Indiscretion in the Modern Era

There is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it positively refuses to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth. William James

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is a phantasmal etching produced in 1799 by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya that depicts the imagined artist slumped over his desk, in a posture of nihilistic defeat, as ominous owls of madness and shadowy bats fly erratically overhead. This was Goya’s artistic commentary on Spanish society that he interpreted as succumbing to a lunatic’s brew of unmitigated fear, social antipathy, unrivaled corruption, and the liabilities of political unreason. The haunting image would persist as a representation of chaos whenever, as the poet W. H. Auden reminded us, the values of the enlightenment are driven away.

A little over two centuries later, in America’s post-fact zeitgeist of partisan sensationalism and multimedia gossip, the emergence of a toxic brand of emotionally volatile, identity-imbued populism threatens to destabilize society by appealing to authoritarian panaceas in the wake of geopolitical uncertainties. Relinquishing the faculties of reason, objectivity, dignity, and civil ethics when offered specious solutions for security or prosperity is as irresponsible as it is pernicious. After all, “total solutions” of Manichean simplicity are never realistic or sustainable in a world of increasing complexity and irreversible diversity. Just as Freud exposed the mind’s obsessive desire for a paternal caregiver during periods of crisis or vulnerability, we witness other parallels of uncritical yearning when people seek the mana-personality from Jung’s description of the collective unconscious. To mistake narcissism for competence is to mistake stentorian bravado for guidance. Likewise, to assume that personal significance or the assurance of safety can only be achieved through divisiveness is to perpetually recreate the very atmosphere of tyranny that one wishes to escape. 

It appears that a grave deficit of cognition exists in the populace’s mind that prefers herd instinct to the arduous pursuits of objective analysis, social justice, moral philosophy, civil discourse, and scientific literacy. This belligerent lack of compassion, crude mockery of applied intellect, degradation of scientific methodology, and a selfish unwillingness to concede heterogeneity among communities has resulted in an abeyance of decency under the guise of exceptionalism.

Ideologies replete with paranoia, conspiracy, and mistrust were central to the atrocities of the twentieth century when varieties of fascism compensated for national insecurity. Balkanization was both anthropological and geographic in nature. As a result, mass trepidation created an isolationist vacuum for opportunistic absolutists to emerge. And their insatiable need for adulation would come at the endangerment of civilization.

As Thomas Hardy recognized, “If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst.” Indeed. The evolved predicament of our human condition demands an identification of suffering; vigilant protection of social liberties; the maintenance of empathy; and an intrepid guard against the dangers of despotism if there’s any hope of achieving the means to an auspicious end. Otherwise, there will be no monster left behind.

The Preening of Partiality

Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. — Rosa Luxemburg

As social animals, humans exhibit a propensity for group association, interpersonal acknowledgement, and a sense of belonging. The sociologist William Sumner brought our attention to the concept of in-group bias and the inevitable phenomenon of favoritism through identification (later embellished by Erving Goffman). Furthermore, competition for limited resources exacerbates any propensity for group conflict and the reclaiming of our childhood capacity for self-centeredness can become a perpetual source of invidious interaction whenever the “other” is perceived to encroach on our exclusive space. Fear and the misplaced compensation for fear often results in the oppression and subjugation of those who are willing to express dissent in lieu of majority rule. Seeking solace in the consensus is additionally experienced as an extension of one’s identity while securing the desire for inclusion. Group identity provides a sense of self-satisfied empowerment―even if it’s manufactured, ephemeral, or imposed without criticism. However, no proposition should be above scrutiny and no individual should be below consideration.

In the realm of North American politics, self-aggrandizement under the guise of public servitude exposes the cultural value placed on personalities as much as, or even more than, the value of effective and sustainable policies. Legislation and judicial concerns are replaced by theatrical displays of partisan identification and reinforced by the momentum of mob psychology as manipulated by special interests and various factions of the media. Rather than being partisan or bipartisan, I would propose that all matters of jurisprudence should be filtered through a decidedly non-partisan lens. Every suggested policy must be adjudicated for its own logical substance, ethical merits, scientific credibility, and consequential outcomes rather than being accepted as a mandatory injunction based on party affiliation. Political sectarianism does nothing to alleviate universal deficits in human flourishing because it begs for favoritism instead of advocating for the necessity of humanitarianism and social justice.

From Dorothea Dix to Dorothea Puente: The Incremental Evaporation of Altruism

Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue. — Francois de La Rochefoucauld

It’s not too difficult to understand how cultural values influence and reinforce personal values. In America, a top-down approach to formulating values is driven by solipsistic avarice, inequitable wealth, and the insatiable demand for external validation as manifested through consumer materialism. The wrong incentives are conditioning a society towards relative indifference when it comes to the suffering of others—meanwhile, social and economic inequality ensues at unprecedented levels. Inconvenienced by having to admit that private-sector political interests and time-honored structural systems perpetuate disenfranchisement, a popular position is to blame the unfortunate for all of society’s transgressions while denying or ignoring the unsustainable nature of unmitigated greed. This is why the fundamental attribution error is absolutely fundamental to understanding how rationalization precipitates solution aversion.

In an earlier post entitled Can’t Get There From Here, I discussed how institutionalized systems of injustice encourage us to be complicit with the status quo by internalizing imbalances of power. Likewise, imbalances of power are a one-way street designed to maintain undisputed leverage for some at the expense of many others. For example, a recent paradigm in community mental healthcare involves fee-for-service commodification of the clientele. When human flourishing is reduced to high-volume billable services, the incentive for establishing social welfare is usurped by a competitive motivation for profit. Similarly, if a client’s eligibility to receive treatment services and community resources is based on their reimbursement potential via subsidized revenue and insurance benefits, it becomes easier to think of people as interchangeable assets or financial liabilities. This motif extends to employees when corporate interests reduce the value of workers to fixed or variable costs. The distance from being indispensable to becoming disposable seems to be diminishing with unregulated intensity given today’s cultural milieu.

When it comes to the spectrum of compassion versus the spectrum of inhumanity, two women with diverse interpersonal “styles” immediately come to mind. One woman was an advocate for humanitarianism; the other was a purveyor of short-terms gains, dehumanization, and annihilation. Dorothea Dix was a renown United States activist who worked tirelessly to reform hospital conditions and treatment for the mentally ill during the nineteenth-century. Following the Civil War, Dix expanded her efforts even further to improve conditions for prisoners and the disabled while focusing on legislative campaigns to reduce suffering among indigent populations. Dorothea Puente, conversely, was a twentieth-century “caretaker” and boarding house manager in Northern California who murdered at least nine elderly and mental health residents from 1982 until 1988. Puente had a peculiar talent for cashing the Social Security checks of her victims shortly after burying these unlucky guests in her backyard.

Efforts to establish a global civil society seem futile when provincial, regional, and national sentiments are reduced to pathological self-interest. Even worse, fabricating compassion to achieve monetary interests only magnifies the loathsome commonality of duplicitous agendas. If the moral trajectory of society resembles anything like its current state of unsustainable affairs, it won’t be long before rank-and-file citizens become surrogate apologists for humanicide.