This post is the third in my Autophagy series. Click here to read the first.
In the first post of this series I said the best way I have found to describe myself is an Agnostic Christian Existentialist. In the second post (here) I have laid out what I mean by “Agnostic Christian“. Now, I want to explain the Existentialist part. My text is divided in the following subtexts: Self Awareness and Babies, Language and Symbols, Being and Freedom, Responsibility, Ambiguity, Oppression, Essences and God, and My Christian Existentialism.
I will continue my process of autophagy and regurgitation, and, again, I invite you to join me and digest your own experiences and thoughts, to lay out everything you cannot digest, and make yourself comfortable in the mess until it starts making some sense.
I am writing this because I believe you, and everyone, can profit from thinking about these things. Existentialism is a modern school of thought, or tradition, in philosophy. Philosophers are people who like to ask questions and think very seriously. They think about everything, including about thinking. They debate and analyse everything that science, history, physics and hard sciences in general cannot deal with, such as what is good, what is just, what is right or wrong, what is life, why do we exist, why do we do what we do, etc. Philosophy is the mother of science and all other forms of methodical thinking. The Love of Wisdom. My point is, philosophy is important; the world would be better if everyone took the time to think about what they do, say, and believe. So, even if this is usually not your thing, let’s think together.
There have been many different philosophers, and theologians, who spoke of existential ideas. They did not all agree about everything. Some who influenced me the most to date are Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Jung, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tillich, and Freire. I dare include also the Tao Te Ching, the Tibbetan Book of the Dead, and even the Bhagavad Gita as powerful literary influences. Yet, as I write, I write of my existentialism: I have consciously learned from others, but I am not interested in defining and defending any one idea, but to digest and share my own thoughts.
Writing about these things is hard. I want to be understood by everybody and anybody. Thus I find myself in need of help, and I dare to ask you, reader, to work with me. Be patient with my text and with yourself. Read each paragraph slowly, ask yourself if you understand what it says, and then move to the next. Be conscious and intentional of your own thinking process. Think about what words mean.
I write, and it is up to you, the reader, to read.
SELF AWARENESS AND BABIES
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
If you would for a second, try to imagine yourself as a fetus, back in your mother’s womb. I know, this sounds crazy, but please actually stop for 2 seconds and imagine it.
There you are, a small bundle of flesh, blood and bones, enclosed in warmth. One day, suddenly, there is pain, there is a push, and you find yourself being dragged somewhere. There is light, and air. Your eyes and lungs hurt for being used for the first time. People talk around you but you don’t understand because you haven’t learned the language yet. All is noise, your own crying, and laughter. Your skin tinges at the sensation of moving your arms and legs against air and cloth and skin for the first time. This world out here is not as warm as the womb was.
When you were a baby, you had no tools to process or express any of these feelings. Whether right now you think that this experience sounded terrifying, or very exciting, at the time you simply felt them, without words, without concepts. Your brain was pure elasticity receiving wild inputs from the world around you, and all you could do in that existence of pure emotion and sensation, was to cry. Your brain did not even keep an organized memory of your birth, because your experience was too chaotic to record.
Eventually, you learned to pick up on patterns: you recognized faces that gave you comfort, you became attached to toys, and you realized you could move your limbs and stand up straight. Eventually, you learned words. First, nouns. Then you learned other concepts such as time, so you could speak of what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow, and tell the difference. If your parents spent their time talking with you, and asking you questions, eventually you learned to talk about your feelings, instead of simply crying. Maybe your parents didn’t, and maybe nobody did, and maybe you grew up without the concepts and words to make sense of and express your emotions, so now dealing with them is still difficult. Maybe you recognized a pattern with your parents that whenever you asked something you would receive it, so today you feel like everyone owes you something. Or maybe you never got what you asked, so you tell yourself that you don’t matter and nobody owes you anything. Maybe there was some balance in your life and you learned to ask and accept what comes your way.
One of the greatest breakthroughs in one’s development, but which many people still find difficult, is self-awareness. Self-awareness is precisely this: to be conscious of your self, including thoughts, feelings, and emotions. To understand “I am feeling this” and “I am thinking this”. Without self-awareness, we have the tendency to say “the world is this way”, instead. It is the huge difference between saying “clowns are scary” and “I am scared of clowns”. Knowing that the emotion is yours, not a property of other things.
