On Being A Bully

In the long list of personal moral failures for which I will have to atone, participating in schoolyard and dormitory bullying–even if only briefly, and in attenuated fashion–must rank among the very worst. The only exculpation I can offer in my defense is that I was young, but all bullies in school are; I’m afraid there is little room for forgiveness here. More to the point, I’ve never forgotten the stricken look on the faces of my victims; they will haunt me as few other memories of mine do. I remember both their names; I hope they’ve forgotten mine.

In the fifth grade, my class included a young boy who seemed ‘different’ from us; he dressed a little oddly, spoke in a slightly different voice. He was, in short, a ‘painted bird.’ His minor dissimilarities, his tiny quirks and idiosyncrasies, were enough to produce an avalanche of ridicule directed at him. I watched all of this with a bemused air; I had suffered from some bullying myself earlier, and I knew I didn’t like it. I sympathized with him, but I did not intervene. Neither did I join in. And yet, watching his watching his trials and tribulations did not make me more sympathetic to him, more eager to come to his aid; instead, it seemed to produce a weakening of my moral fiber. One day, in the schoolyard, as we milled around in the break, the hazing grew worse; my classmates seemed to be taking turns in harassing the kid. And then, finally, I snapped; caught up in the madness, I laughed at him, pushed him around, I joined the gang for a little bit of fun. Fortunately, he ran away, off to a distant corner, seeking relief till the bell announcing the end of the break rang. His expression that day jolted me out of my brief exultation; I knew what I had seen, and I knew it was not a feeling I would ever want to be subjected to. I never harassed him again; at year’s end, I changed school and never saw him again either.

In the ninth grade, shortly after I had begun what would turn out to be a two-year stay at a boarding school, I found another ‘victim’; this time, a youngster who had become the target of choice for those in my dorm. He was a ‘freak,’ a ‘weirdo,’ his pinkie finger, thanks to an old injury, standing upright and provoking peals of hilarity; no one spoke to him, and the few interactions he had with others seemed to be dominated by mockery and ridicule. Again, less honorably, trying to fit in, trying to make new friends, trying to show I belonged here, I joined in; it was how I thought I would show I could hang with the rest. My joining the gang of his tormentors only produced a hurt look or two from this youngster; he had, after all, stayed out of the fray when I had been hazed on my arrival at the boarding school. I was a bully and an ingrate, a thought which soon brought an end to any participation in bullying on my part. I retreated, chastened, alarmed by my failure of kindness.

These transgressions were perhaps minor, but they still serve to induce shame; I was often bullied and assaulted in school; the thought that I could ever have done anything to create a similar atmosphere of terror for another youngster filled me with despondence then, and it still does. Now, as a parent, I await the higher grades for my daughter with some trepidation; she will face challenges considerably more onerous than mine. I can only hope she does not encounter too many folks like mine who lost their bearings along the way.

Fascism And The Irrelevance Of ‘Truth’

Yesterday, a former student wrote to me, asking for clarification on something he had read in an online discussion group:

We [Fascists] don’t think ideology is a problem that is resolved in such a way that truth is seated on a throne. But, in that case, does fighting for an ideology mean fighting for mere appearances? No doubt, unless one considers it according to its unique and efficacious psychological-historical value. The truth of an ideology lies in its capacity to set in motion our capacity for ideals and action. Its truth is absolute insofar as, living within us, it suffices to exhaust those capacities. [From: Gregory J. Kasza, “Fascism from Above? Japan’s Kakushin Right in  Comparative Perspective,” in Stein Ugelvik Larsen, ed., Fascism Outside Europe (Boulder, Colorado: Social Science Monographs, 2001)]

My student asked:

What is being implied about fascism and ideology? What is being said from “fighting for an ideology means fighting for mere appearances?” Is the author implying that to the fascist, truth cannot be unquestioned and as a result, can potentially change?

