Which political argument is under contempt?
Carlo StrengerReturn to the principles of the Enlightenment
"Civilized contempt" - that sounds interesting at first. Because the title forces contradictions together. Anyone who despises someone or something rejects, belittles, ignores and marginalizes. First of all, this contradicts the ideal of respectful behavior, which many consider to be the basis for a peaceful and civilized society. The psychologist and philosopher Carlo Strenger sees his concept of "civilized contempt" as a weapon - but one that he wants to use for a good cause. In his essay, he is concerned with nothing less than defending the West and its liberal values:
"Most Europeans, so my thesis, are no longer in a position to put forward more substantial arguments for their culture than the efficiency of their economies and the political and social peace that has existed in the west and in the center of the continent practically since the end of the Second World War could be maintained. (...) If the West wants to defend its values and its way of life not only militarily but also argumentatively, the only option is to return to the principles of the Enlightenment. "
Carlo Strenger attests to the forces of the political left and the center that they have done an extremely bad job in defending the fundamental values of the West over the past few decades. Where was the "upright walk", the "insistence on individual autonomy", the "spirit of criticism" when it came, for example, to stand up for the position of the writer Salman Rushdie, who is threatened with death?
Carlos Strenger uses a good part of the ten short chapters of his essay to deduce, based on the history of ideas, why the open society seems so powerless. The main problem he identifies is "political correctness". He does not see it as an emancipatory movement entirely in the spirit of the Enlightenment - that is, as an attempt to let the long unheard voices of women, blacks or homosexuals come into their own. The fashion of political correctness - in its supposedly limitless tolerance - has rather thrown a fundamental principle of the Enlightenment overboard:
"Namely, that nothing and nobody should be above criticism. If other cultures are not allowed to be criticized, you cannot defend your own."
As if that weren't enough, the weak, open society faced dangers from other sources: from authoritarian regimes, Islamist or right-wing extremist groups. Strenger believes that one has to arm oneself against this, and recommends that adversaries be treated with "civilized contempt":
"I define civilized contempt as an attitude out of which people may or should despise beliefs, behavior and values if they consider them irrational, immoral, incoherent or inhuman for substantial reasons."
"This contempt is civilized under two conditions"
However, mere contempt can easily turn into hatred and violence - Carlo Strenger is well aware of this. Born in Switzerland, he lives in deeply divided Israel. That's why he has this strange feeling a little further:
"This contempt is civilized under two conditions: First, it must be based on arguments that show that the person who brings it forward has made serious efforts to reflect the current state of knowledge in relevant disciplines; this is the principle of responsible opinion-forming. Second it must be directed against opinions, beliefs or values and not against the people who represent them. "
Easier said than done - Carlos Strenger admits that too. Political or religious zealots like to poke each other's throats. And religious maxims often come into conflict with the basic values of the Enlightenment. It is precisely here that the author wants to offer practical instructions. In order to determine when which arguments can claim validity in the event of a conflict, he suggests a thought experiment - the "doctor's test":
"Imagine if a loved one is seriously ill - what do you expect from the treating doctor? What would you say if she or he justified their decision on a particular colorectal cancer therapy based on their beliefs and ignored relevant clinical studies? Would you accept that ? "
Coexistence of cultures
A rhetorical question that, according to Strenger, even religious fundamentalists would answer with no. And now Strenger wants to grab the traditionalists by the principles that they also apply in their everyday life: Difficult political, legal or cultural coexistence issues should be decided like at the operating table.
Namely: to the best of our knowledge. As in medicine, so in morality. An example: The principles of Orthodox Judaism forbid women to testify in court. The reason: the Talmud certifies that they are gullible. But because in truth it cannot be empirically proven that women are more gullible than men, this prohibition would - according to Strenger - become obsolete. As simple as the "doctor's test" sounds, it should pose problems in practice. Because: Who decides what is to be considered the current state of science? After all, science is often at odds too. Much depends on those who are punished with "civilized contempt" endure such insults:
"We all have to learn to live with anger, envy and resentment without turning off our power of judgment. This requires the self-discipline not to shrink from the emotional pain in the face of the superiority of the other, but to practice enduring this pain."
Carlo Strenger's easily accessible pamphlet for the liberal values of the West is a nice and timely inspiration for a wide audience. But it remains unfinished. It is not enough to despise a caricature of political correctness in a less civilized way. In addition, the hope that a feeling could always target positions - not entire people - seems risky. Unfortunately, the author largely leaves in the dark which values of the Enlightenment the West should be aware of in detail. A qualified praise of freedom could develop more charisma.
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