The Politics of Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche writes in the first section of his autobiographical Ecce Homo, “Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.” Possibly foreshadowing the innumerable misinterpretations and false generalizations that politically-minded individuals will be determined to make out of the philosopher’s writings in the generations to come.

The most useful interpretation of Nietzsche’s politics is to simply reject the notion that the man had any clear political inclination to begin with, or at least not any that fit clearly within the political models commonly made reference to in his day, or ours. Indeed, over the past few decades, academia has done its best to instil just such a post-political framework into Nietzschean philosophy. Unfortunately, the effort has yet to trickle down to the self-styled public intellectuals, who have cleverly deduced that context-void quotations, from context-heavy philosophers, make for a more digestible expression of their own personal ideologies than actual self-reflection (why bother thinking about defenses for your own position on sociopolitical matters, when someone long dead has already done all the work for you, right?).

Now, since there is little point disputing the fact that Nietzsche directly called himself anti-political (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 3), the only reasonable question left to consider is what sort of political implications a person might be justified in deriving from the philosopher.

Above all else, if there is one consistent fact that must be understood about Nietzsche’s relations to the politics of his day, it’s that (in stark contrast to many of his claimed admirers today) the man loathed and ridiculed everything associated with his native Germany; from its culture right down to its cuisines:

Against the Germans I here advance on all fronts: you’ll have no occasion for complaints about “ambiguity.” This utterly irresponsible race which has on its conscience all the great disasters of civilizations and at all decisive moments of history had something “else” on its mind / now has “the Reich” on its mind—this recrudescence of petty state politics and cultural atomism (from NIETZSCHE’S LETTER TO OVERBECK, October 18, 1888).

Only the complete worthlessness of our German education—its “idealism”—explains to me to some extent why at precisely this point I was backward to the point of holiness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever, Section 1).

The German climate alone is enough to discourage strong, even inherently heroic intestines (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 2).

The few cases of high culture I have encountered in Germany have all been of French origin (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 3).

The Germans are incapable of any notion of greatness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 4).

The way I am, so alien in my deepest instincts to everything German that the mere proximity of a German retards my digestion (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).

As far as Germany extends, she corrupts culture (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).

This is just a small sample of the disdain Nietzsche repeatedly expresses for his place of origin in his writings.

It is a clear reflection of the philosopher’s rejection of ideological identification, illustrated by his extensive attacks on what he considered to be the most evident of its mindless incarnations: the growing sentiment of German nationalism in the late 19th century. To Nietzsche this sentiment represented the antithetical of critical thought, and he was not shy about using the grand image of its idolatry (i.e. the German “Reich”) as the irredeemable symbol of all things decadent in modern civilization. Thus, it becomes highly ironic to consider how in popular thought today the man has been cast into the same ranks with nationalists and fascists, and their wannabe modern descendants; not to mention the bemusing fact that many of these nationalists and fascists will ignorantly promote Nietzsche as their intellectual muscle—bearing to all just how sickly and illiterate their cognitive fitness truly is.

Very well, Nietzsche has no place in nationalist politics, or any traditional Left/Right political spectrum. But what about something less categorically restrictive? After all, Nietzsche talks a lot about individualism, and the need for self-creation, doesn’t this give credence perhaps to anarchist thinkers, or (on a more moderate tone) at least libertarians? In short, no. Just as people make the mistake of radicalizing Nietzsche in with fascist-crackpots, the folly of romanticizing the man as some sort of idol of individual strength and responsibility would be equally mistaken.

At its core, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not about individualism, nor does he promote the notion of self-governance; what he really aimed at was to promote the message that one must be strong enough to conceive reality as it is, for “only in that way man can attain greatness” (Ecce Homo, “Why I am A Destiny,” Section 5). Following a political narrative would have been pure poison to Nietzsche’s program, as the parameters of any such narratives are by definition restricted solely to the acceptable party platforms.

As far as individualism goes, the man clearly states in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “For, my brothers, the best should rule, the best also want to rule” (“On Old and New Tablets”). It is true that Nietzsche believed that society placed too many restrictions on the individual, but it is also true he considered human society to be a long trial, with the herd-mentality being an innate manifestation for most people. Nietzsche’s rejection of free will (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 6; also see Nietzsche on Free Will) leaves no room for personal self-improvement. You are either one who rules or you are with the herd, hence to act in any other way than your innate nature dictates for you to act would be nonsensical to Nietzsche. Most the majority of us, we cannot and we will not, rise above our herd-minded instincts, according to Nietzsche, hence a political model celebrating individualism (or emphasis on individual responsibility) would have have seemed self-defeating to the philosopher.

