Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Dialogue and Demons–Plato on the Dangers of Normalization

By Ada Bronowski

“What? Can the devil speak true?”
Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, sc3.

There is a great deal of talk of ‘normalization’ in the numerous, and righteous, political and societal commentaries of recent weeks and months: ‘Trump should not be normalized’, ‘Illiberal authoritarianism must not be normalized’, ‘Against the normalization of fascism’, and so on. The sting, however, is in the tail, and precisely in the ‘-ize’ of ‘normal-ize’. For what the verb ‘normalize’ already tells us, is that the process of becoming has been broached. To normalize is to already be in the process of so doing. Such is the inchoative force of verbs compounded from nouns depicting states, such as ‘normal’, or ‘real’, ‘ideal’ or ‘legal’. Not only do such verbs indicate that a change to that state has already begun, but they also imply that the change is from one opposite end of the spectrum to the other: from illegal to legal, abnormal to normal. Grammar always anticipates reality. And if we’re wondering about normalizing Trump, it is because it is too late, what was abnormal is now already framed in terms of normality. This post is about what exactly it is that we are doing when we move things from one state to another, and whether the actual thing or person undergoing this transferal from one state to another is actually altered by it.

For there is a further twist imposed by the grammar onto reality: that a thing or person is made to change its state, for example to become normal, by the mere speech act of having been ‘normalized’. That marijuana should be legalized, artificially turns it from illegal on Monday, to its new state of legality on Tuesday. But the stuff itself, surely has not changed in the slightest from Monday to Tuesday. A pumpkin, glamorized into a golden carriage by the waving of a wand, is never really a golden carriage but in the eye of the beholder, and while the enchantment lasts. There is a gap between the thing or person themselves, and the state we are moving them into: from idealizing to normalizing, things are never naturally in those states, but are propelled into them by an external force, grounded in more or less good reasons. The responsibility for shifting people into different states, normalizing them, is thus on us, who do the normalizing. But do we fully understand what the consequences are?

In the 2002 French presidential election, to the utter horror of 82.2% of the French voting population, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, came second in the first round, which meant the battle for the presidency, in the second round was between him and the center-right candidate, the then out-going president, Jacques Chirac. 82.2% was the score the latter made (against 19.88% in the first round) – a score worthy of a banana-republic, and a far cry from the “pays des droits de l’homme” – in a massive voters’ engagement to fend off the ultra-nationalist, xenophobic fascism Le Pen represented. Le Pen, who founded the National Front in 1972, had been consistently vilified in the name of the xenophobic, antisemitic, populist positions he incarnated. He was vigorously ostracized by the mainstream media, throughout the thirty years which led to the 2002 shock election. The most prestigious journalists had downright refused to interview him – famously Anne Sinclair, in 1995, then queen supreme of political TV shows, with her program ‘7 sur 7’, was home, “sick”, the day Le Pen was finally granted an interview. Though the movement grew, it did so begrudgingly.

But things changed. The moral high ground symbolized by the refusal of Sinclair to meet Le Pen, was turned upside down. It injected a renewed, but flawed idea of the morality of dialogue, because it conflated (liberal) ideology with morality. Whether out of hope, or a belief that dialogue is better, or out of a sense of a mission, to haul out into the open those messages of xenophobia and hate, so that the sunlight of mainstream media exposure would pulverize them, the media and the public debate began to rationalize over the Le Pen movement. The process of normalization was thus engaged.

It gave journalists, with all their moral values, the mistaken, pretentious, idea that in a dialogue with the devil, they can transform him into a good guy, an acceptable partner in a reasonable conversation. But that is, as it turns out, to appeal to a wholly invented, better-side of an interlocutor, in whom that reasonableness is, in fact, non-existent.

15 years after the political earthquake of 2002, Marine Le Pen (daughter of) and now leader of the party has been utterly integrated into the normal political landscape. She now stands a great chance of winning the 2017 election, especially in the wake of Brexit and Trump. Trump’s own victory is to a great extent due to his having been accepted, give or a take a few jokes, into the shared landscape, based on presumed shared values of respect for the reasoning of the Other, that is to say, quite generally, on the principle of the acceptance of other minds. Jean-Marie Le Pen complained all his political life of having been demonized by the media, his daughter presents herself now as ‘un-demonized’, i.e., normalized. Shedding off the demon-image of her father (who openly denied the Holocaust, among other things), she stands for an uninhibited right-wing nationalism, presumed to be ‘reformed’ and with whom ‘we can talk’. Her right-hand man, Florian Philipot is gay, which adds, supposedly, some mainstream panache of normality to the party – though closeted and having sued the gossip magazine who outed him.