The reason why this self-awareness is important is that it allows us to understand perspective. The understanding that I feel this way, and someone else feels another way, and both feelings are valid. That my feelings are not the way the world is, but rather, they are my experience. That other people have their own experience. That someone else’s feelings are legitimate, even if I don’t feel the same way.
My own experience of existential self-discovery has brought me to this realization: I am still that small fetus in the womb; I am still that baby; I am still a child. I have been around this world for 24 years and I have learned words and concepts, I have had experiences, I have asked questions, I have made friends, I have gotten a job, I have moved countries, I have defined and re-defined myself, but at the end of the day, I am still that baby; I am still me.
I am a confused baby in a wild world, and so are you.
This image, to me, is the best way to convey the complicated existential ideas that I hope to unpack in this text. Human history, human knowledge, civilization, science, language, words, politics, wars, religions, medicine, philosophy, technology, from quantum physics to the wheel, every single thing we think we know, every answer and every question, have all been a product of human experience as a collective of confused babies in a wild world trying to figure stuff out and get by.
Scared babies who, insecure, in need of comfort, would prefer the world to be less wild, so we choose to have an answer instead of navigating the world as Unknown. We tell ourselves we actually do know what and how the world is. To make ourselves more comfortable, we change the world around us, both literally – by building shelters and farms to ensure we have food – and in our own abstractions when we explain things to each other. We want to civilize the universe and each other, because we feel threatened by the greatness that escapes our knowledge. We give ourselves answers to questions we ourselves asked, and we actually believe those answers. We share these answers in order to bring comfort to one another, instead of dealing with the wild world we exist in and the wild people we live with.
I believe this happens in a cycle of trust (which is good) and laziness (which is bad). As a small child, for a number of reasons, I trusted my mom had all the answers to everything. I would never question her, because I trusted her. If she told me her answer to something, I would believe it was the absolute answer. Most, if not all children, are like this, until parents, or someone, make an effort to teach the child to be critical. My mom was very critical of others, so, watching her, I eventually learned a bit about being critical. Some of us never learn even when we’re old. Life constantly gives us chances to question the things we believe in, and we choose whether we will prefer to ask the questions and risk deconstructing everything we believe in, or, if we will prefer to be lazy, and afraid, and turn back to our comfortable answers. Likely, we stay comfortable until our answers fail us.
Think of the child who asks his mother, “Why did daddy go to war?”… Mother answers “daddy is a hero who is protecting us against bad people”. In this child’s brain, a concept is formed: “Daddy went to war because he is a hero who protects us against bad people”. Yet, somewhere else, across the world, there is another child, asking another mother, about another dad. That mother gives the same answer to her child: dad is a hero, who went to protect them against bad people. Both dads are fighting each other, heroes, protecting their family against unnamed “bad people”. There is a contradiction, as both dads cannot be both heroes and bad people at the same time, but for each child, and maybe even for each mom, and even the dads, that is their experience of war. They are heroes fighting against evil. The only way for them to question and deconstruct that belief is to seriously consider the other side.
The child hears the mother and simply accepts her answer as a fact. “Dad is a hero who protects me from bad people”. Eventually, the child learns that dad is a soldier. To him, all soldiers (on his side) are heroes. One day that child, 20, 30, or 50 years later, learns about the horrible things that happen at war, and how the other side suffered. The child is faced with the pain of having his beliefs questioned: maybe soldiers, and daddy, aren’t heroes. Maybe the enemies aren’t bad people. Maybe the full story is a lot more complex.
Facing that decision, maybe the amount of emotion, time, and effort invested in telling that original answer to himself has been great – lets say, by now, the child is also a soldier, also fighting a war, telling himself the reason he is shooting a stranger is because he is doing the right thing – so it would cost far too much, psychologically, to challenge that belief. So the child chooses not to ask further questions. He tells himself he can only afford to care for his own family, not for a stranger, so he pulls the trigger. He tells himself his commanders know best. He tells himself he would not be there if it wasn’t the right thing. That God would not allow this to happen if it wasn’t the right thing. He repeats to himself all the ways he can try to justify his actions, and he refuses to go further.
