By Glen Paul Hammond
“He who will not reason, is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not, is a slave.”
Covid-19 will change the world, nothing will be the same afterward.
With varying degrees of focus, this refrain has been plastered across headlines the world over. The pandemic will change the way we do things, politics, the economy, our lives, even the human species. These italicized observations cover the range of media platforms— from the BBC and the National Post to CNN—everywhere. While, it is true, the world may well be changed by such an event, only the benefit of hindsight will be able to track its influence. Will it markedly affect our perception of the world around us? Will it have any influence on the preoccupations of a Western world that has, up until now, been disproportionally engaged in a culture war? More specifically, will it have an effect on that part of the culture war that promotes the competing concepts of Identity Group versus Sovereign Individual? By looking into Subjectivist epistemology, this paper hopes to not only examine the current preoccupation with collectivism and consensus, but also to provide a sense of how the Covid-19 pandemic might influence discourse on this as well as other taboo topics.
First, the Philosophical Transition from the Individual to the Collective:
The acquisition of knowledge through reason was one of the main tenets of the Enlightenment.
According to Stephen Hicks, in his book Explaining Postmodernism, “The Enlightenment thinkers had said that individuals relate to reality as knowers” and that through knowing reality an individual was best able to improve himself and in the process the world around him (53). The relationship between reason and reality, then, was a critical component in the epistemology of the Enlightenment.
By asserting the limitation of knowledge to make room for faith, however, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant opened the door to Counter-Enlightenment philosophy; this, fundamentally, occurred when he breached the relationship between reason and reality by arguing that human finitude made an understanding of the infinite impossible. For Kant, reality is, in this way, “forever closed off to reason, and reason is limited to awareness and understanding of its own subjective products” (Hicks 28). In other words, one’s ability to perceive the world is ultimately limited by one’s own sense-perception; while man is capable of knowing what Kant called the phenomenal world, (“this earth, physical reality, man’s senses, perceptions, reason and science”) there is a higher or noumenal world that exists outside of a human awareness that is too limited by eyes unable to see it, ears unable to hear it and a mind unable to reveal it (Rand 27). The implications of being unable to access noumenal reality, however, limits reason to the phenomenal world and, as a result, can (as with such things as religion and codes of conduct rooted in its theology) make knowledge based on both logic and the empirical subordinate to that based on faith and the mystical. Additionally, though the phenomenal world can be known, it is still a reality that remains largely subjective rather than objective due to it being perceived through man’s subjective products.
A later school of Kantian Pragmatists used this as a springboard to posit that there were two fundamental choices in a world without objective reality: human beings must be guided by the whims of their individual selves or by the group. As Ayn Rand puts it in her book, For The New Intellectual, “If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call ‘reality.’”(31). This, she goes on to say, was the main thrust behind the determination that “objectivity consists of collective subjectivism” (Rand 31).
In a free society, individual rights are a product of faith in the individual’s ability to accurately conceptualize the world and set one’s own course in the negotiating of it. However, this is based on the premise that individuals are capable of making decisions for themselves, because they have the capacity to know and understand their world through reason. Since “reason is a faculty of the individual,” a respect for both reason and the individual developed from the Enlightenment (Hicks 26). Once, however, the concept of reason was posited to have limitations it could begin to be undermined and, with it, the idea of the individual as an end in himself; this allowed for a shift to occur, where an ethos emphasizing the collective became primary.
As a result, in the pursuit of happiness, the Enlightenment tools of education, science, technology, and axiomatic truth—which reason’s conceptual faculty allowed an individual to acquire and so base one’s own opinions on—was subordinated to the superior knowledge of the group and its consensus. Essentially, as Ayn Rand explains, since there is no objective reality to be discovered, “whatever people wish to be true, is true, whatever people wish to exist, does exist” (31). As a result, “knowledge is to be gained by means of public polls among special elites of ‘competent investigators’ who can ‘predict and control’ reality” (Rand 31). From this viewpoint, because “reality is indeterminate,” it is people who “determine its actual nature” (Rand 31).
Second, the Epistemological Necessity for Collectivism & Consensus:
Since the faculty of reason is a characteristic of the individual, the concept of reason is the enemy of consensus.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau—a philosopher that Kant, himself, found inspirational—argued that the employment of reason was an exercise in egocentrism and that reflection strengthened this self-centeredness (Hicks 95). “Reason,” Rousseau said, “is what turns man in upon himself” (Hicks 95). It isolates and keeps him from things that trouble or affect him, allowing him to disassociate from the suffering of those around him (Rousseau). Reason separates the individual from the other and all the others that make up a collective and so, for Rousseau, “the man who meditates is a depraved animal” (Hicks 98).
