In 2013, I have written conjointly a book with Zygmunt Bauman, one of the greatest thinkers of our times. It is a book of an intense philosophical dialogue on the loss of sensitivity. The title of our book, Moral Blindness, was Bauman’s idea, and it came out as an allusion to the metaphor of blindness masterfully developed in the Portuguese writer José Saramago’s novel Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Essay on Blindness). Yet the subtitle of the book, The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity, came out from my own theoretical vocabulary, albeit with Bauman’s touch – his books would be unthinkable without the adjective “liquid,” be it liquid modernity or liquid fear or liquid love. Much to my delight, this book will have a second life in the Ukrainian language and culture.
Ukraine has become a litmus test of global moral (in)sensitivity at the beginning of the 21st century. The country paid the price for its heroism, courage, willpower, solidarity, and freedom. Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, threats from the Kremlin, an obnoxious and grotesque campaign of toxic lies from the Kremlin-controlled media bordering on Goebbels-like propaganda and Orwellesque two-minute hate sessions of collective hysteria and mass psychosis – it would be difficult to exhaust the ordeals that begotten the radically new situation in world politics.
And what was the reaction of the EU and the West? Next to none. What happened over the past months did become a déjà vu experience coupled with a flashback from fairly recent European history. A feeling of being back in time with such code names as Munich, the Sudetenland, Hitler, Daladier, and Chamberlain is much stronger than it would have been any time earlier after the fall of the Berlin wall. We bid farewell to the holy naïveté of Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history, as if to say: “Welcome back to the 20th century!”
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The inability of the EU to react to the tragedy of Ukraine otherwise then through a series of unintentionally comical manifestations of “deep concern” not only shows the ease with which the EU produces the new Daladiers and Chamberlains; it exposes a deeply selective approach to human self-worth, dignity, and life. As long as war crimes are committed in No Man’s Land, in their eyes, such as Ukraine, we can react with our seemingly sensitive rhetoric without doing anything in terms of political and legal action. It happened only after the Malaysian airplane crash when the plane with almost three hundred Dutch, Australian, and other nations’ civilians was shot down by the terrorists armed and supported by the Kremlin that the EU showed at last some signs of genuine resentment and protest against this shocking barbarity.
I can only recall Zygmunt Bauman’s allusion he makes in his works to the Nazi concept of “life unworthy of life.” The phrase “life unworthy of life” (in German, lebensunwertes Leben) was a Nazi designation for the segments of populace which had no right to live. In our days, we witness a liquid-modern designation for the regions and countries whose tragedies have no right to break the news and whose civil casualties or sufferings from political terrorism and violence have no right to change bilateral relations and trade agreements between Russia and major players of the EU.
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How could we otherwise explain the unbearable naïveté and totally misguided actions, to say the least, of the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier who pushes Ukraine to negotiate with terrorists thus legitimizing them? Or the surrealist political logic of France with its multibillion deal with Russia over the Mistral warships thanks to which Russia can attack not only Ukraine (incidentally, the second warship to be sold to Russia will carry the name of Sevastopol) but any EU and NATO country as well? The Russian political commentator and essayist Andrei Piontkovsky spoke about the collective Feuchtwanger as an embodiment of the European will-to-misunderstand what was happening in Stalinist USSR. This sort of self-inflicted moral and political blindness, or the will-to-misunderstand Vladimir Putin’s Russia, could be described as the collective Schröder.
Like Tibet with its series of self-immolations, Ukraine has become a litmus test case – as far as our moral and political sensibilities are concerned. How many more deaths and tragedies do we need to get back to our senses? What the death toll should be like to switch to our sensitivities? We know a winged phrase that the death of one person is a tragedy, yet the death of millions of people becomes statistics. Unfortunately, this is more than true. The struggle between our moral blindness and our ability to see other individuals as ethical beings, rather than statistical units or workforce, is the struggle between our own powers of association and dissociation, compassion and indifference, the latter being a sign of moral destructiveness and social pathology.
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We learn from political history that we can withdraw from our ability to empathize with other individuals’ pain and suffering. At the same time, we can return to this ability – yet it doesn’t say a thing about our capability to be equally sensitive and compassionate about all troubled walks of life, situations, nations, and individuals. We are able to reduce a human being into a thing or non-person to be awake only when we ourselves or our fellow countrymen are hit by the same kind of calamity or aggression. This withdrawal-and-return mechanism only shows how vulnerable, fragile, unpredictable, and universally valid human dignity and life is.
These are the lessons to be learned. The Ukrainian lessons.