Friday, December 15, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 14b

We are like residents of Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel — an infinite library whose books contain every possible string of letters. It therefore contains somewhere an explanation of why the library exists and how to use it. But Borges's librarians suspect that they will never find that book amid the miles of nonsense. The story is a metaphor for a problem we face:  the paradox of abundance - quantity dulls us and reduces the quality of our engagement. 

In Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, I came across the concept of the adiaphorization of human behaviour. Adiaphoron in Greek means an unimportant thing (pl. adiaphora). Bauman uses it not in the sense of ‘unimportant’ but as ‘irrelevant’ or ‘indifferent’. He means an ability not to react, or, to react as if something were happening not to people but to natural physical objects, to things, or to non-humans. 

We live in an era of sound-bites, not thoughts. A ‘hurried life’ means that we don’t have the chance to ponder over an event and retain it in our memory. Things turn into a routine that  do not turn anybody on – one needs to become a star or a victim to gain any sort of attention from one’s society. Only a celebrity and a famous victim can expect to be noticed by a society overstuffed with sensational, valueless information. Celebrity and stardom means success that leaves the masses with the illusion that they are not too far from it and can reach it. 

When you constantly see crashing planes in the movies, you start looking at them as fictions that can never happen to you in real life. The routinization of violence and killing during war makes people stop responding to war’s horrors. Incessant political scandals similarly diminish or entirely take away people’s social and political sensitivity. This process suppresses the human power to feel sympathy. Bowman  considers the adiaphorization of behaviour to be one of the most sensitive problems of our time with the markets playing a key role in the process. 

When a catastrophe occurs, people at hand are shocked into helpfulness. We rush to help victims of catastrophe but return to the normal routine once a cheque has been mailed. The fast pace of life means that ‘compassion fatigue’ will set in, waiting for another shock to break it, again for only a brief moment.  This means that the horror of the one-off earthquake or flood stands a much better chance of spurring us into action than slowly yet relentlessly rising inequality of income and life chances.

Bowman uses the idea of painkillers as a metaphor to illuminate the problem. Painkillers are used as a temporary measure for the duration of surgery or of a particularly painful organic disorder. It is never meant to make the organism permanently pain-free. Medical professionals would consider such a condition dangerous. If pain did not send a warning in time that something was wrong, the patients would postpone the search for a remedy until their condition became untreatable. Still, the thought of being permanently free of pain  seems to most people a good idea.

This example from physiology gives an important message: freedom from pain is a mixed blessing. It prevents discomfort, and for a short time cuts down potentially severe suffering, but it may well prove a trap. Pain is a corrective, guiding force. When we are acting foolishly and  stray into illness, alienation, loneliness, or despair, it is good to feel anguished. Moral pain serves as a reminder that something is wrong with our way of living. 

Historian Milton Mayer recounts in his seminal book on Hitler’s rise to power, They Thought They Were Free: Germany 1933-45, how easily we can slip into barbarism. Mayer's book is a study of ten Germans and their lives from 1933-45. They had been members of the Nazi party. Mayer wanted to discover how otherwise unremarkable and in many ways reasonable people can be seduced by demagogues and populists.

The full range of coercive power and brutality of the Nazis did not become clear at one stroke. People got accustomed to it, in small steps. Most of his informants remembered the Hitler years as the time of their life. They passed examinations, got a job, got promotions, got married. And the political meetings had been exciting. There were always more of them. “There was so much going on.” Consumed by the ‘virus of adiaphorization’, society was increasingly becoming insensitive. Mayer quotes one German:

Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism  . . . kept us so busy with continuous changes and 'crises' and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the 'national enemies', without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.

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