Monday, July 8, 2013

Collaboration: Still A Dirty Word

The young Hannah Arendt
I went to see the Hannah Arendt movie last week. I thought it was great -- but this post isn't really about that. This post is about the ways we -- we here in 21st century North America -- are being snookered into thinking that going along with things is somehow a virtue.

Nowadays we don't call it "collaboration." We call it working well in groups, being a team player, being a good fit. But in the right contexts, modern collaboration is sinister in ways relevantly similar to the paradigm case of collaboration -- working with, and supporting, the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust.

As maybe you know, in the early 60s Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she argued (among other things) that Eichmann, a Nazi administrator who organized many of the trains in which Jews were sent to their deaths, was acting primarily through a kind of failure to think. This is not "I was just following orders." This is more abdicating one's will entirely to an external force. Eichmann, she says, adopted the principle of always doing what Hitler and the Party said to do; in failing to judge for himself, he became capable of perpetrating evil of vast proportions. (A good essay on the distinction is here).

This book made a lot of people very angry, and it still does. Some of the anger was in response to a part of the book where she questions the behavior of Jewish leaders who helping to organize Nazi activities by drawing up lists and misrepresenting the facts. Some of it was more directly aimed at the thesis that Eichmann was a kind of careerist joiner, a moron, the kind of guy who can only speak in clichés. Some people found the tone of her book -- objective, cold, sometimes ironic -- inappropriate.

Some of the people Arendt enraged were her university colleagues. There's a great scene in the movie depicting the immediate aftermath of an impassioned speech -- in defense of her views, in defense of always trying to find the truth, in defense of taking a philosophical and detached point of view to understand the complete moral collapse in Europe during the Holocaust. She's just been told her colleagues will do everything they can to get her out of the university. She goes to eat lunch, and she sits there alone, calmly eating, while everyone glares at her.

As I was watching that scene I had a small thought about university life: even though tenure is meant to protect the ability to say unpopular things, it is really hard to fight with the group of people with whom you have to work everyday, and will have to work everyday, probably until you retire.

And it seems to me it's getting harder.  The university, like the rest of the world, puts more and more emphasis on cooperation and interdependence. More and more things are done in groups; every problem has a committee; there's all this handwringing about Why Can't Humanities Be Collaborative Like The Science and then we can Make Some Progress. As I've said before, I believe there's a reason research in the humanities is often carried out by people working alone. 

And mulling it over over the next few days, as I read Eichmann in Jerusalem, I was struck by several thoughts about the modern attack on individual judgment and going against the grain.

First there's the obvious: when employers require your social networking passwords, when peaceful protestors are tear-gassed, when the fucking CIA is reading everyone's email, well, yes, Virginia, it's hard to speak unpopular truths.

But there's also something more amorphous going on. There's this whole celebration of collaboration. It's like we forgot it was once a dirty word. We celebrate crowd-sourced knowledge and group activities and working in teams. Often we hear the logic of "If X is going to happen anyway, we need to make X a bit less awful than it would be otherwise."

Sometimes that might be true, but sometimes it's not, and when it's not, this idea -- that if it's going to happen, we should make it happen in a humane way -- displays the logic of collaboration in the worst sense. One of the most striking arguments of Eichmann in Jerusalem is that if the Jewish leaders hadn't helped organize things, yes, there would have been pain and misery, but there would not have been the massive number of deaths. Just doing nothing, she says, would have been better than helping. So collaborating in the interest of lessening the evil can not only be morally mistaken but can also lead to worse consequences overall.

Right at the heart of the matter is individual judgment. In his excellent Introduction to the newest edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem, the Israeli author Amos Elon talks about Arendt's response to the idea that it's essentially impossible to judge another's actions: if you weren't there, how can you know?  Elon says of Arendt: "Her position is that if you say to yourself, 'Who am I to judge?' you are already lost." To do good -- even to avoid doing evil -- you have to think and judge for yourself.

But how often in the modern world do you hear that?  "I can't say," "I wasn't there, so I don't know," and "Don't judge!"

The modern way of policing the new pro-collaboration is to call out independent thinkers for their diva-ism. Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden are called "narcissists" -- the idea being that people who go against the grain are somehow egotistical in the very act of thinking for themselves.

So remember kids: Collaboration, once a dirty word, still a dirty word.

1 comment:

Terri said...

This is great!