Spain: between two extremes

Albert Camus once described a nationalist as someone who loves their country too much.

I recently wrote a small reflection on Catalonia based on my experiences of living in Barcelona for more than ten years. This reflection was not – contrary to what some might think – motivated by a certain political position. I think all political positions are legal, but not all are equally reasonable.

Instead, I wrote it because I am professionally interested in how a group of people finds ways to feel superior to another group of people. It happens everywhere, not just in politics, not just in Spain. This, for me, is the lowest part of what makes us human: the need to discriminate, to find someone else to put down.

It’s a tendency practiced by Catalan separatists – not by all Catalans as such. That is to say – with emphasis – Catalonia does not have a problem with Spain, but some people in Catalonia do.

The Catalan separatists or nationalists, however, are not alone. There exist at least two extreme groups in Spain. On one side, you have the Catalan separatists, who see themselves as victims superior to the rest of Spain. They operate with one logic: regardless of the problem, it’s always Spain’s fault, and independence is always the solution.

Such logic is convenient because it hinders any kind of critical self-reflection.

One the other side, the extremists are Spanish nationalists, who use more or less the same rhetorical strategy: an emotional, almost sentimental tone, self-victimization, and self-righteousness.

In between the two extremes exist many critical, nuanced, reflective voices full of compassion and respect. They exist in Catalonia and the rest of Spain. Unfortunately, many journalists tend to focus on the drama of the extremes – perhaps myself included in my previous opinion.

During my stay in Spain, I have travelled around this beautiful country and spoken with people in different cities, such as Santiago Compostela, Vigo, Girona, Valencia, Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada, and Madrid, and many small pueblos. I’ve seen the flourishing of ecological and feminist awareness. I’ve seen willingness to explore and reconcile with the country’s past.

Travelling around Spain, I have met people who are proud of the divergence and plurality of customs, languages, and cultures in their country. They are proud of being part of something richer than their own region. It’s something rather special. It recalls what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze aimed at when he spoke about how we can maintain our singularity and still be part of something bigger: not by reducing these differences, not by becoming the same, but by nurturing our differences with respect for others’ differences. There is something generous in this approach.

A possible road away from these two extremes might be to implement teaching of philosophy and critical thinking in public schools. Educate empathic, kind, critical citizens who respect different opinions but always question from where they emerge, while appealing to the good in your opponent’s human qualities. Make sure that future citizens have both the knowledge and the courage to use their minds. Today, many people tend to only listen to opinions that suit their own beliefs.

Another important element is to cultivate a more critical journalism that avoids being seduced by the populistic rhetoric of the Catalan separatist as well as the Spanish nationalist. Instead, journalists can try to unfold the plural voices guided not by resentment but by curiosity and compassion. Critical journalism can help us reflect by asking the right questions, not by giving solutions. Consensus never guarantees truth; instead, what I aim at is a pluralism that unfolds any given situation in various perspectives. Critical journalists can emphasize that being against Spain per se (or any other group of people) is literally being against everyone and everything but yourself. It’s discrimination. It’s narcissism even.

‘The problem is the big, fat ego,’ as the philosopher Iris Murdoch once said. Or, as I would put it: holders of all extreme positions are, by definition, either too lazy to think or too ignorant to do so!

I’ve seen all kinds of people living here, all forms of life. Spain is not a perfect democracy (if such a thing even exists), but between the two extremes, a generous and kind people emerges. They are the reason why I live here.

Finn Janning, PhD, is a writer and philosopher.

First published in Spain in English.

Når livet blomstrer

Den 28. november udkommer min nye bog, Når livet blomstrer – Breathe with Jeppe Hein.

Jeg har skrevet bogen i forlængelse af den franske filosofs Gilles Deleuzes ide om, at “livet ikke er personligt.” Snarere er livet et casestudie, der kan rumme varierende grader af eksemplariske fortællinger.

Denne tilgang valgte jeg af flere grunde.

