Monday, October 15, 2012

Bloodless nullity

We’ve come a long way from E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). America’s fracturing into a powder keg of victimhood identities makes serious debate and reconciliation on divisive issues all but impossible. Five minutes’ back-and-forth on abortion, for example, barely allows enough time for one side to air out its time-tested smears and the other side to sheepishly assert its pro-life principles without upsetting the “aggrieved” group.

Indeed, many of the views we hold in public are formulated on the expectation that we don’t have to talk about them for very long before moving on to the next topic. But I find the longer you talk about something, the more impatient you become with the farce you’re participating in. Your façade breaks, and you start being really honest. In the rare instances this happens, the big picture overshadows the debaters’ nuances and mannerisms. To those listening attentively and with an open mind, the truth is revealed.

It works. Too often it’s not given a chance to work. We tie ourselves up in causes and take umbrage at dissent. We are members of a group, and everyone else is “them.”

The strife and suffering resulting from this part of human nature creates a backlash, a strong desire to eliminate all subjectivity, all forms of temporal association. Once these barriers are removed, might then we all unite under shared universal principles? Might then we have no differences to fight about?

Theoretically, yes. But this reduces the civil society—the vast, complex interaction of individuals—to a bloodless nullity. Where the community recedes from providing people’s needs, the government steps in—a government whose overreach against which isolated, disassociated people, lacking that buffer, have no defense.

Such a government, operating ostensibly under shared universal principles, will mold citizens, such as they are, to what Rousseau called the “general will,” which the all-knowing state divines. Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky writes:

[The Soviet regime] set out to destroy all associations, all circles that might support a person’s identity and system of values—nation, family, religion—leaving only those controlled by the state. They knew that as long as people had their own ties to each other, they could develop relationships outside state control that could form a basis of resistance. So they set out to cut off each person from every possible attachment. The individual would then stand alone against the awesome power of the state.

Abstention from particular, subjective identity in favor of shared universal principles is naive. It assumes paradise might be reached by the application of our collective reason, which has limits of its own.

The stuff of life is not hidden in universals, but in particulars. One need not sacrifice identity for enlightenment.

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