I was in bed at the weekend listening to the radio, when I heard Joe Biden's acceptance speech. He talked about uniting America, about renewal, and about joy, which was strange, because I was feeling relief at not having another 4 years of Trump, I wasn't feeling anything particularly about 4 years of Biden. I suspect also that around 70 million Americans weren't feeling joy at 4 years of Biden either.
Then I was left reflecting on how this theme of "Great Renewal" is played out during acceptance speeches, and then asking myself just how different was Biden's speech compared to Trump's. Not that much, not really. And if I stand back, and look at this from the outside, our political systems need to act out a process of renewal to create legitimacy.
Which leaves me with a question, is unity possible? And if we are to answer that question, then it occurs to me the question we really need to focus on is what causes division in the first place.
Identity and discord
The way I understand people, including myself, is to see them as being made up of overlapping patterns. These patterns are a response to our environment. They are a form of lifelong learning. These patterns filter reality, so they also determine what can be known and what can be understood.
When we meet people whose reality filters do not match ours we feel discord, disharmony, and importantly threat. We experience division.
I was at a training session a while back, and the trainer was talking about the blocks people experience in saying what they want. I commented as a child I learnt how to to avoid wanting altogether, as a defence against disappointment.
After a bit of back of forth, exploring this phenomenon, the trainer then described my lack of wanting as an inability of me being able to say what I wanted, as though our discussion had never taken place!
As therapists we often have idealised descriptions of what it means to be human in our heads. The idea that a human being can dispense with wanting is alien to that description, so the idea can not be absorbed, it's filtered out.
The key part is that these descriptions also often tie with our sense of identity. Sometimes they can be fundamental to our identity, so when someone like me challenges them, they become a threat, which requires defence.
What we want is for the threat to be neutralised, for the person in front of us to think like us, so the discord and disharmony settles down again, so we don't feel like we are about to jump off of a cliff.
When we meet someone who says they genuinely support Trump for instance, we will often try to present our completely reasoned argument as to why they are wrong. We hope they will see the light, and come around to our way of thinking, which in practice rarely if ever happens. What actually happens is the gulf between us grows ever wider. We then decide they are either too stupid, or too immoral, to ever understand...
... if only they realised just how stupid and how wrong they sound!!!
Exasperation, resentment, anger, and even hatred then follows.
Why can't we all just do the right thing?
We all want to do the right thing, right? You don't want to do the wrong thing, do you?
The phrasing above is deliberate. I am highlighting its expectational nature, by adopting a shaming stance, by shifting from we to you in the second sentence.
Notice also how this phrase, "doing the right thing" is constructed. Notice the use of the definite article "the" in this phrase. By using "the" we are referring to a specific moral action. Using it implies that there is a singular correct action, and that it can be known.
People when they talk about wanting to do the right thing, seem to be describing an innate or felt sense of what that right thing is. When I think about acting morally, I don't really have this sense, I usually get competing options, which I have to think through. And the reason I don't get this sense, is because "doing the right thing" is acquired culturally, and my Mother didn't convey the idea that there was a ready made set of rules to rely on. Instead we would sit down and talk. What she taught me was that you had to discover your own rules.
In counselling speak, doing the right thing is called an "introject," which is an internalised social rule acquired from the people around us. And once you have internalised this rule, lots of other social rules can be hung from it.
These social rules form a fabric by which we can make sense of the world around us. They also define what can be known, and how it is known - notice how "doing the right thing" restricts us to a single known moral choice. It is one of the patterns which filter reality for us, I talked about earlier.
Now imagine two people each with a sense of "doing the right thing," except that those right things don't overlap, in fact they clash, and yet both individuals believe that their way of doing things is the right way, and any other way is the wrong way!
Does this sound like the dialogues we are having on Trump, Johnson, or Brexit?
When doing the right thing goes terribly wrong
Adolf Eichmann whose presentation at his trial formed the basis of Hanah Arendt's five part series where she famously dubbed the phrase "banality of evil."
She was struck by just how ordinary Eichmann was. From this observation she developed her theory that evil rather than being separate, other, or inhuman was very much an ordinary, everday phenomenon.
This view of Eichmann was and still is controversial. What Hannah Arendt observed was the persona Eichmann presented for the trial. There was another side to Eichmann who described himself as "a fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright."