Or, maybe, the child has devoted more energy, time, and emotion, into telling himself that it is important to protect those who cannot fight, and to fight for justice, and chose to do so by doing social work, or by becoming a medical doctor, rather than a soldier. He did not invest a lot into justifying the military. When the child learns that the other side of the war is also full of poor people suffering injustice, poor people who are also trying to protect their own families, then, although it hurts to question, it doesn’t hurt as much. Rather, he is actually motivated to know and defend the poor and those who cannot fight for themselves, even if they are called “the enemy“. So he stops, and he ponders the complexity of his original question. He allows himself to ask more questions, to dissect the idea that “Daddy went to war because he is a hero who is protecting us from bad people”: Who is daddy? What is his personal history and motivations to go to war? What is war? What is this specific war that daddy went to? Who are these bad people? Why are they bad? What is daddy protecting? Why does he need to be the one protecting it, if he never met those people before? Why did he choose to be a soldier? Why didn’t dad stay home, and the other dad also stay home? Why did they have to fight? Who is profiting from this? Who is making and selling all these weapons? Why doesn’t the media show both sides?
Hopefully, the child will realize “I am a child who asked a question, my mom is a child who gave me an answer, and I believed her answer”, and start treating those answers accordingly. Hopefully the child will become self-conscious, and choose to remain curious, looking at both sides, and understanding that every answer is someone’s answer, and that we are all together trying to discover and understand the way things are. That every book ever written was written by someone, by a grown-up baby full of thoughts and feelings and emotions that are undeniable. That every time someone did the right thing, it was really the best thing they could, and there is no book or tablet anywhere saying what is the right thing to do in any given situation. That every time we speak of meaning, of value, of importance, of identity, we are using ideas that exist in our mind only, ideas that depend on language, and that can always be questioned another time.
One of the major breakthroughs of my own life was to accept that I have feelings and emotions, and to try to get to know them, and own them, and live with them, because they make who I am, rather than push them aside. Feelings and emotions hurt, they make me vulnerable, they make me volatile. I’ve been told that logic doesn’t, that logic is neutral, that it doesn’t get dirty. So for most of my life I tried to ignore my feelings and to believe I was being completely logical and rational. I would often project that belief of rationality into God, and believe that I was saying the truth as long as I was quoting the bible, never realizing that behind that facade of logic I still have biases and tendencies and interest. I thought that if I avoided saying “I think” and said “it is” instead, I would be less biased, not realizing that all I was doing was detaching myself of my own thoughts. I would believe that through the bible, and science, I had a direct lens into what nature is, into what reason is, as if they are disconnect from people. The way things are. If someone disagreed with me, I wouldn’t believe they really disagreed with me, but rather, that they did not really understand how things are, how the world is, natural reason, or what God said. For example, the Apostle Paul affirms that nature clearly teaches this and that, in his letter to the church in Corinth. When I accepted that we are all grown-up children, including Paul, I asked myself, why does Paul think that nature teaches this and that?
LANGUAGE AND SYMBOLS
Understanding that different people think and feel things differently than I do, even when we are both perfectly rational and intelligent, was a big lesson, even if it seems rather simple whenever I see two people describing the same object differently. Accepting this about myself and others has been essential to navigating the world. It taught me to listen more, and to pay more attention to my own words. One useful way to conceptualize this is making the difference between Subject and Object. This is a difference we find when studying language, and as we are, our brains are accustomed to thinking in terms of language (knowing more than one language opens up your concepts a whole lot!). When we discuss these things, we are speaking of patterns in the brains of human beings, in the way we, as humans, conceptualize our experience. For most of history, before the modern era, philosophers did not make this distinction. From Socrates to Aristotle to Aquinas, philosophers discussed words and definitions as if they are true objects in the world. By the time of Kant, the difference between our experience and our concepts, and things in themselves, began to be stressed in philosophy. By the time of post-modernism, we embraced the fact that our thoughts are always subjective, not objective. In other words, that my impression of some thing is my impression, not the way the thing is.
Again, language. Subject is someone, someone with a perspective, thoughts, feelings. I am a subject. An object is a thing, static, or the target of an action.
When I say the sentence “I am writing to you”, the word “I” is the subject, the word “talking” is the verb/action, and the word “you” is the object. The subject is the agent of the verb/action, and the object is the one that receives the action, or, in classic English, the one that suffers it. This is just language, syntax, but let us break it down even further, back to reality, by thinking of the meaning of these words: As I write “I am writing to you”, I am experiencing what it is to be me, and I am fully my own subject. Only I have all my thoughts and feelings and experiences, and that is what I mean when I say “I”. When I say “you”, I am thinking “the person reading this text”. I do not know your feelings, thoughts, emotions and experiences right now. I do not even know who exactly is reading my text. All I have is a “reader”, a static, abstract, object. However, in reality, as you are reading this, you do not know my feelings, thoughts and emotions, unless I tell them to you. You may not even know who I am. But you know your own feelings, thoughts, and emotions, and you are your own subject. We experience the dynamic of subject and object in reverse. It is always paradoxical.