The point of the matter is that you simply cannot defend your political ideology through anything Nietzsche wrote, without negating one or more important aspects of his broader philosophy. And, on that note, you shouldn’t want to. And shouldn’t need to waste time defending your convictions by desperately attaching them to the musings of any one philosopher or another. As is the repeated theme throughout this article, Nietzsche is not someone to be admired or canonized to an infallible guru status. Like all thinkers, past and present, he is to be examined and scrutinized, allowing little to no romantic idolatry to cloud one’s judgment.

Whatever politics you personally support you are to defend it by the merit of its own tenets, not by the virtues you think some third party would approve of. Especially, not by the virtues of Friedrich Nietzsche, who would no doubt instinctively scoff at and ridicule any such attempt.       

Stranger Danger, Knocking at the Door of Society

In Austin there have been a series of bomb explosions this month from an as-of-yet unidentified perpetrator* (see update below).  Of course it goes without saying that all of us here are hoping that the person/s responsible is/are apprehended sooner rather than later.  Living in the city, what I’ve seen is that life is more or less carrying on as usual in the public sphere.  This is to be expected as people by and large still have duties and obligations to concern themselves with that forces them to carry on regardless of the danger that may be surrounding them (bills still have to be paid after all, and kids still have to get to school).  That is to say, while I know many individuals are certainly taking any and every precautions they can to be safe in a time like this, the city’s social life remains largely undisturbed.

This observation caused a coworker of mine to opine how surprised she was that everyone (referring to those of us who reside within Austin) is responding far more nonchalant about these bomb incidences than one would expect of people in similar situations.  Although I can somewhat see what she meant by the comment, I feel that it also brings up the further query of how exactly one is expected to act while this kind of situation is going on?  How do you as a person properly respond to potential danger that is far enough to be an abstraction to you subjectively, even though you rationally know it’s objectively close enough (mere miles if you’re an Austinite) that it ought to keep you on high alert?  In this regard, trying to gauge out one’s safety risk is comparable to standing in fog–those outside can see you’re in it, but you (precisely because you’re in it) still identify it as something that is some distance removed from you.

The southwest Houston neighborhoods I spent my teen years growing up in were not particularly safe places (it unfortunately goes without saying how most urban areas in big US cities aren’t).  During that time, I have been held up and robbed–and intimately known many others who have been held up and robbed–by street gangs and desperate individuals enough times to have developed a sixth sense about which way to move, what sort of characters to avoid, and how to secure my home to ease my mind on the matter as much as I can (as a precautionary rule, the little chain lock on the door does little good).  My point is that, like most city-folks, being surrounded with some degree of criminal activity is not something new to me.  Nevertheless, no matter how much personal familiarity one has with this nation’s crime rate, the news that a neighbor or coworker has been assaulted and/or robbed within walking distance of you (or that random packages are detonating in the city) will always stir a certain level of anxiety in a person’s mind.

I know people who use this to argue that the human “heart” is naturally inclined to do evil in times of desperation.  But I’m unconvinced by this line of reasoning.  Just as I doubt that man is naturally disposed to be good, I’m equally skeptical of suggestions of his innate wickedness.  Man is adaptive; his behavior situational.  Which is why I see no necessary contradiction in the fact that a person can be a callous murderer at one moment in time, and a genuinely loving parent in another.  In fact, I’m fairly certain that the three men who robbed me at gun point a few years ago probably spent that very evening exchanging pleasantries and joy with some loved one or another (quite possibly with my money; in which case, I at least hope it managed to bring someone happiness).

But this doesn’t do anything to relieve the reality that social communication is being broken down in the densely populated areas of the world.  And it leads me to ponder a few things.  Namely, what if in the future someone who sincerely requires my assistance knocks on my door for help?  Will I readily trust the person, or will I assume that it must be a clever ploy to get me to leave the safer confines of my home, concocted by individuals looking to prey on the average person’s sympathy towards a helpless voice?  I don’t know.  Ideally, I like to think I’m empathetic enough to answer the call for help.  Shamefully, I’m inclined to admit that there’s a chance I might not respond to a doorstep plea.  But it’s easy to philosophize about different scenarios when one is safely removed from the moment of action.  In the moment, a normally rational person can easily be overtaken by anxiety-induced irrationality.  I have even been told by many friends that their social anxiety has reached the point where they don’t feel comfortable having people approach them as they are getting into their cars, because their minds instantly start to recall all the horror stories of victims assaulted (or worse) by opportunistic criminals.  (I personally have also always been of the opinion that there is no inquiry that cannot be made by a stranger just as well standing several paces away from my car door, as standing right in front of it.)

For me, all of this brings up the issue of how exactly we’re supposed to create a more socially cohesive and  cooperative society, when for the sake of our very survival we have little choice but to be vigilantly suspicious of the individuals we are stuck sharing society with?

*Update, 03/21/2018:  A person believed to be responsible for the bombings was identified by law enforcement authorities today.  He took his own life as authorities moved in to apprehend him.

