Being Righteous to oneself and the others

by Pietro Barbetta

Pietro Barbetta's remarks

Pietro Barbetta's remarks

Following we publish the remarks by the director of the Milanese Centre for Family Therapy, Pietro Barbetta – about the characteristics of hatred, the pathology of confusion between the singular and the categorical – held at the International Meeting GariwoNetwork 2018.

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

Where did the subject end up

In the years of my education, I read the texts by the School of Franfkfurt. They used a term now out-of-date, which is worth rediscovering: “technocracy”. After the failure of the revolutions, the exponents of the School of Frankfurt were the first to realize that the working class wished to become bourgeois, rather than doing any revolution. As a Romanian person, who attends my psychotherapy meetings, told me:: “To us, communism were you Westerners, your ville lumière et tentaculaire, we spent our nights listening to your advertisement clandestinely.” Capitalism has been a machine that captures the subject and stuns him or her with its opulence.

Today, though, we are faced with a hyperbolic leap. Many people today talk about Anthropocene: anthropologists, philosophers, biologists, geologists. They deem the subject not to be a “person” anymore, but rather a network made of a variety of interconnected elements: from viruses to neurotransmitters, to chemicals, machines, bureaucratic structures and social networks; from terrorism to warfare, from natural catastrophes to the new technological innovations that ought to simplify our lives, and instead do not, and so on. The locus of responsibility would be symmetrically distributed across these system’s networks. Every one of us is captured within this network, which compels us to observe the unfolding of the events as passive bystanders as if we were on a drifting boat.

The Genoa Paradigm

When any catastrophic event occurs, such as for example the collapse of the Genoa bridge, a discussion opens up about the responsibility for the event. Some people conclude that responsibilities must be attributed to different levels: those who designed the bridge, those who commissioned it, those who overlooked their maintenance duties, those who ran it, and so on; but also the resistance of the inner metal junctions, the reinforced concrete that made them invisible, the time that eroded the junction, the weight of the traffic, and so on. The problem is that such a network has turned into a fate, and our concept of time has changed, and our social subconscious has been leading us to live in a time, which is no more Kronos, but a fatal, tragic time. As Anne de Carbuccia has been showing in some videos entitled as “one planet, one future”, the time of the network is eroding the planet.

In the face of this phenomenon, the hero, the charisma, proposes an antagonist model equal and opposite and gains consensus. While once the masses preferred to become bourgeois, rather than doing any revolution, today the masses are eager to impoverish themselves in order to follow the charisma, the antagonist hero. The hero shouts, he does not find even one moment to mourn the dead of Genoa, for the condolences, because he blames his enemy of making the bridge collapse, of being a murderer, and the scapegoat is now again the enemy to lynch. The hero claims to free his people, the nation, from the bonds of this network, which is immediately pointed at as Europe. Europe is our new enemy. In this, he harnesses a real discontent, followers eager even to lose their savings, inclined to a renewed form of dissipation.

By individuating the enemy, we create an even more powerful network, made of slurs and derogatory terms, a network that limits the subject’s position in a more and more totalitarian world: does the network captivate us? Well, let’s abolish the freedom of the press, of expression, of dissent, let’s kill the infidels, let’s attack the rules of democracy, let’s create antagonist clashes.

Thus the hero, the charisma, obtains consensus, stimulating the resentment of those who feel impotent in the face of a load of taxes he has to pay, the immigration of people who could prove more sympathetic, sensitive and educated than those who feel like the masters in their own house. Hatred emerges from these feelings of insecurity fed by dictators who populate the West and use slurs to put the people one against the other.

The characteristics of hate, the pathology of confusion between the singular and the categorical

A strategy to fight hatred is to think in the singular. Hate is based on the contempt toward human categories beyond the one, which we think we represent. There is a serial element in hatred: against the women, the black, the Jews, the Gypsies, the asylum seekers, the refugees, the stateless, the nomads, the madmen, and so on… It is an open series, made of categories. Hatred is fed by resentment and is expressed in slurs. If a woman has a relationship outside the marriage bond she enters the category of prostitutes, if a black commits a crime, he or she enters the category of inclinations to anti-social behaviours, thus evoking the psychiatric discourse on the inclination of human races. Hate follows a kind of simple reasoning, prompted by basic drives: if an individual, who belongs to a category of people different from mine, behaves differently than those who belong to my own category of people, then all his or her category behaves the same way. But do such things as “categories of people” exist? Once they were defined as races, for example. But today, hatred has refined itself, it does not only speak the language of human races, but it also aggregates other categories, for instance, “the refugees”, whose essence is of “invading our territories”. This is an example of how hatred is expressed today.

Those who fight this alleged “invasion of my territory” is “my hero”. The complexity of a phenomenon is reduced to a delirious mechanism of cause and effect. The charisma is formed as the character of the hero who will save the masses, who own a territory, from invaders who appear like viruses. Crossing the Swiss border, I remember a recent interview with a representative of the pharmaceutical industry of that language, who had a lapsus linguae; as he was accused of favouring the hiring of cross-border Italian workers, he answered: “I ensure the Swiss pharmaceutical industry is absolutely ‘sane’”. In this case, the virus is those workers who live in the province of Varese and, maybe, many of them think the same about the immigrants in Varese. This is the point: hatred, as every human expression prompted by our basic drives, which is based on a simple and immediate way of reasoning, assumes a paradoxical form: whom do I hate if not myself? Who do I despise, if not the very category of people, to which I belong? When I speak about an invasion of people, that I consider as inferior, am I not actually speaking about my own impotence? Am I not thinking that if the others steal my job, they are more clever, skilled, committed than me and those of my category? Is it not perhaps such a sense of inferiority that I feel, that leads me to kill the woman who is on my side, or invoke a charismatic leader who chases the invader? That turns me into the charismatic hero who exterminates the infidel?

