The desire to understand.

“Understanding,” like the other concepts I’ve been discussing, has a lot of emotional baggage. There is a great deal of badmouthing of understanding as being too lenient and for the weak-minded. One should not seek to understand, they say, but rather to act, regardless of the consequences.

The only other avenue proposed is strict pre-judgment in accordance with arbitrary standards. The standard capital-democrat strategy is to keep throwing money at the problem, keep throwing people in jail, keep threatening people, anything to not have to confront the facts. And people buy into it hook, line and sinker.

To confront a situation and understand it is not being weak-willed, nor is it arbitrary. Indeed, there seems to be some confusion regarding what understanding actually implies. People often say things like “so, you’re not gonna actually *do* anything?” Trying to understand something doesn’t mean that one “gives up” on action, merely that one seeks to understand in order to solve a problem instead of acting mindlessly.

But it’s obvious why acting mindlessly is a popular activity. It gives one the illusion of solving the problem immediately without actually having to think outside of one’s mental box, or even think at all. Any action, we feel, is better than no action at all. So what if it’s wrong-headed, or even destructive? Some action must be taken nevertheless. Leave the thinking to those who have time to waste.

Certainly it is true that conceptual thinking has been used as a tool of oppression in all sorts of different ways. But so have hierarchies found it in their interest to exploit people’s craving for mindless action in order to further their own violent agendas.

The Anarchist is keenly interested in distancing himself from political showmanship and in actually solving social problems through cooperation and mutual aid. But this cannot be achieved without the ability and desire to confront facts. No permanent improvement in man’s condition is possible without understanding. Too many movements aim to improve man’s condition while lacking crucial insights, and their actions are well-intentioned but ultimately futile. This is therefore a double disaster for us: people who could bring about change but work against their own goals.

The simplest way to define “understanding” is that one should take the steps necessary to solve a problem, as opposed to using the pat answers and solutions handed down. This sounds simplistic, but it is not something that we actually do in our society! Political discourse, at least the little of it that exists, is about belonging and does not address problems, only clashes between partisan ready-made solutions. The few people who do go beyond these clashes (outside of Anarchists, anyway) and try to address real issues do not have the tools or willingness to question their implicit premises, because their very livelihood depend on them. Even some Anarchists fall too easily into the “one size fits all” trap.

Let’s look at the example of crime, which is the most common one used to argue about understanding. Well, if you bring up the topic of understanding, people inevitably say such a thing as “so you just want criminals to go free?” or somesuch nonsense.

But that has no relevance at all. Trying to understand something, in and of itself, is not a theory of justice, and has nothing to do with them. Whether we have an authoritarian view of justice as source of punishment, or whether we’re looking for less degrading alternatives, trying to understand why a crime was committed has no bearing on either option, and it can be done in any justice system (although obviously any justice system or system of rules not based on equality and consent will hinder or nullify any attempt at understanding and stopping crime).

It is true that understanding necessitates a certain level of “relativism,” which is generally associated with anti-authoritarianism, for if one does not admit the existence of some absolute good, why enforce anything in an absolute manner? Of course, one should not fall into the trap of the voluntaryist crowd and claim that anything that people agree to (or at least fake agreeing to) is automatically good. Reality is what it is regardless of our desires or preferences.

Of course, Anarchists should not be authoritarians, if they are consistent at all, but few people are consistent. Many Anarchists do want to kill others in the name of justice, generally because they fall into the “noble revenge” trap. That is their mental aberration, not mine. I can’t do anything about it except to hope that such people will one day be cured of their aberrations and come back to sanity.

At any rate, some relativism is necessary to understand the causes of a crime. If we start from the mainstream premise that criminals are criminals by virtue of having immoral (at least, immoral by definition) attitudes towards themselves or society, and are therefore “broken” or malfunctioning people, of a lesser status than we are, that they must be “punished” or “cured” (neither being any less aberrant), then no honest attempt to understand causes can take place. The only attempts to prevent crime that can be constructed by such a system, and the only ones we observe in our society, are attempts at indoctrinating people to change their attitudes. There are both epistemic and pragmatic reasons why the justice apparatus in a capital-democratic system has little interest in preventing crime.

We always jump rapidly to judging the individuals (most of the time, with not nearly enough information to do so), but we rarely take the time to judge the systems they were raised in and evolved in, mainly because such judgment is a political taboo.

In fact, many people erect personal responsibility, which is an important moral concept, into an absolute code, putting all the blame on the individual and none on society. It’s so much of an absolute code that the cry “it’s society’s fault!” has become associated with leniency and weak-mindedness. Of course I’m not saying that the individual has no moral responsibility: we are all responsible for our own actions (in fact, it is the capitalist who denies this in his own work contracts). It is easy for our opponents to believe that our position is the exact opposite of theirs, because it makes strawmaning easier.

Consider that when we evaluate someone’s values, we do it without even the possibility of being aware of that other person’s context, for to do so would be to become that person. Therefore such evaluations are always necessarily done in ignorance.

This is not the same as evaluating the action itself. Evaluating the ethical status of an action (i.e. whether it is just or unjust, whether it follows social principles and rules) is a different issue from evaluating the moral status of an action (i.e. how well it fulfills the individual’s values). Under statist rhetoric, of course, both are supposed to be the same: the individual is blamed for committing crimes (the concepts of which are arbitrarily constructed by the State) and it is his whole self that is punished and enslaved.

Throughout this entry, I have tried to keep the distinction between justice and understanding sparkling clear, because the main objection one inevitably gets against understanding as a method is “so you wouldn’t do anything about murderers, etc?”. The issue of how to deal with the remaining acts of aggression in a free society (where equality and freedom have weakened the incentives to aggress) is an entirely different issue from how to further minimize aggression. The goal to deal with a specific action is a short-term goal, the goal to eliminate the incentives of crime is a long-term goal.

Of course, there is no reason why these two goals cannot complement each other. A justice system which prevents further crimes by helping identification with others (as long as equality is in place) is compatible with, and indeed necessary for, disincentivization.

The main obstacle to understanding, I think, is tribalism, because of how it triggers the manichean mentality. The arbitrary categories of tribalism prevents people from seeing other people as their equals, which they truly are. Once there is an “us,” there is automatically also a “them.” And once we start classifying people as “us” and “them,” and interpreting everything they do through that grid, we’ve cut ourselves from understanding them.

Like stereotypes in general, the attraction of this way of thinking is obvious. It spares us from having to consider the individual in his complexity. It provides us with the “uniform motive” we need to “make sense” of an individual’s actions and jump to this or that conclusion without talking to, or even examining, that individual. We can then justify our foregone conclusion by our analysis of this “uniform motive.”

The net result is that, because we are stuck thinking about why “poor people,” “criminals” or “children” do the things they do, instead of looking at individual values, context, education or feelings, we’ll never understand the causes of poverty, crime or childhood aberrations.

3 thoughts on “The desire to understand.

  1. WorBlux November 26, 2009 at 01:56

    “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world”

    I fully agree that proper understanding is the fulcrum on which the societal lever rests.

  2. David Gendron November 26, 2009 at 16:47

    WOW! One of the best posts you wrote, François!

  3. […] saying that I am trying to remove personal responsibility from the people committing these actions. As I’ve said before, understanding does not preclude judgment. My point here is not that the actors in an unethical […]

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