Saturday, December 28, 2013

High Modernism and Social Science

A strong source of attraction of high modernism is the illusion it offers of making moral dilemmas disappear.
Malcolm Gladwells David and Goliath Fairy Tales | New Republic: "Gladwell is only one among a great many writers at the present time who promote this exaggerated or misplaced faith in science. From those who assure us that the world is becoming ever more peaceful to those who look to grand theories of psychology for solutions to Washington gridlock, the idea that scientific method can be a guide to the perplexed is one of the delusions of the age. More than any tendency to over-simplification, it is Gladwell’s enthusiastic embrace of this delusion that makes his style of writing so tendentious. Scientism has many sources, but central among them is a refusal to accept that intractable difficulty is normal in human affairs. Many human conflicts, even ones that are properly understood, do not fall into the category of soluble problems. No new discoveries in sociology or psychology can enable such conflicts to be wholly overcome; deeply rooted in history, they can only be coped with more or less resolutely and intelligently. Acknowledging this humbling truth is the beginning of wisdom, and of the long haul to something like peace."
A prime example of this avoidance of hard truths is Gandhi, who at least recognized the nature of the choice when he recommended that the Jews commit mass suicide to alert the world to the brutality of Nazism. I admired Gandhi for at least facing up to the choice. But Grey brings in another part of the story, the subsequent correspondence between Gandhi and Buber.

Reading Gladwell’s blithe assurances about happy endings for the vulnerable, one is reminded of Martin Buber’s rejoinder to Gandhi, who had urged Jews in Germany to practice non-violence against the Third Reich of the sort he was using against the British in India. “A diabolic universal steam-roller,” Buber explained, “cannot thus be withstood.” Earlier in the letter, Buber asked Gandhi: “Do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments of the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter?” The Mahatma did not want to know. It seems that many of Gladwell’s readers, in their less extreme circumstances, adopt a similar attitude toward the world. Unwilling to confront the raw facts of power, they prefer to inhabit a fantasy world in which it can be cleverly conjured away.
I don't think that Grey is being entirely fair to Gandhi, who seemed to recognize the futility of non-violent resistance in those circumstances, though the correspondence referred to above seems to have taken place before the end of the war and the full extent of the Nazi methods were known.

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