Thursday, 16 December 2010

Tibet

This was written when I was 16 so the writing style may be different, but the arguments I stand by.
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In 1950 the Chinese People's Liberation Army entered the Land of Snows, the start of a story that would encompass an exiled reincarnate Lama, a Nobel peace prize, the interest of Hollywood stars and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetan people. It is a story which has struck the hearts, minds and imaginations of millions of people around the world; a story which has, like so many issues of controversy around the world, lost facts in fiction, mired by propaganda on both sides of the argument. But was China truly justified in invading a seemingly insignificant country on the roof of the world?' And has the Chinese occupation of Tibet been a good thing or a bad thing?

Firstly, the idea that Tibet was insignificant from the Chinese point of view is wrong. China is a country, which is deeply afraid of foreign interference and expansionism; it still is today, with all its talk of "internal affairs". This isn't without cause, as any knowledge of the Opium Wars will tell you. But in late 1903 the British Empire itself invaded Tibet, something that was 'one of the more baffling moves of the late colonial period, with no clear motive but indelible repercussions'. 1There were definitely repercussions. One of the main reasons for Communist China's invasion of Tibet was to 'drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet' as Point 1 in the 17-Point Agreement states (negotiated with China after their invasion in 1950). 2 Also before the actual invasion, any Tibetan with a radio would have heard the Chinese talk of imperialist presence in Tibet, something that was untrue at the time (the British left soon after they arrived, 47 years ago). 3

 Another reason for China's invasion was their strong opinion of Tibet having always been a part of China and that Tibet had to return to 'the big family of the Motherland'. 4 However from the start of China being a republic (1912) to the invasion (1950), Tibet enjoyed undeniable de-facto independence; they had no control whatsoever from the Chinese. Tibet's official status was more murky though as it was not officially recognised as independent. Taking into account China's fear of Tibet being a weak buffer against foreign countries, it is not exactly the most logical of conclusions that it would affect China at all. In 1947 India had become independent and was in no mood to invade Tibet, especially as Tibet and India shared a long history together (it would be India, years later, who allowed the Dalai Lama to live in exile).

So has China's occupation of Tibet been a good thing or a bad thing? The Government of Tibet in Exile has estimated that 1.2 million Tibetans have died under Chinese rule, from a variety of means such as prison and labour camps, execution, battle, starvation, torture and suicide. 5 This is only an estimate and it is furiously denied by Beijing. In Tibet, Tibet Patrick French comes to the conclusion that it is an exaggeration and the number will be no bigger than 500 000. He says that it is probable that as many as half a million Tibetans may have died as a direct result 'of the policies of the People's Republic of China.' I am not arrogant enough to say that I know the true figure, but whatever it is from five hundred thousand deaths to 1.2 million deaths 'it is a devastating enough figure' and I must agree with French when he says it in 'no way diminishes the horror of what was done in Tibet'. 6

The final of the three main pro-China reasons in this debate, I will come to now. The old Tibet, before the Chinese invaded in 1950, has been criticized as feudalistic and barbaric and its harshness and inequality was one of the reasons why the Communists claim they invaded. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin said the Tibetans had been "victims of feudalism" 7 and in Tibet "it was not until the Dalai Lama left that we eliminated serfdom". 8 The old Tibet was definitely not perfect, but what Zemin is saying sounds a lot like what the much maligned colonialists would say. Not only that, but although old Tibet was harsh and in many ways horrible, the Tibet under China has proved itself again and again to be much worse. If China really wants to enter the world stage, they should admit mistakes and give the people of Tibet real autonomy.



References:


1 FRENCH, Patrick (2003) Tibet, Tibet, p 251
2 GOLDSTEIN, Melvyn C. A History of Modern Tibet pp 765 6 quoted in Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans (2006) p. 281
3 KAPSTEIN, Matthew T op cit., p. 279
4 Ibid., p. 281
5 - Government of Tibet in Exile: http://www.tibet.com/Status/history.html and http://www.tibet.com/HumanRights/poptrans.html
6 FRENCH, Patrick op cit p 292
7 CLINTON, Hilary in The Washington Post, Oct 19, 1997 quoted in The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama by Thomas Laird
8 - From an interview with Jiang Zemin in The Washington Post, Oct 19, 1997 quoted in LAIRD, Thomas (2006) The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama


