The Return of the Martyr

 The Return of the Martyr

            Though it is not directly a part of my job as a critical philosopher, offending as many people as possible and as succinctly as possible is a commonplace effect of my work. And this editorial is certainly no different. Gender is a performance that easily lends itself to mere affectation. The panglossia of genders being trumpeted today suggest that genderedness itself as an important social construct hooked into specific social and institutional roles is dead and good riddance. May we say the same for its attachment to persons! But there is a non-gendered persona which has made a rather startling return: the antique martyr has been resurrected in our modern age precisely due to theocracy no longer being the myth of the state. Lowith (1939:386) reminds us that in the first half of the fourth century A.D., Christianity was no longer seen as an enemy of the empire and indeed, would soon become its official religion, and then later on, its sole legal religion. Through this process, Christianity lost its chief ethical figure, the martyr. With neither official institutional nor legal sanction, the religious enthusiast was moved from the arena into the monastery. The mimesis of martyrdom was maintained in these marginalia for 14 centuries or so, but the radicality of the originally irruptive anti-role vanished.

            But the undead God moves in mysterious ways, all the more so given He(?) no longer has a set agenda. Lurching uneasily within the zombified corpus of the wholly spirit whose only desire is to escape the resentment-sourced penance we humans have inflicted upon Her(?), His(?) enchantedness turned to sorcery has conjured up the mocking martyr once again. (Not to blame God for this, of course, only ourselves). These latter day martyrs identify causes as irrelevant as did their more authentic forebears, making translation easy enough: ‘I’m a Christian so I won’t oblate to Jupiter and you can’t make me!’ to ‘I’m a Man and if you have a penis then you are too and I’m going to make you!’. In a word, who cares? The fact that major financial institutions, those hotbeds of political radicalism, have accepted a multiplicity of genders in their client identification rubrics should tell us that gender is itself irrelevant, a shallow affectation, a casual label. As if the Christian is authenticated by his politics, as if the male or female is arrived at by denying that any other expressions of gender exist. But all of this backdrop is itself limiting. The more pressing question might be framed rather like this: ‘What is the compulsion for grandstanding about gender etc.?’, and this no matter what politics one might take up.

            We are told that there are six common biological sexes, which are either surgically altered at birth to appear more closely aligned with the dominant genders of man and woman, or do not phenotypically impinge upon such social constructions. [cf. The 6 Most Common Biological Sexes in Humans (joshuakennon.com)] Six sexes seem confusing, but nonetheless, it has an easy alliteration to it. Sometimes parents decide to let the true hermaphrodite decide for ‘itself’, excuse me, what ‘it’ shall be or become. Evangelists might see every c. 5000th live birth as the work of the devil, but if so, the devil confirms his(?) allegiance to straight sex after all, and perhaps she(?) is even a homophobe, since we have present both female and male equipage. Next time someone tells me to ‘go f*** yourself’ – this does occur to the philosopher from time to time – I will despair of ever being able to do so. Some people have all the luck.

            But six official medical sexes aside, and even if ‘transphobic’ martyrs seem to unerringly err in suggesting that there are only two, it is rather gender that is more truly up for grabs and not sex. Well, if there are six sexes, then how many genders are there? It is just at this point that a precise response is no longer possible. Why am I not bothered by this? Why are so many others bothered by it? Speaking personally for a moment, at my age, neither sex nor gender is all that important. Indeed, most days I see myself as asexual, neither man nor woman nor anything else that may be currently available or fashionably dictated. Just as actual sex, amour propre, as the perennially sexy French have it, is chiefly the concern of the young – this is likely why we older folks oft get ornery about such topics and seek to limit young people’s sexuality, including the emerging public diversity of gender identities – so hanging one’s hat etc. up on a gendered peg is very much under the radar. And so it should be for any mature person, both in years and wisdom. ‘No sex, no gender’, should be the rallying cry from an aesthetically inclined and sensually satisfied Sophia. Now this is not a plea for abstinence in any literal sense, just in case any so-called ‘literalists’ are reading this, but rather a sensible response to the irrational furor and moral panic swirling through various media and levels of political office across North America.

