and linguists have made strenuous effort to develop translation software. And now Google Japan has decided the technology is mature enough to help English-illiterate Japanese understand English texts. But as any really bilingual person can tell, that is not the case - far from it.
In the last several years Toyota has been working on a series of its proprietary "Partner Robots." The second-last robot was the one who plays the violin. No one can tell what good it would do to ask him to play "music" for you. Most recently nation's flagship car manufacturer unveiled yet another friendly cyborg which is able to converse with people. Toyota proudly says now he is able to answer any question you may ask. It's a shame that robotics engineers in Japan still don't understand a robot can't be any smarter than his creators. The only thing the electronic parrot can do is to mirror these engineers in all their stupidity. It's just that the new robot can field any question because in this country, and the rest of the world to a lesser degree, questions an interviewer asks of the interviewee are 100% predictable and the answers to such silly questions are also planted beforehand. Example:
You: "What are some of your concerns about the situation here?"
PR: "Problem No. 1 is how to achieve the growth target without further widening the budget deficit. Problem No. 2 ...."
You: "Hold on, Mr. Cyborg. How would you fix your Problem No. 1?"
PR: "Hmm ... First of all we should think about further stepping up measures for QE. Then the Japanese currency will weaken against the greenback which will in turn reduce our trade deficit. As a result, the government can expect the tax revenue to grow significantly. Easier said than done, though. But I believe we should try hard to narrow the deficit this way. There's no panacea, you know."
These guys are fully conditioned to selectively respond to stimulus words strictly in predetermined ways. And this is what they call COMMUNICATION. It's as though they are taking a multiple-choice exam everyday.
Basically the same thing is happening across the Pacific. Take a look at overly schematized way Robert J. Sternberg "analyzes" the mechanism in which man's intelligence develops. The unintelligent way of defining intelligence, uncreative way of defining creativity and unwise way of defining wisdom of a professor at the prestigious university are an unmistakable sign that America's intellectual decline is no longer reversible. In another paragraph of the same article, he shows the guts to mention Hegel. But it's obvious he hasn't read a single page of the German philosopher. I felt inclined to quote the intellectual rubbish, nonetheless, simply because the empty-headed professor is absolutely right when he says dialectic plays a pivotal role in intellectual development.
Apparently something unprecedented is happening in the "developed" countries presumably because of premature aging of human brains. I don't think it's the right thing to do to give a "quick-and-dirty" answer to the question of this magnitude. If I had time, I would certainly relearn from neuroscientists such as Arnold B. Scheibel about the aging patterns of the human brain, which were revealed only by their longitudinal studies. But in the interim I've tentatively concluded the following are how the overall intellectual degeneration was caused, and accelerated in the last quarter century.
While the context-dependency of a language is, more often than not, inversely related to what Betty Friedan interchangeably calls the ability of contextual thinking or "crystallized" intelligence, a downward spiral was touched off when the East Asians, perhaps excluding the Chinese, started using their high-context languages as if their context dependency were as low as that of Indo-European languages. The Japanese, for instance, invented a funny language often referred to as Japlish or Janglish. Then, the new language spoken in one of the most high-context cultures started to spread westward like an epidemic along with their industrial products. Now flooded with Japlish, English-speaking people are using their mother tongue as if it were a high-context language. A typical example is Twitter. It has a striking resemblance to Haiku, Japanese poems composed in the 17-syllable format. This makes me suspect Netizens are now using technologies of the 21st century to do what the Japanese people were doing 400 years ago. Presumably the gap is even wider. Today we hear everywhere on the web something very similar to chimp's super high-context screech.
I think it's against this backdrop that the collective intelligence of the human race is growing old, prematurely and in the wrong way - the way in which the cells in dendrites are hindered from branching like "dendritic fireworks" as a neuroscientist once described it. This underlies perpetual communication failure taking place everywhere in the twilight years of the American century. The Internet has just accelerated the process.
In the last one and a half centuries East Asian countries have been looking more and more like a vast graveyard of the Western civilization. But now Western nations are quickly turning into a huge junkyard for this cultural wasteland named Japan, and some other Asian countries. That is evident from the insatiable appetite the Westerners are showing to Oriental rubbish such as Japan's manga, anime and AKB48. Now they can't tell art from crap. I know it's the ultimate taboo to mention our intellectual degeneration. But let's face it: there is no evolution where there is no dialectical interchange at work among community members.
Now let me come back to dialectic. The textbook of logic defines the last step of the dialectical interchange as Aufhebung. The German word is sometimes translated as "sublation" but to be more precise it means "transcendence" of both the initial thesis and the antithesis to come up with a new thesis, which is now called a synthesis. This word also needs some explanation because it's somewhat tricky and misleading. As I said in Part 1 of my lecture on practical dialectic, a synthesis will never be reached just by meeting halfway.
