This was the scenario: you’re talking with a good friend. Someone you’ve known for years - someone you have loved, respected, and given your time to. You are relaxed and feeling grateful for your friendship. You’re spending time together as you have many times before.
Then, the subject of COVID comes up. Taking the opportunity to air your irritation with the obtusity of the narrative, you say something like, "It was never deadly." Or, "Lockdowns do nothing but make it worse." Or, "I can’t believe they’re masking children." Or, "That experimental RNA crap isn’t going in my kids."
And then it happens - your friend’s face changes: the lips purse, the shoulders rise and tense, the neck goes stiff, the eyes become small, glassy and distant, the voice rises a few semitones, and they say something uncharacteristic and strangely formulaic, like: "Well we’ve all got to work together, to save lives." Or, "We all have to be socially responsible in this." Or, "I wouldn’t want the blood of the unvaccinated on my hands."
You feel suddenly like you’ve just been pulled over by a belligerent cop, or accused of cheating during a math test, or had something you said at a dinner party construed as racist - you’ve been mistaken for someone else, but forcefully, willfully, almost knowingly.
Suddenly you’re not connected to this person at all, and they seem so committed to their disapproving attitude that you’re a little speechless. You even doubt yourself. Despite familiarity with the facts and your intellectual conviction, your nervous stomach, tight throat, and contracting vision makes you wonder whether they aren’t right after all.
That look in the eye is not only disapproving and authoritative, it’s predatory. You might feel for a moment like fried chicken under a heatlamp at a Chinese buffet. And although there’s only one person looking at you, you feel that maybe there’s a whole crowd standing behind this person, looking at you with the same eyes. You feel trapped, desperately alone, angry, hopeless, and profoundly betrayed in a way you are not sure you can recover from - and from that moment the friendship is never the same and perhaps it ends.
This is moral censure. It is essentially human and happens every day with a slowly rotating cast of characters: race and gender being the most popular moral snares amongst the irreligious 21st century firstworld. But you’re not actually racist or bigoted, so despite some uneasiness with shrill leftist politics, those forms of censure were easy to avoid previously. But about COVID you feel strongly, because it’s so monumentally farcical and wrong: for the first time a direct confrontation with moral posturing becomes unavoidable.
What you’re witnessing in this moment, is that the feeling of moral superiority and the safety of an unassailable moral high ground, is more gratifying to this person, than any relationship to you will ever be. Moral sanctity quells anxiety in a way your affection never could. Finally they feel assured of their membership in the right group. That chronic nagging alienation which penetrates much deeper than you know, briefly vanishes: they become a We, a voice of the We.
In that moment, you are facing vastly powerful unconscious forces, against which any conscious effort stands no chance. Any appearance of rational argument is an illusion and a diversionary tactic. The fundamental question is membership in the winning group: by remaining strictly truthful in the midst of an emergent symbolic rite, you have placed yourself on the losing side. You must understand that you are being encircled and marked for exclusion: any defense you offer will be gathered as evidence of guilt. The only way out of the snare, is to accept your exclusion, and wonder to yourself whether it isn’t a good thing to be excluded from that group after all: only when you feel assured of some other invisible membership, will their confidence waver.
Do not let the questions be framed for you.
Do not allow yourself to be pressured into providing simple answers to complex problems.
Do not feel obliged to produce comprehensive solutions as recompense for your incisive critique. It’s not your responsibility to fix everyone’s problem just because you reject a series of false and insipid answers.
Do not feel compelled to refute every accusation. Most accusations are red herrings and merely a diversionary ploy. Focus on what you know to be true, and elaborate on that basis.
Please allow me to quote from my recent book:
It’s an enormous mistake to attempt to maintain a respectful gentlemanly attitude when dealing with moralists: the more you explain your position rationally, the more "immorality" they are free to discover - and the scent of blood attracts a crowd. It’s part of the moral tactic to inspire the feeling that there are only two choices: join them and lose respect for oneself, or begin using their methods and lose respect for oneself - mendacious morality or resentful immorality. While they encircle you with jackal eyes, you lose your good temper and begin to tire. One must never be caught in a defensive posture, one must never make the mistake of taking them seriously, one must protect one’s pride at all times with that apotropaic magic, the bane of all hungry ghosts: good-natured and genuine mockery.
Why is mocking laughter so powerful? Because it is one of the original rituals of exclusion. Because it says to everything that lurks and slinks in the grass: "We see you!" A moral strategy requires above all that its ultimate intentions remain camouflaged: plausible deniability and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own forms of violence is the sure sign one is dealing with moral tactics.
