donderdag 23 juni 2016

Poverty of ideas


Already for a long time they were very annoying, those short fuses, the abuse in digital space, and the violence on the streets. But those fuses are so repulsively short now that everyone seems to get bothered by them.

With some benevolence one could derive this from the commotion surrounding the resurgent debate on racism and integration. In it nuanced positions seem hardly to exist anymore, and little is needed to be reproached for being a ‘dirty racist’ or a ‘cancer Negro’ or ‘goat fucker’.

I recognize myself in the sigh of writer Sana Valiulina as she cries out: why is interaction so mediocre in our society? And the echo of this lamentation from the Brussels teacher Bruno Derbaix: why is it so difficult to talk about ideas? He arrives at this question by his reflection on the attack in Zaventem which involved one of his pupils. “My pupil Najim Laachraoui was not a bad boy. As a teenager he dreamed of a society that would appreciate Islam”.

Prior to his sigh Derbaix asked the following questions.

To Najim: why did you exchange your ideal of a peaceful ‘perfect religion’ for savagery and destruction?

To ourselves: why did we for nearly forty years allow Wahabism to become so dominant in the mosques, bookstores, the neighborhoods. Why didn’t we realize how dangerous that was for the well-meaning Muslims?

To our educators: why didn’t we give more resonance and resources to the forces that strove after change in education?

To our Muslim intellectuals: why didn’t they make more efforts to give room to that other Islam on the Internet, in the mosques and in the public space?

And then comes the – in my eyes – fundamental question: “Why is it so difficult in this society to talk about ideas? Why is there in the schools, in neighborhoods, in the universities so little space to exchange ideas, to confront our differences with each other, to conduct a dialogue. How did we let create a world where there is so little discussion about religion except in terms of stereotypes and templates?”

Or do I mix now two entirely different issues in an unduly way: the verbal violence which Valiulina is talking about and the really physical violence of Derbaix? One could  say: these are indeed completely different things.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think it is at least remarkable that Valiulina and Derbaix from the different angles of verbal violence on the one hand and physical violence on the other, arrive at the same fundamental question: why are many conversations so flat, whence the inability of our society to talk about ideas? That’s no coincidence.

Valiulina herself attempts to reply to her question, and she lays the blame for the observed inability with neoliberalism. Her reasoning is as follows. Neoliberalism focuses on rationality and on the creation of as much wealth as possible. As long as you  strive for that, you are ok – according to that ideology. You do not have to worry any longer about moral issues or the irrational side of life. Surrender to the system is all you need, and above all: don’t make things more complicated than they are.

Surrender to the system thus implies: don’t ask big questions anymore. And in return be rewarded through the attractions of our affluent society, like endless consumption opportunities, social media, festivals and trips to the other side of the world. Material abundance instead of wealth of ideas.

But, says Valiulina, the deepest human questions come from man’s dark, irrational side. Which require elaboration and ideas, but indeed they are ignored by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has nothing to do with art, literature and psychoanalysis – as we can notice in recent years in the Netherlands – and that explains the defective opportunities to talk about emotions and irrational motives. They go underground and express themselves in the primitiveness of nationalism, fundamentalism and racism.

With this statement Valiulina does have a point, I think. But the trouble goes back further than the rise of neoliberalism around 1980. I remember already from before - from my student days – that I disliked the fact that good conversations could take place only late at night and after some alcohol. Ie conversations in which ideas could flow, the entire reality could be addressed and not just a superficial part of it.

Apparently it’s been much longer that in our society, behind the facade of economic and civic life, a completely separate parallel world lies hidden in which more complex – and often obscure – motives dominate. We knew this already from the stories of SS officers who conducted big horrors during daytime, and during evenings and weekends were so charmingly busy with their family and children. Some of it is to be found in the pattern Minister Asscher saw behind the abuse on the internet – he could just click through to the cozy family snapshots of the abusers.

Valiulina points to the existence of those dark parallel world, and she says that we do not only not know how to cope with it – such appears from the abuse and violence. We also prefer to flee in consumption, festivals and trips.

We will yet have to get used to it: talking about the things that really matter. And then also discuss them in a sensible way.

Also see Parrhèsia