The Inevitability of Obedience

If you have children, or if you spend a significant amount of your time around children, you understand the importance of instilling the concept of authority in a person’s development.  A four year old has no point of reference why s/he shouldn’t be allowed to eat cake for breakfast, and your rationalization that it will prove to have negative consequence for her/him down the line is bound to ring hollow, since–from the child’s narrow perspective–all such arguments filter down to the old parenting byline, “Because I said so.”  You’re not going to get far trying to convince a person with yet-undeveloped reasoning faculties about why it is/isn’t reasonable to do X,Y, or Z.  Hence, it is simply more effective to refer to one’s higher authority on the matter:  “I know best, because I’m the parent/adult and you are not,” or (in childspeak) “Because I said so.”

If you happen to be the child in this scenario (as most of us at some point undoubtedly have been), you will eventually learn to obey such commands for no other reason than that you’ve being ordered to do so.  Just from a survival standpoint, it is far more pressing for you to know not to do something (like wander onto moving traffic) than it is to understand why you shouldn’t be doing something.  (The latter may be part of the lesson, but the former is really where the emphasis will lie.)  It is for these sort of reasons that the function of authority, and its practical influence in one’s daily life, doesn’t require much explanation; you’ve grown up with it, and (the argument can be made) managed to survive comfortably this long because of it.

Whether we like it or not, this shows that there exists a practical place for a select dose of commanding authorities (and by extension coercion) to direct our decisions for us.  This is an unavoidable outcomes of being social organisms; no matter how much one might wish to philosophize it away, some base sort of authority will always exist as long as society involves a large group of people interacting with one another (i.e. as long as society exists–period).  While you might readily think of yourself as a self-sufficient lone wolf for rejecting some traditional source of authority, you will–and you do–obey the basic authoritative entities of your society, because if you won’t/don’t you’re almost certainly reading this from a jail cell right now (where you also have no choice but to obey an authority; whether it be the prison’s or the prison’s gang hierarchy).  From a Hobbesian perspective, one could summarize this in terms of the individual accepting some rudimentary coercion on her/his person from society, for the sake of the benefits that is offered by obeying the authorities of said society.

A dilemma occurs, however, when we conflate the idea that legitimate authorities exist and exhibit a noticeable level of coercion over our decisions [and how this is unavoidable], with the fact that not every pronouncement made under the guise of authority is worth obeying.  You shouldn’t question your parents’ authority if they tell you not to walk onto moving traffic, nor should you readily dismiss a physician whose telling you that you run the risk of only having under a year to live [though you should probably confirm the diagnosis with a second, third, and fourth doctor, just for the sake of certainty].  But what if a parent asks you to do something that you know to be ethically unsound (and potentially criminal)?  What if a physician uses his position of authority to prescribe to you cures to ailments you know that you don’t have?  Do you question, or obey?  If the Milgram experiment is to be believed, you (and I) will most likely obey the orders of recognized authority figures, for no other reason than that we recognize them as authority figures.  There just appears to be a cognitive misfiring in our reasoning here, where no matter what our personal conscious tells us, we are still more than ready to set it aside for the sake of satisfying the command of a perceived greater entity’s demands.

The large part of the history of the modern world is one in which individuals struggled for the privilege to have, and to freely voice, a dissenting opinion to the power structure of the society they reside in.  Although many would disagree (for varying reasons), in the First World much has been put into legislation to protect the individual’s right to voice dissent.  (You may still not have any alternative than to follow the rules you openly dislike, but you are legally able to say you dislike them; often people overlook how the presence of the former does not necessary undermine their right to the latter.)  The issue of whether it is enough to simply be able to speak one’s disdain for an existing authority structure, while still having to obey the rules decreed by this authority, is (in my opinion) not so much an unanswerable conundrum, than an answerless one.  Because society is largely–or wholly–a collection of guidelines by which its members are to loosely–or strictly–orientate their actions and interactions, it is pointless to demand for an authority-devoid social structure to be constructed for the sake of some idealized hope for absolute equity amongst the various social structures that make up society [show me any group of people, and I will find at least one individual among them whose decisions are being coerced by the influence of some quasi-authority base or another].

This is why the oft heralded call from more…oh, let’s call them…”politically passionate” members of society to question the current power base, and defy authority-at-larger for the sake of [insert noble cause], usually begins to decay even before the marker scribbles on the first protest poster dries.  Despite what common wisdom would have us believe, most people aren’t all that stupid when it comes to this sort of stuff.  And they can tell that a call for the undermining of one authority, is almost guaranteed to result in a replacement rather than removal of coercive forces; implemented by the very people most vocally complaining about the current authorities (it is quite apropos to note how sociopolitical revolutions tend to end in a transfer of power, and never an all out dismantling of it).  The reason for this is that the emergence of authorities is not a corruption or degradation of society–it is society.  It may not be a desirable consequence for some, but something being undesirable doesn’t make it any less true, or practical.