            What the latter-day martyrs don’t realize is that their cause is, as always, purely sprung from their own minds. One of the most fruitful concepts in the history of the social sciences is ‘the looking glass self’ of Cooley (1902). It’s not how I see myself nor how others actually see me, but rather how I think others see me which demarcates our selfhood. Seems simple enough; I can’t get into someone else’s head and even if they directly tell me what they think of me I am not sure if this is the entire truth of things. Couple this, if you will, with the fact that how I see myself may not come across to others at all, and this suggests that Cooley’s idea is what drives the dynamic of modern personhood. And the persona the martyr holds out to others is that he is a willing moron.

            And in the literal sense, mind you. For the Greeks, the ‘moron’ was the one who transgressed social norms and customs. Certainly, one could be skeptical or even suspicious of such norms while more or less abiding by them. I hold myself as a reasonable example of a citizen who is consistently critical but publicly loyal to ‘getting along with the others’, since this is the only landscape in which authentic and critical dialogue can occur. Whomsoever decides that martyrdom is more effective than dialogue has betrayed both the commonweal and her own good sense to boot. And yet you see them everywhere, Pimpernel! Across the self-styled digital media and basking in the glory that corporate and state media have noticed them, sitting pompously on school boards, chambers of commerce, in legislatures, behind benches both legal and athletic, shouting from the rooftops and swinging on the bell ropes and ‘manning’ the barricades. You see them standing smugly behind their election signs on grassy verges and spouting sporadically off on podcasts and spinning spontaneously abaft of podiums. Where are the lions, I ask you, where are the lions?

            Given my own surname, I guess that’s my job. I’ve taken my antacid and so now I must, with much reluctance, devour these manacled martyrs before they destroy my preciously fragile infant democracy. If only they had an intelligent reason for their so-heroic self-sacrifice! Where are the martyrs against poverty, for affordable housing, against child abuse, for a safe, safely equipped and secure military, for proportional representation, for lowering the voting age, for literacy in all things, against demagogy in all places, for gentleness not to mention gentility, for tolerance, for compassion? Instead, we have bigoted book banners, harrowing heterosexualists, abusive anti-abortionists and abortionists alike, fatal Feminazis and credulous ‘Christians’ and grim grammarians all. Before you are tempted to attend any of their renovated arenas, please think again about the ideas and institutions that actually found our eccentric and yet oddly shared society, and do so before its very eccentricity descends into a patent madness.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary sciences for over two decades.

The Customer is Always Wrong

The Customer is Always Wrong

            Ever since the turn of the century it has been the basic weakness of bourgeois education that it has been the education of the educated class, building a wall of separation against the working class and losing the spiritual horizon for the universal problem of work. (Lowith, 1991:282 [1939]).

                The distrust of expertise is built into the psyche of Protestant consciousness, and from the very beginning of the Reformation. Ritualism, the purview of the Catholic Church, was mistrusted as a manner of manipulation. Holding services in the vernacular was an attempt by the sectarians to reach out to the uneducated ‘classes’ – back then, almost everyone – and thereby return them to both the community of light and wisdom but also to exercise the suasion of soteriological doctrine much more directly. It was, perhaps ironically, the act of the expert to communicate his expertise to the layperson so that the latter could once again begin to trust the former’s authority. From the church to the school, by the first third of the nineteenth century, we see a similar attempt at communication. Before the advent of the child-saving movement – the first in a lengthy and still active lineage of ‘bored housewives’ benevolent associations; a contemporary irony is that the latter day inventions of this lineage are out to ban books and preserve physical punishment of children, both odd ways of ‘saving’ them – there was no conflict between education for different classes. The children of the working class were simply not to be educated at all. That this was altered by mid-century should not necessarily tell us that the history of our universal school system, given birth c.1850 and carrying on today mostly by its own inertia, is or was ever fully democratic in its ideals, let alone its practices.

            The introduction of the illiterate classes into the classroom had the general effect of dumbing down the curricula, making them more accessible or even worldly. A similar though more minor seismic tremor was felt when cognitively challenged children were added to the already heady mix perhaps some thirty years ago. The response to this universalizing education was that wealth promptly excerpted its own children from that same system. Seen by the casual viewer as a ‘choice’ which parents ‘ought’ to have, the private school system or versions thereof called ‘charter’ or yet parochial schools is fundamentally anti-democratic and indeed to be so was ever its clearest intent. Wealth does not desire to mix with poverty, either in material or in ‘spirit’. The ‘bourgeois’ education of which Lowith speaks is itself the scion of the new wealth of the post-1789 age, that is, our own. Modernity is rife with the tension between the ideal of equality and the reality of inequality, and this around the globe, within every culture, and often enough even animating the interior of the individual person, who knows not whether to will only himself or to help others gain a semblance of human freedom.