In other words, in this moment, you are your own “I”. You are the most evident reality in your own experience of life, and I am just an abstract “author”. You might not even be thinking of “author”, but maybe just “blog”, or “post”. In your experience, you are the subject, and this text is an object. So here we have two subjects communicating, but experiencing each other as objects. One writes, the other reads.
The meaning of the word “to objectify” lies in this. I believe this is very important, it is at the center of my religion, and of my existential experience. Whenever I treat another human being as less than a subject, I am treating him or her as less than she or he is. You are not just a reader. I am not just a student, or just a worker, or just a taxpayer, or just a Brazilian, or just a Canadian Resident, or just my mother’s son, or just an immigrant, or just a white person, or just a cis-male person. I am. The meaning behind “I am” transcends all of these things, but I live in a world that does not experience my life as I do. I live in a world where most people see me as just a young white cis-male from Brazil who immigrated to Canada, studies theology, works, and pays his taxes. Most people, directly or indirectly, will see and treat me as just that.
BEING AND FREEDOM
These labels and identities were put on me by other people, as the answer to “what I am”. My existential attitude is to own and transcend them.
On one hand, I am a human being. That means, this being, that I am, is human. As a human being, I am also a historical and social being. Historical, because so many of the things I am (white, male, cis, Brazilian, Canadian, student, worker, etc.) exist in history, they are tied to events and ideas of groups that developed over time, and that are always being rethought. I exist in history, because I was not born complete, and I will not die complete. I am not the same yesterday and will not be the same tomorrow, even though, through changes and development, I still am. I am historical because there are things I know, and things I don’t, but, knowing my own ignorance, I have the possibility to address it. I am historical because being taught one narrative of history, and knowing its subjectivity, I can transcend it by learning other narratives about the same history and gain a broader vision. I am historical because I am part of my own narrative of history, and every action I take shapes my future. I am social, because everything I know, I know because of society. I depend and exist together with other humans. Other humans depend and exist together with me. Being historical and social, I am political. I am part of groups, and these groups have their history with other groups. Being all these things, I have different possibilities and limitations than other groups. Being male, I cannot be pregnant. Being white in the Americas, I do not come from a history of slavery. Etc.
On the other hand, I simply am. I am beyond all of these groups, identities, and categories. In my constant change and transformation, I choose what to do next. What I do next, defines what I become. Unfinished, I exist existing, I am being, and I become becoming. I was given all of these contingent aspects of myself (being white, male, Brazilian, etc), but I am the one to choose what do I do with them. Life, the Universe, God, History, Society, together they give me aspects of what I am, but it is up to me to answer “What are you going to do about it?”, and transcend what I was, and become, every day, more me, by making my own decisions, or less me, by simply doing what is expected of me by contingency. I am the one who can decide to be just another Brazilian, or, to choose to know what makes me Brazilian, and then keep my actions in check, so I can act as I choose to act and not just reproduce my culture. I am the one who can just be another male, and treat women the way society taught me to, or, knowing and understanding my own socialization as male, transcend it, and treat women as I choose to, rather than just replicate the way I was raised.
Although I was given a list of contingent aspects of my self, I am the only one who can choose what I will do about it. This is what I understand Radical Freedom to mean.
Radical Freedom, however, also means Radical Responsibility. I choose what I do with what I happen to be, and thus, I become. It means that, when I want to blame my actions on contingency (the things I happen to be, like, young, or, a student), I am being dishonest. Whenever I act as if I had no choice, I am acting with “bad faith”, or mauvaise foi. When I say “Oh, yes, I catcalled her, I mean, I’m a man, and look how she’s dressed!”, what I am really saying is, being a man, and being socialized to catcall, and having sexual instincts, I choose to not control them, but rather, to pretend like the woman is responsible for my own actions. When I say “Well, he offended my girlfriend, I just had to punch him”, what I am really saying is that he made me punch him, with his actions, and I had no control: I am just a machine that responds to input. When I say “Well, there’s nothing I can do, this is just how I am”, what I am really saying is that, at some point of my life, I stopped changing, I stopped learning, evolving, becoming, and now there is nothing I can do about my actions. When I say “It’s not my fault you’re offended by what I said, I’m just being honest”, what I am really saying is that I have no control on the choice of my words, rather than owning the fact that I chose these words, that I could have chosen better words, and apologizing. When I say “It’s not my fault, I was just following orders”, what I am saying is that, the moment I hear orders from a superior, I stop having a brain, I stop thinking critically, and I become a machine that executes commands, instead of being a full subject, a person, who listens to an order and then chooses to follow it.