Bibliography


DALAI LAMA OF TIBET (1998) Freedom in Exile
FRENCH, Patrick (2003) Tibet, Tibet
Government of Tibet in Exile: http://www.tibet.com/Status/history.html and http://www.tibet.com/HumanRights/poptrans.html
JUNG CHANG and HALLIDAY, Jon (2005) Mao The Unknown Story
KAPSTEIN, Matthew T (2006) The Tibetans
LAIRD, Thomas (2006) The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama
LOVELL, Julia (2006) The Great Wall: China Against the World 1000 BC AD 2000
PARENTI, Michael Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html
TRAN, Mark and agencies Beijing rails against US welcome for Dalai Lama Guardian Unlimited Tuesday October 16, 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/china/story/0,2192287,00.h tml

Some recommended reading:




Thursday, 4 February 2010

Why morality cannot come from God.

Does it really matter where people believe their morality comes from? Is it really necessary to argue with people who agree that murder is wrong but only because God says so? It seems that in many cases atheists don’t need to combat with religious people; if a belief in a creator makes them happy then so what! However, the view that ethics is tied to religion is something that does need to be fought. It is in many ways a malignant thought. In the first place it separates people from humanity, because it instils a belief that people are only worthwhile because they were created by God, and that people are not worthwhile due to their own value. It also means that many people in Britain today (and many more in America) base their treatment of others and their politics on viewpoints no longer relevant to twenty-first century – sexism and homophobia are made eternal and imperial. Bigotry is brought into home life and the public sphere. Also religious ethics is something that is demonstrably false and yet religious fundamentalists teach it as the most obvious thing in the world. By arguing against the view that godless morality is a contradiction in terms we are preventing people falling for the lie that they cannot be moral without God. Flawed theories that lead to bad consequences shouldn’t be ignored.

What I mean in this case by religious ethics is divine command theory. There are no problems with such ideas as ‘treat others as you would wish to be treated’ because these are human values which can be rationally deduced and engender respect and kindness to others. Divine command theory is utterly non-human and irrational. Within the Bible God says that murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, homosexuality is wrong, that women are inferior and then at various points that slavery is right or loving kindness of the utmost importance. If your morality comes from what God is alleged to have decreed then fortunately for us all you will be against murder and stealing (we’ll just have to ignore all the Biblical massacres for now), but then unfortunately for women and gays you will believe nasty things about them. Most Christians no longer keep slaves and there were indeed Christians alongside secularists who opposed slavery, however I’m sure it didn’t help that the Bible had no specific qualms with slavery. Modern liberal Christians will realise that murder is wrong and so is stealing and so is slavery and that women aren’t inferior and homosexuals not immoral, because they no longer derive their morality from the Bible (See Godless Morality by Richard Holloway). Indeed their morality imposes itself on the Bible and that is why they choose the relevant parts that emphasise certain universal truths: loving kindness, tolerance and equality.

Divine command theorists are not like this. They get their morality from the Bible and so believe that things are wrong when God says so, and that things are morally good when God says so. Fundamentalist Christians literally believe that there would be nothing wrong with shooting someone if there was no God. The philosophical basis of this type of thinking is so flawed that even Wikipedia skewers it with the words, ‘it is a philosophical truism, encapsulated in Plato's Euthyphro dilemma that the role of the gods in determining right from wrong is either unnecessary or arbitrary’. Wikipedia sums it up and I will explain why. Take for example that God commands that murder is wrong. Why does this make murder wrong? Is it because murder is wrong regardless of God or is it wrong because God says it is wrong? The former position that murder is wrong regardless of God means that there is no need for a God when it comes to morality – that you can come to this conclusion with no need for religion. The latter position that it is wrong because God says it is wrong means that anything that God says is right. For example if God was to say that torturing people for fun is right then it would be so.

This is a difficulty for divine command theorists. Either God is not needed to act ethically or his views are arbritary. Now they might answer that any ethical theory needs to base what is good on something that it is arbitrary – that ethical systems give no other reason for saying what is right. This is an interesting way of doing things, because it basically translates as ‘yes God could have argued that tortuting people is right, but any other ethical system is similiarly arbritary and so I will just choose this one.’ Also divine command theorists are thinking their ethics is cleverer than it is. Take Mill’s argument for utilitarianism: what is desired by people (happiness) is morally desirable. This provides a reason – at least an attempt at ‘the proof of utility’ - that we can accept or deny when it comes to looking at utilitarianism. Unfortunately relgious ethics provides no reasons for believing what God says – this is because it is arbitrary and therefore irrational. It is like saying ‘Mr Bob says that I should eat vegetables and therefore I will’. For this statement to make any sense you would have to say something like ‘Mr Bob is an expert on nutrition and so I will do what he says’. However this seperates Mr Bob from being the source of knowledge of nutrition: he believes that you should eat vegetables because he has learnt that they are good for you. In the same way for it to make any sense that what God says is right we have to separate God from being the source of values.

