This is an essay that I have had bubbling away in my head for weeks now. And as ever recent events have crystallised my thoughts. So I figured it was high time I addressed the recent tide of "whataboutism" that seems to be dogging areas of the internet over the recent protests and other things. I, as regular readers may know, am a fan of stoic teachings, and those of Seneca the Younger in particular. (there are others, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus spring to mind). I came to know of Seneca through the work of Tim Ferriss, the tech investor and author of books like the 4 hours work week etc, who was in turn recommended to me by a friend. Why do the writings and teachings of these early philosophers strike a chord with me? Mostly due to the needs that have materialised in my own life over the last decade. But more of this later.
What is Stoicism?
Tim Ferris suggests that it can be thought of as "... an operating system for thriving in high stress environments" It stems from Ancient Greek philosophy that was taught by the authors above on a "stoa" or porch, hence stoicism. It is concerned with how one views ones self, and ones place in the world, practicalities of existence and the resilience of body and mind.
Truthfully I like Tim's description of stoic teachings. He goes on further to advocate for implementing mental techniques to "train your mind" in dealing with imagined fears or loss, or any of the many and varied challenges that might befall us as humans. (fear setting, fasting, reflection etc)
A great place to start if you're interested in further reading is Tim's tao of Seneca audio book which you can see if you hit the link in the picture below.
The point of this training is to impart skills or knowledge and attach learned responses to occurrences, such that we might better be able to function in our endeavours. All well and good we might think. However I want to specifically look at the second of those ideas. Knowledge. What does a Stoic practice give us in terms of knowledge? Here we once again refer to the work of GWF Hegel, and what he called "epistemic practices" and "Knowledge defeaters". And to illustrate this lets consider two examples. 1) A solider is trained in what is known as stoppage drills. How to clear a rifle when a round (bullet) is not ejected fully and stops the next round from being fed into the chamber., which stops the rifle from firing.
2) An activist/researcher is concerned with homelessness, and decides to sleep rough, to assess what the conditions are on the ground for homeless people. They spend 6 months living rough. then at the end of the research term, they return to their former life, to write up their findings.
1) The soldier.
Training is an ever present part of a military mentality. As is a stoic acceptance of the hardships of the life and a refusal to give up when things seem pretty dire. The stoppage drill in question is one I am familiar with. (on the British 5.56 bullpup style rifle commonly known as an SA-80) After enough time on the range training with live ammo, simulating stoppages and dealing with the inevitable real ones as the workings of the rifle get hot and black with carbon, I can still remember the sequence of moves required to clear the chamber safely some 10 years later. But I never once fired my rifle at a live target whilst coming under fire myself. So what is it that I know? I have knowledge of a process and of what I need to do in order to clear a jammed round. I do not know whether I would react to clear a stoppage whilst under fire. We(I) know that It is likely that I would do better than some, but my reaction to the situation I was training for is still untested, since all the times I came under fire were incidences of mortar fire in a base environment. We also know that having signed on as a Soldier, throughout my military career, there was a real possibility of me finding myself in that very situation, and thus every training session was imbued with a seriousness, and attentiveness to detail, borne of that knowledge. Now consider a laser tag, paint ball, or Air-soft player. One who has never been in the military. It is possible to acquire replica rifles that operate in a manner extremely similar to the actual rifle I used whilst in service. I was a nurse, certainly no marksman, and its highly likely that a seasoned airsoft player will be quicker at some drills than I am, or perhaps ever was. Do they know the same things as me? Skills wise perhaps more. But what about from a Stoic perspective of 'knowledge of self'?
The two individuals are doing very different "epistemic practices" A soldier learns the drills knowing that if they get them wrong at the crucial moment, that mistake may cost their life and the lives of others in their section. An air soft player in the same situation looses a few points and joins another squad. The reason the soldier is there is vastly different to the reason the air soft player is there. As are the consequences of any failure.
2) The activist & researcher
Perhaps you can already see what the activist may glean from sleeping rough? They will amass knowledge and experience of having been on the street for six months. They may gain an insight that would have been impossible to acquire through other means. But they knew that at any point they could remove themselves from that situation. They knew that in 6 months they would return to a house, a bed, and relative safety. Their situation had a pre planned exit, and furthermore they were at that time, and in that place willingly, by their own choice.
So what they know, and what they learn will be different and removed from the experience and knowledge of the people who are actually homeless and have no escape, no agency and are neither safe nor there by choice. The researcher has no need to accept the futility of their situation, since they know both that it will end, and that it is in their power to change it. We can clearly see that it would be egotistical of either party therefore to suggest they know what it is to be either homeless, or a soldier.
