Walking the Rift: of Morals, Radical Politics, and Tension | 2022-07-26
Who are you to even think you can know the difference between good and evil?
― In This Moment, Joan of Arc, opening line (spoken)
The way I see it, my arm tattoos go as follows (some are already done, some aren’t, some just might be).
On the right arm, on the inside of my biceps, “skholê” – an Ancient Greek word for leisure, free study, play, which was rigidified and perverted into scholar, school, and such –, there to remind me that I should never accept that academia rips me of my desire for knowledge to turn it into cold, bureaucratic meat. Same arm, on the outter part, lies Eris, goddess of chaos, famous for starting the Trojan war and whom I really see as a catalyst, accelerating the underlying conflicts and tensions into a burst; I’ve chosen that name for myself, too – the third of my new “official” names – because of this. Then, on the last strip of skin available on my left arm, right below my shoulder, in a place I cannot see, I’ll either tattoo a chaotic “queer” or the word “chaos” itself. To be honest, I’m considering tattoing every large-ish area of my arm first, then filling the blanks with “chaos”. I’m not sure I will though, as the Skholê character setting something on fire and the elegant, yet threatening Eris already glimpse that key aspect of instability, tension, and creativity. And on my lower-arm, I think I’ll first tattoo this phrase from one of my favourite In This Moment songs: “Who are you to even think you can know the difference between good and evil?”
On the left arm, though, my tattoos take up quite a different tone. It’s one of my first tattoo projects, yet because it’s so big, I’ve only this year started to get the ink done. On my lower arm, a bramble of branches and leaves, contrasted with deep red flowers. These are Selas flowers, a dark-leaved vine that grow in the shade in the universe of The Kingkiller’s Chronicles, a series of books by Patrick Rothfuss which has been my favourite. Of course, the red on my arms also evoke the Ciridae, a small group of people from the Amyr order that are trusted so completely that whatever actions they take will be deemed just and proportionate. And, still to be tattooed, on my upper-arm the Selas give way to a tower in flames and the words: ivare enim euge – “for the greater good”, the sigil and motto of the order of the Amyr, a morally and historically obscure organisation from the same books that has a reputation for being either blood-thirsted monsters, or some kinds of saints. The Amyr are also part of the Rothfuss universe. Their characterization was heavily influenced by the Templars, an equally questionable and fantasized order afiliated with the Catholic Cburch. Like the Templars, the Amyr are thought to have been “ended” in pyre and court.
If you asked a member of this sacred order, who are you to even think you can know the difference between good and evil?, they would simply say: we are the Amyr. We act towards greater good. We are a compass that always faces North.
Now, of course, there’s controversy around the Amyr – especially as the third and last book, which may contain answers, has been waited for over a decade (and might never get published – at least I have stopped hoping for it). Some think they are fascists. I, on the other hand, think they are social justice activists – or militants, as we’d say in French, encompassing the radicality of the term but rejecting the negative, warmonging feel it has in English.
‘cause here’s the paradox: it is not easy to know the difference between good and evil, not by far. Yet, we must act. We are required to take action. And as we pursue goals in accordance to our values – what we call “good” –, we will make difficult decisions. Some we’ll make knowingly, judging that it is better to jeopardize a few thousand people’s schoolyear than let the public school system be sold over to private interests, or dismantling fossil fuel facilities because forced scarcity beats having no livable planet in a decade (or at least, I wish we’d make that choice). Other decisions we’ll make and find out later that a better course of action was available, or that the inconveniences outweight the benefits. The way I see it, the Amyr are like the most radical anarchists or climate activists, who say: the urgency of the situation requires action, and the uncertainty of its consequences is still a better path than the dire certainty of a changeless future.
So, does it mean that the Amyr are definitely not fascists? That they’re just people who act because actions must be taken? Well… Actual fascists too think they act in defense against a vital threat, they too think action is urgent and necessary and nobody else is gonna do the right thing but them. So it’s definitely not a closing argument, nope. Nope nope.
What then? Does even believing in a “better” world make us alike fascists – as has been the primary rhetoric of the presidential party in France, engaging in shameless confusionism as if leftist politics were comparable to far-right politics? Is there no course of action to be taken, are we supposed to just go with the flow and drift toward our unavoidable destruction? Or, maybe, is it all relative, a mere matter of irreconciliable values and diverse worldviews? Shit, I hope not – however doubtful I am and wary of any truth-sayer, let me never go down the slope of moral relativism. (On a side note, consequentialism is no better – my recent re-reading of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky had me remember how a rationalist utopia can quickly turn into a fascist nightmare – but I won’t elaborate on that here)
So: on the one arm I’ve got chaos, dissent, contradiction, doubt. On the other, moral certainty, some kind of militant absolute, action beyond questioning. What does it mean?
