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September 21, 2005


Moral Righteousness: The Dark Side

One might propose that the main political and philosophical opposition confronting us today is that between modernism and fundamentalism and between the cultures that embrace modernity and those which attack it. Critiques of this position have been made along the lines that this viewpoint encourages splitting, an omniscient attitude, and possible avoidance of the necessity to own our own tendencies to split good and bad.

One might support a differing perspective that argues boldly and simply that what would “solve” the dilemma is a psychopolitical shift toward understanding the world as We rather than Us and Them—to do this not as a denial of destructiveness but as a way of transcending splitting. The We position is the basis for nonviolence, which formulates a positive connection to the “Other” à la Martin Luther King.

However, psychically, the quandary is how to do this while still remaining aware of the potentially intense destructiveness of fundamentalism. More daunting still is the problem of how one might practically work toward acceptance of the nonviolent attitude in our society. Precisely what impedes such nonviolence are the fundamentalist tendencies that make the destructive superego supreme.

For example, in a number of left wing political groups it is not uncommon to observe that when someone hurls the accusation of badness and wrongness and calls for a purge of the politically incorrect, everyone jumps into line frantically lest they be accused of haboring impure thoughts (sexist, racist, etc.).

This susceptibility to righteousness mirrors the ostensible other side, the right-wing accusations of unpatriotic/soft-on-our-enemies (communism). Resisting such fundamentalist intimidation requires a clear understanding that fundamentalist tendencies are not identical with the apocalyptic nihilism of terrorists, though it might be proposed that they may contribute to it and are perhaps on a spectrum with it.

Again, this involves the matter of bearing guilt, tolerating the accusation that one is bad—and how to take this on without resorting to nihilism, nose-thumbing, or posturing. And yet can we learn something from postmodern culture, the satisfaction of hearing “bad” used to mean “good”?

It is clear that many political and philosophical representatives have been stymied by the fear of being labeled unpatriotic and thus become intimidated not to exercise opposition, such as to attacks on civil liberties. Overcoming such fears requires that we confront our own fundamentalist tendencies to externalize and attack “badness,” and learn to embrace the fact of life's contradictions. Otherwise, fundamentalist tendencies here will win out. The moment fascism was defeated in Europe, the witch hunts began here.

There is a tendency to deny the dark side of the modern and post-modern Enlightenment, its association with arrogance and its claim to the right to rule over others while denying that it is doing so. If the human condition requires us to confront our drive for omnipotence and the impossibility of truly asserting control, then surely this is a problem that has not been solved in the West, even as it has been left untouched in the East.

Splitting is everyone's problem. That said, it would be naîve to dispute the dominance that fundamentalism is now enjoying in the Arab world or that the Muslim world never went through the lengthy process of Reformation and religious wars that, in Europe, culminated in the Enlightenment.

Even those who adopt the position that splitting is far from resolved in Western societies must still reflect on the degree of difference that characterizes terrorism and those who support it. Clearly, the most unmodulated forms of splitting are associated with terrorism, in which the world is seen as needing to be purified of evil through violence.

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