Since confidence in the self and one’s faculties to acquire truth is a keystone in the battle of objective truth versus subjective truth by consensus, Kant’s allowance for a world that must remain outside our understanding as well as one which could be understood only subjectively, allowed for the eventual undermining of man’s confidence in his own conceptual faculty. As a consequence, in convincing man of his impotence to understand his world, he is positioned to accept opinions that are void of rationality, because he no longer has confidence in his own rational process to judge them.
In his writing of the General Will, Rousseau asserts that any individual who finds himself in opposition to the will of the people as a whole is in error (P. Johnson 24). Being on the wrong side of the consensus, for Rousseau, is the best proof that his own opinion is the one at fault (P. Johnson 24). Since Rousseau argued that people making laws for themselves through such a consensus will not create ones that are unjust, the assumption is made that the General Will is always righteous. However, through this philosophical lens an individual is not encouraged to seek out truth for himself, but rather to inquire what others think is the truth.
With such a zeitgeist established, the so called “experts” can emerge—first offering, then demanding—to fill this vacuum through the act of building consensus. For Rousseau, these “experts” educate or socialize individual citizens as though they were children (P. Johnson 25). Yet, due to the fact that they themselves are invested in refuting a faculty of reason that maintains individuality and operates under the precept of an objective reality that can be discovered with no need for consensus, they must primarily operate through the epistemology of another philosophical system.
If cold logic and reason detaches individuals from the group, does it not become logical, then, to assume that emotions would bring them together?
Rousseau argued that the passionate state of our tribal ancestors was more in line with the innate state of man than the rational one espoused by the Enlightenment (Hicks 96). However, since the God-centric focus of our more primitive ancestors revolved around a deity that must always remain unknown by—as Kant argued—the limitations of man’s own sense-perception, Rosseau’s reaching for the primitive became a grasp for what he called “the inner light,” and the best guide to that light, he determined, was man’s feelings (Hicks 97). In this way, emotions became the primary tools of cognition; it is this concept that opened the door to, what Ayn Rand called, the defenders of man’s feelings (7).
In her book, For the New Intellectual, the defenders of feelings are philosophical archetypes that have existed throughout history (7). For this reason, she refers to them as Witch Doctors: individuals who, characteristically, dread physical reality and the “necessity of practical action;” instead, they escape into “emotions, into visions of some mystic realm,” a place where “wishes enjoy a supernatural power unlimited by the absolute of nature” (Rand 8). With a philosophical ethos that views feelings as the paramount form of cognition available to the human species, defenders of those feelings become personages of high status in the community.
In the modern era, these are the professional intellectuals, the academic professors, who, having joined the attack on objective truth, created a vacuum in all the pursuits of the intellect.
In Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors examined the current state of American campuses and noted the special status that emotional and social needs had over intellectual rigor and academics. They concluded that the pursuit of truth had taken a back seat to an emphasis on “subjective feelings, emotional slights and values” (Geher). Safe spaces, trigger warnings, and equality of outcome initiatives with, as Thomas Sowell puts it, little attention paid to the empirical consequences are byproducts of such an environment. Thrown into this mix, of course, are varying degrees of censorship and its necessary cousin, self-censorship, where academics voluntarily mute ideas or shelve texts that might violate the sacred taboos of any group claiming victim-hood status in the intersectional lottery.
This last point is the most significant one for the purpose of a discussion on the political and philosophical preoccupation with consensus. In an essay written at the end of the Second World War, George Orwell observed that an attack on objective truth would lead to both an attack on intellectual liberty as well as every department of thought (173). In his essay “The Prevention of Literature,” Orwell asserts that enforced orthodoxies are the death knell of good writing because they are the death knell of fearless thinking (169). The writer, according to Orwell, must be able to think freely in order to write freely; “he cannot say with any conviction that he likes what he dislikes, or believes what he disbelieves” (166). The crippling effects of even a single taboo topic can, for Orwell, “have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind,” since “there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought” (167). Thus, even though the actuality of a totalitarian state may not be present in the polity of a society, the atmosphere of totalitarianism produces something of the same effect.
This kind of atmosphere can be seen in the cancel culture response to those who dissent from the accepted orthodoxies of today. In the case of de-platforming or disinviting guest speakers, for example, the philosophy behind the authoritarian behavior is immediately exposed: If something is considered true only because everyone says so, then can a group that wishes to maintain that “truth” afford to let someone/anyone express a different opinion?
This is where the undermining of reason interacts with the undermining of individual rights. Anything that threatens the consensus of the group, threatens the group itself and, with no objective reality to refer to or axiomatic truth to reveal and maintain, it is a zero-sum game that the individual must be made to lose.
Study after study has confirmed that humans, as social animals, have a need to conform to the values of the group (Aronson 13). In The United States of Lyncherdom, Mark Twain refers to this need as the “herd mentality” and argues that it is the commanding feature of the great majority of men, insisting that its only remedy was the creation of a counter group that could offer an individual both a safe and alternative option (243). For that, however, one individual must step forward and become the first member of a group that others feel increasingly comfortable rallying around.
