Self-Criticism and the Humanities
Let me begin with a paean of praise for one of the most overlooked but essential dimensions of both the “humanities” and of democracy: Self-criticism. The ability to look inside oneself – or one’s culture – and introspect, to appraise another’s rebuke, honestly admit wrongdoing rather than point the finger, constitutes, in my opinion, one of the most important moral values and priorities of a humane culture. Without self-criticism, one cannot grow; one cannot learn from one’s mistakes. Without it, modern science is impossible. Without it, one cannot empathize with “the other”; one cannot listen well to another’s narrative.
With it, one can move into a larger world populated by other sentient beings, with whom we interact. With it we can hear other narratives, other experiences, other worlds. Like Montaigne, we become humanists by examining our own, and others’ experience; by seeing the world through our own doors of perception, cleansed of the blinding force of unexamined egotism; and then, as Robert Burns would say, “to see ourselves as others see us.”
From such introspection springs genuine tolerance – not the easy tolerance of indifference, but the passionate tolerance that can understand how someone else can see and experience the world in profoundly different ways. And from it arises real freedom, or, as Hegel might say in a moment of laconic lucidity: we are only free when we grant others freedom. In so doing, we can overcome that bane of human freedom, the principle that has governed most political and international relations for the past five millennia at least: “rule or be ruled.” Eli Sagan calls this the “paranoid imperative” because it projects ones own desires to dominate onto the “other” and justifies aggression as defense. Only empathic self-criticism can break the grip of that imperative.
Self-criticism plays a key role in morality: without it, moral behavior is impossible.
Thus, self-criticism is an ongoing process. To overcome the paranoid imperative takes constant work. Otherwise even the most fruitful and mutually beneficial relations can spiral down into mutual suspicion and hostility. This holds for relationships with family and friends as it does with business partners and colleagues, with neighbors and neighboring peoples. And only through positive-sum possibilities can we escape the world in which war is the first answer: “plunder or be plundered.” Only with self-criticism can we live in peace. It is, therefore, no accident, that the emergence of democracy and freedom of speech correlate closely with cultures of self-criticism. So let me conclude the first section of my talk by arguing that we consider self-criticism one of the key components of any humane humanism, and that we cultivate its arts.
For all its bounteous gifts, self-criticism does not come easily. Honest self-inspection demands great emotional courage; it is deeply painful to us to realize our inadequacies, much less to admit them, even to our most intimate loves. And if the silent, whispered self-criticism is painful, how much the more public admission of weakness, of error, of fault! Losing face! How humiliating! How damaging in the eyes of others! How vulnerable! How dangerous! “Here in France,” a friend explained to me, “no one admits they’re wrong. It would be seen as a sign of weakness, it could be fatal.”
Indeed, it turns out, few cultures take introspection – a fortiori public self-criticism – as a high value. On the contrary, the vast majority of political cultures work hard to avoid any embarrassment to those in power. No medieval person would ever have expected – or wanted – to be governed by someone who had been through so humiliating an experience as that one through which we Americans put all our presidential candidates. For us, it is trial by fire that only gets worse once the president – democrat or republican – gets in office; for most pre-modern cultures, to diss a ruler in that fashion was to court the collapse of the social order. On the contrary, the behavior of a king was, by definition, opaque to the public gaze; no one could hold him accountable. And anyone who tried, ran the likely risk of death.
Thus self-criticism, especially on any kind of large, culture-wide scale, is doubly difficult. Not only does the human psyche rebel against public humiliation and loss of face, but self-criticism only really works if the “other” also engages in the art. Self-criticism entails the doubly difficult art of reciprocity, of both accepting and giving rebuke. And despite the pain in admitting wrongdoing, I suspect that delivering rebuke successfully is actually far more difficult.
And yet only when a society can organize a system of reciprocal criticism, in which the people and their rulers can rebuke each other, can one even hope to launch a democracy. Most polities adopt the paranoid position of systematic suspicion of bad faith: rule or be ruled. Notes Eli Sagan, the man who identified the role of this thinking in political structures: “Democracy, is a miracle, considering human psychological disabilities.”
So if even a city-state like Athens, for a couple of centuries, represents a political miracle, how much the more difficult, to launch a civilization-wide project of constitutional states based on the principle of equality before the law, backed up with free speech. That represents an unprecedented accomplishment in the history of civilization. And we today, at the dawn of the 21st century in the West, have the honor and privilege of inheriting that noble and rare experiment in freedom and moral self-criticism.
Problems: The Pathologies of Self-Criticism and Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome
Like all potent and difficult psychological talents, however, self-critcism has its pathologies. Whereas most people dislike and avoid self-criticism at all costs, some few find it exhilarating, and engage in it unilaterally. This passion for self-criticism has created, in our day, a kind messianic pathology, what I call masochistic omnipotence syndrome, in which, “everything is our fault, and if only we could be better, we could fix anything.”
