Kierkegaard: A Responsible Philosopher?

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is without a doubt the greatest Danish philosopher. The father of existentialism. In a very simple way, he lived his philosophy. After all, to exist means not only to be alive and breathing but also to “stand out.” 

I always visualized existentialism as a vibe board, where a particular life stands out in an ocean of other lives. The image is romantic but it fits with Kierkegaard. He stood out. 

To the world he is known for setting the tone for such themes as fear, guilt, and anxiety, but also for choosing the choice, freedom, and love. In Denmark, his name is spoken with a certain amount of reverence because it can be difficult not to be seduced by his vision of life and poetic style, but also because he was radical. For example, Kierkegaard was openly critical of democracy when he elevated the individual above the crowd. In fact, he would not see imprisonment in isolation as one of the worst forms of punishment, because the truth emerges, undisturbed, between the individual and God. 

For Kierkegaard, I suggest, it all comes down to four important concepts: the self, truth, freedom, and one’s relationship to God.

Read the rest of the essay in Erraticus

A world of “alternative facts”?

In her essay, “Truth and Politics,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote: “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute” (all quotes from Arendt are taken from Richard J. Bernstein’s brilliant book, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now).

Let me elaborate on that by referring to the #MeToo movement; the movement is, probably, one of the most interesting—and hopefully—sustainable movements of change in recent years. What concerns me here, however, is not who has the power to tell their story—although this is important as well—but how power shapes what any true story could possibly be. In other words, it’s obvious that most reasonable people welcome that women have both the courage and power to tell their stories, and yet, we should be careful not to let the label—#MeToo—paralyze the need for critical thinking regarding what is being said.

One way of blurring the distinction between fact-based truth (factual truth) and falsehood, as Arendt mentioned, is to claim that any factual truth is just another opinion. When dealing with abuse or violence is it enough to have an opinion about whether or not someone is being abusive? Without any sense of what is a so-called factual truth or facts, we too easily move into a fictional world of “alternative facts.”

Seen in this light, the accusation toward the writer Junot Diaz—to mention one recent example—might seem to neglect this distinction between falsehood and truth. Instead, the accusers tend to represent something Arendt would call propaganda. The issue here is not whether Diaz is a good guy or a bad guy, but how the accusers framed him as an abuser “under” the power of #MeToo, regardless of the factual truth of the matter. In doing so, the accusers have not only undermined the movement, but also showed—as Arendt also predicted—that they knew that many people don’t really care if they lie. Instead, many people will admire them (bandwagon mentality) for their tactical skills in accusing a well-known writer to gain publicity for themselves, or perhaps even to sell some books. As Bernstein writes: “Factual truth-telling is frequently powerless against image-making…”

Arendt also wrote: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”  The possibilities for lying become limitless and, far too often, are met with little resistance. Referring to the Junot Diaz case and #MeToo, one obvious reason for this little resistance against falsehood can be that no sane person wants to appear as if they are against equality and respect, which the #MeToo movement represents. Yet, quite paradoxically, the power of this movement comes from telling the truth; the truth that is powerful enough without being fictionalized.

Arendt noted: “What convinces the masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part.” Assuming that #MeToo is such a system, then, like all systems, it is maintained by the culture that the users install. Here, I prefer people who play fair, that care about the truth, that are capable of putting personal agendas aside to cultivate trust, respect, and equality which, actually, is what #MeToo is all about. Following the Junot Diaz case, the accusers appear deliberately to be committing what looks like a character assassin. Why? Some suggest envy, greed, hate, and even racism as motives… I’ve no idea. All I know is that the opposite of factual truth is deliberate lying. (On a similar note, see #MeToo exists in an ethical twilight zone).

Also I know that literature can help us experience the difference between falsehood and truth, it has the potential to confront us with our moral limitations. It can stimulate our empathy and make us recognize our need for compassion. In many important ways, writers and other artists hold a mirror to society that allows it to see its ugliness and its beauty. I think, we need to keep the madness alive—through art. We need this for the sanity of humanity.

