The Epistemology of Panic
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
must be distinguished from integration. Integration is associated
with open societies. Paulo Freire writes:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.