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How Some People are "Okay" with Racism: Lessons from Plato's Cave and Sartre's Mauvaise Foi

November 22, 2016

In perhaps Plato’s most famous discussion in the Republic, known as the “Allegory of the Cave”, a group of people are chained to chairs, deep within the roots of a mountain, forced to watch shadows dance and flit across the wall.  These watchers believe without question that the shadows are the whole of reality.  But suddenly, inexplicably, one of these shackled souls manages to break free, look about the cave and realize that it is but a puppet show and that reality lies outside.  The liberated soul then leaves the cave and comes face to face with that reality.

Plato finishes the story by having the liberated soul return to the cave.  Those who remain in the cave find the tale of the outside world to be fantastic nonsense, mock the liberated soul relentlessly and continue watching the shadows. 

What I want to stress here is Plato’s point: with knowledge comes moral responsibility.  The liberated soul, after coming into contact with truth, was immediately duty-bound to try and convince the others of that truth.  Put another way—and generalized—we could say that the possession of knowledge implies ethical action.  Knowledge is not something that inertly resides in your head like a paperclip in a cup. 

It is interesting to note that ethical obligations, according to Plato, come into existence at the most abstract of levels: not in the midst of the cave, surrounded by others, but in the pure arena of a soul’s direct contact with truth.  Plato clearly establishes a link between ethics and knowledge.  Given such a link, I am often puzzled as to why many people think that Plato’s thought, and indeed philosophy in general, is some kind of abstract, cloistered, indifferent academic game. 

Jean Paul Sartre might help resolve this puzzlement.  Sartre was extremely critical of the separation of knowledge from ethics.  But he was also deeply aware of how strong the human tendency is to make that separation and live according to that separation. 

Simply put: it is comforting the make that separation. 

Sartre thought that separating our knowledge from our moral obligations is an attempt to make ourselves blameless, to live without being responsible.  We say things like “I know that what is happening is wrong, but it is not my fault; I cannot do anything about it.”  We also say things like, “I may have contributed to what is happening, but that is not what I intended.”  Finally, we may say things like “I am doing something about it.  Look at my latest post on Facebook—or my blog!! Done!” 

The list of such evasions, self-delusions and instances of self-comforting goes on and on. 

At the bottom of it all, says Sartre, is that human beings flee from their responsibilities.  Humans flee from their actual freedom.  Why?  Because human freedom is deep and daunting.  Your freedom stares you in the face and says: “like it or not, you are involved. You are part of the world, especially since you know about the world.” 

This is difficult to hear. 

Sartre, with his flair for arresting metaphors, likes to say that confronting our freedom is tantamount to staring into an abyss.  

It is frightening to look into the abyss of freedom.  It causes vertigo.  We desperately want to avert our gaze. 

This flight from freedom and responsibility Sartre calls “mauvaise foi” – “bad faith”.  It is nothing short of continual self-deception. 

Those people who both vehemently deny being racist and yet supported Donald Trump, whose political platform included racist views, have indeed found a way to be “okay” with racism.  Such people are what Plato would have called an internally divided soul and what Sartre would have called those who live in bad faith. 

Of course many who support Trump would claim that Trump’s views are by no means racist.  That response is a pretty tough sell considering the number of racists who now openly cheer Trump’s electoral victory.  Richard B. Spencer, whom the Southern Poverty Law Centre calls an “academic racist”, is the leading ideologue of the current alt-right movement.  Spencer says that the alt-right has a “psychic connection to Trump”.  Spencer also notes that white identity is at the core of both the alt-right and the Trump movements—despite the fact, he says, that most Trump voters are not “willing to articulate it as such.” 

Racists, as far as I know, don’t cheer for and have psychic connections to progressive and inclusive politicians. 

But on the other hand, many others who rejected Trump and his views have found ways to be okay with other kinds of unethical situations.  I am definitely not saying that all unethical situations are equally problematic, just that mauvaise foi runs across the political spectrum. 

How many people claim that they are against all forms of cruelty to animals, but still eat factory-farmed meat? 

How many people claim that they are in favour of equal rights for all citizens, but ignore the fact that First Nations children have disproportionately less funding for their education programs?

How many people claim that they are in favour of human rights, but enthusiastically support our federal government, which sells arms to countries with atrocious human rights records? 

This list could go on and on. 

Sartre’s deepest point about mauvaise foi, I think, is that we are very good at recognizing it and denouncing it in others, but deny it in ourselves.  The essence of living in mauvaise foi is to delude yourself into thinking that you are not living in mauvaise foi.  C.S. Lewis, in his characteristic literary flair, put it in theological terms: the greatest achievement of the devil is to have convinced humanity that he does not exist. 

Mauvaise foi?  Trapped in the cave?  Deluded about the devil?  What are we to do?  

All is not lost. 

It is possible, but not easy, to stare into that abyss. However, one cannot spend one’s entire lifetime, every minute, staring into it.  Doing that, I suspect, would be a blueprint for despair—the worst of the vices according to Saint Thomas Aquinas. 

Nonetheless, Descartes tells us that, from time to time, we should thoroughly and critically examine all of our beliefs.  

So every once in a while, we should each at least try to face that awesome sense of responsibility that we have towards others and the world and take some real action to make the place better.  Perhaps little by little we can overcome our tendencies to avoid our ethical responsibilities, be a little more unified in our souls, live a little less deeply in bad faith and continually inch our way out of the cave.   

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