Wednesday, June 6, 2018

We will not capitulate

A version of this piece published 6/6/18 in the Concord Monitor
One of Ionesco’s rhinos loose on the streets of Concord NH
Photoshop Collage     CC Jean Stimmell Ionesco 

We human beings are such pieces of work. 

Looking back on my life, I can say that I have developed an affinity for almost everyone that I have taken the time to get to know, regardless of their religion, race, ideology, political party, position in society.  I think most of us, as individuals, can say the same thing. 

The trouble comes when we get together in groups.

It is a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of their social group and are quick to criticize those that don’t fit their group criteria. Folks who share our particular qualities become “in-group;” those that don’t become “out-group.”

When things are going well in society and the citizens feel prosperous, we feel like we live under a big tent and tend to be more tolerant. However, when folks feel anxious and threatened as income inequality rises –like in the US and Europe over the last 30 years – the big tent shrinks and we feel more threatened by people who are different:  folks of other races, backgrounds, religions…whoever doesn’t fit in with how we define our in-group.

For millennia, these divisions have been fanned into sectarian flames by would-be authoritarian rulers, seeking to divide in order to conquer.  Today, this process is further enabled by social media outlets, allowing us to effortlessly hang out with only with those that agree with us, to the exclusion of everyone else.

Recently, we have found that this state of affairs is worse than we thought: the social media groups we love so much have been infiltrated by various nefarious organizations (and governments) to discredit groups they don’t like by propagating vile slurs and malignant lies.

The end result is that we are being winnowed effortlessly and often without our conscious knowledge into ever more claustrophobic corals, in the same manner Temple Grandin uses ever narrowing fences and curved single file chutes to herd cattle where she wants them to go, often to slaughter.

Whether the driving force in this disturbing trend is rising income inequality, social media, or fake news, there can be no doubt that totalitarianism is playing an increasingly leading role, both here and around the world. 

Seventy-one countries – more than a third of the world’s total  – saw declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017.  At the end of the Cold War, Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, thought totalitarianism had finally been vanquished but “today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened.”[A]

It may seem strange that there has been no political price to pay for this surge of authoritarian measures.  As Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations has noted: “No one of statue is shaming, sanctioning, or standing up to illiberal behavior and political repression.”[B]

His observations, however, would not sound strange to Hannah Arendt, who wrote the definitive book on totalitarianism, back in1973:

“Totalitarian … leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”[C]

Does Arendt’s definition of a totalitarian leader sound like anyone we know?

All of this reminds me of Rhinoceros[D], a well-known play right after WWII, written by Eugene Ionesco, founder of the Theatre of the Absurd. It is best described as a political parable, portraying the struggle of an individual to maintain his integrity and identity in a group-think situation, resembling the rise of Nazism in Germany.

The play takes place in a small town in France. The characters, after seeing a rhinoceros charge through their peaceful streets, start falling ill and turning into rhinos. In short order, turning into a rhino becomes the new norm, which the townspeople justify as necessary in order to “move on with the times.”

Soon, Berenger, a mild-mannered man of some character, finds himself the last human in what is now a rhinoceros herd. Looking into the mirror, he questions what is happening, “After all, man is not as bad as all that, is he?

Although he wavers many times, coming close to joining the rhinos, and despite many personal weaknesses, he comes through in the end.

“I am not capitulating.”

These words by Berenger close the play and transform his character from being indifferent and alienated to committed and human.

In these troubling times when, once again, rhinos are stampeding through our streets, we must do the same.

[D]Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros and Other Plays: Includes: The Leader; The Future Is in Eggs; It Takes All Kinds to Make a World (Evergreen Original, E-259) (p. 15). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition

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