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Howard F Dossor interviewed by Christos Fifis
Towards A New Culture
Howard F Dossor and the Concept of a New Culture
Howard Dossor is an ex-Congregational minister who made the effort to redefine his system of beliefs and decided to move to the educational sector. He has taught in Schools and at the La Trobe University Language Centre before he became the first Registrar and Secretary of Victoria University. He always had a strong interest in the world of ideas and in his retirement has produced books of critical analysis for the works of the English philosopher and novelist, Colin Wilson and the works of Nikos Kazantzakis. He read Kazantzakis’ "Zorba the Greek" in 1956 and since then has studied his work, published articles in international journals and given frequent lectures on it in Australia, England and South Africa. Several of his public lectures on Kazantzakis are presented on You Tube.
Dossor is also critical of the constantly increasing destructive tendencies of Global Capitalism. In the present interview, Dossor expounds his view on the urgent need for the adoption of a new form of culture by all Humanity.
Christos N. Fifis
CF: Howard, in a recent conversation, you spoke of the idea of a New Culture. Why do we need a new culture?
HD: I would begin by pointing out that it is no longer useful to speak of our culture as if it is a distinct and localized pattern of living. Increasingly, we need to think of culture as a universal phenomenon even though it may take different shapes in different regions. Over the past century we have seen what was an American way of life spread across the globe to such an extent that we are now rapidly closing in on a global culture. But it is a culture that has built into its foundation a number of profoundly disturbing elements that actually threaten human well-being rather than enhance it.
CF: Could you identify any of those elements?
HD: I suggest there are two that are particularly threatening. The first of these is individualism. The prevailing philosophical and sociological position seems to support the notion that the individual is the basic unit in human existence and that his or her rights are paramount. Indeed, there is a view that reality is defined by each individual as they look out upon the world, actually creating it by virtue of their seeing it. That seems to me to be an absurd idea.
Primitive man was primarily a social animal. He understood himself as being a member of a tribe and his very existence depended upon his tribal identity. As an individual, he was limited in his capacity to feed himself or to actually survive in the midst of a threatening world. Today, we have tended to downplay our social identity and emphasized our singular right to existence. This is true to the extent that we engage in the fiercest competition one against the other, whether in education, business or sport. To some extent, we justify this on the basis of the theory of the survival of the fittest but this may be a travesty of Darwinian theory used by a minority to justify what they see as their entitlement to supremacy over all others.
I am not, of course, denying our individuality. Rather I am suggesting that the self is to be understood as an amalgamation of the individual and the social. We are born, not only into one-ness but also into a we-ness. We sink or swim together. Together, we are part and parcel of a species and the species is of greater importance than any individual. Nature has no special respect for the individual. It kills us one by one. But nature has not killed off our species. True, it has modified the species but it seems as if the survival of the species is one of the special functions of life as a whole.
CF: So individuality poses a problem when it is over-emphasized?
HD: Yes. If you put a fish into rancid water, the likelihood is that it’s health will degenerate and it will eventually die. An individual-based culture is a poisoned environment. It threatens the communal well-being and retards the advancement of the species. Yes, it is true that individuals do from time to time, make significant contributions to society but I suspect that those individuals who do offer the most valuable contributions are those who are very much aware of the social component of their own identity. But those without social awareness - and I would argue that they are the vast majority - contest with each other so that the weaker are finally rendered defenceless. I think evidence would support the claim that it is from among these defeated people that the criminals, the suicides and the bulk of the mentally ill, emerge. It may be that a great deal of what we think of as individual maladjustment is in fact culturally induced. In treating the individual, we treat little more than the symptom of a cultural disease which remains in place to infect others. Civil and social unrest across the globe may well be nothing less than evidence of this.
In fact, we have failed to grasp our sociality. One of the remnants of our early tribal identity that we have retained is modern day nationalism but this has proved to be a childish form of power politics that gives theoretical recognition to our common identity but in fact serves to isolate us into meaningless collectives. Until we understand that there are no natural borders on the surface of the globe, we will continue in conflict with each other. An appeal to Nationalism is little more than a device employed by politicians to preserve their hold on a fragile sense of regional power. Nationalism is, in fact, simply an inflated form of individualism. It lacks the global reference that has now become essential. As an example, we might note that the statement by former Prime Minister, John Howard, that Australia will control who comes across our borders and how they do shall do so, now seems to be some kind of laughable schoolboy howler, with overseas interests infiltrating this region of the world with almost total freedom..
CF: But aren’t Governments constantly trying to make improvements to the services available to the people at large? And is not their effort a reflection of a cultured response?
HD: Governments, and facilities like schools and hospitals do not really address the problem. The truth is that they are a part of the problem. They all exist within the diseased culture. They too are subject to the damaging impact of a rampant individualism. Governments are subject to individual influences, including inflated egos with vested self-interests, that severely limit their capacity to enact creative legislation. They are also subject to competing powerful lobby groups within their jurisdictions. Governments have, by and large, walked away from one of their primary responsibilities, the provision of essential services such as power, water and communal infrastructure, when they handed that responsibility to profiteer business corporations. Schools foster competition among students and are essentially promoting vocational interests rather than humanitarian values. Hospitals are severely limited in their ability to meet the demands of an increasingly vulnerable community because their function is made subservient to competition for the highly contested dollar.
