Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thoughts on the practical ethics of debunking, Part 2: the insights of Fromm, De Beauvoir, and De Cleyre

Debunking has long been a key focus in humanistic movements. Two works I read recently, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Being

and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity

happened to cover this terrain in usefully complementary ways. These writers didn’t simply assert Truth as an abstract value to which others had to be subordinated. They arrived at their understanding of the vital importance of debunking through their commitment to human freedom* and fulfillment. This commitment led them to a nuanced approach to the concrete practice of debunking as a political and moral act. Their work reminded me of the great essay by Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Economic Tendency of Freethought.” All three provide valuable insights that can help us to develop a general method of approaching debunking in an ethical and effective way.

These thinkers all recognized the role of illusionary beliefs in maintaining oppression. “[T]he oppressor would not be so strong,” De Beauvoir argued, “if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed themselves; mystification is one of the forms of oppression; ignorance is a situation in which man may be enclosed as narrowly as in a prison” (p. 97).

Within their broader programs, they held disillusionment as a critical element of radical-humanist political action. Influenced by Freud and Marx, Fromm appreciated the critical role of debunking in both personal development and economic and political liberation. While Freud, he argued, had been too much a man of his age to carry the radical nature of his insights through to challenging “illusions about social reality,”** Fromm saw these “social rationalizations” as key to perpetuating oppression and argued thus tearing them down as essential to the radical humanist project.

Recognizing illusions as alienating, Fromm argued for the positive psychological and social effects of destroying them. On both a personal and community level, he argued, the awareness gained through debunking rendered people more secure in their identity and more energized and ready for action. He argued that this greased the wheels for debunking, as people will gravitate toward understandings that give them a firm grounding and empower them for effective action:
The strength of man’s position in the world depends on the degree of adequacy of his perception of reality. The less adequate it is, the more disoriented and hence insecure he is and hence in need of idols to lean on and thus find security. The more adequate it is, the more can he stand on his own feet and have his center within himself. Man is like Antaeus, who charged himself with energy by touching Mother Earth, and who could be killed only when his enemy kept him long enough in the air. (KL 688-692)
It’s interesting how much this idea contrasts with the notion – often heard in one form or another from accommodationists and on occasion even from gnus – that debunking and greater awareness necessarily lead to insecurity, weakening, and a diminished capacity for positive action.***

Fromm held, moreover, that the process of breaking down our own illusions itself, even though it can be hard work and even though it might lead to the recognition of the magnitude of problems and of our limitations when it comes to addressing them, is often a joyous one, consciously experienced as liberating. “[W]e must remember,” he reminded would-be debunkers, “that becoming aware of the truth has a liberating effect; it releases energy and de-fogs one’s mind. As a result, one is more independent, has one’s center in oneself, and is more alive” (KL 715-717). This is true - maybe especially true - even when we aren't consciously aware of the debilitating effects of our delusions prior to their being challenged.

Indeed, it was in the name well-being and human development that Fromm took on those who would accommodate mystification and shrink from debunking:
If avoidance of pain and maximal comfort are supreme values, then indeed illusions are preferable to the truth. If, on the other hand, we consider that every man, at any time in history, is born with the potential of being a full man and that, furthermore, with his death the one chance given to him is over, then indeed much can be said for the personal value of shedding illusions and thus attaining an optimum of personal fulfillment. (KL 717-720)
Of equal importance, “the more seeing individuals will become, the more likely it is that they can produce changes— social and individual ones— at the earliest possible moment” (KL 720-722). Debunking was valuable, he argued, “provided the insight into the hidden conflicts leads to a constructive solution and hence to greater well-being. This is what Marx expected if the working class would become aware of its own conditions. If the working class would get rid of its illusions, it would build a society that would not require any illusions (and this could be done, because the historical conditions were ripe)” (KL 693-697).

On the basis of this understanding, Fromm reached the strong conclusion that “the most important step in the art of being is everything that leads to and enhances our capacity for heightened awareness and, as far as the mind is concerned, for critical, questioning thinking” (KL 723-726). But both De Beauvoir and Fromm thought about debunking not in abstract but in practical, contextual terms, and recognized that even though it was necessary and important for individual and social freedom and well-being, debunking in the real world involved situations of uncertainty and difficult moral choices. They took the question of the values behind debunking in relation to other values seriously, thoughtfully considering whether debunking is warranted in every case.

