Genocide Escaping The Ambivalence


Being What Is Not While Not Being What Is has provoked more than one atrocity. The atrocity to end all atrocities didn’t happen. However, the doomsday cloak during the Cuban Missile Crisis hit 11:59 and as one of the adolescent boys attending a sleepover on that critical day, I was the only one in the group worried that I might never see my parents alive again. Back then the possibility of Genocide was a mere button push away. According to the two authors cited below there are good reasons to believe that in the future dehumanizing and immoral behavior will increase, not decrease. Advances in science and technology will not help; in fact, in this respect, as the scope of science and technology increases so will the frequency and boundaries of atrocious behavior.

The More Modern Society Attempts To Abolish Ambivalence The More Ambivalence Expands

As The Desire For Exactitude And Discreteness Continues To Departmentalize The World, The More The Ambivalence-Producing-Process Characterizes Modern Society

Ambivalence: The Negative Affect

Weigert (1991: 25) suggests that human beings are prone to ambivalence because primary ambivalence may be understood as an outcome of “an anthropological possibility rooted in a philosophical understanding of the relatively instinctless nature of the human organism.” Ambivalence has also been described by Weigert, as a “cultural pathos,” which, for the most part, gets expressed in terms of the conflicting emotions that are encountered in the daily round of human experience.

In pre-modern societies there were numerous cultural mechanisms that provided a means to escape ambivalence. According to Wiegert (1991: 157), myths, art, and religion were, in past cultures, “more influential in presenting paragons of action for the purpose of channeling contradictory emotions.” It is because, in modern society, the cultural forms of myth, art, and religion have been reduced to a secondary or inferior status, vis-à-vis science and technology, that persons, today, lack the “synthesizing mythopoeic transcendental stories for reconciling their contradictory emotions” (Wiegert, 1991: 157). Thus, for Wiegert, these conflicting emotions have become recognized as a social object, which we have come to know and identify with the word ambivalence.

Ambivalence, as a consequence of a shift in values away from traditional culture to the more modern, digitally based processes of transformation, will increase over time and this, according to Wiegert, is why modernity may be described as a cultural pathos. Modernity, try as it may, will not reconcile this cultural pathos with its rapid colonization of the future. Wiegert (1991: 165) states:

“[I]ts characteristic features, such as science, technology, computer rationality, near instantaneous communication, bio- and material engineering, indeed, any form of functional rationality cannot resolve ambivalence. These forms of rationality generate further ambivalence by enlarging the scope of responsibility; entailing more and longer lasting consequences, both foreseen and unforeseen; and providing no intrinsic values to guide action. In a word, the characteristic institutions of modern society are the driving forces of an ambivalence-inducing culture.”

Ironically, the more modern society goes about its business of abolishing ambivalence the more ambivalence gets produced.

This negative connection between modernity, culture, and ambivalence is further elaborated in Bauman’s (1991) Modernity And Ambivalence. Bauman, rather than identifying ambivalence with conflicting emotions, as is the case with Weigert, focuses more on the symbolic aspect of ambivalence. Ambivalence emanates from the human being’s capacity and need for symbolic expression. According to Bauman (1991: 1):

“[A]mbivalence, the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category, is a language-specific disorder: a failure of the naming (segregating) function that language is meant to perform. The main symptom of disorder is the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions.”

Ambivalence, in this sense, becomes a side-product of the desire to classify. As the desire to classify breaks out into the language of certainty and reasoned justification, the world becomes departmentalized. As the desire for ever more exactitude and discreteness continues to departmentalize the world, more ambivalence gets produced and this ambivalence-producing process is what characterizes modernity.

Floating Responsibilities, Purposeful Action, And Misplaced Moral Principles

New Technologies Produce More And Longer Lasting Consequences, Both Seen And Unseen

Bauman traces the modern penchant for division, domination, order, reason-induced artificiality, technology, and the “domain of the experts,” to the over zealous hopes and promises generated at the time of the Enlightenment philosophers. It was this newly discovered “faith in rational thought” that eventually would transform uncertainty into certainty, and, with time and knowledge, transform ambivalence into transparency. Instead, modernity, in its turbulent rush onward, has, according to Bauman (1991: 50), “emancipated purposeful action from moral constraints (in the name of social engineering and the quest for truth), thereby rendering human genocide possible.”

An ambivalence-induced cultural pathos, in its most extreme case, may result in the blurring of boundaries between purposeful action and moral principles. Modernity may not be the sufficient cause of genocide, according to Bauman, but it is its necessary condition. He (Bauman, 1991: 50) states:

“The ability to coordinate human action on a massive scale, a technology that allows one to act effectively at a large distance from the object of action, minute division of labor which allows for spectacular progress in expertise on the one hand and floating of responsibility on the other, accumulation of knowledge incomprehensible to the layman and the authority of science which grows with it, the science-sponsored mental climate of instrumental rationality that allows social-engineering designs to be argued and justified solely in reference to their technical feasibility and availability of ‘under-employed’ resources (all these to be put in service of the relentless lust for order, transparency, unambiguity) are all integral attributes of modernity.”

Weigert, in his discussion on Lifton’s (1986) study of Nazi doctors operating the genocide of the German concentration camps, describes this same set of concerns when he suggests that the act of genocide is an escape from severe ambivalence into a psychological condition where everything is permitted as an expression of one’s “scientific identity”. According to Weigert (1991: 177):

“The Nazi doctors double forth an “Auschwitz self” within whose social world the daily degradation, torture, and murder of thousands of victims not only is acceptable but is transformed into a preferred moral act. The Auschwitz self believes in such contradictory imperatives as ‘therapeutic killing’ that is not in violation of, but demanded by, their identities as doctors.”

As science and technology advance, the scope of individual and collective responsibility becomes blurred. New technologies do not produce intrinsic values to guide action. Rather, new technologies produce more and longer lasting consequences, both seen and unseen; consequently, the more modern society goes about subverting ambivalence through technological progress, the more modern society produces ambivalence. This ambivalence may have, as has been pointed out by both Bauman and Weigert, devastating consequences.

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