Chapter 18: Dilemmas 2

In this chapter, Taylor continues to explore the tensions between belief and unbelief, now turning to look at issues surrounding the meaning of life. He zooms in on the question of evil and suffering. The question that evil and suffering raises is not one of theodicy (this is only a problem for belief) but rather, how do we live with the reality of suffering and evil? Taylor explains: 

We can be overwhelmed when we are made aware of all the suffering there is in the world; and more than this, the loss, dispersal, evil, blindness; or the distorted and thwarted and self-mutilating humanity; or the dullness, emptiness, flatness. This is, as it were, a condition which arises even in a disenchanted world: we are unprotected; now not from demons and spirits, but from suffering and evil as we sense it raging in the world. There are unguarded moments when we can feel the immense weight of suffering, when we are dragged down by it, or pulled down into despair. Being in contact with war, or famine, or massacre, or pestilence, will press this in on us. But beyond suffering, there is evil; for instance, the infliction of suffering, the cruelty, fanaticism, joy or laughter at the suffering of the victims. And then what is almost worse, the sinking into brutality, the insensible brute violence of the criminal. It’s almost like a nightmare. One wants to be protected, separated from this. But it can creep under your guard and assail you, even in a disenchanted world. 

The question here is how one is to deal with this shocking reality of suffering, violence, brutality, evil; What should we do? How should we cope? Taylor sees two different strategies of coping, both of which are usually combined in an engagement with this suffering. On the one hand, there is the “negative” approach: The various ways in which we can disengage or distance ourselves from the evil and suffering of the world. We can tell ourselves that these people deserve it, or that their suffering isn’t as bad, or we can simply stop listening to the news. Another strategy is the one I’ve noticed in myself, where we can romanticize poverty and squaller as a sort of rooted, communal, embedded way of living, while turning a blind eye to the hunger, the disease, the death, and so on. On the other hand, there is the “positive” approach: We can do something to “heal the world,” to offer up our lives in service, make responsible buying choices, or do something to make us feel that we are “part of the solution” and “making the world a better place.” 

Taylor shows how various cross pressured positions are responses in their own way to this dilemma of suffering, and bring together, in their own way, these two strategies. The Liberal, exclusive humanist stance, with its disengaged, rational stance, is able to create a certain distance from the reality of suffering and evil, while also working instrumentally towards a solution. It is cooly able to face reality, and by the same stance, find the most rational way forward. A different stance, the “Bolshevik,” as a similar, disengaged posture, but it discards the methodical, “within the limits of reason,” approach of the Liberal. Instead it ruthlessly peruses “Justice,” being willing to crack a few eggs on the way.  The distance from evil and suffering is achieved because you are on the side of light, on the “right side of history” and “part of the solution,” while those evil people are on the side of darkness: 

What goes on here is a double process: On one side, there is the sense of being part of the solution, answering the human problem, fighting back evil and suffering, which answers suffering and evil with effective remedies, and so keeps one from being engulfed. But also, the cutting off of gut-sympathy with suffering and evil through disengagement and the stance of control means that we no longer feel implicated in this. These are not our people any more. These foolish, backward, self-inflicting savages, or these brutal killers, or the blind, egoistic bourgeois exploiters, and the cruel, brutal White Guards; we deny kinship with them. We do this through the disengagement of scrutiny, and through the stance of control.

The Nietzschean stance is further down along this trajectory and rejects the notion of ameliorating suffering altogether. Suffering, violence, evil; these are all intractable features of the human condition, we can never root them out and it is foolish and destructive to the human spirit to try to do so. Best to enter into the fray and to stamp your will on the world, to peruse your own dreams and destiny, at all costs: “So their answer to the power of evil, at least for part of it, the drive to violence, is to internalize it, and baptize it, as it were, consecrate it to the striving for excellence; marrying the Übermensch, the primitive, and the highest.” The opposite of the Nietzschean, is the “victim stance,” the kind of position we see today in PC woke culture. This stance projects all evil onto the other/the oppressor, while seeing oneself as the pure victim, or at least, allied with the victim. We as the oppressed, or allies to the oppressed, are purely on the side of good; evil comes only from those who are opposed to us. This stance of being the total victim distances you from evil and suffering through both of the strategies Taylor identified above:

The victim scenario…a kind of deviant, secularized Christianity, achieves total innocence, at the cost of projecting total evil on the other. This can justify Bolshevik-type ruthlessness, as well as titanic action. We can see how this carries out both processes, which distance us from evil: we are part of the solution, and we are utterly other than those who inflict harm. We have no part with them. 

A potential Christian approach would seek to “be part of the solution” by being present in suffering and hoping and praying to God for transformation; while working towards transformation through acts of mercy and political action. It would avoid the pitfalls of demonization and scapegoating by seeing the image of God in all human beings (obviously, this is not something Christians have historically lived up to) despite their failures and status. Taylor wonders whether this kind of unconditional love, is only possible from a deep connection with God: 

But then the question may arise whether any humanistic view, just because it is woven around a picture of the potential greatness of human beings, doesn’t tempt us to neglect the failures, the blackguards, the useless, the dying, those on the way out, in brief, those who negate the promise. Perhaps only God, and to some extent those who connect themselves to God, can love human beings when they are utterly abject. The work of Mother Teresa in Calcutta brings this question to mind. 

