A Failing Democracy

Over the last few readings of Simone de Beauvoir, I have noticed an interesting topic reoccur on the idea of our existence with each other in the way of interaction and power. This is where the keyword “ethics” gets involved in her Ethics of Ambiguity. What I started asking myself is where do her ethics apply today, if at all. We are in a time where social injustice is being recognized and powerful authorities trying to both progress and hinder liberty itself. This seems like the greatest time if any to begin applying her ideas to the present world around us.

Our country is built on the ideas of the individual, the value of the individual, and individual liberties. This is one of the reasons why our Constitution has lasted so long, our democratic system has been a model system to many nations around the world. But is it still working at the same strength it once had? Simultaneously we are heard and ignored, sometimes as if we are screaming into an abyss. Democratic societies understand the value of the individual, a reason to value life enough to continue living it. We may have ceremonies like marriage and graduations, things to let us feel like a uniquely valuable individual, but is the democratic society meeting its expectation to count us as one? We vote and protest, but we are in a time where either of these prime examples is decreasing affect immensely.

Unfortunately, we are also a nation built on the back of the oppressed, slowly we progress toward freedom but what does it say to those who want to go back? People wish to go back to a time when life was easier, and America was better. They want to make it “great” again as if it did not cost us to be oppressors. If we have a leader who is willing to continue oppression and hinder the liberty of so many, and to silent and hush their voice what is it we are to do? Simone de Beauvoir would say:

“We are obliged to destroy not only the oppressor but also those who serve him, whether they do so out of ignorance or out of constraint.”

It seems simple, but it is very difficult when the leader of oppression can be seen in a political office. This leader may believe he is better than everyone else, his ideas are the best, and does not listen to the voice of the people because he is on a higher transcendence. They would use people as a utility for the sake of his ideologies. This person, Simone de Beauvoir would describe as a tyrant.

“The tyrant asserts himself as a transcendence; he considers others as pure immanences: he thus arrogates to himself the right to treat them like cattle.”

We can recognize these effects of tyranny with ongoing situations in our democracy. We have people seeking safety at our borders but rather than provide a protection we label them as “caravans” and send the military to lock down our borders. We have the possibility of transgender and non-binary pronouns being stripped away leaving many in uncomfortable and humiliating situations to no longer identify themselves. We have movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too coming out loud and strong, and yet we see little feedback or results in our “democracy.” Where do we go from here, where a democracy, which is to value the individual, begins to silence and oppress them once more?

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Freedom By Daily Oppressions

From the readings this week from Beauvoir, one of the things I took from her is her explanation of the paradox of oppression and freedom. We find that we cannot force a man to be free because doing so also oppresses them. Beauvoir explains that this is

“the paradox that no action can be generated for man without its being immediately generated against man.”

It is easy to see this abstractly and in a bigger picture of servitude, but one of the ways I saw this is whether we should see this in our daily lives. We seem to have free will, but do we? To see that we cannot force a prisoner to be free but give them the opportunity to be free seems easy but to enlighten them of the freedom is a hard-balancing act between freedom and oppression.

What I start to wonder is if this is still a tough balancing act today in how we live our lives in “freedom”. In some way we are guided to an end we do not fully choose for ourselves and molded by our past and authorities. How many of the students in college would have willfully put themselves through school if it weren’t from the pressures of parents and making their families proud? Do we make decisions based on what we want, or do we even know what we truly want? We seem to make decisions along the lines of our peers, educated and tested alongside others comparatively, and making decisions that are socially acceptable. We may say we have freedom but much of our freedom seems to fall in line with sociology. We live in our own specific ways specific to our times. Generations prior it was expected of the sons to become husbands, fathers, and take over family businesses while daughters become mothers and wives. Today we have so much more freedom but still, abide by expectations. To be something for the greater good, to be educated, and to help others. You ask any parent and they say they wish for their child to become a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, or a teacher. Somehow, we think of growing up to be a janitor or a cashier as a lower-class job, not a fulfilled career.

These judgments go farther than just careers, but to what we wear, how we act, and how we live. What comes to mind is the idea of Zeitgeist, which dictionary.apa.org defines as:

“German, “spirit of the times”: a term used by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) to refer to a type of supraindividual mind at work in the world and manifest in the cultural worldview (see Weltanschauung) that pervades the ideas, attitudes, and feelings of a particular society in a specific historical period.”