Passing on our personal responsibility is one of the primary ways we allow for evil in this world. Whenever we assume ourselves as an unquestionable part of a group, and we forego our personal responsibility, we project our choices and our thoughts and our feelings as abstract objects outside ourselves. These abstract objects (the empire, the nation, the government, the market, the church, the will of God) become the agents of evil in the world, and because they are abstract, and detached from any one person, they become extremely difficult to address when you are the one suffering in its hands. Instead of saying things like “Mr. Smith and Mr. Simpson decided to fire 5.000 workers nationwide instead of risking lowering their margin of profit or reducing their own salaries”, we say things like “Due to the current state of economy, the market dictated a shift in the workforce”, as if the events are unrelated to human choice.
We also forego our responsibility not just by objectifying ourselves, but also by objectifying others, and pretending they are not subjects. Whenever Romans treated other peoples as “barbarians”, whenever soldiers killed or bombed “enemies” and “terrorists”, whenever men refused to listen to “hysterical” women, whenever white people refused to treat “negroes” equally, whenever a person was reduced to “slave“, whenever people working are referred to as “human resources”, whenever there is oppression, we use language to justify treating people as less than subjects – as objects. We choose to call people by words that do not express their subjectivity, words that reduce them to less-than, in order to justify our actions. It is easy to bomb the “enemy“. It is easy to advocate the imprisonment of “criminals“. It is easy to tell a “hysterical” woman to shut up. It is easy to force “barbarians” to learn your language and customs and dress your clothes. It is hard, on the other hand, to make oneself responsible to care about each of these people’s names, dreams, hopes, history, families, preferences, etc. By learning to stop using words that steal people of their subjectivity, labels that steal someone’s individuality, we can learn to treat each other as full subjects, just as we are.
Not all of it is evil, however. This radical freedom we have is terrifying. Being responsible for what I become is a lot of responsibility. Nobody can live my life for me or prepare me for every choice. I learn by doing it, which means I will make mistakes. When I was 21 I chose to leave psychology and study theology, and I can never go back to 21 and choose neuroscience instead. Every choice is final, and I have to learn to live with it. Every relationship that ended, every word I could have said, every passing moment, every thing I do ends the potential of a thousand other things I could have done. That is the weight of existence, the weight of freedom. Having simple answers, being told what to do, accepting our group identity without question, accepting the role someone gave us, is maybe the only way we can live and not have to deal with that weight. The easy way, but not true, and not responsible.
How do I live, then? Living in that tension between the finite – all the ways I am limited, knowing the universe is bigger than me, that I do not have a lot of time, that I have limited opportunities – and the infinite – so much I could do, I could quit my job, I could light myself on fire, I could start learning a new language, I could pack up my things and go to a different city, I could quit my university program, I could join a trade school, etc – is the paradox that, when I stop to think about it, we all face every day, at every decision, and it is terrifying. Kierkegaard believed that thinking about this reality makes people feel an immense amount of anguish, and running away from that anguish is one of the driving motives of our daily lives. It fills me with anxiety because I realize that I am responsible for my own choices, and even when I blame others, ultimately, I am the one to choose.
I could kill myself anytime, yet, I choose to live. Why? (pause.)
The scary thing of “I could do whatever I choose to”, as long as I am ready to deal with the consequences, is that I realize that my life is in my hands. Yes, there are circumstances, and limitations, but I am the one who chooses what to do with these circumstances and limitations. Do I choose to be paralyzed and scared that whatever I do may be meaningless? Do I give up on every possibility just because I cannot realize them all? Or do I choose to do something? (pause.)
I mentioned in my first post that I have an immune deficiency. Every month I choose to get a shot of antibodies and live to see the next. I don’t have to. It is my choice. Walking this thin line between owning my freedom and responsibility, and assigning them to something else to make my decisions for me (governments, media, church, parents, etc.), is the thin line between being subject and object. I want to be the subject of my life. I want to be the one living, feeling, thinking, deciding, acting. I want to tell the story of things I did and thought and felt, not the story of all the events that happened to me. I want to live my life, not simply watch it, not simply suffer it, but live it.
