Rosh HaShanah Memories

It’s the morning of Rosh HaShana eve, 4am, and dad’s soft voice wakes me up from a sweet dream. In hushed voices as to not wake up mum, who has been working incredibly hard over the last few days to prepare for yom tov (holiday), he reminds me that it is time to wake up for selichois (penitentiary prayers). It is dark and cold outside and every bone in my body wants me to just roll over and pretend that this was just an uncomfortable dream. But I know better than that. Tomorrow is Judgment Day!

I hate this moment in time. I wish it was Cheshvan (the Jewish month in Autumn), or Kisleiv (the month during which Chanukkah falls), or any other month of the year really. Why does it have to be Tishrei (the month of the High Holy Days)? Why can’t we just celebrate the holidays with some good food, family spirit and joyful song? Do I really now have to wake up in the middle of the night to pray for 4 hours?

Yes, I do. This has never been optional.

This morning follows the whole month of Elul, the month of repentance. During this month we prepared ourselves for the big court case to happen on Rosh HaShana, during which God Himself and His Heavenly Entourage will judge us on our deeds of the past year. They will weight up all our good deeds against our bad deeds and will come to a verdict as to our status in the coming year. If they find us to have sinned and not repented they might condemn us to a horrible year with pain and misery.

But God is all-merciful. And that’s why He gave us the month of Elul during which we can repent and prepare ourselves for our trial. Deep down I know that this is a tremendous opportunity and that I should be immensely grateful for this gift. But on every other level of my mind and body, I hate this month. I hate it and I fear it and I loathe it. If only I could have a time machine that would transport me into mid-Tishrei when the repentance-period is over and there’s festivities and food instead! If only I could fall into a coma and wake up on the eve of Sukkot when this nightmare is over!

But I can’t. There’s nothing I can do but suffer through. How I dread this time of the year!

And on this morning of the eve of Rosh HaShana, as I am quickly getting dressed and trying to refresh myself after just 3 hours of sleep, oppressive memories of the past month pass in front of my eyes. The endless speeches by my mashgichim (mentors) on repentance; the endless guilt and fear; the constant anxiety that I’m not doing enough and that God won’t find me pure on Judgment Day. It’s all too much and too oppressive, but I mustn’t say that. I mustn’t acknowledge even to myself that I hate all of this, as that in itself is a rebellious thought against God. God has given us a tremendous gift – the gift of repentance – and I mustn’t find it oppressive. I must rejoice in this gift and be grateful!

I am done clothing myself and I head down the road to the mikva. Before beseeching God it is proper to immerse oneself in the ritual bath to spiritually cleanse oneself.

The dark roads are full of men hurrying to the mikvas and the synagogues. Many are murmuring prayers as they are walking, anxiety and fear is in the air.

As I walk I think of what awaits me on the days ahead. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Tomorrow is Rosh HaShanah and we will be spending 7-8 continuous hours in the synagogue praying. The following day is the second day of Rosh HaShanah, during which we will repeat the exact same protocol. I dread it. Sitting for 7 hours and reading hundreds of pages of prayers and incantations in a foreign language – the only word that comes to mind to describe it is torture!

I have tried to prepare myself for the prayers to make them more meaningful. I have learnt their translation and have read commentaries on them, but, frankly, they are just bloody boring. It’s just prayer after prayer of “God is the greatest and the most merciful” and “we have sinned and regret it; please forgive us” and “please don’t kill us this coming year!” Honestly, if God is really that merciful, why on earth would He put me through this nightmare? Why am I praying to be prevented from having a miserable year, when I am having a miserable year right now thanks to these prayers?!

I know that I will be sitting there on Rosh HaShanah morning, counting the hours. Two hours will have passed. 5 more to go. I know that I will be leafing through the pages of the machzor (prayer book), counting how much we have left, mentally breaking them up into milestones to make it more manageable. “In only 50 pages we will have reached the half point of the first prayer!” I tell myself, trying to prevent myself from going completely insane. “In half an hour I will take a toilet break and have a stretch.”

But after Rosh HaShanah it will be far from over. Follwing it are the Ten Days of Repentance, during which we will get up early every day and recite more and more prayers of repentance. Our fists will hit our bosoms countless times to express our great pain and hurt and regret that we have sinned against God. Personally, I’ll just be hitting my bosom to distract myself from the mind-numbing boredom and brain-dead monotony of the endless penitentions.

Like, I get it. I admit that I have sinned. I haven’t been perfect. I have sneaked in a loshn hora (gossip) here, I have missed a prayer there. I accept that I have what to repent on. But, like, I have said this prayer a million times by now; I have already been confessing my sins since the beginning of Elul over a month ago; I truly am sorry and I will never do those things again – even if only to have to avoid this torturous journey of repentance. But why am I still hitting my chest? Why am I still repenting? Why am I still getting up early to cry and ask for forgiveness? Has God not heard me the first 100 times that I asked Him for forgiveness? Is He hard of hearing? Or does He just enjoy the power rush of having us beg on our knees like this for one and a half months?

I have reached the mikva, undressed myself and immersed myself in the pool of stinking, greasy and hair-dandruff-infested water. But the water is also hot. You can’t be picky in life and you’ve got to take the little moments of pleasure that you get given amidst all the misery. I know that in 10 minutes I’ll be swaying and praying and wishing I was dead. I may as well enjoy the warmth that this human sauce of a water-pool offers me.

As I dunk my head beneath the water, wishing that I’d never have to resurface again, my thoughts circle back to those days ahead. The Ten Days of Repentance will climax with Yom Kippur – the final day of atonement, during which we also fast and abstain from all pleasure. Yom Kippur is undoubtedly the harshest day of the year. You are in the synagogue praying for 17 of the 25 hours of the day. You do that whilst fasting, not wearing shoes, not being able to refresh your face or wash your hands, and on top of that, you are wearing your festive clothes that way on you, suffocate you and absorb all your bodily fluids.

On the other hand, Yom Kippur is also the last day of the penitentiary period. You know that once night falls on the evening after Yom Kippur you are going to eat as if you’ve never eaten before and all your guilt and promises and anxiety is going to fly out the window and you will be free to sin as your heart desires until the following Elul in 10 and a half months’ time.

And that’s when Sukkot arrives. Sukkot was my favourite festival. It’s fun and joyful and filled with good food and, most importantly, it is free of guilt and repentance and of long prayers and of air that is so heavy that you can cut it with a knife. Sukkot is definitely God feeling bad for putting us through the nightmare of Elul and the High Holy Days and being like, “chill a bit my children. Have some good food and take it easy just for a bit.” How I love God on Sukkot!

I emerge from the mikva wet and excited by my breif sukkot fantasy. Reality hits me in the head. Sukkot is still 10 days away. In the meantime there are hours upon hours and pages upon pages of boring, meaningless and torturous prayers. No amount of convincing me that these prayers are profound, mystical, pleasing to God, etc. can make them anything but numbingly and never-endingly miserable.

Yes, I know, I have also read the chassidic literature. I have also seen that every word of prayer of a Jew builds up mystical cities and palaces for God in the Upper Realms. I have also heard about the tremendous joy that happens in the Upper Realms when Jews pray. I am aware of the Higher, spiritual powers of the words of prayer. I know that they are infinitely holy, profound, divine and esoteric.

But none of that makes them any less boring and meaningless and please-kill-me-now miserable. The only consolation that I can possibly have right now is that it will be over soon. In only 10 days. 10 very long days.

I arrive in the synagogue. The chazan (prayer leader) starts the prayer with a melancholy tune. The congregation follows him in harmony. It’s depressing as hell. The least I can hope for now is that after all of this God really does grant us a good year. C’mon, it would be mean not to!

Shanah tova and a happy New Year!

Disagreement

This post starts with a somewhat technical exploration in the philosophy of language, which I hope that I’ve made fairly accessible to a lay audience. It finishes off with a very important, practical lesson for our eberyday discourse that is very dear to my philosophy of how we should do political discourse. Please bear with me as I plow through the abstract philosophy in the first half in order to appreciate the political conclusions of the second half.

Adam and Beth are having a disagreement about the weather outside. A. says that it’s raining outside and B. says that it isn’t. This a disagreement that can easily be solved by peering out of the window. If it is raining outside, then A. is right and if it isn’t then B. is right.