It is for this reason that speakers are routinely de-platformed or disinvited. Since, the contrary opinion is the existential threat, the issue is not whether someone who does not want to hear the differing opinion has the choice to listen to it or not, the issue is that there are others who can listen to it if they so desire. This cannot be allowed: What if some extraordinary person says something extraordinary? What if some not so extraordinary person says something that nonetheless is of some use to those who have decided to make the choice to listen? What if some observation made is the beginning of a new consensus?
Once again, the individual threatens the group because he exists outside of it. In her novel, The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s protagonist Howard Roark describes the way collectivists despise the man who stands alone:
There’s a special, insidious kind of hatred for him. They forgive criminals. They
admire dictators. Crime and violence are a tie. A form of mutual dependence.
They need ties. They’ve got to force their miserable little personalities on every
single person they meet. The independent man kills them—because they don’t
exist within him and that’s the only form of existence they know (75).
Observations made in a number of experiments where deviants of the group norm are the least liked members of the group reflect this notion (Aronson 15). As Eliot Aronson points out it in his book, The Social Animal, “Nonconformists may be praised by historians or idolized in films or literature long after the fact of their nonconformity, but they are usually not held in high esteem, at the time, by those people to whose demands they refuse to conform”(15).
As a consequence, the rejection of reason and an individual’s ability to employ it, will lead individuals to succumb to other more prevailing forces. As Stephen Hicks puts it….
Having rejected reason, we will not expect ourselves or others to behave
reasonably. Having put our passions to the fore, we will act and react more
crudely and range-of-the-moment. Having lost our sense of ourselves as
individuals, we will seek our identities in our groups. Having little in common
with different groups, we will see them as competitive enemies (82).
In an environment invested in the collective, ideas that propound independence are received with a malignant kind of resentment (Rand 75). For this reason, political correctness is utilized to maintain consensus by suppressing both thought and speech, which are viewed as acts of violence against the group and the philosophy that binds them; the hostility toward debate and the all too routine tactic of the ad hominem argument or name-calling is also rooted in this perspective (Hicks 85). A world where truth is determined by the number of people who believe something to be true and no other objective measurement, must devolve to authoritarian measures to maintain itself. It must procure allies also. It cannot allow the individual to operate individually, to be left to think their own thoughts or express their own opinions. They are either for or against the group; there is no middle ground.
This is the danger in the collectivism of Fascism and Socialism alike; this is why the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung (SA) of Nazism first did battle with the red-fisted RFB (Roter Frontkampferbund) of Socialism in the now infamous street brawls of Germany: In the 1920s, they were fishing in the same pond and viewed each other as the greatest initial threat to their own consensus building projects. Thus, out of collectivism, emerges tyranny.
In their reaction against the faculty of reason and the sense of personal responsibility it emphasizes, the defenders of feelings use the defenders of man’s body to perform the practical actions they are not suited to perform. As a result, another philosophical archetype enters the scene—Attila (Rand 7-8).
The Witch Doctor and Attila have a symbiotic relationship; the man of subjective belief or faith relies on the man of brute force to keep the herd in order. The Witch Doctor preaches the philosophy and Atilla enforces it. Both are united in a war against the mind of independent man (Rand 7). By attacking the rational animal that is man, they seek a return to the primitive state of the animal, a state of sensations and perceptions that promotes instinctual reactions over responsible choice (Rand 8). For them, the world is not populated by individuals that have rights that need to be respected; it is populated by objects that can be replaced, controlled or acquired. Where the Witch Doctor undermines a man’s confidence in his own eyes, ears, and understanding, Attila brutalizes those who refuse to offer themselves as a sacrifice to the group’s needs (Rand 10). For these two archetypes, the ends justify the means.
In modern society, Attila manifests himself in many forms: There are the classic militants who block roads or congregate in public spaces to threaten, intimidate and, sometimes, assault those who oppose or do not enthusiastically join them. But there are others too, such as the fifth-columnist, Attila: those who seek out the non-conformists and expose them to others who employ more subtle tools—opinion journalists that present themselves as objective reporters; anonymous operators that whip up social media mobs and attack reputations, businesses or an individual’s ability to earn a living; there are career politicians who, in an attempt to acquire banks of votes, pass motions or bills that degrade the rights of individuals in the service of the special interests of some group; there are human rights tribunals who, as in a Kafkaesque novel, make the process the punishment as well as the deterrent for future would-be offenders.
