IT is often argued, with some truth, that we live in an age of wilful ignorance in which thought is undervalued and we are encouraged to live in the now.
Delayed gratification is discouraged and replaced with the present. Commercial institutions have fuelled this process by encouraging us to think of ourselves as free-standing, self-interested individuals who want to buy things NOW, even if it means going into debt. In the political field it means the rise of populism in the USA, Brazil, the UK, Russia, Hungary, Turkey and India where it has gained power. And in many other countries it lurks beneath the surface.
But is there another cause for this phenomenon? Well, according to Brazilian philosopher Marcia Tiburi in The Psycho-cultural underpinning of Everyday Fascism – Dialogue as Resistance, yes there is. For her, central to the problem is an absence of shame among many leaders like Bolsonaro, Trump, Johnson, Erdogan, Modi and Putin. It’s this lack of shame which enables, indeed empowers them to lie with impunity. Tiburi writes: “The ridicule of several of the scenes involving these characters sounds to their followers like heroism. Therefore, this strange heroism of the tyrants of our time has become something ‘pop’ in a process of profound ‘political mutation’.”
In this world consumerism fills the vacuum, the emptiness of consumption. “We flee from analytical and cultural thinking through the consumerist emptiness of language and repetitive language. We flee from the discernment that analytical and critical thinking demand. We fall into the language of consumerism.” Now it should be said here that it would be wrong to suggest that there was a time when humans were perfectly rational but have somehow become vacuous idiots. It’s more that certain forces are becoming better at exploiting our inherent irrationality and undermining our counterbalancing ability to think – at least some of the time!
With that important caveat in mind then, Tiburi identifies the ‘great voids’ that have emerged in recent years. One is the ‘void of thought’ which Hannah Arendt identified as characteristic of Adolf Eichmann.
This emptiness of thought in Eichmann entailed the ‘absence of reflection, of criticism, of questioning and even discernment’. Tibury adds: “We can say that, in our time, this is becoming more and more common. More and more people are giving up the ability to think.” And in place of this ability comes ready made ideas or cut-and-paste ideas, as she puts it, largely distributed through social media networks.
Another great void, according to Tiburi, is an emptiness of feeling. She writes: “We live in a world that is increasingly anesthetized, in which people become incapable of feeling and increasingly insensitive.” It’s not that we don’t have emotions but, she argues, we ‘can speak of an emptiness of emotion precisely in the context in which people seek any kind of emotion.’ Further: “The inability to feel makes the field of sensitivity in us a place of despair. From joy to sadness, we want religion, sex, films, drugs, radical sports, and even food to provoke more feeling.”
Not all is lost, however, because for Tiburi at least part of the answer lies in the encouragement of dialogue, very much like the skill we practice in Salisbury Democracy Café. Tiburi argues that: “Dialogue is not just a form of philosophy, rather philosophy in its pure state. Dialogue is the attitude that can alter the spiritual and material condition in which fascism arises.” For Tiburi dialogue is a ‘type of psycho-social resistance, which holds the power of social transformation at its most structuring level – shaping dialogue matters when we want a democratic society’ and it is also the specific ‘form of philosophy as a practice, or as activism’. Furthermore: “We need an education for democracy that is education for art and poetry, for science and critical thinking.”
And she claims that dialogue at all ‘levels is undesirable in authoritarian systems’.
It’s hard not to equate Tiburi’s thoughts with those of deliberative democracy promoted by Salisbury Democracy Alliance (SDA) both in the democracy café and in its campaign for Citizens’ Juries. It’s the very point that SDA made in its highly successful stand in People in the Park last year – and will make again this year – when it argued that without the engagement of ordinary people in real dialogue in general, and Citizens’ Juries in particular, our representative form of government remains just that – representative and not fully democratic. And as, the Tory grandee Lord Hailsham once said, it is always in peril of slipping into an ‘elective dictatorship’.
Personally, my strongest sympathy with this blog was with th illustration: brilliantly expressive. ( I was puzzled by the figure’s lower part not reapoearing through tge empty frame.) The scattering parliament of rooks seemed like a metaphor for the torn-out conents of the missing painting. But the title needed to draw attention to her lonely solitude, which is the unspoken point, surely: what she needs is personal connection and dialogue, tgat is why she despairs. What do you think?