Knowing what it is that we know. (meta-epistemology)
The 'epistemic practices' described above are thus divided into 'knowing what it is like to be homeless' on the one hand and 'knowing what it is to be homeless' on the other. Each of which require a different application of stoic resilience. Similarly knowing what it is to be a solider, and what it is like to be one. In fact one might say that the application of resilience is the reverse in each case. The researcher uses resolve to stay where they have no need be, and endure hardships, whilst the homeless person uses their resolve to keep going day after day, knowing they cannot easily escape those hardships. The soldier endures what they must, in training and ops, whilst the air-soft player simply tests themselves, and endures what they wish, in relative safety for the sake of a challenge. I can say that I know what it is to be a soldier. I know what it like to use a rifle with intent to cause harm, and in the service of others. I therefore know in this context what the service of others means, and costs.
I also know what it is to be ignored, marginalised, repressed, oppressed and diss enabled by a society that does not see me. A society that sees only 'trans-ness'. What one might call an example of Sartrian ‘being’ defined by an “over determined” characteristic. A singular and therefore all-encompassing aspect of identity that (in the minds of the oppressive viewer) precludes the oppressed from ‘being’ or ‘knowing’ themselves in any other way.
Perhaps it is unsurprising then that my interest in the stoic writings stems from this oppression, and the knowledge that I do not have control over the societal structures that govern and limit my life. My own stoic epistemic practice is not solely that of training, researching, or playing/pretending. But also of being, doing, and thus 'becoming through knowing'. Existence as Resistance.
I also know that I am white, and therefore blind to much of the life of a BAME person in the UK or the US.
In recent weeks since the murder of George Floyd by a white man in a police uniform, (I hesitate to call him a policeman, as he had no concept of the meaning of the term) we have seen unprecedented police violence in the US towards demonstrators, and similar heavy handedness here in the uk. We have seen police forces attack camera crews, protestors and medical volunteers. They have alternately stood aside whilst white people chase away black people, or as a mixed crowd tears down a statue of a slaver in Bristols city streets.
It seems Covid -19 has also run rampant through the populations both here and in the US. The usual power structures and social systems are suspended whilst Uk and US fascist government's allow their populations to die. In the case of the latter even having the unimaginable scenario of the present incumbent of the Oval Office go on national television to declare Antifa (anti fascists) as terrorists, and threaten the use of lethal force on US citizens by its own army.
(For context, in nazi occupied France the resistance was known as a terrorist organisation by the Vichy government)
To say it is a period of unrest and uncertainty would be an understatement. Yet many people online, social commentators etc, are holding to the idea that civil unrest is 'harmful'. That their knowledge of the hardship of their own life means they get to pass judgement on those who are protesting, and rioting for black lives to actually matter in the midst of a pandemic.
Perhaps this is Smelser's (1962) "Mutifactor value added theory" in action. (social strain theory - rapid social change results in social movements) This idea suggests that social change is brought about by several factors influencing a population all at once. Factors including structural conduciveness, strain, ideology, dramatic one-time events, the ability to mobilise, social power and cultural capital all have an impact on the individual’s ability to affect change. and importantly for our purposes, their knowledge that change is possible. So what changed here you might ask?
Simple. Anger became greater than fear of consequence.
I have lived ten years of my life to date with the aforementioned marginalisation, repression, oppression and diss enablement. Can you imagine what hundreds of years must feel like? I have a level of anger that sometimes boils over. but I would wager it pales to nothing when compared to that of a black man, or black woman or a black queer/trans person, who has seen many past George Floyds go unremarked, un reported and un recognised for what they are. Murders ignored by a system that repeated suggests black lives don't matter all that much.
But what about.... Which brings me to my closing point. Stoic practice, and training in anticipation of the day where you might need to face some imagined difficulty or use some resolve or reserve to deal with a situation is a worthwhile investment of time and energy. BUT it is not and can never be taken as a substitute for knowledge of the actual situation. To go back to the military analogy, every solider knows training is not operations. Otterburn ranges are not Iraq, nor are Scottish hills the mountains of Bosnia. It's the very reason one attracts tour medals, and the other does not. With training we may know what we might do, we cannot know what we will do. So unless we have been there we cannot tell those who are currently angry what they should do. Sitting in comfortable judgement upon protestors and rioters who have experienced personal attacks, or who have had the injustices heaped upon their families and ancestors ignored for centuries, and whose anger has finally boiled over into action is the very thing people are protesting about. So, before condemning their actions as unnecessary or misguided, make sure you know what you think you know. Do you really have the required knowledge or insight? Ensure that you're not bumping into a contradiction that defeats your own 'knowledge' though equating your experience of inconvenience to theirs of injustice. Because what all these protests and riots and all this anger is trying to tell us is something very very simple: Black Lives Matter.
Our shame is that historically, they just didn't matter enough. That is until social change became sufficient for white people to notice that they hadn't been paying attention to their own history.
Where stood the statue of a slaver, stands the raised fist of a proud black man.
Gentleman on the plinth:Manoel Akure
Cultural racism wasn't a created by the oppressed. So we, the historic oppressors, can hardly plead ignorance and surprise when confronted with the fruits of our own error. Peace out. And til next time keep it stubbornlyoptimistic. Sarah.