One more thought this morning about the anger in the streets and the failure of the government to act with clarity and decency—where are the arrests? Where is the law? And we can be sure that the President will make the worst possible remarks and decisions. This led me to think a bit more about nihilism.
In the Hindu mythos nihilism is the trait of demons. Arguably it is what makes demons demons. Demons narrow their interests well-past any ordinary and expected levels of self-interest and selfishness. In truth, we need self interest and skills in managing selfishness to be healthy, even to flourish. Altruism is not the opposite of selfishness, “selflessness” is another way in which we take the measure of self-interest. In a conditional world everything we deem unconditional presents itself as another kind of condition. There’s nothing “wrong” with self-interest but to make it something “right” or better, we must begin with its value and acknowledge its perils.
If we are not contesting self-interest we are insulting its dangers and that takes us in at least two unhealthy directions. The first direction is towards the nihilism of the demons. This originates in the pathology of self-interest that is narcissism. The narcissist is immune to sympathy and has no capacity, no concept, no connection to empathy. Whatever is said or done is nothing more than immediate gratification, scheming, scamming, and manipulating for gratification. In fact, the evolution to nihilism is not only born of the malignancies of self-interest that can never be wholly gratified, it is the pleasure, the sickness of enjoying others sufferings. No matter is too small not to blame, claim grievance, scapegoat, and whenever possible inflict harm on someone or something that fails to gratify the malignant narcissist.
That such a demon is currently President of the United States means that the platform and the extent of projected nihilism is indeed vast, influential, and catastrophic to the health of the nation. We are for now in the grasp of what I want to call Subjective Nihilism. This originates in personal mental illness and extends its depravity as far as possible into the world for personal gain and gratification. The Subjective Nihilist is a narcissist who will burn down the world because he can, because he wants to, because he doesn’t care for anything but himself. And this kind of self-aggrandizement is in truth yet another manifestation of fear, anger, hatred, and delusion—it is a steady diet of demonic poison that nourishes the pathology.
But there is another kind of nihilism that I want to distinguish here. Let’s call that Objective Nihilism. I want to maintain that this kind of behavior originates not in malignant narcissism but begins with authentic needs for self-care and self-interest. It cannot be reduced to individuals seeking gain or gratification but rather it extends into communities because there is in fact care for the community. Nonetheless, when Objective Nihilism takes hold people will burn down their own neighborhoods, they will pick up rocks, they will hurt more and hurt each other and hurt themselves too.
Objective Nihilism is born not from craven selfishness but from the recognition that a vulnerable self is now besieged, under constant threat, under threat of annihiliation from those who would use their power to destroy all that is dear—person, community, possibilities. When there is so much frustration born of the terror, the failure of power to acknowledge its injustice, its moral lassitudes and historical shortcomings, when there is simply less chance to _build_ any life, then Objective Nihilism leads you to burn down your life, your community, the world that rejects you.
No one but the Subjective Nihilist can condone or commend violence. But Objective Nihilism applies itself with violence because every other voice of reason, every other emotional plea to be recognized for our shared humanity has been stifled, lost, or rejected. People will indeed burn down a society that refuses the responsibilities of liberty and the imperatives of moral decency. But I don’t people with rocks in their hands are anything like the Subjective Nihilist whose “work” is born of grave, likely irreparably damaged personal failures.
I think the Objective Nihilist is at wits end, longing for an alternative, desperate and determined to be seen and heard in world that not only wants silence and compliance but in fact wants their annihilation, personally and collectively. What we are seeing the streets of Minneapolis is nothing like the Subjective Nihilist in the White House, his cronies, stooges, dupes, and supporters. What they all share is an indulgence in his depravity that gives them license and self-permission to conjure their own Subjective Nihilism.
What the protesters—and I mean those given to violence in the streets—are expressing is the well-founded Objective Nihilism that understands that burning down the world isn’t just some ill-conceived personal failure or gratification—but that it is born of a world that means to annihilate them, personally, collectively, forever. Where there is no future, there is nihilism, one way or the other. The remedies are complex, difficult, and demanding. We may never reach those who lavish their indulgence on the Subjective Nihilist as their emblem of personal identity and tribe. But we can offer to those for whom Objective Nihilism looks like their best option a far better future if we are willing to make the efforts it would take to change the world for the better.