Tuesday 14 March 2023

Yuval Harari wrong on Identity

The notion of identity for Indic philosophy is given by 'aikyam'- oneness. For Hebrew it would be 'thisness'. However, in both cases, what exists is subsumed, as for the Greeks, by membership of a particular class. 

Yuval Harari (whom I term Harris because it would be totes Nazi not to for a reason as arbitrary as anything the fellow asserts), takes a different view. He says 'the quest for identity is dangerous'. Yet not to seek the class to which you belong is even more dangerous. This is because identity becomes the basis for a 'pooling equilibrium' which reduces risk and increases life-chances. It is right and proper for me to discover whether I'm gay or straight or whether I'm good at Accountancy and bad at Law because I will do better by working with other people of the same type. 

Harris writes in Time-

All humans ask themselves who they are, where they came from, and what is their identity.

Not really. For most of us, our oikeiosis is determined by oikos- the family we were born into and the relations which existed between them and their neighbors. 

This quest for identity is important and fascinating, but it can also be dangerous.

Only in so far as the refusal to quest for it is dangerous. 

In attempting to define a clear identity for myself, I might close myself off to the world.

Your body is supposed to close you off from the world though, no doubt, nasty viruses might get into it.  

I might conclude that my identity is defined by belonging to a single group of people, emphasizing those parts in me that connect me to the chosen group, and ignoring all my other parts.

But belonging to a single group of people does not prevent you and others within that group participating in a widening circle of oikeosis- i.e. a bigger and bigger pooling equilibrium of a mutually beneficial kind. 

But people are incredibly complex beings.

But identity is not a complex relationship.  

If we focus on just one part of our identity and imagine that it alone matters, we cannot understand who we really are.

Yes we can. The only part of our identity which matters for understanding stuff is our understanding. Trying to learn mathematics by cramming an algebra textbook up your arse is a waste of time. Don't take my word for it. Try it for yourself.  

For example, for me as a Jew, it is obvious that Jewish history and Jewish culture are important to my identity.

This is not obvious at all. Judaism is a universal religion. There are plenty of people who are Jews in every sense of the word but who have had no opportunity to acquire much knowledge or culture. 

But to understand who I am, the Jewish story is far from sufficient. I am made of many pieces that came from all over the world.

That is irrelevant in so far as Judaism is a religion. No doubt, there are secular or atheistic Jews but, if so, the 'pieces' that are part of their make-up belong to the traditions of secularism or atheism or modern scientific research.  

I like football, which I got from the British.

No. Harris got football from the other kids in Haifa. Only if Harris had been living in the UK could he have got it from the Brits. 

They invented this game.

That is irrelevant. It may be that Radhanite Jews brought the Chinese game of 'cuju' to England many centuries ago.  

So when I kick a ball into the goal, I am being a little British.

Nonsense! You'd have to be sipping tea and wearing a top-hat for that to be the case. Sadly, the racist bastards at Chelsea football club refuse to let me play for their team even if I wear a top hat and am sipping tea.  

I like to drink coffee in the morning, for which I must thank the Ethiopians who discovered coffee and the Arabs and Turks who spread the drink far and wide.

I frequently try to thank Ethiopian and Arab and Turkish ladies for this but they beat me and chase me away. 

I like sweetening my coffee with a spoonful of sugar, so I am grateful to the Papuans who domesticated sugarcane in New Guinea at least 8,000 years ago. Sometimes I upgrade my coffee with a piece of chocolate, which came to me all the way from the tropical forests of Central America and Amazonia, where Native Americans began making cocoa treats perhaps as early as 5,000 years ago.

The problem here is that such commodities are gross substitutes. It doesn't really matter what type of beverage or candy you consume.  

Some Jews don’t like football, don’t drink coffee, and avoid sugar and chocolate. But they still owe much to foreigners.

Hebrew Scripture heaps praise on Cyrus. These are not an ungrateful people.  

Hebrew, the sacred language of Judaism, got many of its words, idioms, and basic structures from other languages such as Phoenician, Akkadian, Greek, Arabic, and most importantly Aramaic.

The Babylonian Talmud says that Aramaic was the language spoken by Adam. 

Entire chunks of the Old Testament are written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, as are large parts of the Mishnah, Talmud, and other key Jewish texts.

Second Maccabees is written in Koine Greek.  

The ancient Aramaeans worshipped the god Haddad rather than Jehovah, and killed several Jewish kings, but the Hebrew language and Jewish culture can hardly be imagined without Aramaean contributions.

Not really. Languages don't matter very much.  

