Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

Reading Charlie Brown Comics, Contd.

My post yesterday on my relationship with Charlie Brown comics sparked some interesting contestations by Chase Madar and David Auerbach–in the course of a discussion on Facebook. With their permission, I reproduce some of their comments below and follow-up with some brief annotations.

First Madar says:

I’ve had the exact opposite reaction since reading Peanuts from a young age, and still find Schultz’s stuff funny and v consoling in its candid recognition of the cruelties of life and its embrace of a loser as a central, stoic-heroic figure, something all-too-rare in this ultra-Calvinist society that idolizes success, winning and happiness. (Plainly there was a huge appetite for Schultz’s glorification of the noble loser as it was such an enormous hit.)

My initial response–which Madar found ‘terrifying’–was:

Perhaps I was too morose as a child to find consolation in it, too convinced by my own experiences that there was nothing noble about the loser. If I may say so, my darker view of the success of the comic strip is that many of its readers did not identify with Charlie Brown but with his tormentors instead.

And David Auerbach wrote, as he noted his daughter’s liking for Peanuts:

I think there is something to the unfiltered, unironic treatment of childhood angst that really does resonate. She identifies with Linus, as I did: the intellectual spectator who still has a handful of gaping vulnerabilities (emotional dependency on the security blanket, unwarranted cosmic faith in the order provided by the Great Pumpkin).

I think part of what made Charlie Brown bearable was my sense, even then, that the violence done to him by others wasn’t as much the cause of his problems as the mental violence he did to himself. Even his treatment by Lucy seemed to be somewhat unforced: Lucy wasn’t some mastermind architecting his doom, she was just a petty and human bully. On some level Charlie Brown just couldn’t let go of the idea that Lucy could be other than she was. The infamous and brilliant Mr. Sack sequence provided me with some vindication for this view: all it took was the psychological crutch of a paper bag to completely change Charlie Brown’s entire worldview and briefly turn him into an inspirational winner. It’s that sort of tragic character that made Peanuts more cathartic than cruel for me. I still love it.

I found Schulz’s immense sympathy for these characters (even Lucy!) to be tremendously comforting. It was a world where pain happened, where people could be trapped by themselves and by others, but it wasn’t an *evil* world (good things *do* happen, irregularly)…just an unfortunate one. And I think it boosted my determination to break some of my (many) bad cognitive habits and thought-loops…with partial success.

Madar then followed up with:

Snoopy of course is the anti-Charlie Brown, a dynamo of unfrustrated and virtually unrestricted action and becoming: Joe Cool, Sopwith Camel flying ace, man of letters, womanizer (lots of off-panel girlfriends mentioned, even if he does have his heartbreaks, cf the dog with soft paws he fleetingly connected with during a riot at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm), multi-sport athlete. He’s pampered, spoiled, demanding, egocentric, not particularly loyal, almost always nonchalant.

At which point I made note again of my affection for Snoopy, and wrote:

Unsurprisingly, as I noted, Snoopy was my favorite character/aspect in/of Peanuts. I think our relationship to fantasy is underwriting our responses to Peanuts.

Madar and Auerbach’s alternative readings of, and takeaways from, Peanuts reveal a great deal. We bring expectations and frameworks of expectation and readerly backgrounds to our encounters with books; mine generated my interpretation of Charlie Brown. As a child, I read for escape, and occasionally, for enlightenment; I read for diversion. I read Greek and Nordic and Indian mythology in text and animated form; I read war stories; I read tales of adventure and exploration and mystery. These took me away, they transported me from the here and now. I do not doubt that Madar and Auerbach also read for escapist reasons; but clearly that orientation toward reading did not prevent them from generating their own idiosyncratic perspectives on Peanuts; these backgrounds of ours are not totally determinative of our reading experiences; we find what we might be looking for, or are attuned to look for.

Snoopy worked for me; he flew, he soared, he was oblivious to the humans around him, as I often wished I could be to those around me. He could make things happen just by dreaming about them. (As Auerbach noted, “He’s just the most skilled at using fantasy to escape the harsh patterns around him. Of course this would make him clinically insane by real-world standards.”) Snoopy’s behavior seemed ‘childish’ in some normative sense–where the norms are drawn from our imagining what children are like in our fantasies. The descriptive was very different; there, children are very often monsters. To others, and to themselves.

