Amor Mundi: Daring to Judge
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Daring to Judge
In “Complicity of Silence,” Stanley Cohen vividly recalls a conversation he had with Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and Munitions, Albert Speer. Thinking about questions of moral responsibility, Cohen calls upon judgment in an Arendtian spirit to protest the banality of evil shaping politics today. He writes: “Historic responsibility may be the only means to likewise inflict a judgement on those who remain mute while listening to repetitive table talk monologues in the oval office. But we should not excuse them.”
In “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” Hannah Arendt discusses the relationship between thinking, judging, and acting. When the customary standards and social mores of society wither away, when the moral categories of judgment no longer bear on political reality, we must turn inward toward our personal capacity for thinking and judgment. Only through rational thinking and judgment can we maintain our footing on slippery moral ground. Toward the end of her essay, Arendt asks:
“In what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, though they could not and did not rise in rebellion? And second, if we agree that those who did serve on whatever level and in whatever capacity were not simply monsters, what was it that made them behave as they did? On what moral, as distinguished from legal, grounds did they justify their conduct after the defeat of the regime and the breakdown of the “new order” with its new set of values?”
Arendt goes onto say:
“Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command “Thou shalt not kill,” but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer-themselves.”
Those who did not participate were the only ones who dared to judge for themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they had a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still applicable, but because they were firmly planted in their minds. They refused to murder or be complicit in murder not because they held a great moral belief in thou shalt not kill, but because they were unwilling to live with a murderer. Those who did not participated wanted to think, chose to think. Those who did not participate did not.
Arendt ends her essay on a prescient note. During times of moral collapse, such as the one we are witnessing today, we need doubters, skeptics, and those who understand that we have to live together with ourselves:
“In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.”
This is a question at the heart of Cohen’s inquiry: Speer was unable to ask questions, he assumed a stance of deliberate blindness, and seemed unwilling to claim moral responsibility for the horror inflicted by his actions:
“He did not ask why; neither did he ever question Himmler or Hitler on that matter. Nevertheless, his ‘deliberate blindness,’ his closing of his eyes, made him responsible merely by being “an important member of the leadership.”
On the same page that he offered his moral failure, he acknowledged hearing Hitler talk about subjugating France and other nations, but it was only at the Trial, or in prison, did he seem to learn of the extent of the death and destruction wrought by Germany. None of this made sense to me. His close collaboration with the Fuehrer, with Himmler, with Goebbels and the others, had to have enlightened him in all the gory detail as to what was happening. With that in mind I decide to raise with him only certain events he clearly acknowledged in his memoir.“
Arendt and Cohen forcefully remind us the blindness and silence are not options. In dark times, one must choose to think and judge rationally.
Literature and the Rubble of Truth
Salman Rushdie is interested in the role of literature in creating the factual basis of our common world. If Arendt and Stanley Cohen explore the political consequences of the moral collapse of respectable society, Rushdie asks how literature can contribute to rebuilding a common factual world.
Rushdie distinguishes facts from interpretations. He writes that “basic facts” are those “unarguable events, such as that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, or that the American Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776.” But there is also “the creation of a historical fact” that is “the result of a particular meaning being ascribed to an event.” Whether the American Revolution was the birth of modern democracy or modern republicanism is a question of interpretation that, when it is historically accepted, can emerge as a historical fact. To name the United States a democracy is a fact in the sense that it is part of the common story the country tells about it itself; it is part of our heritage and our common world. But it is hardly a simple fact.
In her essay “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt explores a similar distinction between basic facts—the “brutally elementary data” like the fact that Germany invaded Belgium and not the other way around—and the interpretation of facts. While Germany did invade Belgium, it is also true that western European appeasement helped cause WWII. This latter truth is a fact grounded in a shared interpretation, one that can become ingrained and part of the common world; but it is also an interpretation that can be challenged and gradually replaced. One central confusion in our current debates about fake news and the denial of facts stems from an unwillingness to clearly distinguish basic facts from historical facts. For Arendt, that such historical facts exists shows that “Facts and opinions, though they must be kept apart, are not antagonistic to each other; they belong to the same realm.” We must be cognizant of the difference between basic facts and historical facts, Arendt writes, because the very fragility of our factual world is the reason we must deny the right to rewrite the basic factual matter.