For det første, som en kærlig måde at konfrontere Jeppe Heins narcissisme på, uden at dømme denne. For det andet, tænkte jeg, at det kunne være sjovt, at skrive en slags biografi præget af tidens tendenser – fra 70erne og frem til i dag. For det tredje, for at vise hvordan hans kunst i høj grad er formet af tiden, fx den øgede konkurrencementalitet og teknologiske acceleration, der for mange, inklusive Jeppe Hein, fører til stress og angst. Efterfølgende finder mange, inklusive Jeppe Hein, mening i den fremvoksende spiritualitet.

Så, bogen er både eksemplarisk og en mytedræber. Den er et stykke liv på papir!

Forlaget skriver bl.a.:

“I 2009 sidder Jeppe Hein i en flyver i 10.000 meters højde, da han får et angstanfald og ikke kan trække vejret. Efter et år med over 15 udstillinger og utallige rejser siger hans krop simpelthen stop.

”Jeg måtte lære at trække vejret igen,” fortæller Jeppe Hein i bogen.

Forfatter og filosof Finn Janning har været ven med Jeppe Hein, siden de var helt unge. I bogen følger han på nærmeste hold Jeppe Heins menneskelige og spirituelle udvikling efter hans burn out og viser, hvordan den er uløseligt knyttet sammen med hans kunst.

Undervejs i beretningen om Jeppe Heins spirituelle og kunstneriske rejse giver Finn Jannings indsigtsfulde analyser en baggrund for at forstå, hvad der er på spil. Han kommer rundt om filosoffer som Aristoteles og Kierkegaard, den spirituelle tyske lærer Eckhart Tolle, forfatterne Albert Camus og Peter Høeg og mange flere, og dermed bliver bogen en slags filosofisk monografi, som læseren kan bruge til selv at overveje nogle af livets store spørgsmål.

Janning udvikler i bogen en eksistensfilosofi i forlængelse af kunstnerens spiritualitet og værker.”

God fornøjelse …

Når livet blomstrer

Against separatism

Fernando Savater’s Contra el separatismo is like a breathe of fresh air in a Catalonia marked by years of frustration, hate, manipulation, falsehood, and a scary nationalism.

Savater is a Spanish philosopher and prolific writer, who examines ethical issues. His writing usually covers topics in an existential way; for instance, he explored what makes a life worth living.

Recently, he published a small pamphlet, Contra el separatismo (Eng. Against Separatism). This was a collection of articles that he had published over the last few months in El Pais, La Cronica and La Republica. Most of the articles could probably be found on the Internet, so the necessity of a book is debatable. However, its errand is undoubtedly needed.

The objective of the book is to describe separatism in Catalonia, which is thought to be an increasingly problematic region in Spain since October.

Savater opened his pamphlet with an essay clarifying the difference between nationalism, which he considers to be a “collective narcissism,” and separatism. Nationalism can be either kind or pathologically aggressive. Normally, when we refer to nationalism, we don’t think of special national dishes or sports but something more sinister and dangerous. The Catalan separatists are nationalistic much in the same way that Albert Camus once described a German friend “as someone who loved his country too much.”

Still, Savater stresses that Catalonia is not simply an example of nationalism. It’s even worse. It’s separatism, which is characterized by a hatred towards anything Spanish. This must sound rather harsh for outsiders to hear. However, based on my own experiences while living almost ten years in Barcelona, I must admit that Savater is precise in his diagnosis. Hatred does exist. Some of it comes was frustration, lack of recognition, and some of it is, unfortunately, deliberately passed on from one generation to the next.

Let me emphasize that this hatred exists among the Catalan separatists, but not among all Catalans. Many Catalans view themselves as Spanish. However, the separatists have dominated the public dialogue due to the depth of their hatred. Luckily this seems to be changing as more and more people are able to see a more accurate picture of Catalonia. Additionally, more people are finding the courage to speak out against the separatists’ hateful rhetoric.

