I am temperamentally suspicious of extreme positions in religion, politics, culture and people. These are commonly described in terms of binary sectarianism: liberal/conservative, progressive/reactionary, utopian/revolutionary. I find these tags intellectually lazy and adolescent. My psychological anxieties about such divisions are that (a) they are too crude to be useful in thinking deeply about ideas. By generalizing, they inevitably degrade the vital nucleus of an idea and (b) nuance, paradox, intellectual humility and the slipperiness of human thought become vices rather than virtues of intelligence. By making an aristocracy of the final word, the possibility that there may be something more to say about a matter or fresh ways of speaking about it are closed off.
It follows that the idea of mature, respectful “dialogue” with contrary perspectives becomes a sign of weakness. The possibility that other views may shed light on a given view is held as anathema. Such sectarianism must turn the person who holds a contrary view into an enemy. They are to be defeated either by battering them into submission with an argument or by battering them physically, verbally or emotionally until they no longer exist. The umbrella term for these attitudes and strategies is fundamentalism.
I am looking for something more balanced, especially in a world where there exist competing and opposing views. A balanced economy. A balanced body politic. A balanced Church. A balanced person. More balance in my life, my ideas and in myself. I believe that because balance is attractive and difficult to achieve that it has an inherent value. But, has it? For example, what makes me think that the “balanced argument” or the “balanced presentation” of a particular argument is of more value than the polemic or the rant? Could, in fact, the polemic or the rant be nearer to the truth of the matter than the meticulous weighing of ideas and expressions on some finely tuned scales? And, how does one determine what is the balance, what is the extreme? I clearly have some idea in my mind of what are excessive positions, but based on what? Maybe I should be more suspicious of balance?
I’ve been thinking about these mental balancing acts because I’ve been reading Adam Phillip’s infuriating and fascinating (you see, I’m trying to strike a balance and ending up with a critical imbalance!) meditation, On Balance. He writes:
When the dramatist Mark Ravenhill writes that “Art that isn’t driven by this basic impulse to create an unbalanced view of the world is probably bad or weak,” we are not shocked by this, partly because after Romanticism we take it for granted that this is the province of art; elsewhere it is balance that is required. Art, ideally, is where the unbalanced views should be kept, as far away from religion and politics as possible. If we want art to be an isolation ward it is because we know just how contagious these so-called unbalanced views of the world can be (fascism, racism and sexism in modern liberal societies are unbalanced views, but liberal democratic values are not).
I’m not sure this view bears close examination. I’m not aware that, for example, in the contemporary art world “unbalanced views” are proliferating and that dangerous germ cultures like fascism, racism or sexism are being grown. The really “unbalanced” views (and they are, at present, minority views) in this environment are that beauty, harmony and truth are more than bourgeois, cultural constructs. Yet, there may exist some art forms, such as in the theatre, and entertainment forms, such as comedy, where playwrights or comedians dare to tip the balance or knock it over.
The reason that Adam Phillips is convinced that “unbalanced views should be kept, as far away from religion and politics as possible” is because the memory of 9/11 casts a dark shadow over his thinking. On Balance is as much a book about this event as it is about balance or psychoanalysis. For Adam Phillips, 9/11 is the example of modern excess that colours all his views of other, lesser examples of excess:
The anorexic and the suicide bomber, the attention-seeking child and the compulsive gambler, the person who has more money than he needs and the person committed to celibacy are all involved, in their different ways, in extravagant violations of law, decency or morality; even though, of course, they may not see it this way. And this, too, is important when we are thinking about excess: what is excessive to one person may be to another person just an ordinary way of life. The devoutly religious are not, in their own view, overdoing it; terrorists are not, in their own view, overreacting to the injustices they feel they have suffered. Indeed, one of the many ways of describing many of our personal and political and religious conflicts is that someone is trying to persuade someone else that they are being excessive: excessively cruel, excessively disrespectful, excessively unjust.
Perhaps, we need to take a more balanced approach to our discussion of excess. Instead of lumping together all forms of excessive behaviour – “the person who has more money than he needs and the person committed to celibacy” – as if they were identical, we need to recognise that different excesses belong to different categories of behaviour. For example, is the excessive behaviour of grief the same as the excessive behaviour of sexual promiscuity? Can you ever have too much grief? If so, what is the right amount of grief? Can you ever have too many sexual partners? If so, what is it about having multiple sexual partners that could be damaging? Different excesses. Different categories.
Adam Phillips concludes his discussion of excess by considering religious excess or fanaticism. This, of course, interested me because I, according to Phillips, am supposedly living an excessive life as a religious celibate and for somebody who prizes balance that is unsettling. But, more importantly, this discussion (post 9/11) has widespread cultural implications. Phillips suggests that there are three ways to account for religious fanaticism:
i. …Excessive belief is called up to stifle excessive doubt, as if the fanatic is saying to himself: “If I don’t continually prove my belief in this extreme way, what will be revealed is extreme faithlessness, or despair, or confusion, or even emptiness.”
ii. ….Excessive acts of belief are required to persuade other people, as if the fanatic is saying to himself: “What matters most in the world to me will not be listened to, or considered, or thought about or even noticed unless a dramatic statement is made.”
I think there is something in these descriptions of extreme religious behaviour, but it is Adam Phillips third description that I found really thought provoking. I will conclude this post with it.
iii. …the religious fanatic is someone for whom something about themselves and their lives is too much; and because not knowing what that is is so disturbing they need to locate it as soon as possible…Because the state of frustration cannot be borne – because, perhaps, it is literally unbearable, as long-term personal and political injustices always are – it requires an extreme solution, which is usually a fast one…Fanatics are people who have had to wait too long for something that may not exist. Wherever there is excessive frustration there is a false solution; this would be an excessive way of putting it. Our excesses are the best clues we have to our own poverty; and our best way of concealing it from ourselves.
On Balance, Adam Phillips, Hamish Hamilton, 2010