Orthodox Jews leave the world to the Aramaic sound of the kaddish prayer. At some point about 2,500 years ago, Jews even abandoned their own Hebrew script, and to this day write the Torah, the Talmud, and their daily newspapers in Aramaic script.

Apparently the Samaritans still use the old script. I suppose it was Babylonian exile which led to the Aramaic script prevailing.  

As for the very idea of writing, it is a contribution not of Aramaeans, but of the ancient Sumerians. Thousands of years before the first Jew lived, some Sumerian geeks had a startup: use a stick to imprint marks on a piece of mud. They invented a code for these marks and created the technology of writing, which eventually gave us books, newspapers, and websites.

Writing has been invented in many places and many times.  

Not just its language and writing system, but even core religious beliefs came to Judaism from outside. For instance, the belief that humans have an eternal soul that is punished or rewarded in the afterlife isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Torah, and apparently was not a key part of biblical Judaism.

This is debatable. It is equally possible to say that Judaism had a theory of transmigration.  

The Old Testament God never promises people that if they follow his commandments, they’ll enjoy everlasting bliss in heaven, and nowhere does he threaten that if they sin, they’ll be burned for all eternity in hell.

Yet all this can be inferred from the statements of the Prophets and the traditions about them.  

Belief in a personal after-life seeped into Judaism from other faiths, most notably from the Greek philosophy of Plato and from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.

Bodily resurrection too may, strangely enough, come from them.  

The Persians also gave the Jews the idea of the devil—and of the messiah.

Again, these are highly contested matters. Judaism has different chains of scholar sages and their teachings may appear divergent.  

From food to philosophy, from medicine to art, most of what keeps us alive, and most of what makes life worthwhile, are things that were invented not by members of my specific nation but by people from across the whole world.

 So what? People who do do well for themselves and their communities are constantly adopting innovations made elsewhere. Specialization and Trade on the basis of comparative advantage militates for this. 

That’s true not just of Jews, but of everyone. Once, someone who wanted to belittle African cultures asked derisively, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”

The answer was Tolstoy. There were pacifist Christian Zulus- not to mention a certain Gujarati barrister- who read Tolstoy and discussed his ideas while he was still alive. It is not the case that Tolstoy only wrote for white folk. He showed a great interest in the philosophy and religions of dusky folk.  

On the other hand, it must be said that Tolstoy was very self conscious about the artificial and imported nature of- not to say autocratically imposed- type of literature he himself practiced. The Russians had been self-colonized or rendered serfs to their own contempt for themselves. No sub-Saharan African suffered so devastating a self-alienation. The Khoi-San or the Xhosa may have suffered a longer period of exploitation and subjugation than other Sub-Saharan people but, like them, they had never been rendered abject or self-hating or the instruments of their own enslavement. 

That person seemed to believe that the culture of no African people—either the Zulus or anyone else—produced literary works comparable to Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina.

This may be the case. There is no shame in admitting that, being more happily circumstanced, one's own nation has only a limited market for a particular literary form. Indeed, why seek in crabbed scription what can be communicated in full throated song? 

Ralph Wiley, an African-American journalist, answered this challenge with breathtaking simplicity. Wiley didn’t list Zulu authors like Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, Mazisi Kunene, or John Langalibalele Dube. Nor did he insist more generally that African authors like Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Ngugi wa Thiong’o are as good as Western authors. Wiley completely bypassed this sectarian trap. Instead, he wrote in his book Dark Witness that “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus—unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

To be fair, Alan Bloom and Saul Bellow and so forth were scoffing at the notion that Literature Departments should drop authors like Tolstoy in favor of authors whose sole qualification was their gender, sexuality or the color of their skin. But kids who study Literature can no longer read entire books.  Amanda Claybaugh, the dean of undergraduate education at Harvard and an English professor herself, makes a chilling disclosure-  “The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and verb.” Apparently, we now have people with degrees in Eng Lit- that too from Ivy League Colleges- who can't read Pride and Prejudice!

In contrast to the views held by fanatical racists, as well as by people taking the condemnation of “cultural appropriation” to extremes, Tolstoy isn’t the exclusive property of Russians. Tolstoy belongs to all humans.

Racists say dusky folk can't write like Tolstoy because their ginormous dicks keep getting in the way. But it isn't racist to say that Russia had a market for books of a type which other people find deeply boring.  

Tolstoy himself was deeply influenced by the ideas of foreigners like the French Victor Hugo and the German Arthur Schopenhauer, not to mention Jesus and Buddha. Tolstoy speaks of feelings, questions, and insights that are relevant to the inhabitants of Durban and Johannesburg no less than those of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

He may do. But then again, he may not.  All we can say is that the man was mentally ill. 