My purpose here is neither to inspire public outrage nor complacency toward authority figures.  It is to get the point across that there are certain traits which are too imbedded in the human psyche to be cast off with a nifty awareness campaign, or full-blown revolution; the instinct for obedience to an authority structure is one of them (no matter how loosely you wish to define your favored authority source).  Hence, while it is important to focus our energy on learning how to critically scrutinize between the contending authorities vying for our obedience, it is equally vital for us to recognize that we are bound to listen to someone’s authoritative claims no matter what our broader stance on the concept of authority happens to be.  Accepting this shortcoming in our reasoning faculties may or may not help us detect the charlatans and demagogues in our midst, but it is a much more productive step for honest discourse that dreaming of benign revolutions and advocating for some undefinable social “great awakening” that defies practical feasibility.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: Justice, and the Social Contract

Frontispiece of The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes Drawing by Abraham Bosse

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is arguably one the most influential works of political philosophy since Plato’s Republic.  In the book, Hobbes sets out to demonstrate how, and why, man has come to create social and political structures, in concurrence with other men, and thereby buildup the pillars of civilization and modes of governance.

Hobbes’ central premise is that, absent of social structures, humans occupy a realm called the state of nature.  Such a state is a lawless, cruel, savage plain of existence, in which the primary instinct of all living creatures (including man) is solely to survive.  However, man—being a rational animal—realizes that the greatest method to satisfy the survival instinct is to try to avoid the brutal pangs of the state of nature altogether, and the only natural means by which he can do so is by seeking security and protection in greater numbers; since the strength of a group will always be immensely more powerful than the strength of the individual.  Furthermore, to ensure stability and efficiency of such a system, the members of the forged society must agree to a certain set of covenants–the social contract that is to be followed by all individuals within the group–that are to be followed by all persons who wish to remain within the protection of the greater community, or risk being exiled back into the savagery of the state of nature.

A reasonable challenge to Hobbes’ program is to inquire about the exact means by which a society (or, commonwealth, as he calls it) is to enforce the covenants of the community; namely, how justice is to be established and ensured.  Hobbes, himself, acknowledges the importance, “that man perform their covenants made:  without which covenants are in vain, and but empty words.”[1]  For Hobbes, the issue of justice is rather simple, if there exists no covenant between individuals, then, “no right has been transferred, and every man has right to every thing [i.e. the state of nature]; and consequently no action can be unjust.”[2]  On the other hand, “when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust:  and the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of covenant.”[3]  The agreed upon social contract is the foundation upon which Hobbes rests his political theory.  In absents of such covenants, lawlessness reigns supreme, and justice is an incoherent premise.  But, once covenants are made among individuals, and a commonwealth is formed, the perimeters of what is to be just, and what is to be unjust, are established, and a failure to follow the decree of the covenant, renders one’s actions unjust by definition.  However, that also leaves open the question of how, exactly, the consequences of the individual’s actions are to be determined by the commonwealth.  Hobbes’s answer is unapologetically authoritarian:

Therefore before the names of just, and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power, to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their consent.[4]

A proprietor is needed to maintain the covenant, without which justice cannot exist in a commonwealth.  As far as Hobbes is concerned, all these components are dependent entities, and inseparable of the existence of a functioning commonwealth (i.e. a society).  For, it is by agreement of their covenants (the entering into the social contract) that the individuals grant the establishment of the commonwealth, and from there, also consents to the power of a proprietor, to employ social cohesion on the members of the community and give legitimacy to the rules of the covenant.  “So that the nature of justice, consisteth in keeping of valid covenants:  but the validity of covenants begins not but with the constitution of a civil power, sufficient to compel men to keep them:  and then it is also that propriety begins.”[5]  Thus, the establishment of a powerful sovereign, of a centralized governing body, is the natural extension of social covenants, and communal living in general.

Although Hobbes’ reasoning is not difficult to follow, one more issue still remains: what about those who reject the seriousness of the covenants?  Is it not imaginable that certain individuals, acting in their self-interest, will enter and break covenants as the mood strikes them; undermining the basis of justice?  And if enough individuals in the commonwealth follow this example, will not the entire social structure become flimsy, and the administration of justice become unmanageable for the proprietor (i.e. the sovereign) to perform?  Hobbes has a harsh reply to this mode of questioning, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no such thing as justice.”[6]  For those who do not take the covenants of the commonwealth seriously, Hobbes does not take seriously.  He argues that such individuals—the fools—have no difficulty seeing the benefit of covenants when it serves their immediate interest, but only refuse to oblige by them when it seems that the rules will refuse them a particular instance of gratification.  Yet, it is by this very admission of the need for covenants to give legitimacy to issues of justice, “He [the fool] does not therein deny, that there be covenants; and that such breach of them may be called injustice, and the observation of the justice.”[7]

