Reading diverse literature, with varying points of view but emanating from a moral universe that is basically decent, is one way of challenging your beliefs. And when they do get challenged, it is an uncomfortable but important place to be in.
Terry Eagleton is one of my favourite writers. He is witty, has a charming sense of that good’ol British humour, uses the dialectical apparatus and is a traditional (read theoretical) Marxist. So by taking up his books, I am looking for home-turf-reading to strengthen my own arguments and seeking further clarity of my world view that is fundamentally based on the motto of equality-for-all.
The last book I read by Terry Eagleton, which was less of a book but a long essay, was On Evil. And no prizes for guessing as to what this work was about; it was on evil but with a dialectical treatment of several literary (and literal) villains. This writer is one of the best critics around and I am always awestruck at his literary dissertations.
Anyway, coming to the point of challenging my beliefs, in passing, Terry Eagleton invokes a French saying “To understand all is to forgive all” and attributes it as the philosophy of the softhearted pseudo liberals (while he does not use the term pseudo, the connotations run clear all through the text). I continued reading… after about one complete sentence, I got back and re-read it. I stopped. Closed the book for then and started winding down a mental debate that has not subsided since (from about three months ago).
Because, I flaunt myself to be a liberal — at least in the sense of the aforementioned “understand to forgive” doctrine — and take pride in my ability to disentangle individuals from their circumstances using empathetic understanding of their social conditioning and a critical analysis of the systemic constraints. This does irk several of the people who are close to me as I tend to think of crises caused by individuals in some abstract sense, get agitated at the “system” or some larger socio-economic forces at play and do not direct this anger necessarily towards the seemingly perpetrators. I must argue that this paradigm has helped me immensely. It forms a basis for growing tolerant and not succumbing to what I call the “attribution bias”, which is more commonly known as the sampling or selection bias. Wherein, a handful of non-representative samples end up defining the properties of a larger population. In a social setting, this is the equivalent of statements like “women don’t make for good leaders” or “all Muslims terrorists” which are beliefs, maintained not so uncommonly by many across the political spectrum, serving as a grim manifestation of “attribution bias”. And focusing on individuals makes for a fertile ground for such myopic beliefs. Also, most endorsing such views tend to miss the core issues or get misdirected by staying focused on the individuals.
So, what do I do of the accusation that Terry Eagleton levies on liberals who want to forgive by seeking understanding?
It is complicated.
The context in which he writes is that while an individual might be pushed to the brim of desperation that drives him/her to commit an act of violence or “crime”, there is also a large and certain role played by the individual’s creative abilities — the personality — that parses it. That is, pure evil which exists just for the purpose of destruction is manifested by the individual. While many of us might be able to suppress or act on these drives (thanks to our personalities and conditioning), some might not only give in to these impulses but also use their individual creative faculty to make it heinous — more closer to pure evil. In instances like this, the individual is unforgivable and there can be no amount of understanding that can help one forgive the violations. And claimants who can forgive acts of pure evil are, according to Terry, the softhearted liberals holding a seriously flawed dogma.
Now, I certainly do not think individuals are absolved of all responsibilities of their actions. I only think that other than the individual’s volition there might also be larger forces at play and those must also be acknowledged. The spectrum of human behaviour and experiences are so diverse and complicated, these dogmas might evolve and adapt. For now, I still seek understanding of all; if I will end up forgiving all is something I don’t/can’t know.
Thanks for a provocative read Terry!