De Beauvoir recognized this dilemma as “the problem touched on by Ibsen in The Wild Duck (which I’m now reading). An individual lives in a situation of falsehood; the falsehood is violence, tyranny; shall I tell the truth in order to free the victim?” (p. 142). Fromm asks similarly:
But what if the conflict cannot be solved? Is man not better off to live with illusions than with a painful truth that does not help him to liberate himself in real life? If, as Marx and Freud believed, the teachings of religion were an illusion, was it a necessary one in order to make it possible for man to survive at all? What would have happened to him if he had given up this illusion and experienced nothing but despair at seeing no chance for a more human social order and greater personal well-being? (KL 697-700)
Given the important role of challenging ideas in individual and social development and freedom, even the gentle Fromm (who was, to put it mildly, not particularly committed to the debunking of religion) comes down on the side of debunking even in some extreme cases. But that acceptance is always tempered by a deep respect for people and their experiences and attention to the details of each case. Using the case of telling a dying person the truth about their condition as an illustrative example, Fromm suggests that:
[I]t seems to me that the most concerned observers will refuse to choose, dogmatically, one or the other solution; they will agree that it depends on the personality of the dying person and that the judgment can be made only after one has tried to assess that person’s inner actual and potential strength and to understand his deepest, often unexpressed wish. It would seem to me inhuman to force upon him the truth in any dogmatic belief that it is necessarily ‘the best for him’. (KL 706-710)
Crucially, they challenged both the failure to address the question of outcomes and the naïve faith that conditions alone would guarantee a liberating effect. As Fromm noted, Marx contended that material conditions shaped the effects of debunking, and believed that in modernity these conditions made for propitious circumstances for debunking experienced as liberating and acting as a positive spur to social transformation. But both Fromm and De Beauvoir recognized, each in their own way, that positive outcomes for debunking are never guaranteed. Fromm made clear:
[M]ost individuals as well as social classes who cannot bear disillusionment without positive solutions will simply not listen to, understand, and certainly not agree with the disillusioning analysis, even if the critical thinker speaks with the voice of an angel. Examples in social and individual life of the strength of resistance abound and there is no need to cite any. (KL 710-714)
In addition to this resistance, people could trade one set of debunked false beliefs for others that are equally or even more dangerous, they could be disheartened or demoralized by their newfound awareness, or the debunking could lead to a dead end in terms of positive social change. The lack of guaranteed success or positive outcomes means that we have ethical choices to make in the process. These writers urged thoughtful consideration not just of the specifics of each individual “case” but of the sociopolitical context in which debunking is carried out.

But these authors also understood that we weren’t helpless in all of this, that our actions - our approach to debunking and other associated acts - can help to shape the outcomes in a positive direction, joining our debunking to humanistic projects. They provided an outline of a general method for debunking, to be adjusted to fit each situation.

The first element in this approach is the grounding of all debunking efforts in humanistic values. “The first point,” De Beauvoir makes clear, “is always to consider what genuine human interest fills the abstract form which one proposes as the action’s end” (p. 144). Abstractions alone, whatever they may be, don’t make the cut: “Politics always puts forward Ideas: Nation, Empire, Union, Economy, etc. But none of these forms has value in itself; it has it only insofar as it involves concrete individuals” (p. 144). The same can be said of Science and Reason.

Keeping the “genuine human interest” at the core of debunking in mind at all times is crucial. De Beauvoir warned of the pitfall of coming to regard as ends in themselves what are at best potentially means of human fulfillment. In response to the suggestion that technology is a humanistic end in itself, she argued that “technics [technology] itself is not objectively justified” but was only so when it “thrusts itself ahead of itself in order to thrust itself still farther ahead, that it aims at an indefinite disclosure of being by the transformation of the thing into an instrument and at the opening of ever more possibilities for man” (p. 79), with “man” similarly understood not in the abstract but in terms of the real fulfillment of the needs of those to or for whom its value is being asserted.

