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Volume 1, No. 2:

In Praise of Ignorance
Liberal Education and Literature

Eurocentrism and Pluralism
Socrates and the Homeric Gods
Freedom and the Supersensible
On Private and Public Values
The Epistemology of Panic


The Epistemology of Panic

by Jeffrey Johnson

One of the most enduring and obvious realities pertaining to human life is that it is rarely, if ever, a tidy affair. Think, however, of what the world would be missing if life were tidy. The very messiness of the human condition has inspired many of the greatest artists. A tidy world would be a boring world. Life lived around a day-planner may often be efficient, but might also be described as spiritless and boring. I am not advocating that we should consign all day-planners to the flames. Organization, planning, and disciplined order are essential to healthy living. They only become corrosive when they push aside spontaneity. If virtue lies in the mean, as Aristotle says, then rich and healthy living in part consists in treading a careful path between organization, on one side, and spontaneity, on the other. An excess of organization can lead to ennui, a combination of boredom, spiritlessness, despair, fatigue, a lack of creativity, and indolence. An excess of spontaneity can result in indirection and anarchy.

Freedom is the name we can assign to that median quality between organization and spontaneity. Free persons know how to navigate the tension-laden terrain between organization and spontaneity by serving a human agenda that is life-creating and life-enhancing. Nietzsche teaches us that Apollo and Dionysus are both essential to the drama of a well-lived life, a life that is constantly transcending itself by embracing opportunities to grow in all of the dimensions that pertain to it. But there is always an element of risk involved in every transcending act, which can be seen as a walk in a terra incognita. A transcending act constitutes a change in our lives from what is familiar, comfortable, convenient, and secure. It is rather messy.

It takes intelligence and reticence as well as a willful and courageous spirit to step away from what is familiar, comfortable, convenient, and secure. So many people in our world can never take that step. In fact, they panic in the face of change and of the messiness that is a natural part of all things human. But not content with wallowing in the effluent of their own panic, they often vilify those who do take that step. Instead of confronting their own mediocrity, they try to make the free and creative-spirited ones around them into scapegoats and vent the frustration they feel with their own soulless lives.

The creation of scapegoats is an integral part of an epistemology of panic. This is an attempt to formulate a systematic rationalization of one’s own insecurity and terror in the face of life’s challenges and opportunities. Rather than intelligently, reticently, willfully, and courageously dealing with the reality of a challenging situation, it is easier to react against it through recourse to a palliative for oneself and a caricature of others. This result is the creation of an ideology or set of preconceived notions which serves as a façade for one’s panic. The very nature of a reactionary is to be someone in panic. Reaction is a form of panic.

Paulo Freire provides a poignant description of all the elements comprising this epistemology of panic. Within any given society experienced as "closed" a certain alienation is felt by many, if not most, of that society’s members. In a closed society people adapt themselves as objects within an environment sealed against the hope and possibility of change. Closed societies are considered finished, as complete systems that neither permit nor admit the need for further change and development. Thus they are closed to critique and dialogue. Those in charge wield an infallible authority over acquiescent subjects. Those who are ruled are governed by decree and remain silent before the voice of the infallible and authoritarian master. The ruled have no sense of personal or civic responsibility. They follow and obey the voice of authority; they adapt to the conditions set by those who dominate them through a listless obedience reinforced by an inability to imagine or even think of a different and better world.

The world of the closed society is a one-dimensional world lived in by one-dimensional people who cannot imagine or think of a better lot. Such a world permits only one way of looking at things, of viewing reality. It often arrogantly parades itself under the presumptuous title of "the real world." Those who dare to challenge it in any way, who free their souls from its "one-dimensionality," as Herbert Marcuse calls it, are condescendingly ridiculed for not living in "the real world." Fear of this sort of ridicule so often keeps many from breaking free from this one-dimensional gulag of the human spirit and charting a new course. This is just as true of a society dominated by corporations and the ideology of market fundamentalism as it is of those dominated by autocratic rulers and totalitarian political or religious ideologies.

Open societies are seen as unfinished, as incomplete, as works-in-progress. They are therefore subject to critique and open to development and transformation based upon the democratic notion of dialogue among citizens who have a sense of personal and civic responsibility and a multi-dimensional way of viewing reality. They are not subjects, but persons and citizens who are imaginatively and creatively engaged with one another. This sort of open interpersonal and civic engagement allows them to integrate themselves within their societies.

Adaptation must be distinguished from integration. Integration is associated with open societies. Paulo Freire writes:

Integration with one’s context, as distinguished from adaptation, is a distinctively human activity. Integration results from the capacity to adapt oneself to reality plus the critical capacity to make choices and to transform that reality. To the extent that man loses his ability to make choices and is subjected to the choices of others, to the extent that his decisions are no longer his own because they result from external prescriptions, he is no longer integrated. Rather, he has adapted.

