Friday, April 8, 2011
© Charles D. Hayes
Described as “an eloquent meditation on the nature of hatred,” philosopher Sam Keen’s Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, published 20 years ago, should be taken down from the library shelf, reread, and republished. It doesn’t, however need to be updated; it’s as pertinent to today’s reality as it was when it first appeared in print.
Keen opens the introduction with this observation: “In the beginning we create the enemy. Before the weapon comes the image. We think others to death and then invent the battle-axe or the ballistic missiles with which to actually kill them. Propaganda precedes technology.” He goes on to explain that depth psychology presents us with the “undeniable wisdom that the enemy is constructed from denied aspects of the self.”
While acknowledging the fact that there are real aggressors who qualify as real enemies, Keen calls to our attention the idea that, to produce mass hatred, the body politic must remain unconscious of their own paranoia, which, due to a predilection for thoughtlessness, never seems to be much of a problem. Moreover, Keen acknowledges that paranoia, far from being aberrant behavior, is a normal part of the human condition and that it contributes to the ethos of tribal loyalty and patriotism.
Faces of the Enemy is rich with quotable material on nearly every page. Keen shows how utterly easy it is to alienate one’s imagined opposition in such a way as to justify any and every means of obliterating them. The reason this is so effortless is that people we observe as different in some way are easily dehumanized. Differences can be exaggerated and magnified, and once someone’s humanity has been destroyed, the way they are to be treated is no longer a matter of morality because they are no longer seen as qualifying for fair treatment.
Although I’ve said Keen’s book does not need updating, we do need to put contemporary culture in perspective through the lens of Keen’s insightful and morally profound observations. I still recall reading a few years ago about the notion of ideological amplification in academia and how stunning a revelation I thought it to be. Ideological amplification is simply an acknowledgment that when groups of people of a particular political or ideological bent get together they are apt, by nature of their association, to go further in the direction to which they are already leaning. On the face of it this seems too simple an observation to get excited about. But to the contrary, people unaware of this tendency are especially vulnerable to ideological manipulation. In my view, America is suffering mass manipulation today for perhaps the most sinister and egregious reasons ever: egoism and greed.
Each day millions of people begin their day with nothing particular on their minds other than how they will spend their time and perhaps how they will spend their evening. But in the course of the day, whether they are engaged in meaningful work or drudgery, they often tune in various media pundits as a means of staying, in touch with what’s going on in the world or simply for entertainment. Now this would seem a harmless activity, except for the effects of ideological amplification.
Many media pundits make their living by fomenting human emotion into a response ensuring enough rage to keep anxious listeners tuned in. Doing this helps pundits maintain their ratings, and thus add to their wealth, while simultaneously satisfying their narcissistic egos. Hatred, after all, is metastasized emotion, and unfortunately it plays to our worst instincts: to promote the bonding of the group so engaged at the expense of the other. Hatred is one of the greatest unifiers for human beings, as philosopher Eric Hoffer frequently noted.
That millions of people willingly go along with the mass manipulation of their emotions in ways that alienate others as enemies unworthy of the respect due to our fellow man is one of the most pathetic behavioral traits of our species. We have extraordinarily sophisticated brains but make little use of them when it comes to finding simple fault in matters that aren’t simple at all when we really examine the evidence.
What if most days, most people spent their time living up to the responsibility that democracy requires? What if instead of listening to narcissistic zealots, they listened to people looking for and working toward real solutions to problems with so much enthusiasm for the better argument that it wouldn’t matter to them from which side it was presented? Given the current state of public discourse, this may sound insanely naïve, but it would be the mature thing to do.
If we don’t begin soon, en masse, to act like adults, our children and grandchildren are going to experience wretched lives because of our inability or our unwillingness to stop the commercial manipulation of our emotions. Generations from now (providing there is a viable future), our current society may be viewed as having been ignorant beyond credulity because of our passivity and willful inattention.
For unscrupulous pundits, the way to a quick fortune is to read between the lines of Sam Keen’s book and think about how easy it is to turn fear into a profit center. It is embarrassingly easy, and for that we should be ashamed. The resulting incivility keeps us from being a just society, one that could leave succeeding generations something to live up to instead of an economic shambles where a great nation was once thought to stand as a living example of a viable democracy.
Pundits who decry those of us who point to vitriolic media as a major reason for incivility these days do so to protect their livelihood, not to further civil discourse. People of retirement age can recall a time when civil discourse was a reality, even when political issues were as ideologically divisive as they are today. But, with rare exceptions, those were the days before hate-radio, partisan TV, Internet echo chambers, and the commercial application of dogma for the sake of audience share.
Of course, none of this would matter, except that human beings have an overpowering predilection to argue about things they know very little about. That’s in large part why it is so easy to alienate the other in the first place. In point of fact, we have no real social problems in America that could not be readily solved if most people were educated to the level necessary to sustain a legitimate democracy.
The greatest threat to the future is ignorance, and the first step to a better outlook is to acknowledge that those among us who promote and perpetuate ignorance are not patriots. People who attempt to gain stature through promoting fear of the other undermine the very idea of democracy. That they are able to do so without being exposed as the self-absorbed zealots they are speaks volumes about the current state of adult education in America.
But Keen offers us a way out. He writes, “There is a single secure, sacred vocation to which human beings can surrender without the fear of falling into idolatry. We are called to bring justice and compassion into the communal life of our species. Our purpose is to create an order that is not red in tooth and claw, a commonwealth that is governed by our highest capacity for consciousness, conscience, and compassion, rather than by our lowest capacity for inventing the means for the triumph of raw power. Precisely because the ‘objective’ world does not incarnate the virtues of repentance and mercy, it is the human calling to do so. Ours is the task to so reduce the unnecessary ‘surplus’ of evil, that we will be left with the necessity of coping only with the inevitable evil of disease, tragedy, and death.” A tall order, no doubt, but one worthy of our aspirations and one that in a nutshell captures the idealism that gives purpose to the very notion of September University. I hope you will join in the effort and begin to speak your mind.
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