Here's a quiz: What is the only thing the ape in the White House could change since he took office in 2009?
It's the hardest part of the entire exercise because in order to transcend the two contradictory propositions at a time, we've got to change ourselves mutually, instead of just converging the two. And you can't change yourself just by changing your terminology and rhetoric. You've got to find some catalyst in order to synthesize the different ideas. Sternberg calls it "wisdom," but it's actually a spontaneous commitment to a creative action.
Answer to the quiz: The definition of the word "change."
In this context, it's no accident that it's almost always with those who define themselves primarily as doers when we come up with a synthesis. Quite naturally, they shy away from our online debates because they are too preoccupied with what they are doing in the real world. Instead of giving a feedback by words, they often react to my theses, or just act on their own as if to call for antitheses from me. That's why I classify them into the third category of the visitors to my website.
My big bosses in the Zurich headquarters used to call doers "Indians." Maybe it was meant to be a pejorative. But I talk about doers with the utmost reverence because I define them as professionals. How it sickens me every time I hear an amateurish activist say that he is working hard to enhance public awareness of injustice or wake up ignorant people to reality. Professionals don't care a bit about other people's ignorance.
There is a trap, however, for these doers: the going concern assumption. As Jean-Paul Sartre warned Albert Camus, author of L'Homme Revolte (The Rebel) amid the bloody Algerian Independence War, whatever is his cause, a rebel is prone to developing a mental dependency on his foes over time. That's why these down-to-earth grassroots activists tend to be too conservative. I think this is where my blog can play the role of catalyst for real change.
But this is not to say an NPO needs no professionalism. Real doers should always seek the best or a better tradeoff between their principle and its practicability. I know by experience that you can't optimize the tradeoff just by compromise. A good tradeoff can be achieved only by dialectical interactions. This is the only thing I learned through my 50-year career as a doer. A self-proclaimed man of deeds without professionalism is nothing but a man of words disguised as a doer - i.e. a liar.
Shihoko Fujiwara (center) at
Foreign Correspondents' Club
Lara, Chen Tien-shi at her
new office of Waseda
In 2006 I met Ms. Shihoko Fujiwara for the first time when she contacted me seeking advice from this blogger. She had just set up the Japanese branch of a Washington-based anti-TIP (trafficking in persons) NGO named Polaris Project.
My advice all came down to this:
"Japan is a country where TIP, prostitution in particular, is subtly legitimized and highly institutionalized. In the face of this deep-rooted 'chain of oppression,' it's not only useless but also potentially harmful to single out 'illegal' prostitution. Our situation is so unique that it's far beyond the comprehension of your headquarters in Washington, let alone the U.S. State Department, the major sponsor of your worldwide activities. TVPA (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) and other U.S. laws mean absolutely nothing here. Neither should you be concerned a bit about fxxking tier placements by Condoleezza Rice (then Secretary of State.)"
Not that I expected Ms. Fujiwara to heed my advice. She was jotting down my words. And that was enough because she was, and still remains, a woman of deeds. I already knew she is a professional activist who knows what has to be done, what can be done, and what can't be done. She didn't look to be one of those daydreamers who refuse to understand you can't do anything without accepting a certain part of the given restraints. It would have meant absolutely nothing to her if I'd said, "Don't single out part of injustice." It goes without saying that to save one is far better than to save none.
Recently I learned from someone at the head office of the organization that PPJ isn't financially affiliated with Washington anymore. Judging from the frequent TV appearances of Fujiwara in recent years, her organization seems to have established itself solidly and is still growing - for better or for worse - which may or may not indicate her approach was wrong. But this leaves me wondering how she's managing the possible shortfall in cash with the subsidies from Washington totally cut off.
I wrote her a mail to suggest some countermeasures.
"They say there is no charitable tradition in Japan. There may be a certain truth in this notion. People who are committed to a cause of philanthropy with Mencius' spontaneity inherent to humanity are rarities in the nation of fake Buddhism. But remember it's not that an ism or a religion drives you to do charity -- it's always the other way around. I think there is a more important factor. If I were rich enough to be a benefactor, I would rather donate to someone who discloses duly audited and fully footnoted financial statements to the public than throw my money in the hat a beggar in the street puts before him. My question in this connection is: Do you have a plan to disclose to the public fullfledged balance sheet and income statement like your sister organization is doing? As you already know, when the Japanese government authorizes your activity as an NPO, it just passes a hot potato to you in exchange for a token grant. But when you have collected a larger amount of donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, you can also expect a larger amount of grants from the government because of the pump-priming effect it has."
It's very uncharacteristic of her, but Ms. Fujiwara hasn't responded thus far. Maybe she is sending me a signal that she no longer needs advice from this blogger, or she is just too busy - I don't know.