When we come to see abstractions or means as ends, we become particularly vulnerable to group narcissism: “We are Skeptics and we represent Science, the bringer of Technology. Behold.” De Beauvoir urged clarity about, and continuing attentiveness to, means and ends. She counseled that
an action which wants to serve man ought to be careful not to forget him on the way; if it chooses to fulfill itself blindly, it will lose its meaning or will take on an unforeseen meaning; for the goal is not fixed once and for all; it is defined all along the road which leads to it. Vigilance alone can keep alive the validity of the goals and the genuine assertion of freedom. (pp. 152-153)
“In each case,” she argued, “it is a matter of defining an end and realizing it, knowing that the choice of the means employed affects both the definition and the fulfillment” (p. 149). If this seems to have similarities with a scientific approach, De Beauvoir makes that parallel explicit: “It is apparent that the method we are proposing, analogous in this respect to scientific or aesthetic methods, consists, in each case, of confronting the values realized with the values aimed at, and the meaning of the act with its content” (pp. 151-152). This prevents us from falling into the trap of seeing ourselves as the instruments of some transcendent value or process and forgetting the concrete effects of our actions and our responsibility for our choices.

Related to this is the need to work to realize and to educate people about the positive, constructive alternatives to the illusion-supported status quo. This concern appears quite frequently in Fromm’s discussion of the barriers to debunking, including the passages quoted above, for example his caveat when discussing Marx’s argument about the role of shedding illusions in spurring liberation - “provided the insight into the hidden conflicts leads to a constructive solution and hence to greater well-being” – and his reference to the resistance of “individuals as well as social classes who cannot bear disillusionment without positive solutions” (my emphasis). We see clearly here that Fromm isn’t arguing that resistance to debunking is an innate psychological mechanism but that it's often connected to the recognition of the practical uselessness of challenging false beliefs in the realization of human goals. Debunking in this view has to be connected to productive solutions to real human problems in actuality, and to be effective debunking has to make this connection explicit.

Given this, in order to debunk in an ethical and constructive manner, according to De Beauvoir, “[i]t would first be necessary to create a situation of such a kind that the truth might be bearable and that, though losing his illusions, the deluded individual might again find about him reasons for hoping” (p. 142). Perhaps the clearest statement of this is from Voltairine de Cleyre, whose activism in both the freethought and the anarchist movements and recognition of their interdependence left her no doubts about the fundamental failure of any debunking that isn’t rooted in a positive project of human fulfillment and social transformation:
[U]nless the freethought movement has a practical utility in rendering the life of man more bearable, unless it contains a principle which, worked out, will free him from the all-oppressive tyrant, it is just as complete and empty a mockery as the Christian miracle or Pagan myth. Eminently is this the age of utility; and the freethinker who goes to the Hovel of Poverty with metaphysical speculations as to the continuity of life, the transformation of matter, etc.; who should say, ‘My dear friend, your Christian brother is mistaken; you are not doomed to an eternal hell; your condition here is your misfortune and can't be helped, but when you are dead, there's an end of it’, is of as little use in the world as the most irrational religionist. To him would the hovel justly reply: ‘Unless you can show me something in freethought which commends itself to the needs of the race, something which will adjust my wrongs, “put down the mighty from his seat,” then go sit with priest and king, and wrangle out your metaphysical opinions with those who mocked our misery before’.
Connected to this, De Beauvoir noted the importance not simply of a thoughtful attitude toward debunking but of a short social distance and shared set of interests between debunkers and debunkees: “[G]enerosity seems to us to be better grounded and therefore more valid,” she suggested, “the less distinction there is between the other and oneself and the more we fulfill ourself in taking the other as an end. That is what happens if I am engaged in relation to others” (p. 143). In other words, debunking will be more effective and useful to the extent that debunkers share experiences (particularly experiences of oppression) and interests with debunkees. (This is also a point touched on in Sikivu Hutchinson’s Moral Combat.)

Appreciating the inseparability of the spheres of debunking is another element of the method. Voltairine de Cleyre, fascinatingly, encourages us to think of freethought as anarchy in the realm of ideas, with all of the attendant associations. To those who oppose anarchism but also oppose the theocratic control of ideas, she argued: “[T]he whole combat of the seventeenth century, of which you are justly proud, and to which you never tire of referring, was waged for the sole purpose of realizing anarchism in the realm of thought.” It was on this basis, she contended, that political revolution (and in the future economic revolution) was possible:
Mark you! The seventeenth century made the eighteenth possible, for it was the "new order of thoughts," which gave birth to a "new order of things". Only by deposing priests, only by rooting out their authority, did it become logical to attack the tyranny of kings: for, under the old regime, kingcraft had ever been the tool of priestcraft…
Challenges to authoritarianism in thought are thus inseparable from challenges to political-economic authoritarianism. Furthermore, no area of belief should be artificially walled off from the democracy of thought. She defined freethought as “the right to believe as the evidence, coming in contact with the mind, forces it to believe. This implies the admission of any and all evidence bearing upon any subject which may come up for discussion.” And of course, “Among the subjects that come up for discussion, the moment so much is admitted, is the existence of a God.”

