Self Immolation

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.

Malcolm Browne's famous photo

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.


7 thoughts on “Self Immolation

  1. I can’t pretend to know the context of Weil’s quotes, but based on my limited knowledge, that perspective seems a bit behavioristic to me.

    As I see it, people listen (meaning: give assent) to whatever *resonates* with what is already in their hearts. Under ordinary circumstances (i.e., an atmosphere of liberty, the naturally proper state of human beings) people don’t get their “marching orders” from public personas, celebrities, authority figures, etc. so much as their view of the world is confirmed and reinforced by people who also “get it.”

    As for Michael Moore…objectively speaking, he doesn’t pass the Phil. 4:8 test–in particular the “true” part–so I am not a part of his audience and can’t speak to his powers of influence.

    I don’t believe Limbaugh falls into the same category, and as for his conservatism, I have been a conservative from conception (it’s in my genes), and from what I’ve heard in the past, he certainly resonates with me. Furthermore, the NRO folks (whom I read regularly) with all their varied perspectives seem to consider him one.

    I haven’t listened to Limbaugh in some months, but I can sooner believe that certain individuals have redefined conservatism to their own tastes (here I am thinking specifically of folks like David Brooks, for instance) before I would believe that Limbaugh has abandoned his.

    There are a few points in which I differ with Limbaugh. First, he is an incurable optimist, and I believe, more soberly, that America is currently in decline, due to an ever-widening abandonment of God and the good that flows from Him. I continue to hope that the decline can be slowed or reversed by a spiritual awakening.

    Second, no, he is not a Christian, and anybody even vaguely informed on his personal life will realize that. Nor have I ever heard him claim to be one, unlike his brother. So, his positive personal views of human ambition, acquisition of wealth, etc. differ from mine somewhat (although I agree with his free-market views).

    Third, he has little insight regarding marriage and children, and thus has little useful to say about policy issues that affect family life, education (esp. homeschooling), and so on.

    However, here are a few things I deeply appreciate about Limbaugh:

    His jovial approach to politics is refreshing. I appreciate being able to laugh about matters that are otherwise very sobering. I think his cigar-chomping egomaniac schtick (undertaken to ruffle his critics’ feathers) is funny.

    He is the politest of all talk show hosts to callers who are woefully ignorant or disagree with him. Many times I have heard him patiently talk through his point of view with callers who are agitated and upset with him. He doesn’t typically hang up on people in disgust as I have heard others do (although he does when he runs out of time or detects a seminar caller who slipped through screening), and he does not use abusive language to his callers (although he’s hard on public figures, but that’s their due). I respect that about him. In fact, I have never understood why people call him a “hate-monger,” for his humor and patience are unmatched among talk show hosts from all perspectives. I can only reckon that his harshest critics have never actually listened to him beyond a sound bite or two.

    He is committed to a pro-life perspective, on a principial level. I deeply appreciate this about him.

    He understands the importance of economic freedom to personal liberty and opportunity.

    He has a profound insight into the left-wing mindset, and thus makes uncannily accurate predictions about their political moves and the expected response from their allies in the press.

    He loves his country. I love this about him. As a Christian, my first allegiance is to the kingdom of Heaven, but, as Rich Mullins wrote, when you’re born into it, nobody tells you how much you will come to love the “land of your sojourn.” 

    He is an original thinker, yet he is consistent (unlike his opponents) because he analyzes from a principled basis.

    So, there are lots of good reasons to listen to Limbaugh yet, and I doubt his audience will experience much of a downturn, despite the tongue-clucking that has been directed at him lately. Unless the government moves to silence him, or he significantly changes his message or delivery and thus alienates his audience, I think he’ll keep going

    1. meldenius

      Oh, I would expect the more attention he gets from the media, the more listeners he will accrue, like fuzz to static.

      If we distinguish between “right-wing” and Conservative, the latter would, in my view, refer to the preservation of traditional institutions and traditional values (church, family, community, nation, progressive manufacturing, a free economy founded upon community-oriented businesses–think “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) I would define Limbaugh as pretty solidly Libertarian by contrast, which is very different in philosophy and underlying principles and has the added benefit of requiring no real ethical grounding.

      “Right Wing” typically espouses a philosophy of government intervention for “righteous” causes, much the way “Left Wing” does, only with a radically different agenda. The good people over at the Chalcedon Foundation (founded by conservative a-millenial Presbyterians) fall into that right wing category.

      Many Christians are an amalgamation of Conservative, Libertarian and Right Wing philosophies without being aware of the fundamental differences between their origins, underlying values and policy goals.