What does it mean?
I’ve said for years my core value is consistency. Not good – though of course I mean to do good –, consistency. I’d define consistency as being in accordance with oneself. A seemingly circular definition, but when I look at it, it quickly dawns on me how excruciatingly difficult it is. It means my actions have to be in accordance with my values – the “lesser” ones, not the core but the content: equality, cooperation.. That sort of things. Yet everyday I participate in capitalism. Everyday I walk by homeless people, apologize and turn my head. Everyday, I don’t sabotage pipelines or key stupid SUVs. Everyday I say mean things about people without considering how they might feel, everyday I fail to consider the systemic reasons why people do harmful things to each other or the environment and I feel anger or spite. Everyday I do or tolerate a hundred things that are contrary to my values, most of them I’m reluctant or unable to admit to others or myself. Everyday I fail at being consistent. Everyday I feel shame (on another side note, I should write about the shame, cause it’s not entirely healthy, as you may guess).
But the shame has its use: it helps me resist the narrative. It helps me resist – though of course I fail, being tied to my own point of view even as I try to take on the perspective of others – seeing myself as “the good guy” (while still managing to not see myself as “bad” altogether, which for me is no less of a challenge). It helps me walk the rift – the gap between nihilism and righteousness, the crack in the world, the seemingly unbridgeable divide between what is and ought to be.
Consistency is an ideal, in the sense of an horizon to pursue knowing it can’t be reached. It’s… a guideline, a direction for action. And knowing we can move on toward it but not reach is, knowing we must always walk the rift, helps balancing the sense of moral absolutism we may feel as activists (or, worse, people who just “know what is good” and can’t seem to actually do anything concrete about it – yes I’m being judgemental here, but don’t believe I absolve myself from this all-too-common sin) vs. the self-centredness of relativism.
Why am I saying all this? Why am I writing of tattoos and fictional characters and radical politics? I don’t know. Well – because I don’t know, actually. I’m sharing the tension, inviting you to look into it, to stare at it. We are neither good nor evil. Our actions aren’t. We aren’t gods, and so most of our boldest actions – the most important ones, the most decisive, those that might shift the tide of life or world – require us to take a bet (make a Bayesian inference perhaps, though I did say I wouldn’t write on this now). And we never truly know whether the decision was righter or wronger. Even afterwards – I simply don’t believe we can assert “okay, this was actually bad, here’s what we should have done instead”, because the world is too complex for us to implement all its parameters into a Most Rational ChoiceTM.
So, essentially, I want to warn you about being right. We never stop learning, and we should never believe we are in the right. Some activist/militant circles are very punitive about not mastering the language or not being where it sits to be at a given time. Each advance in understanding oppression is considered definite and definitive, as if we’d reached a tipping point, over and over again with no space for criticism or dissent. Most importantly, it feels we have to be arrived before we even started the journey. When we’re dismissing people because they’re “unsafe” or “they should educate themselves first”, how can we relate to them, and how can we relate to our past selves who surely, didn’t use to know so much?
Sometimes I cringe over the thoughts and actions of my past self. Then I remember I was just beginning to learn, and I’m just beginning to learn now, and essentially if I foster the same cautious but open mindset that was already present then, I will never be done learning. It is incredibly reassuring, honestly. It helps me breathe, knowing I changed, and I learned, and I was allowed to learn, and I’m participating in spaces which allow me to learn and support other people learning.
We never are “in the right, period”. The ground underneath our feet is never sure, the path, rarely clear. We have to walk the rift, all of us do. And we have to accept that some of us do not walk it at the same pace, or haven’t walked as far, or came to it from a different angle. It doesn't mean we shouldn't encourage others to move to where we're at, it doesn't mean that any small action is “good enough”, that we shouldn't push and pull and get people to look at the very real, very scary social and environmental emergency. It means cutting them some slack, because they will need it to move forward in the struggle.
We have to take action. “How” is a question that can’t be solved. But I believe consistency is a useful touchstone. It requires honesty, doubt, and the ability to criticize oneself and others respectfully. It requires debate and dissent, and to make room for different strategies. It also requires solidarity and camaraderie. We have to walk the rift… But we shouldn’t do it alone.
P.S.: I somehow managed to go through with this text without using the word "dialectics". Believe me, it wasn't without efforts.