Savater writes, “Separatism is not a political opinion or a romantic dream, like nationalism; rather it’s a deliberate aggression, calculated and coordinated against the democratic institutions.” They only focus on their own needs. For example, the former Catalan president Puigdemont implies that he is speaking on behalf of all Catalans even though his viewpoints do not align with more than half of the Catalan population based on the results of the election. Furthermore, the Catalan separatists characterize themselves as victims of the Spanish state. For example, when the Spanish government criticized the Catalan schools in regards to indoctrination practices and the improper use of some teachers’ power over students, the Catalans school spoke about being violated. Rather than critically investigating and reflecting on whether wrongdoings really had taken place, they chose instead to play the victim. I would say that the Catalan separatists are known for a complete inability or an unwillingness to self-reflect.

Savater continues saying, “The devil is, etymologically, the separator, dia-bolum, the one who disconnect and destroys the established bonds. The task of the devil is anti-humanism par excellence, separate those who live together by obeying them to detest one another … painfully discord their hearts.” Again, I believe he is right when I reflect on my experiences. Everything has been reduced to either black or white over the last few months. This is especially true if you’re among the separatists, who often have no decorum when sharing their opinions. It is as if they can’t imagine that anyone would disagree with them.

Furthermore, Savater mentions that the Catalan separatists seem to excel in post-truth. For example, the fact of having an emotion depends on what the persons’s beliefs are, not whether these beliefs are true or false. Puigdemont excels in playing with emotional statements in order to establish and control certain beliefs by awaking certain emotions, for example, hate and mistrust. In the eyes of Aristoteles, Puigdemont is an irresponsible leader because he doesn’t care about the truth, only his political objective. Some other emotional claims made by the Catalan separatist are that they have compared themselves with Kosovo or Tibet, and have suggested that Puigdemont is a martyr like Nelson Mandela. Of course, this only shows their total ignorance and a lack of respect. Mandela fought heroically and inspired others to fight against a racist-regime. He fought to heal his country and to bring black and white people together. I assume that the separatists’ hatred blinds them to notice the clear differences between Puigdemont and Mandela. At times, living in Catalonia is like being part of an absurd theater.

Savater touches upon many things even though the text is short. He mentions how the Catalan separatists have tried to use the Catalan language as a racial marker. He points out how the education system usually is the first priority for every democracy. Of course, at this point, he could emphasize that the only reason why the Catalan school has been able to indoctrinate its students is because the Spanish government has neglected Catalan schools for so long. The problem, however, is not that the Catalans want to protect and cultivate their language and culture; rather when this care becomes exclusive and mean toward what is Spanish.

Apropos the educational system, then it is scary to meet young people in Catalonia who are not aware that the Spanish Civil War was a war where all of Spain was fighting Franco, not just the Catalans. Many young people in Catalonia are not aware that the last city to fall to Franco was Madrid, for example. It is also scary to witness the hatred towards Spain and everything Spanish, from language to football jerseys and even a refusal to travel around in Spain. I have met grown-ups who claim that all Spanish people are fascist. Parents don’t want their children to speak Spanish even though many other parents elsewhere would love their children to master two languages.

Savater also addresses the Catalan media. He argues that EITB, TV3, Catalunya Ràdio are manipulative and indoctrinating. Even the children programs on TV3 try to manipulate the children. How it is that parents accept this is beyond my imagination.

Savater lists seven reasons why separatism should be fought and prevented in the future:

  1. It’s antidemocratic.
  2. It’s reactionary in its beliefs in one land, one ethnic identity, and one language.
  3. It’s antisocial.
  4. It’s ruining the economy.
  5. It’s destabilizing
  6. It creates bitterness and frustrations.
  7. It creates dangerous precedents.

In a modern democracy, all citizens should be equal regardless of their birthplace, language, gender, skin color, their religion or philosophy. All of these qualities or characteristics are relevant to your personal biography, Savater says, but they should not give you extra influence as a citizen. In a democracy, all people have the same rights. In a democratic state, there are no Catalans, Spanish, or Danish people just like there are no white, black or Hispanic people. There are no homosexual or lesbians either. In the eyes of a democratic government, these identities are not relevant. People are all just people. Unless, of course, you’re a Catalan separatist.

