Our world resembles a chaotic ocean. An ocean of messages, of worldly conceptions, of images, of discordant voices proclaiming their truths… We swim in the generalized confusion; the time of great models of univocal readings is over. All — whether the uniformity of the society of not so long ago, the monolithism of ideologies (right versus left, Catholics against communists), the rigidity of lifestyle standards —, all is being swept away. But is it to make way for the emergence of a great dream, of mutual tolerance and explorative curiosity? Nothing is less sure. Following the closed and demoded society of the past is an inhuman world, a world of dissolving “globalization”.
The nightmare has already begun. The promised opening is happening under the high patronage of corporations and their standardization: brands, ads, high-paced work life and crowded commutes that encroach upon our lives. Instead of having more and more free time to dream, to discover the cultures of the world, to self-reflect and philosophize, our minds are overtaken by sad passions: the anxiety over tomorrow, rumors of attacks and wars, the stigmatization of others, the weariness of wandering through inhuman megalopolises, the difficulty of loving.
Myths have a tough lot: rather than fraternity, we witness collective celebrations that are more or less artificial, — big football matches, ceremonies of commemoration, which don’t prevent “community” hatreds from growing day after day. Even the comedians no longer criticize the most powerful, the sportive, the bosses of the underworld, the lazy journalists, the archaic religious devotee, the entrepreneurs too sure of themselves, but instead content themselves with easy imprecations, with a facile laugh at the losers of the competition. As for the media, far from diversifying itself, it merely passes on the watchwords of the powers at be; and we never see a widespread diffusion of alternative information. The clash of civilizations is prepared in the kitchen, with right-wing extremists and fundamentalists sharpening their knives to enjoy the “inevitable”.
Two reactions can be distinguished:
Dissolution of the worker’s life. Work, transportation and consumption, constitute the wheel of an infernal cycle, wherefrom all transcendence has been chased. Are we not close to a new servitude, in Marx’s sense of comparing the wage system to slavery? Modern man, carried away by a chaos of impressions and contradictory ideas, does not believe, does no longer pray nor act, in the name of a great cause; his life is tossed about in the wait for oblivion. Everything’s worth the same, nothing’s better than anything else, rap is as beautiful as Bach, graffiti is the equivalent of Eischer design, civilizations are so equal that we dare not criticize any aspect of them. Discernment — ordered and distinguishing thought — passes for racism. This is the age of relative reasoning. In reaction to this interior softening, identities find their old orbits.
Identity has several forms. In rejection of generalized merchandizing, it’s an attachment to traditions or to a region. It may become a desire to remain among one’s own, in one’s community, preserving the religion of one’s parents. So what’s the problem? The world to come is so frightening, that a bit of conservatism can pass be like a breath of fresh air. But this can lead to an affirmation of superiority of one’s nation, religion or lifestyle, over all competing ones. And then the tribal mindset sets in, even if the tribe is as big as the dominant religion or political party.
Is there no other possible choice than an indefinite oscillation between the rise of total relativism and the over-assertion of identity? Isn’t this the illusion of fatality, that interior abandon, that surrendering before the hour and the day?
The Way of Complexity
In To enter the 21st century, Edgar Morin proposes the tools he considers needed to deconstruct this game. Instead of drowning in too much information, we can learn to select and organize the contradictory particulars. To succeed in combining a structured vision of the world and the openness that questions it. Morin charts the consequences of the great ideological blindness of the 20th century. After nearly all the intelligentsia was fooled into compromising their principles to Stalinism, it would be impossible to ignore this, and move on as if nothing had happened. But of course it isn’t a question of foundering in repentance. What difference would it make to repent over the Nazi death camps or the Vichy government in trying to wash our hands of the anti-Semitic aggression in modern France? In Europe, repentance has become a vehicle for the clean conscience of the masses. But what’s needed is in fact a radical overhaul of our ways of thinking, in order to trace the error to its origin.
The challenge facing us is easy to summarize: to know how to see and think through one’s thought. The problem comes down to a certain number of attitudes that permit those who are wrong (and we are all wrong from time to time) to reject too easily the snippets of truth that can be found all around them.
That which I can see, feel and verify myself is very limited; I therefore have to put to the test my image of the world through information:
“The appearance and development of the media have arranged on the planet a network of information that has extraordinarily increased the possibilities of knowledge of the world and its future. It is remarkable that it has been progress in the diffusion of information and knowledge which has provoked a progression in disinformation and ignorance. […] There is nothing more misleading than the innumerable documentaries filmed (in the 1970s) about China, Siberia, Cuba, under the auspices of the eyewitness camera. […] We see then that the progression of lies in the field of information is the response to the potential progress of truth that the development of the media made possible.” (page 51)
Essentially, Morin shows that “the ‘right’ information can be, with difficulty, authenticated by the receiver of the media. Neither image nor testimony is in itself absolute guarantees. The ‘right’ information can never be defined a priori. What can be defined, are the conditions for the appearance of the right information, that is to say the conditions of competition/ antagonism of the organs of information.”
It is necessary then, in order to access the real, to correct constantly one’s information by other information coming from places that are contradictory and antagonistic. This is the consequence which leads us to an “active tolerance” in the search of multiple truths.