Seeing as how Hobbes maintains that absent covenants, men stand alone in the realm of nature, where just and unjust do not exist, the conclusion he derives for those who break covenants is that they forfeit any reference to justice itself.  Therefore, this individual, who steps out of the covenant has lost the protection of the commonwealth, which is still governed by the merits of the social contract they have agreed to uphold, “therefore he which declares he thinks it reason to deceive those that help him, can in reason expect no other means of safety, then what can be had from his own single power.”[8]  And, since no man can truly know the depth of the dangers that may lie ahead of his solitary existence, Hobbes would ask the fool, is it not more reasonable to follow the decrees of the covenant in favor of momentary self-interest, because the greater strength and security of the commonwealth in comparison to the individual is guaranteed to offer a higher rate of survivability for all its subjects?  Because, given the savagery of the state of nature, the fool, “if he be left, or cast out of society, he perisheth.”[9]

Having settled the issue of how to define justice, Hobbes turns to the question of morality.  Namely, even if the stipulations of the covenants a commonwealth is governed under are legitimately just, how does one determine whether they are moral?  Hobbes approaches the matter by first defining what is meant by moral, “moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good, and evil, in the conversation, and society of mankind.  Good, and evil, are names that signify our appetites, and aversions.”[10]  In other words, morality does not exist independent of human desires and inclinations.  In this sense, Hobbes is rejecting the notion of an absolute morality as unfounded in human nature.  Whatever public consciousness might persuade man to think of his morals, the historic reality shows that convergences on moral issues are not self-evident across customs, or across times, “Nay, the same man, in divers times, differs from himself; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth good, what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth evil.”[11]  Hobbes argues that since one individual’s opinion on what is moral rests equally against another individual’s opinion of what is moral, the state of nature, being devoid of justice (as argued above), will never allow for a peace on the matter, hence war will be the natural consequence.  However, man does not want war, as it runs counter to his instinct for security and preservation; thus, man can agree that the opposite of war, peace (even if not absolute), is objectively good; as are the means of achieving peace.[12]  To Hobbes, performing covenants is the best means to escape the state of nature, the consequence of war, and establish a coherent concept of justice.  Therefore, the question of what is to be deemed moral, is inherently correlated with what is considered just: obliging to the covenants of one’s commonwealth is the greatest good that can be done for oneself, hence (granting Hobbes’ premises) it is morally sound.

[1] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ch. 15, “Of the Laws of Nature,” Touchstone (New York: 1997), p.113.

[2] Hobbes, p. 113.

[3] Hobbes, p. 113.

[4] Hobbes, p. 113.

[5] Hobbes, p. 114.

[6] Hobbes, p. 114.

[7] Hobbes, p. 114.

[8] Hobbes, p. 115.

[9] Hobbes, p. 115.

[10] Hobbes, p. 123.

[11] Hobbes, p. 123.

[12]Hobbes, p. 124.

The Unavoidable Necessity of Conformity

Conformity is a dirty word to most ears, because as most of us see it individualism is the sacred ideal for which we must strive, and to which we owe every great social advancement.  The message is clear: individualism good, conformity bad.  And nice, personable celebration of our inherent uniqueness we can all conform rally behind in union.

However, I have to admit that I’m a bit puzzled by the knee-jerk reaction people have towards conformity.  After all, isn’t out conformity to societal norms the means by which society even exists?  Isn’t our willingness to conform to the practices of individuals that preceded us the means by which culture is maintained?  And isn’t our occasional willingness to break away from what we perceive to be the wrongdoings of our predecessors a reflection of our conformity towards the rightness of some other ideal or cause?  So you’re wearing clothes that set you apart from others in your community, thereby showing your individuality.  Great, but aren’t you still conforming to the practice of wearing clothes?  Putting on pants isn’t something that’s innate to people, it is something we are conditioned to do (and, I think, for good reasons).

My point in this post is not to claim that conformity is good, it is to claim that conformity is unavoidable.  You will conform–and you do conform–to something or another (I know I sure as hell do).  But I don’t understand why this should bring despair to anyone.  I don’t see why the fact that we enjoy and take part in activities that we are introduced to by others (people or society at large) should be instantly seen as a sign of a weaker mind.  As long as you, as an individual, truly do like what you’re doing and how you look, isn’t it still an expression of your individuality; even if it is contained within conformed perimeters?  Because, if we are honest, everything we do is causally dependent on the situations and actions that preceded us, thus we are by necessity going to conform in one way or another.

