Thursday, June 08, 2006

JP2 vs JPS?

When I see reports of the crowds that adulated the Pope on his visit to Poland, as well as when I talk to various Catholics about their views regarding Ratzinger, I find myself struck by an attitude I find very peculiar but which seems perfectly normal to them. I am speaking of a type of uncritical adoration that assigns to Ratzinger any and all virtues and is totally unwilling to consider the possibility of any faults. The fervour of the feeling seems to be doubled by participation in mass meetings of the type that the last Pope was most fond of and this Pope has gone on to copy – great outdoor masses at which the faithful are encouraged to unite in the their shared feelings.

The mechanism is a very powerful one and has been known for some time: large groups, participation in a common activity, powerful emotions. The effect is intoxicating and quite capable of washing away any subtleties and doubts, leaving a profound identification with the group and the idealisation of the leader. This tool has been used by every demagogue as well as, to a lesser degree, by most political leaders that are not in fact demagogues. With JP2 it has become one of the main tools used by the Vatican to rally (if you pardon the pun) the troops – the outdoor masses having more to do with Nuremberg torch-light parades than with reverent contemplation. This by no means makes either Pope a Nazi, of course. But it is profoundly troubling that they should be willing to embrace a tool which has been shown to so readily lead to the subsumption of the individual and which fit so well in the hands of the worst enemies of humanity. Especially since it leads to very similar effects when used by the Church.

What is also interesting is that – just as in the case of superstitious beliefs – the people who express irrational adulation for a man they have never actually met are, otherwise, intelligent and sensible. One might say that this just shows that to be rational we must not allow our emotions to rule our heads. That, however, seems to me to be a very shallow understanding of the situation. First of all, I do not think that emotions generally play a negative role in terms of our ability to act reasonably. Indeed, I agree with Dylan Evans’ view that emotions are an essential element of our rationality. Therefore, I would argue that the truth is much closer to saying that we must not allow our emotions to be ruled by others. And even that claim has fundamental problems – after all, when we love our, emotions are at the mercy of our beloved. Regardless, the similarity between superstitious beliefs and how we fall prey to group feelings gives more food for thought regarding the nature of our reasoning.

One explanation for the attraction of uncritically accepting the views and values of another and holding them in uncritical regard is that by doing so we attempt to relieve ourselves of the burden of responsibility, investing all of that responsibility in that person. Sartre would call this an example of bad faith, the point being that the responsibility none-the-less remains with us.


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