Suppose that A. and B. are inmates in a maximum security prison where they gave no access to the outside world. Simply peering out of the window to check the weather is not possible. Their disagreement is not one that can easily be settled, but it is still a well-defined disagreement with well-defined truth-conditions and verification-conditions. Let me explain what these last two terms mean.

The truth-condition of a proposition p (e.g. the proposition “it is raining outside”) is the state of the world that would need to obtain in order to make p true. For example, the state of the world in which it is raining in Adam’s and Beth’s vicinity is the truth-condition of Adam’s proposition “it is raining outside”. That is the state of the world that renders Adam’s proposition true. Similarly, the state of the world in which it isn’t raining in Adam’s and Beth’s vicinity is the truth condition of Beth’s proposition “it isn’t raining outside.”

The verification-conditions of a proposition p is what it would take for an agent uttering p to verify that p is true. In our initial scenario, the verification conditions for Adam’s proposition is looking out of the window and seeing water droplets raining down. Similarly, the verification conditions for Beth’s proposition is looking out of the window and seeing a clear sky and a dry surface.

While the truth-conditions for Adam’s proposition in both scenarios (the one where they are at home and the one where they are in prison) are identical (i.e. that it is raining in their vicinity), their verification conditions are very different. In the prison scenario peering out of the window is not a legitimate verification-condition, as there is no window. Instead, the verification conditions for Adam’s proposition are, leaving the prison, stepping outside and seeing rain drops pouring down.

Similarly for Beth’s proposition, the verification conditions for her proposition in the prison scenario are, leaving prison, stepping outside and seeing a clear sky and a dry surface.

Now, in the prison scenario Adam and Beth have no way if settling their disagreement as they cannot fulfill their verification conditions. That is, they cannot leave the prison and step outside to assess the weather. Nevertheless, their disagreement is very well defined. The truth-conditions and verification-conditions for their respective claims are very clear. They both know what state of the world would show which of them is right (the truth-conditions) and they both know how one would (hypothetically) obtain knowledge of that state of the world (the verification-conditions).

For this reason, their disagreement is very clear, even if they might not be able to settle it.

Let’s now look at examples of disagreements that might not be so well-defined. Suppose Adam and Beth are eating a curry and Adam says, “this is spicy”, to which Beth replies, “no, it isn’t”.

On the surface, this looks like a classic disagreement about the state of the world. A. is saying something about the curry (that it us spicy) which Beth negates. But let’s try and find what might be the truth-conditions and verification-conditions of their respective propositions. First the truth-conditions.

What does the world need to be like such that Adam’s proposition comes out true (or, “obtains”)? Well, intuitively, we’d say that Adam’s proposition is true if it is the case in the world that the curry is spicy. But is “being spicy” an objective state of the world? Spicy to whom? How spicy? Surely having a micro-trace of chilly doesn’t make it spicy, so “containing chilly” won’t do as an objective criterion, so how much chilly does it need to contain for us to be able to say that it us objectively spicy?

Well, at this point you are probably thinking that “being spicy” is just not an objective state of the world. Rather, it contains subjective and traditional qualities. And you’d be right. But that also means that we can’t construct truth-conditions for Adam’s claim or for Beth’s. That means that we cannot specify what state of the world would make Adam right and what would make Beth right.

We can go through a similar process with the verification conditions and we’ll find out that there are no objective tests or experiments that we can carry out to discover whether the curry is indeed spicy or not.

So we have seen that Adam’s and Beth’s disagreement about the curry is nothing like their disagreement about the weather. In the latter case it was a well-defined disagreement about the state of the world, whereas in the latter case it isn’t.

But what is it then? Are they disagreeing at all? I won’t go into this in this post (maybe in another one!), but what is taking place is definitely not a surface-level disagreement. They might be disagreeing about whether most people would find this curry spicy (this has well-defined truth- and verification-conditions. The truth-conditions are that if all people in the world eat this curry, they find it spicy. The verification-conditions are feeding this curry to all people in the world and nothing down their response on whether or not they found it spicy and then tallying up all responses to find that a majority reported that they found it spicy).

Alternatively, Adam and Beth might not be disagreeing at all. Adam’s claim is really just shorthand for “I found this curry spicy” and Beth’s response is shorthand for “I didn’t”.

Now all of this was me just building up philosophical tools in order to make a very important claim about social, political and moral disagreement. I think if people took on board what I’m about to say and that they took it seriously and internalised it, then our political landscape would be far less toxic, polarised and dogmatic.

Here is the claim:

The vast majority of our political, moral and social disagreements are like the curry disagreement and not like the weather disagreement. That is, our political disagreements almost always lack truth- and verification-conditions. As a result it is never clear what we ate disagreeing on and whether we are even disagreeing at all.

“There is systemic racism in the police force”. “No there isn’t.”

“We live under a patriarchy.” “No we don’t.”

“Religion is the opiate of the masses.” “No, it gives people meaning and fulfillment.”

“The government is being incompetent in handling this situation.” “No, it is doing whatever it can to keep this country running.”

These are just a few examples of seeming disagreements where defining truth- and verification-conditions is impossible and it is as a result not even clear what the disagreement is about, or whether there even is a disagreement at all. I’d love to go into the details to show why these cannot be analysed as surface-level disagreements, but for now this is left as an exercise to the reader. Hint: try defining the truth- and verification-conditions for the seemingly opposing propositions. Try to find the state of the world that would render one of the interlocutors as clearly right and the other as clearly wrong. Try to find verification conditions that will satisfy both interlocutors that one of them is right and the other wrong.

So what are the implications of this analysis for how we do political discourse? Well, I think it should make us all far more sceptical in the certainty of our own beliefs and opinions. I think it should make us far less angry at our political opponents and far less certain that they are wrong or bad. I think that it should make as have a far more nuanced position on politics and morality and a deeper understanding of their limitations. I think it should make us overall more tolerant of opposing beliefs and of those supporting them.

Let me know what you think and whether you’d want me to expand any particular point or in any particular direction.

An Ode to my Dead Family

She was 3 years old when she first played mummies and daddies. Her brother-husband, just 2 years her senior, was the proud daddy of a small silicon doll who was older than both of them combined. But it was she, the young mummy, who would show her little baby all the love that she knew to give, rocking it, caressing it and making sure that it is well fed and looked after. Although this looked like play to the adults around her, this was really the start of a lifelong career.

A few blocks away in a noisy house a young boy is playing bride-and-groom with his niece. Under the canopy he puts a ring on her finger, her smile shining through her veiled face. His brothers around him shout out “mazel tov!” and the young couple break out in a joyful dance. They know that really only huge boys and girls can become daddies and mummies, but it’s not really fair that just because they are so tiny they cannot have a wedding and a baby, is it?

The 3 year old girl will steadily grow older, all the while receiving the best possible training for her career ahead. Every week she babysits her neighbour’s little children even though she is only 14. She gets hands on training on how to rock a crying baby to sleep, how to calm a whining toddler and how to break up a fight between two seven year-olds. Even before she has hit puberty, she is already praying 3 times a day for healthy, God-fearing children. She will give her all to be a dedicated mother and in return she is sure that God will grant her her wish for pious and obedient children. She can see God nod in agreement, “It’s a deal”, His divine voice rings in her ears.

The young boy also grows older. He knows that his first commandment is to “be fruitful and multiply” and he cannot wait to fulfill this, joyous duty. In his long days in yeshiva when he is meant to be concentrating on his texts, his mind sometimes wanders off into pleasant fantasies. He sees himself pushing a double buggy from which childish chuckles emanate. He imagines himself standing at the barmitzvah of his eldest giving a sermon, his father – the grandfather – looking on with pride. Now he is supporting his son under the chuppah. His son’s face is a blur, but he is wearing the unmistakable chassidic garb that he – his father – is wearing. Father and son look like majestic royals in their broad shtraymels, black silk caftans contrasted with their snow white socks. The stern voice of his lecturer interrupts his sweet day-dream. Back in reality he is 15 years old and not married himself. There’ll be many years before he can marry off his own son.

Mom and dad were teenagers when they met. They knew very little about each other or even about each other’s sex, but they were united in one common life-goal – one that they knew that they are ready to sacrifice their whole life to. That goal is to establish another chassidic home that will be pleasing to God, to their parents and the whole community. Theirs will be a model for a home that stands firm against any foreign influences or temptations that can lead one astray. They would pamper, protect and preserve their future children’s innocence. Whatever it takes, their children will grow up to be pious and God-fearing chassidic Jews who don’t deviate an iota from the path of tradition.