I understand the need we have to assert our individuality, but it’s silly to be so obsessed with being original and enjoying things that only belong to the fringes of pop culture simply because it gives you the right to claim a sub-culture as your identity, unless you are genuinely interested in said sub-culture.  I think that what most people imagine when they hear conformity is submission; the submission of one’s personhood to another.  This is a frightening prospect, so we design clothes, dye our hair, change our speech pattern, and write blogs to show the world that we are individuals, standing apart from the herd.  Now, if we could just get all those other bastards to stop copying us–those damn conformists!

Exploring Violence in America

“Why is violence so rampant in American society?”  That is the question I often hear expressed concerning the apparent brutality that exists within the American psyche, especially in comparison to its equally economically developed first world countries.  It is a particularly difficult question to address as its phrasing seems to demand a conclusive answer on a topic that is ripe for hasty generalizations and personal biases on the part of the individuals interested enough to even tackle the issue.

I think that it needs to be remembered how the U.S. is not really one cultural block, as much as a collection of various (often contrasting) cultural sentiments.  By which I mean, it would be a mistake to think of any one cultural expression/norm as a reflection of the American mindset (and one should be weary of any public figure who insists otherwise), because the propensity by which any such cultural expression dominates will by necessity vary greatly between different geographic areas in a country whose landmass spans from one ocean to another.  For example, sociopolitical beliefs and preferences will diverge greatly between Americans living in California, Texas, Vermont, and Michigan.  Moreover, even within these contrasting states it is not unusual to find enclaves of population whose cultural mindset is contrasting enough to make them seem like foreigners to each other (i.e. the cultural difference between San Fransisco, CA and Sacramento, CA, or Odessa, TX and Austin, TX, is prominent enough despite both of the paired cities being located within the same states).  Given all of this, it is possible that the perceived violence attributed to the United States as a whole might simply be the result of a few concentrated areas of violent activity fostering the impression of a more hostile society, which may not be altogether warranted.

Though an appealing hypothesis, it still fails to account for the fact that the U.S. actually does have a higher rate of violent activity, even after one factors in populations size and population diversity.  The undeniable truth is that, on average, we are a more violent country than a great deal of other first world countries.  One can even go further by saying that the mindset of the United States appears to regard a certain form of social turbulence as culturally healthy, in ways that other similarly developed countries do not.  This is actually not as absurd of a position to take on the matter as one might initially think.

The United States, for the majority of its history as an independent country, was composed of uncharted–essentially lawless, since sitting laws could not always be enforced–territories.  Essentially, the image of the wild west is a reality that is barely only a little over a century old in a large segment of the American population.  And although these areas have by now been modernized and incorporated under the rule of enforced law, in many ways the appeal of the rugged, self-governing gunslinger has remained ingrained in the romantic sentiments of many people (including people who have no realistic interest in emulating such a harsh reality).

This is possibly best characterized in the popular prominence of a gun culture in many sectors of American society (a very unique feature amongst first world democracies).  Whichever side of the debate you fall on (either favoring more gun regulation or less), it is undeniable that there exists within many segments of the U.S. public a distinct self-identity with one’s right to carry firearms, as well as firearms in general.  As someone living in the South, this is not at all surprising considering how the mere possession of guns for a long period of time beneath–and west of–the Mason-Dixon Line made you the law in a local region.  This mindset that unless the individual retains the right to–if the occasion demands it–keep order and safety by any and every means possible (including firearms), the common citizenry is put into a disadvantaged position to combat against lawless disorder, is still seen as particularly relevant in the eyes of many Americans (whether the alleged perpetrators are common criminals or overreaching governing authorities).  And it is within the context of this mindset that the appeal of identifying with the vocal gun culture resonates with so many Americans.

But is the influence of this gun culture a contributing factor in the proclivity for violence often identified with American society?  I personally see no clear answer to this question, as it’s highly dependent on one’s presupposed opinion on the matter.  My goal on stating the above isn’t to find a solution or compromising in the gun regulation debate, it is to point out that–within the context of a generalized American society–violence is not always categorized with malicious tendencies.  In fact, a prominent premise among advocates for less gun regulation is the claim that it is necessary for good and law-abiding members of society to use violence to protect themselves from the same society’s bad and lawbreaking members (this is also a mainstay theme in most Hollywood action movie plots).  Thus, one could argue that this lack of a reflexive repulsion towards violence amongst many Americans (this includes both those for and against more gun control)–where the act of resorting to violence is more often than not valued in accordance to the consequences it brings, rather than its adherence to an ethical principle–goes far in fostering to the rest of the world an impression of the U.S. having a rampantly violent culture.

“But why on earth would you want to leave such an impression?”  Would be the follow-up question I imagine being voiced from those residing outside the U.S. border.  The only truthful response I can give to this is that, as a collective culture, Americans don’t really care what impression they leave on the rest of the world.  Because there exists another, complimentary, mindset within most of U.S. society–and I’m speaking as a naturalized American, who matured through his adolescence in America, and went through the American education system–which is:  As the United States of America, we are the standard by which we judge the world, not the other way around; for no other reason than that we are the United States of America.