What we see is that as much as we are free we are oppressed by the ideas given to us in our specific time in history. But this is also what helps us progress through our time because according to Beauvoir this oppression gives us two types of people, one who is enlightened and the other who takes their place in time.

“those who enlighten mankind by thrusting it ahead of itself and those who are condemned to mark time hopelessly in order merely to support the collectivity.”

It is under the form of daily oppression that some strive to succeed it and open ourselves to more freedom, whether by art or literature, technology, and ideas, innovations, and activism that strikes the world like a fresh match. Setting light on the new ideologies of the specific, ever-evolving time.

Seriously a Pawn

One of the concepts that really stuck out for me with the readings from The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir, was that of the serious man. For Beauvoir, all individuals go through the traditional phase where they discover their own subjectivity. Throughout childhood they explore, and their sense of value is put in place by adults who, to them, are god-like figures. They a god-like in a sense that they make up the world around the child, they provide food, shelter, and education, and in return, the child obeys them and unknowingly submits their own values. As they mature they discover they are also subjective and can have a sense of values that go against the adults who are no longer god-like. They revolt and turn against the values given to them. This is where Beauvoir believes, the adolescence must choose their values and ethics, but some may not. If they do not choose their own value, they are also choosing against their own subjectivity. This is where the “serious man” is born.

The serious man, in a way, denounces his subjectivity which must deem him nearly an object. Beauvoir believes they give up their values for that of another. They live by another’s value and existence. She writes:

“The serious man gets rid of his freedom by claiming to subordinate it to values which would be unconditioned. He imagines that the accession to these values likewise permanently confers value upon himself.”

These serious men become objectified in following another’s value, this other could possibly be another individual, but it seems more problematic if the other is an institution. Not only would you become an object but a pawn. What came to mind when I began considering the idea of a pawn in the military. This follows what Beauvoir says of a serious man ridding himself of his one freedom, becoming subordinate. The soldier is not meant to question but meant to aim at the same value as its leader. Beauvoir point this out say:

“But the serious man puts nothing into question. For the military man, the army is useful; for the colonial administrator, the highway; for the serious revolutionary, the revolution – army, highway, revolution, productions becoming inhuman idols to which one will not hesitate to sacrifice man himself. Therefore, the serious man is dangerous.”

It’s easy to picture this with the institution of the military but it should be worrisome to see the resemblance to political institutions. In a state so divided between parties we begin to see the serious man arise now more than ever. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, all abiding by their party or standing. We see the media and politicians controlling people as pawns and seeing very little subjective value. When an article is published on, when a politician critiques, and when information is shared on a subject it is easy to be twisted and agrees just because you want to full-heartedly follow the sources you trust. Why would anyone question information from Fox News, why double check facts on CNN? Along with facts you become absorbed into their opinions and values, they say something is good then you are happy if something is bad you are angered. They give an opinion and state that the welfare system is for those who want a free ride you don’t question it and assume they are right. You follow the crowd blindly and become the pawn itself stuck with no longer thinking for yourself, no longer subjective.

When we are no longer subjective we revert to our childlike stage and rely on these god-like beings, now the media and government, to provide for us at the sake of our will. They suppress us in a way to avoid any chance of a revolt. This suppression is exactly how we maintained slavery for so many years, we suppressed and provided. Beauvoir even gives the example:

“of slaves who have not raised themselves to the consciousness of their slavery. The southern planters were not altogether in the wrong in considering the negroes who docilely submitted to their paternalism as “grown-up children.”

Myself v. the Other

In this week’s readings of Sartre, alone they seemed rather odd and difficult to interpret, but I finally started thinking outside the text and began to make better translations. With the idea of the Other and Ourselves, I knew it was a concept I have been taught before but through the slave-master dialect. As Dr. Absher talks about in his blog post found here, Hegel speaks about a conflict found in recognition of others. The self-identifies the Other and wishes to possess it, but the Other identifies you and wishes to possess you. As Dr. Absher explains:

“In fact, Hegel believes, this “struggle for recognition” must escalate to a fight to the death, as each side must be willing to stake their life on their freedom.”