Now lets look at what this means for sexist and homophobic claims. If God’s wishes are just arbitrary then it would be stupid to believe that women are inferior and homosexuality immoral. If God is attached wholeheartedly to an external moral standard then we too can access it. Moral standards that apply to people are surely accessible to the people themselves – that’s how we know that murder is wrong and so forth. For it to be right that women are inferior and homosexuality immoral then God has to have strong reasons for believing this – if there arent any reasons for agreeing with God then it suggests that certain parts of the bible are imperfectly human. When we assess whether women should be beneath men in terms of power relationships every-day life, common sense and our own morality tells us otherwise. Women are perfectly able in jobs and positions of authority, and this means that what God has been alledged to have said conflicts with what we know. It seems reasonable to suggest that the parts of the bible that claim that homosexuality is immoral and slavery permissible are just vestiges of their time and place.

Take also the example of divorce. According to the Bible this is immoral. Now if God is a passer on of the independent moral truth then the moral truth God is appealling too does not seem to hold any place in reality. In reality if relationships crumble it would be ridiculous to state that the couple should stick together, because a great deal of unhappiness is caused and fresh starts are lost. Morality which applies to humans has to appeal to human values. That is why one of God’s rules: the Golden Rule is so strong, because it makes sense on a human level. Other rules and laws we must discard because they are nonsensical on a human level.

This brings morality firmly back to humanity. People are worthwhile because of their own value and not the value that God puts on them. Morality can only be come to through reasons, evidence, humanity, respect and impartiality. You do not need a God for these.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Myth of the Broken Society

The Myth of the Broken Society - this was written over a year ago, but still relevant since Cameron is still going on about 'the broken society'

By Ben Mackay

To say that society itself is broken suggests that it is a general condition, something identifiable anywhere and everywhere in the country. There are many social ills in Britain but I cannot agree with David Cameron that this points to a Broken Society. Yes, there are problems in 21st Century Britain and one has only to glance at the newspapers to read of another terrible and tragic stabbing or to read shocking statistics about the constituency of Glasgow East which featured in Mr Cameron’s ‘broken society by-election.’ To find out that in the largest city in Scotland and the third largest in Britain there are areas which have life expectancies lower than the Gaza Strip is disgraceful. But to take a variety of independent social ills and to concoct a view that our very country is rotting seems to me to be exaggeration and hysteria.

Extreme cases are small and scarce compared to the vastness of this country. There are definitely problems that need to be fixed and there is no underestimating knife crime and muggings.

A lot of the reasons Cameron has cited for social problems including knife crime, such as family breakdown, welfare dependency, debt, drugs, poverty, poor policing, inadequate housing, and failing schools I would agree with, but he goes on to say, ‘it is a thread that goes deeper, as we see a society that is in danger of losing its sense of personal responsibility, social responsibility, common decency and, yes, even public morality.’ This is where I disagree. Instead of ‘a society’ he should say ‘some people’.

To say that 21st Century Britain seems to be exclusively broken and damaged forgets history. Cameron ignores the sexist, racial and class inequalities of the past, inequalities that were spurred on by society itself, hegemonic because of all the traditions and dogma of older days. That is not to denigrate older generations but it seems that the eternal lament ‘it was better in the old days’ comes into it all? Were there not the drug and sex filled hippy years of the sixties and seventies? Wasn’t there the ruthless individualism of the Thatcher shaped Eighties? Wasn’t there the hilarious back-to-basics campaign led by John Major in the Nineties?

Our society is definitely flawed. To compare it to a piece of rope it is frayed but not broken. We must get to work to try and right these wrongs but we should not get overly hysterical and claim that the whole country is falling apart. There are problems, but there have always been problems and to claim that this contemporary period is exclusively broken or our society is in some disastrous state seems to me to be slightly over the top. Cameron is right to emphasise these issues and highlight the terrible poverty, violence, obesity and drug abuse that pock mark the nation but we must not forget that the overwhelming majority of people have their morality, personal responsibility, common decency and social responsibly intact, and not broken. It is an insult to suggest otherwise.