What happens when this kind of thought impacts a thoroughly moralized creature? Let’s slow the film and analyze the crater. Firstly, there is the unconscious recognition that what’s being said is true: first shock. Almost immediately or even in a sense preceding with that uncanny speed of unconsciousness, there comes the repression of this knowledge: second wave. Then comes the most visible layer of debris. The repression alone is not sufficient to ensure safety from the danger of such thoughts: a secondary reinforcement at the conscious level covers the tracks of the repression. This is the meaning of "sanctimoniousness", and is what is generally understood to be moral phenomena itself: the dance of masks, the shuffling of feet, the shouting in unison - in order to distract themselves, us, and wishfully the truth itself from detecting the trace of the original impact. They must believe that they do not know that they believe me: that is the minimum number of moves required to create the genuinely moral attitude.
But there’s still more: in our own time we are surrounded by more sophisticated subjects in whom these first three stages are only preliminary and still an inadequate disguise - there’s a kind of arms race between moral posturing and psychological acuity going on behind the scenes. What often follows moral outrage is a kind of semi-conscious embarrassment, followed quickly by its own form of erasure: a façade of disillusioned irony, which is largely the projection of that embarrassment wrapped in a practiced affect of superiority - "I’m ashamed for you". How many moments of confused self-doubt does this analysis unpack for my brothers and sisters? We are not winning this or any other race for arms.
The Moral Disease, §61-62
I teach defense against moral censure for those who need it. However, I also teach the exploitation of moral censure for the sake of personal growth: there are no truths quite like the truths that emerge in the midst of a struggle for the moral high ground. Nasty dangerous lies are mixed with some of the most precious fragments of truth. When a modern wretch feels himself cornered, when his fictitious justifications are in peril, he will finally unsheath his crooked daggers: the tip may be poisoned with lies, but the blade is sharpened with truths. This sharp edge is actually a treasure not worth passing up: being blamed as morally reprehensible is an opportunity to learn about your weaknesses and delusions. Many a false friend will in that moment unveil some observation he’s kept hidden, some secret about your character you have not quite admitted to yourself: therefore while it’s essential not to take him seriously, it’s also unwise to discard all his censure as though it had no value. Those who merely dismiss what stings in an argument, will repeat the experience many times. What haunts you, could yet be an ally.
The problems is of course one of untangling: unfortunately there is no way to extract the worthwhile message from the ore of bluster and blame, but to work through each distortion in turn. This means nothing less than undergoing your enemy’s own undone emotional work: an exhausting toil, the rewards of which are often enough a realization about oneself, which one should have already known - but we are fools about ourselves, without exception. In addition, the more generous hearts are generous fools who require half a lifetime to unlearn their generosity where it makes them fools.
The only good news is that the more you undertake this exhausting toil, the easier it becomes. Doing the homework of lazy souls: that’s largely our fate, for as long as we are committed to the rewards of truthfulness. But don’t be misled: the ability and commitment to tell the truth to oneself, will for a long time make you weaker and more vulnerable - hence its rarity. Not until you have refined your own perception, cleared out the accumulated underbrush of emotional counterformation, and gained the confidence that comes from years of indentured servitude to a world of committed neurosis, will this path begin to offer an advantage. One day your ability to tell the truth will be more valuable than the willingness to live a life of clever consoling lies: the power imbalance here is immense at first, and will seem hopeless. Moreover truthfulness is always a liability, because it will always greatly complicate the task of self-advocacy and make you careful, hesitant, and analytical - there’s always more to learn. The real turning point comes when you feel you’ve had enough of learning and honesty and humility, and become ready for your hostility: refined, honest, clairvoyant hostility emitted by a compulsively compassionate soul, is one of the more beautiful tapestries of human psychology - and not easily defeated nor forgotten.
Even the average human creature, with his average bemuddled intelligence, is extremely adept at crafting the barbed lure: just enough truth to compel you, with a nasty hook embedded in the meat. The cleverness at work here is entirely unconscious and as ancient as the primate line at least: it is a function of the tribal instincts of peer competition for scarce resources, in which no means is too base or out of bounds. Among men, there is always the background of the hunting ritual in which male alliance counts more than any other bond - and therefore healthy men have a sense of fair play. Among women this does not prevail, and their competition is always potentially much more vicious: but modernity is such that we are all more or less tribeless women and incompetent men, and therefore the rules of honor play no role except in making some of us more stupid and vulnerable.
Make no mistake: your indentured servitude to your ideal of "truth", is quite sensible and obvious to the merest bystander. A glance at your face reveals this weakness to the tribal instincts of competition, and will therefore be used against you at the earliest opportunity: many social behaviors can be analyzed as forms of the probing skirmish, in which defenses are tested and weaknesses charted, gauged, and profiled. The more desperately socially ambitious types spend most of their energetic lives planning and preparing their next attack: that feeling you may occasionally have, that "everyone’s talking about me the moment I leave the room", is not always mere paranoia. Envy is not a peripheral annoyance of social function: envy is what fuels at least half of all social behaviors. Nothing forms shallow friendship faster than a shared envy.
