Entitlement, Fear, and Change: The Nihilist Roots of Coercive Moralism, #1
TABLE OF CONTENTS
II. Nihilism and Postmodernity
III. If God is Dead, Then I am Entitled to Everything
IV. Activist Motives: Guilt and Immortality
This installment contains sections I – III.
One of the most basic insights of moral philosophy is that our world is thoroughly nonideal, while moral theory is as ideal as one could imagine. The real world is made up of situations that are unjust, immoral, unfortunate, unfair, and irreparable. Moral theory is made up of theorems that hold across a range of situations. This distinction has bedeviled moral philosophy from its very beginning, making theodicy—the issue whether the existence of evil is reconcilable with the idea of an essentially good God—is its most poignant and urgent expression. If God is good, compassionate and fair, after all, why is the world full of pain, suffering, and unfairness? In modern philosophy, this dilemma received a new formulation in Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In the Introduction, Kant states that he aims to distil or extract a “pure” (i.e. non-empirical, universal, unconditional, strict-imperative-based) science of morals from common sense moral judgments and everyday facts. However, the problem is that one has to “contaminate” the science of pure morals with impure, empirical, real-life examples in order to be intelligible at all. Indeed, Kant’s puristic aim demonstrates the philosophical problem that underlies all thinking about morals: morality as such cannot be divorced from the practical situation “on the ground.” And no matter how much we speculate on “self-evident,” “a priori,” or “strict” principles to set our moral compass by, practice always puts them to the test, even to such a degree that in well over 2000 years, we have not found any definitive moral principles or system that covers all situations and circumstances—the bad and the unjust included.
One way to dismiss the thoroughly messy and nonideal character of the real world, insofar as recognizing it tempers the tendency towards moral fanaticism and rigorism, not to mention moralism, is to dismiss the very notion of messiness/nonideality as a mere narrative, an ideological construct that is designed to keep things just as they are at best, or a tool of oppression at worst. The last assertion has been heard more and more over the last 15 years, with movements like Occupy, the Yellow Vests, Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the campus protests, forcefully claiming to represent the oppressed, the marginalized, the downtrodden, and the poor.[i]
One theme that all such protest movements have in common is their criticism of “the system” as such, combined with a grass-roots type of organization. Large groups of people are mobilized, and the entire enterprise of demonstrations is presented as a fight of the oppressed against the system, or the systemic phenomena, responsible for the oppression. It is easy to see that these types of protests have been organized following the template of the 1960s demonstrations in the US and Europe alike, combined with a generous helping of neo-Marxist revolutionary language and conceptual jargon. Frequently, the language of “change,” “revolution,” “uprooting,” or “overturning” is invoked, underlining the idea that the protestors assume that they are writing history.
One can condemn such demonstrations or condone them; reject or accept the justifications given in support of them. Nevertheless, from the point of view of moral philosophy, one has to think one beyond this too: what are the means used for bringing the new world about, and what does this say about the character of the world-yet-to-come? After all, the self-styled creators of the new world are those who will shape its political and societal institutions, its customs, its language, its norms and taboos, its deepest beliefs, and its covert assumptions.
I maintain the view that the methods employed for realizing a political goal and the image of the world it claims to strive for are intimately connected. And furthermore, that this connection should provide a reasonable test of what we can expect of the promised world.
When it comes to the current debate about issues surrounding racism and discrimination, therefore, I am not optimistic. It seems to me that a range of cultural trends have been fused into a new political phenomenon that we may without hesitation describe as coercive moralism. This set of cultural trends has had profoundly negative effects on the public debate and has turned it into everything it claims to fight against. However, and more depressingly, the methods employed by coercive moralists provide us with a glimpse into their moral and sociopolitical universe. It must be said that the outlook is rather bleak and unhospitable, especially so for those who happen to disagree with the core dogmas of the coercive moralists.