Rushdie recognizes that we are living today through a long period of the breakdown of long-lasting interpretive and historical factual narratives—the destruction of a commonly held shared factual reality. He explores the breakdown of our interpretive world through the history of modern literature. For much of the 19th century, he writes, “there was a fairly widespread consensus about the character of reality.” But this interpretive factual agreement about reality was always one-sided.
“The great novelists of that time—Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and so on—could assume that they and their readers, broadly speaking, agreed on the nature of the real, and the grand age of the realist novel was built on that foundation. But that consensus was built on a number of exclusions. It was middle-class and white. The points of view of, for example, colonized peoples, or racial minorities—points of view from which the world looked very different to the bourgeois reality portrayed in, say, “The Age of Innocence,” or “Middlemarch,” or “Madame Bovary”—were largely erased from the narrative.”
As new voices and new experiences entered political and literary life, “the nineteenth-century consensus was revealed as fragile; its view of reality began to look, one might say, fake.” It is a good thing, Rushdie argues, that the consensus narrative in the West began to shatter in the 20th century. “I believe that the influence on public discourse of more, and more varied, voices has been a good thing, enriching our literatures and making more complex our understanding of the world.”
Good or bad, Rushdie argues that the breakdown of the old narrative is a brute fact; it is part of our factual reality today. Which raises the question, how can we at once make room for the breakdown of the traditional world that was seen for centuries as historical fact and also assert the importance of preserving facts themselves. Rushdie argues that such is the challenge we face, and it is one that can and must be met by literature.
“And yet I now face, as we all do, a genuine conundrum. How can we argue, on the one hand, that modern reality has become necessarily multidimensional, fractured and fragmented, and, on the other hand, that reality is a very particular thing, an unarguable series of things that are so, which needs to be defended against the attacks of, to be frank, the things that are not so, which are being promulgated by, let’s say, the Modi Administration in India, the Brexit crew in the U.K., and the President of the United States? How to combat the worst aspects of the Internet, that parallel universe in which important information and total garbage coexist, side by side, with, apparently, the same levels of authority, making it harder than ever for people to tell them apart? How to resist the erosion in the public acceptance of “basic facts,” scientific facts, evidence-supported facts about, say, climate change or inoculations for children? How to combat the political demagoguery that seeks to do what authoritarians have always wanted—to undermine the public’s belief in evidence, and to say to their electorates, in effect, “Believe nothing except me, for I am the truth”? What do we do about that? And what, specifically, might be the role of art, and the role of the literary arts in particular?
I don’t pretend to have a full answer. I do think that we need to recognize that any society’s idea of truth is always the product of an argument, and we need to get better at winning that argument. Democracy is not polite. It’s often a shouting match in a public square. We need to be involved in the argument if we are to have any chance of winning it. And as far as writers are concerned, we need to rebuild our readers’ belief in argument from factual evidence, and to do what fiction has always been good at doing—to construct, between the writer and the reader, an understanding about what is real. I don’t mean to reconstruct the narrow, exclusive consensus of the nineteenth century. I like the broader, more disputatious view of society to be found in modern literature. But when we read a book we like, or even love, we find ourselves in agreement with its portrait of human life. Yes, we say, this is how we are, this is what we do to one another, this is true. That, perhaps, is where literature can help most. We can make people agree, in this time of radical disagreement, on the truths of the great constant, which is human nature. Let’s start from there.”