In other words, writers must dare not to follow the herd. This requires writers who doesn’t simply moralize but who risk asking the ugly, offensive questions (see e.g. All women are not angels). The artist creates, imagines, and enlarges—and sometimes that is not pretty.

What is far worse than immoral art is when people—citizens in democratic societies—don’t know the difference between falsehood or truth, or when some people don’t really care. The theme that runs through Arendt’s thinking, according to Bernstein, is “the need to take responsibility for our political lives.” Lying and responsibility, of course, doesn’t go hand in hand. It never has. Instead, Arendt showed that organized lying and fictional image-making are techniques perfected by totalitarian regimes, she showed that the banality of evil comes from our inability to think, that is to say, our inability to question, doubt, wonder, analyze, and constantly debate and clarify the relationship between power, truth, and lying. “Thinking is an activity that must be performed over and over again in order to keep it alive,” Bernstein writes in another book called Violence.

The Junot Diaz case shows that we still, all of us, have a long way to go before the world is a safer place full of trust, respect, compassion, and equality for all.

#MeToo exists in an ethical twilight zone

What do we think about when we think of the #MeToo movement? #MeToo is many things—it’s complex and conflicting; it addresses our collective memory (or lack thereof) and history; it touches upon social and economic class, religion, race, and, of course, most of all on gender. And it touches upon the glue of our society: trust.

A few weeks ago, I heard that the Boston Review had decided to keep the writer Junot Díaz on as a fiction editor. Yesterday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cleared Díaz of allegations of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse.

In many ways, the whole “Junot Diaz case” can be placed within the post-truth era of fake news, which again is one of ethics. For example, the journalist Ralph Keyes claims in The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, “Deception has become commonplace at all levels of contemporary life.” He goes on to consider that we may have reached a stage in our social evolution that is “beyond honesty.”

The era of post-truth is also an era of moralism. Everything is too easily reduced to good and bad, as if no grey areas exist. This is also part of the rigid identity politics that characterize US politics today, which far too often produce a mindless label—as if only a black person can speak against racism, a homosexual against homophobia, a woman against male abusers. Such assumptions show a lack of imagination. They also avoid staring at all the grey areas. For example, the grey areas are probably the weakest points in the otherwise powerful and very welcome #MeToo movement, in which the Junot Díaz case can be placed since it deals with a man of power accused of behaving badly.

Morality typically deals with whether something is right or wrong. However, being moral is not always the same as being right. For example, a story isn’t true because its moral is, and vice versa. Furthermore, morality is not something unchangeable; rather, it’s a social artefact. Our moral norms change as a result of new knowledge. This knowledge, of course, should be convincing, valid, reliable, and trustworthy. Unfortunately, lack of trust seems to be the protagonist in this particular case.

“Post-truthfulness exists in an ethical twilight zone,” Keyes writes. “It allows us to dissemble without considering ourselves dishonest. When our behavior conflicts with our values, what we’re most likely to do is reconceive our values.” Keyes’ point is interesting. One of Díaz’s main accusers was the writer Carmen Maria Machado, who referred to a Q & A session she had with Díaz, where she claims he was “abusive”, “bullying” and “misogynist.” However, when confronted with a recording of this particular discussion, Machado was forced to admit she had been exaggerating, saying, “I’m not a victim of Junot Díaz. I’m a female writer who had a weird interaction with him.”

Weird, of course, is not necessarily misogynist.

Why did she lie? Did she deliberately stretch her wording to fit the #MeToo vocabulary? So far, Machado has not apologized—perhaps because she is afraid of people’s hate and judgment, or afraid of losing face, or afraid of being accused of lack of empathy. Or, maybe, she doesn’t care, maybe she distrust the institutions who cleared him… no one knows. However, what’s “interesting” is that Machado’s accusations violate trust, which we all need to coexist, regardless of age, gender, religion or sexual orientation, etc.