Mom and dad never needed much in life. They had no desire for expensive furniture, cars or holidays. They never had any personal ambitions. All they ever wanted was to raise a family of God-fearing chassidic Jews to make them and the community proud. Their only meaning and possession in life is their family and their vision of their family. If this fails there is no plan B. It cannot fail. Surely God would not let His faithful servants down. Surely He would not cast away decades of prayer and cupfuls of tears! Mom and dad have a single life mission. If it fails, why live?

Mum and dad brought me and my siblings up in line with this vision of theirs. No efforts or money was spared in educating us to be Torah scholars and chassidic Jews. From the youngest ages we knew that we are different. We don’t just go through the motions because others do so. We do what we do because we have a mission and a duty. We are God’s servants and we dedicate our lives in His service. Dad had the highest expectations of us because he wanted us to have a good life. And what better life can one have than doing God’s will to the best of his ability? Mum and dad didn’t send us to academies or private schools. They didn’t even send us to legal schools! But they did give us the best education and upbringing a child could wish for. That is if his life is to be dedicated to the service of God as a chassidic Jew. But that that would be our path in life had already been decided for us back when mum and dad were young children playing “house” with their dolls.

Mum’s and dad’s tragedy was that whilst it is clear to them that their children ought to follow on the path that they have chosen for them, some of their children have ideas of their own. What in their worldview is the obviously one and only correct path in life, is in my worldview an insular cult that they were brainwashed into. What in their world was a stellar upbringing is in my world denying a child his rights to education and choice. What for them is a child’s duty to follow the path that his parents have cut out for him, is for me personal autonomy and freedom to live my life as I see fit.

But how silly of me to think that my “rational” arguments will convince them to see things how I see them? How deluded of me to think that mum and dad will come around to accept my liberal and secular perspective? How dare I come and ruin their lives’ project, their childhood dreams? How cruel of me to kill what they have spent their lives creating? How can my progressive newfangled ideologies about freedom and choice override their age-old understanding of a child’s place in the world and his role in the family?

Of course they are angry at me! I am the enemy on the inside who single-handedly tore their family apart, extinguished their dreams and brouht on them immense shame. I am the child who ungratefully spat in the face of all that his parents did for him and went on to murder their feelings again and again and again. I am the boy who robbed them of their only possessions, doing so head held high, without showing any bit of remorse or guilt. How much evil and cruelty must one possess – how callous must one be to be able to destroy the lives of his nearest and dearest like that? Of course I deserve no love. Of course I deserve to be banished from the family, to be cut off, shunned, ignored.

Look what liberalism has done! Look how it turned son against father, pupil against teacher! The sheer arrogance and selfishness of the liberal to think that everything is about him and his wants and desires! The chutzpah of absolving yourself from all duties towards family and heritage and going out to forge your own way with complete disregard for the beliefs and traditions that your ancestors died for! How evil this liberal individualism is with no sense of duty towards family and community! Look how much pain these secular atheistic ideologies have caused; how many parents they have robbed of their children; how many parents they have brought to the grave before their time.

Of course that’s not how I see things. Of course from where I sit it is their religious fanaticism that is the cause of all their pain. Of course for me parents have no right to expect their kids to be little copies of themselves. Kids are not there to live out the dreams and visions of their parents. We kids are individuals in our own right who must live as we see right whilst respecting our parents as family. In my world you take pride in your children not because their lives follow your blueprint, but because they live fulfilling lives in their own right through their own agency. In my world you don’t cut children off for making their own choices and for having their own beliefs. In my world you don’t brainwash kids to believe what you believe.

But that is my liberalism talking again. My parents are grieving and hurting and I talk ideology! This isn’t some abstract philosophical discussion: this is people’s lives we are playing with!

Mum and dad love me. They have to as I’m their firstborn. But they also know that I have betrayed them, hurt them, murdered them. They can’t forgive me – not that I have asked for forgiveness. They know that I have destroyed their family, their dream. They know that I am responsible for the tragedy that befell them. How can they not be upset? How can they not be angry at me? How can I expect them to show me love? Isn’t it just proper that they ignore me, forget me, excise me from memory? Why shouldn’t they mourn me like a dead one?

Mum and dad don’t talk to me for now. They say that it is too painful for them. Just remembering that I exist and that I have hurt them like this is too much to bear. Just picking up my call, answering my text is too much. Seeing me live my guilt- and remorse-free life is unbearable. Hearing my unrepentant voice, hearing that I am doing fine and thriving whilst they are the living dead – it’s all too much. God has once again let the righteous suffer whilst the wicked prosper. Why should they see me – the wicked and sinful – happy whilst they – the righteous and obedient – are in perpetual suffering? Where is God’s justice?

But mum and dad, whilst I am not repentant or remorseful, I do grieve and hurt with you. I don’t need to feel your pain because I have plenty of pain of my own. Whilst you grieve on your lost dreams and destroyed family, I grieve the loss of my parents and the disconnect from my siblings. I grieve being a son who is told that his parents must cut him out simply because the pain of hearing his voice is too great for them to bear. I suffer the knowledge that you blame on me all the ills that befell you and our family. It’s not an easy burden to carry.

I wish I could be for you a son. I wish that you were parents to me. I wish I could just pick up the phone to ask how you are without hearing the deep insufferable pain in your voices. I wish I had a normal family. I wish I could hear my brothers’ voices, my sisters’ laughter. But I can’t. I can’t because I have deviated from the path of tradition. I can’t because you have banished me. I wish you could accept me for how I am. I wish you could love me as your son. I wish you could take pride in my life achievements. But you can’t. You can’t because God told you to send me away from home like Abraham banished Yishmael. I can’t because liberalism – my new religion has put weird ideas into my head about autonomy freedom and choice.

Fuck God and fuck liberalism. Fuck those stupid, silly ideologies that have torn father and son apart, that have estranged mum from the first fruit of her womb.

Mum, dad, it is not you or me it is these stupid ideologies. Your God and my liberalism have conspired to destroy our lives. Let’s murder them! Let them both go and fuck themselves together so that we may live in peace happily ever after. Mum, dad, are you coming? Will you join me?

A grieving liberal who’d rather be a son

Satmar: Education, Gender and Sexuality

After a several week hiatus to sit my third year exams and to move house, I am back to finish off my Series on Satmar with the final few posts. In this post I will explore the gender roles in Satmar, how boys and girls are educated, and the suppression of sexuality in the community.

As I have written before in this series, gender is strictly segregated in Satmar. Men and women over the ages of bar and bas mitzva (13 and 12) respectively are not allowed to form friendships or to have any non-essential relationship. Men and women don’t congregate together and don’t chat with each other. When some form of interaction is unavoidable, they’ll try to avoid eye-contact, they will refer to each other in third person, and will not hand things (like change) directly from hand to hand.

Every chassidic celebration is partitioned, with men and women using different entrances to their respective spaces. Even during family celebrations, such as weddings, will the men and women be completely separated. During the wedding meal, bride and groom are separated. They dance with their male and female friends and relatives respectively, but they don’t see each other. Only late in the wedding when all but immediate family have left, do the partitions come down and the bride and groom sit next to each other and even have a small (very formulaic and prescribed) dance with each other.

But this strict gender segregation is not in the form of separate but equal. Rather, each gender has defined roles that it must adhere to. Men and women serve completely different purposes in the structure of the community. This division of roles starts from a very young age, with boys going off to cheider at the age of 3 and girls to school.

From the very youngest age, boys are brought up to be Torah scholars. They are told that they are going to grow up to be great sages and saints; that they are going to dedicate their lives to the study of Torah and the service of God to the exclusion of all else. In reality, very few boys grow up to be like this, but pedagogically this is the only ambition that a Satmar boy is to have.

Boys will start learning the Hebrew alphabet and will be taught the Biblical legends in a highly moralistic fashion. Through the Biblical characters and lores they will learn to love righteousness and to eschew evil; they will learn that the righteous obey God unquestionably and that the evil disobey God or want to harm Jews. They will encounter and get comfortable with, a magical world where no laws of nature apply: the world of midrash, or Jewish myth. They will be taught the most outlandish folklore as historical truth. Thus we grew up believing in people who lived for a thousand years and in giants the size of mountains. The purpose of this instruction is to construct a world that is so magical and fantastical that no claims of miracles seems too outlandish in comparison. In a universe of walking snakes and talking donkeys, is the splitting of the sea so unbelievable?

