This is not a time of extremes. This is not a time of extreme crisis. The world is not ending. We are not at the end of goodness. We are not at the end of democracy. We are not living in the most racist / sexist / ageist / classist / divisive / time ever.
How do I know? A solid knowledge of history is immensely helpful to put things into perspective. Does that mean there are no more challenges left? Of course not. But we need to approach these challenges in a way that is focused on solutions. We need to keep people in dialog, make change that is actually sustainably, and keep building coalitions.
If you seek change, you need to change hearts and minds, otherwise, you will only create resentment, and the change you seek will be undone easily. You do not build a house that is supposed to last for decades without a foundation, and you do not make political change without laying a solid, patient groundwork.
Patience is hard, especially if lives are at stake. Moderation is hard if there is a sense of urgency. I understand this completely. But unless the solution you seek can be allowed to wither away again, moderation is the key to success. Had Gandhi followed a different path than the one laid out by Thoreau in his “Resistance to Civil Government”, there would not have been Indian independence. Spartacus held the moral high ground till he allowed his followers to exert revenge on the Roman civilian population. Both Martin Luther King jr,. and Malcolm X expressed their righteous anger at racism, but both advocated for peaceful solutions eventually. Peace works violence (including verbal violence, and violence against objects and people) fails. The bomb may have ended the war, but the UN sustained the peace. There are plenty of other examples.
Moderation is true strength. Holding back anger, frustration, desperation and impatience is difficult, but it will pay off eventually. Giving in to these impulses looks superficially strong, but will discredit itself.
There have been plenty of attempts to redefine the Left/Right paradigm that still seems to reign supreme in most people’s minds, especially in journalism.
Originally established in the French National Assembly in 1789, it divided parliamentarians between those in support of the French Revolution on the left, and the supporters of the Establishment on the right. It is a seating arrangement from more than 230 years ago. It makes sense to simplify matters when it comes to seating, as you have to place people in a room, and where one person sits, nobody else can sit. This was my first lesson as an altar boy, and it makes sense when it comes to such matters.
But aren’t political ideas more complicated than seating plans?
If you generalize the seating, it becomes immediately clear that it is a very situational problem. If the division is between disruption/revolution on the one side, and conserving/establishment, depending on the political party, what is “left” and what is “right” cannot be considered stable. If the establishment follows Socialist ideas, are supporters of Socialism suddenly right-wingers? If both Socialists/Communists and National Socialists on one side stood against Social Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals on the other in the Weimar Republic, are those in favor of disruption all on the “left”, and those in favor of democracy all on the “right”?
Is everybody who is not on the side of the Socialists on the “right”? Social Democrats have suffered for decades under being labeled failed revolutionaries – and sometimes seem to surrender to the stereotypes themselves rather than to defend their moderation in defense of democracy against disruptive radicalism. Similarly, what do Conservatives who defend democracy have in common with Fascists and National Socialists? This simply makes no sense.
We currently see a vivid demonstration of the outright idiocy of such labels:
Those “resisting” Coronavirus prevention measures fall visibly into a variety of political camps. Recent demonstrations in Berlin illustrated that clearly: Alternatives, Hippies, LGBTQ advocates, concerned democracy defenders, so-called sovereign citizens, as well as outright Neo-Nazis joined in a happy commingling. In the US, social protests of any spectrum seem to merely pay lip service (if at all) to protective regulations.
Putin has shown support for both right-wing and left-wing extremist parties in the recent decades. He is seen as an inspiration for both.
China’s communist leadership is cow-towed by everybody expecting political and economic favor, notwithstanding its civil rights abuses.
Antisemitism has flourished on both the “left” and the “right” recently under the label of “criticizing Israel”, a very transparent attempt to single out the Jewish state as the alleged source of all evil in the world (this becomes clear by being a sin of omission: the same “critics” remain silent on China, Turkey, Russia, or any other state (every single one!) that has ever incorporated territory originally not their own).
There are countless more examples, and there air several attempts at solving the classification problem by thinking in quadrants rather than two sides only (typically, by drawing an axis of totalitarianism vs. libertarianism, and another of individualism vs. groupishness).
It is disappointing to see the old and outdated paradigm still abound. Either we are not learning anything, or old ideas simply die hard…
It is probably human nature to be tribalistic, to be focused on supporting “your” side or team. This can sometimes limit our ability to cooperate with the “other” side. It also creates a false dichotomy, in which we can think only about two sides to any issue, even though there may be more.
