3.10.2010

Accepting All, Rejecting None

"Produce great persons, the rest follows." --Uncle Walt W.
I'm trying to get my hands on an article published in 1969 titled "The New Socialist Man" by one Thoedore Hsi-En Chen. I got a reallyreally interesting glimpse of something yesterday thanks to the Pure_Sophist_Monster's recent post. I think that the idea of the "New Man" is being surreptitiously smuggled back into public discourse. The idea, as it last manifested (in terms of socialism), argues that human nature is fundamentally changeable, and that, consequently, our systems do not need to adjust to us, but rather, we need to adjust ourselves to fit the system. Or, more clearly, in the words of Thoedore Hsi-En Chen,
While the more realistic and pragmatic Communists recognize the need for material incentives to stimulate the public cooperation, the ideologues argue that the new man should be educated in such a way that he will not expect personal benefits but will find reward in the increase of production, the fulfillment of state plans, and the success of the proletarian revolution. If socialism does not work, according to the ideologues, it is not because the system is not good, but because human nature has not been changed to conform with the new system. Instead of modifying the system, it is more important to change man.
Undoubtedly, we may substitute for "socialism" whatever form of government we want. PSM's complaint was that the letter accompanying the census form appealed to base self-interest (tho' in the guise of communitarian rhetoric) to motivate a positive response. His view is that human nature need not be self-interested--that if only "we" (who?--the enlightened ones?) teach them other ways of performing selfhood, they might be new men, with new principles, new ideas, and new values.

I do accept that there are motivations that are not based in self-interest, but I don't believe the government can enlist us on behalf of those motivations (love, personal loyalty, etc.) because those motivations flourish only in the freedom of choice. If the government wants me to fill out my census form, it better offer me something tangible.

So what's everybody think? -- is human nature infinitely flexible, plastic, malleable, whatever? Can we remake the next generation not in our own image but rather in the image necessary for a better society? If our system is unfixable, can we fix each other instead?

If it was ever fair to call me the Platonist, it's not anymore. I'm very skeptical that we can willfully change human nature in any profitable or meaningful or sustainable way--and, indeed, I think any effort along such lines is dangerous, destructive of its own proclaimed ends, and hopelessly romantic. But I'm probably misrepresenting PSM's view? Comments?

5 comments:

pure_sophist_monster said...

First off, I like "PSM." Second off, I wasn't so much arguing for a motive other than self-interest, but of a self-interest defined in different terms. Self-interest define in terms other than economics. On that point I was not as clear (so you are reading what I put down right). The follow-up comment there (From "Tom") reflects what I should have articulated in response to the Census letter. Certainly, we do what we like, but why we like what we like is open to question and persuasion.

pure_sophist_monster said...

To build on my previous comment I would argue that your statement "If the government wants me to fill out my census form, it better offer me something tangible" begs the question. What counts as "tangible" (or, perhaps, "salient") to you is precisely the question we should be asking. Why does someone count financial gain as tangible but not love, which you list as a motivation? (I would argue, however, that love is as self-interested a motive as any other, which is not to disparage it.)

In this respect, it is as group that we negotiate motives (this is Kenneth Burke's insight). And, as I was arguing, one of the places this motive work takes place is in classrooms, which are politically contested places (as schools seem to be constantly debating their function). I prefer my version of self-interest and have no problem advocating for it in the classroom (just as, I assume, business faculty do not promote socialism in their classroom - did I just call myself a socialist btw? - G_d I hope not).

On a side not, I would be much more persuaded by the religious Right's insistence on teaching the "controversy" in evolution in science classes if they were as equally vocal that business schools do it as well.

Casey said...

Yep, I'm with you now. But I do think this question of "constructivist" identity-formation vs. ... (uh?) "intrinsic" identity deserves a little more exploration.

I had seen before, of course, Plato's notion that we must make great citizens if we want to have a great state: but I had not seen it "in 3D" until I read your post and heard language that reflects very closely that language about the new socialist man. And indeed, for those who are interested, it reflects the language that can be found in the book of Acts. We must have communities of the "re-born."

Can education--either as we understand it or in some other, but realistic, manifestation--have that effect on people? Weird. I dunno. Now that you're saying "Yes," I want to say no. But that makes you the Buddha-Platonist, and me the skeptical pragmatist.

pure_sophist_monster said...

I think we certainly shape one another. What I would leave open (or subject to debate) is what those shapes will be. This is something Plato does not do. His Republic will always look like His Republic, whereas I am suggesting cultivation without end.

pure_sophist_monster said...

In other words, I am not really talking about being "Re-born" but of Becoming itself, which is contingent and pragmatic.