I used to attend seminars and conferences she organized, but not anymore. These days it's getting more and more frequent that I receive an invitation. But now it looks more like a fundraiser-type party where donors have fun chitchatting over "modern-day slavery." She may have forgotten that the size of the crowd is not her KPI. Yet I still believe my antithesis to her admirable cause has amounted to something a little more than doing nothing in the last seven years.
Another case in point is Lara, Chen Tien-shi. I became acquainted with her when I wrote a review piece of her book titled Stateless. I signed up for the membership in Stateless Network soon after Lara launched it, because, rather than although, I thought the principle of 1961 UN Convention on Statelessness, on which she'd set her goal, was rubbish, to say the least.
Several weeks ago, the secretariat of Stateless Network sent me a gentle reminder to warn me my annual membership fee was long overdue. In response I sent a mail to Lara, in which I wrote: "I know the Articles of Incorporation say anyone whose due goes delinquent for a certain period is subject to being expelled. At this moment I can't squeeze enough money to meet my obligation. Moreover, I don't want anyone to pay it for me, because that wouldn't solve the real problem. Therefore, please don't hesitate to oust me."
Soon I received her reply mail. She said: "I know we can expect invaluable contributions to our cause from you because you have a lot of experience and knowledge behind you. So let's forget about the money issue for now."
I have made it a rule to refrain, to the extent possible, from being critical about her way of organizing the group's activity. She already knows what I want to say. So It's not her fault that most other members even can't imagine there's something to be added to, or deducted from, the indisputable mantra from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They are just sitting around there to implement what they have been supposed to implement. That's why I don't want to deliver my heretical lecture to these guys - unless invited very explicitly. But just in case, the syllabus is being readied in my head. It goes like this:
"As we all know from the undisclosed income statement of our organization, we have only two income sources: the token grants from the government and the membership fees we are paying. Unfortunately donations remain just peanuts. Just to simplify our financial situation, let's assume our annual income is 1 million yen and that our experience tells we need 500K yen every year to effectively help one stateless person. Then we can't help any more than 2 people. That should mean we should never attempt to save, say, 10 stateless people, because, then, not a single person could be saved with our money which would now shrink to 100K yen per head. Spreading the limited financial resource this thin would be next to suicidal.
"So the real problem facing us is how to select 2 persons from among many other candidates who keep knocking at the door. Now we know we've got to have a set of criteria to avoid selecting these two purely on an arbitrary basis.
"I would say the single most important criterion is whether or not they have the spirit of self-help. The more a candidate recipient is willing to help himself, the more he deserves to be selected. After all you can't help someone who isn't self-reliant enough. If we chose someone just because he looked to best meet the UNHCR's description of a stateless person, it would be something like pouring water into a bucket with a big hole at its bottom."
In the last four years since we first met, Lara has taken me as seriously as I have taken her because of, rather than despite, the fact that our thoughts are miles apart. There's nothing left to be desired anymore.
My friendship with "DK" also started through my blogging activity. But the opposite is also true of our unusual relationship. When I was planning to launch this website back in 2004, I called a small software company in my neighborhood for some technical assistance. This company assigned the job to DK. He helped me find a decent blogging software and a reliable application hosting service provider from among many other alternatives. After the selection was done, he did the necessary configuration of the system for me.
When I financially went under in 2009, DK offered to shoulder an annual 50K yen I had been paying to the blog hosting company. His assistance didn't stop there. When the City Hall of Yokohama started robbing me of a good part of my pension for my consumption of oxygen, he donated me a monthly 70-100K yen over a 10-month period. It's funny, but this person sometimes reminds me that apes never do charity.
Aside from supporting me, DK does what he thinks he should do as an IT professional and the father of his 6-year-old son named Kai. As I wrote in the above-linked post, he recently found Kai a piano teacher after interviewing several candidates. According to him, one of his selection criteria was the ability to arouse Kai's interest in Baroque music not because he wants his son to become a musician, but because he wants to nurture respect for humanity in his son. Obviously DK has learned his lessons from my miserable failure that it's the surest way to conformism and mediocrity to instill, or let someone instill, contempt for civilization in a human being in his developmental stage.
I shouldn't forget to mention other Type 3 users of my blog, especially Dr. Hiroshi Shiono and the dentist. (The dentist's name is withheld because he is breaking the paramount rules of Japan's medical cartel by treating me all for free.) The two men have been doing extraordinary things to me just because my allegation against the cartel has resonated with them.
In the third and last installment of this dialectic series, I'll talk about Jean-Paul Sartre, the author of Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960.) In earlier paragraphs of this post, I said it's unlikely we will reach a synthesis on this website because we are not doers here. But it's a different story when it comes to a philosopher or anyone who is in a writing/speaking occupation. To him words are deeds, and deeds are words.
You may ask: "What about a blogger?" My answer: "Don't ask me."
TO BE CONTINUED TO PART 3 OF MY LECTURE ON PRACTICAL DIALECTIC ·