One way to overcome this dangerous divide is to remind ourselves that even if we disagree with someone else, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Division works by painting an extreme difference, between only two choices, one absolutely correct and the other absolutely wrong; and additionally, painting those believing in the first choice as good, and the other as bad or even evil.
Trying to understand someone we do not agree with does not need to endanger our moral compass. It may question our own facts and assumptions – but that is a necessary process. The believe in an either-or, in the dichotomy of good versus evil is in itself the very problem plaguing our society. People are not all good. People are not all bad.
We need to fight against actions that create avoidable suffering, but we need to give people the benefit of the doubt even in those cases where we think that they may be causing harm. People’s motivations can be complex. They may actually mean to do the right thing, even if it ends up being the wrong thing. The saying that “the path to hell is paved with good intention” is quite applicable here: in too many cases, people may feel locked into a path that they may feel they have to take, even if it is wrong, even if they know it is wrong. Moral dilemmas are nothing new in human history, and all our literature and culture is full of such stories. Oedipus does everything to avoid killing his father, and yet ends up doing so. Utopian communities have always aimed at building a better world, and always ended up building hell on Earth. People know they need to communicate with each other to fight climate change, but they also need to use the very technology that is contributing to the destruction of our habitat.
If we give people the benefit of the doubt, if we truly listen to the other side, we display strength, not weakness. It is true strength to veer out of your bubble, to try to learn and understand what is alien to us; it is also true strength to change one’s mind if something convinces you that you have been wrong in the past. The longer we live, the more we will find where we have been wrong in the past. This happens all the time, and as much as we – hopefully – give ourselves room for growth, we should give it to others. Not without reason is judgement reserved to the Eternal in all religions.
We live in a society governed by the demands of today, of the now, of the immediate. This is, of course, not a new observation. For decades now, cultural theorists have described the decline of traditional values, of belonging, and an increasing frustration with the speed of technological and societal change. But it appears that these lessons have not only not been learned, but that we seem to have leaned in to this atmosphere of constant change and embraced it whole-heartedly.
Accepting reality is healthy, of course. We need to be mentally prepared for a life of constantly changing parameters, and ignoring such changes is not helpful. But that does not mean that we should simply give in without a fight, and lose our minds in the process.
One of the primary problems of today seems to be the loss of history. There is not just a decline in knowledge about history (which is bad enough) but even more so a decline in the awareness of history. We live in the ever-present “now”, in the ever-changing “now”, which has decreed that history would be useless, because the present would be so much different and no lessons – allegedly – could possibly be learned from it. At the same time, we are told that we are moving towards a better future, but that future will also just be an ever-expanding “now”, just a “now” that has forgotten and invalidated the past “now” because it will equally not care about history.
Even worse, it seems, is the more recent development that even the belief in a better future seems to be declining. Sure, social problems are being addressed, and so-called progressive movements claim to bring about change for the better in this regard; but is that really progressivism? Fighting social ills does not need a claimed future orientation, it needs just as much historical awareness, as much as knowledge about the suffering in the now. Progressivism used to be so much more – a future with a vision for human development, togetherness, space, technology, science etc. But that is too often disregarded as dreaming that distracts from the now. But we must be building our future in the now. We must plan big again to eradicate disease, slavery, extreme poverty, dictatorships, ameliorate climate change, save our environment, go to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, right now.
Without such big goals, we cannot proceed in the now. We need to dream big. But we cannot do that without an awareness of history, of the historical moment we are in, of the challenges to humanity in the past. We need history to tell us about mistakes we may be making right now, and to also let us know when we are making progress.
If we cannot put our current situation in a historical context, we will always despair, and whatever ails us personally and societally right now will only seem so much more unsolvable. Without being aware of the demons of the past, we may not recognize them when they are return. Without serious historical grounding, we will not be able to distinguish between the very many problems we are facing. We seem to be living in a time of both complete moral relativism, and an inability to recognize nuance. We either see no problem, or every problem we see gets elevated to the most absurd degree.
The “now” removes the humility we need that can only come from historical grounding. Historical awareness lets us know where we (as people) are doing better or worse than in the past; it also tells us to be careful assuming we have all the answers – for we don’t, as the future will tell us soon enough.