To this end, we forfeit normal protections. “Who are we to judge?” we say, as we accept as valid the stories and deeds of the oppressed “other,” no matter how dishonest the narrative and its intentions might be. “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” we solemnly repeat as if the two were mutually exclusive rather than independent identities, and, alas, all too often joint-identities. From moral equivalence: “We’re as bad as you are”; to moral inversion: “No, we’re worse than you are.” The Muslim terrorists who blow up fellow Muslims at prayer in Iraq are thus to Michael Moore “Minute Men” resisting American soldiers who represent the forces of the evil empire. And if we just do this kind of moral reckoning enough, we seem to reason, we will eventually elicit good will and negotiate an end to all conflicts. “War,” we all know, “is not the answer.” We have the responsibility to repent for our imperialism and ask forgiveness for our crimes against native peoples. And all of this might be reasonable in the framework of good intentions on both sides.
But some use these principles to criticize us, not because they respect and admire the values they invoke, but only because of the positional advantage it gives them. They have no intention of reciprocating. They do not believe in these values, and they see us as irremediably stupid and effeminate for embracing self-criticism and commitments to treating others fairly. To paraphrase Thucydides and Nietzsche, they only whine about fairness and resent the strong because they themselves are now weak; were they strong, they would dominate without hesitation.
For them, our self-criticism registers as signs of weakness and an invitations to further aggression. The vulnerability we painfully but magnanimously adopt triggers not reciprocity and reconciliation, but predatory hopes.
Let’s call these players demopaths. “They use democracy to destroy democracy.” They are not along for a free ride. They are hostile agents, and opening up to them is counter-indicated. No creature – no matter how powerful – who cannot detect hostile intent will long endure. And those who treat the accusations of demopaths as “in good faith,” who embrace the rebuke without concern for the effects, are their dupes, who empower demopaths even as they weaken the self-criticizers.
In the 21st century, already, demopaths and their dupes have already established a major beachhead with the language of human rights. At Durban, in the summer of 2001, a major conference against racism turned into a hate-fest of demonization, in which America’s heinous role in the 19th century slave trade, it’s genocide of native Americans, received prominent attention while the Àrab world’s ongoing slave trade and acts of genocide against black Africans, never got mentioned. And Western human rights NGOs played a key role in legitimating the proceedings.
Durban was a moral travesty of terrifyingly Orwellian dimensions. Its silences enabled the genocide in Darfur, the ongoing slavery in Mauretania and Saudi Arabia, even as it encouraged many in the world – including in the US – to view 9-11 as payback. And in 2009, we can expect not a self-critical repentance for the moral madness of Durban one, but a Durban II that will pick up where the first left off. Dupes and their demopaths… global victories for the haters.
Demopathy occurs on a daily basis. In yesterday’s Washington Post, one of the founders of Hamas, an organization with a certifiably paranoid and genocidal charter, whose preachers speak of a generation-long war against the West that only begins with the destruction of Israel and moves on from there to the taking of the crusader capital, Rome and a generation-long war of conquest of Europe and the two Americas, wrote an editorial entitled, “No Peace without Hamas.” This is information warfare, and it seeks dupes eager to proclaim “peace in our time.”
The collaboration of demopaths and their dupes leave their traces everywhere, including an allegedly feminist discourse that makes moral equivalence between private school dress codes demanding modesty among girls and a Taliban theocracy that threw acid in the face of women who did not go out veiled. Thus the terrifying silence of many feminists about the treatment of women in the Muslim world.
This is no laughing matter, despite how ludicrous some of these cases might seem. We who are privileged to inherent the wondrous – indeed the miraculous – world of a free society tend to take it for granted. We take self-criticism for granted.
But no. Democracy is an exceptionally difficult accomplishment, and among its demands, one of the most exceptionally difficult, is a culture of self-criticism. To assume everyone wants what we wants, that every other culture and religious tradition has made the transition from theocratic ambitions to the free and tolerant acceptance of the religious other in a secular political sphere, is folly. When we compensate for a lack of self-criticism among those hostile to us, by redoubling out own self-criticism; when we fail to challenge others to engage in self-criticism lest we embarrass them or hurt their feelings; when we prevent ourselves from accurately assessing other cultures lest we make politically incorrect statements, we only make things worse.
In fact, we actually deny autonomy to the “other” – he becomes a cipher for our politically-correct imagination – and we strengthen the very forces that lead to war, even as we pursue peace. Rather than show them the respect of expecting them to self-criticize when appropriate, we condescend, treat them as incapable, compensate for their failures rather than embarrass them by drawing some moral lines. This silent prejudice of no-expectations treats the “other” as an animal: no one rebukes a cat for mousing. And in so doing, we betray not only our own hard-fought accomplishments, but all those people in the world – the women, the slaves, the victims of genocide – who are crushed by merciless elites. “He who is merciful to the cruel will be cruel to the merciful,” says the Talmud
Alas, when those cruel elites turn to us and say, “how dare you criticize us; first remove the beam in your eye,” we don’t have the nerve to laugh in their face and, say, “who do you take us for, fools?”
Well demopaths do take us for moral fools, and most often they’re right. If we do not have the courage to stand up for our exceptional moral accomplishments and talents, if our humanists of the 21st century don’t learn to identify and confront demopaths, then the humanities of the 21st century will be neither triumphant, nor a participant in a peaceful and prosperous world.