A key issue connected to the question of evil and suffering is the reoccurring reality of violence. There is a deep connection between violence and religion, going back into the pre-axial past, which Taylor traces out. In the pre-axial world, violence, war and sacrifice had a place as part of the normal order of things: “There was a time to make war and a time for peace; or there were people whose task… it was to make war.” With the shift to the Axial age religions, this changes, as there is now a gap, a tension, between the present age and the future age, the Higher, and the Lower, our earthly reality and the heavenly reality of God. Violence, especially in Christianity, increasingly no longer has a place in the holy life, and it is seen not as something “normal,” but as a product of evil. However, “sacred violence” continues to play a role in medieval Christendom, as a form of purification. What is strange, especially about the Christendom case, is how in tension this is with the higher demands of Christianity, a war waged in the name of the Prince of Peace. Here, the new notions of goodness and purity of Christianity are appropriated by the “scapegoat mechanism:” we are the pure ones and those others are bad, and we need to engage in violence to exterminate them, to extend the purity and goodness of Christianity: 

So numinous violence can recur even in religious cultures that were founded on the rejection of earlier forms of sacred killing, or human sacrifice. They recur, because even drawing on the new definitions of purity and goodness, people make use of these to establish and protect their own sense of purity, their separation from the bad. 

But the scapegoat mechanism continues to be powerful in a post-religious context. Taylor points to the French revolution, where a sort of “sacred violence” sought to purge the enemies of the new regime, all in service of the new order of peace and fraternity. In modernity, disturbingly, all religious limits are swept aside and violence is now perpetuated as the rational option, a mass scale, technological, clinical purging of the impure. Think of the horrors of the 20th century, Hitler, Stalin, etc. We see from all this that violence, despite its deep connection with religion, is not only a religious problem. But rather, the scapegoat mechanism effects both unbelief and belief. The scapegoat mechanism can infect the notions of purity and goodness of Christianity and direct it towards violence, just as it can infect the ideals of exclusive humanism bringing democracy to the world. 

There are similar tensions within the pursuit of justice or the philanthropic efforts or exclusive humanism. These can easily turn into hatred at the oppressors, the rich, or even those sorry, pathetic losers who our philanthropic efforts intend to help: 

…it is clear that modern humanism is full of potential for such disconcerting reversals: from dedication to others to self-indulgent, feel-good responses, from a lofty sense of human dignity to control powered by contempt and hatred, from absolute freedom to absolute despotism, from a flaming desire to help the oppressed to an incandescent hatred for all those who stand in the way. And the higher the flight, the greater the potential fall.

How do we deal with this? This is not a question of the right beliefs or ideology, these can too easily be subverted by the scapegoat mechanism. The only path forward, Taylor argues, is the one modeled by Christ on his way to the cross, when he refuses to escalate the violence, but overcomes evil by good. Taylor points to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, as exemplary figures, renouncing the desire for revenge and charting a path of reconciliation instead. This is not necessarily a religious stance, there are unbelieving analogues. Neither is this some grand program to end violence; but it is the path we must tread: 

 There is no general remedy against this self-righteous reconstitution of the categorizations of violence, the lines drawn between the good and evil ones which permit the most terrible atrocities. But there can be moves, always within a given context, whereby someone renounces the right conferred by suffering, the right of the innocent to punish the guilty, of the victim to purge the victimizer. The move is the very opposite of the instinctive defense of our righteousness. It is a move which can be called forgiveness, but at a deeper level, it is based on a recognition of common, flawed humanity. In Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, the slogan of the scientistic revolutionaries who would remake the world is “no one is to blame”. That is the slogan of the disengaged stance to reality, of the therapeutic outlook. What this slogan hides is another stance which projects the blame entirely on the enemy, giving ourselves the power to act that comes from total righteousness. Opposed to this is the insight that Dostoyevsky’s potentially redemptive characters struggle to: “we are all to blame.” It is this restoration of a common ground which defines the kind of move I am talking about. It opens a new footing of co-responsibility to the erstwhile enemy.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 18: Dilemmas 2

  1. Good synopsis. The last chapter left me with a lot of questions about blame Responsibility, the mystery of suffering, victimology ,the “justification” of doing wrong for the greater good ( by any means necessary) among others. Taylor seems to have taken a good step in beginning to address some of these issues. Yes, Jesus was a “victim” that morning of the powers that be, but he chose the time and place. And he agonized over the ordeal he knew in advance was coming. “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Taylor’s “victim scenario” in the context of “exclusive humanism” was very helpful. As Taylor implies Jesus did not have to “achieve” innocence, he was innocent. As the thief on the cross next to him realized.
    Taylor seems to have taken a Girardian move concerning scapegoating, sacred violence and the victimage mechanism. Does he make any references or attributions to Girard in this book?


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