Thursday, December 09, 2004

national diatribe

I am always interested in the reasoning, or the lack thereof, behind certain decisions that affect large numbers of people in Saudi Arabia.

Sometimes, all or some of the reasons to justify a course of action are made public: press conferences are held, statements are released to the newspapers, essays are written, and scientific studies are published.

Other times, the lines of reasoning remain, perhaps conveniently, unstated by the primary decision-makers, and it is left to apologists and spin-doctors to make and defend the case.

That primary decision-makers are not willing to go on record with a weak argument is perhaps an indication that there are real reasons out there that are not meant to be discussed in public.

You can only guess at my answer to the question on whether this applies to the two recent and important decisions in Saudi Arabia to:

(1) not allow women to vote or stand for office; and

(2) to hold the sessions for the Saudi ‘national dialogue’ behind closed doors.

I have discussed (1) in the prior posting. My irritation today is with (2), for it is absurd that a ‘national’ dialogue should not be a ‘public’ one.

What reasons could they have for not televising the proceedings, or for not allowing the sessions to be freely reported by the press, or for not publishing the transcripts of the ‘dialogues’?

Isn’t the primary purpose of a national dialogue to promote public discussion of problems of public interest? Will someone tell me how it is in the public interest not to involve the public?

One of my close friends once complained to me in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 about the frustrating lack of freedom of expression in the Middle East, writing that the: “region has become an environment in which badly formed ideas walk unchallenged, unchecked, and untested by rationality or common sense... Public debate does not occur, because there are few public forums for debate or for the discussion of social problems... of course, the result is that these discussions go underground: which is always unhealthy, given that social problems (and solutions) are the property of the many. In the end, censorship means that better ideas are hardly allowed to see the light of day; and bad ideas are transformed more readily into bad actions with the terrible consequences we have just observed.”

This struck a resonant note in me at the time… it made total sense: too much control of the intellectual agenda is bad for our civil society, and civil society is our only real defense against extremism.

Or if you prefer the language of economics: if you stifle the economy of ideas by overregulation you are responsible for a loss in the analytical capacity of your population and an increase in badly informed beliefs.

Enough of this rant… I’m off to paint my toes.


Saturday, December 04, 2004

ad feminem

Some of those dropping by this blog have emailed me asking questions about my personal history: questions such as 'who are you', 'what do you do', 'what did you study', 'where have you lived', etc…

I must say that I am uncomfortable answering such questions for a couple of reasons:

(1) If I answer, I would prefer to answer truthfully, freely, but as it is a perfect stranger who is doing the asking, I would probably be inclined to limit my response and edit myself out of character, which is out of character.

(2) A limited awareness of certain snippets of information about an individual's personal history can lead to an unjust generalization.

Let’s say person A learns that B has made a particular decision at one point in his life. A, however, is not fully aware of the context of that decision or of its aftermath. He simply learns of the decision as a singular solitary all-meaningful event. For whatever reasons, cultural, religious, experiential, it become excessively significant. The result is that A then forms a categorical opinion about the behavior, intelligence, and morality of B. Indeed, A damns B to hell.

Another illustrative example is of a man (let’s also call him A) who is mugged in the street by another man who happens to be of Arab origin (let’s call him B). Now A finds himself beaten to the ground and robbed of his valuables through the actions of B. As a result of this encounter, A develops a world-view that says: all Arabs are thieves.

A is then not only a victim of the nefarious actions of B, but also falls prey to the bitter confusion of the inductive fallacy: an error in reasoning in which the premises do not provide sufficient support for the conclusion.

premise: Yesterday, I was robbed by an Arab.
conclusion: All Arabs are thieves.

Can it be that my unwillingness to answer questions about my personal history is really a deliberate effort to minimize the possibility of such generalizations?

Well, I don’t know… I do know that I deeply want this blog to be about my words, and not about the person who writes them.