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17 August, 2015

“I have no shame or conscience, therefore my conscience doesn’t bother me”

People who have lost their sensitivity temporarily or for a long time are no demons. They simply remove from their sensitivity zone certain people or entire groups

Zygmunt Bauman has developed the theory of the adiaphorization of consciousness. During times of upheaval and at critical historical junctures or intense social change, people lose some of their sensitivity and refuse to apply the ethical perspective to other people. They simply eliminate the ethical relationship with others. These others don’t necessarily become enemies or demons, they are more like statistics, circumstances, obstacles, factors, unpleasant details and obstructing circumstances. But at the same time they are no longer people with whom we would like to meet in a “face to face” situation, whose gaze we might follow, at whom we might smile or to whom we might even return in the name of recognition of the existence of the Other.

People who have lost their sensitivity temporarily or for a long time are no demons. They simply remove from their sensitivity zone certain people or entire groups. As the Greek stoics of antiquity and later religious reformers and thinkers in the Renaissance believed, there are things which are in reality inessential and unimportant, matters over which there is no point to argue or cross swords. This kind of unimportant thing is called an adiaphoronin Greek, and the plural is adiaphora. An example of usage is found in the letter that Philipp Melanchthon wrote to Martin Luther in which he said the Catholic liturgy was an adiaphoron, hence it was pointless to argue about it with the Catholics.

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On 27 April 1942, George Orwell writes in his Wartime Diaries about how selective humanattention, memory, and sensitivity can be. According to him: “We are drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a ‘case’ with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any suffering except those of himself and his friends…. Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency.”

 Orwell aptly describes here the mechanism of value- and ethics-neutrality which originates in our ability to be selective when dealing with human anguish and suffering, and which lies in our propensity to turn on and off our sensitivity as if it was a mechanism operated by a skilled operator, instead of a sensible and sensitive human being. A silent agreement to abandon and reject the ethical dimension in human exchanges is the very essence of adiaphora. This sort of withdrawal-and-return mechanism (to borrow and slightly remake Arnold J. Toynbee’s term) only shows how vulnerable, fragile, unpredictable, and universally valid human dignity and life is.

Yet there is another disturbing phenomenon deeply entrenched in the forms of liquid evil – namely, the immoral political opportunists walking in the guise of martyrs and dissenters for whom fascism, radical nationalism, or any other similar form of contempt for freedom and human dignity, appears as a mere possibility to épater la bourgeoisie. What lurks underneath such a stand is a total moral void and shamelessness.

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The Russian writer Eduard Limonov, notorious for his shooting from the machine gun at the besieged Sarajevo as well as for his adventurous and flamboyant life in New York and Paris, contrived not only to set up a neo-fascist political party in Russia which was for some time in fierce opposition to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, but also to attract Russian liberals and democrats – before finally accepting Putin as his true hero. The long and winding road it was from fascism to fascism through the bohemia and dissent.

In his fictionalized memoir, It’s Me, Eddie, Limonov wrote: “I have no shame or conscience, therefore my conscience doesn’t bother me.” With sound reason, then, Masha Gessen writes of Limonov: “His lack of convictions is typical of people who grew up in the Soviet Union, where survival depended on being finely attuned to the ever-changing Party line. The difference is that most people in the USSR, and in Putin’s Russia, change their views in order to fit in while Limonov generally changed them so as to differ from the majority position at the moment.”

Using the paradox, we could echo Immanuel Kant’s idea of “unsocial sociability” by offering another oxymoron, such as, for example, the “morally uncommitted commitment” or the “politically disengaged engagement” to describe Eduard Limonov’s phenomenon as characteristic of profound immoralism devoid of guilt and shame – in a way, not dissimilar to the effects of the adiaphorization of consciousness.          

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Therefore, the Devil in politics is far from a fantasy. It comes into existence in many faces, one of them being the subversion and destruction of a universal or at least a viable social and moral order. Yet the Devil may appear as the loss of memory and sensitivity resulting in mass psychosis. Both aspects are richly represented and covered by modern Russia, the country whose writers strongly felt and lucidly described the touch of evil with its rejection of human dignity, memory, sensitivity, and powers of association and compassion. Evidently, Eduard Limonov is not one of them. He chose to side with evil only to differ from the majority. Paradoxically enough, he did so only to find himself amidst the crowd overwhelmed with mass psychosis. 


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