Refining and reviving paranoid hypervigilance is one of the more dangerous tasks ahead of us in this rare art, in which we repeatedly abandon and return to the deep wells of mistrust. Many cases of "social anxiety" amount to nothing but the repressed hostility of a previously healthy creature, grown exhausted, abused, and slowly convinced of the pathology of its responses. The healthiest course of recovery for some of the most socially anxious among us, is the cultivation of unmitigated hostility.
Nowhere in the terror-stricken atmosphere of moral panic which infuses 21st century academic psychology, in the preventative political posturing which quakingly expects banishment at the merest misstep, will you find the advice I just gave: I’m quite aware that I’m supposed to don a moral mien of condescending compassion at the sight of anxiety, and assure the victim that his paranoia is entirely misplaced. I’m quite aware also, that much of what modernity teaches, prepares us for communal sacrifice: the stronger natures serve no purpose, and the tribal instinct to purge outliers and strange variables, only grows more responsive. The threshold for the activation of rituals of exclusion drops steadily in response to the atmosphere of faithless tribelessness with which modernity is infused: the ambitious moral actor benefits from a nameless fear which justifies the "perpetual emergency" of moral authority. Once you know how to read, you will find that the message says: "Keep them anxious and blaming themselves." One of the most important insights of Foucault, is that nameless alienated anxiety is no mere unfortunate byproduct of realized modernity, it is the prerequisite to its optimal functioning. This "compassion" so lauded and fondled, this concern for the anxious, ill, and depressed, is also not merely disguise: it is the reinforcing pathologization of psychosomatic disease. Modernity must continually neutralize the potential for empowerment within every disease by redirecting blame into the body of the afflicted. The hospital is the school is the prison: psychosomatic disease must be institutionalized in order to become another useful modularity of systemic function - that’s Foucaultian horror. But if we can manage to generate internalized insight out of what is otherwise merely intellectual discourse and bad faith mimicry, we have come away with something far more valuable than most expect from mere "thinking": the art of spiritual self-defense.
One of the greatest obstacles to a sensitive soul in developing the power of clarified hostility, is that many of us have a lot to prove - to ourselves. Some of us are afraid we cannot love. Some of us fear an incapacity for friendship. Some of us have learned to despise our own inhibition and reserve, such that we become intentionally sloppy and permissive in a bad imitation of generosity and fun. Some of us feel the need to punish ourselves for our superiority and self-deference. Some of us have just grown too weary of loneliness and will tolerate anything as reprieve.
In most cases, such exaggerated fears prove to be not only an absurd miscalculation, but a positive inversion of a repeated scenario of earlier trauma: strong children blame themselves for the limitations of their environment. She was very capable of love, but no one loved her when she needed it; he was an excellent friend, but no one deserved it; his reserve was born of dignity and pride, but which isolated him and generated resentment in those who lacked it - and so on.
It’s rare for the truly inadequate and emotionally limited to feel limited: their neurosis is part of a socially adaptive package, which functions as long as the social contexts do not shift too rapidly. The arrival of an outlier, an exception, a prime specimen is what upsets them and makes them feel inadequate: therefore their dangerous unconscious malice, which works overtime and overnight…
Unfortunately there is no substitute for the acquisition of sufficient bad experience. A long meandering journey among the many varieties of ordinary betrayal, an education aboard the HMS Beagle of confusion and doubt, cannot be replaced. My kind of student must have risked his self-respect in the effort to gain it back: nothing less suffices for the establishment of a foundation of confidence deep enough to withstand the resistances ahead. Everything tells us to turn back: often enough it seems that anyone with a shred of worth is already permanently aligned with the agenda of universal compassion. We find only ugly bigotry as an alternative, and we learn to suppress our hostility all the more so that no one may find out how ugly it’s growing there in the neglected dark. Anxiety is a product of instinctual frustration: this deceptively simple formula, which to an ethologist or veterinarian or dogpound clerk is self-evident, has become a strangely magic key to the unravelling of modern psychosomatic disease. But the further elaboration I’ve discovered runs thus: anxiety inverts into persecution.
Therefore what do I teach? Prophylactic hostility for those most targeted by this systemic anonymous persecution, which hovers on the horizon and remains fragmented only so long as no coalescing target appears. The COVID affair has taught me to trace the seeds of fascism deep in every minor fissure of civilizational maladaptation: in every sputtering beginning to the tribal instincts of ritual exclusion, in every social fragmentation which makes us modern folk so ridiculous and frequently out of place, in the many overlapping agendas and slowly crumbling institutions desperately seeking new ground and justification - in the misery of the modern body, are the seeds of fascism.