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Have you examined your life?

By: | April 24, 2015

What happens when we begin questioning some of the fundamental values and assumptions that underpin our own beliefs and those of our society?

Paula Graham
Behind the Screens with Cinema Politica: Using documentary film to start conversations

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Dr. Cornel West is one of several prominent contemporary philosophers featured in the documentary film "Examined Life". Photo courtesy Zeitgeist Films.

In Examined Life, a 2008 film that brings ‘armchair philosophy’ into the streets, Cornel West invites you to find out “what happens when you begin to call into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions.” (Find some excerpts from the film here.)

The crowd of about 45 people at Monday evening’s screening of Examined Life did just that. The audience was engaged, thoughtful, and curious and unlike the usual philosophical practice of sitting alone and reading books, we gathered together to talk about morality and the meaning of life in real-life scenarios.

Individualism and the human body

Bodily experience was a central theme in Examined Life and the on-screen conversation between feminist scholar Judith Butler and disability activist Sunaura Taylor was a highlight for many people at the screening. Taylor’s description of her day-to-day experiences as a person in a wheelchair points to the problem of individualism: it rests on the idea that people are responsible for themselves. In an individualistic society, which describes many or all Western countries, there is no expectation that people help each other. Sure, we do often lend a hand to others, but the social expectation is to be self-sufficient.

But what does this mean if your body is disabled in some way? As one audience member reminded us, all humans are born completely incompetent — we can’t even hold up our own heads for the first few months of life. This should make us question the glorification of independence and individualism.

Why do we celebrate independence when so many of our bodily experiences involve giving and receiving aid? What does the celebration of individualism and independence mean for someone who is physically disabled? Taylor suggests that people who are visibly physically dependent on other people are a reminder of our reliance on each other and that this might explain some of the violence towards people who are physically disabled.

Butler concludes: Maybe what we need is a “rethinking the human body as a site of interdependency.”

Ethics for a globalized world

The interdependency of human life should also make us rethink ethics and morality in a globalized world. But how do our day-to-day choices relate to human experiences going on in other parts of the world?

Peter Singer points out that while the ‘duty not to harm’ is a popular philosophy, what about the ‘duty to help’?

Singer offers the example of sacrificing an expensive pair of shoes to save a drowning child. Most people would say that they wouldn’t mind ruining their shoes in order to save the life of a child. So why buy the shoes in the first place, if we know that our money could be used to buy medicine and food for sick and starving children in other countries? If we are willing to ruin our fancy shoes for a child drowning right in front of us, why don’t we use our shoe money to feed hungry children that we’ve never met?

Kwame Anthony Appiah helps explain this paradox by discussing the difference between “the context in which we evolved as a species, and the present.” After just a few minutes of walking through an airport today, explains Appiah, “you’ll see more people than our human ancestors saw in their entire lives.” This is a very new development for the human species, and the question is whether or not our morality can catch up.

As Appiah says, humans are pretty good at being responsible for people close to them — we can be responsible for our children, parents, cousins, and friends. But humanity’s social circle has expanded beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams: “We now have to be responsible for fellow citizens both of our country and the world… We need a notion of global citizenship.”

Let’s get started

Can humanity meet the challenge of developing an ethics for over 7 billion people? Is it even possible to have a moral framework that addresses the embodied lives of that many humans? I don’t know for sure, but the issues raised in Examined Life and during Monday’s post-film public discussion should help us get started.

Let’s think more deeply about whether or not it makes sense to build our 21st century society on the assumptions of individualism. (See a neat chart on individualism and other cultural society traits in Canada here.)

Let’s ask ourselves why we feel a duty to not harm others, but no obligation to help.

Let’s reflect on how our day-to-day choices, like how we spend our money, relate to the lives of all the other citizens of the world.

Or, at the very least, let’s watch more movies about philosophy and morality to remind ourselves that we are all part of this ethical journey.

For more about Cinema Politica St. John’s click here. Our next screening will feature the documentary film The Yes Men Fix the World, on Friday, May 1 at 8 p.m. in Room A1043 of Memorial University’s Arts & Administration building. All screenings are pay-what-you-can, with half of proceeds going to Cinema Politica, and half to The Independent.

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