by BINESH HASS in Oxford
17 Oct 2010 17:49
On the potential for doing good in tough places.[ 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.
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