July 2016

On Dehumanisation by Unrealistic Expectations: In the Wake of Elie Wiesel's Death

Some of the reactions to Elie Wiesel’s death yesterday prompted me to go back to a certain strand of thinking I was developing at the time, about what could be termed “a consumerist theory of the good”. I began mulling over it several years ago, noticing the frequency with which claims about democratic life and ideals, and especially their incapacity to fully deliver on their aspirations, are voiced in the same tone used to complain to customer service that one’s iPhone doesn’t work properly, or that there somehow exists a mismatch between the technical specs on the box and the devoice’s actual performance.

This confusion of political ideals with consumerist discontent with unfulfilled technical specs is worrying for a number of reasons, that go to the heart of the fundamental difference between a fully-controlled manufactured product and an open-ended and often messy interdependent social system. But it is also troubling because it advances at the same time a metaphysical perception of the good life, that is also at its heart deeply non-humane.

And so, this perception mocks individuals for failing to exemplify divine moral standards, and shoots them down as phoneys and hypocrites for such a “failure”. It sneers at any human aspiration that is unable to fully realise itself. And is so invested in its criticalist mission to relentlessly point out the gap between ideals and reality, that it conveniently exempts itself from the need to say something about the good life that recognises the complexity of human associations and of their histories, self-understandings, experiences, traumas and aspirations, which cannot be reduced to the factory-settings equivalent of moral and political philosophy.

No human is a saint. No association of human can fully epitomise a vision of the good life that is atemporal, flaw-free and perfect. The expectation that they will - and should - be so, and the unavoidable disappointment that results from it, is in itself a form of dehumanisation by unrealistic expectations. It might make a certain self-styled community of the good feel good about itself; but it systematically kills the one force of human nature that is indispensable for making the world a better place: hope. And a world devoid of hope is a world devoid of humaneness. Holocaust survivors’ memoirs are a good place to see just how much.