As boys reach the ages of 6-7 and have grasped reading Hebrew, they will be introduced to the text of the Torah and later the Talmud. They aren’t taught Hebrew or Aramaic directly, but will pick it up as they learn more and more of these texts. Boys will also start learning some very basic secular subjects for an hour or so every day, during which they will learn very basic English reading and writing, a bit of beginner’s arithmetic and some rudimentary science trivia. Secular instruction stops at the age of 12 and no official exams are ever sat. The kids will also learn to disparage the secular instruction, having been told that this is only done to fulfill the minimum legal requirement. Secular instruction is the last hour of the school day and the kids know that that is a time to switch off and take it easy. No effort is made that kids actually learn much and many kids will leave cheider without basic English reading and writing skills.

At the age of 13 boys start yeshiva. They are now considered adults by Jewish law and are expected to spend every last second of the day in God’s service through prayer, Torah study and good deeds. A typical yeshiva day runs from 8 in the morning to 9-10 in the evening. Other than prayers, meals and short breaks, the whole day is spent studying classical rabbinic texts, such as the Talmud and its commentaries, Jewish law, and hashkafah (“worldview”). Study sessions are often 3-4 hours long, involving uninterrupted concentration on the text and its interpretation. This can be highly rewarding – I often felt drug-like “highs” after emerging from a 5 hour uninterrupted study streak. This psychological state was widely reported by others and was considered to be the achievement of an intimate spiritual connection with the holiness of the Torah (d’veikut). But quite often I also struggled with such long sessions of uninterrupted concentration. This was a constant struggle throughout my teens. Many boys fall out of the system this way, as they simply find it impossible to adhere to these intense requirements. Such boys are referred to as “weak boys”.

Alongside his studies a yeshiva boy will also be expected to adopt highly pietistic and saintly practices, such as not sleeping or eating more than necessary, refinement of one’s character traits, reigning in on one’s worldly curiosity, euphoric and ecstatic prayer and complete and total suppression of sexual desire. The latter especially is something that almost comes to define the boy’s teenage struggle in Satmar pedagogy. Boys are constantly warned in highly euphemistic terms about the evils of impure thought and gaze and inappropriate touching.

In orthodox Jewish law it is forbidden for a man to as much as touch his own penis, lest this brings him to willful erection, which is regarded as highly sinful. Whilst the Talmud forbids masturbation, it is later kabbalistic works, like the Zohar, that regard it as the worst sin. It is said about one who is sexually impure that none of his prayers or Torah study are effective. Satmar (as well as other chassidic sects) therefore puts tremendous emphasis on total sexual purity. Boys are taught to walk in the streets with their eyes cast down, lest they see an immodest woman and get aroused. Sexual purity was a constant source of struggle and guilt for me throughout my teens, as was it for any boy with whom I discussed this, although such discussions were taboo in yeshiva.

Boys will carry on in the yeshiva system until their marriage between the ages of 18-20.

Throughout this series I have attempted to give a descriptive picture of the community without being moralistic or judgmental about it. But I need to make an exception here when it comes to describing the upbringing of boys. Many of the practices of the community seem alien and even wrong to members of a more secular culture. But conversely, the community views secular practices judgmentally and disapprovingly. In such instances I take a cultural-relativity heuristic and observe without judgment. However, the practices of education for boys are not a matter of differing cultural norms, but I believe that they go against human nature, directly cause tremendous, lifelong harm and are unhealthy in – I believe – an objective and quantifiable manner.

This is going to sound hyperbolic and exaggerated, but I do not know a single one of my friends and classmates in yeshiva who have not suffered considerable and sustained psychological harm as a direct result of the yeshiva education system. I do not know a single Satmar adult who does not deal with serious issues of psychological suppression, guilt and trauma on a daily basis. You walk into a chassidic synagogue and you see masses of psychologically unhealthy people, pain and trauma screaming from their eyes, their every mannerism betraying an education system which has stifled their development and killed their souls.

I know that I will be accused of prejudice against the community, but leading psychologists and educators within the community are starting to say this as well – for now in hushed voices. And this isn’t about the community’s way of life more generally either: women in the community are far more psychologically healthy and robust. It is specifically the men that are broken and it is the yeshiva system that is to blame.

When I recently took a friend on a tour around the community in Stamford Hill, she remarked after several minutes of observing people walking in the streets, “why do all the men look like they don’t belong on this earth and that they would rather escape their bodies and become incorporeal souls?”

In very recent years the community has slowly started to embrace psychological and psychiatric methods to help struggling members – something that was heavily resisted and taboo whilst I was growing up. For now they are still dealing only with healing the victims, rather than preventing the root of the harm in the yeshiva system. hopefully, an internal discussion will happen in the community in the near future to bring about urgently needed reform in the education of boys.

Education for girls is very different. Satmar believes that girls may not learn any Torah directly, since the Talmud says that their minds are “light”. Instead girls are brought up to be good Jewish mothers to large families, and supportive wives. They will be taught about Jewish law and myth from Yiddish texts and will be trained in all kinds of domestic skills, such as sewing, cooking etc.

Girls also get a relatively good secular education, even sitting some GCSEs. Their textbooks will be heavily censored though to prevent any heretical or inappropriate material from seeping through. Whilst with boys the emphasis is on sexual purity, for girls it is on modesty – especially of dress, but also of mannerisms and demeanor. Girls and women are to be inconspicuous, unseen and unheard. Their skin (accept for face and hands from the wrist down) is to be covered at all times, their dress must not be tight, bright or provocative and they must wear dresses or skirts that extend below the knee cap. Additionally, women must be quiet in the presence of men, so that the latter may not be aroused by their voice.

When a boy or girl comes of age (around 18 years old) matchmakers will approach his/her parents with match suggestions. The first considerations will be that the family is suitable. In the vast majority of cases the family belongs to the same sect and has a similar claim to genealogy. Families boasting rabbinical pedigree will usually marry other rabbinic families. And money is a factor too. Once the families match the parents will make their inquiries about the girl/boy by asking around and talking with the latter’s friends and teachers.

Once this stage is complete and both sets of parents are happy, the parents will meet. Then they will meet the girl/boy. Finally, when everyone is happy with the match, the boy and girl will meet 1-2 times, after which they are engaged. They will then cease all contact until they meet again at their wedding.

I will pick up this story next time, talking more about Satmar family life. I will also talk about business and money-making in the community, See you then!

Next post is the final one in the series (other than an epilogue). Following that I plan on making a Q&A post to answer any questions, both to expand on what I have touched on and to talk about aspects that have not made it into the series. You can comment on here with your questions, tweet at me @posenizzy, or send me in private messenger. I will put up all questions anonymously.

Reflections on my Fifth Secular Anniversary

Today, on the 12th of July, I celebrate my annual anniversary of leaving the charedi community. Over the past five years I have made it my custom to write and reflect on my journey and to share how far I’ve come. My tone over these years was triumphant and celebratory, but things have changed. Today’s anniversary will be one of sober reflection, rather than celebration. After five years, my secular honeymoon is over and I’m ready for a more mature conversation.

Just to be clear, I still do not believe in the charedi God, or in any God for that matter. I do not regret my decision to leave and I still feel immense liberation now that I am on the outside living a secular life. But my disillusionment comes from several factors – psychological and ideological.

I can identify two psychological factors. Firstly, as it has been several years now since I left the community, I am starting to forget what it felt like being trapped inside and how oppressed I was. My memory has never been great, particularly my memory of feelings. And as the years have passed I have forgotten how isolated and and imprisoned I felt. When I hear the stories of those who have just recently left, I find myself in shock that such things can take place in modern Britain, until I am reminded that that is exactly what I myself experienced not so long ago.

Secondly, after years of being away from my family and the culture and community of my upbringing, I increasingly feel a strong sense of nostalgia. Having forgotten the things that I loathed, my mind fixates on those communal aspects that I loved and I miss them dearly. I miss the smells, the tastes, the sights – even the stench of the bio-hazardous, hair-and-dandruff-infested mikvah, or of the body odours of a densely packed synagogue on a summer shabbos morning, evokes fond memories in some sort of subversive psychological manner that is beyond my comprehension.

I miss being part of a family and celebrating together. I miss welcoming in the shabbos on Friday evenings, the house sparkling-clean, the family fresh and dressed in their finest, knowing that “all our work is done”. But I know that I cannot have these – not without giving up on my secular lifestyle. But I wish that I could straddle both worlds; I wish I could dip in and out. I wish I could visit for a shabbos, immerse myself in the culture, willingly suspend my disbelief and then go back to my Godless life. But I can’t.

