Judging by the Seminar: On Buses and Fascism

Most people do not place much faith in bus schedules. Congestion and traffic lights always conspire to delay buses by five minutes or more. When I moved to London, Ontario, I learnt quite swiftly that the arrival and departure of buses in this city do not follow any logical system. At least their randomness allows me to practice the art of waiting and thus cultivate the virtue of patience.

I do not have a car or a driver’s license, so the bus is the only mode of transportation that can take me from my neighborhood to the university campus. I expect that I will regret my decision not to take a driving test when I am shivering at a bus stop in the middle of the harsh Ontario winter. Then again, I am a dangerously incompetent driver. On my very last driving lesson, my instructor advised me never to get behind the wheel of a car ever again. He assured me that lives were at stake. Driving, like filing your taxes or installing your Wi-Fi router, is one of those things that needs to be done right or not at all. I suppose that waiting at a bus stop is the price one must pay for not committing any acts of manslaughter through clumsy driving.

While I look down the road in the hope of spotting the approaching bus, I think idly about the set text for today’s seminar: Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. The book’s editor, Ronald Beiner, compiled Arendt’s lecture notes on Kant’s Critique of Judgement to supply a surrogate for the book that Arendt never finished. According to Arendtian lore, a sheet of paper was found in her typewriter after her death that bore two epigraphs and the title Judging. It was the first page of the final part of her trilogy The Life of the Mind. So, what is judging?

Judgment has a bad reputation nowadays. Being judgmental is perceived as a vice and conjures up the image of an entitled prig who believes that his opinions are unquestionably superior and meritorious. Moreover, judgment is too closely related to prejudice (Latin. praeiudicium—“prior justice”) for anyone to think that there is anything redeemable about it.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can rescue the exercise of judgment from accusations of judgmental-ness and prejudice. After all, stubbornness of mind is not an inherent quality of judgment. In fact, Arendt quotes a letter that Kant wrote to his friend and pupil Marcus Herz in 1770: “You know that I do not approach reasonable objections with the intention of merely refuting them but that in thinking them over I always weave them into my judgments and afford them the opportunity of overturning all my cherished beliefs.” Judgment cannot take place without an open mind. Since we share the world with others, no one can make a claim or present an argument without encountering someone else’s opinions and objections. Furthermore, Arendt argues that this acknowledgment of the existence and intelligence of other people is already weaved into a judgment. She explains that imagination—the capacity to make present what is absent—enables us to anticipate the responses of others and imagine why they might agree or object to our opinions. In a sense, imagination enables us to host a roundtable discussion in our own minds.

It is apt that I am thinking about judgment on my way to a seminar. Whereas lectures present authoritative answers, seminars provoke curious discussions. Incidentally, the word seminar originates from the Latin seminarium— “breeding ground, plant nursery”— which, in turn, derives from seminarius— “of seed.” No one is expected to present a fully-grown tree of an idea in a roundtable discussion (Truthfully speaking, few scholars seek definitive answers unless they are consulting the O.E.D.). Every remark or question is a scattering of conceptual seeds that might grow into an offshoot that takes the conversation into an unforeseen direction. There is something playful and rewarding about seminars. Debates remind me of games of chess, in which two combatants must compete until one of them emerges as the victor. Seminars, on the other hand, evoke the image of several friends jogging together in the park on a Sunday afternoon. No one needs to win; there is no score. Just as jogs exercise body, seminars broaden and sharpen the mind.

Although scholars are usually caricatured as solitary and unsociable types, we crave and cherish the company of our peers. Even when we appear to spend too much time in silence and solitude, we are never completely alone. Whenever we quote a statistic or reshape an old idea, we enter a genuine relation with our predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants. Yet, I fear that this joyful and spirited play between history and the future is under threat.

Like many others, I have puzzled over the meaning and purpose of a scholarly life in the age of revitalized fascism. Times of crisis can inspire feelings of futility and fatalism. I worry that someone who is prepared to plow through a crowd of innocent people in a sports car may not be bothered about the fact that graduate students attend and participate in seminars. Nonetheless, something as simple as sitting in a room with others and discussing a topic respectfully is antithetical to fascism.

Fascism offers a simple explanation of the world for those who cannot confront the unpredictability and complexity of modern life. Different groups are cast in the roles of the good guys and the bad guys. Nothing is safe or sacred whenever fascists plait their ideology into the texture of life. Anyone who publishes an inconvenient fact is accused of spreading fake news; anyone who stands up for the rights of others is ridiculed as an “SJW.”

Fascism overpowers imagination with delusion. Whereas imagination requires the humility to admit that someone could rightfully disagree with you, delusion requires the staunch belief that anyone and anything that contradicts your worldview is objectively wrong. Everyone knows that it is easier to delude oneself than imagine the perspective of someone else. Novelists struggle for years to grasp the essence of what it means to live and act as a human being before they can craft fictional characters that “ring true.” In this light, one can understand the appeal of Ayn Rand’s novels to right-wing libertarians. Her characters are nothing more than mediums for competing ideologies. No depth, ambiguity, or mystery is permitted in the system of Rand’s objectivism. Think about the rape scene in The Fountainhead. Under fascism, intimacy and tenderness can play no part in sexual intercourse; there is only abuse, aggression, and domination. That’s why contemporary fascism is so keen to defend our pernicious and pervasive rape culture. Fascism refuses to accept that people deserve dignity even when they are inconvenient. Women deserve respect even when they withhold consent. Protestors are not terrorists just because they disagree with you.

Riding on a bus teaches me a lot about living with others. As much as I would like everyone on this bus to be quiet enough for me to read Simone Weil in peace, I do not suffer from the requisite megalomania to think that I should force them into silence and submission. People cannot be manipulated like pixels on Photoshop.

Noise is just a part of public space.

I think about a counter-protest that I attended recently in opposition to the gathering of an anti-Islamic group that claimed to promote the right to free speech. While they yelled their hateful speeches into a megaphone, we banged on drums and blew on whistles to drown them out. Later, a member of that group approached me and asked why I wanted to deny his right to speak freely. I told him that our confrontation had nothing to do with free speech. Given the authority, their group would have ordered the police to arrest every single participant in the counter-protest. They did not want us to listen. They wanted us to be silent.

Fascism cannot tolerate the existence of seminars, because they prove that the alt-right’s conception of the right to free speech is just a pale facsimile of the real thing. Seminars reveal that coming closer to the truth requires conversation and collaboration. Broadening one’s mind means opening oneself up to the sacred inconsistency of the world. In a more mundane sense, it means waiting for a bus even when it is a few minutes late.

I am sitting in the seminar room now. People nod in recognition whenever someone new enters the room. There is casual chatter about the reading for the week. Someone scribbles a few prompts into their notebook to remind them of significant points to raise as soon as the discussion gets underway. Someone starts the seminar with a question and someone else offers a tentative answer, then someone refines the answer with stipulation, which, in turn, prompts someone else to pose another question. As I listen, I think: “Fascism has no home here.”

 

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