This struggle of recognition is who is the owner or who is possession. Sartre similarly says:

“If we start with the first revelation of the Other as a look, we must recognize that we experience our inapprehensible being-for-others in the form of a possession.”

Although my first connection with this material was also with Hegel, I made a connection with a philosopher I am reading in another class. In my Political and Social Philosophy, we just finished reading some text by the work of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was around nearly two hundred years prior to Hegel and wrote one of the first concepts of social theory. Rather than a fight to death though Hobbes sees a possibility for a covenant or a promise. This is like the master-slave dialect in that one person gives up their rights to another. Hobbes says:

“He that transferreth any right, transferreth the means of enjoying it, as far as lieth in his power.”

When it comes to Sartre, he finds that we have attitudes like those found in Hobbes and Hegel. According to Sartre:

“To transcend the Other’s transcendence, or, on the contrary, to incorporate that transcendence within me without removing from its character as transcendence—such are the two primitive attitudes which I assume confronting the Other.”

With these ideas floating around with the concept of the Other they all seem to recognize that we are equal in some way. With the master-slave dialect, we understand that we need the Other to confirm our reality as either the master or the slave. With the Leviathan we see that covenants are found when seeing others have the same liberties as us and either we renounce our liberties to them or they renounce their liberties to me. When it comes to Sartre he believes that we have our reality confirmed by the Other but always wants to be the master. Instead of renouncing our liberties fully we recognize the same liberties that lie in you must also lie in me. We use the other to find ourselves. By finding our own liberties found in the Other we can also see that we are free to obtain other knowledge and evolve, as Sartre says:

“Finally…each person is an absolute choice of self from the standpoint of the world of knowledges and of techniques which this choice both assumes and illumines; each person is an absolute upsurge at an absolute date and is perfectly unthinkable at another date.”

This means that the same self now and same Other now may not be the same self or Other later.

Meaningful chance

In this week’s readings, what really resonated with me was the idea of meaning in existence. In both readings, we’ve looked on whether there is a meaning for our existence and if there is, where to find it. In my own thought daily thinking I try to find meaning in what I do, when I cannot I accept what it is and know it’s beyond me. Other days I sit down and ask why is this here, by this I mean physical matter not a specific object. What I found is a part of me practices logotherapy while other rejects it.

“Logotherapy, keeping in mind the essential transitoriness of human existence, is not pessimistic but rather activistic.”

Frankl here, claims that by looking for meaning in a temporary life is not sad but active work. I agree with him in this case. Keeping up on three WIP courses, four clubs and committees, and three jobs, I get lost in work. Not even lost but buried and sometimes feel the despair o my work creep on me. Sometimes I find meaning in what I do and see the reason for my tasks, other busy work I ask what is the point? When my workload grows is when I find meaning. I find whatever meaning I can, and this meaning provides the reason for persisting to do what I do. When the work or task seems pointless or I can’t grasp why I must deal with the situations dealt, I usually find that the reason is just not seen or comprehensible by me. Sometimes the long conversation with a customer may have seemed like an exhausting waste of time but it is possible that that conversation was the highlight of the customers day. Other times people ask me what the meaning of my work is, why do I bother with such inconveniences. I usually respond with “it’s beyond me!” Although, my friends would tell you I more often just respond with, “because my life is a joke” or “because the universe hates me.”

When I’m not busy and I don’t need a meaning to persist through my work I start really questioning existence entirely. I wonder why we are here. Not even why we are living or conscious or our personal meaning, but why is anything here. I often have this thought and try to describe it to friends and usually, I give an analogy of a magnetic drawing board. The board is the universe and all the magnetic fragments are matter. We design shapes and drawings on the board, but the matter is limited, cannot be added or destroyed in the universe. I wonder, not only, the reason or purpose for the magnetic fragments, but why even the board.

“The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity.”

This is said by Sartre’s character Roquentin and I see how it can show that the matter may not even have a purpose. It seems as if the magnetic board were the universe the magnetic fragments were only there by chance. It just so happens to be that we can draw and write on these boards for a purpose of our own. Whether it be for entertainment or for work, we begin to apply a meaning to something that was originally by chance. This is where I connected the readings and wonder if logotherapy, as activistic as is it, is only applied when we need it and we are just finding meaning in something that just so happens to be here.

