Part II: The Hypothetical Ship of Fools Massacre
[Continued from Ungoo, Part I]
This joke used to circulate among philosophy departments, that if all the world’s philosophers went sailing together and the ship sank, no one would notice. Point being that whatever academic philosophers do, it has no apparent relevance outside their own circle. Yes, there should be a punchline, and there may have been one when I heard it. Analogously, I know that most people would not necessarily notice if all the world’s newspapers’ cultural supplements ceased to exist and their potential authors turned to something else. Fewer still would notice if the vanishing was limited to an obscure country, with as many inhabitants as, for example, Neukölln, Berlin. They are not vital to any of society’s daily functioning. Put them on a ship, then sink that ship and you still don’t know how that brutal massacre originally sounded like a punchline.
There are cases where wide-ranging, intellectual public debate has been of critical importance for society’s long-term development. The evils of slavery had to be written about, for slavery to be abolished. It seems unlikely that a proponent of slavery, in the middle of a public debate, ever publicly changed his mind and said: ‘No, I get it. You’re right. It really is unfair.’ That’s why they are public: participants may gather either prestige or shame, but the more important gains from such discussion are to be made by the audience and readers, and thereby society at large. Not that polite debate was enough. And not that slavery has in fact been absolutely abolished. The moral reasoning that supported it has, however at least for a while now, been defeated.
An example closer to home would be Iceland’s independence from Denmark, a struggle that took almost exclusively place in writing, although the final circumstantial push was then provided by World War II. If less consequential than the end of slavery, this is still an example of a pretty conclusive debate, which many consider to have been worthwhile.
Yet, such examples are probably, to a large extent, also besides the point. Most debates do not reach such a clear and absolute conclusion. Once upon a time the habit of conversing openly and critically about ideas was likened to medicine, a science neither exact nor conclusive but nonetheless arguably useful: if you take some of this and do some of that you will still, eventually, die —but you may be in somewhat higher spirits along the way. Nowadays, computer maintenance might provide a more apt metaphor: even if you don’t see any point in ever updating your software, try and use a fifteen year old version of a web browser. First you would merely miss out on most of the things your friends are sharing. Digitally speaking, you’ll be a hermit, the equivalent to North-Korea, stuck with little but that calculator app again. Then you’d catch a virus, the computer would liquify and leave a puddle of sticky, sparkling goo on your desk. The updates will never be conclusive. There is no final version ahead, no update to end them all. It just goes on and on. Yet, all in all, you need them.
If no one ever updated anything, presumably this would not be a problem. But someone, somewhere will always have a reason to update. That’s how humans are. The updating animal.
[To be continued …]