So I wanted nothing to do with children’s encounters in my reading; I had had enough of them every day in my waking hours. (Had Charlie Brown been presented to me in text or non-cartoon form, I would not have read more than a few pages.) They were zones of bullying, of mockery, of ridicule, of schoolyard rumbles and squabbles; sure, there was playtime and escape from parental discipline as well, but all too soon, I found pecking orders and force here too. When I read what would now be called ‘young adult’ literature, I only enjoyed them when reading tales of derring-do; their delving into interpersonal interactions and the petty jealousies and insecurities that sometimes animated their characters left me cold. I had enough of that around me. When I read Charlie Brown and saw the mockery and teasing of the other children, it merely seemed to confirm to me that my worldview was correct;  even then, as I read the comics, I suspected the reason this mockery had found its way into comic books–a source of amusement supposedly–was that people found it funny, a fact I found ample confirmation in the glee children found in others’ misfortunes all the time. Painted birds weren’t brave losers; they were outcasts, shunned, and mocked. Perhaps this was an excessively gloomy view of the world, perhaps I was committing the ‘mental violence’ on myself that Auerbach saw Charlie Brown performing. Perhaps that’s what made Charlie Brown so frightening for me; I saw myself in him.

On Being Traumatized By Charlie Brown Comics

I read many, many Charlie Brown comic books as a child; reading them was a sustained exercise in masochism. I hated them, each and every single page, but I kept on reading, from cover to cover. I would finish one, convinced of the utter, vicious, gratuitous cruelty of the world and its residents, and then, I would go get another one. Sometimes I would take one out on loan from a local library; sometimes I would borrow one from a friend. (Our family’s budget did not permit too many book purchases, but we were enthusiastic patrons of libraries, public and private.) I suspect this was because I could not shake off the dominant notion that comic books were supposed to be entertaining fun, even as my reading experience was providing numerous indicators that these comic books and their characters were anything but. That many of the cartoon strips I read and watched–like the Tom and Jerry series–were often such exercises in violent cruelty was only slowly becoming apparent to me.

The problem, of course, was that the Charlie Brown comics were not remotely escapist; they provided no bulwark of comfort against the outside world. They merely served to provide reminders of the schoolyard and its denizens, of which and whom I had had enough of during my awkwardly spent days. Witnessing the trials and travails of Charlie Brown provided no comfort, no solidarity; instead, I was merely reminded that indeed, the world was just as cruel as I imagined it to be, that even comic books had to bow down, tone down their silly frivolousness, and acknowledge this incontrovertible fact about it. So relentlessly downbeat were the Charlie Brown comics, so relentlessly downcast its central character, that I could not even bring myself to experience any solidarity or empathy with him.  I had had the wind knocked out of me; I was Charlie Brown, lying flat on his back, staring up at the sky, wondering how he could have let himself fall for Lucy’s football trick all over again.

As the reader might have surmised, I have returned to this excavation of my childhood experiences because my daughter has just encountered Peanuts for the first time. Truth be told, I was not sold on the idea of her watching the DVD of A Boy Named Charlie Brown and only agreed with some reluctance to let her do so. Clearly, childhood scars run deep. My only reassurance was that this being a Hollywood production, it would not dare entertain a truly unhappy ending. This intuition was confirmed:

The film was partly based on a series of Peanuts comic strips originally published in newspapers in 1966. That story had a much different ending: Charlie Brown was eliminated in his class spelling bee right away for misspelling the word maze (“M–A–Y–S” while thinking of baseball legend Willie Mays), thus confirming Violet’s prediction that he would make a fool of himself. Charlie Brown then screams at his teacher in frustration, causing him to be sent to the principal’s office.

I am writing this post as my daughter watches the DVD; thus far, she has expressed some dismay at the meanness of Charlie’s friends but also commented on how much she likes Snoopy; I look forward to a full debrief when the movie is over.


George Steiner On The ‘Unvoiced Soliloquy’ And Collaborative Creativity

In Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 84-85), in making note of the ‘anxiety of influence,’ and the valorization of solitary creativity, George Steiner writes:

I want to point to the elected presences which makers construe within themselves or within their works, to the “fellow-travellers,” teachers, critics, dialectical partners, to those other voices within their own which can give to even the most complexly solitary and innovative of creative acts a shared, collective fabric. Elsewhere,¹ I have tried to draw attention to what remains a terra incognita in linguistics, in poetics, in epistemology….It is that of inward speech, of the discourse we conduct incessantly with ourselves. This unvoiced soliloquy in fact contains the bulk of speech-acts; it far exceeds in volume language used for outward communication. It also, I suspect, is under formative or inhibiting pressures of historical-social circumstance, of the state of public vocabularies and grammars, though it may add to them elements of a private argot. It could well be that, in Western cultures until recently, soliloquy has been the unheard eloquence, vituperation, poetry of countless women. Our true familiars are the “selves” or fantom-auditors and respondents to whom we address the lexical-grammatical-semantic currents of silent speech. Our consciousness, even when our inward audition and notice are fitful, is a monologue of the many whose creative powers, whose capacity to generate terror or solace, illusion or inhibition, are as yet scarcely analysed.