So, if the rest of the world judges us as violent (justifiably or not), we’ll simply claim it’s a testament to our nation’s individualism, without losing a moment’s worth of sleep over it.  Come to think of it, that’s probably the same response we would give to explain our abysmal test scores in comparison to the rest of the world.  Well, at least we’re consistent.

The Collectivist vs. The Individualist: A Conversation

Collectivist:  “Society cannot exist without the collective effort of the entire group working as a single unit to provide for all members of the population.  And the only fair means by which this system can function is if measures are taken to ensure that all persons within society are given equal opportunity and equal advancement in life.”

Individualist:  “Society is not dependent on the collective effort of its population as a whole to either function or advance forward, but the accomplishments of a select few individuals who are innovative enough to create means and opportunities by which they personally (and society secondarily) benefits from these individual accomplishments.”

Collectivist:  “No man is an island.  And every individual who has ever innovated anything did so through the direct or indirect assistance of a countless number of other individuals who make up the collective of society, and they deserve to share equal credit for the final outcome they helped bring about.  Henry Ford’s automobile would have never been mass produced if it wasn’t for the worker in the assembly line.  Individual innovations are meaningless acts of mental masturbation without the muscle to bring them to life, and the population as a whole are the muscle on which individual innovations depend on to exist.”

Individualist:  “The worker making a living on the assembly line wouldn’t be working and making a living on the assembly line, if Henry Ford hadn’t come up with the idea first.  These groups of people didn’t collective come up with the idea (or any idea for that matter) on how to either make a living, or contribute to society; they depend on the individual to come up with it first.  If a functioning society and productivity is the end result being sought, than individual innovation is still the antecedent that thinks it into life.”

Collectivist:  “But can’t you see that these individual innovators you’re referring to are also an obvious part of the collective population, and thereby also benefit from the collective effort of the group.  Sure, it’s individuals who think up the innovations all of society benefits from, but thoughts are meaningless and useless until they are produced by someone.  And historically that someone has always been the mass populace.”

Individualist:  “Working under the direction of individuals.”

Collectivist:  “Yes.  So what?’

Individualist:  “Without the guidance and innovations of an individual few society stagnates, because the collective population does not collectively create anything beneficial for society.  This is why society values these individual innovators more, and rewards them with a higher rank in its social hierarchy.”

Collectivist:  “A rank earned through the physical work of the people who make the individual innovators’ higher place in the social hierarchy possible.”

Individualist:  “Physical work which wouldn’t have existed without the innovations of these few individuals.”

Collectivist:  “Innovations which would never be realized if it wasn’t for the lowly members of society doing the grunt work to create it.”

Individualist:  “The fact that the other chess pieces play a role on the board in no way invalidates the greater importance of the King in the overall game.”

Collectivist:  “But if no concern is given to strengthening the position of the other chess pieces the King is left vulnerable and exposed.  Important or not, left individually the King is doomed to fall, too.”

Individualist:  “But acknowledging this still doesn’t diminish the higher value of the King in the game of chess.  It is still the King that is held in higher regard than the Pawn, the Knight, or the Bishop.  And it is still the individual that is held in higher regard in society than the collective masses, because individuals are what move society forward.”

Collectivist:  “You’re forgetting that a ladder can’t stand upright without its lowest pegs.”

Individualist:  “You’re forgetting that a ladder is useless if no one ever climbs it.”

Collectivist:  “A world where only the few rise, is a world where opportunity for advancement will seize to exist as the few in power will horde everything for themselves.  What you’re proposing is oligarchy!”

Individualist:  “A world where no one falls, is also a world where no one rises!  If everyone always stays on the same level, there will be no achievements and no advancements.  We can’t all rise collectively, but we can certainly plateau together.”

Collectivist:  “I’d rather plateau as a unit, then watch a minority segment of the population rise at the expense of the majority.”

Individualist:  “And I’d rather watch at least one individual rise above the herd, than have a society made up solely of equally mindless sheep.”

Conflating Cause and Identity

When we care enough about a particular issue (be it social, political, religious, cultural, or recreational) enough to devote a noteworthy amount of our time and energy into addressing it, we naturally start to relate with said issue on a deeper level than mere interest; in short, it becomes a cause for us to identify with.  And, in and of itself, this is not a point at which I would raise objections.  People looking to find and promote remedies to a problem they feel is serious enough that it needs to be addressed, and are willing to invest themselves into finding reasonable solutions to address it, can all be very praiseworthy (depending on the issue and the sort of solutions being proposed, of course).  The concern for me is when the adoption of an issue (the promotion of a particular cause) starts to take on an omnipresent tone in a person’s life.