At some point in the development of closed societies significant numbers of people become conscious of their alienation. This consciousness marks the beginning of a new cultural climate which begins to challenge and eclipse the old one. The emergence of this new climate reveals society as an unfinished project, as something that is not completed or a given, but as created and conventional. Once the mystifying spell that casts certain social realities as "natural," inevitable, or divinely ordained is overcome, we are able to grasp that all social realities are human creations. This then gives rise to the realization that social realities, like anything humanly created, are imperfect and thus unfinished. Awareness of the unfinished character of a society gives rise to the hope and prospect of its transformation, that the current social reality can be transcended. However, this hope and prospect are rarely unchallenged.

Just as a society is challenged, so the challengers are often challenged by those who have a vital interest in the status quo. Those who enjoy status, power, and privilege, even if these are enjoyed to the detriment of others, rarely surrender their prerogatives willingly. In a world where the welfare and comfort of some depends upon the misery and degradation of others, change for the better is rarely, if ever, achieved without violence. Even if change is being sought through non-violent means, those seeking to stop the change can usually be counted on to react violently. The reality that engulfs them keeps them from seeing things differently. The oppressors are submerged in their closed world just as much as those whom they oppress. But the indignities suffered by the oppressed as well as the spiritual and cultural stagnation experienced in closed societies can serve as catalysts for change. No longer willing to be acquiescent collaborators in their own enslavement, the desire to emerge from and transcend an exploitative and stagnant situation impels many to become actors shaping their own lives and destinies, not voyeurs seeking insipid relief from the ennui of a closed and one-dimensional existence. But their aspirations and actions come at a price. They usually find themselves opposed in every way. The hopes and actions of some set off panic and reaction in others. Freire observes,

During the phase of the closed society, the people are submerged in reality. As that society breaks open, they emerge. No longer mere spectators, they uncross their arms, renounce expectancy, and demand intervention. No longer satisfied to watch, they want to participate. This participation disturbs the privileged elite, who band together in self-defense.

At first, the elite react spontaneously. Later, perceiving more clearly the threat involved in the awakening of popular consciousness, they organize. They bring forth a group of "crisis theoreticians" (the new cultural climate is usually labeled a crisis)...they repel the participation of the people...

As the dominant social class, they must preserve at all costs the social "order" in which they are dominant. They cannot permit any basic changes which would affect their control over decision-making. So from their point of view, every effort to supersede such an order means to subvert it criminally.

The panic of those who dominate society takes on a form. It starts as an unorganized or spontaneous panic which progressively coalesces into an organized reaction that is rationalized by certain thinkers ("crisis theoreticians") in the service of the dominant élite. Panic acquires an epistemological form.

To better understand this we need to distinguish between what it means to react, as opposed to what it means to respond. Václav Havel describes the human predicament as enveloped by a "thrownness." We are thrown "into the source of Being" and "into the world." This is the fundamental situation of every human being: we find ourselves "thrown" into existence and into situations and relationships. We can, though, choose how we sort out that thrownness. Gabriel Marcel notes that "what we call our given circumstances come into our lives only in connection with a free activity of ours to which they constitute either an encouragement or an obstacle." How we see our circumstances is a key influence on whether we respond to or react against them.

By responding we are answering to something, heeding a "voice" in whatever situation we may find ourselves. By responding to a situation we allow it to serve as a catalyst enabling us to accept it, live within it, or transcend it, that is, to integrate ourselves in it. In the situation we "hear" what Havel identifies as the "voice of Being" calling us to transcend the realities in which we find ourselves submerged by working for an improvement of our lot as well as reaching out in empathy and concern for others. We assume responsibility in the situation; we find ourselves answerable to it. "It is...a relationship and thus assumes the existence of two poles: a person who is responsible, and someone, or something, for whom or for which he is responsible." Thus, when we respond situations or other persons are not perceived as threats, but as catalysts for growth and development. There is no estrangement when we respond, but growth and engagement.

A reaction is a reflexive sort of action. It is an action against an action. Marcel’s description of fanaticism poignantly describes the dynamics involved in action and reaction.

When I am faced with a fanatic, it is impossible for me not to feel on the defensive. This is necessarily so because the fanatic, in as much as he is a fanatic, ceases to be an interlocutor, and becomes only an adversary who handles what he calls his ideas as offensive weapons. The result is that I am forced to find some defensive armour for myself, and as what is properly called discussion is shown to be impossible, I feel bound in the end either to meet violence with violence, or to refuse the battle. I need hardly add that the most serious fault which could be laid to the charge of fanaticism, is that of forcing on its opponents the cruel compulsion of falling themselves into the same fault.

