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.

Is it happening again?

‘It is happening again,’ says the giant to FBI Special agent Dale Cooper in David Lynch’s mystery series Twin Peaks. This sentence came to me today, as the trial against 12 Catalan separatist leaders began in Madrid. The sentence made me reflect:

Witnessing the Catalan separatists’ campaign for independence, I couldn’t help but recall the warning signals revealed by my old German teacher when he showed us the symbols and manipulation used by German supremacists.

What concerned me was not just the flags; rather, it was their degradation of the rest of Spain while simultaneously elevating themselves. Similarly, when the separatists claimed to be victims, suppressed as an endangered species, I saw no real victims, only a very calculated form of control (I don’t refer to the unnecessary police brutality October 2017, but to life in general in Catalonia, see also Compassion in Catalonia).

I think that the mixture of creating a culture of victimisation combined with establishing a society of control, where our minds are controlled through unconscious social conditioning, is what makes the Catalan separatists powerful, but also scary if one casts an eye over history.

It’s common to view what is happening in Catalonia through the lens of history, especially the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936 to 1939. And it goes without saying that General Francisco Franco ranks among the worst dictators in human history.

Still, some simple facts should be pointed out: today, Spain is not a totalitarian regime; Spain is no more Francoland than Germany today is Hitlerland. Contentions to the contrary are as incongruous as they are wrong.

To clarify another fact: the Catalan language and culture are not under threat today. On the contrary, instead of giving children the opportunity of a bilingual education, most schools in Catalonia teach only in Catalan. Spanish is being taught as a foreign language. Through this, a basic right is being taken away from Spanish citizens.

For the separatists, language is not a means of communication, but an identity marker; it’s a password that separates ‘true’ Catalans from those Catalans who feel Spanish. Hereby, the separatists have – quite paradoxically, in the style of Franco – created a control system that differentiates and categorizes people.

What is needed is not more communication for or against; rather, it’s noncommunication; a reflective pause that eludes the current communicative control in which people blindly say and do what they say and do because this is what other people say and do.

Unfortunately, such a break seems unrealistic. The PR campaign of the Catalan separatists can’t stop without everything collapsing. To make things even worse, the turbulence of the last few years has awakened other nationalists in Spain, such as the political party Vox.

Perhaps, here we are at the core of the problem: All identity markers, whether national or cultural, are prisons. Nothing more than fictions. The problem with the novel written by the Catalan separatists is not that it is full of lies and exaggerations; rather, that it’s provincially tiring because all the characters are stereotypical and far too predictable. It’s a fantasy that has lost its grip on reality.

The challenge in Catalonia – and elsewhere in the world – is to regain trust in humanity. So far, the separatists have mostly promoted distrust in everything and everyone but themselves and their world view. Yet, without basic trust between humans, life cannot function.

Democracy is the ongoing organisation of disagreement. For example, I disagree strongly when artists and comedians in Spain are hindered in their right to express themselves freely – including when they criticise nations, politicians, and religions. But I also believe that people who deliberately violate the laws of the constitution should be held juridically responsible. To violate the law is to disrespect the principle of the equality of all citizens. Since all human beings are, by definition, different, the only thing that makes us the same, socially, is the law.

A democracy stresses that we are in it together. All of us. Equally. Here and now. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catalan, Danish, a man, a woman, white, black, speak this language or that. Writing this seems embarrassingly banal, yet I see many around me who appear to have forgotten this fundamental concept. For this reason, ‘it is happening again’: the victimization, the exaggerations, the lies …

This opinion was first published in Spain in English, 17th February 2019

Can I Involve You?

I took the elevator up to the third floor. Normally, I would have taken the stairs in order to get a bit of exercise. But normal doesn’t exist anymore. Did it ever?

I just turned thirty-seven and I am feeling slightly lazy after having written books for the last decade or so. Not that writing books is a cushy job. Quite the contrary. It’s freaking hard work. It’s just that I do it sitting down, five to six hours a day. And I do it every damn day! That takes its toll on the thigh muscles. At times my limbs creak more than the chair I sit on. I know, it’s an overused metaphor, but I can only blame IKEA for this unpleasant sound. Well, nevertheless, or maybe because of all this, I took the elevator. I also didn’t want to arrive sweaty or out of breath. I hate sweaty people. I hate people who are out of breath.