II. Nihilism and Postmodernity
By postmodernity, I mean the cultural era that began sometime during the early 1970s, and that rejected the modernist assumptions that structured post-war societies in the Western world. Whereas modernity envisioned a highway towards progress by means of technology, planning, and (social) engineering, postmodernity rejected the mythos of progress, and emphasized the contingency and randomness of the world.
Thus, any “grand narrative” was rejected, along with ideas about the fixed meaning of texts or objects. This theoretical stance went along with the development of differential ontologies, that stressed difference over identity, and bricolage over truth-oriented representation. If the postmodern attitude can be described with one slogan, it is this: “Down with unity, long live fragmentation!” This cultural attitude has had a tremendous impact during the closing decades of the 20th century, while reverberating through the opening decades of the 21st century.
Postmodernity pulled the rug out from under one of the core assumptions of modernity: the idea that there was a single universal order that could be reached by scientific knowledge and by technologically advancing to the next and higher stage of civilization. Instead, the postmodern thought emphasized that all knowledge is the result of procedures carried out by fallible or ideologically motivated human beings; that what is deemed to be knowledge might be and usually is the result of hidden social-institutional power structures; and that every text, object, or artefact is endlessly interpretable. In postmodernity, then, we see an ultra-modernist line of skeptical suspicion that is not only continued but super-charged.
Galileo effectively ended the idea of a geocentric universe, thus dethroning humanity from its privileged place in the cosmos. Although Kant, with his reverse-directed Copernican revolution in metaphysics, anthropocentrically claimed that the world we perceive and know necessarily depends on the structures of our minds, nevertheless Darwin and Mendel showed that organisms evolved from earlier organisms, thereby rejecting the anthropocentric idea of human beings as unique creatures handcrafted by God. Schopenhauer and Freud uncovered the unconscious (or pre-conscious) as motivating force behind the actions of ordinary human beings. Nietzsche mercilessly exposed the decay and hypocrisy of the then-prevailing and yet profoundly ineffective Christian values of Europe. World War II and the Cold War effectively undermined the unrealistically optimistic belief in progress through technology when the full scale of the Holocaust and terrifying oppression under various Communist regimes became common knowledge. With 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror, the western world once again closed its mind, trapped in a political ideology fueled by skeptical suspicion and reactionary rhetoric. In all these steps, the idea of the autonomous, unique, free, and rational human being is gradually hollowed out, defaced, and transformed beyond recognition. The fall from grace that started with humanity’s being relegated to a remote corner of the universe culminated in the hyper-pessimistic belief that hidden power structures strictly determine what we think and do without our ever knowing it.
In all these moves, a fundamentally skeptical suspicion with regard to the image of the human being is paramount. As Foucault put it in Les Mots et les Choses, aka The Order of Things, insofar as God is Dead because we’ve killed Him, then Man is Dead because we’ve thereby also killed him. And if Francesco Petrarca identified the free development of humanity as the centre of meaning, late 19th and 20th century existentialism and psychoanalysis maintained that the fragile tapestry of meaning was suspended over a gaping chasm of meaninglessness. In this way, nihilism made its grand entrance from the Paris sewers onto centre stage, like the phantom of the opera.
Nietzsche recognized nihilism as an essentially moral and consequently sociocultural force. The “decadence” with which he took issue, is civil society’s translation of nihilism into dogmatic creeds and rules to ward off its threatening presence. Those who conform to these rules are praised and gain fame; those who pierce the veil of hypocrisy are excommunicated and ostracized. With this insight, Nietzsche unwittingly became the founding father of a postmodern attitude that he most probably wouldn’t have liked very much. Yet his insight that nihilism creates a deep and lasting fear that’s warded off by erecting cathedrals of bourgeois coercive moralism still stands, even if, ironically, his work became a basic reference point for those who build exactly such cathedrals nowadays. —Or perhaps he would have fully appreciated the irony of such a dialectical reversal.
