Has harmony been cancelled?


Jan Miense Molenaer, Self-Portrait With Family Members, 1635

From Philosophy Now:

The value of harmony is tricky to pin down, and the desire for harmony can cause us to accept things we shouldn’t. In my ‘Philosophy of Human Nature’ class, I’ve used a few letters from Theano and Periktione, two Pythagorean women who give domestic advice rooted in the ancient Pythagorean school’s central value of harmonia, ‘fitting together’. Some of it is recognizable even today as good advice: love but don’t spoil your children; treat servants well. But one letter from Theano to a woman named Nikostrate advises the latter not to make a fuss over her husband’s cheating on her. The reasoning is that the disharmony in his behavior won’t be made better by her breaking off the relationship. Theano asserts that what he needs in order to see the error of his ways is Nikostrate demonstrating harmony, in this case, by letting go of her resentment.

To my students, on a first pass this is almost laughable advice. Surely not!

This was my first reaction too. These days, women have more power and can frequently afford not to tolerate infidelity. But in teaching, I always try to present the most charitable reading of the material that I can before turning a critical eye. And in doing so here, I noticed a connection to certain strands of contemporary feminist thought found in care ethics and elsewhere that emphasize the importance and implications of our relationships with others. I haven’t seen the term ‘harmony’ used in this literature, but the concept strikes me as apt. Harmony is primarily about maintaining flourishing relationships in the face of inevitable friction, slip-ups, blunders, and disagreements. Harmony isn’t about rolling over to keep the peace. That’s likely to make false peace. Someone who gives up their interests for the sake of not making waves isn’t getting their voice heard or their needs met, and is allowing others to dominate. The appearance of harmony when we stay silent in the face of a misuse of power is merely superficial. Instead, harmony requires the constant tuning of relationships so that everyone is heard and valued, everyone is held accountable for their actions, and liveable compromises can be forged.

It’s worth noting here that harmony isn’t just about governing behavior, it’s also about governing feelings. And here too we need to walk a delicate line. Harmony isn’t about suppressing legitimate feelings, it’s about tuning feelings so that they are appropriate to the situation. What that means is, of course, another sticky problem. When are which feelings appropriate?

Cancelling as it’s practiced now, particularly when it is a first rather than a last resort, is a product of, and is perhaps an inevitable extension of, individualism. Individualism construes self-interest quite narrowly, as limited to the interests of a person taken in isolation. It’s a major operating principle behind capitalism and liberal democracy as we know them.

“Harmony & Cancellation Culture”, Erica Stonestreet, Philosophy Now

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