How to find again the subject of hope?

I remember the principle of hope of Ernst Bloch, which today someone calls resilience: to keep on hoping that the subject – whatever we mean by this: the habeas corpus, the subject of desire, the collective subject, and so on – reemerges through the minute particulars, in the singular. Gregory Bateson, quoting poet William Blake, wrote: “He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars”, but what are this “minute particulars”? When a surgeon operates a wounded person, does not ask if the wounded is an enemy, when a Righteous save a life under threat, he or she does not worry about the issue whether their ideology, ethnicity of faith are different from his or hers, when a psychologist works in jails, or with asylum seekers, he or she is always there to welcome the subject, to recompose the broken and give them hope again, to listen to their lives, struggles, the events that landed them there. The Righteous exerts respect and shows bravery, the Righteous has not got an irreprehensible life, his is gesture, in which he exposes himself, but he is not a hero, as his action takes place within the minute particulars: he is a doctor who saves a criminal wounded to death, an ambassador, maybe a fake ambassador, who saves Jews doomed to extermination, a convincer, a cheater who helps someone get to safety also through his gall, a Totò who invites us to reflect on whether we are human beings or caporals. To the hyperbolic leap that turned us into subjects deprived of our own responsibility, we must respond with another quantum leap, the one which Jacques Derrida told us about in his moral will: forgiving the unacceptable, what goes beyond any applicability of statutory limitations. Pay attention, it is not about exerting a wholesale, little credible forgiveness, but to make a gesture in the singularity of the moment, like the pure rain that falls on the king’s head from the sky.

Being Righteous

If the hero is fed within a context of cause and effect prompted by our most basic drives, within a reduced, simple way of reasoning, the culture of the Righteous instead requires the singularity: “The Good is done in the minute particulars”, said Gregory Bateson, quoting William Blake. We must be able to wait, because the hero, who seemingly is one in a piece, is easily shattered and gets back home wounded. Whoever practices evil, does it chiefly against himself, and cannot but get back home crying on himself. Psychology realized this when Europe fell prey to wars, after the Belle Époque, since 1914. In those years the body of sexual desire was replaced with the wounded body of the war veterans. We started dealing with wounds, torture, jail, places of aggression and punishment.

Clinics, the practice of doctors, nurses, and psychologists, transforms itself. The clinical oath teaches us not to look at who the wounded person is. He or she has to be treated and protected for their wounds, regardless of who they are. Clinics compel us to exert Righteousness. It is about hospitality, the same, as philosopher Jacques Derrida affirmed, that was practised in convents. Derrida reminded us of that through his important contribution to rethink clinics. His remarks at the Council of Europe of 21-22 March 1996, at the International Parliament of Writers, proposed the establishment of “refuge cities”; places where the asylum seekers could find humanitarian protection beyond the positive law and the norms, both definitive and temporary, of every country. Beyond what they could ever have committed, in a hyperbolic leap, which makes hospitality absolute, beyond the unforgivable and what makes it impossible to apply any statutory limitations. This is the work of the Righteous: “I know you are in progress, and you do not necessarily belong to the category of people you seem to belong to.” This is the paradox of the Righteous: as somebody who is in divenire, every event provides us with the instruments to exit the category. This is true for the persecuted, as well as for the persecutor, it may suffice to read "Legacy of Silence", a text by Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On, who managed, in Holland, to create groups of mutual help between the children of the Nazi persecutors and the victims.

Antagonism towards dissent

When I was young, I was told that disobedience could be a virtue. Today I learnt that whims, complaints, protests and even the children’s symptoms – vivaciousness, lack of attention, pee in the bed, poop in the underwear, cries and stubbornness – are nothing but the pecks of a sparrow on the window, from outside the home. They are warning signs of dissent. Often, dissent is stronger, more tenacious than antagonism.

Antagonism sees enemies everywhere, it is a paranoid condition. The world champions of antagonism were Robespierre and Stalin, who put their own allies to death. The logic of friend/enemy has created havoc and runs the risk of repeating itself. Antagonism is a Moloch that makes the two sides identical, creates an identity and sees no more differences, producing totalitarianism: when also the minimum doubt becomes a betrayal when two human groups produce a rift, a Spaltung between themselves. That is a phenomenon that psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler had defined “schizophrenia”. At the time of Bleuler, specialists thought it was an irredeemable, incurable mental disorder. Later, many psychologists and psychoanalysts found a way to get in touch with the “schizophrenics” and today someone even proposes to abolish this diagnostic category. What does it mean? I believe it means that, also in the direst straights, we must trust our abilities to exert tenderness, observe the small differences that enable everyone to exit the fences that are built around him or her.

Often we talk about the fascination of evil, but evil becomes fascinating when it is immersed in an ironic dimension when it is described and told in a way that shows the difference between cruelty and daily life. What is fascinating is life, not evil. The immanence of life, which we can never exit.

Let me conclude with a woman’s dream: “I hold a kitten in my arms, in my room, there is a dangerous tiger, I see it, its body is full of stingers, it follows me, I try to run away with the kitten in my arms, but the room is small. I realize it does not want to maul me, I see on its head there are no stingers, it comes close and I pet it, it only wanted some tenderness”.

Pietro Barbetta, director of the Milanese Centre for Family Therapy

Analysis by

12 December 2018

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