Saturday, 28 January 2017

Acid reign

Dealing with corrosive power-structures in a post-truth world

Even the most naive political observer cannot help but notice the rise of populist rhetoric on the world stage. It is not only the speech of self-promoting saviours bent on leading their people away from their oppressive overlords towards new promised lands; it is also the cry of those who feel oppressed. I would like to offer a theological perspective.
One might begin by noting that by just mentioning the word ‘theology’ many readers have probably not got past the first paragraph. Since Kant’s move to locate certainty only in the phenomenological realm—in other words, we can only be sure of things that can be rationally deduced from sensed reality—theology has been treated with a degree of suspicion, and those who practice it are, in the eyes of the ‘enlightened’, generally to be pitied. Theology, after all, suggests that there is a transcendent reality beyond space-time that can nevertheless, in some sense, be evaluated. An idea that some find hard to swallow.

I am not writing to defend this position—this is not my purpose here (for those curious, I suggest reading Rupert Shortt’s God Is No Thing)—but I would nevertheless insist that many of the things we hold to be absolutely true are based on even less evidence than for the existence of a transcendent realm. A fact that, sadly, is becoming increasingly evident in the growing ‘post-truth’ culture. It is a paradox that the free dissemination of information through social media where people can, for example, instantly video the abuse on their streets, has—instead of exposing the truth of what is really happening in the world—led to even more confusion. People, as we have seen, cheerfully re-post the most absurd facts that they decide are ‘true’ leading to whole swathes of society believing passionately in complete nonsense. It seems that many Americans believe they are ‘oppressed’ and have a poor standard of living and there is a need to make their country ‘great again’ despite the fact that the average wealth per adult in the USA is US$248,000 whereas for the average Indian it is 2% of this at $5,500 (figures from OECD, 2012). In 2014, 41.6% of the world’s wealth was in the hands of Americans: in other words, Americans (about 4% of the world’s population at 320M) have access to roughly the same amount of wealth as the remaining 7 billion. I am not denying the genuine concerns of those ‘rust belt’ communities suffering the avarice of the Washington elite; what I am highlighting is the naivety of believing that the solution is to build a wall along the Mexican border as if the problem lies primarily outside America.
The problem, I suggest, is the wall between immanence and transcendence. Theologians use these words to contrast the notions of God being active in the world and yet at the same time being ‘other’ than it. But here I do not want to discuss God: rather, I suggest that human society is becoming increasingly immanentist; in other words, we are losing sight of the bigger picture and becoming fixated on the immediate, local situation. Equally, there is a tendency to focus on one issue and ignore all else.
Climate change is the most obvious example. Despite the overwhelming evidence, Trump can happily announce that it’s a Chinese-invented myth. This is worrying, but in itself is not so unsurprising; what is surprising is how many Americans choose to believe Trump rather than the body of evidence to the contrary, or even if they don’t believe him, are happy to play the denial game. And on single-issue fixations one might observe the disturbing tendency of many Christians to focus on issues such as abortion or attitudes to Israel, and as a result seem blind to (or unconcerned about) other moral dilemmas, such as the fact that half of the world’s wealth is in the hands of 1% of the world’s population and America wastes about 40% of the food it produces.
What is missing is a ‘transcendent’ view—there is little consciousness of the bigger picture. To blame the internet for this would be equally naive: the internet (and technology generally) is simply speeding up and ‘amplifying’ something deeper—the inability of humans to make wise choices if they ignore ‘transcendence’. Again, I stress that I am not trying to convert you to Christianity here (although I personally believe that the ultimate solution is to reverse Kant’s ‘anti-Copernican’ revolution in philosophy so that that we genuinely rediscover the divine perspective); no, what I’m arguing is that we desperately need to ‘zoom out’ and contextualise what we claim to be true. We need to consider carefully what we say, what we (re)tweet, what we post on blogs and social media.
The heart of the issue is two-fold. First, Descartes, Kant, and the Enlightenment thinkers were not wrong to focus us on the need to be rigorously ‘logical’. What they did get wrong was to assume that this could be achieved uniquely from the starting point cogito, ergo sumI think, therefore I am: the ‘I’ became the centre. Nietzsche perhaps took this idea the furthest becoming (perhaps) the most self-preoccupied philosopher of the modern age. Much of so-called post-modern thinking is camped under the banner of Nietzsche’s thought (as David Bentley Hart puts it in The Beauty of the Infinite). It is therefore somewhat ironic that he suffered a mental breakdown at the end of his life. Although scholars insist this was primarily a consequence of overwork (his output was considerable), it is perhaps a salutary reminder of the danger of becoming over-focused on the I. The world, it seems, will also have a mental breakdown unless we become anti-post-truth activists.