I have not been able to procure a full copy of the paper so my remarks are limited to the excerpt above. In it, the speaker/writer claims that political and theoretical struggle for the fascists is not necessarily devoted to the pursuit of truth; a clash of competing ideologies is not a clash of competing truth claims. In one sense, a battle over ideologies, over competing systems of thought, is a kind of superficial battle for ‘mere appearances’–precisely because one ideology is not clashing with another to establish itself on the grounds that it is the ‘true’ or ‘correct’ one; but this clash becomes more than just a matter of appearance when we realize that the truth value of an ideology is independent of what the author terms its ‘psychological-historical value’; that the ‘truth of an ideology’ is found in its capacity to make us act. That is what of value to the fascist, the fact that a system of thought–theory–induces praxis, that it shortens the gap between the two, that it encourages those powers within us that make us act.

For the fascist then, truth is not the most important quality of a theory; a theory could be false in the conventional sense of ‘accurately corresponding to the actual state of affairs’ and yet still be a ‘good’ theory precisely because at a particular moment in historical time, marked by very particular material, economic, and political circumstances, it is able to get one class of political and social actor ‘moving’; it is able to make real this actor’s agency; it has found, magically, the key that unlocks access to a potential actor’s world-changing capacities. Theories of politics, according to the speaker/writer above, are theories of action; their value is judged accordingly. Do they make us act? To what ends? Are they effective? If the theory is effective in making us act to bring about the desired ends, it is a ‘true’ or better still, a ‘good’ or ‘useful’ theory. (This moving past the truth of a theoretical claim to its utility is a Nietzschean maneuver, visible in–among other places–‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘ and in many passages in Beyond Good and Evil.

Hannah Arendt On Our Creations’ Independent Lives

In ‘Remarks to the American Society of Christian Ethics’ (Library of Congress MSS Box 70, p. 011828)¹,   Hannah Arendt notes,

Each time you write something and send it out into the world and it becomes public, obviously everybody is free to do with it what he pleases, and this is as it should be. I do not have any quarrel with this. You should not try to hold your hand now on whatever may happen to what you have been thinking for yourself. You should rather try to learn from what other people do with it.

In a post responding to David Simon‘s complaints about viewer’s ‘misinterpretations’ of his The Wire, I had written:

[T]here is something rather quaint and old-fashioned in the suggestion that viewers are getting it wrong, that they misconceived the show, that there is, so to speak, some sort of gap between their understanding and take on the show and the meaning that Simon intended, and that this is a crucial lacunae….once the show was made and released, any kind of control [Simon] might have exerted over its meaning was gone. The show doesn’t exist in some autonomous region of meaning that Simon controls access to; it is in a place where its meaning is constructed actively by its spectators and in many ways by the larger world that it is embedded in.

Arendt’s remarks obviously apply to the business of interpreting artistic works–just like they do to other creations of the human mind like philosophical theories of politics and morality. Once ‘made,’ once theorized, and sent ‘out there,’ they have a life of their own, now subject to the hermeneutical sensibilities and strategies of those who come into contact with them; these encounters are mediated by the interests and inclinations and prejudices of the work’s interpreters (as Gadamer would have noted), by the history of the world that has intervened in the period between the creation of the work and its reception by others. To attempt to reclaim the work, to insist on the primacy of the creator’s vision at the cost of others, to regulate how the work may be thought of and more ambitiously, modified to produce derivative works–these are acts of hubris, of vainglory. The openness of such works to a series of rebirths and reinvigorations prepares it for its encounter with greatness; its ability to entertain multiple ‘readings,’ to provide room for fertile exploration with every new generation, these mark a work out as a ‘classic’ one; indeed, such fecundity in the face of repeated exegesis is perhaps the most enduring condition of the ‘classic.’

Arendt’s remarks are cited by Margaret Conovan in her ‘Introduction’ in Arendt’s The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. xx) as he claims that this difficult but rich work will continue to endure precisely because it affords its readers so much opportunity for their own idiosyncratic encounters with the text and its theses. My discussions with my students this semester–as we read Arendt’s book together–will, I think, bolster Conovan’s assertions.