Up on the third floor, a youngish artist had an exhibition called Moving Borders. I had been sent to cover the exhibition for a major Spanish journal. The artist was “up and coming,” they said (the journal in Spain that is) when they called to offer me the assignment. Up and coming. Who isn’t? I thought, but of course I didn’t say that. Like so many other writers before me, I said basically nothing unless in writing. Instead, I watched everything with all of my senses open. I watched and watched until my eyes stung. I looked like the English comedian Marty Feldman. Google him, if you don’t get an instant image.

Read the rest of the short story in Daedalus Magazine

A note on identity politics

I concur with the point that, sometimes, the treatment of certain groups can be so cruel and unfair that you need to confront the opponent head-on, for example, the manner in which women (and men) are confronting the patriarchal culture that does not only characterize the business and academic worlds, but also, and to a greater extent, religious societies. This point is, indeed, urgent and highly welcomed.

Still, I think that the concept of identity politics is problematic. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari use the concept of the rhizome to illuminate the distinctiveness and connectivity of the multiple factors that constitute reality. “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance,” they write. This concept helps us view our lives as assemblages or a mixture of words, institutions, social movements, and countless other things that, while related, are also distinct.

For example, in The Trouble with Unity, the philosopher Cristina Beltrán uses Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome to address some of the problems with identity politics. Using a simple example, she mentions the conception of Latinidad, i.e., the notion that all people from Latin America share the same group identity and cultural consciousness. She notes that many commentators tend to assume that Latinos represent a collective identity. Really? Didn’t people read Edward Said’s work? (e.g. his book Orientalism)

A similar appraisal can be observed for various minority groups, which are assumed to be special or unique instead of the more accurate assertion that we are all different people. The problem with identity politics is that it is tantamount to arborescent thinking. At its worst, arborescent thinking can suppress any other identity: men versus women, white versus black, and vegetarian versus non-vegetarian. Identity politics can also create a culture of victimization—something I often witness in Catalonia, Spain. For more than a generation, schools and politicians in Catalonia have fed the people the idea that they are not part of Spain, that Spain steals from them, and that all problems are caused by Spain. The result is that very few Catalan separatists (not Catalans per se) are prepared to take responsibility or are held accountable for their own actions, as Spain is used as a scapegoat.

Critical thinking and self-reflection, therefore, are arguably rare among people who cling to certain identities as a moral refuge. This is probably related to how convenient a certain position or identity can appear, as if by being feminist, existentialist, Catalan, black, or homosexual, we are, in any way, morally better.

Personally, I believe that Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome can help us find and create value in what takes place without being placed into fixed boxes of identity. I urge for a  more humble and inclusive approach. After all, all identities are prisons hindering us to think freely. Or as Michel Foucault once said: What does it matter who is speaking? It only matters because of hierarchies, domination, and a simple lack of equality and imagination.

What is needed is not more identity politics, but what Deleuze called non-communication, “circuit breakers” that may elude communicative control, whereby people blindly say and do what they do because this is what other people do. There is a scary herd mentality among people who cling onto certain identities.

In short: I can’t really identify 100 percent with any particular identity; however, I can empathize and care for all people.

Originally posted as a comment on the APA Philosophy Blog — (you may wish to check out the link for references to articles on identity politics, and other interesting stuff).

What is happening in Catalonia?

The Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza has won many literary prices, including the Franz Kafka Prize, in 2015, and the Premio Cervantes, in 2016. Recently, he published a short essay entitled Que está pasando en Catalunya (What is happening in Catalonia).

Like many others, he wants to understand what is happening in the Spanish region of Catalonia, especially, as he notes, because of the “ignorance” and “prejudices” that affect many people’s images of Catalonia and Spain.

It is a mistake to reduce the Catalan nationalist and separatist movement solely to origins in the Spanish Civil War, Mendoza says. Franco’s dictatorial regime is gone. Since the late 1970s, Spain has undergone a difficult, but also impressive, democratic transition. Many of those today who refer to “Franco’s ghost” never lived under his regime; if they had, they would probably be more cautious when using terms such as “Francoism,” “fascism,” and “dictatorships” so carelessly. At the very least, they would be cautious out of respect for all those who suffered and died during that time.

It is true, however, that Catalonia, like the rest of Spain, suffered during the Franco years. Furthermore, the Catalans suffered with respect to their language, and many Catalans wanted to separate themselves from Franco (as did many other Spaniards). “No one doubts the antipathy of the Franco regime towards the Catalan language,” Mendoza writes. And yet, not all Catalans were against Franco. He continues, “we should forget that a good part of the young (and not so young) Catalans volunteered for the Falangist movement.”