CF: But is there not a reasonable limit to what Governments can do? They are, for example, subject to financial limitations.
HD: Of course. But this points to the second of the major problems confronting humanity in its attempt to express itself as a social species.
CF: And what is that Howard?
HD: It is a problem that has been recognized and been spoken about by countless numbers of people who find themselves in a position of profound disadvantage. It is the commercialization of everything. We have made everything into a commodity; put a price on everything. Health, justice, education, development are all subject to economic control. The dollar, money, has assumed a place of pre-eminence across the globe. We are ruled by the purse. And this is true, even of Governments. The money-making motive drives not only vast numbers of individuals but also the very culture in which they struggle to survive.
CF: But does not any organized society need an economic basis?
HD: We need an economy, yes. But we need an economy that serves us rather than one which oppresses us. Rather than living with an economy that divides us into the haves and the have-nots, we need an economy that acknowledges and sustains our social identity. An economy that justifies ownership of eighty per cent of the world’s wealth by eight per cent of the world’s population, is incapable of recognizing equality and in fact only serves to maintain the unequal status quo.
CF: Are not those who work hard entitled to the rewards they achieve?
HD: Of course. Let me make this case. We believe, by and large, that the peoples of Australia, England and the United States, not to speak of many other countries, live in a democracy. Theoretically, a democracy is a society based on the notion of equality. But we ought to remind ourselves that Winston Churchill once famously said that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." But can we claim that we have looked exhaustively at all other possible forms of social organization? There must be a better way.
In fact, however, democracy is nothing more than a myth. In no country of the world do its people enjoy equality. If nothing else separates them then prevailing economics does. Capitalism separates people; it admits a small minority into mansions and herds the majority into slums. The logical objective of Capitalism is to direct the entire wealth of the world into the pocket of a single individual. Wealth can be accrued by one individual only at a cost to another individual. The simple truth is that democracy and capitalism are mutually exclusive. The former seeks, at least theoretically, to produce a coherent society, to pay due recognition to every man, woman and child. It seeks to affirm a collective public as a single unit, while capitalism divides, elevates the few while denying the many. Whatever merits may reside in capitalism, the fact is that one of the most destructive practices at work in existing cultures is what we might well call fiscal rape. The rich secure and maintain their wealth by effectively overpowering their fellow men and subjecting them to poverty.
CF: If there is any truth in your analysis we may indeed need a new culture. But how do we create it?
HD: You know, I am often asked that question. It is as if my analysis of our situation makes me directly responsibility for providing a new blueprint for a redesigned culture. And when I say that I have no answer it is often inferred that I am agreeing that we are condemned to continue with things as they are. But it will take more than a single man or woman to envisage a remedy to our predicament; it will require a combined and sustained effort on the part of the wisest thinkers in our midst. It will require a new definition of leadership, a definition that embraces concepts such as genuine sensitivity, global thinking and forward planning as distinct from a makeshift reaction to current trends. It will need a transformation in our thinking about Government. It will involve planning a future rather than shuffling mindlessly into it. It will require a revolution in our manner of thinking about economics. And it will not be easy. Nor will it be accomplished overnight. What it requires is a dramatic change of focus, or, rather, the creation of a focus. I say creation for the current situation seems to be unfocused. It is simply a drifting along upon the tide of greed and indifferent political impotence.
The way forward, the way to renewal, seems to me to have three distinct components. First we need to fearlessly acknowledge the basis for our deep concern and face the world as it truly is, recognizing that it is operating in an unsustainable manner. Secondly, we need to resolve that we will not continue in a condition of drift. We must affirm a need for a sense of direction and must carefully identify the direction we wish to take. But before we can take this second step, we must identify the set of values upon which we actually desire to build our future. Where we have deficient values, inferior values will prevail and determine the standard of our behaviour.
The Greek novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, once proposed the establishment of what he called The Internationale of the Spirit. He was not advocating a new form of religious organization or even a reformation of existing religions, all of which he saw as outworn myths that actually impede human development. Instead, he was advocating the promotion and celebration of the highest values man has been able to recognize as he advances through history.
Kazantzakis invited the contribution of men and women of vision, scientists, artists, philosophers, all who could see a way forward. Pessimism and the sense that life is without meaning, can only further damage us. What we most desperately need is the creative input of emotionally and intellectually mature people who can work together to develop a new blueprint for our progress, a sense of purposive direction that will lead us to where we wish to be. This, insisted Kazantzakis, is not some romantic dream: it is a profound realism and a pressing necessity.
We do not have to continue in a culture that is slowly but surely diminishing us as the earth’s finest species. We do not have to pretend that existing forms of social organization are the only possible forms. We have it in our power to create a world closer to our heart’s desire. But if we wish for cultural redesign and enrichment, we must plan for it and commit ourselves consciously to it.
(Dr Christos N. Fifis is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe Uniersity)
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