Perspectives | Society

What are you ashamed of?

By - 05.10.2020

To understand a society, look at what people are ashamed of.

In the premodern world, when God was the supreme authority defining what is “(im)moral” —  with religion as its mediator on earth —  morality had a narrow scope. Human life in the social and professional sphere was more or less predetermined. If you were the daughter of a peasant, most probably, you would spend your life in the fields. If you were the son of an aristocrat, you would become an aristocrat yourself. 

Morality was mostly concerned with the relationship that one had with his body, and eventually with other people around him. According to the premodern moral system  —  characterized by concreteness  — one was obliged to maintain his chastity, virginity, faith in God, respect his family, not steal …

In the modern era, science began to diminish the authority of religion. The invention of the printing press, the spread of nationalism, the creation of nation-states, and the standardization of national languages were some of the elements that shaped this era. Along with other developments, sometimes preceding them while other times as a consequence of them, morality transformed, expanding the scope of issues that mattered ethically for people. 

The state undertook the duty to educate the citizens. The modern school turned into a “factory” where man is “created,” in such a way as to blend into the collective. Newspapers and books published in local languages established a public sphere that became part of the moral conceptualization.  

The behavior toward the public sphere was sanctioned by the moral norms. Modern morality — incorporating the abstract dimension — covered not only the relationship with the individual but also with the public. It became shameful to betray your own country, to damage public property, to be corrupt or not obey the law. 

Today, many philosophers believe that we are already living in a postmodern period. Postmodernism emphasizes the impossibility of grand philosophical systems to explain the world, while moral lenses were further sophisticated, enabling us to see beyond the issues that affect only our civilization. 

Discrimination, racism, exploitation, and violence are still present, but people are morally aware of them, even when they happen outside the borders of their own countries. Surely, some people support the crimes against Syrian civilians or the racism against people of color in the USA, but taking such stances is not something you get applauded for.  

Postmodern morality accepts the equivalence of different cultures. Postmodernism does not acknowledge any moral authority that would assess people’s behaviors. Neither religion nor the idea of assumed linear progress dictates us how to act anymore. The individual is “the measure of everything.” He or she decides what values to cherish, the paths to follow, or the systems to support. From the individual is expected only to recognize the same right to the others.  

Surely, someone can take religion as a reference point (this does not make him premodern), but he is not allowed to impose it on others (this makes him postmodern). As postmodern morality claims, one should respect not only the concrete individual but his or her moral viewpoints as well.  

Morally, Kosovar society is in the premodern phase.

The morality of the postmodern man is not limited only to the body, family, or the nation. He is ashamed, worried, or at least takes a stance (emotionally and morally charged) about other parts of the world as well. 

Throughout history, the moral reasoning has shifted its focus from the relationship with the concrete Other — with capital O — to the relationship with the others — with small o — which he may not know personally but with whom he forms an imagined community. 

Surely, these periods do not exist as clear moral systems, fixed, and with distinct spatial and temporal borders that exclude each other categorically. They are more like labels that mark a set of characteristics constituting a larger system of moral conceptualization. These periods are fluid, both vertically (throughout history) and horizontally (in different societies).

Not all societies today are at the postmodern phase of morality, and not every society belongs to just one category.  There are always extensions, overlaps, intersystem connections due to the heterogeneity of societies, rapid developments, technology impact, media platforms, migration, etc. After all, morality is an emotional-cognitive process, not a category. However, the question “what are you ashamed of” seems to be the proper compass. 

Moral norms in Kosovar society

Morally, Kosovar society is in the premodern phase. The country has established modern institutions  — people have access to technology, connections with the world have increased  — however, the dominant way of thinking in the private and sometimes public discourse is tribal, pre-political, and to some extent, pre scientific. Kosovars have a very narrow moral sense that is also extremely concrete.  

The moral scope of Kosovars covers only the relationship with the concrete individual. Entities such as public institutions, state properties, public interest, and the environment are not included in moral reasoning. We do not have “the shame” that regulates the relationship of the individual with the public sphere. Kosovars have not achieved to turn morality public or abstract. 

A nonconjugated morality is absent, which means that the answer to the question “what are you ashamed of?” always seeks a personal subject: Ashamed of whom? If this subject does not exist in a concrete form, then there will be no moral sentiments that inhibit or trigger certain behaviors.  

For example, it is shameful to steal from the neighbor but not to misuse public money. It is forbidden to throw trash in somebody’s yard, but this can easily be done in nobody’s land (public space). To reject a request of a friend staying in your house is unforgivable, but for an issue that would negatively impact state interests, moral signals do not work. 

It is considered unusual and something to be ashamed of if someone in power leaves a family member without a job, or in an “undignified” position that pays poorly.  Nepotism in Kosovo is not an isolated phenomenon that people combat or are ashamed of. Rather, it is a culture maintained by family and society; something people are proud of. 