I want to live a responsible life, to be an active agent, someone who consciously does what he wants. To do that, I need to acknowledge and understand the ways my life is objectified, how I am a passive receiver of so many things around me, how I am tossed around by circumstances. I need to understand the same thing about others. We cannot escape objectification, but by understanding it, and being responsible about it, we can transcend it. Whenever I interact with a human being, directly or indirectly, I need to be conscious of the paradox between both of our subjectivities meeting each other, both freedoms clashing, objectifying one another. When I say something, I experience all my intentions and thoughts and emotions, but the person I am talking to does not, and vice-verse. I need to transcend that barrier by choosing to care for the other subject as much as I care for myself, with empathy, active listening, and perspective. Conversely, I need to open myself to others so they can understand me as a subject.
Whatever I choose to say, whatever I choose to do, I am responsible. How do I know I am doing the right thing? I don’t. There is no easy line, no easy answer. I need to meet every situation with care, by treating every person as a subject, trying to understand how to act in the best way. In other words, the only guideline I have is to love my neighbor as myself.
Oppression is a popular word nowadays. It is hard to talk about politics without hearing about it, but, what does it mean? For a long time I only had a vague idea, a caricature.
Oppression is denied freedom. Contingency is not oppression, for example, I am not being oppressed by having an immune deficiency, even if it severely limits my freedom (being away from Canada for more than a month may imply my death, or, at least, having to pay hefty amounts of money to get the injection I need). Someone having a lot of melanin, or being born as a female human, is not being oppressed. That is simple contingency.
Oppression is freedom denied by someone. It can be directly, for example, when human traffickers kidnap illegal immigrants and sell them as slaves. But it can also be indirectly, or systemic, and often times, even unintentional. Even when unintentional, however, we are still responsible, because oppression is always caused by someone, so only someone can stop it. Oppression happens when the freedom of one person, or of a group, denies the freedom of others.
For example, if you were born with lots of melanin, that is mere contingency. Being African-American, or “Black”, is, on the other hand, a historical and social matter. It means that your ancestors were brought to the continent as slaves, while my ancestors (I am white) were brought as masters. It means that when your great- great-grandparents were set free, they had nothing, while my ancestors had the accumulated inheritance of 300 years of profiting from slavery work. The white children had wealthy inheritances, education, and were sent to the best schools, to get the best jobs, and treated as the best citizens. The black children had to fight much harder for any money, did not inherit anything, and could not afford an education, which gave them the worst jobs; they were grouped in ghettos, and treated as lesser citizens. A hundred and fifty years went by, and the effects are still seen today. So even when, as a white person, I do not have anything personal against any black person, I understand that I have privilege, while they come from a history of oppression. My family is of European immigrants who came to Brazil running from the Great War. At the time, racism was strong and blatant, so my hard-working grand-parents, who are white and European, even though they had to work hard for every penny, were given the option of living in neighborhoods and working at jobs where black people were not welcome. They accumulated wealth much easier than the black families. They never had to prove themselves, but rather, by merely having white skin and blue eyes, people already assumed they were intelligent and capable. Coming from families that valued education, they sent my mom to an expensive school, while most black families, trying to simply get by, had their children leave school as early as possible in order to be able to bring some income home. When my parents divorced and I was living in a very poor area of São Paulo with a young single mother, and many of my friends came from the favelas around, even though we are “equal”, and my mom worked hard for every penny, I need to be honest that she was accepted at jobs not just for her resume and skills (acquired through expensive education), but also for being blonde. I am not specially smarter, but my mom read books around me, while many of my friends’ parents never could afford much of an education. Yes, both my mom and my black friends’ parents are “equal” before the law, but to deny that my mom’s freedom and her range of choices in life is much greater than that of my black friends, is to be blind to history.
It is not the active racism of any one person. I am not “racist” as Hitler or the KKK, but I was born, and I profit, from a society with a history of racism. But how is this oppression? It is not the active oppression of any one person. It is the consequence of the inaction of countless people who act like this was never anyone’s responsibility. We talk of slavery as an abstract thing that happened, rather than the choice of individuals who actively enslaved others. When slavery was abolished, these individuals contented themselves with “now everyone is equal before the law”, and that was it. The damage of almost 400 years of active oppression still lingers, in the form of systemic oppression: the maintenance of a status quo that benefits one group above the other.