What interests me here is Eichmann's defence. He claimed that he was merely following orders, and was unaware of what has happening which was demonstrated to be false at his trial, but he also argued it was his moral duty to do his job diligently.
For Eichmann "doing the right thing" meant doing his job efficiently as possible, which in this case meant organising the transport of millions of people to the concentration camps.
A matter of culture
To me this story of Eichmann seeing himself as doing the right thing makes sense, by which I mean I can understand how Eichmann's evil is banal.
However I can also imagine, an alternative and possibly more common view, which is to not understand how Eichmann didn't realise what he was doing was monstrous? That the only possible explanation was that there was something wrong with Eichmann which led him to commit the crimes he did.
I think the answer is that Eichmann's moral view is dependent on the culture in which he grew up. Anti-semitic sentiment which had subsided in Germany up to the 1900's was rising again following WWI. The signing of the treaty of Versailles was seen as a national humiliation particularly by the aristocracy and the military. The person who signed the treaty was Matthias Erzberger, a Jewish pacifist politician, and was regarded as a traitor by the political right.
If you think about Eichmann growing up and being influenced by this cultural framework. A humiliated nation seeking to reassert it's nationalistic zeal, with a group of people who were seen as betraying Germany's rightful place in the world. I can see how this framework sets him up to play an active role in the coming atrocities.
What I want to challenge here is the idea that values such as the sanctity of human life are innate, I am arguing that morality is relative. It's a cultural product.
Insiders and outsiders
For Hannah Arendt, Eichmann's real crime was his "inability to think" by which she meant his inability to empathise, to put himself into the position of the people he was condemning to death.
We do not universally empathise with other human beings, empathy for others is not innate. We empathise more readily with people with a shared sense of commonality - insiders. We empathise much less with people who we see as being unlike us - outsiders.
By making people outsiders, who are unlike us right thinking people, we can make the outside group no longer deserving of our empathy, we acquire Hannah Arendt's "inability to think"
To me Eichmann makes sense, there isn't anything particularly remarkable about him. His dehumanising nationalistic ideals are in Hannah Arendt's terms, banal.
So why spend time looking at an outlier like Eichmann?
For me firstly it was about looking at the ideas of Hannah Arendt, and secondly I reasoned that if I can understand someone like Eichmann, then I could also make sense of more contemporary ways in which we are divided. And if I can understand how we are divided, then perhaps I can understand what kinds of things will bring us closer together.
Biden in his speech talked alot about unity, and he also mentioned how people needed to listen to each other again. I wonder if that is what will happen, because listening to voices who present controversial, alien or uncomfortable view points is never easy.
Biden mentioned alot of different people that need listening to, but I noticed there was one group of people he didn't mention. It's tempting to dismiss, deny, defend or argue, rather than understand how a person comes to believe as they do.
Chris McGlade presents an alternative, working class, and perhaps controversial view of the world. His poem describes how liberal progressive views can be experienced as oppressive. He also argues that the language of liberal progressive politics is divisive. That PC language reduces people to labels, so feeding the very thing it's trying to prevent.
The video contains swearing
One of the privileges of being a counsellor is talking to people about all sorts of things. If I ever started this journey with a sense that doing the right thing was actually a thing, I have long since lost it. I have been exposed to so many ways of being.
I have come to realise the idealised descriptions of humanity I learnt when I was training, are just that. Idealised descriptions, they aren't a panacea, and they certainly aren't a universal blue print.
And I sometimes get the privilege of talking to people about their racism, and when I do that, their racism starts making sense. It moves away from the stereotyped idea that it is about ignorance, and instead becomes grounded in the person's experience.
And I also get to find out some of the reasons why people like Trump, and interestingly one of the reasons is to do with trust. Politicians are seen as deceptive and manipulative. It's very difficult to know whether a politcian means what they say, or if they are saying it just to manipulate you.
But Trump on the other hand just says what he thinks, there is no filter. He for instance does not pretend he isn't racist. And when he lies, it's obvious he is lying. We all know why he is lying, his naked self-interest is evident, unlike politicians who often hide their self-interest.
And when I listen to views like that, I ask myself just how different is this view really from my own.
I think Hannah Arendt is right, we repair division, which is in itself banal, by employing our ability to think.
Image by chayka1270 on pixabay.com