The idea of Catalonia revolting against Spain is wrong, because this assumption is based on the naïve generalization of claiming that all Spanish or Catalan people are identical. Spain, as a country, suffered under Franco, just as some Catalans followed Franco freely.

Luckily – and I say this ironically – for the contemporary Catalan separatist, “the habit of adapting history to fit contemporary conviction is a distinctive Catalan identity,” Mendoza says.

Anyone with a little knowledge of what has happened in Catalonia will know that facts are treated with creative elegance that places the separatist within the post-truth, alternative facts, or fake news era. Illustratively, Mendoza draws a comparison between France and Catalonia. While France had a glorious past, one to which we can look for compassion, the Catalans never had one. Thus, “to hide what they considered shameful, the imagination and artistic talent of Catalans has been dedicated to inventing a past that the society would have loved to have.”

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the complexity of the separatist lie is by referring to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” a way of using freedom to deny ourselves the freedom we actually have. This is a strategic way in which some Catalans take away their own responsibility to choose by saying that they have no choice. As a consequence, the independence movement has created a culture of victimization where it is easier to blame Spain than to take responsibility for themselves. For example, blaming the centralization of power in Madrid. Interestingly, Mendoza writes, “if there is place where you can speak about savagely centralism it’s in Catalonia. Barcelona has always scorned the second ranked cities …”

Mendoza describes the Catalans as shy and a group whose thinking is not used to getting very far. “They are practical thinkers, but theory and abstraction bores them.” Perhaps, for this reason, some seem to speak of democracy and freedom that, at most, resembles Orwell’s Newspeak. As Mendoza has written elsewhere, if you can freely demonstrate in the street and participate in the Spanish government, then there is, indeed, democracy. However, if you do not wish to accept that democracy is a long and tiring process, then you simply need to organize an illegal election insisting that it is legal.

To begin with, “the participation of Catalans in the Spanish government was encouraged … during the years after the transition.” Unfortunately, with Jordi Pujol, who served as President of the Catalan Generalitat (i.e. the Catalan government) from 1980 to 2003, a systematic plan towards independence was in place: it was found in schools, the media (Mendoza mentions how the Catalan media outlets TV3 and Catalunya Radio moved from being neutral to “separatist organs”), the local government, and via less involvement in the Spanish government. All activities were aimed at creating a Spanish enemy by altering facts. Then came the financial crisis in 2008, which – as is many other places such as in Madrid, Athens, Lisbon – hit the younger generations, and created a healthy and global anticapitalistic movement that, unfortunately, quickly turned into a nationalistic protectionism.

Using his trademark easy-going style, Mendoza writes that, regardless of the mythical stories that Spain and Madrid is stealing, ”you live better in Barcelona than in Madrid.” The morale is: Life is hard, for all, not just the Catalans.

Towards the end of Mendoza’s pedagogical essay, he concludes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” before adding, “Spain is not a bad country. It could be better.” This is true, but so can Denmark, where I am from, and all other countries. Democracy is, after all, a dynamic process.

Mendoza succeeds in killing a few myths, but whether these efforts are enough to make people less ignorant, only time will tell. Nevertheless, it is good to see that more and more Spanish and Catalan intellectuals are participating in uncovering the political theater, where politicians (most notably Puigdemont & co) play with the Catalan people’s emotions by selling certain beliefs, irrespectively whether these beliefs are true or false.

So, when Mendoza writes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” then he emphasizes that the emotions and beliefs behind the separatist are unreasonable and unjustified, despite how some Catalans feel. Therefore, it is healthy, as Mendoza says, to question our ideas, to explain things to each other, and to eliminate prejudice, ignorance, and incomprehension.

Mendoza shows that sometimes thinking is painful. For example, Puigdemont & co use “freedom” and “democracy” as tranquilizing slogans, yet if we pay attention, it’s obvious that their use refer to a superficial understanding (if not simply a nationalistic misunderstanding). At most these slogans are sleeping pills that hinders an open and honest examination of a challenging conflict, an examination that requires empathy and compassion. Elsewhere, I ‘ve argued that compassion is needed in Catalonia, not as something artificial, but as something that arises naturally in complex and tense situations.

A difficult road lies ahead – for all parties.

 

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.

theevilofbanality

 

Catalonia: For the love of thinking

“And don’t say anything. Think of your children,” a woman close to me said.

The woman was not the first and probably will not be the last to tell me not to participate in the debate about what takes place in Spain and Catalonia.