If literature is to engage in the argument over our new factual reality, it must at the same time take a position on the distinction between brute facts and historical facts. As Arendt saw, modern propaganda has the power to rewrite not only history, but the brute facts as well. “It is not difficult to imagine what the fate of factual truth would be if power interests, national or social, had the last say in these matters.” It is when we ignore this essential boundary between factual truth and the facts of our shared reality that the possibility emerges for totalitarian systems that can create coherent and fictional truths that are powerful precisely because they answer not to facts but to the needs and desires of lonely and fearful people. Which is why it is so important today that in both politics and literature, the argument about our shared reality be waged with a profound respect for the factual matter of the world. Otherwise, as Arendt warns, we risk the full destruction of the real world:
“In a world where lies are being continuously subsisted for factual truth and truth is being defamed as lies, what is at stake is our capacity to discern reality from fiction…the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”
The Language of Poetry
Poet laureate of the United States Tracy K. Smith delivered a lecture at the Library of Congress about a program she initiated during her first term to bring poetry to rural communities across America. Reflecting on our contemporary political moment, and the ways in which digital technology is reshaping the private realm and our intimate relationships, Smith turns to the language of poetry as humanizing force:
“What does this have to do with poetry? Well, as a writer, I’m convinced that one of the only defenses against the degradations of our market-driven culture is to cleave to language that fosters humility, awareness of complexity, commitment to the lives of others and a resistance to the overly easy and the patently false. Poetry is one vehicle for this humanizing, reanimating version of language, because the features of a poem insist upon a different value system. Rather than numbing or drowning out the difficult-to-describe but urgently sensed feelings that are part of being human, poetry invites us to tease them out, to draw them into language that is rooted in intricate thought and strange impulse. Rather than putting up a buffer between ourselves and those outside our immediate sphere, poems devise means to contemplate those others and to take in their perspectives. Rather than solving, sidestepping or denying problems, poems bear witness to dark facets of experience, they give us vocabulary for the terror, the shame, the regret — as well as the terms of hope — resulting from the choices we make and those we consent to. In other words, poems say, “Hey, come here, let me tell you what it was like.” And they ask us to submit to another experience of reality. They disorient us from our home base, and they teach us to admit and submit to the feeling of vulnerability, to act upon empathy and curiosity, and to follow along allowing sense to accrue at its own pace and upon its own terms. If you do that enough times with a poem, you might begin to think differently about actual strangers, you might also begin to recognize that there are new possibilities of feeling and awareness available to you — ones that take you far beyond those pitched to you by the marketing teams of the corporations whose products are at the moment enjoying a good run.”
Posted on 3 June 2018 | 8:00 am
Policing Sex on College Campuses
Looking at a recent Title IX case at the University of Cincinnati, Caitlin Flanagan explores the excesses of policing sex on college campuses. As the expanses of Title IX grow, students and administrators are using the federal law as an instrument in the gender wars to beat one another to the punch. When a sexual encounter goes wrong, or when two people have a drunken hookup, there is an assumption that someone is the assailant and someone is the victim. As this case illustrates, Title IX is being used by students to file first out of fear:
“Is it possible for two people to simultaneously sexually assault each other? This is the question—rife with legal, anatomical, and emotional improbabilities—to which the University of Cincinnati now addresses itself, and with some urgency, as the institution and three of its employees are currently being sued over an encounter that was sexual for a brief moment, but that just as quickly entered the realm of eternal return. The one important thing you need to know about the case is that according to the lawsuit, a woman has been indefinitely suspended from college because she let a man touch her vagina. What kind of sexually repressive madness could have allowed for this to happen? Answer that question and you will go a long way toward answering the question, “What the hell is happening on American college campuses?”
The substantive facts of the case come to us only through a lawsuit, one that has thus far implicated everything from Title IX, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Constitution to “slut shaming” and good old-fashioned horniness. But not super horniness, because—as with many high profile cases involving the infinitely expandable concept of “college sexual assault”—the actual encounter exists as merest prologue to the massive novel of ideas that followed it.”
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