Against separatism is an important pamphlet despite its short length. Mainly because the intellectuals in Spain, including the artists, have been neglecting or ignorant about the Catalan and Spanish problem for too long. The politicians could look toward Nelson Mandela as a role model and help to initiate the reconciliation process. Heal the country with compassion.

Also, I believe that artists can change how we see things, can help us to better understand differences. Art can open up our minds. It is their responsibility to shake our old habits and to assist in our growth. Nurture empathy and compassion. This is needed in Spain where the wounds from the civil war are still present. There is an explicit hatred existing among some, not all, Catalans towards the rest of Spain. Savater has illustrated that he has the knowledge and the courage to address this. I would embrace his pamphlet even for this reason alone.

With this publication, Savater has made it possible for me to focus on more gratifying issues than the exhausting political situation in Catalonia. For that I’m grateful.

Contra el separatismo

Are we thinking?

I’ve been unfairly slow in writing my review of Elizabeth Minnich’s book, The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking. This is unfair because this is the kind of book everyone should read. It’s that good and that important. I may even use the cliché and say it’s timely. We live in a post-truth age, where fake news seems to manipulate everyone and keep them from acting responsibly, that is, from thinking.

Let me start with an example from my own backyard. I live in Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain, a place that has really been put on the map in the last few months. Here, Catalan separatist or nationalists play with people’s emotions and try to generate a certain belief, regardless of whether it’s true or not. For example, Spain is not a dictatorship; people are free in Catalonia to express their opinions. The Catalan language is not threatened; rather it’s spoken everywhere. All things the Catalan separatist claim. Furthermore, although I disagree with the imprisonment of certain Catalan politicians, they are not in prison for their ideas but for conducting illegal activities. While the Spanish government is not a perfect democracy, it is, nevertheless, still a democracy.

Thoughtlessness can also be related to the misuse of some concepts or ideas such as freedom of expression. Recently, a Catalan school teacher blamed one of his student in front of the whole class because the student’s father worked in the national police force. The teacher claimed that the police beat everyone and even killed someone. Afterwards, a Catalan politician said that, in Catalan schools, teachers have freedom to express themselves. That is, the teachers are free to say and act as they see fit. This is an extreme example, and not common, but I know that in Denmark such behavior would cause numerous problems and lead to scrutinizing the schools. In Catalonia, politicians seem to lack the capacity to reflect critically on their own behavior and ideas.

What does this have to do with Minnich’s book? Everything. She addresses how evil emerges when we “go along thoughtlessly—without paying attention, reflecting, questioning.” In other words, our lack of thinking, of critically evaluating what happens—including our own thoughts and behavior—can lead to many evils in this world. Thus, critical thinking is mandatory for all democracies. Minnich asks “What, how, are they thinking? Are we thinking? . . . How could they make sense of what they were doing?” These questions are alarming when put in a context like apartheid, Rwanda, or the sexual abuse of women and children.

The title of her book is an allusion to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, where Arendt concluded that Nazi crimes against Jews were also crimes against humanity. She showed how a totalitarian government affects every bureaucracy by dehumanizing them and motivating people to act without questioning.  Arendt called this “sheer thoughtlessness.”

Minnich continues, “I found myself reversing her (in)famous phrase and, having done so, thinking that perhaps it would have helped had she spoken, as she did not, of ‘the evil of banality,’ rather than—or, as I now think, in addition to—‘the banality of evil.’ To think of evil as ‘banal’ was then altogether too difficult.” Here, Minnich stresses that when someone has done something wrong, we tend to ask them, “What were you thinking?”

The foundational thesis of her book is that people who are doing evil are not thinking.

Minnich offers many examples in her book: From fiction like Camus’ The Plague to Darfur and Rwanda. She also develops two key concepts to help us understand the relationship between evil and thoughtlessness: intensive versus extensive evil and intensive versus extensive good.

