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The incoherence of rights

Thinking about ethics with Marshall McLuhan

“A friend of mine who tried to teach something about the forms of media in secondary school was struck by one unanimous response. The students could not for a moment accept the suggestion that the press or any other public means of communication could be used with base intent. They felt that this would be akin to polluting the air or the water supply, and they didn’t feel that their friends and relatives employed in these media would sink to such corruption. Failure in perception occurs precisely in giving attention to the program ‘content’ of our media while ignoring the form, whether it be radio or print or the English language itself.”

Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media (1964).

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control,” writes Marshall McLuhan, “it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.” This idea may seem a strange place to begin a reflection on the essentially blinkered nature of rights ethics, especially when it is of a particularly decontextualised kind. But, soon enough, it should be clear why I’m working with McLuhan.

Before we get to the question of rights, though, what does McLuhan mean in general? Does he just want to highlight the simple fact that, in our everyday lives, we are mindful of some things and forgetful of others? We can’t be conscious of everything, after all. We have to be selective as we cope with the world. Oswald Spengler implies something like this when he refers to technics as a universal facet of animal nature. To be an animal, which is what we are in part, means having a measure of independence from our environments, as well as having the ability to adopt tactics for living. That last phrase—tactics for living—is the simplest definition of technics. We adapt to the specifics of any environment and simultaneously adapt the environment to us. To prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed, we have to ignore a few things in the process.

However, I don’t think this is what McLuhan is referring to. Intentional acts are his focus. He refers to a deliberate constriction of consciousness that has controlling things as an aim. What Spengler calls technics can be reduced. We can and often do focus more on adapting the environment to us than on adapting to the environment. Such a constriction of consciousness implies a desire to shrink the world to a specific set of subjectively accepted coordinates with the result that reality is understood as something essentially under our power. It’s a stupid thing to believe, of course, but we can quite easily go about our ordinary lives believing it. Whatever does not conform to our attentional coordinates is typically given the status of non-being. What is left out, in other words, is assumed to have no real reality.

No wonder a “shock” is likely. When nothing makes itself suddenly known as something, we find ourselves reeling, without any immediately obvious way to cope with such a traumatic intrusion. McLuhan says this occurs when we are reminded that the medium is the message. He does not mean, I think, that the mere statement of the fact that the medium is the message suffices to shock us. He means that the fact itself, the medium itself, does the shocking. When contradicting our decision to split and divide things up, the medium jolts us into an awareness that it, and not just its content, is saying something, even if we don’t yet know how to interpret it. It is saying more than its content, in fact.

The medium is the message means that the effects of any medium are more significant than the effects of the content of that medium. The fact that you read is of greater significance than the fact that you are reading this.

According to systems theory, a decent system—a material instantiation of a particular consciousness—allows negative feedback to test its integrity. If a car manufacturer wants to test the integrity of a newly designed car in the face of the likelihood of an accident, for example, he welcomes the opportunity to populate the car with dummies before hurtling it towards a wall. The negative feedback—the vision of that car crumpling against that wall and those dummies bashed against its insides—helps the car manufacturer to see if the design of the car lives up to the demands of the world. In contrast, a bad system would rest on the assumption that the integrity of a system is a given, with no testing required. But no system can escape negative feedback. Eventually, reality will rip things to pieces to make the great systematisers aware of this simple fact: the system isn’t the reality. The message is not up to the job of controlling the medium.

But our culture, as Byung-Chul Han has noticed, is poor in negativity. Assuming Lasch’s diagnosis of our culture as narcissistic, it is a faux pas of sorts to seek out negative feedback. Han does not mean by negativity mere negation but something closer to Hegel’s determinate negation. In his Topology of Violence (2011), Han writes,

“Not all negativity is destructive. Not infrequently, forms of negativity such as hesitation, pausing, boredom, waiting, or rage prove constructive, though they are threatened with disappearance in the course of society’s increasing positivization.”

Without a doubt, where a lack of negativity prevails, we are in for a surprise or two. Reality inevitably pushes back. Sometimes it kicks and screams and bites back. Sometimes it is “a bit of a shock,” says McLuhan, “to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”

The idea of a medium is not univocal in McLuhan. It means formal cause and environment. It means any extension of self. It means metaphor and metamorphosis. It means massage. It means ground, as opposed to figure. But the simplest equivalent of the word medium is the word technology. Technology in McLuhan, though, is almost the opposite of Spengler’s conception of technics. Of course, technologies are developed by the technics-geared, technics-informed mind. But technologies have minds and ways of their own, so to speak. Yes, they involve the interaction, implied by Spengler, between mind and being. But McLuhan’s understanding of technologies implies an emphasis on the environment itself and not merely on how we think about it. When a new technology comes along, for instance, the entire world changes and not just a small part of it. The entire blueprint of reality is transfigured. To say that the medium is the message is therefore to say that things will do what they do, no matter what we intend. McLuhan means that media, in themselves, are not neutral. How can a cell phone or poison or a book be truly neutral anyway? How can a gun or a morphine overdose be neutral? The full range of potentialities of any given thing remains open even if I intend only a single way of using a thing.

This full range of any medium’s potentialities shapes our psychologies at every moment, quite apart from our conscious awareness. I may want to use a hammer to whack a nail into a wall, for instance. But the mere presence of the hammer means much more than what I intend. My desire to mean the hammer only as a thing for getting nails into a wall does not tame it. It does not, for example, erase the possibility of my accidentally using the hammer to flatten my thumb, and does not eradicate the possibility of using the hammer to bludgeon another human being to death. My mind conforms to the thing itself, and in doing so, it conforms not to the thing as merely self-mediated but to the thing as a being. It is a transformation of the environment that mediates itself to me. The hammer is likely to be asking more of me than I know.