Two thousand years ago the African-Roman playwright Terence, a freed slave, expressed the same key idea when he said, “I am human, and nothing human is foreign to me.” Every human being is heir to the whole of human creation.

This is the cosmopolitan aspect of Stoic philosophy. But the thing is meaningless.  

People who in search of their identity narrow their world to the story of a single nation are turning their back on their humanity.

No they aren't. Some humans can make a living by being chauvinistic nationalists, others write some other stripe of tripe.  

They devalue what they share with all other humans.

Very true. All human being piss and shit. Nationalist historians devalue piss and shit. Harris, on the other hand, will pay me handsomely if I send him some stool samples.  

And they devalue far deeper things.

Especially if those things are deep up your bum.  

All the inventions and ideas of humans over the past few thousand years are just the upper crust of who we are. Under this crust, at the depths of our bodies and minds, we contain things that evolved over millions of years, long before there were any humans. This deep mystery manifests itself in everything I feel and think.

Why the fuck would some 'deep mystery' want to manifest in the turgid, virtue signaling prose of a fundamentally stupid and ignorant man?  

To understand who I am, it is necessary to open up to this mystery and explore it, instead of settling for a story about how I belong to one tribe of people who lived for a few thousand years on some hills near some river.

And yet it is the latter story we must pay attention to if we want to understand Israel. Pondering the deep mystery which connects us to crustaceans is a waste of time.  

Consider, for example, our courtship rituals. What do we feel when we see someone we find attractive, when we hold hands for the first time, when we exchange a first kiss? Think of the emotional storm, the hopes and fears, the butterflies in the stomach, the rising body heat, the quickening breath. What are all these things that authors are endlessly fascinated with, and that singers never tire of singing about?

Stuff to do with oxytocin and pheromones- right?  

These aren’t things that were invented by Jews, Aramaeans, Russians, or Zulus.

Nor were pissing and shitting. Why does Harris not mention that? 

These things weren’t invented by any humans. Evolution shaped them over millions of years, and we share them not only with all other humans, but also with chimpanzees, dolphins, bears, and numerous other animals.

which piss and shit 

Religious rituals like the Jewish bar mitzvah or the Christian Eucharist are at most 2,000 years old, and they connect the present generation to about 100 previous generations. In contrast, the rituals of mammalian romance are tens of millions of years old, and they connect us to millions of previous mammalian generations and even to pre-mammalian ancestors.

Just like pissing and shitting. 

If I insist on narrowing my identity to the fact that I belong to one specific human group, then I ignore all that.

but you still piss and shit 

I leave little room in my identity to football and chocolate, to Aramaic and Tolstoy, and even to romance.

Nonsense! You can be a chauvinistic historian while still playing football and eating chocolate and fucking like a bunny rabbit.  

What remains is a narrow tribal story, which may serve as a sharp weapon in the battles of identity politics, but which comes with a high price.

What price? Will you lose the ability to piss and shit?  

As long as I adhere to that narrow story, I’ll never know the truth about myself.

The only truth Harris needs to know about himself is that he writes tedious, turgid, shite. 

Let us now look at, not a 'strawman', but a 'steelman' argument of the type Harris rejects. 

Jews, because of their devotion to their religion, formed strong bonds of trust. Furthermore the collective obligation to educate orphans meant that they remained a literate and law-minded people. For this reason they were able to thrive in commerce and industry and to flourish in areas- e.g. the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth- which were relatively tolerant. Still, persecution in Eastern Europe caused Jews to relocate- including to what would become Israel- and thus high geographical mobility went hand in hand with a cosmopolitan material culture. However, what bound together the Jewish community- even after the rise of 'Haskalah' Enlightenment or even Atheism- was a 'Mussar' ethical and juristic tradition. This naturally increased trust and therefore inter-community transactions and 'incomplete contract' based relationships. This enriched Jews as an identity class quite independently of their economic or political condition. A Category theoretical appreciation of the manner in which the extensional definition of Judaism includes intensional elements which operate in a highly beneficial way (i.e. there are co-evolutionary processes) can be of great use in elucidating both the evolution of Judaic jurisprudence but also of suggesting game theoretic solutions to some existential problems facing people in the MENA and elsewhere. 

Seek for Identity in this manner and you help people. Babbling about football and coffee and pre-mammalian courtship rituals is an exercise in stupidity. 

The truth is, Jews remain menaced to this day because there is money to be made touting Anti-Semitic ideas more particularly if you can pretend you are merely Anti Zionist. It is in the interest of the Jews not give comfort or support to people who want them to be physically wiped out.  

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