III. If God is Dead, Then I am Entitled to Everything
Even if Nietzsche’s “guter Mensch” could not find God in the marketplace, nevertheless the postmodern subject has found a work-around solution to this problem: he has fashioned new gods. This time, however, and fully in keeping with the deities previously thought up, these new deities of choice are customizable, tailored products. They spur the creation of new micro-theologies, accompanied by correspondingly just as many coercive moralistic demands and creeds. The postmodern public domain is not a neutral, Rawlsian “marketplace of ideas”, but a fiercely contested ideological plane on which various pseudo-religions wage wars on each other. The result is an age of all-encompassing coercive moralism, passed off as fights for eliminating oppression, promoting equality, or eliminating the evils of human nature. Every individual has a personal moral creed, and sets out to convince, nudge, browbeat, or (if need be) violently force others into accepting his/her preferences or points of view. Punch a Nazi!, punch a racist!, punch a sexist!, and so-on down the line, until you have transgendered people punching feminists and conversely.
Moreover, these new prophets are convinced that they have a right to be not only heard but also heeded. Whereas Jeremiah had to go out and preach to an unwilling and disinterested people, the new prophets believe that first, they are entitled to be believed, and second, that their public has a strict obligation to listen to and obey their clarion calls. In short, the new prophet is entitled to your full and uncritical cooperation and compliance, dear reader. Or else…
If God is Dead, then the celestial dispenser of good and bad, luck and misfortune has disappeared. The relation between the Divine and humanity has dissolved, freeing us finally from the superstructure of supernatural control. But what and who rushes into the void left by God’s removal? The entitled coercive moralist prophet is the person who has taken Nietzsche’s word to heart: he is god, and as such, he deserves worship, while he is entitled to dispense reward and punishment alike.
Just as the Christian God guaranteed the harmonious unfolding of world history due to Providence, so too must the entitled coercive moralist prophet strive for the puritanically Utopian world that he has thought up, even if that means that some sacrifices have to be made along the way, as collateral damage. To see oneself as God (the ultimate personification of coercive moralist entitlement), means that one feels free to actively direct the world-pictures of others. In doing so, one assumes the role of the guaranteeing God, or Providence itself.
Nowhere else can this strange phenomenon be witnessed in more detail than in the literature and public statements made by those who claim to be anti-racists, ultra-egalitarians, radical feminists, or members of the liberal elite. Armed with moralistic creeds, and the all-too-ready willingness to accuse, browbeat, and bully opponents, as well as a veritable pseudoscience of makeshift ideas, the proponents of coercive moralism have greatly multiplied in numbers.
One of the most depressing sights that a clear-thinking person can witness is the fictitious idea of “white guilt.” The idea is simply that white people, with no exceptions, have amassed wealth at the expense of Black or Brown people. As such, the white population (I refuse to use the word “race” – we’re all members of the genus Homo sapiens) is tainted with an original sin, an affliction that is transmitted through the generations. Some remarks by the Dutch rapper Akwasi who caused a controversy at the Dutch BLM protest held in Amsterdam in June 2020 will illustrate the mindset of the coercive moralist world-improvers:
Black Pete is the logo of racism in the Netherlands. In the meantime we think [in the Netherlands] that we have overcome racism, that we are really progressive. What did anthropologist Gloria Wekker call this, again? The “self-congratulating image.”[ii]
There are many aids for white people. For instance, there is a website called “White Homework” that provides new books, articles and films on a weekly basis. Educate yourself.[iii]
Talk about a “self-congratulating image”! Akwasi seems to think that white people are somehow essentially myopic or wholly unreflective when it comes to racism, and that this short-sightedness is somehow essentially connected to their being white. And therefore, such sheep-like know-nothings must be helped. No problem, those who know better refer us to a website where their ideology is nicely presented, putting the evil “white people” back in school again, so that they can dutifully memorize and recite the valuable lessons imparted to them by an elite that is convinced of their own goodness.
