Saturday, February 15, 2014

The brittleness of elaborate thinking

From Norman Levy’s very interesting autobiography, The Final Prize: My life in the anti-apartheid struggle (2d ed. 2012), one striking detail:

Ruth First, in her account of her confinement under the 90-day law [which authorized solitary confinement, without trial, for renewable periods of 90 days, and was a vehicle for torture of opponents of apartheid], noted that activists who sometimes seemed weak and woolly in their thinking held out the longest and did not break under solitary detention. In contrast, others (she had herself in mind) succumbed with insufficient resistance. (Pages 314-15, footnote omitted)

I don’t join First (killed long ago by an apartheid letter-bomb) in her self-criticism; torture, even torture without physical violence, is designed to overpower and usually does. But the contrast she draws is intriguing: those who had fully and precisely elaborated ideological perspectives turned out to be more brittle than those whose thinking was fuzzier. Why would that be?

Surely one likely answer is that ideological precision is always a delusion. We know that all the ideologies of the past were imperfect in one or many ways – it’s easy to see that with the benefit of hindsight. What’s a little more difficult is to realize that that must be true of our own ideologies, right now, as well.

Meanwhile the elaborate effort involved in creating a complete intellectual structure, fending off attacks on it, rationalizing its inconsistencies, all bespeaks a person distanced from the simple emotional forces that fuel our lives. And that distance, that self-alienation, is not only a tool for the torturer – for those unfortunate enough to encounter one – but also a shadow cast across all of a person’s life.

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