            And though the charter schools are sometimes created and thus delineated by ethnicity or even religion, the vast majority of them place themselves aloof to the public system by virtue of wealth alone. Indeed, in the enclave schools, families which are not as wealthy can count on growing their wealth through participating in the limited marriage pool, which is the chief principle of the private system: keep wealth among the wealthy. And with such wealth comes both power and privilege. The ‘blood’ of the yet aristocratic-aping bourgeois class must remain inviolate. In a symbology of envisioned violence, the ‘educated classes’ wage a chill war against any other who would attempt to gain their inherited privileges let alone their wealth. Governments, which after all are run by the elite classes or are at least told what to do by them, aid and abet the spread of private schools, thereby concentrating wealth and privilege amongst the few. Is it any wonder that the majority of us have a heightened mistrust of expertise of all kinds?

            Those who are being schooled to become the next generation of experts trust the authority of those current without question. Hence the duplicity of the schools in general, wherein ‘questioning things’ is limited to either the technical or the historical; ‘why does gravitational lensing show us exoplanets?’ or ‘why did Spain hire Columbus the very year it expelled the Moors?’ and such-like. These are questions only in the most literal sense, and hardly that literate. In the private schools, there is, ironically, more of the real question, but this is precisely because the ultimate question of addressing the conflict that privilege has created and thence has attained is never broached; ‘why are we in this school and not our ex-friends?’, ‘why is there a private system at all?’, ‘are we really superior beings or is this an affect of social inequality alone?’. These kinds of questions are on the road to the truth of things and cannot remain in the technical realm. They are of course, also historical questions but they do not absent themselves from the present simply because we also need to know the pedigree of such current social formations. Every other apparent ‘conflict’ about educating today is a decoy: critical race theory, ‘wokeness’, subaltern genders, ‘traditional values’, civics, and sundry others. These fraudulent and fashionable contrivances serve only to allay a lingering sense that due to this family’s relative wealth and this other family’s relative poverty that their respective children will have glaringly different life-chances over the life course.

            The final if not fatal irony is that any expert who points this out in a critical manner is himself automatically distrusted. Any pedagogue, any philosopher of education, any sociologist, any ethicist. Surely he too must have been a product of elite education? How could he then be betraying his own kind? It must be a trick. While it is the case that any partial critique that issues band-aid ‘remedies’ is an act of duplicity and betrayal – ‘let’s fund the two systems equally’, ‘let’s reward the best and brightest without regard to class background’, ‘it is a function of democracy to give parents a choice in educating their children’ (a false choice since it is based upon differential access to resources of all kinds) – what these lesser ‘experts’ achieve is but a blanket ban on understanding the key issues that backdrop the problem of knowledge in our contemporary society. To see them for what they are is, regrettably, to also see expertise itself as a mere rationalization for the existing social order.

            This general mistrust of the expert appears in all contexts, petty and profound alike. I first experienced it later in my academic career when young students questioned the relevance of the history of consciousness, cited celebrities instead of thinkers, refused to read assigned texts, referenced popular culture tropes as the meat of critique and displayed a shockingly low level of literacy in all its forms. It was of interest that pending social background, this distrust of authoritative work was either fully present or equally absent. Most germane for our discussion here, was that the few working class students at the universities were keen to accept and learn and those from the bourgeois classes felt no need to learn anything but the technique presented for specific professions. The ‘ethnic’ students were of two minds; those from the sub-continent who were wealthy disdained all authority while those from East Asia genuflected to it in a kind of shallow supplication that made it look like they were the ‘best of students’. In marginal regions young people craved learning and understood their privilege in being able to have that opportunity. In urban and more wealthy areas, the students saw themselves rather as customers, ‘clients’, a sensibility only encouraged by the universities themselves, partly as a way by which to divide faculty from the student body and partly to attract young persons in the first place. This latter ploy played upon the quite righteous sense that an average eighteen-year-old is rather sick of schooling and needs be treated more like an adult. Ethically this is correct, and indeed, such mature and respectful relations should extend well back from the legal age of adulthood, perhaps to age twelve. But such respect must function both ways, as it were. Ultimately, there was no point in someone like myself continuing to be a professor in such classrooms as presented themselves, where students en masse behaved as if they had no interest in being present to learn anything at all.

