Existentialism, Personal Responsibility, Ignorance and Douchebaggery

If you don't know something, you may also not know that you ought to know it. Someone else, perhaps even an entire society or segments thereof, may be guilty of preventing you from knowing it and/or of convincing you not to look to closely. Even if you have the means to learn something, how are you to know that you should care enough to learn a fact, if you don't know that fact in the first place?

Few indeed are the people who are truly to blame for their own ignorance.

At some level we acknowledge this. Phrases and idioms from the Biblical ("forgive them, father, for they know not what they do") to the colloquially clichéd ("it's not his fault, he just doesn't know any better, he means well") bear this out.

And yet, we only apply this clemency when we feel like it, when it is convenient for us.

Think of an American Misogynist Islamophobe who hates his "strident bitch" of a boss because she's a woman (even while fantasizing about a blowjob from her) and who cracks malicious jokes about a Muslim co-worker when the latter is performing his noon-prayer, and gets really angry when people say B.C.E and C.E. instead of B.C. and A.D. because he has been taught and raised by Limbaugh's and Fallwell's acolytes to have a certain view about the importance of Joshua ben Mariam, to think in a certain way about gender dynamics and to see Muslims as Other by definition. You know the (stereo)type, right?

This is reprehensible to me, most of my friends, and the likely readers of my blogs. The cry of "he doesn't know any better" is met with "well he fucking SHOULD!"

The absurdity of this logic can be brought forth in the never-used retort "well how should he know that he should know what he doesn't know when he after all doesn't know it?"

Shouldn't one really blame the people responsible for this guy's upbringing? But if so, then why are they responsible and not the people who raised them? Chicken and egg roll all the way back to the big bang.

Now consider the guy I sat next to on the train from Cairo to Alexandria the other day. He heard me answer my phone in English which is why he was then interested to see I was reading a book in Arabic. He started a conversation with me, during the course of which I learned he was very interested in American literature (which he had read in translation), and that he had quite an interesting (not in the ironic sense) and thought-provoking take on Mark Twain. He asked (as strangers always do, because why else would I bother learning Arabic?) whether I was Muslim or not. I said no. He then asked what my religion was. I said "Christian" (as I always do because I don't go out looking for arguments). He said "Thank god (الحمد لله) you're a believer at least" to which I nodded hesitantly. Sensing my hesitation, he said "a believer and not an atheist, I mean." Trying not to get into a fight on a long trip, I nodded halfheartedly. Apparently emboldened by this he lowered his voice a bit as if to divulge a secret "Between you and me, the only thing worse than an atheist is a Jew. It's too bad Hitler didn't rid us of them for good (انو هتلر ماخلّصناش منهم)" And the conversation went south from there as my patience wore thinner and I tried socratic methods of argumentation, finally abandoning conversation when he got huffy at me for referring to Pre-Islamic period as عصر ما قبل الاسلام i.e. literally "the period from before Islam" instead of العصر الجاهلي "The Era of Ignorance." Thank god I stopped him before he got around to talking about Shi'ites.

A few, though certainly not most, of my friends would be somewhat more sympathetically accepting of "he doesn't know any better" in this actual case than in the american hypothetical, stereotypical (or perhaps archetypal) one I described formerly. Perhaps arguments such as "it's not his fault, that kind of antisemitism is a postcolonial phenomenon and would not exist but for the (quasi-)colonialist aspects of zionism and its implementation" and similar would follow, and they'd be correct. Integral and exclusionary worldviews like this are usually the result of events, recent or distant, imagined or actual, in the world and the use which those in power make of them. (As Fred Halliday once put it, Bin Ladin is the bastard child of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan.) How is this untrue of American bigots, though? Is Islamophobia, in many of its guises, not a misguided (and much-exploited by the American Right) reaction to events far beyond the control of most Islamophobes, one of which was masterminded by Bin Laden? And if one is to distribute blame based on Fred Halliday's geneological quip, and say that Regan was the one who caused 9/11 (and in a sense he was) by proxy and therefore he caused Islamophobia by meta-proxy, then can one not then say that Regan's policies aren't his own fault either? For Regan and Thatcher were politicians of the Cold War. Why blame Regan and Thatcher for Osama, or 9/11 and not Stalin and Khruschev? Why blame anybody from the Cold War when one can blame Lenin and Trotsky who gifted the world with the Russian Revolution? Why blame them when they were merely reacting to the governance (or rather lack thereof) of an incompetent autocrat (bizarrely canonized as a saint) named Tsar Nicholas II? Or should one blame Marx? Did Marx, therefore, cause modern American Islamophobia? Yes, I know, there are about a dozen simplifications and distortions and glaring omissions. That's what happens when you try and cram a century and a half of sociopolitical developments into half a paragraph.

