In Nihilism We Trust
If humans are trusting beings, what does it mean that we have become so distrusting?
In my Introduction to Global Peace Studies class, I recently assigned my students Noam Chomsky’s talk “The Evil Scourge of Terrorism,” wherein he lists crime after crime committed by the United States government—a war of terror in the name of “The War on Terror” that stretched from George W. Bush back to the Kennedy administration. My students, as often happens, took the article at face value and were shocked at the atrocities Chomsky listed. Yet when I performed my professorly duties of playing devil’s advocate and asked my students to consider how Bush and the others might respond to these allegations, how they might deny any criminality and further demand proof of these charges, the students immediately did a 180 and either took the government’s side against Chomsky or threw their hands up impotently, commenting on how this was why they didn’t watch the News. In response I asked them to break up into groups and try to figure out how to deal with situations like this, situations where they didn’t know who to believe, and though they officially came up with ideas like “keep an open mind” and “focus on the facts,” their unanimous unofficial answer was: trust no one.
This attitude of distrust is not unique to my students. It is hard not to look around classrooms, coffee shops, and computer screens without seeing distrust everywhere. It is hard not to feel nowadays as though anyone could claim anything about any issue or individual, and that these claims would get retweeted, liked, and whatever Pinterest users do before anyone could question the claim let alone bother to fact-check them. It is easy of course to write this off as just a by-product of the Information Age, of our having too much information without the ability to process it. But this answer only reveals a further problem: we are aware that the Internet makes it harder to know fact from fiction and yet we are becoming more and more dependent on the Internet for our information. Is this the result of our unknowingly living lives of contradiction, of preferring ease of use to the work of scrutiny, or is this instead a manifestation of something else, of something deeper, of something that the Internet has not instigated but rather has illuminated?
Trust and Distrust
When discussing the issue of trust with my students I often begin by asking them if they think of themselves as trusting, to which they almost always respond with a resounding “No.” Yet when I point out to them that they sat down on chairs without first checking them for missing screws; that they are sitting in a room full of strangers who they often have their backs to; that they are listening to me without ever having asked for proof that I am the professor or that I even have a professor’s badge, they begin to realize that they are perhaps more trusting than they realized. When I go on to point out to them that such social conventions as shaking hands and clinking glasses to begin meals originated as ways to check our “friends” for weapons or for poison they further realize that trust goes deeper than what one believes and disbelieves as it could be said instead that trust structures our everyday lives. In other words, trust is fundamental to who we are.
For Aristotle, humans are social beings. But what does it mean to be social if we are not first and foremost trusting beings? Why speak if I do not trust that you’ll understand? Why congregate if I do not trust that it is safe to do so? Why even get up in the morning if I do not trust that it is in some way worth it? If therefore trust is so crucial to being human, then what does it mean to not trust?
It is one thing to not believe someone or something, to think that what someone says is not true or that what you see is fake, but it is something altogether different to have not-believing as an attitude, as a way of seeing the world. Indeed we cannot even imagine what it would be like to take up such an attitude, and thus when someone does claim to have done so, as Descartes famously did in his Meditations, it only takes a smart-ass, say, a Wittgenstein, to dispell any such deep skepticism by daring Descartes to put his hand in the fire he claims to doubt will burn him.
Nonetheless there are those who, as Jean Améry famously put it, have lost their “trust in the world.” The key difference between Descartes’ distrust and Améry’s is that whereas the former invented his distrust as a method for dealing with credulity, the latter discovered his distrust while being tortured by the Gestapo. If trust is part of who we are then it is only by becoming who we are not that we can become distrustful. In other words, one cannot choose to be distrustful, but one can be made to be distrustful, a making that occurs in trauma.
If we are indeed distrustful today, then have we been traumatized?
There were only so many times I could be told that Breaking Bad was the most amazing show on television before I finally overcame my lack of desire to see Bryan Cranston as anything other than Hal/Tim Whatley and gave the show a go. Though it took a similar process for me to finally start watching The Wire, a show that I could not stop watching and immediately became obsessed with, I found instead that I not only did not want to keep watching Breaking Bad, but that I had to force myself to go through the agony of watching more. From the acting to the storyline to the cinematography, I can certainly see why so many would marvel at the show’s accomplishments, but at the same time I cannot get over what to me appears to be the core of the show, a core that I fear is actually what most of the audience is truly marveling at, the core that I will refer to as nihilism porn.
From episode to episode Cranston’s Walter White “broke bad,” but once the terminal cancer and fear for his family’s well-being was revealed to be a red herring as motivation, the true motivation of his descent seemed instead to be: I can, therefore I will. Likewise, the audience’s motivation for watching seemed to be: He can, therefore I will. Walt can let a girl die, I can watch. Walt can poison a child, I can watch. Walt can lie, I can watch. Walt can torture his wife, I can watch. Yet this worked both ways, for the writers of the show operated under a similar imperative: They can watch, therefore we will give them a Walt worth watching. To see Hal kill, to see Whatley destroy, is apparently what the audience wanted and it is definitely what the audience got.
I bring this up not to suggest that we have become distrustful because we have been traumatized by this television show, but rather that the success of the show reveals just how untraumatized we are. Death and destruction were not a cause for alarm but were a cause célèbre. If anything, this seemed to be the show’s point: We want to see a nice sitcom dad as a possible meth dealer, we want to see an annoying dentist as a possible crime kingpin. Why do we want these things? Because we’re desensitized to violence? Because we’re bored by sitcoms? Maybe it’s because we have not lost our faith, but rather have re-discovered it, a faith in He did, therefore I could.
I use “faith” here to underscore the possibility of seeing something like a religious devotion inherent to the followers of Walter White, the audience who has found faith in the idea of What Would Heisenberg Do? Much like What Would Jesus Do?, followers of WWHD see mild-mannered Walter White turned criminal mastermind Heisenberg as proof of another world, as proof that no matter how dark and dreary reality may be, no matter how little there is to be believe in in this world, there is nonetheless something to believe in, so long as one has faith in another world.
“We can no longer conceal from ourselves what is expressed by all that willing which has taken its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hatred of the human, and even more of the animal, and more still of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wishing, from longing itself—all this means—let us dare to grasp it—a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will!… And, to repeat in conclusion what I said at the beginning: man would rather will nothingness than not will.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
Nietzsche is often seen as the philosopher of nihilism, so it is only fitting that he should be the one best-suited to helping us to connect these dots, to see the connection in our current culture of distrust and in our love of nihilist porn. As was seen in the comparison to Améry, it is not the case that we have been traumatized into becoming distrustful, but rather that we are closer to Descartes, that we are closer to having willed our distrust. But why would we do this?
If I may paraphrase Nietzsche here, a possible answer is that we would rather trust nothingness than not trust. We cannot help but be trustful beings, and yet, unlike Descartes, our response to our fear of credulity is not to withhold judgment until our intellect can catch up to our will, until we can be certain that we have found clear and distinct ideas, but rather to dive into judgment and willfully spread, retweet, meme-ify gossip faster than any intellect can process it.
It would therefore appear to be the case that it is not that we are in a crisis of no longer knowing who to trust, but rather a crisis of no longer caring about who is trustworthy.
So the next time you retweet some “breaking news,” ask yourself: Do I know this to be true? Do I even care?