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Civil Philosophy

by BINESH HASS in Oxford

17 Oct 2010 17:495 Comments

On the potential for doing good in tough places.

72758-004-9686F5EE.jpg[ IDÉ ] It is not everyday that one is singled out and offered unsolicited and patronizing travel advice and legal counsel in the public sphere by a professor of comparative literature and Iranian studies at Columbia University. But this was precisely my privilege in Hamid Dabashi's "The Space of Philosophy," the professor's insightful riposte to a piece I wrote in the Guardian defending World Philosophy Day in Iran. "Astonishingly naive," "blinded," "baffled," "confused," and "entirely oblivious" -- all of these the professor kindly reserved for me. And, indeed, there is much to learn when someone as distinguished as he takes the time to make a point in the way that he did.

In philosophy and elsewhere we are told that it is bad manners -- and inexcusable logic -- to call names and throw around ad hominems as a form of undermining those whose opinions we consider wrong or find otherwise unpalatable. Apart from being reproachful in and of themselves, bad manners and caustic tones like the one that runs right through the professor's polemic distract and make civil dialogue arduous if not impossible. These mannerisms fall under what Canadian philosopher and gifted essayist Mark Kingwell recently described as the "shout doctrine" in a monograph about why parliaments sometimes shut down and democracies implode -- lessons to heed if we are undertaking a democratic project of our own. At the heart of it is a genuine concern for what passes as sound and valid argument in the public sphere, and I make the point here not to be a pedant of good discursive behavior but to underscore what must necessarily be avoided if the professor intends to organize a World Philosophy Day that will run parallel to UNESCO's event in Iran -- an event, after all, that is meant to facilitate civil exchange and not the enraged philippics that already saturate political conversation in the Iranian diaspora and, indeed, so many other places. For there are many ways to win an argument and if the debates of the professor's online forum are to be won with volleys of insults, and if the prevailing idea of a good riposte is going to be an escalation of slander, then this parallel World Philosophy Day will amount to nothing more than the well-tired ideological hyperbole of a bankrupt revolutionary worldview that has yet to be swept aside by clearer tides.

But to what end did the professor's essay actually aim besides its lessons in manners and good democratic culture? I understood a few things. First, that he misunderstood the Guardian article or that I was not as clear as I should have been. Either way, much of his piece was dedicated to propounding the virtues of cyberspace and what he introduced as "this thing called the Internet" as a way of countering my opposition to a parallel World Philosophy Day. But I offered no such opposition. On the contrary, it sounds like a wonderful idea. At the crux of the suggestion tabled by this esteemed collection of philosophers and professors from around the world is that UNESCO's event in Iran is a bad idea because they are, as their petition states, "sadly aware, due to a very close experience, how one can be imprisoned and risk one's life in Iran because of one's ideas" and therefore that the country "should not be considered as a normal rotation of location."

Their proffered solution, then, is a parallel World Philosophy Day that will run online. An event that will labor for nothing less than to "redefine Iran beyond its territorial boundaries and [bring it] into the global digital commons so that Iranians from all walks of philosophical life, in or out of the physical domain, can participate in it." An event that will pull the Islamic Republic "into the global limelight" and "force it, by the power of the Internet, to face the global reality that surrounds it and under whose gaze it cannot continue to maim and murder its own citizens, imprison and torture those among them who dare to think freely." My goodness, the only thing left for this online World Philosophy Day -- essentially a website -- to do is banish Iran's tyrants to the depths of hell from whence they came. The professor did not mention this final feat, but it sounds about right. Beyond the exuberant prose, however, the point being made is a perfectly valid one even if its reach is just a bit exaggerated. A website that aggregates and synthesizes in an accessible, interactive, and popular way the work of freethinking philosophers will doubtless assist in the progress of Iran's political narrative in more ways than one. And how a philosophical essay written and posted online will impede the maiming and murder of innocents in Iran is an important enquiry inadvertently prompted by the professor. One that I cannot wait to read about on the forthcoming forum.

None of this, however, was the point of my defense of UNESCO's choice of Iran as this year's venue. The point I sought to make was that holding World Philosophy Day in Iran represents a worthwhile principle -- that is, oppressed societies are the ones that stand to benefit most from the penetrating criticality that philosophical exchange can cultivate. It is banal to point out that dialogue and free exchange are difficult -- very difficult -- in places like Iran, but this sounds like the sort of reason that underscores the importance and necessity of that exchange. Not a reason to write a petition that urges an international boycott and change of venue. Those philosophers that can go to Iran should, because history has shown that they can do good things in tough places. This was what I attempted to suggest with my qualified comparison between present-day Iran and the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s, where the velvet philosophers of Oxford "smuggled" their critical reflections to great effect. I surely was not, as the professor insinuated, implicating myself in a "velvet plot to topple the theocracy." And the velvet philosophers surely were not, as he states as a matter of fact, exposing Czechoslovakians to a "corrupt and abusive" form of philosophy.

