Nothingness at Power

 

“Lady Bracknell. (….) I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

Jack. [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.” (The Importance of Being Earnest Act 1)

What seems to Jack a nonsensical question to a man, who is facing an interview to be allowed to marry the woman she loves, actually, hides much more sense that we believe. Being puzzled but determined to win Lady Bracknell’s good opinion, he decides to keep a low profile declaring to “know nothing”. Lucky man. He guessed it right, after all he had 50 % odds. For Lady Bracknell such an answer reveals lack of pride, a quality that she cannot but appreciate, but also a humble disposition which is typical of those who actually know something. The more you learn, the more you have the impression that your knowledge is comparable to a mote of dust in the immensity of the universe. Socrates himself said:

“I am the wisest man alive, because I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Yet, Lady Bracknell could not know that modernity would have brough to life a new category of people, that is, those who know nothing and live under the impression of knowing everything. They are the arrogant who believe that the bits and pieces of information they find grazing on the internet are the ultimate truth. It is the absence of doubt that makes them so. This is what Umberto Eco said about this social phenomenon:

“Social media give the right to speak to legions of idiots who once used to speak only at the bar after a glass of wine, without damaging the community. They were immediately silenced, once, while now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize. It’s the invasion of idiots .”

Once, if you were aware of your intellectual inconsistency, you would have never dared give your opinion on matters, let alone scientifical matters, you knew just a little or nothing about. Not today. Today you find pages and pages that promote, for example,  bicarbonate and even aloe as miraculous cures for cancer, that vaccines are dangerous and, therefore, pages blossoms where parents become in a fell swoop doctors, doctors with no degree of course, who give evidence and claim their right to choose whether to vaccinate or not, and who cares if their offsprings study or play with other children who are immunosuppressed, they are not their own, after all. On other pages you may learn that a hemorrhoids cream may erase your wrinkles and  that if you suffer from bags under you eyes, toothpaste is the remedy you were looking for – don’t do it!! – , but if you are in the mood of a more scientifical debate you may easily bump into people who are ready to give you proof of the fact that man never went on the moon, that the aliens are spying us and the earth is flat . Pages that may boast thousands of followers. So are we not far from the truth if we say that the free access to information has provoked general, arrogant, ignorant disinformation. I know, that at this point, Lady Bracknell, wouldn’t be with me, in fact she believed that:

“Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone” (The Importance of Being Earnest Act 1)

Maybe it was so at your time, my Dear, when there was no universal suffrage yet and the less fortunate envied, of course, but also admired the educated. The latters were a model for their children, which was eventually made attainable thanks to schooling. Today those elites do not represents any longer a model, and those voices who used to be silenced are allowed to vote and elect people exactly like them: ignorant, arrogant, selfish. Somebody who doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable with the inconsistency of their education or propriety of speech. Somebody simple, who speaks simply and is able to fuel minds with unattainable perspectives, envy towards the elites and fear for whatever is perceived different. These people today determine the fate of a country. The greatest revolution of our times would be allowing that delicate exotic fruit of ignorance to be touched by that virus called education, but I fear it is too late as they have already found the antidote.

“The opinion of 10,000 men has no value if nobody knows anything about the subject.” Marcus Aurelius

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The Sorrows of a Disenchanted Voter

Exactly in a week time, new elections will be held here in Italy and I have to say that
maybe for the first time in my life I feel a kind of unwilling to perform my duty of
citizen going to vote. Almost I year ago I confessed all my doubts in a post
about the effectiveness of the democratic system of representation and still the same issue keeps troubling my mind. It is a fact that only on the occasion of elections we are really equal despite, census, education etc. : is this really one of the greatest modern conquests? In that post I asked Socrates’s help to make my point clear and particularly I liked a passage when he affirms that “ voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is…. irresponsible“, only education may prove the best antidote to demagoguery (dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading).