      I wouldn’t agree that Limbaugh has any insight into the liberal mindset. He (like almost all media pundits on both sides) employs ad hominem and straw man arguments against his ideological foes. They are fallacious but oh-so-much-fun. If he didn’t, no one would listen to him. That’s part of his shtick. And it works.

      See Terry Mattingly’s recent column on Limbaugh:

      1. I think you have conceded to the left in your definition of the “right wing.” If you are referring in part to the Religious Right, that is the somewhat amorphous designation placed on Christian conservatives by the left. Nobody has ever been able to explain, to my satisfaction, who belongs to this “scary” society and why, in their purported ascendancy, “they” did not succeed in turning this land into some sort of Margaret-Atwood-paranoid-dystopic nightmare, if indeed a theocracy was their aim, as I heard commentators say so often during the 90’s.

        Do you listen much to Limbaugh? Some of the points brought out in that column are points where I differ from him. I’ve heard him criticized as a “Rousseau-ian” conservative, and that’s a fair criticism. However, I don’t believe this critic covers the entirety of his views. Most liberatarians I read, for instance, are not pro-life or pro-traditional marriage. I consider Thomas Sowell a conservative, and, from my observation, Limbaugh’s economic views seem to follow the same general arc.

        The biggest indicator of corruption, in my eyes, is the *willingness* of business to take government handouts. Government’s willingness to accrue power to itself is a given, something our founders understood perfectly, hence the checks & balances. Limbaugh is correct that we should be more suspicious of the government’s centralizing impulse than of corruption in the business world, because in a truly free market, we can choose to reject the corruption (and we have just laws to deal with it in its proper context), but in a more centralized economy, we cannot–it becomes endemic our governing structures, and who among us has the power to indict the government and bring it to justice, when it finally wields such power in our lives?

      2. And what is a “free economy based on community oriented businesses?” You mean, no Wal-Mart? How is it a free economy where national chains are banned, overregulated, or otherwise “discouraged” by the government?

  2. Oh, and we cannot underestimate the role of the enemy of our souls in encouraging us to self-deception, which is the hardest deception to break. As my husband has said, a person who is merely deceived can be enlightened, but a person who continues to lie to himself places himself beyond help and redemption.

  3. Okay, I checked out the Chalcedon Foundation. I didn’t recognize the name, but I was introduced to reconstructionism at Regent, so I am somewhat familiar with Rushdoony, and I have found that the vast majority of evangelicals do NOT fall into this camp, yet evangelicalism (or any orthodox form of Christianity) is routinely lumped into it by its political enemies. As I said, the “right wing” or “Religious Right” description shifts and changes according to the needs of those using it, depending on how much fear and paranoia needs to be trumped up against their political opponents. E.g., to be pro-life is to want to “push your religion down others’ throats,” & etc.

    1. meldenius

      As a policy debate instructor, I always told my teams to avoid getting bogged down by wrangling over definitions.

      My terms may be a little sloppy. See this article:

      By “right wing” I meant what this article and others would call the “far right.” I don’t believe the Christian Right is “far right, nor do I think it to be as homogeneous a group as others might claim, nor do I think it represents a terribly wide range of issues, which is why I think so many members are fond of the mega-personalities who supply them with target-rich subject matter for their angst.

      I would differ with the article in clinging to my point with regard to the far right and the far left, and that point would be that *both* believe that certain problems are solved by central government interventionist policy. That’s why I mentioned the Reconstructionists. I point also to the numb-skulled and utterly unconstitutional implementation of “No Child Left Behind”–a brain child from the right.

      Free commerce, Adam Smith argued, must take into account the needs of the community. This is a tenet of his that is largely overlooked by laissez-faire proponents. A wonderful book by Christopher Lasch “The True and Only Heaven” traces how this was the central theme of early American industry and commerce. Free commerce, by itself, is not an “institution” to be preserved by Conservatism. But business that partners with other valued institutions are certainly worthy of such preservation (from a truly Conservative standpoint).

      It’s also important to recognize, as the article points out, that American Conservatism fits under Liberalism on the historic scale, and that many of the policy and value debates we have in the U.S. are really between variations of Classical Liberalism.

      On Rush–I don’t see him, by his lifestyle or his personal preferences–defending family and community with anything more than lip service. I used to listen to him all the time (quite a lot when I was at Regent). Used to watch him on TV. But his showmanship got old for me long before his personal life and racist remarks got him in public trouble.

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