Extensive evil refers to horrific harm-doing that persists for months, even years. For example, genocide, slavery, apartheid, financial exploitation, mistreatment of workers, or, as has recently become evident, when “powerful” men exploit and abuse women. It’s tempting to see the kind of people who do these things as psychopaths or sick. (I can’t help but see Weinstein and his ilk as sick.) However, Minnich emphasizes that these activities are done by inconspicuous people like your quiet next-door neighbor. She mentions several alarming examples from South Africa and Rwanda. And here we must collectively take responsibility if we witness any kind of wrongdoing. For instance, this is happening right now through the #MeToo Campaign. Such campaigns can relieve some of the pain; they can help, encourage, and illustrate that another world is possible,  one of trust, respect, and equality. Similarly, I would argue that when a school system becomes political, promoting rigid nationalism and legitimizing hate, as in some cases in Catalonia, then we must look at this with care—even if we only speak of a handful of concrete examples. Ignorance should never be an option.

Minnich emphasizes that we should be careful not to confuse extensive evil with intensive evil. Intensive evils “are great harms done by one or a few people. In that sense, they are contained . . . When they burst into our lives, almost all of us are genuinely spectators, not participants, not enablers, not perpetrators.”

She says extensive evil spreads like a plague, whereas intensive evil is like a poison. The book is full of such precise literary and metaphorical examples that make it not only a pleasure to read but also easy to follow.

The problem, Minnich says, is that we think of extensive evil as intensive. That is, we may convince ourselves that only a few schools are indoctrinating their students, only a few men are raping women, only a few people are sexually abusing children, only a few organizations are over-stressing and discriminating against their workforce. “Thinking of all evils as if they were intensive—taboo, smacking of possession, shocking to still-functioning conventional society, hence readily felt to be anti-rational—blinds us to the on-the-ground realities especially of extensive evils that are enabled, instead, by such familiar motivators as careerism and greed . . .”

What to do? Well, we could all strengthen our vison. It’s a matter of “seeing, admitting, and thinking through the realization that there have been, and somewhere now are, times in which what ‘everyone is doing’ is morally, politically, deadly wrong.”

Luckily, we can also cultivate critical thinking. Through education, we can try to eradicate automatic thinking, like when some Catalan separatist always declare, “It’s Spain’s fault.” Automatic thinking is just confirming our default-setting without any reflection about what actually takes place.

In the last part of the book, Minnich offers a beautiful reminder of what philosophy is and what it can do. “Socrates was a practitioner and teacher of thinking and not knowledge.” That is, he was open, curious, and constantly questioning not only why and what people were thinking but also how they were living according to their thoughts or beliefs.

Like Arendt, Minnich stresses how stupidity and thoughtlessness are not the same thing. “Very smart people can be very thoughtless just like the rest of us.” This emphasizes that we need to be aware of how the system is nurturing a certain kind of behavior. Here, many studies in social psychology can inspire readers who wish to explore this further.

Still, some may ask, how can we really know if we are trying to critically and openly assess what is happening? Minnich says it clearly: “Self-respect is earned not by recognition, praise, status, net worth, power, influence or anything else externally conferred but by continuing to recognize ourselves as someone we can live with, and not be ashamed?”

I agree. I think of how some politicians seem incapable of being ashamed. They are determined to play the game well, to advance their career, and to achieve their objectives, regardless of the disagreement and suffering of the people they are supposed to govern. Is it arrogance? Minnich notes, “. . . Sometimes we do stop and think, and simply say, at the right moment, the No that is actually a profound Yes to what we will not violate because that is something we just cannot do and still live with ourselves.”

Yet, some people never seem to stop and think. How can some live with themselves?

Elizabeth Minnich’s The Evil of Banality merits a better and more thorough review than what I can provide here. Nevertheless, it deserves to be read. Recommend it to your friends, especially if you know someone who is in charge of other people’s destinies. It is well written, very well argued, full of good examples, and it is inspiring.

See also philosopher Skye Cleary’s interview with Elizabeth Minnich here.



Camus: A Life Worth Living

The French writer, Albert Camus was ‘a moralist who insisted that while the world is absurd and allows for no hope, we are not condemned to despair.’