Or with women, who were denied to vote, to have social and political power, and who had to fight for it. Who, still today, are blamed for men’s actions whenever men choose to trespass the limits of their bodies. Who, still today, are treated as just sexual objects. Who, still today, hear jokes about how women cannot be understood, as if they are not subjects who think and feel and communicate. Who, still today, are told by men what they should or shouldn’t do with their bodies, without ever being asked their own opinion. Who, still today, are told to “know their place”. Women are subjects, individuals, selves, just like I am. My girlfriend thinks, feels, and experiences her life as truly and as intensely as I think, feel, and experience my own life. When she says no to something, she means it. When she disagrees with something, she means it. When she expresses her opinion, she means it. And I need to believe that, believe that she is her self, and not just “a woman”, not just “my girlfriend”, with an assigned role. She is free. Whenever men, neglecting their own responsibility, and neglecting her subjectivity, treat her as less than she is, she is oppressed. Whether they meant it or not. The fact that our culture does this systematically, and I need to police my own actions because I know I was raised in a misogynistic culture, is why I choose to be her ally when she wants to fight for women’s rights.
When men say women cannot be logical, that they cannot work, cannot choose their own clothes, cannot do certain tasks, cannot do whatever some men think women cannot do, they are telling women they have less freedom than they actually do. When men say they raped a woman because of what she was dressing, they are pretending it wasn’t their choice, reducing their own freedom, saying they are as incapable of controlling their own instincts as mad dogs, while at the same time, limiting the woman’s freedom to dress what she wants, and giving her the burden of being responsible not just for her own actions, but also for men’s.
Again, think of what I explained earlier: people are subjects, not objects. Treating people as objects, and bringing them to believe they are objects, is oppression. When your use of freedom limits the freedom of others, you are oppressing them.
For example, Mussolini thought Italy was being wronged for not being allowed to have colonies, like the rest of Europe. Looking around at the other European countries, Mussolini felt like Italy as excluded. The Italian people, refusing to think for themselves, believed him. They chose to use their freedom to invade Ethiopia, in order to colonize it, failing to recognize that they were not treating Ethiopian people like subjects, who have as much freedom as themselves. Disrespecting the other’s freedom, they entered conflict. Thinking that the standard of freedom should be that of the European oppressors, Italy made itself another oppressor. Thankfully, Ethiopia became independent of Italian control in the aftermath of the second World War.
Or, when Christians, in their missions, colonizing the Americas, treated native peoples as barbarians, forcing them to attend Christian schools, dress Christian clothes, and worship the Christian god, they treated the native peoples as if they were objects, not subjects with inherent freedom, to be respected.
When tribes enslaved each other in Africa, they treated their brothers like objects. When white Europeans enslaved Africans, or purchased already enslaved Africans, they perpetuated that objectification, becoming part of that system of oppression. When policemen reproduce the racist culture they were raised into, so that they never stop to wonder why is it that they always assume a black kid is a criminal, but always treat white kids nicely, being ready to shoot one while accommodating the other, they are being part of a system of oppression and racism. Maybe not because they personally choose to, but because they are too lazy and coward to question their own beliefs and to own the responsibility for their actions.
When people tell other people, or even themselves, that they should do this or that, or that they cannot do this or that, because they are born with a penis or a vagina, they are denying the freedom of others and of themselves.
And above all, whenever someone thinks that because he has a lot of money it is his freedom to just make more, infinitely, while people who do not have money should just work to make him richer, and he projects his actions into abstract ideas that absolve him from responsibility, he is oppressing them.
Our very systems of law, of writing down an abstraction such as “murder is a crime” or “murder is a sin”, are ways to deny our freedom. The language games that lawyers play in public tribunes are enough proof of that, justifying all sorts of injustice. I will not murder because I respect life. I may want a murderer to be punished for disrespecting life. But choosing not to murder because someone decided to call it “crime” or “sin“, is a failure to own my own actions. In the same way, I will not cheat on my girlfriend because I choose not to make her sad, not to betray her expectations of me, not to damage our relationship. If I did not care for her, it would not matter if people called cheating a sin or not.