The consensus and collectivism of today’s most dominant philosophy, Post-Modernism, operates in this subjective and hostile space. The collectivist war on liberal democracy, with its emphasis on the sovereign individual, has been waged and lost by both sides of the socialist political spectrum in the twentieth century; furthermore, the utter failure of the Soviet model, which focused its attention on need only to succumb to the inevitable realization that needs, both humanitarian as well as economic, were being achieved at a far higher degree in the capitalist societies of the west, appeared to erode the belief in even the theory behind its principles (Hicks 154). As a result, and in an effort to continue its agenda, the post-modernists shifted the emphasis on need in their own consensus building projects to one of equity, abandoning an economic proletariat that seemed relatively satisfied, in order to socialize individuals to identify themselves as members of a group in a society of competing group structures. (Hicks 152). This socialization would, Hebert Marcuse announced in 1974, “take place in the universities” (Hicks 171).
Third, Self-preservation in the Post Covid-19 World:
As defined in its simplest form, self-preservation “describes both the set of behaviors by means of which individuals attempt to preserve their own existence and the psychical processes that establish these behaviors” (Self-Preservation).
In many ways, the brief analysis of collective subjectivism offered above demonstrates some of the psychical processes that establish the need to conform as a means of self-preservation; in so doing, it provides insight into the difficulty that individuals have in resisting an ethos of consensus and collectivism. Yet, there are times in history when events conspire to shift perspective. Pioneers to North America, for example, were highly motivated to adopt a pragmatic and practical view of their world, because a failure to conceptualize it correctly often meant the difference between life and death in its unforgiving environment. In the case of the English in Atlantic Canada, Lucille H. Campey, for example, observes in her book Planters, Paupers, and Pioneers, that the imaginary figure of John Bull became the personification of the kind of traits that these settlers believed were necessary for survival (272). “Hard-headed, down-to-earth, averse to intellectualism—”, Bull was honest and straightforward; he was the ordinary man, with a zest for life, always ready to “stand up and fight for what he believed in” (Johnson). Traditionally depicted as a stout, gluttonous figure in waistcoat and tails, the traits of John Bull were not only viewed as necessary for survival, but also essential characteristics in the pursuit of happiness and prosperity (B. Johnson).
Death is a great leveler and, a virus that strikes at individuals indiscriminately, a potent reminder of just how precarious life can be and why, much like the pioneers, it might be in humankind’s best interest to re-invest in a philosophy that acknowledges man’s ability to understand the real world around him. Ayn Rand’s maxim that “nature to be commanded, must be obeyed” seems particularly appropriate (9). The question is, do we have the courage and the humility to subject ourselves to the laws of nature and identity?
The beginning of this paper acknowledged news items that have made conjecture about our post Covid-19 world. This paper also intends to make conjecture, through both the lens of the philosophical perspectives stated above as well as a practical speculation on how the pandemic might shift such perspectives in future. Particularly…
Now that we have a small inkling of what a real crisis might look like, will we be able to put the so called climate one in perspective? If so, will those who crow the loudest about its emergency reflect on their own contradictory behavior and, perhaps—in light of the urgency they have demonstrated in the current crisis—question whether they actually believe in its emergency after all? In our efforts to combat the current pandemic, will the reliance on Western based science and medicine finally allow its technology and method to be publicly acknowledged as the first and best resource of its kind? Will observations, such as Dr Sharon Moalem’s in the NY Times, regarding evidence that the virus is hitting biological men harder than biological women, make considerations of biology important, once again, when discussing the differences between men and women? Will the failure of global supply chains make the international community reconsider their over reliance on foreign industry, on industry that cannot be controlled locally, on industry that cannot be utilized for the national interest because it operates outside a country’s national borders? Will this affect the way we view Globalism? Will border controls that are essential mechanisms in traffic flow and, so, an essential means to control the current virus’s spread, allow us to finally reconsider the necessary function of borders?
Will individuals be granted the moral permission to reflect on such issues? Will they be allowed to give voice to their reflections? Will they continue to be attacked for even wanting to consider and discuss them?
Then again, and perhaps most likely, will the exact opposite occur? In a society of safe spaces and trigger warnings, one increasingly made impotent by fear, will the last remnants of a culture built upon the basic tenets of the Enlightenment be finally overwhelmed by those who see reason and its proponents as the common enemy? Will the Witchdoctors and Attilas find even greater means to further promote the feelings of suffering in society so that they might manipulate an individual’s desire for acceptance into an emotional need to demonstrate virtue and compassion, providing the penitent transgressor with manufactured opportunities for martyrdom and self-abnegation?
Only time will tell, but, for the moment, one might simply use one’s own eyes and ears to perceive the world around them and consider that where there is no truth to be found, there is only the mob.
Glen Paul Hammond has a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of Toronto. His publication credits include the educational book, The Literary Detective, and a forthcoming collection of short stories, entitled, Even the Moon is Frightened of Me, from Political Animal’s sister imprint, Crowsnest Books. Satirical cartoons and more of his writing can be found on his blog, SCRATCH.
Image: Detail from a British World War I recruiting poster, featuring John Bull, c. 1915. via wikipedia
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