            But the insular academy is hardly the only place wherein expertise is in principle mistrusted or even denied outright. And the deniers are, to a person, those who hail from the bourgeois classes themselves. It is as if in attaining their own little arena of expertise, they can maintain it only by denying the authority of all others. Know a little know a lot, they must imagine. My wife, who is a veteran and senior advisor in the finance sector, brings weekly accounts of bank customers who tell her to her face that she is incorrect about very technical matters that no layperson would generally have a clue about. Our real estate agent told us of the daily occasions where she was told how to sell houses by buyers. Our brilliant contractor regales us with similar accounts of those who ‘tell him his job’, which is a concise manner of putting the problem. Similarly our wonderful mechanic, with whom I could not live without. In the corporation of which I am the CEO, our in-house cyber-security and marketing expert tells us of regular occurrences where his highly skilled and subtle expertise is denied by clientele, and add to this the perennial issue of parents telling teachers how to teach, patients telling doctors how to diagnose, analysands explaining their own psychopathology to counselors, and parents – once again – screaming at referees from the sidelines, insisting that officials’ calls were biased, and especially those indicting their own children, what do you know?

            Is it odd that I, as an internationally recognized student of ethics, education, and aesthetics and as the author of fifty-three books, should have no issues at all granting others their authority and expertise? Should it not be the case that if ‘know a little know a lot’ is the general foible, that ‘someone like me’ should quite literally think that he knows it all? What my advantage is, is that I have been able to surround myself with those who really are experts in their fields, whether it be contracting, cars, property, finance, or caring for youth amongst others. I can do that because I know what it takes to become an expert, to gain the credentials yes, but the more so, to be able to learn to apply them in the world. At the same time, I flatter myself in knowing the difference between work well done and a sham effort, whether at the level of the individual or the institution. No doubt I cannot always be correct in my estimation of others, even of social structures and their widespread effects. No matter the experience, no matter the level of literacy, there will always be episodes, events and eventualities that defy one’s ‘expertise’. But this reality should not take away from the general sensibility that expertise and authority of the authoritative kind is a pressing necessity in these our shared times and this our shared world. It is almost as if the masses lie in wait for the expert to make his singular mistake, betraying himself as the naked emperor he always must have been. And it is the supposedly ‘educated classes’ who populate this ambuscade.

            Even so, one also does not desire a society full of illiterate and obeisant servants who slavishly follow every ‘expert’ demand without question. Yet it is equally clear that in order to ask a serious question, a certain critical literacy must be attained, and schooling neither public nor private is geared into this goal. Indeed, there is no social institution as such that can afford this too precious level of literacy lest all loyalty to them be immediately absent. ‘Corrupting youth’ yes, to be sure. But it is not youth who primarily need educating to these regards, but rather the smug and self-assured middle class ‘adult’ who thinks he knows, if not everything, then at least what he ‘needs to know’ about all things. ‘Everyone an expert’ must be the battle hymn of this repugnant republic: ‘No one knows myself better than I’, ‘My children, my house, my rules’, ‘don’t tell me how to run my life’, and even ‘live and let live’, are its much chanted refrains. There is a certain anarchistic element to individualism decoyed both by the false choices of consumer media and the false democracy of the separate school systems. This impulse plays upon our general lack of control and authority in society as a whole. In fact, very few of us have the luxury to speak our minds freely and fully, and simply because this act is a function of my profession gives me a sense of authority far beyond the reality that the entire history of philosophy has encountered in its rare disseminations.

            In seemingly an ultimate irony, Max Weber, arguably the greatest expert on society that history presents to us, stated that we must not trust the experts with anything beyond their expertise. Experts are tools alone. They cannot make decisions for us, especially those political, and thus they should be consulted only in times of true crisis, and thence put aside once again. Insofar as this is how a democracy must function in order to attain a reality beyond that in name alone, Weber is correct. The ‘expert’, of whatever ken, is after all only one person, a human like ourselves, fallible and even biased. Further, the expert cannot be an expert in all things, and so she is not merely like us, she is us, in all of our knowledge and ignorance, partial in both senses of the term. But insofar as expertise is sabotaged by ignorance within the selfsame person, we are jarred into a more general suspicion; if he is that stupid about this, then how can I trust him about that? The only working antidote to this gnawing doubt is to interact with others only within the bounds of their official capacities. All human relations are thus to be made contractual alone. Is this not why marriage is such a challenge for most of us? Only here do we confront the whole person and must trust her, eventually implicitly. Yes, there are even ‘marriage experts’, though one would think that the person who had been married and thus divorced the most times would be the greatest of these!