Like this, the historian Robert Zaretsky presents Camus in the book, A Life Worth Living — with the subtitle, Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Camus was a moralist, but not a moralizer. He did not judge from a higher or more lucrative position, but tried to grasp what took place. He tried to create meaning where none was given.

Zaretsky organizes his portrait of Camus around five key-concepts: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity and Revolt. The concepts are strongly related; that is to say that certain points in Camus’ thinking are repeated, but never in a tiring way. On the contrary, Zaretsky develops an intimate portrait of Camus showing how it most likely was for him to be in this world. Camus is placed both in his historical context — whether it is the struggles between Algeria and France, or between Sartre and Camus — and in conversation with contemporary thinkers.

What do we learn about Camus?

Like Nietzsche, Camus detested any kind of resentment. He knew that being faithful was not a virtue in itself. Instead, one only ought to be faithful towards a life served in happiness. Happiness, therefore, seems to be the main thread in Camus’ struggle. Not as something shallow, but as an existential guide that could help him balance his thoughts. This is an interesting reading.

Happiness is, of course, a difficult task for Camus. First of all, the world is absurd. It is without any meaning. One must invent meaning, just as one must ‘create happiness in order to protect against the universe of unhappiness.’ At times one can only do so by being silent. As Camus says, ‘we do not write in order to say things, but in order not to say them.’

Camus was a pragmatic. He did not idealize life or describe it through theoretical abstractions. He wished to witness life as an experience — no matter how painful or beautiful it appeared. This practical approach caused him several problems, going from his battles with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, especially their idealized Marxism, to the confrontation with an Algerian student who, the day before Camus received the Nobel Prize in literature, criticized Camus for his silence over Algeria. At one point, Camus famously said: ‘People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.’

Zaretsky portrays Camus as a real human being, albeit a bit more gifted than most of us. His most impressive achievement is, I think, that he succeeds in describing Camus’ quest for meaning as if it was a psychological case-study. Recent studies in psychology show that a one-sided quest for happiness can result in the opposite. Instead, having a purpose or being able to produce meaning is more important to make a life flourish. ‘Today,’ Camus said in an interview, ‘happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it.’ Sixty years later, happiness seems to be something quite ordinary, vague even, that the majority of people like to expose. And yet, whether eccentric or ordinary, a deep felt happiness — then as now — is something that requires ‘attention and effort.’ There is no quick fix for achieving a life worth living.

For Camus, suffering is part of thinking. It is related with one’s active involvement in life. Paying attention. Trying to make sense. One might realize that violence is ‘unjustifiable,’ because of one’s compassion and empathy. As a consequence, one acts. ‘Rebellion, Camus declares, is born of the spectacle of irrationality.’ Like the ancient Greeks, Camus based his thoughts on the idea of limits, Zaretsky says. Nothing should be carried to extremes. Nothing should be denied beforehand. The quest for meaning never stops.

I believe that Zaretsky’s book  is not only interesting for readers of Camus, laymen as well as scholars (i.e. scholars from various disciplines, e.g., literature, philosophy, history and psychology), but also for anyone who would like to change the state of things. It can serve as a toolbox for future moralist! Changing the world requires more than a glittering or candied ideal. In fact, it requires a courageous and honest sensuality that allows one to be touched by life and death as something real — an experience.

Camus questioned life from within this life, the only life there is. No appeal is possible. Still, if we trust Zaretsky, Camus lived a life worth living because of his ongoing quest for meaning, a quest that brought him moments of happiness. ‘For Camus, true nobility lies in lucid acceptance of the world, its beauties and its limits, its joys and its demands, its inhabitants and our common lot,’ Zaretsky concludes beautifully. Absurdity might ‘ambush us on a street corner or a sun-blasted beach. But so, too, do beauty and the happiness that attends it.’ All it requires is attention and effort.

This book is worth reading.

Finn Janning, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer.

Review first published in Metapsychology, Volume 18, Issue 30