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Ends Not Means

5.19.2006

An interesting post from Michael White at the Guardian blog, his general assertion regards the treatment of individuals in society. Discussing the coverage of murders of young boys from ethnic backgrounds, he notes the decline of stereotypical reactions and the emergence of seeing people as individual.

Does the public reaction in the Prince case matter ? Yes, just as it did in the cases of Damiola Taylor and, belatedly, Stephen Lawrence, who was eight days older than one of my own sons. The killing of Christopher Alaneme, murdered in Sheerness, aroused much sympathy. The more we see other people as real people, rather than stereotypes, the more our common humanity can assert itself.
Its an interesting notion he is tapping into there, particularly in terms of political and social theory. One of the forms of Kant's categorical imperative being "that we should treat people as means rather than ends" suggests that the notion of cosmopolitanism is alive and well. I wonder though, in light of the Afghan protests in our own fair land and the general politics of immigration and identity how much there has been a shift toward the intuition of people in our polity as ends, as beings in themselves, people of awareness, consciousness full of experience.

Clearly White's thesis has an element of idealism to it, what he seeks to posit is a vision of a global polity, where we come to see others not as extentions of a discreet homogenous entity (Asian, Muslim, French etc.), but as an individual.  Like most idealist exhortations it has two readings, as a literal end to be achieved or as a point of criticism representing the possible condition of society and using that to critique what currently exists.

On the first reading, it is hopelessly early to begin to assume that because the media generated an outcry over the murders of Damilola Taylor and others that society en masse has generated a mentality of openness to otherness. That the rage of the London Evening Standard and others has begun a reaction in the wider public to come toward the Kantian ideal. I am sceptical of the degree to which media lead opinion (and am of the opinion that the ones run for profit tend to follow it). It is neither in the presses interest nor other interests that members of society come to see potential others, potential differents, as beings in themselves, beings of history and story and behind it all individuals.

Such a shift in mindset would see the natural degeneration of nationalist politics in that the exchange between the new other and the existing member of society is a two way street. Feeding into the realisation of commonality, of lack of difference comes the jettisoning of previously held convictions of my own difference, my 'irishness', my 'whiteness', my 'Europeanness'.  It is difficult to sustain the suggestion that society has come to a point where this is beginning to happen from the reaction to a number of high-profile stories. Those stories were genuinely tragic, they represent a natural compassion in human beings, a natural empathy.

We are sensitive beings, capable of immense compassion toward others, the issue being that those traits require time and exposure to build up, neither of those are things society has a lot of these days. The general need for stereotypes is as a means of experience. We build up general stereotypes so as to spend less time on the engaging part of living and more on the reaction. Stereotypes help to bypass what is the ethical process of deliberation and judgement and allow for thequick determination.

As such they are indespensible to modern life. We cannot, for all of the idealism in the idea, do away with stereotypes without doing away with our models of engagement with the world. This is where the second element of the idealism is more effective. What the picture offers is an ideal from which to begin to examine our own current status. The stripping of stereotypes to make way for individual intuition and perception is indeed laudable but what are the wider conditions needed to facilitate this. Personally I doubt that more of the same from the Standard and others is sufficient to bring it about.

Could we even begin to imagine a world where our perception was consciously uncoloured by stereotypes, which render what we see dead and lifeless at the point of encounter? What would such a society look like? Those are the more interesting implications of White's short submission. While we may from time to time (as in the case of Taylor) catch a glimpse of common humanity, unity among diversity, its the exception rather than the rule.

That exception, that position of idealism is perhaps a way of engaging with what we have, exploring difference and coming to think in terms of difference and undertanding rather than sameness and utility.

That is but one interpretation of Kant's second formulation and one response, I am sure you have instantly read this and written it off, or agreed, as a stereotypical piece of _________. That is precisely the point its addressing. Socially.



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