In addition to (and inseparable from) the indivisibility of religious, political, and economic debunking, Fromm argued for the indivisibility of internal and external awareness:
The capacity to see and— equally so— blindness are not divisible. The critical faculty of the human mind is one: To believe one can be seeing internally but blind as far as the outside world is concerned is like saying that the light of a candle gives light only in one direction and not in all. The light of a candle is reason’s capacity for critical, penetrating, uncovering thought. (KL 680-683)
Similarly, as I've already discussed in the case of love, Fromm argued that productive, humanistic acts can’t be practiced in isolation or compartmentalized to certain objects or areas. In addition, and like De Cleyre, he discusses credulity and skepticism in terms of submission and rebellion, and stresses the importance of cultivating habits of intellectual resistance:
Once one is aware of the crucial importance of non-submission (I mean here of inner non-submission and not necessarily of purely defiant, dogmatic disobedience), one will become very sensitive to the small signs of submission, one will look through the rationalization that justifies it, one will practice courage, and one will discover that once the problem and its central significance are recognized, one discovers by oneself many answers to the question. (KL 726-730)
He recommends a general “attitude…of deep distrust” (noting the difference between distrusting statements rather than people****):
Since most of what we hear is either plainly untrue, or half true and half distorted, and since most of what we read in the newspapers is distorted interpretations served as facts, it is by far the best plan to start out with radical skepticism and the assumption that most of what one hears is likely to be a lie or a distortion. (KL 732-735)
Each act of resistance and reason sets the stage for others. Finally, while it’s important to avoid seeing people as means to ends beyond themselves, it’s also important to remember that the debunking of illusions doesn’t just concern the debunkees. As all of these writers recognized, and as I’ve discussed previously, our illusions and faith-practices have effects that go beyond ourselves and harm others. De Beauvoir emphasized that no one can be truly free in isolation – “the freedom of one man almost always concerns that of other individuals” (p. 142); our freedom is dependent on many others overcoming their illusions.

While immediate effectiveness isn’t stressed as the driving factor behind these recommendations, it’s of course arguable that any and all of these suggestions should enhance the effectiveness of debunking methods. In any case, the authors saw these as interconnected: the potential effectiveness of a given method or action is not separable from the ethics of that method or action. In Part 3, I’ll draw on their insights to sketch out a general method for ethical and effective debunking.

*Both recognized the various forms of psychological evasion as the natural result of the human condition. Our freedom in a godless, nonteleological universe can be exhilarating, but this freedom and the ethical responsibility that derives from it are a heavy psychic burden to bear. So perennially finding means of evading the full recognition of this freedom and the accompanying weighty responsibility is natural and to be expected. But these evasive mechanisms, these authors argue, prevent our growth and sap our strength, keep us from acting truly ethically and often make us dangerous, and interfere with our understanding of and connections to ourselves and others. We don’t have to agree with every aspect of their larger philosophies to appreciate the importance of their emphasis on and insights concerning the various ways we try to “escape from freedom,” the harms caused by this evasion, and the means through which we might address the problem.

**Fromm provides an extensive and excellent critique of Freud in The Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought.

***This contrast parallels the difference between the widespread view of science as alienating and Fromm’s vision of true science as, like love, the enemy of alienation. The common belief is reflected in the negative connotations of the word “disillusion” and Max Weber’s concept of “disenchantment.”

****Fromm is concerned to make the crucial distinction between falsehoods and liars. He offers that his recommendation of radical skepticism “may sound perhaps less misanthropic if I stress that I spoke of the truth of statements, not about people who are liars. It would perhaps be simpler, although less bearable, if most people could be thus qualified, but the fact is, a majority of people whose statements are untrue or half true believe sincerely that they are speaking the truth, or at least persuade themselves of this while they are making their statements” (KL 737-740).

No comments:

Post a Comment