Acknowledging Reported Emotions Before ‘Explaining’ Them

Suppose you say, “I’m <angry, sad, disappointed, anxious, irate,….> because of X <my neighbor’s behavior, my father’s letter, my mother’s language to me last night, my husband’s antics….>.” As an example, “I”m sad because  my brother ignored my birthday this year.” Now, suppose your respondent immediately launches into an ‘explanation’ of, or ‘apologia’ for, X: your brother didn’t really ignore your birthday, it’s just that he was traveling and didn’t have WiFi, and so wasn’t able to call you on the day. Or something like that. This response by your interlocutor attempts to fit the actions or events that have caused you some measure of emotional pain into some causal arrangement that makes your acquaintances’ behavior more explicable; it makes the case that the action was not personally directed, that it was not malevolent, and so on. Your interlocutors are attempting to defuse and remove the sting of the hurt; they are attempting a therapeutic maneuver, devising a narrative that will allow you–as if in the clinic–to tell a story that ‘works better’ for you.

This, more often than not, turns out to be a mistake; such ‘explanations’ and attempts to ‘mitigate’ the hurt, the anger, the pain, simply do not work; you remain as angry, perplexed, or irate as before; indeed, these emotions might have been exacerbated, and you might have an entirely new conflict, one with your interlocutor, on your hands. The problem, of course, is that the original statement has been misinterpreted;  it is a confusion to think these kinds of statements are attempts to assign causal blame; rather, they are reports of feelings.  When the person we are talking to starts to address the causal relationship they think they have detected, they have moved on past the original emotions that actually prompted the report. Contextualizing the reported emotion so that it fits into a wider nexus of actions and reactions and emotions is a worthwhile task; it may indeed make the sufferer feel they are not being persecuted, that they are not alone, and so on. But this sort of amelioration is best carried out after an acknowledgment of the feelings at play. These sorts of reports are calls for help; they report discomfort; they seek relief. But like any good healer, we must first make note of the symptom reported and only then attempt a diagnosis. To begin by offering apologia is a surefire method of negating and dismissing the initial report, which seeks, first and foremost, a hearing.

This kind of interaction is exceedingly common; I have participated in many myself, both as offender and victim. It is often reported as the kind of conversational play between men and women that sets the two genders apart distinctively i.e., men jump to ‘solving the problem presented’ while women ‘process the emotions reported’ (though I think gender lines cannot be so clearly drawn here; there are exceptions aplenty on both sides.) It derails more conversations than might be imagined; and it only needs the simplest of conversational maneuvers, an acknowledgment that we have been listening, to ameliorate it.

Childhood Crushes – I: Nafisa Ali In ‘Junoon’

I was eleven years old when I saw Nafisa Ali, then all of eighteen years old, play the part of Ruth Labadoor in Shyam Benegal‘s 1978 art-house classic Junoon–Ruth is a young Englishwoman, living on an English military cantonment in colonial India with her family. As the Indian Mutiny of 1857 breaks out, Ruth’s family is attacked in the church by rebels; her mother, grandmother, and her find shelter, first with a loyalist to the English, and then later, with a Pathan obsessed with Ruth, who wants  to marry her and make her his wife. He does not succeed; Ruth’s fate is cleverly tied to the fate of the Mutiny by her mother; when the Mutiny fails, so do Javed Khan’s ‘claims’ on Ruth. But Ruth has–despite her early fear of the ‘mad Pathan’–fallen in love with the man who has pursued her and confessed to his obsessions; in the movie’s final scene at a church where Ruth and her mother are hiding, and where Javed has come to find them, as Javed prepares to ride off into battle to face the rampaging and revengeful English troops, Ruth rushes out to see Javed despite her mother’s disapproval, and blurts out a single word, “Javed!” Their eyes meet; their hearts have too. Then fade to black, as the movie’s epigraph informs us that Javed died in battle while Ruth died fifty-five years later in London. Unwed.