Related discussions of one of these two douchebags being more privileged in some transcultural or geopolitical sense than the other are at best irrelevant and at worst naked rationalizations. In their respective societal contexts, both cases exhibit chauvinism. And the guy I met on the train was educated and intellectually curious (remember the bit about Mark Twain?) So herein lies the problem. If one is to intellectualize and even rationalize my conversational hell-on-rails through recourse to history or sociology, can one really deride the aforementioned American bigot as merely a "patriarchal privileged douchebag"? Personally, I am inclined simply to write both douchebags off as thoughtless fucks. (As far as I know, one does not often have much recourse, legal or cultural, in Egypt if one loses one's job because the boss found out you were an atheist.) But can I, knowing as I do that such douchebaggery is culturally and biographically induced? Or does it even matter? Does cultural difference somehow mean that I should be forgiving of assholes because my passport is a different color from theirs?

All of this is epiphenomenal to my main point. There is a serious logical (but not pragmatic) flaw in holding people responsible for their beliefs (most especially, but also actions) in any real (as opposed to legal, where actions are concerned) sense. We dare not entertain the (scientifically increasingly likely) possibility that everything you choose, every belief you hold, and therefore every action you think you choose to take is the result of causal phenomena beyond your control. For a world where nobody is truly responsible in any absolute sense for their own behavior, how can crimes be punished? When everybody is guilty, who exactly is to blame?

No, as far as modern (western[ized]) sensibilities are concerned the person who committed the crime or uttered the jackassery is the one guilty of it, unless s/he was forced or incompetent (with the question of what is incompetent left conveniently unexamined save in the most superficial fashion). Plenty of clichés of English and other languages bear this mindset out as well: ignorance is no excuse, you always have a choice, etc.

If I keep someone deliberately ignorant or ill-informed and they therefore commit acts which stem from ignorance and harm other people, acts  which were -in that ignorant mind- the only moral thing to do, few indeed are the legal systems which might indict me for "negligent instillment of harmful ignorance" or some such thing save in the most extreme cases involving e.g. in the US the groups we call "cults." Nobody who bombs an abortion clinic because s/he thinks s/he is striking a blow against baby-murderers for the babies who can't strike for themselves can just say "my upbringing made me do it" in the US.

Yet personal responsibility at bottom, exists only in our heads, as anybody who's watched A Few Good Men knows (or should know.) It's our  γενναῖον ψεῦδος, the noble lie or "magnificent myth" on the basis of which society as we know it functions, to one degree or another, and in terms of which we as humans construct our mental universes, though we do this in various ways depending on our culture etc. Whether we're writing fiction, rooting for a sports team, studying history or forming political opinions, we naturally look for good guys and bad guys. "It's not his fault, he doesn't know any better" is the slack we cut the good guys (whoever we decide those are) and "it is his fault, cause he should know better" is the ammo we fire at the bad guys (again, whoever the hell we've decided those are.) The mere fact that e.g. field anthropologists (and, in a better world, historians) are  trained not to do this is evidence for how instinctual it is for most modern humans.

<existentialist climax>

Real life is not a morality play. We cannot look at history or society as if it were a judicial proceeding. Ignorance is no excuse because nobody really needs an excuse. There really are no good guys or bad guys. Personal responsibility and blame (like money, law, God, marriage, national sovereignty, race and human rights) only exist or apply because, and to the degree that, everybody believes they do.

It's a shame you can't build a civilization without pretending this isn't true, to some degree and in some fashion (again, depending on culture etc.) Maybe that's part of why civilization is going down the shitter these days. Lord knows, I don't use this as a basis for my own morality. I'm as deluded as anyone else when it comes to what outrages or offends me. I never claimed to live logically. Nobody can, or should. Fun, love and joy, like annoyance, hatred and sorrow, are wholly illogical. You needn't be Vulcan to note that ours is an illogical species by necessity and disposition.

And this like everything else on this page, is my opinion, an opinion which I myself hold because it makes the most sense to me, which it does probably for reasons completely beyond my control. My mind is no less caused than anyone else's, douchebag or not. And you're welcome to disagree. As Yvor Winters said at the end of "Socrates", The mind is formed. Dissuade it, he who can. 

1 comment:

  1. Switching from a mind-set of "who is responsible for their actions" to what actions can _I_ take to make the world better helps here. We can disagree about who to be mad at wrt the American or Egyptian bigots, but the more useful thing is to figure out how we should behave to reduce their bigotry or minimize the harm it does. Not that that's obvious either.