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Totalitarianism in your pocket: Activism is in need of philosophy Part II

In the previous article, I outlined a problem. In this companion piece, I hope to further clarify that problem and illustrate my solution to it. I will provide a brief overview of my analysis here, but return to Part I to properly orient yourself.

This problem can be boiled down to a few components. Complex social justice issues are oversimplified through a process of dialectical thinking, which is the type of thinking people adopt when they believe they are being progressive and moving past ‘bad’ mindsets. This dialectical process, which buys the myth of progress, generates ideas that are easily reproduced, hence their simplicity. Finally, at the end of this process, we are left with homogenized ideas that become cultural standards.

These ‘homogenized ideas’ lead to the production and reproduction of totalitarian ideologies. I can anticipate the response of the reader at this point: “Are you claiming that some activists are totalitarians?” Yes, in fact, I am. But it does not end there. These attitudes are parts of totalitarian ideologies precisely because they are unexamined and lead us to talk about identity and social justice in the exact same way in any situation.

Totalitarianism is not just a reference to certain forms of government. Totalitarianism refers to an entire cultural regime in its social, political and epistemological aspects. In other words, totalitarianism can and does appear in our everyday lives.  

If Huffington Post, Buzzfeed or Upworthy can make a claim in the form of a listicle, then that claim likely generates from totalitarian ideologies. “Alright, so these ideas are totalitarian, but if they help people, then why shouldn’t we value them? They are practical methods to achieving liberation.” My response: these forms of activism based on totalitarian ideologies are bad because we consecrate them as social justice doctrine. Sharing, liking, reblogging and verbally regurgitating these ideas are worse than doing nothing because they grant us the illusion that we are doing something. In actuality, we are still doing nothing if we believe ‘calling someone out’ for ‘problematic’ behavior is progressive in any way.

This is why you and I have totalitarianism in our pockets. The devices that bring these homogenized ideas to us are not to blame; it is our organization of society around technology and the totalitarian ideologies that homogenize ideas and make them reproducible.

My claim is not some facile ‘return to nature and the outdoors’ pseudo-spiritualism. I am calling for a radical change in the ways we think and live given our unique historical circumstances. How do we achieve this change?

I propose examining life the way the philosopher Walter Benjamin did: pay attention to the stuff we neglect, throw out and disregard. The neatly packaged, reproducible social justice content is nothing more than a trompe l’oeil for everyday life. Turn away from the sacred and jump into the profane. This is Benjamin’s profane illumination.

Let me clarify: there are no objects that are naturally sacred or profane. We make them so with the way we organize our lives and thoughts around them. To profane something, viz. profane illumination of totalitarian ideologies, means to neutralize that thing and make it lose the aura of convenience that holds our attention.

When writers like DaShanne Stokes for Huffpost Impact make listicles about discrimination and call it social justice, they are not advocating a radical position; they have not neutralized discrimination. They have just spoken about it and passed off their empty speech as a stepping stone towards justice.

Activism must neutralize what it seeks to change. If activists are content just talking about discrimination, just calling people out and just sharing news articles, then the oppressive forces that cause so much heartache and violence in our world will continue to exist. This is why activism is in need of philosophy. Philosophy, as conceptualized by Walter and those he has influenced, is a discipline whose reason for being is to profane the everyday aspects of our life in order to reveal totalitarian ideologies and the influence they have on us.

How will activism implement this method of profane illumination? I believe a better approach to realizing justice is to stop taking the things we see every day for granted.

Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (which is not a novel, but a complex work in philosophical montage) is a series of profane illuminations that take everyday objects and reveal how these “really real” things are saturated with totalitarian ideologies. The arcades of Paris were saturated with the 19th century bourgeois desires that eventually led to the decay of Paris as a city in the 20th century.

This is what is a called a materialist approach, but it is distinct from other philosophies that claim to be materialist. By examining daily life through the powerful lens of philosophy, the relationship between abstract ideologies and concrete materials becomes apparent. Thus, we can open a path toward neutralizing the things that reproduce totalitarian ideologies.

We do not have roofs of crystal glass over our heads like they did in the Paris of the 19th century. Instead, we have screens of crystal glass that fascinate our vision daily. I could provide you with examples of how to do this, but then I may risk crafting the same reproducible junk I spent so long criticizing. Instead, I encourage you to practice profaning the everyday aspects of your life. Explore for yourself what that may entail and how it may encourage a pluralistic approach to social justice as opposed to a hidden totalitarian approach

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