The attitude that leads to such initiatives is blatantly narcissistic and utterly and coercively moralistic. As if from on high, white people have to be addressed as a group with a collective deficit. As if the people around Akwasi are the ones to educate the general public. And as if the problem of racism is all about what white people did to black people. The insanity of this attitude is only matched by the weak-willed, spineless responses of the politically correct elite, very often those who occupy positions of power and haven’t spoken to Joe the Plumber in years. And it is this essentially detached elite, that without even the slightest sense of shame, has harnessed this ideology to cover up many of the unreflective decisions they took during the closing decades of the 20th century. An example:
Author, professional narcissist, and former Senator Anja Meulenbelt was one of the first in the Netherlands to realize the commercial possibilities of this self-congratulating cult with her course “Help! I am white.” Not because ordinary people voluntarily pay to feel miserable (although, they do exist), but because any development that creates regression and division in society is actually subsidized—so too this example of totalitarian undermining that is effectuated by training civil servants. Because it is still possible to provide mandatory courses for them.[iv]
Very like the Soviet communists, civil servants are dutifully trained as the Party’s nomenklatura: the legal guardians of the citizen. That they are merely State employees to support and assist citizens what they paid for—namely, State services—does not have a location on the cognitive map of our societal elites. Shamelessly, they use civil servants as means for social engineering and enforcing a preconceived and ideologically motivated image of society upon their citizens. That such courses are not for free is only to be expected:
And if you look further, you’ll discover more. World-improvers in this business believe deeply (in their wallets) that if they show “Black people” that they judge other white people, that these [Black] people will let them off the hook. The sacrifice made by their white fellow human being following the course is a compensation for their own responsibility or guilt that they seem to feel and desire to get rid of. Most likely this is some form of personal guilt, or even something else. All this speculation may be amateur psychology, but still… Externalizing guilt is characteristic for this phenomenon.[v]
The phenomenon mentioned here is nothing less than a combination of aggressive coercive moralizing and virtue-signaling. It operates according to the following protocol:
1. Show members of the group A that you claim to represent that you do not agree with the actions of the group B supposedly involved in the oppressive actions against A.
2. State that you yourself once belonged to group B but have converted to group C, the good and just ones.
3. Claim that all members of group B need to be re-educated according the benign ideology of group C because they, the Bs, are immoral, and the ideology of C is socially just and superior.
4. Make a big show out of it: publicly lecture members of group B on their unjust actions and show members of group A how well you are representing them
5. Gain standing and support by working to pay off your debt for once belonging to group B, while at the same time accumulating sociopolitical power.
6. Harness this sociopolitical power in order to institutionalize a generalized witch-hunt against members of group B while also claiming to hold up values like diversity, equality, and freedom of expression.
Another example that shows coercive moralizing at work is a recent conflict around an advertisement of the Africa Museum. In a TV commercial, an elderly couple wearing baby-boomer clothing is seen, together with the text “A day off to Ghana…in your own country.” It might simply come across as corny, but artist Richard Kofi responded by posting an Instagram image of the commercial. This image was accompted by the text: “Wow.. @afrikamuseum, really?????” As usual, the fake revulsion literally drips from the screen. Mr. Kofi sees something, and feels entitled to an opinion—no, even better, he’s entitled to a rectification! He has been harmed and offended, and social justice must be done, so that the world will be once again the safe and comfortable place that Mr. Kofi deserves.
How was it possible, Mr. Kofi rhetorically asked, that the Museum reduced Ghana to a flat image, while they did not do justice to the “complex identity” of the country, and did not even mention something about the slavery that took place there? The Africa Museum issued an apology and stopped the campaign, accompanied by theatrical groveling, gnashing of teeth, and mea culpas. The only thing lacking was the ghastly spectacle of the entire board of directors marching down the street in hair shirts and flagellating themselves in a collective act of voluntary penance. This little anecdote shows self-evidently why coercive moralism is such a pervasive phenomenon: the collision of limitless entitlement and spineless cowardice results in a truly destructive cultural force. When goodwill is demanded, backed up by threatened punishment, it ceases to be goodwill. When abject apologies are created by the fear offending someone, anyone, we might as well give up on freedom of expression altogether.