In a post here on ‘Imagined Interlocutors‘ I had made note of the incessant conversations I have with myself–with real and imagined figures; inner conversation allows for argumentation with those absent, temporarily or permanently. I could not do without these conversations. Indeed, I often frame material I will write later, here or elsewhere, by means of a ‘conversation in the head’–mostly while walking. Talking to myself is thus an integral part of my ‘thinking’ and writing; even here, at this most elementary level, creativity and creation are not solitary endeavors but active collaborations–perhaps unsurprising for a being whose consciousness is not a unitary entity. Consider that a creative work is formed over time; its creator, an always-in-flux entity changes too. It is a commonplace for authors and poets and artists to find out that a piece long in the making is simply not viable anymore; they have changed, their work must in response. The harshest critics of our works always lurk within us. Fail muster with them, and you cannot proceed.

Steiner’s suggestion that soliloquy is often the voice of the otherwise silenced is provocative. Sometimes talking to oneself is the only recourse when conversation with a larger world is denied. The woman confined to the private sphere, the prisoner in solitary confinement, the survivor in the wilderness; in all of these circumstances, we find that we cannot stop talking–whether directed inwards, or at walls, or at animals and trees and ocean waves. It’s the best way we know of keeping sane, even if at the risk of being judged insane by others.

Note#1: Steiner cites his On Difficulty here.

Goethe On The ‘Inexhaustible’ Poet

In Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm credits Goethe as having “developed the idea of man’s productivity into a central point of his philosophical thinking….all decaying cultures are characterized by the tendency for pure subjectivity, while all progressive periods try to grasp the world as it is, by one’s own subjectivity, but not as separate from it.” Fromm then cites Goethe directly on the ‘poet’:

As long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new, while his purely subjective nature has exhausted itself and ceases to have anything to say….Man knows himself only inasmuch as he knows the world; he knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world. Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ within ourselves.

The ‘purely subjective nature’ of man comes about because of a radical dissociation of man’s place in the world into a subject-object model and relationship; there is the world as object, and here is man, as subject. Man remains divorced, cast asunder; he can only view, and interact with, the world passively. It is finite, bounded, separate. When man sees the world as one of his own making, acting back on him to make him anew, he sees the world as the poet does, as one awaiting completion, because he himself is not complete; this world will, in its ongoing becoming, change him too. That ongoing, and yes, dialectical, relationship means that knowledge ceases to have limits; new depths become visible because there is no bottom here, other than that imposed by a static vision of an inert world awaiting discovery. Small wonder that Blake could see “a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower” and “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” The world becomes an invented one; poets–and all those who encapsulate a ‘poetic vision’ in their being in this world–are inventors.

Goethe will not be studied in philosophy reading lists as a philosopher; we will insist on pigeonholing him as ‘only a poet’ or ‘artist’ or ‘dramatist.’ But he shows us here, quite clearly, that he is a philosopher; moreover, he tells us that philosophers are poets too–when they make us see this world anew. Perhaps by offering us an ‘insight,’ perhaps by using a ‘new language’ or ‘vocabulary.’ Science too, can do the same: its equations and wondrous panoply of unobservable objects show us one way in which it may conceive of the world in an entirely new scheme.

When we step back and observe the scene before us, we realize the triviality of the distinctions and boundaries we seek to impose on our knowledge–which is but another name for all those ways in which we interact with the world and continue to conceive it for ourselves–and see instead, its unity.

Freud As Writing Stylist And Pedagogy Instructor

In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture¹(Oxford University Press, New York, 1978), Peter Gay writes:

All of Freud’s biographers devote an obligatory page to the efficiency and beauty of his prose–not without reason. Freud’s stylistic achievement is all the more remarkable considering the spectrum of his publications…Freud’s case published case histories–a genre that normally repels grace or wit–are classics in the literature of detection. Freud was a born writer who never neglected the essentials of his craft….his earliest surviving letters demonstrate that his energy, wit, and lucidity were not painfully acquired but were part of his character….He disciplined his ear by reading French and English all his life…He read continuously and intensely…Freud could derive instruction even from the laborious syntax and rebarbative vocabulary of academic writers; he learned what to avoid. But his real teachers were stylists who were enemies of obscurity and strangers to jargon….he highly valued, and rapidly absorbed, the qualities that distinguished other favorite authors: vigor, precision, clarity. [pp. 50-51]