And a final point regarding those tired charges made elsewhere of lending legitimacy to the state by participating in its officially sanctioned events. History -- most pressingly the presidential election of June 2009 -- has shown that the people have a tremendous capacity for utterly subverting the intentions of the powers that be and for utterly delegitimizing the state at precisely the moment it attempts to legitimize itself. For what is the Green Movement if not one massive and spontaneous subversion of the Islamic Republic's attempt to legitimize itself through elections? Things are not always as they seem, not every vote is a concomitant vote for the system that calls it forth, not every participant endorses his host, and not every philosopher at this year's World Philosophy Day may opt to do their work in the "Islamic Republic's gaudy conference halls of state-sponsored banality." These possibilities are the nuances that demand our attention. And all this said, it may be that World Philosophy Day in Iran will not amount to very much at all, but to agitate against its possibility is to deny that it may entail something worthwhile and just.

Binesh Hass is chief editor of Oxford Transitional Justice Research and an Iranian Canadian doctoral student at the University of Oxford. He works in legal philosophy and history in the context of the Iranian Constitution. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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5 Comments

I think the Islamic government will take advantage of this philosophy congress for its own propaganda. And only select people can attend this congress and not every dissident thinker in Iran. All in all, a civil dialogue in Iran can not happen now except in Evin prison's jails among all the imprisoned politicians and journalist. Maybe if these philosophers ask for some of these journalists to be freed, they could help Iran's lovers of civil discourse otherwise their presence only helps Ahamdinejad and Khamenei.

Ordinary people in Iran do not care about philosophy, they can't even vote and be counted! what the hell do they care if some philosophers gather together?

Amin / October 17, 2010 8:57 PM

What a bunch of boring academic bi-kar debates. Binesh's original suggestion was a bit bi-shoor, but Dabashi never wasted an opportunity to attack someone and show how childish he is.

Pirooz / October 18, 2010 6:06 AM

This is a description of Philosophy Day given on UNESCO's website:

"One day, that is the unit of time devoted to debates in which each and every person should feel free to participate according to his or her convictions.

Many places, that is our unit of space, because our common goal is also to enhance arguments and counterarguments not only in one agora but in all the parts of this big house that we invite you to come and discover every year.

Finally, a unity of action, of common action, to reaffirm the true value of philosophy, that is to say the establishment of dialogue that must never cease when it comes to essential matters, and of thought which gives us back a large part of human dignity whatever our condition."

Please read the first sentence carefully.

Now here are a few quotes from the founder of the Islamic Republic, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini:

"Don't listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against Islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things."
Remarks to students and educators in Qom (13 March 1979)

"If one permits an infidel to continue in his role as a corrupter of the earth, the infidel's moral suffering will be all the worse. If one kills the infidel, and this stops him from perpetrating his misdeeds, his death will be a blessing to him."
Speech on the day of Mohammed's birth (1984)

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic someone who decides to turn away from Islam should be executed.

Good luck having a meaningful philosophical debate with these people. Just try not to get yourselves killed. I haven't read Mr. Dabashi's response but I think "naive" is an apt description of your original article.

Cy / October 18, 2010 8:13 AM

Getting rid of all the useless name-calling, there are two incompatible viewpoints here, viz.,

a) The practice of free-thinking philosophy undermines whatever theoretical foundation a dictatorship relies on, so promoting an event that will allow a multitude of such philosophers into a dictatorship and allow them the opportunity to disperse their ideas will work against that dictatorship and (perhaps!) hasten its downfall.

b) A publicity-loving dictatorship will pervert whomsoever takes part in events that the dictatorship sponsors and manipulates, so no one opposed to the dictatorship should contenance being a part of anything sponsored by the dictatorship.

Personally, I think free ideas are like a poison to dictatorship and the more ways this poison can be introduced the better. If the dictators promote such an event and publicise individual philosophers taking part, it gives those individuals credibility in the eyes of the dictatorship's own supporters (and they must have the support of some minority to suppress the majority). Should the ideas of those philosophers then get broadcast, they will erode the foundation of the dictatorship.

From everything I read, Iran is moving towards a catastrophic (in the mathematical sense) change. Something will catalyse the anger and frustration currently felt by a substantial proportion of the population. All the repression that has so far prevented genuine public expression will only intensify that anger and fury of the change. Philosophical ideas will only hasten that event.

MetaMote / October 18, 2010 1:03 PM

Hi, Binesh I found that you have written here

"For what is the Green Movement if not one massive and spontaneous subversion of the Islamic Republic's attempt to legitimize itself through elections? Things are not always as they seem, not every vote is a concomitant vote for the system that calls it forth, not every participant endorses his host, and not every philosopher at this year's World Philosophy Day may opt to do their work in the "Islamic Republic's gaudy conference halls of state-sponsored banality."

Good summery of how things can be when an abusive exposure of Philosophy is full underway..

though you seem to dout the power of Internet..
Let me put here some important statistics of internet usage in Iran..

" Internet use in Iran continues to increase at a fast pace. The number of Internet users in Iran has grown from less than 1 million in 2000 to about 28 million, or 38 percent of the population, in 2009."

"The Persian blogosphere is considered one of the most active in the world. "

The number of active bloggers includes approximately 60,000 routinely updated blogs, according to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. "


observer / October 20, 2010 3:02 PM