The content of any medium—that is, my intention for and interpretation of that medium—is always dramatically subservient to the reality of the medium as a whole. The medium is a primal ethos that resists being reduced to any constructed ethos. My specific way of representing the thing for myself does little to account for it.

This is a fairly simple insight, in some ways, but it is easily forgotten. In our time, arguably, such forgetting is the primary mode of contemporary political ideology. We are typically educated into confusing our intentions with our realities. To see one consequence of this, let’s look, at long last, at rights. This is a complicated subject and so I am presuming that a much fuller discussion would be needed to properly unpack it. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking of Pierre Manent’s brilliant Natural Law and Human Rights (2020), which is well worth reflecting on. What follows, then, is perhaps best interpreted as a provocation rather than as an explanation.

Far from clarifying how we ought to act ethically, decontextualised rights ethics functions in a pointillist manner that renders reality essentially incoherent. Rights become substitutes and simulations of ethics. They come to exemplify Baudrillard’s claim that everything is ultimately destined to become a simulation. With regard to the theme of this reflection, rights are merely figures where ethics is the ground. When unworlded, rights form a badly constructed ethos, often set against a total primal ethos. They result from forgetting that the medium is the message. For anyone rooted in tradition, ethics is always primarily a matter of getting in tune with the goodness of being. Ethics is ontological and so it involves a dynamic and essentially relational awareness of and interaction with reality. Every ethical principle functions together with other elements of the primal ethos. Perhaps this is what rights were originally intended to be; they were intended to be restatements of ethical and relational givens. But one of the signs of our times is that so many rights have become individualised; that is, separated from duty and torn from their relational milieu.

More and more, the trend is to treat each so-called ‘right’ in a radically decontextualised manner; as de-ontologised, in fact. Activism around any specific rights violation, or in favour of instating any newly-declared right, typically extends the modern logic of splitting and dividing things for the sake of control. The aim is less to conform with reality than to reshape it.

Exaggerated compartmentalising is the modus operandi of modernity in general and rights activism in particular. Instead of ethics being conceived of as a whole—as a medium or environment, say—it is wrongly thought of as an emergent aggregate of many fragments. This results from something that GK Chesterton observes in Orthodoxy (1908), namely the modern tendency to shatter schemes. The shattering of Christianity during the Reformation is his example of how this results not only in rampaging vices but also rampaging of virtues. “The vices,” he says, “are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.” When a sense of the whole, of the medium, is lost, we end up with “virtues gone mad.” “The virtues have gone mad,” he says, “because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

The trend noticed by Chesterton over a century ago has simply gotten worse. Now, we have protests breaking out every five minutes to argue for one or another so-called overlooked right. But the tendency is exactly that of normalising virtue-gone-mad. One thing is protested or promoted at a time, divorced from any sense of a whole. We, therefore, see rights argued for at the expense of any ethical principle or virtuous life. The constructed ethos is set against the primal ethos. As examples of this, I think of recent images of some environmentalists damaging property to promote ending the use of fossil fuels while other environmentalists empty milk bottles onto shop floors to protest the use of animal products. They give no thought to how tantrum-throwing in the name of a fragment of the ethos might, on the one hand, affect the poorest of the poor, who no doubt will not be able to afford life without fossil fuels; or, on the other hand, how they are advocating theft by taking and destroying what does not belong to them. Victims are created in the name of victims.

Maybe these lazy activists are fighting for a good cause—at least, arguably they are—but they are doing it at the expense of the Good itself. They are trying to fix a problem by destroying the context within the problem is in fact intelligible. We should not be surprised by this, I suppose. The truth has always been staring us in the face with regard to how rights are understood. They are universal, apparently, and yet, contradictorily, every culture has the right to its own cultural standards. Rights presume the natural law since they are derived from it, and yet they also seem to offer the possibility of remaking human beings. At a more concrete level, many rights are simply contradictions of other rights. The essential unity of the primal ethos is not just questioned but denied by rights.

And where does this fracturing and contesting of the primal ethos lead? Well, not to a more unified world, that’s for sure, and definitely not to a peaceful and harmonious world. Rights render an integrated reality impossible. But perhaps the most astonishing consequence, among many other consequences, is found in the common liberalist oblivion to negative consequences. Where any so-called right is taken in isolation from an ethical whole, the assumption is that merely intending good things through that right will suffice to ensure that good things happen. Canada has pushed euthanasia laws into full effect, for example, possibly out of a good intention to end the suffering of suffering people, and yet it has come as a bit of a shock to discover that the medium of suicide has remained perfectly intact despite all the seemingly compassionate messaging. The system now has a convenient way to be rid of people who are a burden to society. The system has effectively begun to encourage murder. The medium has begun to eat the message, as the system has become increasingly callous and inhuman. This is perhaps an extreme example but the underlying trend and logic remain the same: to intend only what any specific, decontextualised right demands ensures that some people are given what they want while the very real needs of others are shoved aside.

This is all a way of saying that it is worth genuinely trying to examine again what a more unified and robust constructed ethos looks like. We can’t fully escape the realm of construction when it comes to engaging the primal ethos. But attempting to bring ethics and reality into conversation again is a good idea. In fact, if ethics primarily means, as it seems to now mean thanks to all the tantrum-throwing around rights, that we must not ask the question of what is ultimately real, then perhaps it is time to leave ethics behind. But of course, this would be nonsense. Ultimately, the ethical points to the possibility, and the actuality, of a deeper and fuller disclosure of what is real. In fact, that was always the aim of virtue: in virtue, we become, like Pinocchio at the end of his tale, more real. In contrast, without a genuine, holistic ethos, we will only ever find ourselves trapped in an illusion.