However, what happens if those who do not possess that skill represent the majority of a country?  The percentage of those who have relapsed into illiteracy,
that is, those who may not completely understand meanings and concepts, is
increasing in any country and in Italy has reached the 80%, hence, who do you
think propaganda will be addressed to? Modern political speeches have lost their power of seduction, as their message doesn’t aim any longer at being thought-provoking , constructive, but rather, at being catchy, therefore: simple, short and quick. It must stick on you, avoiding the usage of reason if possible.

In my opinion, the most effective slogan I can remember belongs to Berlusconi’s era; as pioneer of Italian Private Television he was a champion of communication : “We won’t put our hands in the pockets of the Italians“. A simple image which doesn’t require to be decoded, as it is extremely effective but dangerous at the same time. In those few words the very first powerful message is that his party won’t levy taxes, which is ok, but the subtle one means that taxes are nothing but robbery, thus mining the faith in that system he would have ruled for almost 20 years ( a maybe more).

Propaganda addresses our fears – real or perceived -, impossible solutions, social envy. There is new-born party here, the so-called five-star party, which has based the entire political campaign on one word only: honesty. Effective and simple, isn’t it? However, 90% of the candidates who have been recruited are completely unexperienced in matters of political administration (and more). May I ask you a question? Would you still trust you doctor if he confessed you that he has never studied medicine, but, don’t worry : he is so honest. I guess you would immediately tear his prescription and find your way out as fast as possible. Well, you wouldn’t believe it , but it seems that one-fourth of the voters of this country is ready to rely on them only because they wave the flag of honesty. I can see Socrates turning in his grave.Rather than a political campaign we have been the witnesses here of a competition among those who rant the loudest and I fear that the winner we’ll be put in charge of the country with the consequences you may well imagine.

I have no other solution to offer than enhancing education, but I understand it is a slow process, very slow, considering the ways education policies are taking, that it seems to me more and more utopian day by day. Will I take to trouble to go to vote, then? I don’t know, yet. I’ve got a nice book to read.

On Democracy, Demoguery and Foolocracy

soc2

In Book Six of Plato‘s The Republic, there is a very illuminating passage about the nature of democracy. Socrates is discoursing with Plato’s brother Adeimantus trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. “If you were heading out on a journey by sea“, asks Socrates “who would you ideally want to decide who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” The latter of course“, says Adeimantus, ” So why then“, responds Socrates,” “do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?

soc1Such display of distrust in the democratic system from one of the foundling fathers of  philosophical thought and symbol of that idea of civilization which has Ancient Athens as universal icon, sounds quite striking. However, that means that since the very beginning the issue of representation was seen as the weakest aspect of democracy. Should electors require any skill to exercise their right to vote, census, education etc.? Or should we presume that democracy by birthright is the greatest modern achievement?

Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of that ship sailing to the frightening ocean. If they are not qualified, it might very likely crash against the rocks when the first storm comes. It sounds snobbish, I know,  but he was not. For Socrates only those who” had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote”.Giving the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom could lead a system the Greeks feared above all:( demagoguery: dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading) and only education could be the most effective antidote.

soc3Ancient Athens had indeed experienced  what being ruled by demagogues meant with Alcibiades. Rich, charismatic, smooth-talking,he had slowly eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. However, any era has seen the birth of one or more Alcibiades, because their real skill is exploiting our desire for easy answers, that is all. We want to believe to their alluring world made of slogans and promises without  taking the trouble of pondering on how all could be achieved or their consequences on people. We always enjoy a good story, don’t we?

As a demonstration of how our minds work, Socrates wanted us to imagine an election debate between two candidates: a doctor and a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner’ s speech would sound more or less like this:

“Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will”. Socrates asks us to consider what the reaction of the audience would be like: Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – “I cause you trouble, and go against your desires in order to help you’” would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think? That’s why we prefer to give our vote to sweet shop owners rather than doctors.

But, if Socrates could be here among us and see who are the captains in charge of many “vessels” around the world, I guess he would regret that sweet shop owner, wouldn’t he?