So, curiously and perhaps paradoxically, my first plea is to listen to the likes of Kant and Descartes and begin to think deeply again, without being afraid of ‘logic’. Rationality is, I believe, God’s gift to us. (My own view is that even Nietzsche—despite his anti-Christian tirades and his claim to be the antichrist—did us a favour by drawing attention to some of the issues relating to the distortions of Christianity.)
But this must be tempered by the second plea: to search for a bigger picture. Rationality without context—‘immanent’ rationality—can end in delusion. Descartes, for example, watching the hats and coats parading beneath his Paris study window, asked himself: ‘How do I know those are people? How do I know they are not machines? All I can see is hats and coats’ (see Iain McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary, p. 335). I don’t think he believed this, and it was no doubt an honest question, but so many people these days appear to be seeing ‘machines’ instead of ‘people’ and don’t even bother to question the accuracy of their vision or their evaluation. (This New York Times article explores some of the wider reasons for this.)
I’ll put my theologian’s hat on to finish.
For all the wonderful fruit that Enlightenment thinking has brought humanity, one major problem has been the placing of the ‘I’ at the centre of the universe. Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution’ centred epistemology (the theory of knowledge) on human rationality and marginalised God. Philosophers like Hegel disagreed with Kant’s focus on the individual and spoke about the ‘spirit’, but on closer inspection he is referring not to any concept of God’s presence in the world, but rather the collective spirit or mind of humanity, its Geist. This idea of a collective human consciousness, in more post-modern times, has increasingly reduced to an emphasis on individual identity—the I, seen as being part of something greater, has become the self-reflexive me. As a result, the modern concept of ‘self’ is much stronger than any sense of belonging to a community. In social terms, this translates to ‘gated communities’—people who do feel connected to others through shared beliefs, history, or tribal affiliations, but who choose to judge others who think differently and set themselves up as guardians of the truth.
Ultimately the message of Christ is a solution to the ‘I’ problem. Humans were not made to be I-centred: identity and fulfilment—the solution to human alienation and nihilism—is found by re-connecting with a transcendent God (beyond or ‘other’ than the cosmos) who is nevertheless immanent (whose presence may be nevertheless discerned). A being who might be beyond rationality per se, but certainly not beyond cognition. Whether you believe that or not (or choose to explore this) is up to you. My point here is that the transcendence/immanence duality articulated by theologians reminds us that, in a world where ‘immanence’ has been reduced to simply ‘me’, we would do well to consider the bigger picture.
So what about ‘acid reign’—corrupt and corrosive power structures?
Well, however much megalomaniac characters are responsible for engineering their own rise to power, the Putins and Trumps of this world do not, cannot, act in isolation. They are surrounded by a coterie of sycophants themselves anxious for self-promotion and power. (Notice that when Trump is signing executive orders he is always pictured surrounded by such people.) And behind the immediate circle of intimates lies the active or tacit support of many ordinary people. And what is true in the political sphere is equally true in other human institutions (sadly even the church is not immune).
Acid rain is made up of many corrosive drops. Eventually those drops combine and the poison flows in streams, then rivers. A couple of centuries ago it was assumed that the sea could always absorb pollutants, however toxic. But now we know better. Islands of plastic in the southern seas and the bleaching of coral reefs are just two indicators of a more general toxicity. Similarly we face a rain of toxic ‘truth’, each drop, each tweet, contributing to pollute the sea of knowledge which in turn corrupts humanity. Since ideas have power they result in power structures, and those such a Trump are able to ride on the waves created.

My plea is that we think rationally as well as contextually, anxious to understand the wider picture. That we do not simply respond emotionally or tribally to the information we receive. That we do ‘due diligence’ in the search for truth. That we think twice before contributing our own drops of ‘acid reign’. I ask you to become an anti-post-truth activist.

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