Ideologically, several things have changed over the last few years. Firstly, after studying normative- and meta-ethics, I have become less certain that we can see one society or culture as better than another. I no longer believe that we can say that secular culture is objectively better than the charedi culture. Yes, I was unhappy in the charedi community, but how many people are unhappy in our secular communities? Yes, people have fewer rights and freedoms in the charedi community, but what is so desirable about rights if they don’t make us happier? After five years of living in secular society, I am not convinced that people are happier and more content with more rights and freedoms. We are ungrateful, unappreciative, greedy, jealous and discontent. Our freedoms mean nothing if we don’t appreciate them. And we don’t. We live in the most free and prosperous society to have ever roamed this earth. We have unprecedented rights and social mobility. And yet we are continually led to believe that things are bad for us and that we are oppressed. We have the world’s riches and blessings, but we’re unhappy.

Secondly, I have become increasingly disillusioned with how secular “secular” society really is. My main reason for leaving the charedi community (at least on the conscious level accessible to me) was my loathing of their dogmatic beliefs in obvious falsehoods. Whilst paying lip-service to the truth and claiming to own the truth, the charedi belief-system is irredeemably riddled with falsehoods, inconsistencies and distortions. A system of strict censorship and selective discourse keeps the community in the dark on all matters, whether it be history, science, philosophy, or even the development and interpretation of their own literature. (See Marc Shapiro’s Changing the Immutable for examples of charedi censorship of its own literature.) A sophisticated system of indoctrination, brainwashing, terror of hell and fear of social repercussions, enforces the orthodox dogma to the point that very few manage to ever question it. It took me many years of fighting against my own fear, accompanied by enormous guilt, before I could allow myself to question things even just in my own head.

I left the community an idealistic liberal on a search for truth. I hoped that a secular society would eschew dogma and censorship and would encourage a disinterested search for truth and enlightenment. But liberalism is dead and the enlightenment spirit is widely disparaged. Those few in academia who really do care for the truth, are ashamed to say so, as it is very unpopular. In paper after philosophic paper we read about how the disinterested search for truth must be abandoned as an ideal and must instead be replaced with a host of values, such as equality, liberation, etc.

Alongside the death of liberalism, we are wittnessing an unbearable rise of dogmatism and moral pruritanism in academic and student circles. I am watching how day by day our spaces get radicalised and taken over by a terrifying moral certainty and prescribed orthodoxies and dogmas that must not be questioned on pains of being ostracised as a bigot (the “secular” term for a heretic). On too many occasions to count have I recently felt very similar to how I felt when I questioned the charedi orthodoxy back in yeshiva. Perhaps the problem was me all along and not the charedi belief system? Or perhaps all human societies just come with orthodoxies and dogmas as part of the package? But even just in the last five years I have witnessed secular spaces become rapidly dogmatic and very religious-like in their moralism. It is only going to get worse.

Five years ago today I rejected the charedi God. Today I reject the God of Social-Justice too. I still want to be kind and empathetic. I want to increase happiness in the world and help the disadvantaged. I feel passionate about people like myself who have not been given the blessings of education. I want to encourage young people and tell them that everyone can move forward in life; that everyone can liberate themselves from the circumstances of their birth to progress and prosper. But I object to elevating social justice to God-status. Even good causes become tyrannical when they are worshiped like idols. As an atheist, I reject all gods and divinities, even so-called secular ones.

My thinking has changed a lot in the last five years. I am no longer as anti-charedi as I was when I left. But I am still just as secular and Godless – perhaps even more so. I’m sure that my thinking will further evolve over the coming five years. Perhaps I will strongly disagree with what I wrote here? Perhaps I will see things completely differently? But that is just part of life’s journey. I hope that throughout my life I will continually change my mind on all kinds of issues. Living is the constant process of gathering more evidence and reinterpreting old experiences in the light of new ones. I hope that my beliefs change as I experience more of the world and have the privilege to spend more time studying it.

The Value-Ladenness of Theory

In our societal moral discourse we often claim to be able to justify our values by recourse to some empirical facts. We say that we care about group x because group x is oppressed; we fight against y because y is harmful. Here we are trying to justify our values (that we care for x and fight against y) in terms of empirical facts (that x is oppressed and y is harmful).

But as I have argued on here on multiple occasions recently and as is well known in philosophy, there is no strictly empirical way of of finding out exactly who is oppressed and what is harmful. In fact, that quest doesn’t even make sense, as terms like “oppressed” and “harmful” are highly normative terms (meaning that they have values built into their meaning, unlike terms like “chair” or “moon” etc) and normative facts cannot be discovered empirically.

This result is called in the philosophical literature “the value-ladenness of theory”. It means that theories are not strictly descriptive and empirical, but have values built into them. There is also a related result called “the theory-ladenness of observation”, which means that all gathering of evidence already presupposes some theory and so there is no way of gathering data in a purely detached manner and letting it guide us to a conclusion. Rather, in the choices that we make for the data-gathering and the ways in which we choose to interpret the data, we are bound to presuppose some theory.

In several of my recent posts I have given examples of how terms standardly used in sociological discourse are heavily value-laden. But it is worth repeating, as it is a result that is widely ignored even by educated people and which has far reaching consequences for our political and moral discourse.

The first thing to notice about society is its sheer complexity. Society is the most complex entity in the universe by far. Nothing in the universe – even complex star clusters, chaotic weather and turbulent flow – come even close to the complexity of society. In fact, we have good mathematical models to deal with some very complex systems, but we have no such models to deal with society as a whole. We cannot predict when pandemics will happen, when war will break out, or even who the next ruling party in government will be.

How do we make sense of such complex systems? How do we go about explaining what’s happening in society? We do this by reifying (bringing a concept into existence) highly abstract metaphysical entities and by artificially isolating and cutting off causal paths. Let’s look at these two in turn.

Strictly speaking, there are no men, no women, no races, no classes. There are only people, over 7 billion of them. Each of these billions of people are different from each other in an infinite number of ways. This is all we can say about humanity if we want to be precise and accurate and not presuppose any metaphysical, non-empirical entities. But this view isn’t very helpful, as we will need infinite pieces of information in order to describe people’s behaviour on this level. That’s why we reify sociological concepts.

We pretend that there is such a thing as “a woman” and we ask what it’s like to be a woman, what are some things we can say about women, etc. Strictly speaking, there is nothing what it’s like to be a woman; there is only what it’s like being person x at time t and person y at time t. Feminist philosophers have long questioned the meaningfulness of talking about “women” as a well defined concept. Let’s break it down.

Asking what it’s like being a woman seems like too broad. It seems obvious that your experiences will be impacted by other factors besides for womanhood. So let’s try being more specific: what is it like being a black woman in the UK? But this still seems too broad. Surely other factors besides for your gender, race and country will impact on how you experience the world. Let’s try again: what is it like being a black, working class woman in the UK? Still too broad, as different black, working class, UK women will experience the world differently depending on whether their (dis)ability, health, income, age, sexuality, etc.

Ok, so how about we try factoring all these in? What is it like being a black, cis, abled, straight, working class, …, woman living in the UK? Are we done now? Let’s ask this question differently: Do all black, cis, abled, straight, working class, …, women living in the UK experience the world identically? Well, obviously not. If we want to be more precise with our categories we are going to have include more identity factors. Once we have finished including all factors for which we have names in our language (such as gender, sexuality, class etc), we can now include factors for which we have no names. Here are examples of some factors that will have a bearing on one’s experience: having 3 children; having 3 children aged, 2, 5 and 13; having 3 children – a boy aged 2, a boy aged 5 and a girl aged 13; having 3 children – a neurotypical boy aged 2, a boy with autism aged 5 and a girl with back-problems aged 13; having 3 children – a neurotypical boy aged 2 who likes to play with friends, an autistic boy aged 5 who doesn’t like cereal and a girl with back problems aged 13 who is bullied in school.

As you can see, we can be more and more specific in describing a person’s experience and in trying to isolate what it feels like to be them. Eventually, we get down on the level of individuals and we are simply describing an individual’s life. So what has happened to the category of “woman”, or of “black woman”, or of “black, working class woman”? We have seen that there is no such thing as a woman or a woman’s experience and there is no such thing as a black woman or a black woman’s experience. But, conversely, having 7 billion sociologies, one for each individual member of society is completely uninformative.