“I have my man there,” is a phrase that often gets repeated with pride. The ones boast who have helped “their own people,” by employing them in public institutions. The public sphere not only serves the private sphere, but it also turns into a moral reinforcer.

Society not only grants amnesty to those who use public services for personal interest, but also encourages them through positive reinforcement (the image of the successful one, fame, praise). The wrongdoing toward the public sphere remains unnamed and it is not part of the list of characteristics and behaviors based on which people judge someone morally. 

This mentality is present from the main state institutions to the public cleaning companies. The most conspicuous example covered by the media on June 3, 2020, is that of Haxhi Shala, a MP from the ranks of NISMA (now in the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo), who said in parliament that he would vote for Avdullah Hoti’s government, contrary to his earlier statements.

“Two days before, I declared that I would not vote for the Hoti government … but yesterday the President and former Prime Minister visited me and I changed my mind: “My vote will be in favor, my vote will be for these two people, in favor of the Hoti Government,” said Shala quite spontaneously. 

Over the following days, he said in a TV studio that he has an old friendship with President Hashim Thaçi and the leader of AAK party, Ramush Haradinaj, thus he could not refuse their request to vote for the government. “They are both my friends, comrades-in-arms. If they asked me to give them my son, I would not refuse,”  he said. 

So, the member of the parliament is not (anymore) a representative of the citizens, as it should be, but the ”owner” of his vote. He can make deals with it, sacrifice it in the friendship “altar,” or throw it in the bin of personal grudges. The voters who granted him his mandate are not part of this equation — they are neither mentioned nor taken into consideration.  The MP has detached himself from the consequences of his own actions.

After the war, Kosovars have not managed to create collective ideals, which led to the atomization of the society.

It cannot be said that he does not feel public responsibility, but that the public sphere does not even constitute a matter that deserves to be sifted through his moral sieve; it is not sensed by his senses of “moral perception.” There is no “shameful act” in relation to the institution; “shameful” is “to leave your friend barehanded, disregarding family traditions.” It is 2020, the 21st century, and a deputy of the Kosovo Parliament still mentions family customs to legitimize his voting in of a government (harmful according to him) that will run the country. 

Separation of Oda from the state

Our crisis is not just a crisis of ideas, but a crisis of ideals, says Giovanni Sartori in his book What is Democracy. Even though it might seem counterintuitive, ideals do not derive from ideas, but often precede them; an idea is a mental endeavor to map out the way toward the fulfillment of an ideal. 

As Sartori states, the crisis of ideals is a moral crisis. After the war, Kosovars have not managed to create collective ideals, which led to the atomization of the society.  When Kosovo was occupied, the collective ideal was liberation, and the actions that served this aim were considered moral, whereas the actions that were against the idea of national liberation were perceived as immoral. 

It might be argued that public morality derives and is legitimized by the ideals. A society without ideals is difficult to establish a “moral constitution” as a basis upon which attitudes toward the public sphere would be judged. In our society, endeavors for collective solutions were substituted for individual or family solutions. Some of the consequences of this reality are mass migration, social divisions and political disputes.    

In Kosovo, the family remains the center that almost all social life is organized around. Corruption and specifically nepotism are consequences of this organization. Politics, morality, and to some extent knowledge, cannot escape from the magnetic force of the family. During election campaigns, many Oda serve as places where electoral gatherings are held, a symbolism that shows the symbiosis between the family and (pre) politics. 

Unlike the West, where the church was separated from the state through a difficult and complex process and retreated from public matters, for Kosovars, religion was never the main pillar around that life was organized around. It cannot be said that it did not matter, but the way Albanians functioned was more influenced by family and tribal traditions. For example, according to the Quran, even though Islam allows marriage between cousins, in Albanian customary code, these kinds of relationships are not even discussed. 

While religion creates a network of social connections with no biological charge, establishing a horizontal religious community, the family was traditionally a deeply archaic, organic category, extended vertically. 

Among Albanians, religion historically was subsumed under the family, serving its functions. This is probably because, during the five centuries of Ottoman rule, Islam was directly linked to privileges: Lower taxes and better career opportunities. During the Ottoman rule, the social dimension of religion was eroded by interest (privileges), and thus “subjugated” to the family/tradition, failing to conceive the “WE” as a premodern prototype of the modern public sphere. 

The function that religion had in the West, among Albanians was performed by the family, providing the moral foundation and controlling power mechanisms. But while Western societies have made progress in removing religion from state institutions creating the public sphere, Kosovars have failed to do so with the family. 

The separation of the family from the state is imperative in order to create a state for citizens. Not that this is good (or bad) in itself, but incorporating the public sphere in the moral universe is a sine qua non of building institutions that work according to their duties.  

In the same way that religion continues to be important in people’s lives in the West, family in Kosovo does not have to disintegrate, lose its meaning, or stop cultivating care and love among its members. It only needs to be removed from state institutions and returned to the private sphere. The public sphere needs to be liberated from the family if the welfare state is the goal. 

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.