One of my philosopher professors told our class (something like this) “We just want to discuss theories in this class, I won’t attribute any political views to you as a person” many times. One of the reasons they had to say this was because of the subject matter, we were using philosophical and legal theories to discuss deeply political matters related to some of the worst injustices on the planet. College students are aware that words and thoughts have power and are ever scared that someone may think that they believe in some theory that may be ethically troublesome. This brings me to the second point and one I want to talk about, the way our sense of selves is dependent on and grounded in some ideas. Who we are may be grounded in the fact that we love country music, we believe that everyone should have access to healthcare, or that we are Muslim. When one of these ideas is critiqued or possibly attacked, we feel that we ourselves is possibly attacked.
My professor said this because they wanted us to feel that we could talk about these difficult topics in a productive, yet critical way. When talking of reparations for slavery in the US, our class quickly realized how difficult it is to figure out who is deserving of reparations, what kind of reparations, and who will be the ones held responsible. In group discussions during class on topics like this, there were times when I, who usually can at least shit out some idea be it good or bad, was just silent. I was not the only one, many times people came together and many times someone would just say something along the lines of “this is hard, I don’t have anything”. Even towards the end of the semester, my professor told us that same phrase despite saying it multiple times, were we stupid or is it something else?
I do not think it was that we did not learn, I think it is because something Arendt discusses in her examination of some of the main subjects in The Origins of Totalitarianism and additionally in the The Human Condition. In the Origins, she mentions how the masses and the leader of the masses (Hitler, Stalin), were codependent on each other for their sense of self.
Hitler, who was fully aware of this interdependence, expressed it once in a speech addressed to the SA: “All that you are, you are through me; all that I am, I am through you alone.”
If this quote sounds familiar, it rings of some Hallmark romantic movie featuring two people in an unhealthy, codependent relationship. This is exactly what the relationship between Hitler and Hitler’s followers is like. If someone was to critique Hitler, then you are critiquing the movement Hitler represents, but then you are critiquing the masses who are the movement. Hitler knew this, he knew that he was just a mere “functionary” of the masses.
Arendt discusses how we need to have a private and personal life which consitutes who we are. The private life is contrast to the social life, the life that people know about us. The modern subject has a danger that there is no personal life, that the distinction between a social sense of self and our private life is eradicated. When this happens, we can only be affirmed by who we are by others. Our life is good or bad depending on its relation to others. What we say to others in a social setting becomes who we are. For the totaliarian movement, the leader and the masses have no private sense of self, and they fully identity with the movement. The masses are given direction by Hitler and in turn Hitler is given direction by the masses.
An obvious and low hanging fruit to hit is social media. In short, if we think our life is good relative to the likes and followers we have, then only a finite amount of people can consider themselves having a good life. Then we also start denying our private life, which does not make all of social media since it is usually only the fun and happy moments.
Another area that we see this in taste. To use the Scorsese vs Marvel fiasco, Marvel fans feel attacked personally since they are associating their tastes with their person. B.D. McClay calls the Marvel directors and fans sore winners, in that they themselves feel attacked. Scorsese wrote a great article, talking about his gripes with Marvel movies and the response on social media and by Marvel defenders were they attacked Scorsese’s movies, the fact that he makes “lame” mafia movies, and is jealous of the success of Marvel. I do not think Scorsese, one of the most acclaimed modern directors who has done a lot for film globally too, has no private life and therefore a grounded sense of self. He has seen critical and commerical success. I doubt that he feels like he is worse than Marvel like a teenager feels like they are uglier than a classmate who got more Instagram likes.
We see this behavior as well in modern politics. Trump has taken a lot of plays out of the totalitarian playbook, not all of them, but a good chunk of them. One of them is he set himself up as the functionary leader of the masses (at least he wants to be seen that way). Trump can criticize and make fun of anyone as a lazy democrat, a never trumper, a liberal, a socialist, or a communist. However, criticizing Trump for his policies and especially his behavior upsets his “base” (I hate that word). The reason is, is that he put himself as the symbolic representation of the people who voted for him, morally speaking. He represents (tries to) the morals of the Christians, the working class, white people, and also (despite being a draft dodger and pardoning a war criminal) the military. If you say that Trump is a bad person, you are saying he is a bad person. Maybe people will budge on somethings like saying “I don’t like his sexism”, but they will identify with him on other things. Trump does the reverse as well, and tries to say that if you are saying his policies or that his tweets are bad, you are saying that millions of Americans are bad too.
One thing I understand is labelling people as a heuristic. For example, you may just think of someone from high school as an asshole because they did somethings that you do not remember exactly, but you remember they did asshole things. It is easier to not remember the specifics and just remember the moral of the story. I think this is why it is easy to attribute things to people that they do not actually think. Not every libertarian is the same (some want drivers licenses). Not every person who reads the New Yorker and is a liberal likes oat milk too. This is an entirely different categorization of people that I believe is mainly used for pragmatic reasons. People you do not care about you are just going put them in some broad genre of a person and not think about them. This is in the opposite direction of the problems stated above, in that, you label someone else as person X. The problem here is that people are starting to label themselves as X.
No moral philosophy class would be able to get off the ground if some utilitarian grounded their sense of self in theory, and any criticism of utilitarianism is a criticism of the person. We would not be able to read any Kantian objections in the class out of fear of offending someone. Similarly, we should be able to discuss what is good or bad about films without offending people. If someone came to me and said “An Elephant Sitting Still” was boring and bad, I am not going to offended. The movie and I have our own relationship, but I would like to show someone why I think that relationship is interesting and important at least to me. Maybe they can show me something else I did not see about the movie that might make me see it differently or vice versa. Political beliefs are different in that political beliefs do cause harm and suffering, but we cannot have a healthy democracy that we are not allowed to call out immoral (ethical or political) behavior of Trump without saying we are criticizing his “base”.
We should remember that ideas may be wrong, right, somewhere in the middle, or neither. What we like and how we present ourselves to others does not have to be who we are. No one knows all the thoughts in my head, the reasons I hold certain beliefs, or the reason I like other pieces of art. If someone says that some movie I like is awful, it may be awful to them or they may be unable to appreciate it the same way I do, like how a League of Legends or Melee player may be able to appreciate a good game better than what someone who has never played either sees in the games. I can try and explain what philosophy or experiences has led me to believe that Trump pardoning Gallagher was immoral and a bad move, but the other person and I need to take the time to discuss my reasoning, which usually takes more than 280 characters on twitter. Lastly, how I evaluate myself and who I am should not be based on the things I like or believe in, and they are private to me or people close to me, not a public affair.