It also pays to view the other side of the coin. In an (admittedly well-made) video called “Black is King,” pop star Beyoncé tried to “reconnect” to her “African heritage.” In the video, all cultural tropes that signify Black cultures are present. However, this is just a sad, Americanized image of something unhelpfully referred to as “Blackness.”[vi] It’s a thoroughly Hollywood-ized image of what it supposedly means to be Black, seen from a point of view that is so far detached from reality that is bears no recognizable resemblance to it. As if this is not a case of “reducing culture to a flat image!” The hypocrisy is staggering and intensely annoying. A new generation of anti-racists has taken it upon themselves to rid the world of evil, but they can do so only through entitlement, hypocrisy, narcissism, and double standards. Now what would that purist Utopian new world of theirs look like, I wonder? If the vices I’ve just described form the moral cornerstones for a new political order of social justice, we can easily anticipate and imagine how it would operate. Did I hear someone say “1984”?
[i] I’ve left out the Arab Spring protests because they emerged from a non-western sociocultural and economic situation. Moreover, the focus on liberal-leftist ideas is more confined to protests in the West, than in the Middle East.
[ii] Riemersma, G., De Volkskrant, 12 juni 2020, Akwasi en advocaat Natacha Harlequin gaan met elkaar in gesprek over de strijd tegen racisme. The original text in Dutch: “Zwarte Piet is het logo van racisme in Nederland. Intussen denken we in Nederland dat er geen racisme is, dat we heel progressief zijn. Hoe noemde antropoloog Gloria Wekker dat ook alweer? Het ‘zelffeliciterende beeld’.”
[iii] Riemersma, G., De Volkskrant, 12 juni 2020, Akwasi en advocaat Natacha Harlequin gaan met elkaar in gesprek over de strijd tegen racisme. The original text in Dutch: “Er zijn veel handvatten voor witte mensen, zo is er de site Wit Huiswerk, waarop wekelijks nieuwe boektitels, artikelen en films staan. Educate yourself.”
[iv] Bergsma, S., Cursussen ‘wit privilege’: Big business voor wereldverbeteraars, een ramp voor de samenleving, available online at URL = <https://thefireonline.com/cursussen-wit-privilege-big-business-voor-wereldverbeteraars-een-ramp-voor-de-samenleving/>. The original text in Dutch: “Schrijfster, beroepsnarcist en oud Eerste Kamer lid Anja Meulenbelt was een van de eersten die in Nederland brood zag in deze zelfverheerlijkings-cult met haar cursus ‘Help! Ik ben wit’. Niet omdat normale mensen vrijwillig willen betalen om zich rot te voelen (hoewel, ze zijn er), maar omdat subsidies tegenwoordig gaan naar alles wat regressie en verdeeldheid zaait in de samenleving, dus ook dit totalitaire staaltje ondermijning dat nu via het ambtenarenapparaat wordt geïnjecteerd. Want die kun je nog verplicht naar die cursussen sturen.
[v] Bergsma, S., Cursussen ‘wit privilege’: Big business voor wereldverbeteraars, een ramp voor de samenleving, available online at URL = < https://thefireonline.com/cursussen-wit-privilege-big-business-voor-wereldverbeteraars-een-ramp-voor-de-samenleving/>. The original text in Dutch: “En je ontdekt nog meer als je doorzoekt. Wereldverbeteraars in deze business geloven ten diepste (in hun portemonnee) dat als ze laten zien aan ‘zwarten’ dat ze andere blanken terecht wijzen, dat deze hun zullen vrijstellen van elke blaam of schuld. Het offer van de andere, blanke medemens – de cursist – komt zo in de plaats van hun eigen schuld, een schuld die zíj blijkbaar wel degelijk voelen en waar ze graag vanaf willen. Hoogstwaarschijnlijk is dat een persoonlijke schuld, over iets anders. Dat is misschien psychologie van de koude grond, maar toch. De externalisering van schuld is kenmerkend binnen dit fenomeen.”
[vi] See, for further discussion, Van Zwam, E., Trouw, 6 August 2020, Er is maar één Mama Afrika, en dat is niet Queen Bey.