Sunday, February 15, 2015

Caught a scent IV

I've given you an overview of Yang Huilin's argument that the Cultural Revolution poses challenges for the ethical rebuilding of China, more specifically, and for ethics more generally. He suggests that the nature of the Cultural Revolution's evil is overlooked if not indeed ignored by the prevalent ways of thinking about it in China, from the "scar literature" of survivors to the self-exculpation of terrorized intellectuals to the equivocations of revisionists who see the  CR as having had good as well as bad sides and effects. He characterizes these three views with terms taken from an essay by Belgian Catholic ethicist Didier Pollefeyt: "diabolization," "banalization," and "apology for evil."

From reading Yang's piece you might not realize that Pollefet not only shares Yang's criticism of such views, but offers a diagnosis for them. Ultimately, Pollefeyt argues, a discourse of justice will not only distort the horrors of Auschwitz but continue to push people into these moral evasions - and perhaps back into the evils in question. The severity of this dilemma is what leads Pollefeyt to suggest a new view of the power of forgiveness. The paper Yang refers to is called “Ethics, Forgiveness and the Unforgivable after Auschwitz.”

Perhaps because the original context of his essay was one in which which Pollefeyt's views will have been known, Yang doesn't describe them. He also doesn't mention that Pollefeyt, right from the start, makes clear he thinks forgiveness for Auschwitz an absurdity. He thinks it unhelpful to declare things "unforgivable a priori," but once the conditions for genuine contrition and forgiveness are spelled out, it's clear that much is "unforgivable a posteriori." Nobody can speak for the dead. His concern is with "forgiveness after Auschwitz," and involves ways in which people who were in various ways involved in the Holocaust, either in person or through a kind of intergenerational association, might reform themselves through contrition before victims in the present, and for the future. Writing more than half a century after the end of the Shoah, Pollefeyt's context seems to be the Jewish-Christian dialogue, his hope that Jews will recognize the sincerity of young Catholics like himself who feel called to a kind of repentance on behalf of the Church in which they make a home for its involvement in the history of anti-Semitism.

Given this rather particular context it's unsurprising that Yang has nothing to say about it. But I still wonder that he finds nothing of use in Pollefeyt's larger positive argument. Pollefeyt, too, turns to what Yang would call "theological ethics" in the face of the collapse of secular ethics. Pollefeyt responds to those post-Holocaust theologies which argue that "after Auschwitz" Christian theology must confine itself to ethics, its dismal record of justifying evils definitively exposed by its failures during the Shoah. The problem, Pollefeyt observes, is that a discourse of judgment in the face of "unforgivable" evils bears similarities to the very systems it seeks to condemn: in the fight against fascism, one can become very fascist oneself (125).

As he parses the problems with "diabolization," "banalization" and "apology of evil" Pollefeyt seeks to understand what motivates those who articulate these views. Victims might need to feel an absolute divide between them and their victimizers; perpetrators might feel they were doing no worse than other people under difficult circumstances; interpreters more generally might suggest that people knowingly did evil but under the impression that it was an evil necessary to a compelling greater good. Pollefeyt's accounts here are as much psychological (or perhaps pastoral) as ethical.

Pollefeyt finishes his argument by offering his own account of evil as a form of self-deception: good people who, at one level, know part of their lives involves evil, but find ways of hiding this reality from themselves as a way of maintaining a semblance of moral wholeness. Self-deception is notoriously hard to explain, Pollefeyt concedes, but only such an account of evil allows him to suggest that people involved in evils might need and want to come to terms with their failure, might want to repent and reform. The problem with the three other views is that they identify the agent with his act, and, in absolutizing condemnation or exoneration, push people defensively farther into self-deception. An agent incapable also of good has no space to reestablish herself. The shared cry "never again!" after the Holocaust demands that we not just mourn the victims of the past but work to spare the victims of the future, and for this we need to acknowledge the moral complexity which leads people into various sorts of participation in evils (to borrow a word from Marilyn McCord Adams' Horrendous Evils). In particular we need to recognize that too simplistic accounts of evil will make a recurrence of evils more, not less, likely.

The argument isn't without its problems but it's very interesting. Why isn't Yang interested in it? Surely there are people who suffer from the consequences of "self-deception" about their innocence or culpability in the Cultural Revolution. (I'm thinking about a particular scene in Peter Hessler's magnificent Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present.) Indeed, the absence of a sufficiently subtle language for understanding - and acknowledging - this surely drives them into the pernicious and dangerous simplifications Yang condemns

I don't know but I have a hunch. Look at this passage from Pollefeyt:

Speaking of forgiveness with a certain ethical quality always expects from the culprit (and from the victim) a moment (or a process) of reform. We understand ‘reform’ as breaking through the self-deception which is at the basis of evil. When evil is openly confessed, against all self-defensive closedness, the conditions that are usually linked with forgiveness will be realised. Because reform breaks open the closed compartments of his existence, man can find a new starting-point in his most fundamental connection with the good. And when the fundamental ethical dynamics of his existence are set free, he will want be be willing to agree with and fulfil the essential conditions in order to come to an authentic forgiveness. (150-51)

Obvious differences aside, this sounds not a little like the language of the "thought reform" which was the centerpiece of the grotesque show-trials of the Cultural Revolution. "Bad elements" were trotted out, night after night, to submit to public "struggle" sessions, beaten into writing and reading confessions which were never accepted - although people were also always forced to thank the magnanimous Party for helping them break open their closedness. This practice, which soon turned on its own leaders, had been part of the experience of idealistic Communists struggling with the wrong family backgrounds since Yan'an - not to mention the daily torture of legions of "Rightists" and "capitalist roaders" sent to camps for reform through labor and study. The culture of forced confession and never fully-granted forgiveness - a farce if it weren't so deadly - poisoned everyone morally, could make perpetrators more cruel (to show others, and themselves, that they were trustworthy) and could break victims (who were required to "help" their fellows address the falseness of their confessions by denouncing them). The only release from this collective moral insanity may have been a blanket "negation" of the whole period as one from which nothing edifying could be learned.

I can see how Pollefeyt's account might suddenly have lost its appeal to Yang (who suffered through the Cultural Revolution as a young man). The Cultural Revolution experience seems to teach that, if forgiveness is to have any constructive role, if genuine moral reform is to be made possible, they can't be left to human devices and processes (and it can't happen in the absence of the pursuit of responsibility and, where possible, punishment and restitution.) From the crooked timber of humanity, what straight thing could be built - or even imagined? True moral rebuilding must, Yang argues, be rooted in an awareness of, and responsibility to, "the Wholly Other," external and extrinsic to man (73).

Much more could be said (I'm less drawn to this "Wholly Other" than this merely "cultural" Christian, for instance) but I think I'll leave it here for now. The post-Holocaust post-Cultural Revolution dialogue hasn't happened yet; it might be good for all of us if it did.

Didier Pollefeyt, “Ethics, Forgiveness and the Unforgivable after Auschwitz,” 
in Incredible Forgiveness: Christian Ethics between Fanaticism and Reconciliation,
ed. Didier Pollefeyt (Leuven: Peeters, 2004), 121-59

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