            While Hume stated that ‘all knowledge comes from human experience’, Kant qualified by responding, ‘yes, but what does it take to have an experience?’ and by the twentieth century, other thinkers asked ‘what does it mean to have an experience?’. On the one hand, pending the event, such experience might not even be communicable to others. The vision is notoriously lost in translation, as William James pointed out. On the other, however, most human experience can be at least partially shared. The trick is to understand just how much the other has comprehended of the self, and the more so, vice-versa. We do know something of ourselves, but we also deny and suppress other aspects as important. Even with regard to our own spirits, we are but partial experts. Our shared humanity is unhinged if all imagine that what they know is ‘enough’ to live. True expertise comes in understanding rather the limitations of both selfhood, of discourse, of learning and even of human experience. Not that these limits are perennial, unassailable by a future consciousness or even a more precise science. Even so, our own living Zeitgeist has its inherent limits. Coming to know that when we approach the counter upon which is laid out the pleasures and desires of the spirit of our age that we are always at risk of being wrong about each and every one of them is the beginning of authentic expertise.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Question of Democracy

The Question of Democracy

            It is commonplace at the moment to point to the war in Ukraine as a test of democracy. Its meaning there, on the ground, is transparent enough. Belarus, essentially a ‘client’ state of Moscow, is a case in point regarding the potential shift in social freedoms that a defeated Ukraine might well undergo. But it is also the case that in general, most citizens in every nation want a society that is more free than it currently is. This is not to say that they simply desire to ape any specific other country, say Finland, which perennially tops the best countries’ lists both in the objective scales of the world social health index and the more subjective sensibilities represented in the world happiness report, recently published for 2021. The idea of ‘the best’ aside for the moment, it remains clear that most ‘average’ citizens are yet vehicles for their respective traditions and thus do not entirely relish living in autocratic states. From Iran to North Korea, from Sudan to China and back again, what they do is make do.

            The politics of autocracy differ from the cultures of tradition along a number of lines. One, State and Tradition hail from different historical worldviews. Where tradition has not, or has not yet, given way to ideology, its contents may be millennia old. Theocracies attempt to funnel some of these pre-modern or even ancient contents into their ideological platforms but the effect, though very real in some of its consequences – the ‘Sharia’ law in Iran, for instance –  is yet symbolically fragile. Modernity and its predecessors have never mixed well, and it is almost always the case that those who are attracted to the latter day sainthood of revivalism or yet millennialism are themselves from the social margins. Two, the State is originally an urban phenomena that is acquisitive; it needs to grow its franchise and thus its power in order to survive. Tradition tends to be rural and seeks only its own reproduction over ensuing generations. This second schism between politics and culture sees the State often ‘dragging’ traditionalists into what passes for the distended present, but this tension also prevents the State from looking too far ahead of itself. Fittingly, and lastly, tradition looks rearward and the State looks forward, though only to a point. This third difference is the most disturbing for anyone hoping for a better human future, or perhaps any human future at all.

            It is a difficult mélange, our contemporary political culture. Democracies, limited as they are in reference even to their own ideals, struggle to balance competing interests yes, but more so, and more deeply, conflicting claims regarding the definition of the ‘good’ society. For the margins, the premise of an extant God may still be at work, fronting a promise that any future means the end of history and the transfiguration of humanity. Or, at least, some elect community thereof. These citizens have no authentic interest in democracy just as they may shun autocracy. Their path is toward an inner light. The problem they present to the rest of us is that their mission often seeks to include those who it patently resents, even if it is to merely bid us onward along the highway to hell. A significant minority of North Americans cleave to such traditions, no matter how Barnumesque they became over the course of the nineteenth century, and no matter how personalist became their ‘beliefs’. In the crisis of today’s democracy, it is equally important to look critically and candidly at the aspects of our own society that are fundamentally anti-democratic.

            And it is easy enough to do so, even if the stakes seem lesser than on the battlefield afar. Our own conflicts of culture and politics center around the difference between premodern moralities and contemporary ethics. The first posits timeless principles, such as the Decalogue. The second searches for a new Decalogue, a different table of values that reflects a radically altered reality. But though we might be smug to the point of disdain should some old-world voice sermonize at us, the neo-conservative margins of liberal society serve us more as a convenient decoy; a way in which to transfer the burden of defending democracy as over against a straw person; someone who can be mocked, derided as if he were not actually present, not unlike our conception of the God who is supposedly dead and yet who maintains vast legions of faithful. Instead of allowing such self-made decoys to distract us, the authentic task placed in front of the true democrat is rather to examine one’s own loyalties.

