Last night in Bristol, as I went along to hear Raoul Martinez talk about ‘the myth of responsibility‘ – another would-be radical, in Manchester, was preparing to kill fans and family who’d gone along to a pop concert. To buy-in to Martinez’s thinking is to accept the profound arbitrariness of our positions.
The terrorist’s. My own.
My own. The terrorist’s.
He and I didn’t choose our brains. Nor did we choose the circumstances into which we were born. Neither of us – according to Martinez – chose the ‘perceptual environment; a product of power relations‘ which was inflicted upon us. And yet, this morning, I’m struggling to write about the benefits of eradicating blame. Wondering if today is the wrong day to be telling you about Martinez’s thesis on freedom, and a key conclusion, that ‘the act of making a choice does not confer responsibility‘.
Let’s go back. Back to school. A conversation Martinez had with a friend who was trying to convince him to become a co-religionist. Martinez was struck with the thought that had his friend been born elsewhere, nurtured in a different home, the friend would now be arguing as vociferously in favour of some other kind of belief. It was all arbitrary. As arbitrary as patriotism, which is ‘fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.’
That last quote doesn’t belong to Martinez – it’s George Bernard Shaw. Shaw, is part of a long tradition of provocateurs and progressives who challenged received ideas about allegiance to received ideas. Martinez is quite wrong to suggest this approach has been ‘on the margins of philosophy for centuries‘. Worries about the problems of free will (which much of all this boils down to) are very much front and centre of that discipline. Martinez is quite right to recognise that, of late, political activism and public discourse haven’t taken philosophy seriously enough. His great service is to be corralling together and popularising vital ideas from an array of well known, and should-be-much-better-known, recent thinkers. Martinez does this in work such as, The Lottery of Birth, first in a series of documentaries (co-produced and co-directed with Joshua van Praag; available online and on DVD) which relate to his book Creating Freedom (Canongate, 2016).
Martinez spoke of frustration with his own schooling. How, in his late teens, he realised teachers were ignorant of the histories he was starting to read. Those by the likes of Mark Curtis and Howard Zinn. In books like Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003) Curtis enumerates the deathly impact of UK foreign policy since 1945. Massacres, war, global upheavals in which our country has been complicit, but to which our politically influenced education system – one of Martinez’s ‘injustice machines‘ – pays scant attention. (Martinez seems to have no qualms about apportioning responsibility to particular states, regimes, ideas. No, it is ‘wrapping the cordon of responsibility around the individual [person] which blinds us to deeper [socially based] mechanisms’.)
For historian Howard Zinn – to whom Martinez’s film is dedicated – there is no such thing as neutrality. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (Beacon Press, 1994). To question one set of principles is to adhere to another: ‘There is no politically neutral way to present something, hence we’re beholden to the agendas of those who present to us.’
In reading this you’re beholden to Martinez’s agenda as construed by me. Teachers, writers: we could help expose our own agendas – if we’re honest – if we’re self-aware – if you trust us. But these are big ifs. It’s up to you to follow Zinn’s advice: recognise the limits of your personal experiences – like the one you’re having now – so you’ve some hope of getting beyond those limits. For Martinez, that recognition is the liberating factor – the get-out. None of us can escape being beholden to those agendas – but we can ask questions of them. (As Martinez’s father instructed him, ‘Why?‘ is the most important word.)
This leap – from passively submitting to authority to actively challenging it – is a hard one to make. Martinez acknowledges the practical difficulty involved, drawing on the infamous Behavioural Study of Obedience (1963) in which Stanley Milgram wrote: ‘Relatively few people have the resources to resist authority.’ I remain unconvinced that Martinez has grasped the scale of philosophical difficulty in explaining the leap: the transition from an externally determined self, to one that interacts with its circumstances to change them. He’s much more successful at illustrating how a socio-political system ensures its own continuation by curtailing any real freedom to adjust or reform it.
Our schools often state their intention to ‘nurture curious minds‘ – but Martinez highlights crucial ways in which the reality falls far short of the ambition. Not least because the wider world of work into which students are ultimately cast-out – and its political context – create so little space for creativity, play, expression and exploration. Not least because of the bounds put around what is and isn’t legitimate curiosity. Echoing the remarkable Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, Martinez’s documentary narration states: ‘By rewarding certain attitudes, abilities and behaviour, while punishing others, schooling discourages deviation from its prescribed path.’