Thus, we see that there is a connection between fascism and Stalinism of every sort, and the lack of active curiosity. Throughout several decades, too many progressive people did not want to make enquiries about the Russian goulaks or the Maoist regime. They were taking action; why waste time asking questions? All the more so since, in general, the inconvenient information was on the side of “the enemy”. Across the Network of Active Tolerance, I wish to gather together individuals that consider this attitude obsolete. We must come back an enlightened political idea. And affirm that the world can be changed, in opposition to the economic Moloch. Accept the way to complexity. Therefore let’s go on principle to see the doubtful people, the suspicious groups, — and not in aggressive state of mind, but in order to listen to them, to see for ourselves what they are, to discover a little about the interior of their visions of the world. I’m not saying that one must spend one’s life doing so, but to not dedicate at least some of one’s time, especially before committing oneself to something, is to reject all rationality and to act without knowing the whole story.
In reality, such an approach as I am suggesting is obvious. But we have not succeeded in incorporating it into our lives. It would offer us wings of freedom, but would also risk plunging us into the vertigo of relativism. What realizations could we expect from it? What risks, what promises, would it bring? Whether one wants it or not, it’s only by the individuals and collectives who have followed this path of active tolerance that new forms of action will be possible, without risk of latent fascism and avoiding too many perverse effects.
1st realization: discovering our ignorance!
When we begin to live in active tolerance, we meet in different domains information that is of extreme interest, and that is restricted to a certain environment. Each of us has his resources: this might be a new therapy, an association, a privileged place of communication…
Thus, well before the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, there were humanitarians who tried to sound the alarm: they clearly recognized the early warning signs of the massacres. By definition, the media at large informs after the fact, when the events have attained a gigantic scale.
The pertinent information must necessarily be found at an earlier stage, before it is spectacular, when it has yet an anticipatory, preventative value.
In every setting there is a piece of truth, and some important facts to gather. Especially important are those facts which can cause us to question our most pregnant beliefs. How can we be sure that in the ocean of facts, there are not those that would make our most established conceptions obsolete?
This poses problems for our commitments. How do we know if the association we support is not a gang of swindlers? The same goes for political and religious movements. The response is simple: the revelatory information exists, but obviously not within the group in question! It is only by going to see its opposition, who we judge as our “enemies”, that we may learn a perhaps disagreeable, but useful truth.
2nd realization: Contradictory truths.
In each domain, we will bring ourselves into contact with multiple and irreconcilable points of view. There are dozens of different therapy centers in our country, — who’s right? Each method brings with it experimental proofs and interesting arguments, and each has its defenders; — even the most outlandish theories.
Not only do possible options abound, they clash with one another: each group covers it own skin, and denounces the dangers that exist in the other movements. And here again, the criticisms each group formulates against the others are almost never without some interest; it is not wise to ignore them.
Every group holds its truth, and this truth excludes all other possible conceptions. This more or less not undisclosed attitude can be found even in people who claim to represent scientific doctrines. Is it not extraordinary that people in such opposition to one another should not doubt themselves in the slightest? How could we be expected not to doubt them?
This clash is not confined to the level of ideas. Many religious and political movements coexist with, in the background, an implicit contempt for the “truth” of one’s neighbors. Can this last? Will the cold neutrality last forever? Our society seems to be at a crossroads. It is not certain that our cities will see their various “clans” rubbing elbows peacefully for much longer. And yet, it would be so lovely to bring about real miscegenation, stimulating and new! But we need something more than just pious vows. A simple, soft “tolerance” is likely not to last, but it is not the ideal in the first place. Aside from a sort of tacit pact of non-aggression, can we propose a different vision of life, that would make this situation positive? Our attitude must be transformed at the root, if we want to take advantage of the possibilities of the modern world.
When one contemplates each small group, which bustles about in its corner, with its certitudes and ambitions to convert the others, one feels a strange sadness. They reflect one another. Their clashing together cannot be ended: they oppose each other, each with as much logic, and the same ideological solidarity that is going to fragment the human community completely… We must get out of this game! Once we’ve contemplated this spectacle, it is no longer possible to enter into a similar process.
3rd realization: we have power!
Let’s forget about comfortably dwelling on the dark side. Nothing is preventing us from creating our life. What will we discover, in plunging into this complex and contradictory world, that’s crowded by so much diversity? We can increase our possibilities for experiences and meetings. Let live miscegenation: everyone can make his or her own cocktail.
In metaphysics, it is easy to escape the simple alternative “the God of a monotheism, or else atheism”, in order to discover Catharism, Buddhism or Druidism, Asiatic cults or UFO witness groups…
For vacation, why go sit on the beach; we can just as well restore our energy on an archeological site, or in a Zen monastery! But that’s enough examples.
We must hurry! No one is out of the danger of explosion that menaces society. The flight into intoxicating experiences, in the private world, comes simply from an erroneous and more or less inhibited belief. We’ve heard it before, people don’t believe that they can influence the course of society, or modify the sacrosanct “laws” of the economy.
By discovering the vast array of little known experiences and new theories, the individual rediscovers his own power — over his life, as we have seen, — and over the collective group. For everyone can see that solutions exist, and how these can already be applied, — here some Muslim women create jobs by opening a restaurant, and there some parents and children gather to create their own school… And we mustn’t forget the S.E.L. — Systems of Local Exchange — which, under our eyes, are founding a counter society that functions by barter, exchange and conviviality. All these small-scaled revolutions give us hope, and confidence. They show the power of common people, even small numbers of them. A network requires only a few people, and a few posters! Let’s keep in mind that great institutions have often been born from the impetus of active minorities.