Choosing to stay comfortable and unaware of subjectivity makes it easy for you to be manipulated. If I tell you a group of people sold weapons to this other group of people, so they can kill other people. You ask me, who are these people? …I could tell you that John and Mary sold weapons to Robert and George so they can kill Jimmy and Andrew. You would ask me their motivations: Why did they do this? Why do they think it is a good idea that Jimmy and Andrew die? On the other hand, I could say that Americans sold weapons to the French so they could kill terrorists. Now you, most likely, automatically think that is a good thing. Terrorists should die. But, there are no terrorists: There are people. We choose to reduce them to the label of terrorists. One could also say that guerrillas sold weapons to terrorists to kill Americans. The people telling you the story, the people who choose if they call a group “freedom fighters” or “terrorists“, “heroes” or “villains“, “brave soldiers” or “enemies“, have an immense amount of control over your opinion if you simply believe the labels they give you.
The government could make it a crime to have green eyes, and then the media could tell you that brave policemen invaded a criminal resistance and arrested several “criminals” to bring them to jail. You could think “oh well, good job mr. policeman, you got rid of criminals“, and support a great tragedy in the name of a false justice. This is, in a large way, how the Holocaust happened. Most German people were well-intended citizens who believed what Hitler said and trusted the government. Most German soldiers could have been brave men who chose to do the greatest sacrifice and follow their orders, even if they didn’t understand them. But when the time came for moral decisions, when their conscience tightened, they chose to just follow their orders.
Again, unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We are all responsible.
ESSENCES AND GOD
Coming back to the subject of words, one of the words we have made up in the past is the word “essence“. This is a very important word in the history of philosophy. An essence is the answer to the question of “what is this?”. For example, a square is a plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles. Thus, the essence of a square, is a plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles. A lot of classic and medieval philosophy treated essences as actual things. In other words, “a plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles”, to many classic and medieval philosophers, was not just the way the human brain tries to make sense of the thing we call square, but rather, an actual thing, out there somewhere, of which we had innate knowledge, that as human beings we recognized when we looked at squares. This idea was expressed in different ways by different philosophers, from the Platonic theory of forms to Thomistic Realism.
Although I see the logic behind these ideas in general, my impression is that they depend on a lot of confirmation bias. The more I learn about psychology, neuroscience, and even other metaphysical worldviews from Eastern cultures, along with anthropology, sociology, and phenomenological thinking, the more it seems to me that, again, what is really happening when we speak of essence is the projection of our thoughts into reality, where we detach ourselves from our ideas and treat them as actual things.
The reason I bring up this subject is because essences are at the heart of how orthodox Christian theology has developed over the centuries. God is spoken of as “pure essence”, and it does not surprise me that modern and not-so-modern atheists accuse theists of worshiping a projection, an imaginary friend of sorts. This essentialist thinking allows, indeed, for that. Pretending that we know how the world is, and how things work, and what God is, we limit our ideas of God to our limited understanding, to our culture, to our biases, and to our contingency. We end up speaking of a God who is white, male, and wealthy. We end up speaking of a God who is far too much like us.
MY CHRISTIAN EXISTENTIALISM
The God I meet in the Prophets and in the Gospels is a God who actively works to subvert human ideas of order, power, knowledge, etc. God encounters Man as Other, as pure Subject who, when asked for its name, answers “I am that I am”. When Prophets meet God, God is the utterly Unknown, Wild, Beyond. In their texts, the prophets, still speaking with the language they were used to, and addressing God in human terms (an all-powerful male Lord/slave-master or King), they showed their bewilderment and lack of understanding as they spoke of this God who subverts everything they think they know.
As a Christian Existentialist, I cannot accept a God that is just a projection of my contingency. I cannot even accept a God that is a projection of my choices and preferences, of my sensitivities, of my political stances. God is the God that encounters me, who challenges me, who subverts me and everything I know. God is the Life-giving Spirit, the Logos behind creation, the one in whom we live and have our being.
God is the mystery behind what I call Existence. He is the Subject behind the world we are all trying to discover together. Being itself. God is Life, and Truth, beyond myself and beyond my pretensions of knowledge. God is the subject responsible for all contingency. God is the void that stares deeply into my soul and shows me I am dust. God is the fullness that bursts from within me in love and laughter.
God is, and I am not.
Yet, I am, like God.
…On my next post I will speak of how my Agnostic Christian Existentialism defines my stances on politics. I hope this text has helped you learn more about yourself and the world you live in. I hope I gave you good questions to pose. If you want to ask or share your own thoughts, feel free to comment or to reach out to me.
Picture: Non, je ne regrette rien, 2007, by Wanguchi Mutu
The Karamazov Brothers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Siddartha, Herman Hesse
Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre
The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir
The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich
Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
Tao Te Ching, Laozi