Unhearing

‘We did not see that our slogans had lost their bearing and pointed in the wrong directions. We invoked “democracy” solemnly as in a prayer, and watched while the greatest nation of Europe voted, by perfectly democratic methods, its assassins into power. We worshipped the will of The Masses, and their will turned out to be death and self-destruction. We regarded capitalism as an outworn system, and were willing to exchange it for a new form of slavery. We preached tolerance, and the evil which we tolerated destroyed our civilization.’
Arthur Koestler, “The Chinaman’s Nod”, in Bricks to Babel.

Bricks to Babel is a collection of Koestler’s writings, many of them short pieces. “The Chinaman’s Nod” is a very short piece, about Koestler’s posting to Berlin as a journalist. Koestler arrived in Berlin on September 14, 1930, the day of the election in which the National Socialists dramatically increased the number of seats they held to 107 of 577, from just 12 seats before. Koestler refers to the day as ‘the beginning of the age of barbarism in Europe’.

“The Chinaman’s Nod” is primarily about a disjuncture between the imagined state of political manoeuvres and political discourse, and the actual behavior of the body politic.

Much of the piece takes the form of a depressing run-down of how the various groups that might have been expected to challenge and arrest the rise of the Nazis – e.g. the Liberals, the Socialists, the intellectuals, the Communists – could not (or did not, until the point it was too late), either because their credibility with the people was poor, or because they were apt to operate in an ineffectual way.

If the disjuncture I described above was the problem, the natural question to ask is about how this disjuncture came to be. Koestler’s answer might refer to the preoccupation of politicians (and others) with issues they thought were important, their failure to recognize real danger, etc. However the underlying pathology he diagnoses isn’t something specific to some subset of citizens; as he writes,

‘After the event, people asked themselves: How could we have been such fools to twiddle our thumbs when the outcome was so obvious? The answer is that owing to the inertia of human imagination, to most people it wasn’t obvious at all.’

I read Koestler’s suggestion of the existence of some sort of ‘inertia of human imagination’ as a reference to something we are all subject to.

*

What does the talk about political dysfunction look like nowadays? Words like ‘gridlock’ and ‘polarized’ tend to come up when discussing the health of the world’s super-powered democracy. (A body out of balance, and in need of a cleanse, maybe.) People speculate about how the mysterious algorithms behind things like Facebook’s News Feed create political echo chambers for individuals who are subsequently surprised to find that people who don’t share their views actually exist, and in significant numbers. We worry about the fragmentation of discourse, and wonder if it adds up to a coherent imagination of community.

At home, terms like ‘silent majority’ and ‘the 70%’ come up, sometimes (I get the feeling) from people who seem like they feel disappointed or even betrayed that those who disagreed with them failed to do so in terms more to their liking, in media they prefer. At least ours is a small country.

Earlier I asked the question about how the disjuncture between the imagined state of political discourse and who people actually end up voting for comes to be. While I agree with Koestler that it’s often an imaginative gap, when I think about ‘discourse’ and what makes a ‘healthy’ political discourse, one way to think about it is in terms of who gets heard and who gets ignored. There’s also the question of how we hear, which is both a practical question (what do we tend not to hear/read/watch?) and a question of whether we are aware of our cognitive biases (what do we tend not to understand?).

I actually came across the first passage from Koestler I quoted above on the same day I saw news of J.K. Rowling’s defense of Trump’s right to expression on my FB feed. In truth, I don’t think Mr. Trump needs much help on the media air-time front; can he even be silenced? She might say the question is not whether he can be silenced, but whether he ought to be silenced, and I would have to agree. 

But even in that discussion, I’m not sure the principle of freedom of expression should be uniformly invoked to defend the speech of the powerful as compared to the speech of the vulnerable. Really I think the urgent question is, Whom have we not heard, that we need to hear?

The vulnerable always need advocates, I think; but there are also the ‘not-as-loud’, who might not need advocates, exactly, but whom I think of as having a hard time being understood through the noise. Trump’s voice gets represented, but what about his supporters’? In a democracy where these ‘not-as-loud’ might be the majority, the cost of either not hearing them, or hearing them but not understanding them, may be dear.

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