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Current world affairs are fraught with conflicts unknown even only several decades ago. Successive waves of migrants have reached Europe’s shores; terrorist groups are rampant in the Middle East, menacing personal safety and regional stability; North Korea, despite warnings and sanctions from the international community, obstinately continues to develop its nuclear programme; and climate change also warrants international collective action. These problems—the migration crisis, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and climate change—it seems, are no longer confined to the boundaries of the nation-state or even to entities that can be recognised in shape, but consist in challenges and conflicts discursively transcending established space and boundaries, which can be dubbed ‘unconventional’. Indeed, players and problems thereof have been changing. What brought about these problems and what should be our response? This article attempts to provide a brief account from a philosophical perspective.

This combination of events, I believe, can be elucidated by drawing on Hannah Arendt, a German-born American philosopher who concerned herself with the complexities of modernity. She argued that the problem of the modern is brought about mainly by the intrusion into the public and private spheres of the social sphere, which subsumes in itself all human activities. The public sphere constitutes a space where free men come together to articulate their common concern, a sphere whose approximation, she held, is the ancient Greek polis, and the private sphere consists of households, within which hierarchical rule governs the relationship between the head of the family and other members.

In contrast, the social, which emerged later than the first two spheres, denotes a realm where men come together, not to discuss public affairs, but private concerns out of their personal interests. What occupies the mind of citizens here are material concerns that are subject to the law of necessity—that is, the circular, endless process of sustaining one’s natural lives and of satiating natural needs and wants. Uniformity is the essence of the social, because human beings are socialised and shaped by the common pattern of production and consumption, and by social norms and values that diminish human plurality. This is in stark contrast to the public realm, which is characterised by the diversity of human difference, and where plural appeals prevail.

What is at stake here is her unique account of modernity—that, instead of making man more individualistic and society more open, the modern, social sphere has held sway to the point of trampling upon all other spaces that locals hold dear. But it should be made clear that the hegemonic social sphere that emerged in Europe and spread thereafter all over the world, did not, as held by Arendt, intrude into the public and private lives of Muslims, Asians and Africans, but rather, substituted for the social sphere already existing in those cultures and societies. In other words, the unconventional problems as we witness today are the result of one social order wantonly replacing others.

The public/private distinction emphasised by Arendt is a unique European experience. Nowhere in such cultures as Islam and ancient Africa, which are deeply characterised by religious beliefs, or in those societies where the ruler and the ruled form an integral whole, like in China and Korea, can we find what may, even remotely, approximate the public and the private spheres presented by Arendt. The gigantic space and population in China, on the one hand, rendered residents technically incapable of collectively participating in public discussion. On the other hand, these geographic and demographic attributes made it possible and necessary that the central authorities care about social issues and locals’ personal concerns in accordance with rules—Confucianism, Taoism etc.—that were acknowledged by all.

The rigidity of Islamic beliefs has made religion permeate the societies in which it is prevalent and personal lives to such an extent that the public/private distinction is all but futile. The problem, however, arises when this social sphere, which traditionally transcended the boundaries of the public/personal distinction, and which preserved, until the dawn of the modern age social integrity and conventional values, becomes encroached by the intervention of the new social—in the sense in which Arendt used the term. This new social order subjugates man into labourers who are only concerned with producing and consuming goods and generating corporeal pleasure.

In Arendt’s own words, we are alienated from the world that we inhabit. All of the unconventional problems, in this sense, arise out of the disjunction between the arrival of the new social sphere and the resistance on the part of locals. The emergence of terrorists and refugees tellingly reveal the paramount difficulties with which Muslims confront the new social order. North Korea, a peculiar country that managed to secure generations of totalitarian rule, is, indeed, itself a contradiction: the elite on the top try to make use of nuclear weapons—the technology of modern social invention, to maintain social culture and tradition that has long been lost in other parts of East Asia. Even climate change, which threatens the living condition of all traditional social orders and civilisations, discloses the scale of calamities brought about by this distinctively novel social sphere. Then what should be our response?

The answer is far from easy to find. What we do know is that the solution does not lie in exporting to other parts of the world the values formed in the new social sphere (as held by many neoliberals) which can only exacerbate the problem; nor in sidestepping, or doing away with, the challenge from the new social. The task at hand, as far as I can tell, is to figure out the complex ways in which the intrusion of this sphere stifles traditional values, and to find solutions tailored to specific cases.

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