What we therefore do is we reify metaphysical concepts (essentially, make them up) to help us simplify society. We imagine that there is this entity called “womanhood”, or “being a woman” and we try to find common experiences for all those that fit in with certain criteria who we are happy to call women. We do the same thing with race, sexuality, etc. The crucial point, however, is that these “carvings up of society” into these categories are not unique. Who to count as “black” for example is not unique: how dark does your skin colour need to be in order to count as black? How much black ancestry do you need to have in order to be black? Etc.

A second way in which these “carvings” are not unique is in making sense of the data. A topical example is police violence. We can show data that there is disproportionate police brutality against blacks. But the same data interpreted differently will say that it isn’t disproportionate violence against blacks, but against men. Yet a third interpretation will say that it’s about income; a fourth interpretation will say that it is black, men of a certain income; a fifth interpretation will find a psychological component to it as well; finally, a sixth interpretation will just enumerate all the victims of police brutality, name this group of people as “people likely to experience police brutality”, or “brutalisable” in short, and claim that the people whom police brutality really affects are “brutalisable” people.

If we want to ask which hypothesis is most supported by the data, we will find that the last one is. In fact there is 100% correlation between “brutalisable” people and people who are victims of police brutality. So it isn’t really about race, gender, income etc, but about “brutalisability”. Of course this is utterly uninformative. But here we are again at our result that there is always a trade-off between informativity and precision. What level of precision to sacrifice for what level of informativity is not a trivial matter and there is no unique way of doing it right.

So far we have looked at the reification of abstract entities (womanhood, race, class, etc) in order to make sense of the complexity of society. We have seen that there is no one unique way to do it and that there are an infinite number of possible entities that we can reify (such as “brutalisables”), depending on how it helps us understand society. Now I want to look at the second way in which we analyse society and that is through isolating and cutting off causal chains.

Suppose I ask for the reason of a specific sociological phenomenon. To give you a full picture of the reason, I can look at some causal chains, by asking what caused this phenomenon (very often asking for a reason, is asking for a causal chain). Strictly speaking, the cause of any phenomenon is the Big Bang. If not for that, then this phenomenon would not happen. But this is probably not informative and not what you asked for. You may ask for a more proximate cause, or for a cause that would explain why x happened instead of y, rather than a cause that would explain why there is something rather than nothing. I may then move on to the formation of the solar system as a more proximate cause. Still not informative. The evolution of life? Slightly more informative. The evolution of culture? A bit more informative. The history of Western society? Even more informative.

We see here the same trade off between giving the full picture and being informative. The fullest explanation of any phenomenon would be giving the full causal chain starting off from the Big Bang. But that is very uninformative. The more informative we want to be, the less of the causal chain we should be including. But deciding what bits of the causal chain to include and what to omit is not a trivial matter. Let’s make this more concrete through an example:

If I ask why single mothers are often poor, I can give any one of the causal components in the following list: because they have no one to feed them whilst they look after their children; because they got divorced; because they are not supported by the state; because we live in a brutal, capitalist society; because we live in a patriarchy; because we have an institution of marriage in the first place; because they chose to have kids; because they chose not to have abortions; because they haven’t given up their kids for adoption; because their exes are dicks who don’t pay their share; because thy don’t work hard enough; because they don’t kill themselves; because they don’t kill their children.

All of these listed are part of the causal chain in the sense that it is true that if one of these hadn’t happened then the plight of single mothers would have been different. It is true that it single mother all committed suicide then they wouldn’t be poor. Should we then include “not being willing to commit suicide” amongst the causes of poverty for single mothers?

But this brings us back to the idea that there is no unique way to conceptualise societal causes. Ultimately, what causes to include as the reasons for a phenomenon is a choice and there is no unique, or empirical, way of doing it.

I think that the way in which we settle these questions is by introducing a paradigm (what I am proposing is itself a paradigm). How do we decide what entities to reify and what parts of the causal chain to include in our analyses as informative? I think that we build up a paradigm, or a way of looking at things and we interpret the data through the lens of this paradigm. This paradigm is both theory-laden and value-laden in the following sense. For the theory-laden part, we use past results and conceptualisations to help us understand the data. The reason why we see police brutality as a race issue and not as a “brutalisables” issue, is because we already have a “theory” or conceptualisation about race and so we use the lens of race to interpret the data. We have no analogous theory of brutalisables.

For the value-ladenness, the reason why we don’t include the lack of suicide as a cause of poverty is because we don’t believe that poor people SHOULD commit suicide. Or, in other words, we don’t believe that our society SHOULD solve poverty by encouraging suicde. Whether we include capitalism or lack of government support as amongst the causes of poverty will depend on whether we believe that we SHOULD bring down capitalism and whether we believe that the government SHOULD support the poor. Thus our theories are value-laden.

Coming back to ideas of harm and oppression, I claimed that there is no uniquely empirical way of determining those without value-ladenness. If we want to decide who is oppressed, we need to have presuppositional values about how our society SHOULD look like, how rights SHOULD be distributed, what inequalities SHOULD be avoided and so on. We don’t count it as oppression of white people when a disproportionate number of mega-rich football players are black. We don’t count is as oppression that plus-sized people are underrepresented amongst Olympic athletes. Do we count it as oppression that rich people live more comfortably? That will depend on our values. If we have a communist bent, then we might count that as oppression. If we are more on the libertarian side of things, then we are unlikely to. What we count at oppression depends on our values and on how we envision the ideal society to be. There is no empirical way to determine this.

Likewise with harm. We don’t count it as harmful to throw sex offenders into jail, even though they will definitely suffer harm there. We don’t count it as harmful to drive a car, even though there is a statistical probability that you will kill someone. What we count as harmful is, again, dependent on what we envision the ideal society to be like and, ultimately, on our values.

Coming back to where I started, empirical data cannot be used to justify values. You cannot justify your values by appeal to what is harmful or oppressive, as to interpret these concepts you are already presupposing values. Ultimately, the data and our values are in a symbiotic relationship where they both need each other and both reinforce each other. Your values tell you how to interpret the data and the data – having been interpreted by your values – further shapes your values. To think that the data empirically vindicates your perspective and your paradigm is to misunderstand this relationship.

Ultimately, we think in paradigms. We build up a metaphysics of society based on our values and based on what conceptualisations and reified entities we find most conducive towards our understanding and our political aims. We are never talking about objective facts (unless we are referring to the raw, uninterpreted, data-points), but always about constructions and conceptualisations. Internalising this can help us understand better where disagreements in the moral, political and social realms come from and why they are here to stay. It can also help us be more compassionate and understanding towards those who see things differently to us. Rather than seeing them as “bad” or “wrong”, we can understand that they are operating within a different paradigm and are conceptualising things differently. There is no way of showing that they are wrong and we are right.

(Btw, none of this is novel. These results have been well known at least since Quine’s work in the 50s.)

The Value-Ledenness of Harm

When we care about issues, or feel empathy towards those who suffer, we do not deal with raw pain levels, degrees of suffering, or phenomenological experiences. Rather we build up a whole metaphysics based on our values and our conceptualisation of society and that informs us on how to act. This is the relativity of harm.

In society we deal with impossible causal complexity. Every possible action can result in any possible consequence in ways which are impossible to foretell. But since we do want to be able to blame some specific actions for some specific consequences, we have to build up an ontology, or a paradigm involving metaphysical entities such as structures, in order to tell us which causal paths to consider as more important than others. Which structures to include in our ontology and which causal paths to take into consideration will depend on our values and on how we envisage the ideal society.

Does divorce cause poverty for single mothers, or is it patriarchy? Well of course the complete causal chain leading up to poverty in any given case is infinitely complex, going back to the beginning of time. But that isn’t helpful. So depending on our values and how we hope a better society can look like, we will focus on one small part of the causal chain. Both divorce and patriarchy are metaphysical entities that we have reified in order to help us make sense of society. We are at liberty to choose either of them as the focus of our analysis and conceptualisation. Which one we choose will depend on our values.

Is police brutality caused by crime, or by racism? Again, both crime and racism or reified metaphysical concepts that are not empirically found in nature. Depending on our values we will choose to focus on one of them as a way to conceptualise the infinitely complex causal chain involved in any event. Both of these are paradigms that try to make sense of infinite complexity using a simplified model. Neither can be empirically verified. Neither are falsifiable.