Gay, of course, read Freud in the original German, so he knows better than I of what he speaks, but even I, who have only ever read Freud in translation,² via the usual Standard Edition route, have not been left unaffected by Freud’s limpid writing style. The Good Doctor is a pleasure to read; I unhesitatingly assigned large tracts of primary texts to students in my Freud and Psychoanalysis class a few years ago, telling them that while the material was ‘dense,’ it was clear and would reward close attention. The case histories–of, for instance, Dora, or the Rat Man–I recommended as short stories of a kind; they are literary in every way, and draw us all too quickly into their artfully constructed worlds. His later ‘cultural-literary-anthropological’ speculative essays are masterworks of erudition expressed with grace and style; they can be profitably read by any intelligent person.

My mention of teaching Freud brings me to Freud’s special qualities of exposition. (His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis is a widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and still provides the best entry point to psychoanalytic theory.) Gay makes note of his talents in this domain and thus provides direction for not just writers but teachers in the classroom too:

He kept [‘the mode of discussion’] intact by employing devices that have been, the envy of professional writers: informality, surprise, variations in pace, adroit admissions of incomplete knowledge, patient handling of knowledge, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors. [p.55]

Indeed. When I look back at any successful classroom teaching–or academic conference presentation–these devices have always played a crucial role. They forestall boredom and stultification; they invite interactive inquiry; they provoke creative responses. We should all be so lucky to have our writing and reading and conversation informed and infected by ‘surprise,’ ‘variations in pace,’ and an ‘inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors.’ The world springs into sharper focus and becomes anew; what more could we want from our learning and teaching?

Lastly, Gay is a masterful writer himself.

Note #1: For some bizarre reason, the title of Gay’s book is missing an Oxford comma.

Note: #2: Here are a series of posts on the wonders of translations.


Shlomo Breznitz On ‘The Mystery Of Courage’

In First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy Rosetta Loy cites Shlomo Breznitz‘s Memory Fields:

The fascination of hiding doesn’t amount to much compared to the mystery of courage, especially courage on behalf of others. It is when fear tells you to run and your mind tells you to stay, when your body tells you to save yourself and your soul to save others, that courage goes to battle with fear, its eternal companion.

Breznitz wrote these words in response to the memory of a Catholic mother superior in Bratislava who, after hiding him in her orphanage’s infirmary, not only denied his presence to the armed German soldiers who came looking for him, but also did not allow them to enter her abode, all the while yelling at them to cease and desist, despite being confronted by several large, aggressive, snarling bloodhounds. The mind boggles.

There are a couple of familiar notes struck here, both worth revisiting.

First, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act as required in the presence of fear. As I wrote once elsewhere:

True courage or bravery is the ability to overcome…entirely rational fear and to overcome it in order to achieve the objective at hand. A little reading of memoirs penned by mountaineers, military heroes, and adventurers of all stripes might convince those who imagine that a brave person is some sort of automaton who blithely and idiotically subjects himself to danger. We respect these men and women because while they feel the fear that all of us do, they are able to get over and on with it.

Second, there is the intoxicating power of righteous anger, which can overcome fear, perhaps even induce a kind of hypnotic trance, and allow actions to be taken that would otherwise be inconceivable. Once, as a pre-teen, I got into a shouting match with a couple of grown men who had refused to let my mother use her reserved sleeper berth in a train; they were bigger than me and could easily have knocked me out cold with a couple of punches, but I was infuriated beyond measure, and let myself be overcome by the anger that overcame me. Much to my surprise, the two men backed down from their earlier confrontational stance; perhaps I had shamed them with my display of outrage, something that reached out and touched an inner sensibility that would have otherwise lain dormant.

Most interestingly, Breznitz alludes to the ‘mystery of courage.’ Sometimes courage beckons seductively, inviting us to enter its precincts, to see what may lie in store for us; perhaps we have imagined such a journey lay beyond our capacities and have declined all such entreaties in the past; but then, on some crucial occasion, our curiosity is overcome. We cannot hold off the urge any more, we cannot put off any longer the desire to see what would happen if we were to don the mantle of the brave and sally forth. We are willing to entertain the uncertainty of the outcome, to put behind us the certainty of timidity and reticence–especially if we know we are to act ‘on behalf of others,’ to gain moral laurels as a possible reward. And so we act. Courageously.