            Three anti-democratic features immediately leap out from fully modern society, institutions that borrow only the trappings of traditions and those mostly as a marketing device. One, the presence of independent schools in our education system. Two, the lack of proportional representation in our political system, and three, the prejudice against youth participating in that same system. The three are linked, of course. In order to lay more fully an authentic claim to actually being a democracy, all three must be rendered obsolete. First, all private, parochial, independent and charter schools in Canada must be shut down, their public funding – the reality that those who cannot afford to send their children to such schools nevertheless help pay for them through taxes is a scandal that approaches a kind of banal evil – redirected to a universal and singular school system. Such independent institutions serve only to reproduce status and wealth hierarchies and as such they are radically anti-democratic. The resources of the various elites – whether these are purely economic, as they are in most cases, or whether exclusion is practiced by ethnic background or religious creed – must be placed into the common pool. This is how a democracy learns. Second, proportional representation must be adopted at all political levels, replacing the so-called ‘first-past-the-post’ rubric. This will ensure that regional and local voices are heard in a manner that more reflects their diversity. This is how a democracy governs. Third, the voting age must be lowered to age twelve, reflecting the age already identified in Canadian law that separates childhood from youth. Persons of this age already can have sex with one another, cannot be physically coerced, can seek out health and wellness counsel, and are subject to legal penalties for transgressing the law. They are thus already judged to be fully human enough to also be able to vote, and are certainly cognitively capable of understanding ‘the issues’ as well as most average voters. It is another scandal tending towards evil that the same ‘arguments’ against youth voting were used to prevent women from voting. The very same. Consign such bigotry to the dustbin of the past. This is how a democracy includes.

            One education system in which an atheist student can study Islam, and a Muslim student can study Buddhism, in which any student can learn Mandarin or a once this-gender student can transform themselves into that-gender and so on. And an expanded and far more representative political dynamic that will force politicians to be more attentive and perhaps even responsible to all citizens no matter their age or their voting patterns. Such changes are not only necessary for the future of democracy, they are as well a transparent signal to autocracy that this is what we are defending; no longer are we going to be tolerant of our own incomplete project regarding human freedom, and no longer will we wanly wink at the inequities that stain our own relative freedom and signal the leaders of unfreedom that we too, after all, have their immoral backs.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

We are Not our own Justice

We are not our own Justice

            Shortly before his death, I happened to ask my father why he had become such an inveterate fan of the Montreal Canadiens. His answer astonished me, as this was the first time he had spoken of it, not in all of the long past years of my childhood and youth when we religiously watched the Habs each Saturday evening. They had drafted him back in 1945. He never donned the famous jersey as the joyful, though also incomplete and sobered, hordes of young men were returning from Europe and the talent pool got big again very quickly. Not to say my father was not a very competent ‘triple A’ player who faced off against the likes of Gordie Howe. He last laced up his skates in his early seventies, not unlike Howe himself.

            Now one doesn’t fact-check one’s own father nearing his death, if even such a thing could be checked. At this point one has earned the right to make certain claims, not that I have ever doubted this specific one. I make claims as well that hurt no one but myself perhaps – that I am Canada’s third leading social philosopher and ethicist behind Charles Taylor and Henri Giroux; that I am the leading thinker of my generation; that my 5000 page epic saga ‘Kristen-Seraphim’ is the story for our times and if one believes, as I do, that Jeshua ben Pantera, Saul of Tarsus, Prince Gautama, and Mohammed were all real people and thus the accounts of them and by them cannot be referred to as merely ‘stories’, then my epic is nothing less than the greatest story ever told – and in that I am no different from anyone else. But stories or no, the case becomes much different when we begin to make claims for others on their behalf.