Any set of sociological data can be cut up in an infinite number of ways. The variables we choose to focus on and the way in which we choose to cut up our data will ultimately depend on our values.

Is gender self-ID harmful or beneficial? Well, the actual chain of consequences from such a policy is infinitely complex. Will it harm women? Well, it clearly hurts and angers some of them. Should we care about that hurt? Or should we look at the hurt and anger that trans people feel in the absence of self-ID? Whose hurt should we prioritise? Whose hurt is more legitimate?

In general, we do not look at raw pain and make decisions based on that. Neo-Nazis have pain and anger too. Do we care about that? Should we listen to their grievances? Well, we don’t. Is it because their feelings is less important than those of others?

What we do is we have a set of values and reified metaphysical entities. This web of values and beliefs tells us whose pain to listen to and whose hurt to prioritse. We decide what our ideal society looks like and we sympathise with those who are hurt because our society does not look like that yet. We do not sympathise with those whose hurt comes from the fact that our society looks a bit more like our ideal society and a bit less like their ideal society.

To hammer home the point, it is very possible that traditionalists who dislike homosexuality feel as much pain now from the public presence of homosexuality than the pain that homosexuals felt during the time when homosexuality was not accepted in our society. So when we declare our support for the acceptance of homosexuality and decry homophobia it is not some kind of utilitarian minimisation of pain. We might not actually be reducing the overall pain in the world by making our society more accepting of homosexuality. Instead we are redistributing the pain. We decide that it is the traditionalists who should feel the pain and not the homosexuals.

Why do we decide that? That’s because of our vision of our preferred society. We prefer a society where people can express their sexual attraction and love, no matter what it is (well, that’s not actually true; we still don’t accept pedophilia, incest, bestiality, non-consensual sexual acts, etc). And that’s why we care about the homosexual’s pain because it is derived from the fact that our society is not yet at the ideal we want it to be. And we don’t care about the traditionalist’s pain because that derives from the fact that our society is a bit closer to our ideal society.

In general, there is no unique, empirical way to decide which actions are harmful and which aren’t. When you start thinking about you see that pretty much any act can be justified in some framework and pretty much any act can be condemned in another. The obvious ones in this category are abortion, capital punishment, gun rights, animal rights. None of these can be empirically shown to produce net happiness or net suffering according to a utilitarian calculus (which is why utilitarianism is useless as a normative ethical framework). Rather, we have to use our values about our ideal society to tell us which side of these debates to side with.

Doesn’t this analysis lead to moral relativism? Hell yea it does! It is impossible to understand society from a moralistic perspective. To understand society scientifically, you have to naturalise morality, which means seeing morality as emerging from people’s opinions, values and emotions. You cannot understand society if you take morality as some metaphysical entity over and above society.

Taking in and really becoming comfortable with the fact that morality is simply something that emerges from society’s values and attitudes, will help make sense of why society is so messy, why we will keep on having culture wars and emotive moral debates. In all these debates we are not dealing with “true” or “false” that we can just solve empirically and scientifically. We are dealing with personal values, emotions and experiences. These are bound to be subjective and are bound to differ from group to group. No two groups have the same reified metaphysics (which is why some of your friends don’t agree with you that the patriarchy exists, no matter how convinced you are that that is a proven fact) and no two groups have the same conception of harm.

All of this is inescapable and inevitable. You will never be able to convince the world that your morality is the right one because there is no such thing as THE right morality. So you face a choice: either you keep on getting angry and mad at people who don’t hold your values, or you embrace the subjective nature of values and learn to live in a world where people have different priorities to you and where people conceptualise harm in different ways to how you do.

Tl;Dr: There is no one, unique way to conceptualise harm. What we regard as harmful or not harmful has to do not only with the empirical facts, but with our values. Since there is no way to empirically or conceptually prove which values are the right ones and which the wrong ones (It’s not only impossible to prove; that endeavor is also conceptually meaningless), you are never going to convince others to conceptualise harm in the same way that you do. Understanding this helps explain the inevitability of culture wars and moral disagreements.

Intersectionality

We cannot treat people as having the same experiences of the world – we are told by intersectionality theory – as different identities intersect to give different people different experiences of the world.

Men and women experience the world differently. But so do black and white people. So we have four categories: white man, white woman, black man, black woman. But class interacts with these identities too, so each of these four categories split into two and we’ve got 8 categories to consider in our sociological descriptions of the world. Instead of talking about “people” in our theories, we need to talk about “white, working class woman” etc.

But we’re not finished. We have age, (dis)ability, sexuality, sexual identity, gender expression, religion, etc. Each of these categories multiplies these categories at least by a factor of 2 and so we get geometric growth. 10 identity forms gives us 2^10=1024 categories of oppression.

But of course there is no reason for why we should stop there. These identities will also interact with mental health, with character traits (for example whether you are introverted or extroverted), with family support, with health, with height, with looks (how handsome you are), etc etc.

But really, to give a complete description of how identities interact, we need to recognise that no two people experience the world alike. So really, the ultimate intersectionality is to have 7 billion+ sociologies, one for each person on the planet. To fail to do so is to fail to recognise that we each experience the world differently and that our identities interact with our experiences of the world in complex ways.

But of course describing the experiences of every person on the planet (even if that were possible) is not a theory, but a description of state of affairs. Inherent to a theory is the ability to be able to explain large and disparate classes of phenomena with one theory.

Here is an example from physics. In statistical mechanics we want to describe the behaviour of a gas. Any container of gas contains on the order of 10^23 particles (that is a 1 with 23 0s following it). Describing the motion of each particle is a) impossible (even with the most powerful computers that we have today) and b) uninforming. Having 10^23 equations of motion would not tell us much about the emerging thermodynamical properties we are interested in, such as temperature, pressure, entropy etc. Instead, we make a number of simplifying assumptions. We pretend that all the particles have the same, average energy, alongside some other simplifying assumptions. This allows us to make some easy, and surprisingly precise, calculations about the macro-properties of the gas.

The moral is, that a theory always makes simplifying assumptions. A theory never gives you the exact truth about every datum involved in it. It is a theory, rather than a mere inventory because rather than listing the data, it interprets it. It makes some simplifying assumptions (or models) and hopes to provide us with informative results.

In sociology too. Every theory is going to make some simplifying assumptions. It is going to assume some uniformity amongst people in order to give us some overall insights into society. By the very fact that it is a theory and not an “experience inventory”, it is not going to give us an accurate account of the experiences of each individual in the society.

But nor does an intersectional approach to sociology achieve that. You can describe the experiences of disabled, black, working class, transwomen and you still would have had to make many simplifying assumptions, as there isn’t one disabled-black-working-class-transwoman experience, since every individual in this group experiences the world differently based on a myriad of factors.

So ultimately you’ve got to make a choice about what level of analysis you are happy with. You might decide that you are happy with your sociology splitting the world into 16 categories and that you are happy with the simplifying assumptions that that level of analysis makes. Alternatively, you might want to have your sociological description of the world deal with 64 categories and will be happy with the simplifications that that level of descriptions has tom make.

But in equal measure, you might be happy with a sociological theory that treats all of humanity as one group. Or perhaps as 2, or 4. Ultimately, it is completely arbitrary which level of intersectionality you will find acceptable. All theories make simplifications and it is just a matter of preference how much simplification you find acceptable.

Fact, Theory and Value

Following is a distinction that I find helps me clarify many of the topical debates and that may help shed light on why people often seem to be talking past each other and just ending up getting angry with each other.

The distinction is between the data, or the empirical facts on the one hand and the paradigm, or the theoretical terms on the other.

The relevant data or facts are all those statistics and figures that keep on being brought up: what is the mean income of self-identifying group x compared to the mean income of the rest of the population? What is the likelihood of someone belonging to self-identifying group x of experiencing police brutality compared to those of the rest of the population? What are the relative crime rates in self-identifying group x? What is the average IQ of self-identifying group x?

The paradigm is the lens through which these data and facts are interpreted. Here is where theoretical terms come in: structural racism, white privilege, oppression, marginalisation, white supremacy, etc. These terms are theoretical, as you cannot precisely quantify them or bring direct empirical evidence for their existence. They are also highly normative terms, rather than merely descriptive, meaning that they come with a moral value, as well as a truth value. This makes these terms political and philosophical, rather than empirical.