I have lived in Catalonia for almost a decade, my children go to school here, and I love the Catalan and Spanish people here and the mixture and humor they create due to the small differences between them. Yet, I miss critical thinking. I miss that you don’t have to defend yourself constantly, I miss a world where things are not always either black or white, I miss breathing and thinking without all these limitations caused by rigid identity markers.

Let me be very clear: I am against all kinds of police violence, I think that the Spanish president Rajoy is incompetent to the level where I am tempted to call him stupid. But I am not in favor of a Catalan nation, I am not an independentista. And this is where the problem begins. Because if I am not for it, then I must be a fascist, or in favor of state brutality, etc. But I am not.

This very simple exercise is difficult for many to grasp.

The Catalan schools and especially the media have played a very unfortunate role in the creation of a Catalan narrowmindedness. The output of the Catalan state-owned television channel TV3 resembles state propaganda. In order words, what is unfortunately very difficult to find in this region is reflection, self-critique, or even self-irony.

Let me recap once again, I don’t want to be labeled a fascist.

I am for a legitimate referendum. I think that Rajoy should resign and I hope he will. I have always been against monarchy (also in Denmark), so seeing the king speak to the Catalans almost turned me into an independentista: the king was embarrassing for all thinking human beings. And, just to stress once again, I hate violence. Instead I am for compassion, understanding, and love. These are the remedies for thinking, for democracy. I see that there is a lot of unity in Catalonia and Spain, but unfortunately there are also militant and hateful forces – on both sides. Some people in Catalonia were happy that the police showed a violent side, whereas for many it was humanity that was losing; some people in Madrid hope that the Catalan president will remain stubborn so they can put him in prison.

Still, I ask myself, is it my responsibility to participate? I am just a tourist from Denmark, who happens to live here. I think it is. I think it is almost all people’s obligation to participate. I have no hidden agenda. On the contrary, I have listened to the independentistas’ arguments for nine years. The arguments are emotive and touching in their historical references, but they also rely on stereotypes and are often unjust (e.g. the civil war was not “Barcelona versus Madrid” but was in fact Spain being at war with itself; Madrid was the last city to fall for Franco’s regime. Or the claim that Catalonia today is oppressed or even colonized, I believe the living standard in Barcelona is quite high and liberal). At worst, however, the arguments are nationalistic, protectionist, and capitalistic, three things I can’t see anything positive in. And yet, it’s the hate that affects me most. I do not doubt that there are Spanish people who hate Catalans, just as I have witnessed many Catalans who hate everything related to Spain. Luckily, these are two extremes, because every day I also see and meet caring people who see themselves as both Catalan and Spanish. Unfortunately, many of these are silent because of a mental or even moral pressure that implies everything independent is good. I am, like many here, a feminist, an ecologist, and a cosmopolitan, yet I am still not an independentista.

The debate culture, if it exists at all, is claustrophobic. I have spoken with school teachers who are against independence but who say to me “don’t tell anyone, I might lose my job.” I have spoken with people who feel like putting the Spanish flag up on their balcony, but are afraid of being thrown out of their apartments. I have spoken with several people who just tell me to shut up.

I don’t believe that I know the truth; rather, in a very pragmatic way, I think that we gradually become wiser by sharing and debating openly and honestly. The crucial element is that all should be free to speak, and should not be afraid, should not feel “forced” to vote, as some people have told me they felt.

So, yes, there is something rotten in Spain, but there is also something rotten in Catalonia. It’s a utopian island located in an ocean that doesn’t exist, a seductive dream. But as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze once emphasized, the real utopia is “now-here”. Start acting, living, thinking with love, por favor.

I write this love-letter because I love more than a handful of pure-blooded Catalans and a few Spanish people, and I see that there is much more bringing them together than separating them. I am tired of the propaganda, tired that neither the arguments nor the premises or logic behind them are debated, tired of being wrong simply for not being in favor of independence. George Orwell could not write his Homage to Catalonia today, but would find much inspiration for a new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

So, let me now step down in the hope that Rajoy and Puigdemont will do so as well. No more rigidity, no more violence. There is so much love in Spain. People don’t come here for the sun, but for the alegria, the pure joy of life.

Should the majority of people – not just 40% – wish to develop a new state, then I will follow, gladly, and my gift to the new state would be free courses in critical thinking. Something that has apparently never been taught in Catalan schools before.

Compassion in Catalonia

Since 2008, I’ve lived in Barcelona, in Catalonia, Spain. My wife is from Barcelona. She’s both Catalan and Spanish, and so are our three children, who are also Danish. Still, to be honest, all of these national markers say nothing. Rather, they serve as a means of control. After all, we’re all human beings who far too often forget how we’re interconnected with and accountable to one another, because we focus too much on the colour of our passports.

