Response to Simone Weil’s “Human Personality.”
From Simone Weil: An Anthology
“The chief danger does not lie in the Collectivity’s tendency to circumscribe the Person, but in the Person’s tendency to immolate himself in the Collective.”
In this essay, Simone Weil, an early twentieth-century French thinker, deals with the place of the “person” within larger “collectives.” I capitalized both nouns in the quote because the English word “person” is an unattractive cousin to the French personne, which can mean “anyone” as well as “that individual.” It is not as synonymous with “individual” as is the English word. Capitalizing it may not quite do the trick, but maybe we can tweak it thereby into a Bigger Idea.
“Collective” is Weil’s word for the group to which a Person attaches oneself, such as a political entity, corporation, church, union, etc. I capitalized it, too, to give it the same level of emphasis.
To put the quote into slightly more understandable terms, Weil is saying that it is less dangerous for a group (community, church, labor union, political party) to restrict (or ultimately silence) individual expression and freedom than it is for Persons to so completely devote themselves to the will of a group that they surrender their voice–and will–to that of the group. She goes on to say that the two errors are doubtless connected. In other words, the suppression of the Person by the group may be related to some level of voluntary self-supression in the Person. Either way, It is that self-supression that worries Weil so much.
With good reason. The statement of Weil’s caught my eye because of her use of the term “immolation.” The word is old, iderived from a Latin term for sprinkling meal on meat about to be sacrificed. In French, as in Latin, the word became synonymous with sacrifice. But because Weil, who died in 1943, did not live to see the Vietnam War, she would not have been familiar with the English connotation of the term as “self-sacrifice by fire.” One particular Buddhist monk, protesting government policy in the war, poured fuel on himself and lit a match, burning hiimself alive. I remember seeing a photo of this self-immolation as a teenager and being horrified by it. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Malcolm Browne’s award-winning photo may have single-handedly shifted our understanding of a word.
I had this photo in mind when I was writing my dissertation in 1994 and included the term “self-immolation” as a way of describing an extreme level of self-censorship in social and public interaction.
All of us self-censor in social settings. Those who lack the ability of self-censorship in public are either small children (with horrendous questions or commentary in the checkout line) or have Tourette Syndrome, whose afflictees cannot always control what they say. But the rest of us have a lot of things going on internally at any given moment, much of which gets set aside when we engage in conversation or when we find ourselves speaking or performing in a public setting. Sometimes we might be shutting off the never-ending flow of inner psychological drama. And at other times, we may just choose not to say something we’re thinking. The other day during commencement festivities, I was speaking with a person whose nose was flaming red. It was so red it was impossible to ignore. And all the while this person and I were speaking, a little monologue was going on inside my head: “Does he know? How can he not know? Why didn’t he do something about it? Does he care? Good grief, that’s red!”
Often when I am teaching a class or speaking in a larger venue, I see things going on in the audience, many of whom are under the impression that they are invisible, that beggar some sort of comment. But to tell someone to wake up or to put away the cell phone or stop doing homework for another class would have a negative impact entailing ripple effects that, to me, aren’t worth the momentarily satisfying assertion of authority. Therefore, I self-censor.
But there is another level of self-censorhip that has more to do with Weil’s statement than the normal social maintenance I’ve just talked about. We also self-censor in order to show our allegiance to certain ideas, ideals and groups. Whenever we become part of a group, whether it be as an employee, a disciple, an amateur enthusiast, an artist, or even as the natural result of a shift in status (the Country Club as opposed to the YMCA), we naturally learn the Language of the Tribe the better to fit in with that group. In learning the new lingo, two things happen. We acquire new terms, so that we can be perceived as using them smoothly and knowingly “I pwned you, freakin’ newb!” And, conversely, we begin to shed, to prune, to self-censor terms that don’t harmonize with the Tribal Tongue. In church, we sing “Wonderful Words of Life,” not, “Your Body is a Wonderland.”
All of which gives rise to a question: Is it truly a thing to be feared when someone self-censors to such a degree that they have, for all intents and purposes, eliminated themselves? To what extent was/is this happening for those adherents of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in El Dorado, TX (think uni-brow and antebellum peasant fashions)? Or to what extent is this happening with suicide bombers in Baghdad?
FLDS Yearning for Zion–
Certainly ideological self-immolation creates these extreme cases. But Weil’s question, and mine, is concerned more with those who do not perhaps belong to some extremist sect in the middle of nowhere or in some terrorist training camp, but those who live and breathe among us who have allowed some Voice of Authority to silence their thinking, their reason and their ability to see beyond the confines of some mental prison they have created for themselves. Would this describe, for instance, the people who let their 11-yr-old daughter die of treatable diabetes last year because they thought God was going to heal her? Does this describe the senior citizen who sends her life-savings, pension checks and social security to a complete stranger who has persuaded her that this TV ministry is God’s best hope for humanity?
Does it describe people on the political fringe who seem to live on the intellectual equivalent of a liquid diet–consuming only the kind of news, opinion and information that affirms a pre-selected point of view, right or left?
The answer to that last question, though it might surprise some, is no. While subsisting on the impoverished dogmas on the fringe does involve a harmful level of self-negation, it is not as absolute a condition as immolation. There is something inherently destructive and even deadly about immolating oneself for a Collectivity. The consequences are always catastrophic for someone.
But the fringe-dwellers, though heavily “negated,” can and do function quite well in society, though typically flocking in groups around mega-personalities or ego-saturated agenda-setters. Yes, I am speaking of the likes of Rush Limbaugh on one side and Michael Moore on the other, both of whom left their senses years ago but whose ardent fans have failed to see the vacancy signs. The devotees of Limbaugh fail to realize he is neither conservative (nor Christian), and the disciples of Moore fail to see he is neither liberal (nor socialist). They are both super-inflated grand-standers carried along by the inertia of their bloated personalities, with no safe harbor in sight. Their adherents, while deceived, are in no real danger of capsizing their own lives by bombing clinics or getting handcuffed for civil disobedience. Most of their biggest fans are fully functioning members of society whose personal lives represent the best and worst of living in an affluent, unreflective culture. It is only their intellects they have chosen to deprive.
Nevertheless, the specter of intellectual and spiritual self-immolation looms–not that rank and file hard-liners such as those I just mentioned are susceptible. I doubt seriously that they are. Those trapped in an immolators’ fate got there by other means, usually involving either an involuntary or semi-voluntary stripping down of their persons and psyches brought on by want or need. The benefit of affluent middle-class life is that, while it doesn’t guarantee against a near-fictitious understanding of the world, it does tend to insulate against radical extremism. Be that as it may, we find ourselves compelled to deal with the immolators. They have a tendency to crop up from time to time, whether it’s Jim Jones or Branch Davidians or FLDS in our backyard–or people who come over and commandeer or airlines. We cannot afford to ignore them.