Nafisa Ali in Junoon:

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I walked out of the theater that night, heartsick and crushed. I had fallen in love with Nafisa Ali. Madly, heartbreakingly so. It was the crush to end all crushes. Over the next few months, I wondered if even the fictional Javed Khan’s obsession could rival mine. Nafisa was drop-dead gorgeous; she was stunningly beautiful, a sportswoman, India’s national swimming champion, a long-legged beauty who had found her way into an art-house movie. She was only seven years older than me, a fact that somehow made her more ‘real’; she could have been that girl in the twelfth grade that I had a crush on–and I had had a few desperate ones already.

Junoons final scene completed the legend of Ruth Labadoor; I had come to believe that such a girl had actually existed, that she had actually been love-lorn, and had indeed, died alone, of a broken heart, pining over a love that could not dare speak its name. That magical blending of reality and artifice, whereby I had come to believe a fictional character had walked the earth was complete, made so by my adolescent pining for a beautiful young woman; on screen, she was vulnerable, heartachingly so, and I longed to comfort her, to reach out and hold her hand, and tell her it was going to be OK. And ask her out for a movie, of course.

I went looking for Nafisa; I found her in the odd magazine or two, but nowhere else. She made one movie, and then little else; she faded from public life, and then, stunningly she was married, to an older man, an Army officer. All was ashes. My crush faded, like all crushes do. But I never forgot the phenomenology of that heartache she induced in me.

PS: Nafisa went on to act in a few movies, but never made a career in Bollywood; she is now a social activist in India. She is still stunningly beautiful:


Lionel Trilling As Philosopher Of Culture

In Freud and The Crisis of our Culture, Lionel Trilling writes:

The idea of culture, in the modern sense of the word, is a relatively new idea. It represents a way of thinking about our life in society which developed concomitantly with certain ways of conceiving the self. Indeed, our modern idea of culture may be thought of as a new sort of self-hood bestowed upon the whole of society….Society in this new selfhood, is thought of as having a certain organic unity, an autonomous character and personality which it expresses in everything it does; it is conceived to have a style, which is manifest not only in its unconscious, intentional activities, in its architecture, its philosophy, and so on, but also in its unconscious activities, in its unexpressed assumptions–the unconscious of society may be said to have been imagined before the unconscious of the individual….Generally speaking, the word “culture” is used in an honorific sense. When we look at a people in the degree of abstraction which the idea of culture implies, we cannot but be touched and impressed by what we see, we cannot help being awed by something mysterious at work, some creative power which seems to transcend any particular act or habit or quality that may not be observed. To make a coherent life, to confront the terrors of the inner and outer world, to establish the ritual and art, the pieties and duties which make possible the life of the group and the individual–these are culture and to contemplate these efforts of culture is inevitably moving.

Trilling here offers two understandings of ‘culture’: first, in a manner similar to Nietzsche’s, he suggests it is a kind of society-wide style, a characteristic and distinctive and particular way of being which permeates its visible and invisible, tangible and intangible components; we should expect this to be only comprehensible in a synoptic fashion, one not analyzable necessarily into its constituent components. Second, Trilling suggests ‘culture’ is even more abstract, a kind of plurality of thing and feeling and sensibility that organizes the individual and society alike into a coherent whole. (This union can, of course, be the subject of vigorous critique as well c.f. Freud in Civilization and its Discontents.) This plural understanding of Trilling’s is a notable one: many activities that we would consider acts of self-knowledge and construction are found here, thus suggesting culture is a personal matter too, that the selves of many contribute to the societal selfhood spoken of earlier. Here in culture too, we find the most primeval strivings to master the fears and uncertainties of our minds and the world; religion and poetry and philosophy are rightly described as cultural strivings. Ultimately, culture is affective; we do not remain unmoved by it, it exerts an emotional hold on us, thus binding ever more tightly that indissoluble bond of rationality and feeling that makes us all into unique ‘products’ of our ‘home’ cultures. When culture is ‘done’ with us, it provides us with habit and manner and a persona; it grants us identity.