I still remember Keith Olbermann’s sometimes ironic, sometimes dead-serious takedowns of politicians and people in the public eye. His show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBNC (2003-11) started, supposedly, as a parody of the style of Bill O’Reilly’s show “The O’Reilly Factor” (1996-2017), then on Fox News. While Olbermann never achieved the brilliance which Stephen Colbert displayed in his all-out O’Reilly parody on the “Colbert Report” (2005-14, sorely missed!), he perfectly captured the tone not just of his time, but even more so of the time we’re graced (or cursed?) to live in.
Olbermann’s key segment was called “The Worst Person in the World”, in which he provided a regular, and predictable, personality assassination on live television. If you had never heard of “argumentum ad hominem”, an argument directed at the person rather than the issue (“argumentum ad rem”), here it was, celebrated with gusto. It captured the time perfectly. The administration of George W. Bush, as it had to survive its rocky start after a contested election victory, and then the attacks of September 11, 2001, was a frequent and convenient target. Olbermann, the perfect showman, seized the moment and provided regular attacks against the people who committed politics he did not agree with. This was something not seen before in such a drastic and caustic style, putting even O’Reilly (whose show I really did not care for) to shame. As an all-out celebration of vicious partisan commentary, the show was a success – but what may have then been a welcome outlier to some, seems to have become the norm now, not just in journalism but in everyday life. As a previous sports commentator, Olbermann seemed to have forgotten the saying that you may hate the game, but not the player.
(To not throw Olbermann under the bus completely: he also had moments of true profundity, and changed the discourse with his powerful defense of gay marriage by just stating, in its baffling and utterly revealing simplicity, that it is just about love, and the freedom to love who you want. He also calmed down the part of the nation that listened to him with endearing readings from James Thurber’s fables.)
But back to the point about argumentative style.
Everybody you don’t like is now the worst person in the world, everything you don’t like is the worst thing in the world, liking may exist, but disliking something or not caring for or about something is out. It’s either like it or hate it. Hate is the new normal, and declaring who you like or hate is expected in everyday discourse. At the same time, the idea of “liking something” has been turned into a consumerist and corporatist tool that has completely destroyed its original meaning. Can I really “like” a certain brand just as a “like” the comment somebody made?
This culture of constantly declaring your positionality is disturbing, as it removes all sense of productive ambiguity and expects everyone to blast out their opinion into the world every chance they get. Even more disturbingly, you are now supposed to have an opinion about everything, and are tied to this opinion forever. Maybe you liked brand A in the past, now you like brand B till something better comes along or you become nostalgic. Maybe you agreed with position X back then, now favor Y, and in the future tend to return to X or choose Z.
What happened to the idea of changing your mind? If information or societal circumstances change, should we not be allowed to adjust our positions? Is not an opinion something that should be a momentary snapshot of serious judgements made depending on the specific moment in history? Do we not change over time? Are our tastes and preferences supposed to be constant? I cringe every time when people are supposed to only like the style of music that was popular when they were growing up. How limiting. I guess I have been growing up then for several millennia, appreciating music since ancient Egyptian styles. I don’t believe in limiting our horizons.
The attack on other opinions is, of course, always waged in the name of democracy, on all sides. This is nothing new,. of course:
“For, to state the truth in few words, whatever parties, during that period, disturbed the republic under plausible pretexts, some, as if to defend the rights of the people, others, to make the authority of the senate as great as possible, all, though affecting concern for the public good, contended every one for his own interest. In such contests there was neither moderation nor limit; each party made a merciless use of its successes.” (Sallust, Conspiracy of Catilina, ch. 38)
Ironically, this pretense of democracy promotion directly feeds into consumerism and marketability. Only if you voice clear opinions and preferences can market analysts and pollsters make sense out of you. Thus we surrender our capacity for a truly democratic exchange of ideas – which necessitates our opinions to change from time to time – in order to succumb to commercial market pressures and to make a mockery of an honest marketplace of ideas.
Unhappiness with the world is abounding right now. There are always things that need improvement, issues that need to be addressed, change to be made.
But most importantly, within yourself lies the power of the future. Not to just create it, but to be it. You seek justice, be just. You seek peace, be peaceful. You seek equity, be equitable. You seek truth, be truthful. You seek love, be loving. You seek understanding, be understanding.
It is easy. It is hard. But it works.
The other way works too. Be obstinate, and obstinacy is the result. Be without respect, and you shall not have any. Be violent, and you will live in a world of violence.
When Kant said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, he also described that if you model a certain behavior, it will be normalized.
You want a better world? I assume you do. Be it. Show it. Now. We cannot wait for heaven, we need to bring heaven to earth right now. Our lives are too short.