By reacting we remain imprisoned by a situation. We act in the same way as that or whom we oppose. We experience opposition to ourselves from the circumstances and feel compelled to reflexively oppose what opposes us. We are locked into a pattern of opposition and counter-opposition. Thus we do not transcend a situation; we remain imprisoned in and limited by it. We become like that which we oppose.

What causes us to experience any given circumstance as giving us either "encouragement" or "opposition"? The ability to see a situation as encouraging is a mark of a creative person. For Marcel, creativity is essential to life.

as soon as there is life, there is also creative development...there is creative development as soon as there is being in a situation....The etymological link between "life" and "liveliness" in English...is very instructive in this connection; we ought to be able to demonstrate that what we call life, in a phenomenological context, is inseparable from the living being’s interest, which moreover is a contagious interest, in life. A really alive person is not merely someone who has a taste for life, but somebody who spreads that taste, showering it, as it were, around him; and a person who is really alive in this way has, quite apart from any tangible achievements of his, something essentially creative about him; it is from this perspective that we can most easily grasp the nexus which, in principle at least, links creativity to existence...

A situation is something we find ourselves as "being in." If we are lively it serves to encourage us. This encouragement is the catalyst for our response. But there may be times when we can feel overwhelmed by a situation. We are not in the situation, but are overwhelmed by it. This sense of being overwhelmed can cause us to panic. We find the situation terrifying, threatening, and paralyzing when we panic. We are alive in the situation, in the sense of being lost and imprisoned in it, not lively in it.

The revolutions of the past three centuries have often been depicted as a violent offensive against civilization. Social élites felt overwhelmed by what they saw as a tide of barbarism. Revolutionary action was met with violent and vitriolic reaction. Revolution was met with counter-revolution. To respond to opponents, though, is to treat them as interlocutors. Response takes place in the arena of dialogue—rational discussion. Panicked reaction rules out any sort or dialogue and creative engagement. Marcel points out that to be in dialogue is an "act of keeping oneself open to the other, that is to say, with being ready to welcome whatever positive contribution the other can make to me, even if this contribution is liable to modify my own position." With fanatics there can be no possibility for them to modify their position. They are engaged in warfare, not discussion. The same can be said of those who panic before the exigencies of change and become bent upon preserving their status, power, and privileges at all costs. Such is the dynamic of panic.

Why, though, is panic rationalized? Why does it take on an epistemological form? This involves understanding the motives lying in the often fragile and vulnerable human ego. It takes a tremendous amount of courage, honesty, and integrity to admit that our actions and our ways of life and of understanding the world are flawed or even inherently wrong. Such an admission for many means a loss of face or some other form of humiliation or degradation. But panic is also a form of degradation. Just as those who panic do no want to admit that their ways of life, their actions, and their world-views are flawed, they do not want to admit their own degrading panic. That would be an admission of their powerlessness, which would undermine any of their claims of infallible authority or of the naturalness of the social reality in which they are submerged. It is better to rationalize the panic, than to admit a flaw. Reason is pressed into the service of reaction through the imposition of an epistemological form on panic. A mode of degradation is rationalized in order to obfuscate it. Thus panic is transformed into a fanatical zeal to uphold the status quo and annihilate any movement or possibility for a healthy change in the order of things. a transcendence of a one-dimensional social reality. Panic becomes the catalyst for the emergence of ideologies that strive to mystify people in such a way that they are convinced into believing that the way their world is now is the only way it can ever be. Those who enjoy status, power, and privilege in a particular society are reinforced in their feelings of smugness, complacency, and superiority by the ideology. Ideology offers them, writes Havel, "the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi."

But life goes on. In all things human, life aspired to and experienced in the light of human dignity, justice, and truth, has a tenacious way of asserting itself, even in the face of the most obstinate and intransigent settings. As Havel notes, "life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom..." As we saw with the fall of the Iron Curtain a few years ago, no order of things can last that is based on lies and the tyrannical abuse of human beings. There lies naturally, says Havel, "some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being, and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence." But Havel also points out that we are "capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably down the river of pseudo-life." This complicity in our own dehumanization is the most pernicious source of the panic that becomes respectable when endowed with epistemological form.

There are no easy solutions that can help us transcend panic. While dignity, moral integrity, and freedom are the highest aspirations of the human spirit and the essence of humanity, they are also the most difficult to achieve and maintain. Humanity is a very fragile and tenuous achievement dependent upon the choices we make and the actions we take in the deployment of our existence. However, to the degree we are able to overcome any tendency to panic in the face of life’s exigencies, that achievement becomes more possible.



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