Against The Grain: Humanities and the dangerous state

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 19, 2018 - November 25, 2018.
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We are living increasingly in dangerous times and it is the humanities such as literature and not the sciences that will help us to minimise those dangers. The humanities contribute to the strengthening of our world view, give us a broader intellectual and cultural foundation and enhance our critical and creative abilities.

Not only do the humanities teach us about the real world, they also help instil in us ethics, morality and the values necessary for a harmonious social and political life. Indeed, it is a particular ethical and moral outlook and value system that can serve to minimise or neutralise the negative impact of amoral science and technology on human societies.

Fourteenth-century Muslim sociologist Abdul Rahman Ibn Khaldun, from his observations of the state in West Asia and North Africa, and his experience with the vicissitudes of political life, said “government decisions are as a rule unjust, because pure justice is found only in the legal caliphate that lasted only a short while”.

Writing in his celebrated work, The Muqaddimah or Prolegomenon to History, Ibn Khaldun noted that this injustice is to be understood in a more general sense than as the confiscation of property and money. It includes forced labour, the imposition of duties not required by Islamic law and the collection of unjustified taxes.

Writing more than 500 years later, the well-known Spanish philosopher and an intellectual leader of the Spanish Republican government, José Ortega y Gasset, stated in a chapter entitled “The greatest danger, the state” that state intervention is the greatest danger that threatens civilisation.

Drawing on the experience of Europe, Ortega explained that at the end of the 18th century, the state was a very small affair. As far as public order and administration were concerned, the state was weak. However, the disproportion between state and social power was addressed by the 19th century when the state became a formidable machine and the threat to civilisation became state intervention, the enslavement of society and the bureaucratisation of human existence.

With the creation of a new type of man, the industrial worker, an increase in criminality in Europe led to the rise of the strengthening of public authority. But, it was this very strengthening of public authority that made the state dangerous.

Indeed, the state has become a large affair, encroaching on our daily and private lives in a way that humanity had not seen before. This the state does with the aid of science and technology. The humanities, on the other hand, warn us of such dangers and functions to conscientise people about the need to regain our humanity.

The dangers posed to our lives by the alliance between the state and the sciences are suggested in the Matrix Trilogy. This is a story of the technological demise of humans, destroyed by the very artificial intelligence that they created. But this artificial intelligence has either “deleted” humanity from the planet or enslaved humans in a virtual reality system that it uses to farm power. Humans live in this virtual reality, the Matrix, a shared simulation of the world. There is, therefore, total control of human beings and the near total alienation of the human from humanity.

While states today have not become quite so complicit with technology such as to reduce human life to computer simulations, we may wonder if we are heading in that direction as states attempt to manufacture the discipline and compliance of its citizens. The extent of intervention of the state in people’s lives can be seen from the example of social credit in China.

The Chinese government has set up a system that will rank the vast majority of individuals of its population according to their behaviour, for which people will be assigned points to make up their social credit. Dubbed the “social credit system”, it was announced in 2014 and is expected to be implemented nationwide by 2020. However, it has already been put into practice and has affected millions of Chinese throughout China.

An individual’s social score increases or decreases depending on his or her behaviour. Examples of bad behaviour that can result in the subtraction of points include bad driving, posting fake news online and smoking in non-smoking areas. People with lower scores have been known to be punished by having their travel restricted.

It was reported that nine million people with low scores have been blocked from buying tickets for domestic flights. Three million people have been barred from getting business-class train tickets. In Jinan, eastern China, a social credit system for dog owners was introduced last year. According to this system, dog owners could have their points deducted if the dog is walked without a leash or causes public disturbances. If a dog owner loses all her points, her dog would be confiscated and she would have to take a test on pet ownership regulations.

Recently in China, news has emerged about the detention of up to one million Muslims of the Uighur minority in internment camps. At these camps, the Uighurs are said to be subjected

to indoctrination procedures, in which they are forced to proclaim loyalty to the Communist Party while distancing themselves from Islam. Such treatment, the control of and intervention in the moral and spiritual life of an entire ethnic group, is simply an extension of the same logic that underlies the social credit system.

One could argue that in Malaysia, some religious scholars and officials are driven by a similar logic to extend control and surveillance into the daily lives of Muslims. It is this kind of thinking that undergirds the insistence on regulating people’s sexual activities to the point of raiding private spaces or on fining men for not attending Friday prayer. This will to regulate and control is not rooted in Islamic tradition but stems rather from a very modern and, I might add, objectionable mentality.

Science is indeed dangerous without morality.

Science cannot provide a moral judgement or present an ethical point of view. It is the non-rational faculties of the human that provide for ethics and morality. These faculties come from our humanity. It is precisely through the humanities that people express that humanity. Such humanities include philosophy and theology — which discuss the meaning of ethics — and literature, which stirs our imagination as it presents to us an image of the world.

Literary works such as novels as well as other artistic production such as the Matrix Trilogy may implicitly or explicitly critique the kind of dangerous order such as that which is being created in China. An example is the famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by British author George Orwell and first published in 1949.

A dystopian novel, it is set in the year 1984 when the vast majority of people become subject to an omnipresent government surveillance and propaganda. In one such state, the “Party”, led by Big Brother, rules through the “Thought Police”, which persecutes people guilty of individualism and independent thinking. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a Party member and appears to conform to the order, but in reality, rebels against Big Brother.

The correct attitude is that all fields in the arts and sciences should be cultivated by all Malaysians. Literature and other humanities subjects should not be belittled. It is exceedingly difficult to be good in literature or to be a scholar of literature. Also, there had been no great nation or civilisation that did not produce great poets and writers. The humanities, including literature, are what create inquisitive, curious and imaginative minds, the necessary ingredients for a science guided by morality.


Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore where he also teaches at the Department of Malay Studies

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