Saying that free speech is an absolute value that needs to be protected is one thing. But how do we make this happen?
This is what is called the problem of the public sphere, be it constituted by the marketplace, or – in Greek – the agora, or – in Latin – the forum, or whatever we may have now. There used to be specific places where speech would be allowed and expected in a democratic context, depending on the society. Whatever constitutes a public sphere may value from society to society, throughout time, across concrete or digital spaces.
Jürgen Habermas described The Transformation of the Public Sphere as a crucial problem for modern (or rather, post-modern) democratic dialog. The salons, forums, debating halls of days past have been replaced by different structures; also, the previously mentioned institutions were not necessarily equitable and accessible for all. But if we believe in the concept of democracy, the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people, we will actually need to have the people, namely all people in a society, have a chance to have a say free from fear of domination, free from powers that might limit their speech, free from technological or monetary or ability-related or cultural or religious or whatever limiting restrictions.
Free speech only happens if – first – an active space exists where free speech is possible for all without fear of repercussions. But – second – in order to be democratic speech, it does not only need to happen, it needs to be heard, and engaged with. Free speech requires a true dialog, free from constraints other than it be genuine, peaceful, and respectful of all.
How do we create and maintain such a space? The parliaments of the world are the high church of such a forum, but there are many more levels of society where dialog needs to happen. For that to happen, we need to enable a culture of engagement, of curiosity, of true democratic interest in each other, whether we think alike or not. We need true respect for each other, especially in our disagreements, so that we always assume (whether justified or not) the best intentions of all participants to conduct dialog, and direct our disagreements always exclusively at the content and quality of the arguments exchanged rather than at the people making them.
Such a space thus needs to be open for all, uncensored (with extremely few exceptions like direct threats of violence, insincere communication (trolling and spamming), unnecessary verbal abuse, and justifiably criminal (but non-political) content. Access should not be given by the whim of a corporate or political entity, but should be an institution clearly under the guidance of the people, i.e. the government, following the mandate to allow truly free speech (in the US context thus upholding the Virginia Bill of Rights).
I do not believe we have such a system today, which may explain some of the dysfunctions perceived all over the world. We cannot exclusively rely on corporate players (however genuinely well-meaning they may be, even with their legitimate profit motive) and must shield ourselves from hyper-partisan politics and political interests – outside or inside – that aim to harm the people and will work to exploit our free speech laws by spreading their noxious and disruptive propaganda.
Free speech, and free counter-speech, is what separates democracy from darkness. It needs to be cherished, curated, supported and vigorously defended, true to Voltaire’s motto as told by his friend Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The dividing line between a just society and barbarism is whether free speech is valued or not. With “free speech” I mean any speech, no matter how offensive. With protected, I mean that the only answer to speech you do not like shall be counter-speech. The truth will win out in an equal, peaceful, respectful exchange of ideas.
Equal, because we are all living beings on this planet, and in a dialogic situation, equality of discourse needs to be maintained by fostering equity. Free societies understand this principle – we will all be different, but in our most impactful moment of speech, our vote, we are all (ideally) the same.
Peaceful, because only an attitude of peacefulness will allow you to listen to somebody else, and also to your true self. Peace is non-aggression, love, true freedom, true strength; only by being at peace can you achieve it. Peace is absolute also: you are only peaceful if you talk in a soft voice, allow for rational arguments be exchanged, do not hurt other beings or things. Be the peace you seek.
Respectful, because you cannot pretend to be all-knowing, and need to realize that someone else may hold a different piece of the truth that you may disagree with, but it may still be true.
Exchange means that speech flows from person to person after each has been given ample time to make the best argument possible for their case. It also means that you should not mistake a person’s utterances for their true and steadfast opinion; it may just be an argument that needs to be discussed, whether heartfelt or not; also, people’s opinions change over time depending on the availability of convincing facts and interpretations.
Only week societies shut out other people for expressing ideas, holding beliefs, or for simply being obstinate to what may be considered acceptable or correct opinion. Strong societies relish the open exchange of ideas, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive, in order to correctly gauge the political and cultural imaginary of the state, and to design policy accordingly, democratically, representatively, cautiously, and sustainably.
Only if everyone has a voice, and knows their voice will be taken seriously, and they will not be harmed for voicing it, will they be in a state of mind to listen to your arguments, if you have some, and give you a change to convince them otherwise. Or, you may be convinced by them. And so it will go, in an eternal circle of discourse; true democracy; true humanity; true utopia. (I think Habermas may be sighing somewhere).