In an essay entitled “Truth and Politics“, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and that facts themselves are not in dispute.” Truth, therefore, is not the same as having an opinion. For example, Machado might have the opinion that the she was verbally abused, but in reality she is fictionalizing the truth, or creating “alternative facts” as we call it today.

***

The Danish philosopher K.E. Løgstrup said that trust is elementary or fundamental to human existence. Would I leave my three children at a public school every morning if I didn’t trust the teachers? Would I cross the street with them if I didn’t trust people to stop their cars at a red light?

Trust binds us together. It affects marriages, friendships, parents, and society, including politicians and scientists who inform us about the ecological disasters that humans are creating. Løgstrup emphasizes that human interdependence only works if we trust one another. Trust allows me to surrender myself into the hands of another, to make myself vulnerable, because I expect a respectful, compassionate, and trustful feedback.

Therefore, when Carmen Maria Machado lied about Díaz, it was not just a little white lie. Her words impacted everyone. Not only because she accused a well-known writer but because we trusted her. Some may have been skeptical of the validity of the accusations—thinking of sensationalism, etc., but, at the same time, #MeToo taught us the importance of believing the girls and women who had come forward so courageously. For too long, the victim has suffered unnecessarily because being a victim has been associated with shame. Shame is the reason why many women (and men) and children don’t tell about abuse.

When I discovered that Machado lied and didn’t correct her words until she was confronted a month later with an audio recording of the interview, she became less believable. When she was confronted with a recording, she appears annoyed and defensive but, surprisingly, she also appears to be angry for being exposed. “Stop lecturing!” she said. “That’s what’s so fucking weird. The level of condescension.”

And this is perhaps the saddest part. It may cause people to doubt the sincerity of #MeToo. Machado’s behavior perfectly fits with our cultural acceptance of lying. As Keyes notes in The Post-Truth Era regarding the rise in the use of euphemisms for deception: “We no longer tell lies. Instead we ‘misspeak.’ We ‘exaggerate.’ We ‘exercise poor judgment.’ ‘Mistakes were made,’ we say.” It’s as if we—many, at least—have become careless of what is true or not true.

If we want to change society into something better—a society based on equality, respect, and compassion—then we must trust one another. Trust is also the foundation of critical thinking because we assume that people say what they mean for the sake of the truth, not their own agenda (read: self-serving).

We become wiser by admitting our mistakes, that is to say be accountable for our actions and words, but also by acknowledging all the grey areas when it comes to human interaction, not just between men and women but between all kinds of identities—gender, race, age, culture, beliefs, etc. Let’s not forgot that all identities are prisons. They might make us see something more clearly from our own point of view but are often blind to a lot of other aspects. Let’s not forget that men and women should be able to discuss things without fearing being labeled misogynistic. Let’s not forget that nothing is ever completely black or white. Sometimes women lie, use their power; sometimes men are falsely accused.

The great writer Terry Tempest Williams once said that she wanted to bear witness to both the beauty and pain of our world in her writing. By “bearing witness,” she said, “the story told can provide a healing ground.” With regard to the case of Machado and Díaz, healing arises if their conflict is not used to draw a deeper ravine between genders but, instead, to acknowledge that all parties have suffered, and that trust is only gained through apology and change of actions that will make the grey areas less grey.

Kierkegaard’s True Love

In the twilight of Søren Kierkegaard’s life, he begins to question his own philosophical fundament. He did not plan this. Actually, he would prefer to avoid it. But it is happening. While lying for nearly five weeks at the Royal Frederiks Hospital certain images, memories, and ideas surface.

Some of these trouble him.

He inscribed himself at the hospital after suffering from a blackout in the middle of the day. The purpose for this inscription is not recovery. Although he is only forty-two years old, he knows that this is a last preparation for the inevitable fact of life: that it ends. Soon he will meet his only master: God.

What he didn’t expect were the questions now emerging.

Read the rest of the short story here