When someone stops being “John, who happens to be an environmentalist” and starts being “The Environmentalist John”; or going from “Jane, who cares about tax reforms” [either conservative or progressive, it makes no difference in this scenario] and becomes “The Tax Reformer Jane.”  When the issue being discussed takes precedent over the individual/s promoting it, that’s where I believe people’s judgments are liable to being skewed and easily misled due to an emotional investments in their favored cause.  (Even if the cause itself remains a laudable effort.)

One can look to the revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and deduce how the majority of average persons who made up the ranks of these movements were people who truly, genuinely, cared about promoting an issue, whose benignity they wholeheartedly believed in.  Even the precursors to what would eventually become the Bolshevik faction did not begin under the assumption that it would institute a repressive regime as its end goal.  It began as a movement looking to (in their eyes) elevate the dignity and ensure equal prosperity for the hitherto oppressed segments of society in Imperial Russia.  However, somewhere along the way, for the people driving and participating in the cause, it seized being about addressing the legitimate issues of the cause, and more about upholding the perceived righteousness of the movement inspired by the cause.  This happens when the advocacy of a particular topic stops being just one attribute (amongst many) of a person, and becomes an extension of the individual her/himself–the individual identity gets sacrificed for the benefit of a greater Identity Movement, where identifying with a cause serves as the primary function of the cause itself.

The severity of this depends largely on the scope and power of the Identity Movement in question, but regardless of its impact on the population-at-large, its affect on the perception of the persons who partake and become engrossed with the prospect of having a message with which they can empathize–moreover, with which they can identify–works to create a false impression of the issue which they were originally seeking to address/remedy, as it causes the participants to internalize what is essentially an external problem.  Making the likelihood of ever achieving a solution to the initial issue unfeasible as a development that will be noticed by participants in the cause, because by this point their interests have already (unbeknownst to them) shifted from promoting answers to a cause, to just simply having a cause.  And having their individual identities defined by it.

To avoid charges of plagiarism (and indulge in shameless narcissism), I’ll summarize my own interests in this topic by quote myself from a previous post  when I first wrote my thoughts on “The Sacrifice of Identity”:

Perhaps, this trend is not widespread enough to cause alarm for most people, but I shutter to think about the great minds the world may have lost to such misguided reasoning.

Not to mention, those that it may still end up losing.

The Sacrifice of Identity

Identity is a flimsy concept.  Most people encompass a wide variety of viewpoints, which hardly fit into one concise narrative or another.  However, many people also seem to go out of their way to adopt (at least externally) specific traits for the sake of living up to ideals of a particular identity.

It starts with a cause and/or message that appeals to a person.  Subsequently, this will lead to a desire to seek out like-minded individuals who are equally enthusiastic about the topic at hand.  The next step is direct involvement; an active participation in the interests of the cause/message.  At this point, it is safe to deduce that you’re involved in an Identity Movement.  The nature of Identity Movements range from hobbies, to cultural and political pursuits, but they all share the characteristics of forging a sought after niche for the individuals who wish to partake in its subcultural communities.

Something that is unavoidable in Identity Movements is the emergence of groupthink.  A clear example of this can be witnessed by looking up any piece of music that has been uploaded to YouTube (in particular the lyrics videos), and read the cohesiveness of the comments that follow.  The vast majority of them will follow along a similar tone of, “This is what real music sounds like, not that other shit that most people listen to.”  What has made these individuals the arbitrators of “real music” is their identification with one particular genre or another, and nothing else.

Often adopting a particular identity can lead to the adoption of other interests that one would personally enjoy, and this seems perfectly reasonable, in and of itself.  But, I can’t help wondering how many are truly adopting interests and attitudes that suit them, and not just adapting to the interests and attitudes that surround them.  In other words, are they taking on an identity simply because they feel they need to, in order to be part of a greater movement/cause/culture?

The problem I see with all of this is the potential it creates in individuals (especially adolescence) to habitually sacrifice certain aspects of their personalities that do not fit in with the narrative of the Identity Movement they wish to uphold–a form of self-conditioning for the sake of representing a pure ideal (an ideal, which, of course, does not exist outside the Identity narrative being adopted).  This becomes most worrisome in Identity Movements that encompass a cultural or political message, because it works to counteract the original desires that led up to the need to create the identity; the goal of achieving normalcy within popular opinion.  However, the more of a subculture an Identity Movement becomes, the more antagonistic it gets towards mainstream opinion.  And without the strive for recognition and acceptance in greater society, Identity Movements become insulated in their own narratives, with little divergence of thinking allowed.  At this point, the individual has been sacrificed for the sake of an identity.  Perhaps, this trend is not widespread enough to cause alarm for most people, but I shutter to think about the great minds the world may have lost to such misguided reasoning.