The path of disallowing free speech, even in increments, and even if it starts with just a few things that are somehow seen as “offensive” by the few or the many, will lead further and further down the road, where new categories of offensiveness will be invented, and as a result, all speech will become unfree. The logical end point of the banning of speech has many names: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, in fact all Socialist/Communist states, especially currently the so-called “People’s Republic” of China. In such countries, there cannot be any criticism of injustice, intolerance, inequity, inequality, inhumanity.
Those of us in the West fighting against what we see as injustice should never look to become like that, but the road is very slippery. The fight for freedom and improvement cannot be won by curtailing the freedoms and limiting the paths to improvement of those you disagree with. Freedom of Speech is always the Freedom of the Speech of those we clearly disagree with – otherwise, we would need no such commandment.
But in its wisdom, all of democracy, all of justice, all of peace-building work is contained within the demand that freedom of speech must always be absolute.
If there is one thing that I have seen missing more and more in the world it is the willingness to take into account the feelings, thoughts, and perspectives of another living being. Too much of what is going on around us seems more and more built on the rejection of the perspectives of others.
Maybe technology is to blame. Maybe it is modernity in general. Maybe it is the lack of education in philosophy, theology, history, other cultures, anything that would communicate that your way of thinking and feeling is not the only way of thinking and feeling in the world; and even if you might think someone else is deeply wrong, you need to check that impulse and accept the – very uncomfortable – notion that to expect others to agree with you is rather self-centered.
We can only truly engage with others once we accept, even embrace, their otherness. We are all different. We are also all the same in many ways, but we are mostly the same in not being the same. How I see the world is surely not how you see it, and that is sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, but it is also fantastic. How boring, how one-sided a world we would live in if everyone thought and felt like us.
This understanding, and this embrace of the other, this connection, this empathy, all this is helpful in guiding our own path through a world that is not centered around us. But it is also teaching us another thing that is in short supply nowadays: Humility. Recognize your limitations, and accept that you are not alone in the world. What sounds banal can apparently be difficult. How does what I do affect others? How can I learn from those I completely disagree with? How can I see myself, as an individual, as a part of a community of individuals? How is that enriching us all, but also myself?
This empathy needs to be radical; it is a form of love, of unlimited love. We indeed should work at being radical in our empathy, radical in our compassion, radical in our love – because we can only be accepted ourselves by the world if we accept it, and everyone that lives in it, in return. Otherwise, we will just be in a bubble, a cage of our own choosing; unable to truly be in the world, we would be building a prison for ourselves, seeing disconnection where there needs to be connection, seeing hopelessness instead of hope, seeing difference instead of commonality.
In Wagner’s Parsifal, king Amfortas, who guards the grail, has a wound that does not heal. It has been inflicted by the (evil) sorcerer Klingsor who has used the king’s own spear against him. The grail may help, but there are difficulties.
Is this maybe a good metaphor for the Coronavirus? The virus has appeared first in China, which is something that can happen in any country, but then the Communist government denied, falsified and manipulated information (Klingsor, check) – which is something that should not happen (Again, my critique here aims at the government, not the people).
Then, of course, almost every single country (with the exception of maybe Taiwan, but in all cases, time will tell) found ingenious ways to handle the outbreak in ways it should not have. The wound, though initially inflicted from outside, had now an own component, we have afflicted ourselves by lacking preparation, equipment, procedures, imperfect implementation of protective measures, and finally, lack of discipline, and of course, plain old stupidity and hubris (which all humans can do very well, no matter where they are from).
Now, that we are timidly trying to return back to some sort of life, the virus seems to be an expert at exploiting the slightest weakness we will show in opening back up. Each opening seems to provoke a rise in cases, and even hospitalizations, then we’ll have to lock up again, to open again, etc.
Is this our future till the vaccine? Is this an Amfortas wound that will not heal till the holy grail, the vaccine, will succeed? I hope not, because Parsifal – pace Wagner – is thinly veiled Christian eschatological allegory, but it is thus about hope and faith, not science. We cannot will the vaccine into being. We need to protect ourselves and each other. We will need to somehow start living with this nightmare.
But maybe hope is not a bad strategy: without hope that the wound will eventually heal, we would not get the energy to get over it. Thus let us hope, and try, just try, to focus on the better angels of our nature. We are all, the entire planet, in this together.