Read the rest of the essay here.

Philosophy in dark times

Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”

I like this quote; it consists of several interesting elements. Most obvious is the ambiguity of stars: they can both guide us and blind us. I’ll get back to that.

We live in dark times, where terrorism, fascism, racism, sexism, and rigid nationalism seem to flourish everywhere. In addition, I am not even mentioning the environment, that is, how we treat this lovely earth that we are lucky enough to inhabit for a time. We live in a time where egoism has hindered us—that is, all sentient beings—from seeing how we are all interrelated.

Just a few days ago, the city where I live, Barcelona in Spain, suffered an awful terror attack, like so many cities before it. It happened in La Rambla, a commercial and touristic area characterized by its openness.

LaRambla

People come and go; even the locals that tend to avoid it have to pass through or by it, stroll along for a while when they go to the theater, the market, the museums, bookstores, cinemas, etc. It’s an intersection where all paths in Barcelona are fated to pass, once in a while. What happened in Barcelona was, of course, just one of far too many murderous attacks on innocent people, which has happened, and continues to happen, all around the world.

But let me step away from the street and over to an important and relevant book in these dark times. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism opens with a German quote from Karl Jaspers. In my English translation, it says something like: “Don’t give in to the past or the future. Be entirely present is all that matters.” Or, “What matters is to be entirely present.”

The moral is clear: to pay attention to the present moment, that is, to what happens right now. Totalitarianism emerges because of our ignorance, our lack of awareness of what is taking place right here and now.

This Jasper quote makes me recall the story of Oedipus, who, after realizing that he had killed his father and made love to his mother, tears out his own eyes. He couldn’t take or carry the pain. For me, philosophy is about trying to become capable of carrying, that is, live on with pain. In Barcelona, like so many other places, people screamed, “We are not afraid!” I share this but yet, I am afraid … afraid that we don’t learn to see better, that this act of terror will not sharpen our senses, afraid that we will still neglect to deepen our questions about ourselves, involve ourselves. I’m also afraid that this tragic event might be used strategically by Catalan nationalists …

If Oedipus were a philosopher, he would not have blinded himself but looked the fear and pain right in the eyes.

LaRambla02

Let’s return to Dr. King’s quote emphasizing how we ought to look into the dark, perhaps to reflect why we didn’t notice the stars before it became so dark. Apparently, terrorism, racism, fascism, hatred, stupidity, etc. were already there; yet, how come we didn’t see them, just ignored them? Yes, many of the elements on my list have been very overt in many places in recent times, and still, how come so many didn’t notice the hate? Here, of course, the stars don’t refer to anything heroic—quite the contrary: they blind some, they seduce some with their too naïve logic. No one is born hating another person because of the color of her skin, as Barack Obama once said. It is easy to stigmatize. They appeal – those hateful ideologies – because they don’t require the hard work related to thinking, analyzing, etc.

A simple example is how changes in society happen gradually. Some people use diminishing and hateful words to describe other forms of life; some make jokes about minorities. And people let these pass. “It’s nothing,” they say. And yet, gradually what began with us not paying attention to how people use language strangles us.

On a more positive note, when it is dark we can see the stars, referring to those who are already fighting back, resisting stupidity. Those stars guide, inspire, or challenge us to think. It can be through demonstration (recall the women’s march soon after the election of Trump), humor, as well as serious and thorough in-depth journalism that allow readers to sharpen their vision. Those who meet hate with hate are not the stars. Hate is too easy. Instead, the stars are those who are capable of creating alternative ways of living, who are open to more compassionate and loving paths, who establish sustainable futures where we all can live together without being reduced to the same. We must take direct action. Question the dominant worldview in our culture such as neoliberalism, white supremacy, sexism, rigid religious interpretations, etc.

So, in dark times, like in all times, we need philosophy. Luckily, philosophy is for all. No discrimination here (see more here). Furthermore, love and thinking have always walked hand in hand in philosophy; if you’re not capable of loving, you’re not capable of thinking. That is why you find no convincing philosophy among political and religious terrorists, fascists, sexists, or racists. Socrates, one of the first philosophers, interacted with people out of love, and he cared for their reasoning, as if he knew that depression, unhappiness, or feelings of inferiority were symptoms of mental illness.

It is as if people who can’t think are responsible for what we call “evil.”