That these are mere surface presumptions does not take much sleuthing to uncover. Just looking at her 2017 new year’s wishes video, a roving eye is easily directed to the picture hanging in the background. It is a reproduction of the cardinal Richelieu at the siege of La Rochelle, which took place in 1627-1628, in which the Protestants were quashed after a bitter and long siege of the city by the reigning catholic king, Louis XIII. The subliminal messages here are not difficult to discern, they rhyme with religious intolerance, nationalism, sovereignty and a bloated idea of past grandeur. Nothing has changed from Le Pen father to Le Pen daughter, apart from the attitude of the sphere of public debate, which has helped the National Front to wear mock-acceptable masks, whilst ignoring the background wall-decoration.

A new film, This is Our Land (Chez Nous), due out in France on 22nd February, directed by Lucas Belvaux, and co-authored with Jerome Leroy (who has previously written about this topic in his Le Bloc, 2011), is a fictionalized recounting of Le Pen’s party politics of masking and masquerading the non-normal and the immoral. The Le Pen camp has, in anticipation, already raised the alarm, that they are victims of a new wave of demonization. This is, of course, part of their normalizing strategy, that of being misrepresented and misunderstood by the media. By seriously examining their concerns, the media merely strengthens the normalizing process. It seems, in any case, too little, too late, like in most places today in the West.

A collaborative act of demonization saved France in 2002 from the unthinkable, that collaborative engagement has withered and died today. What exactly is it that we have let happen? Plato, the 5th century BC philosopher had already figured out how dangerous it is to talk to someone you can’t actually talk to. By keeping them in their rightful place, and not attempting to normalize them, we save the balance between truth, falsity and downright non-sense.

Plato’s Monsters 

Plato, apart from being the father of Western philosophy, is also the paradigm of the inclusive conversationalist. He wrote dialogues in which very different kinds of people, from very different walks of life, origin, and class, interacted consensually, and cooperatively, to try to speak their mind, and make themselves understood, at the risk of ending up looking foolish. In this respect, the dialogues are a paragon of patience and politeness, with everyone – however stupid or conceited, however wrong an interlocutor might think his counterpart is. Everyone is given a chance to say their peace. The literature about the dialogue form in Plato is oceanic, discussing whether it is merely a decorative strategy to lure the student of philosophy in, or part and parcel of the kind of philosophy being practiced. What comes before such considerations however, is a basic fact that we might take for granted, but that Plato, in one case in particular, reminds us that we should not:  namely, that the mere consent to talk together, i.e. to listen and to answer, is itself an acknowledgement of a shared landscape of shared values. The interlocutors of the dialogues might disagree on all fundamental notions, like what is Virtue, or Justice, or Courage, or what is good, or what is pleasure, but in accepting to debate about these, in accepting that their views be questioned, they acknowledge the possibility, not of being wrong, but simply of there being a different view from their own; the possibility, in other words, of there being other minds.

Bridges are being built, by the very act of talking. And the lessons in urbane manners, properly speaking in urbanity, which Plato thus teaches us, are also intrinsically linked to the urban settings in which the dialogues take place. Urbane urbanity is no mere play on words, not in ancient Greek (with asteion, urbane, – astu, the city), and not in English, in which a parallel pairing echoes from Latin, in the relation of civility, to civilians, to civilization. Urbanity, civilization – Plato teaches us – consists in building bridges among interlocutors, however divers. And the urban landscape is one in which those bridges have materialized into, for instance, the road from the Piraeus into town (in Plato’s Republic), or the walk along the city walls with its views of the Acropolis (in Plato’s Phaedrus), or the portico outside the courts of justice (in the Euthyphro), and so on and so forth. The landscape of roads and connectors is the landscape of dialogue. The landscape of the horizontal, which determines a common, shared horizon.

What is remarkable, and crucial, to this shared landscape of morals and mortar, is the sheer diversity of the voices heard in the dialogues. Diversity in origin, status and profession: from the supercilious sophists, to a slave-boy, to a magistrate of the city, to a young playwright, to aristocratic statesmen, to admiring young students, to wise foreigners, to experts in mathematics etc. And, fundamentally, diversity in views. The voices are not always in direct opposition, but often are. The urbanity shown by Plato, however, consists precisely in that he lets these voices articulate their perspectives, even as they are being questioned. The questioning enables the interlocutors to unfold and fully explicate their views until their voices peter out into silence because they have been defeated and they acknowledge as much – some more readily than others, but still acknowledge they must, for their defeat is a defeat from reason, and everyone of the interlocutors recognizes this.

