Wednesday, July 18, 2012

An Impressive Stupidity: On Sartre and Syria

I don't have a background in English literature, yet I just spent a semester teaching it - poorly.  And it struck me why I love philosophy and hated English.  During my semester I had many instances of doubt in my understanding of certain texts, and I didn't hesitate to ask colleagues for help.  The palm-to-forehead reactions at my ignorance was a set-back. It was insisted that either I DO understand it - surely I must by this point- but somehow I just don't recognize that understanding, or I should ignore this line of questioning completely and focus on the issues in the plot-line.  And I realized that if in studying English I suggest that I don't really grasp the symbolism or the connections in a simpler Shakespearian comedy, it's embarrassing, but if in studying philosophy I'm not entirely solid on Sartre's phenomenology, it's a much more impressive stupidity.  And because of that, I think, we're more free to discuss it at length and really get to the bottom of some understanding of it allowing for the possibility that we might not entirely understand - or I might not.

There's something very Groucho about him!
I'm struggling with the concept of "bad faith" right now as it relates to our reaction to tragedies.  Sartre thinks some people use tragedies to feel better about themselves – they may sign petitions, side with the working class, etc.– while still not seriously questioning themselves.  And this is my concern.  I'm a letter-writer and FB "like" clicker, but am I just pretending to act, or are these authentic acts in their own right?  Is it an act in bad faith if I make a feeble attempt to help because I'm merely following my role?  Essentially, what does it look like to question ourselves and our responsibility in the wake of tragedy?

Sartre explains that bad faith is illustrated when we divorce ourselves from our actions or when we make any claim to more limited choices than we actually have.  It's what we do when we don't really want to take responsibility for what we're doing - pretending not to notice a hand on our knee, or pretending we had to do x because of the potential for some mild social disapproval.  We're inauthentic when we don't admit our part in the game.  It's a dishonesty with ourselves.  This is what existentialism is chiefly about: challenging the individual to examine their life for intimations of bad faith and to heighten their sensitivity to oppression and exploitation in their world.

From this video, as far as bad faith has to do with atrocities:  in a nutshell, the classic intellectual is bothered by the world, and denounces atrocities, but at the same time serves and benefits from the very systems that allow these things to happen.  We become intellectuals when we become conscious of this contradiction or conflict of interest.  Recognizing it is a start, but, we must move further to become revolutionary intellectuals.  Morality is based on political engagement.

He says, "...[the classic intellectual] discovers truths he thinks are more and more universal and he constitutes himself as an intellectual.  This means, in most cases, he signs petitions."

So, at a burgeoning level, petition-signing is a means towards accepting responsibility.  But there is a higher level of morality: To take responsibility, to live authentically, it seems, requires anyone benefiting from a government that supports atrocities to wipe out any ties to that government or system.  That's a hard thing to do; consequently, most of us live in bad faith.

Am I looking for the line that's truly authentic - for instance, do I have to live in a cave to do this well - or am I looking for a way to justify that I'm not going anywhere soon?  Really the problem doesn't seem to be that I don't understand the concept of bad faith as it relates to atrocities, as much as that I want to find a means to justify being part and parcel of it.

This was all provoked by the film Carnage, which makes fun of a typical classic intellectual played by Jodie Foster, and an article in The Onion yesterday: "Scientists Say U.S. May Have Discovered Previously Unknown Level Of Not Caring About Syria." It's just a matter of luck that I'm here in Canada where my children might have to endure school yard teasing if they wear the wrong clothes, but are unlikely to be subjected to similar treatment of some children in Syria:  folded in half in a box, or have their genitals electrified, or have their toenails ripped out with pliers and be forced to eat them.  It's unlikely, but what's to say something similar won't happen here if I'm not willing to speak out.  I feel an enormous cognitive dissonance doing little more than complaining.  I want to help further - louder - yet I don't want to do anything to upset the calm of my current life.

We're thrown here, in the middle of a story that's been going on for eons.  And we're supposed to accept some responsibility for what's happening and what might happen in future?  We often can't tell what the real story is anywhere until much later because of media collusion.  But we do know that some children and adults are being brutally tortured.

It seems to make sense to blame the political/corporate machination for driving this -  or their system that fuels harm and exploitation and oppression worldwide.  Yet I'm to assume a responsibility for my part.  I think it's not that my part is small, but that it's not entirely negligible.  It is a part, and it's not entirely about making change in the world, but in accepting the will to have a potential effect.

This is not a place for mindfulness and acceptance of the grand scheme of things - a time to contemplate the Taoist "Maybe" story in which anything bad might turn out to be good - where the lesson is, who's to say what's good or bad.  I can say, unequivocally, that this is a VERY BAD THING.  There's no silver lining or higher purpose to the torture of children.  Even if it leads to world peace, it's still, in itself, a bad thing that should be stopped regardless of the possibility that by trying to stop this torture we could, in some warped potentiality, be preventing world peace; it's still necessary to stop the torture. We need some intervention from the ICC, but it currently can't be done since Russia vetoed it.  The invasion of Iraq was essentially vetoed (got only 4 of 9 necessary votes), and the U.S. went in anyway.  This is a scarier bargain for sure.  Is it worth it?

Environmental collapse is a much easier problem to resolve in that way - if we kill ourselves off, the planet will recover without a homo sapien parasite attacking it remorselessly.  But if children are harmed on the other side of the world, how do we stand by and watch?  How do we recognize it and still exist authentically, without resorting to denial, and at the same time not go completely mad?

Sartre explains further, "Sincerity is the antithesis of bad faith....If man is what he is, bad faith is forever impossible and candor ceases to be his idea and becomes instead his being.  But is man what he is?"  Can we rise above the play-acting we do as we try to fit the roles set out for us in order to gel with the social order of things and actually be who we are at every moment?  He adds, "How can we in conversation, in confession, in introspection, even attempt sincerity since the effort will by its very nature be doomed to failure and since at the very time when we announce it we have a prejudicative comprehension of its futility?"

And I wonder if the revolutionary intellectual isn't necessarily someone who goes beyond petitions and takes to the streets in protest, but someone who sometimes says, "This problem is beyond me."  

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