Meaning for survival

One of the ideas I picked up this week from the reading Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, is where it is we find meaning, and how we go about it. We can find alternatives to an actual meaning and be left unsatisfied but living in an existential vacuum as he puts it. Going in depth with a psychoanalysis can only do so much, we can discover what makes us function as we do, but it cannot tell us why.

Logotherapy explores this why and it doesn’t go in depth of how the person works but attempts to find the meaning in a person’s experience, it is no longer internal it is external. Because every individual is different inside and out, by nature so should their meaning. This is why Frankl notes:

“Thus far we have shown that the meaning of life always changes, but never ceases to be. According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

Surely, we have experienced all these feelings. We can be so focused on a paper to be published, meetings to change the face of the college or club, being a significant part of an institution can help give one a sense of purpose. Some may look at a paint, read a book, explore the world or even the city they live in and immerse themselves with the sensations of the culture. Others may find comfort in a loved one, with a friend who is caring and a grandparent who is compassionate. What I notice about all these reasons or meanings of life are that when experienced we don’t consider them a meaning. When experienced we don’t even feel the void pulling and tugging for our attention as a young child, at that moment we are satisfied.

When we find a meaning in life it is not only a way to escape the feeling of existential dread of our lives entirely but can be used as a weapon for perseverance. When nearly all the men with Frankl were in despair and hope was fading fast he used this knowledge not only to his advantage but everyone else’s. He proclaimed:

“They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours—a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God—and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly—not miserably—knowing how to die.”

Keeping the hope by reminding people where their meaning may lie, fighting to persevere for someone or something. Even for Frankl, he discusses his wife when he truly needed to persevere and other times he talks about saving his manuscript and jotting down notes to retain it. Finding meaning does not have to be in an achievement, in art and beauty, or in a loved one. It seems it can be a part of all three. Depending on what we need to continue and provide the courage for that mentality is when we call for a different reason at that time. Frankl agrees to say:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

Wasting Time

In our society today, what we do and discuss in our free time is no different than throughout the decades. We have progressed into new discussions and new technologies but how far off are we from the same contemplations that have occurred time and time again? In the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, we can see the similarities and differences from then and now. The idea of minimalism is so bare that the setting is just a tree, a road, and a time. Now in the 21st century, you would think it to be any different. We are surrounded by lights, signs, people, and screens everywhere you go. Many times, we can sit in our room playing on our phone, writing a paper or this very blog post, and have the tv on in the background and still feel like the bare minimum. There’s more than just a tree and a road but it’s the same boredom that the characters Vladimir and Estragon experience.

When in such a routine setting such as your room, class, or workplace it becomes dull and uneventful. We just find stuff to fill the void and pass the time, spend it with friends, playing video games, watch a movie, study, repeat. But even after a movie, after some gaming, what did we accomplish? Nothing! We accomplish nothing but how to waste time, just as much as when Pozzo and Lucky stop and fill up the time of waiting for Godot for Vladimir and Estragon. The dialogue after Pozzo and Lucky leave even consist of this short response.

“Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, not so rapidly.”

We can be in Disney World and still find ourselves just wasting time. Even in the happiest place on earth, we can find this boredom. Of course, it also has to do with the point that being happy has nothing to do with the boredom of passing the time for even in the play Beckett makes a point of writing:

“Estragon: I am happy.
Vladimir: So am I.
Estragon: So am I.
Vladimir: We are happy.
Estragon: We are happy. [Silence.] What do we do now, now that we are happy?
Vladimir: Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.”

We could be happy, sad, angry, or disgusted but we still have time to pass and until we figure out how, we ponder. In a short quote from Aristotle’s Nicomachean, Ethics found here, Aristotle explains how philosophy is a leisure activity, a pleasant way to pass the time. Some may agree and that when left with nothing to do, no labor, or at least to discuss while laboring, discussion of thought-provoking reasoning and philosophy seems like a fitting way to fill time.

The tragicomedy by Samuel Beckett can seem all too real at times. We laugh and chuckle at the simple silliness of life and other times we feel miserable and bored just waiting for meaning to come to find us. We waste time asking questions, in-depth explanations relevant to life and death, and still making no progress toward anything in life. We are simply bored, wasting time until twilight comes and night falls, then we return to dark nothingness.