Now it is seldom clear whether Plato is endorsing the view being argued for, firstly, because he does not write in his own name, and secondly because the very format of the dialogue, set out in question and answer form, puts the onus of holding to a view the interlocutor, whose view is being questioned, and not on the questioner, nor on the author of the dialogue (Plato). Thus, when the respondent’s view is finally debunked, nobody on the other side, has won anything in return. From there being one certainty at the start, we move onto no certainty, save from the certainty that what was formerly held to be certain is no longer certain. Everyone is now the wiser for the loss – for everyone has been forced to concede that they are not quite sure anymore: the respondent does not know, the questioner does not know, and the author is nowhere to be seen. By that concession, a shared value has been explicitly drawn out: a communion in self-avowed uncertainty, and therefore the possibility to reach out to one another in order to start bridging the gap. Uncertainty, skepticism in other words, is a welcoming foundation of urbanity, civility, politeness and respect.

This seldom happens in an atmosphere of joy, in the dialogues. It is not pleasant to be shown to be wrong, and the shame of this is depicted with many hues, from anger to frustration, to plain running away. But shame is good. Shame is the fertilizer of that shared horizontal landscape of values.

But there is one interlocutor, one in the whole of the Platonic dialogues, whom the main questioner of the dialogue simply refuses to talk to, it is actually “just about impossible to talk to these people”, for “they have no shame”. They are the “earthborn Giants” which Plato presents to us in his dialogue, the Sophist (246a-c). They are people who are so crude that the only things they understand are what they can touch with their hands: “they clutch rocks and trees with their bare hands” – and only that is real for them. The metaphysical issues in question here, are incredibly actual, for these Giants stand for the basest materialists imaginable: scary, self-serving and full of hate for anything which is an obstacle in their paths for self-satisfaction (remind you of anyone?…).

Plato tells us that there is no talking with such people. For them, there is nothing like the soul, nothing like good or bad. Plato goes to some length to paint the ugliest and most terrifying of pictures of these monstrous giants. The young Theaetetus in the dialogue indeed interjects that “they are truly terrible creatures” (246b). For the sake of the progress of the dialogue, the questioner, here the Eleatic Stranger, then adds:

“since it is impossible to talk to these people… we will have to deal with them this way, namely by making them better than they actually are” (246c-d).

And here, we come finally, to the heart of the matter, for this is, in Plato’s words, what normalization comes down to. If we let creatures so base and monstrous join the conversation, we can do this only by pretending, by make-belief, that they are better than they actually are.  And this, we must, in order simply to talk to them. If we talk to them, we normalize them. By normalizing the monsters, we must assume, i.e., hypothesize, that they are no longer monsters.

The degree of vilification Plato goes to, when describing these Giants, as shameless materialists, is, for his standards of politeness and inclusivity, very high indeed. It is, in other words, a statement, and one we should be extremely sensitive to. He proceeds to a proper demonization of the kind of people he insists it is crucial to stay clear from, because there is no possibility of communication with them. Plato, the cleverest of them all, who brings to their knees the worst kind of sarcastic, cynic, unreasonable people (think of Callicles in the Gorgias), insists that, when it comes to the base materialists, who do not even acknowledge the existence of a soul (call it conscience, call it acknowledgement of other minds) we “must refuse to even listen” (Soph. 249d) to these people.

Again, the relation to geography mirrors the state of play: the Giants “clutch” rocks and trees, it is the verb here which expresses their brutishness. It is enough here to recall by comparison, how, in their first virtuous period, the inhabitants of that mythical Atlantis (in Plato’s Critias) took care of the stone, which they quarried, and lovingly fashioned it into bridges and feats of engineered canalization, the heights of civilization (Critias, 116a-b). The verticality of the world of the giants (big rocks and trees), compared to the horizontality of the landscape of dialogue, seals the injunction for incommunicado. You cannot talk to people who behave like this. And it is extremely important for Plato to make this clear, because the minute you do, you are already not talking them, but to a hypothetical, reformed version of them. And therewith lies the danger.  For whilst they continue with their clutching, and their grabbing, we get side-tracked into thinking they are not that bad, because we are actually talking to make-believe avatars of them.

© Alvaro Canovas
Jean-Marie Le Pen: No ordinary tree-hugger…

Plato’s message is loud and clear: demonization helps to keep the violent, the brutish, and the nasty in its place. It clarifies the terms of the debate: who is part of it, and who is unashamed not to be part of it. There is a lot of space for variety and degrees of reasoning and reason within the landscape of shared values, but there is no space for those who refuse point blank to listen and consider, but for a moment that there is another side to a question. That these people should be identified by Plato as the materialists, who only believe in the existence of the stuff they can touch, eat and smell drives explosively home the image of the business tycoon of the golden-walled abode, who is, to all intents and purposes, the current American president. The symbolic verticality of his ‘Tower’, is also a curiously well-pitched echo to the Platonic warnings.

