Loneliness, Imagination, & The Specter of Totalitarianism
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
— Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Earlier this month, as part of the Courage to Be Program hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center, Penny Gill gave an inspired talk on what it means to act courageously. Drawing from her timely work, What in the World Is Going On?, Gill asked us to think about the narratives we weave about the world and how those narratives prevent us from acting in the world.
The central argument underpinning Gill’s work is that while courage can seem heroic, it “is more likely to flow from our deep connections with and commitments to each other. In a culture marked by alienation, competitiveness, and loneliness, living with courage can seem impossible, but it surely isn’t. It’s a natural outcome of a life lived with depth and integrity.” The main obstacle to acting with courage is fear, and right now many of us feel as if we live in a world that is soaked through with fear. Society, the media, the endless news cycles create a constant sense of crisis. It is a feeling of loneliness, of being cut off from others and the world that leads us to contemplate a stream of nightmare scenarios, which turn us away from thinking and acting in concert. As soon as one fear is absolved another is born, and society and politicians use fear tactically in order to undermine our individual ability to act, and to separate fact from fiction. This manufactured fear, as Gill describes it, undermines our facility “to discern clearly and respond to things we know are not okay, things that require resistance.”
Dancing around the specter of Donald Trump, lingering only long enough for us to contemplate what it means for him to have the nuclear codes, Gill turned our reflective gaze away from public affairs toward the private life of the self. In order to act courageously in the world, to see the distinction between fact and fiction, we must first turn inward toward the life of the mind. If fear can isolate us from others by…