            And the case becomes not so much different again but much uglier when these claims are intended not only to wound the other but to ‘cancel’ him entirely. And this is what is occurring today in a similar circumstance as my father’s end-of-war experience. I wrote about the concept of justice in a democracy in my 2013 book, We other Nazis: how you and I are still like them. In it, I suggested that liberal societies were at risk for authoritarian gestures not so much from their governments but rather, and with a horrible irony, from their citizens. For in a democracy one of the cornerstones is freedom of expression with that of association the material manifestation of this first freedom. And so, one might well use such a freedom to express an opinion that in our digital age could carry far more weight about it than it otherwise would, or should. The ‘cancel culture’ that has become fashionable in our days seeks to declare this or that person to be a non-entity because of some real or imagined error of judgement committed by said person, mimicking authoritarian regimes of the old Soviet Bloc, for instance. (Romania, in 1948, declared composer Nicolae Bretan to be a ‘non-person’, and this was one of thousands of such incidents emanating from such governments that we both quite rightly fear and despise). But the source of the error is not what is ultimately at stake, for even a crime is a singular event in a life, and in a sober light related to that which bathed the veterans returning from the revealed horrors of 1945 Europe, no ethical person would hold to the idea of ‘one strike, yer out!’. Indeed, much of the ethical majesty of the three more recent Agrarian age religious systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, centers around forbearance or forgiveness, both of which seem sadly lacking in our present climes. It is almost as if certain citizens imagine that they really are ‘without sin’, and thus the stones that are cast can claim a kind of other-worldly righteousness. In fact, such stones are the primitive projectiles of mere self-righteousness, a base sensibility that has animated much of the history of authoritarian politics. And if we are at least used to politicians themselves masquerading as ethical beings  – in a democracy, we can always get rid of them come next election and try again – then it is much more disconcerting that fellow citizens become rabidly righteous and more than this, seek to project this base and narrow righteousness into society at large. Politicians who leap on such ‘immoral panics’ should be far more than ashamed of themselves, especially when they themselves have amply demonstrated an utter disregard for professional and political ethics. Hitler himself knew how much Anti-Semitism existed in Europe; he didn’t have to create it but merely exploited its lengthy historical presence. Today’s ‘leaders’ are apt to do the same with what Max Scheler analyzed as ressentiment; malicious existential envy.

            What then is the source of such envy? The very hype and glamor that surrounds those we imagine to be graced with god-like fortune. To be drafted by a legendary sports franchise, for example, to win the lottery, to be the one to whom millions flock in concert tours or film releases or yet even ‘religious’ revivals, God help us. All such hype tells us that these few people are the best of the best, are somehow worthier than we, and that we should serve them, even indirectly. And however embittered, begrudging, or not quite convinced we may be regarding such claims, we do. But the briefest glance at the recent history of tabloid media and more tells us that we are ever ready for any take-down, evidenced or no. That the once mighty fall and we in our ressentiment rejoice. This is a misinterpretation of second wave Agrarian era ethics, borne on the once revolutionary sense that the ‘first shall be last’. Instead of understanding these novel ethics as a potent critique of caste-based social organizations – it is important to recall that our much vaunted Greece and Rome were populated by at least forty percent slaves, for instance – we have personalized them on two fronts; one, they are wielded as a weapon of mere opinion or taste; and two, they target individuals and not social systems. They are the very stuff of inauthenticity, and Jesus, for one, knew that when he cautioned the stone-casting crowd to engage in a little self-reflection. Today, our democratic legal systems mostly recognize this caution by saying to the offender that though there has been an error, your life is not over, nor should it be. Indeed, the entire point of learning from one’s mistakes is to live on as a better human being, as a better citizen, as a better person.

            Especially is this the case when the offender is young, barely an adult, committing an error that we would associate mostly with youth. But the self-righteous – who must have stoned themselves into some kind of unreflective stupor before picking up those same stones and directing them at others – would end such a person’s life and livelihood before it ever began. And that a national leader should agree and foment such a stoning. And that we live, so we claim, in a democracy of means, motives, and to a certain extent, materials as well. To this the ethicist, the philosopher, whatever his rank and standing and whether such a thing means little or nothing which is generally the case, must stand up and retort resoundingly, no and no again. Petty Hitlers aside, we are not our own justice. If a crime has been committed and the penalty paid, adjudicated in a formal and legal manner, then that must be an end of it. If one disagrees then it is the law that must be altered and not the life. And aren’t we fortunate to live in nations where such an alteration is so easily made, without need of revolution, civil war, the cavil and cant of politicians, the death camps. And who are those who would give up this good fortune? Ask yourself if you value your freedom of expression so little that you would use it as an unmerited weapon against those who have cast themselves down well before any stone has yet been thrown.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.