I came across a book of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison recently. A major figure of resistance to the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in 1943, and executed in 1945, mere weeks before the fall of Berlin. This passage I’ve quoted below seemed apt to our era.
Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. You can protest against evil, you can unmask it or prevent it by force. Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction, for it always makes men uncomfortable, if nothing worse. There is no defense against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent. And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not take much to make him aggressive. Hence folly requires much more cautious handling than evil. We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.
To deal adequately with folly it is essential to recognize it for what it is. This much is certain, it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect.
There are men of great intellect who are fools, and men of low intellect who are anything but fools, a discovery we make to our surprise as a result of particular circumstances. The impression we derive is that folly is acquired rather than congenital; it is acquired in certain circumstances where men make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We observe further that folly is less common in the unsociable or the solitary than in individuals or groups who are inclined or condemned to sociability. From this it would appear that folly is a sociological problem rather than one of psychology. It is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances upon men, a psychological by-product of definite external factors. On closer inspection it would seem that any violent revolution, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind. Indeed, it would seem to be almost a law of psychology and sociology. The power of one needs the folly of the other. It is not that certain aptitudes of men, intellectual aptitudes for instance, become stunted or destroyed. Rather, the upsurge of power is so terrific that it deprives men of an independent judgement, and they give up trying–more or less unconsciously–to assess the new state of affairs for themselves. The fool can often be stubborn, but this must not mislead us into thinking he is independent. One feels somehow, especially in conversation with him, that it is impossible to talk to the man himself, to talk to him personally. Instead, one is confronted with a series of slogans watchwords, and the like, which have acquired power over him. He is under a curse, he is blinded, his very humanity is being prostituted and exploited. Once he has surrendered his will and become a mere tool, there are no lengths of evil to which the fool will not go, yet all the time he is unable to see that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation of humanity, which can do irreparable damage to the human character.
But it is just at this point that we realize that the fool cannot be saved by education. What he needs is redemption. There is nothing else for it. Until then it is no earthly good trying to convince him by rational argument. In this state of affairs we can well understand why it is no use trying to find out what ‘the people’ really think, and why this question is also so superfluous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly. As the Bible says, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. In other words, the only cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man to live as a responsible person in the sight of God. But there is a grain of consolation in these reflections on human folly. There is no reason for us to think that the majority of men are fools under all circumstances. What matters in the long run is whether our rulers hope to gain more from the folly of men, or from their independence of judgement and their shrewdness of mind.
Of course, I view this through the lens of climate politics, which involves a handful of pathologically greedy people who have convinced a large part of our population of a totalizing and devastating falsehood. There are plenty of “smart”, clever, educated people who deny or discount the danger of rapid global warming. Some of them write for op-ed pages; some of them make money on investments that are imperiled by global warming; some simply believe what they’re told by right-wing media; some don’t think much about it at all. All of them, and us, and especially all of our children, will suffer. No one here gets out alive.
But we need a correct diagnosis of what we’re dealing with. It’s not stupidity. It’s not even evil of an outwardly malicious sort. Before you get to evil, there’s the power of rationalization; the turning off of independent thought; the comfort of social proof. There are presentiments of Orwell here.
Lest we be too smug, folly is universally human, and rife on the left as well. Since our media landscape is Twitter and Facebook now, we are in constant danger of the easy satisfactions of the snappy slogan; the thumbs-up; the retweet; the dank meme; the sick burn. We are urged to use socially-preferred language, rather than our own words, to show our solidarity with good causes. There’s a “political correctness” for whatever ideological pigeonhole you choose — including the rejection of “political correctness”.
I’m reminded of this rule-of-thumb by historian Timothy Snyder, from his “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America,” November 21, 2016
6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the Internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
I suppose it’s ironic that I’m quoting this, rather than paraphrasing or even critiquing. In any event, folly involves the stowing-away of our own critical capacity, in the pursuit of what feels powerful via social affirmation. Saying things in our own words is a powerful exercise in critical thinking. Even if we agree in broad strokes (“that thing you think everyone is saying”), we retain our individual sense of discernment: a is not b is not c is not d; 2+2 is close to 5 but definitely not 5; certain things are necessary but not sufficient; correlation is not causation; etc. This is messier than lockstep agreement, but critical to truth and therefore governance. Governance that stems from lies is doomed to tragedy.
And what Bonhoeffer refers to as “redemption” is really an awareness of one’s imperfection of understanding. A Christian stands in judgment against the absolute truth of God. A secular homo politicus keeps his BS self-detector on.
It is hard enough to clear-up and make-up one’s own mind, much less to adjust one’s own opinion to the imperfectly-perceived and fickle prejudices of the mass of others.
In short, I think that’s why a blog is still a useful thing.