Over a week ago, I tweeted on acting and thinking well in a fraught political context. Twitter is a limiting medium for extended trains of thought, so, in response to a request and for the sake of a broader readership, I thought I’d gather together and slightly elaborate upon my tweets in a post.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to resist the natural human tendency to reactive engagement, when all our media are fueling it.
Reactive people seek—and often establish—enemies to define themselves over against, rather than defining themselves on their own terms. Everything gets caught up in escalating games of ‘us vs. them’: people begin to attack everything their opponents stand for, while becoming ever more like them in their methods, behaviour, and disposition.
If we are playing the reactivity game, we will be making things worse. It doesn’t matter if we are ‘opposed to fascism,’ for instance: if we are acting and thinking reactively, we will be giving strength to it.
President Trump is a cautionary example of how the reactivity game leads people to assume the defence of the indefensible. Instead of a clear and uncompromising word of truth addressed to the evils of racism and white supremacy within society, he has pursued the path of reactive recriminations. His judgment in the matter has seemingly been undermined by the partisan dynamics of the present conflicts, by the fact that there is a perceived alignment between him and the identitarian right and that the radical left strongly opposes him. This has led him to measure groups with whom some of his sympathies lie by the behaviour of those groups that are hostile to them—and him—and to use such comparisons—‘many sides’—to exculpate or mitigate guilt.
Of course, in such situations each side will invariably perceive the other as the wrongful aggressor and truth and justice will wind up as the victims. Even when it may be granted that there is blame enough to go around, when we measure ourselves by and compare ourselves with each other, we will routinely avoid accepting the responsibility that belongs to us. When all that we are concerned about is appearing more righteous in our own eyes than our opponents appear to us, we have abandoned any actual commitment to righteousness.
The fact that extremists on the left tar all conservatives with the brush of racism and fascism shouldn’t make us at all sympathetic to actual racist and fascist movements. If it does, we are just playing reactive politics. If we permit our position to be determined by polar opposition to our ideological antagonists—by a fixation with some demonized opponents—we can thoughtlessly become their facilitating and validating obverse.
The rise of neo-Nazi movements is a serious threat to society. We must clearly present them as completely outside of the bounds of social acceptability, but we must do so non-reactively. We must never fight fire with fire.
We should condemn the lawless vigilantes on the left, in Antifa and other such movements. We must do so because we are people on the side of justice, truth, and law, not because we hold any sympathies for racists and neo-Nazis.
In such days we will be challenged to respond to the ‘which side are you on?’ question by voicing a commitment to one or other polarized party in an increasingly belligerent political and social environment. The situation, it is assumed, is one of a few directly opposed sides, with no real ground for neutrality. Anyone not aligning themselves with the anti-fascist left, for instance, will be reckoned to have chosen their side by virtue of their failure to take a moral stand when the stakes could not be higher.
Yet the common assumption that is operative here is that moral engagement in a situation can only take the form of alignment with one party or other in their reactive antagonism with each other. This assumption is widely held and consequently has a superficial appearance of truth, as both engagement and disengagement from moral issues in society typically proceeds according to it. Either people will engage by assuming a reactive alignment with a party, or they will, by washing their hands of the situation and wishing a pox on both of the antagonistic houses, disengage from the moral issues entirely.
What has been neglected is the possibility of what Edwin Friedman has called ‘well-differentiated’ engagement, of non-reactive moral concern and involvement and responsible and morally invested agency that isn’t merely driven by emotional instinct and herd dynamics. The person who has such self-differentiation can resist the emotional contagion that moves throughout the social organism and makes it function like a stampeding herd. They can take a strong stance without simply aligning with a side. They possess the ability to respond—‘responsibility’—because they have overcome their instinct to react.
This does not mean that those invested in matters of moral concern in a society should not form groups and alliances to pursue shared interests, nor that all parties are reactive in character. However, it does mean that we must be vigilant against the reactivity that commonly operates in such situations, the reactivity that blinds us to the truth on the side of our opponents or to the errors on our own, the reactivity that tends to treat truth and justice as if they were the possession of a particular side, rather than a higher standard by which we all must be tested.
For instance, in the current situation we must be able to recognize the many ways in which our own positions and camps are deeply compromised by historic and ongoing forms of injustice and oppression. We must learn to tell the truth about ourselves, without becoming the abject playthings of every accusation of guilt that is cast in our direction. We can only do this well as we resist reactivity.
We must recognize truths even when they are found in extremist camps and not let truth become the victim of our partisanship. For instance, there are statues that really must be torn down, and we can and should say this while also resisting the broader iconoclasm of many on the extreme left.
Reactivity further robs us of our ability to respond, of the essential interval preceding action that is required for reflection, meditation, and deliberation. As we function in terms of reactive antagonisms, we can also be blinded to the fact that many of our social problems are most prudently tackled, not by raising the level of our political conflicts, but by the intelligent pursuit of non-antagonistic means or the shrewd use of pressure at carefully chosen points. The reactive person, thoughtlessly reacting to social stimuli, cannot appreciate that few social problems are best addressed through the exertion of a directly opposing force, indeed that such an approach typically exacerbates our difficulties.
Nor does this mean that our visceral reaction to perceived injustice in society isn’t important or something to which we must attend. Such a reaction can often give us a pronounced sense of injustice, allowing us to enjoy some measure of an instinctual attunement to good and evil. As something that informs and colours our reasonable response to evil, it is immensely valuable and important. However, the power of such reactions, when poorly managed, can be a very dangerous obstacle to right and just action. It can overwhelm our ability to determine justice and a wise response, producing a profound moral shortsightedness in the emotionally reactive person.
Resisting reactivity isn’t just something that we can lightly will ourselves into, especially in the age of social media. As we are brought ever more close together, it becomes harder and harder to have robust self-defined identities of our own, rather than the sort of fragilized, polarized, and reactive identities which are tossed to and fro on the waves of mass emotion and reaction.
If you want to be non-reactive, you will need to commit yourself to practices protecting you from it. Firmly ground yourself in non-reactive contexts. Do most of your thinking and reading in private and on your own terms, away from the social saturation of online media. Turn off your phone. Set aside time to deliberate, reflect, and meditate. Form deep real world friendships with people who disagree with you. Commit yourself to local community work and volunteering, where common goods beyond partisanship are often apparent. Pray for your neighbours and pray for our leaders. Recognize any addiction to media that keeps you anxious, or which gives you the thrill of shallow emotion. Learn to recognize the presence of acedia in your life. Don’t mistake merely online community for the real thing.
We face immense social dangers and evils in our day and age. We have many battles to fight. The most important one remains the battle for ourselves.