Take “structural racism” for example. The first thing to notice is that it is not a morally neutral scientific term. Terms like these are morally loaded. You say them with a certain tone and use them with an idea of how things ought to be. Pretty much anyone using this term believes that we oughtn’t be structurally racist and that to be a structurally racist society is morally bad. Contrast this with theoretical terms like “electron”, or “chemical bond”, etc.

Secondly, it is impossible to say whether or not a society is structurally racist without having an idea of what a non-structurally society ought to look like. This is the conceptual question of what we mean by structural racism. Well, we can say that a society is racist if it is geared against a self-identifying racial group. But then we can ask what it means for a society to be geared against a group. Maybe this group finds it more difficult to achieve certain things in our society or to achieve certain positions? But this question is politically and morally loaded, as it assumes a certain position on what different kinds of people SHOULD be able to achieve and how. This in term boils down to what we mean by equality.

Suppose an athlete with a certain muscle disease wants to make it as an Olympic medallist. He or she might have to put in double the effort to achieve half the result in the games due to their condition. Has this athlete been discriminated against? This will depend on your political and moral ideas of how inclusive or exclusive the games should be. You might argue that the games are by nature competitive and that it is right that they exclude those with lower ability, even if that is due to a disease. Or you might argue that this athlete should be given a head start to level out the playing field. Whether or not you believe that the athlete was discriminated against will depend on which of the moral/political camps you fall into.

The lesson is that seemingly descriptive terms like “discriminate” are actually normative terms. When you call something discriminatory you are making a moral claim, not a mere descriptive one.

It’s the same with equality. When you say that a society is unequal, you are saying something about how you envision the perfect society. Clearly no one wants everyone to have exactly the same of everything. We recognise that different people have different interests, talents and abilities. Not everyone can be the CEO of a company, a professor, or the PM. Likewise, not everyone can be a professional footballer, a weightlifter, or a chess master. So when we use terms like “equality” some of us want something like equality of outcome, some want equality of opportunity, and some want something anywhere in between on the spectrum. Calling a society unequal is telling us something about your politics, as well as the facts.

It’s the same with “racism”. Calling something racist is saying something about how we envision the ideal society. Should we treat each other as only human, completely ignoring skin colour – like some civil rights activists of the 60s wanted? Or is that “colour blindness” and instead we need to recognise our privilege and the struggles unique to people of different racial groups? Is affirmative action racist? Or is a lack of it racist? Is racism simply discrimination on a racial basis, or do we need to include a power analysis in the definition? These are complex moral and philosophical questions that are often encapsulated in naive looking terms like “racism”.

Going back to the distinction made earlier, whilst the facts and data are often readily available and known, the theory or paradigm through which to read them is not at all determined by them. We cannot simply look at data and say, “right there is structural racism”. Rather, that is an interpretation that is part of a specific paradigm (in our case, perhaps Critical Race Theory). But one can look at the same data and not see those theoretical concepts there. Maybe the inequalities have to do with ability, IQ, motivation? Maybe the inequalities are there but desirable? Maybe these inequalities are unavoidable in a free, democratic society?

These theoretical concepts cannot be empirically shown to exist. One can only show that they fit in within a larger paradigm and that they help us make sense of things in a way that fits with our politics. To illustrate this, I’m going to make up a concept now. The concept is “indoorsism”. In our society we have an obsession with living indoors. We face pressures to always find a roof over our head. This “culture of indoorsism” means that many suffer from mental health issues because they cannot pay their rent. Indoorsism is responsible for countless suicides. I can go on and on about the evils of indoorsism. If only society didn’t tell us that we had to live indoors, then we would have been happier and less stressed, as we could sleep in nature, in caves, under trees etc.

Now I want to ask a question: does indoorsism exist? Well, I can pull out data showing that, indeed, we are told from a young age that we need to live in houses and that indeed stress about rent and mortgage is responsible for poor mental health. But this concept will only be useful if I can use it constructively in advocating for a different way of doing society, or if I indeed wanted to abolish living in houses. You’d be right in rejecting this idea, even if you agree with all the data that I bring you. You have not disagreed with the facts, but with the paradigm through which I interpret them.

Now activists often accuse us of ignorance, or of ignoring the facts when we disagree with their way of seeing things. They will point us towards books or articles on “theory” to “educate” ourselves. But this is because they are conflating data with paradigm. It is difficult to disagree with data, but much easier to disagree about paradigm.

If I don’t see structural racism or white supremacy where you do, there may be 3 reasons for that. 1) I’m ignorant of the data, 2) you’re ignorant of the data, 3) we use different paradigms to interpret the data. Most often in discussion between educated people it is the third. I’m aware of the data just like you are, but I don’t find calling that structural racism useful in understanding what is happening or in leading us to my vision of the ideal society.

Activists often make the mistake of accepting the paradigm of their theory as settled scientific fact. It isn’t. It is just one paradigm amongst many possible one and you cannot accuse those who don’t find that paradigm helpful as “ignorant”.

And btw, this analysis is quite general and applied to terms like “patriarchy”, “toxic masculinity”, etc.

Summary/Tl;Dr: the theoretical terms used in theories on race and society belong to a certain paradigm. They are not scientific facts in the same way that figures and data are. Rejecting a certain paradigm and its theoretical terms does not mean ignorance of the data. The same data can mean racism for one person and mean something completely different for another. Neither of them is wrong; they’re just operating within different paradigms.

George Floyd

One sunny day, without any prior warning, tragedy has befallen the community. An air of mourning hung over the otherwise joyous synagogue – the centre of community life. No one knew exactly what or how, but it was clear that something needed to be done.

“It’s because of our sins that this has been brought onto us!” the voice of an elderly pious Jew could be heard. “Things like this don’t just happen for no reason. We need to do some deep introspection and repent!” Sounds of approval could be heard from the circle that was quickly forming around him.

Around town Jews took to deep introspection. They haven’t been pious enough, devout enough. Here one has let some impure thoughts enter one’s mind; there another has been lax in guarding oneself from unconscious doubts; a third was reminded that he once saw someone sin without rebuking him. Clearly what has happened is a wake up call to strengthen the community’s purity and piety and to eschew and suppress all heresy and sinful thought.

Word was spreading that the rabbi will be addressing the community in a public sermon. Young and old, healthy and sick, gathered to the main plaza. Before long the rabbi arrived, anger and sadness visible on his tortured face.

“Enough is enough!” his voice shouted out as his palm banged on the lectern, “This is what sinful thought has brought upon us! Our sins are the direct cause of the tragedy!”

“The heretics want to question our conviction that it is our sin that is to blame,” he continued with pain in his voice. “They want to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the tragedy. They say that it was a chance event. But it is preciously these heretical attitudes that allow such tragedies to happen! It is because of doubt and scepticism like this that such punishment is brought upon us!”

“We are all sinners! None of us is free from blame! We have all participated in a culture of sin and heretical beliefs. Even if we haven’t sinned directly, we are all sinners deep down due to our unconscious desires and impure thoughts! Let this be a wake up call! We need to go home and eliminate this evil from its roots!”

The audience listened and cried. How right the rabbi was! Not only were they all sinners, but they sinned even more by not being aware of their sin and not taking the time to educate themselves about their sinfulness and impurity! From now on they will be more aware! They will listen, learn and educate themselves! They will be better allies in the fight against heresy and sin. No longer will they tolerate deviations and impurities, no matter how micro these may seem.

As the congregation returned home, moralism and puritanism descending onto town. This is what was needed in order to prevent atrocities from happening: purity, orthodoxy and unquestioning faith. Neighbour will spy on neighbour and friend on friend. The correct beliefs will be enforced through calling out the doubters and heretics and by protesting against sin.

Public admissions of guilt were introduced, where folks could confess their past, unintentional sins and where they could pledge to spend the rest of their lives being better at educating themselves, listening and, most importantly, obeying without questioning. They now realise how instead of knowing their place and being a good ally in the fight against evil, they talked over those who tried giving them the correct moral instruction and they sometimes even dared questioning them! Unwittingly, they contributed to this systemic sinfulness that eventually brought about the tragedy!

Now people know better! We now live in a pure society. Every morning we wake up and reaffirm the articles of faith. We remind ourselves that we are sinful beings and that we need to shut up, listen and not question. Now tragedies will no longer happen because we have eliminated all possibilities of sin. We have penalised micro-sins and have called out unconscious heresies.

We may not have much freedom or critical thinking left, but we’re pure, obedient and pious. We have brought down the structures of sin and heresy and have eliminated systemic trangression.

Long live moral puritanism and long live the thought police! ✊✊✊