As so often in commenting on your blogs, my concern is about time and education. Humans take about 20 years to develop from infancy to maturity in what we might describe as two mental dimensions: as self-aware individuals and as members of society (whether “society” be family, tribe, neighbourhood, faith, race, nation or Humanity). Focus on ambition, wealth, power, status, hierarchy is all one side of this amd as usual I blame Margaret Thatcher for a lot of it. Obviously it can lead to a lot of things I dislike: exceptionalism, elitism, oligarchy, fascism, racism, nationalism. On the other hand, you have figures like Mandela, Matin Luther King, David Attenborough, Dag Hammarskjold, unfortunately rare figureheads who lead towards social thought and feeling. It is all a matter of educating the young during those twenty years growth to understand and properly evaluate and balance those aspects in all we do and think.
The problem is probably just a matter of laziness. It takes more mental effort and more self-control to think beyond one’s own Here and Now. Can we teach the young how worthwhike te extra effort is, to think outside our individual selves? Chistopher Browne
Nice one, Dickie. Well argued and very timely, with what’s happening notably in Ukraine and, latterly, the chamber of the U.S. Supreme Court. As those examples show us, the erosion through the populism/shameless narcissism exhibited by our leaders of the capacity for critical thought has one other disturbing consequence. It causes most damage to those members of society most reliant on critical thought – in these cases a country under relentless attack from a stronger enemy; and women in general – to advance their cases, given that they lack the brute strength to do so using the neo-fascist mechanisms of the day. I agree with you, Christopher, that better education is one way out of this mess, but not that our failure to exploit that route is down to laziness. For me, it’s more likely that large parts of our educational system are in fact trapped within the same ‘instant gratification’ paradigm, predicated on box-ticking and the notion that ‘everyone is special’. (Note to homo ‘sapiens’: no, they’re not)
Yes, clearly education is a key issue but as Christopher says that can take a long time and probably even longer to change the culture of our current school system. Another problem, as I suggest in the blog, is that our form of representative government was never intended to be democratic. Indeed, early English parliaments were there primarily to raise funds for kings, mainly to prosecute wars. Even the founding fathers of the American republic never intended to create a democracy in the ancient Athenian sense of direct participation. James Madison, one of the key protagonists in the Constitutional Convention that drafted the US constitution, wrote that the republican system he sought entailed ‘the total exclusion of the public, in their collective capacity, from any share in the American government’. They saw representative government as being incompatible with democracy in the Athenian model. And they would have been horrified to learn that the word ‘democracy’ had been attached the the word ‘representative’. It is something of a mystery as to how that happened – although one theory is that it was Robespierre who started welding together what up until then had been considered incompatible when the experiment in direct democracy in France went horribly wrong. The focus then became extending the franchise. What representative government – as I insist on calling our system – does is encourage citizens to be largely spectators of politics rather than participants, although I’m pretty sure that that was not the intention of campaigners like the Chartists and the Suffragettes. That is why many of us are campaigning for deliberative democracy in general and citizens’ juries/assemblies in particular in which ordinary citizens are randomly selected to take part in the democratic decision-making process (obviously women and slaves would be allowed to take part this time!). The problem is, like that of trying to turn the education juggernaut around, is that the word ‘democracy’ has been so firmly attached to what we have that it is difficult to persuade people that what we have falls far short of a true democracy. Representative government is, of course, far better than a dictatorship, but it is NOT the endgame.
A message from the author Marcia Tiburi: “Hello Dickie,
thank you for your message. Thank you for reading my book!
I really liked your project. Congratulations! In fact, we need more initiatives like yours.
With each passing day, I really fear for democracy in my country (Brazil). And the whole world.
It is important not to give up and to start again every day. Thank you!”
And another message from Marcia who has posted my blog on to her Twitter account:
“Hello Dickie, many thanks for your amazing text!
I posted it here: https://twitter.com/marciatiburi
Once again, congratulations for your project and how good it is that our ideas dialogue with each other.
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