And its not just the students. Like so many salaried professionals, teachers exist within a ‘soul battering system that shapes their lives‘. These are the views of physicist Jeff Schmidt, another of Martinez’s contributors whose ideas deserve wider attention. Teachers are not given an instruction manual – they’re encouraged to find innovative ways to teach the curriculum. They’re lauded at awards ceremonies for finding creative ways to engage learners in the curriculum. Freedom? Not at all. Heaven forbid a teacher might stray beyond the curriculum, wasting lesson time in areas of knowledge and skill development that don’t serve the curriculum. That their lessons might reveal the dangerous spectre of other, alternative curricula. (I should point out: in the Q&A, education and health professionals in the audience spoke up for subjects like General Studies, and Personal, Social and Health Education as potential gateways to freer thinking in class. I sense Martinez has more root and branch reforms in mind…)
Schmidt: ‘Professionals are deliberately produced to be intellectually and politically subordinate.’ And: ‘The safest way to get on in the workplace is to internalise the ideology.’ And so we go on, blinkered against any bigger picture, ‘We use our time and creativity to serve agendas made by others.’ Just like the nuclear weapons researchers Schmidt describes in The Lottery of Birth. When asked ‘What is the worst thing about your job?‘ they responded with gripes about grappling with slow and glitchy IT. (See Jeff Schmidt’s book Disciplined Minds (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) which got him sacked from his own post at the American Institute of Physics.)
Bertrand Russell: ‘The habit of passive acceptance is a disastrous one in later life.’
Disconnected knowledge is at the heart of the problem as told by Martinez. We cut the world up into manageable chunks – disciplines, topics, trades, cabinet portfolios – and then, forgetting that we’ve made this simplification, we lack a frameworks for piecing a complex worldview back together. And higher learning isn’t doing enough to help: ‘by the time you come to do your PhD, you’re learning a hell of a lot about very little‘. It’s not that we don’t need experts – but if the expertise is not connected up, we’re doomed.
I’m still skating around a few huge issues raised in Martinez’s presentation. Skating around his take on the ‘crises‘ in democracy (something we’re told we have but is a mere ‘honorific title‘, a source of complacency) and punishment (acts of retribution are ‘an abuse of human rights‘.) Skating around a powerful challenge from a psychologist in the audience, wary about giving abusers the line ‘Sorry I raped you, but I got the wrong brain.‘ Just as I’m wary – through this review – of becoming an apologist for ‘choices‘ made by a terrorist last night. Responsibility may be a myth, a fiction – but is it a useful one? And to whom is it useful? I’m not with Martinez when he says ‘on balance‘, taking away blame would be good for us.
Oh, and in this period of purdah, I’d better skate around Martinez’s loud endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘valuable opportunity‘ his election might afford us. Not for Martinez parties that would merely curb certain excesses of capitalism: ‘It’s the centre ground of political opinion that is extreme. We’re so used to these extremes, they’ve become normalised.‘
So what am I comfortable telling you about Martinez? What about art? We’re safe to put art on our agenda aren’t we? (I say ours, but if you’ve been keeping up – it’s really mine – though I mustn’t assume individual responsibility for that.)
Did you know that Martinez, still in his early 30s is a highly regarded professional painter, with work exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery? It’s rather good, take a look, though I found no trace of an activist agenda at www.raoulmartinez.com. (Leftist Martinez admitted he’d learned – from his sitters and patrons – that money isn’t the route to happiness – that there are a lot of very wealthy depressed people out there.)
The theme of connection – particularly the interplay between politics and art – was addressed more fully in Martinez’s film than talk about his book. I would have liked to hear more about the inter-relationship between his own spheres of work: ‘I can’t help using the metaphor of the canvas.‘
Another of Martinez’s sources, Stephen Pinker quotes Anton Chekhov: ‘Man will be better when we can show him what he is like.’ Theatre – and other socially shared forums like the Festival of Ideas – can explore and help think though opposed positions. But there’s nothing neutral about these forms, nothing apolitical.
‘To question is to value the truth more than our inherited identity’. This is neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor speaking of the painful process of distancing oneself from received opinion; the ideas that ‘made us‘. The act of questioning, and its facilitation, encouraging self-examination, the interrogation of inheritance: these are political acts. Chinks of change.
As with his portraiture, so in his writing, Martinez wants us to see ourselves more clearly. We must each ‘create a distance between our present self and our formative experiences‘, to clarify the distorted image – to snap out of our ‘collective Stockholm Syndrome’.
Another contributor to The Lottery of Birth – Indian scholar and environmentalist Vandana Shiva – says activism is an engagement in transformation, the transmission of ideas. As artistic acts are political so political acts can be artistic. Think, Shiva urges us, of Mahatma Gandhi and the concrete statements of his intent; a long march to pick grains of salt to be processed in defiance of colonial masters. Ethic and aesthetic intertwined: ‘artistic acts connect.’
That’s why today, when we’re numbed by unspeakable atrocity, I’m not ashamed to speak to you of art. In the words of Howard Zinn, left to us by his disciple Raoul Martinez some 90 minutes before the bombing:
‘[…] to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.’