It is no coincidence that the materialist monsters of Plato have resurfaced in an age in which the inclusiveness of the dialogue has seemingly expanded immeasurably, thanks to the internet. The ‘word’ has gone from its biblical Beginning, to digital overload. All voices can and do make a claim for authority, but not all voices are the voices of dialogue. The Giants have now become trolls. But their inarticulacy is as vociferant as ever, as is their shamelessness, which the ease of anonymity encourages.

But taking stock of this should enable us to rediscover the proper conditions for dialogue, and remember Plato. Remember that demons are demons, and put them back where they belong, despite the false seductions of inarticulacy. The media coverage of Trump’s actions, and passions, enforces the normalization which has brought him to power, by ciphering in depth the implications, the reasons, the projections, which are taken to be contained in his every word. As reduced as his vocabulary is, this is in itself a remarkable feat, as the finest minds from amidst our political commentators pour over the fine-grained connotations of words like ‘great’, or ‘first’, or ‘a wall’ – even when it is to conclude that “it won’t work”. Given the fragmented state of play in France, at four months away from the presidential election, things are not looking any better. The refusal to declare that the emperor is naked, to call nonsense, ‘nonsense’, is the first obstacle to get clarity and lead others to clarity.

 

Ada Bronowski is a lecturer in philosophy at the The Queen’s College, Oxford University, her forthcoming book, The Stoics on Lekta: all there is to say, is coming out next year. 

1 thought on “Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Dialogue and Demons–Plato on the Dangers of Normalization

  1. In “Laws,” Plato (or the Athenian, if you will) argues that the wise lawgivers must begin their reign of terror over the Platonic Republic by purging the polis of those who are beneath the high standards of Athenian citizenship, which no doubt includes not only all non-Greeks (‘barbarians’), but all those without the Greek logos (criminals, monsters, demons etc.). In contemporary terms, Plato’s purge of the Greek polis might be seen as precisely what President Trump thinks he’s doing with his immigration ban and migrant purge: purging the American Republic of criminals, monsters, and demons, and therefore Making America Great Again, just like Plato maybe wanted to Make Athens Great Again after the Peloponnesian Wars.

    But in Plato’s own lifetime, who got purged from Periclean Athens? Not just the Sophists like Anaxagoras, or the the artists like Phidias, or the poets… But, a few years later, after the supposed restoration of Athenian democracy, Plato’s guru, Socrates. And where was Plato when Socrates was convicted of treason and heresy against the gods of the polis? And made to commit suicide? Read the “Apology,” and find out. (Answer: Plato was in the audience, offering to go bail for Socrates for thirty minae. (Apology 37b) But Xenophon was out of town…)

    I’m not completely sure what side Plato was on, during all these purges. And I’d be willing to hear arguments that he really was on Socrates’ side, and not on the side of the pro-Spartan oligarchs, although I have my doubts. But I’d be very careful of arguing that Trump & Co. are the demons and monsters to be purged from the American Republic, because that argument can always backfire and be used against you. And then you will be the next to be purged. Or silenced. Or made to commit suicide. Or maybe just ‘put back in your place,’ as this blog appears to argue.

    In “Au Juste,” Jean-Francois Lyotard argues that democratic politics is a game, with certain rules, agreed upon by the players. And as long as the rules are transparent to all players and all players are admitted to the game, so long as they don’t egregiously violate the rules or attack other players, then the game is basically ‘just.’ But when some players are excluded from the game, for reasons extraneous to the game, by tyranny, censorship, or violence, then the game becomes unjust and un-democratic. And terrorism, Lyotard argues, is the threat to eliminate other players from the game, whether by violence, or simply by censoring or silencing them, thereby preventing them from taking part in the game.

    I’m afraid that by arguing that Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump must be excluded from the game, because they are subhuman monsters—like Greek barbarians who lack the Greek logos—we would be resorting to precisely the terrorism that Le Pen and Trump threaten against their opponents, and thereby legitimizing Le Pen and Trump’s use of those terrorist tactics. But by simply allowing Le Pen and Trump to speak out—and thereby giving them the chance to make fools of themselves in public—we give the public the chance to recognize that Le Pen and Trump are not monsters or demons, but simply buffoons and fools. And by allowing Le Pen and Trump—or Richard Spenser, say—to make fools of themselves, we guarantee that, in the long term, they will lose the game. Or the next election, anyway.

    But if and when Le Pen and Trump do resort to terror tactics to eliminate the opposition or remove other players from the game, then Le Pen and Trump will have violated the basic rules of democratic politics. And then they can be challenged, in Congress and the courts, and in public, not simply as buffoons and fools, but as terrorists—and thereby ruled out of play in the game, on the same terms that they use to try to remove other players from the democratic game…

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