Zizek on neighbourly love
Such promises of leaders, those with concrete plans and knowledge of world affairs, do not simply disregard the immense diversity and thus also unpredictability of human conduct; more problematically, they create a situation whereby our moral judgement is turned into culpability, our responsibilities as individuals are turned to apathy, our autonomy into obedience. Whatever one may think of Arendt’s book on Eichmann, one thing is undeniable: Eichmann hid behind the logic denial of culpability – he knew, unlike them, but he was just following orders; he was not culpable, because his autonomy was turned to obedience.
We should not make a mistake here to demand another form of absolutism in morality. It is easy to condemn the past – we do not live there with the knowledge that we have today. The last few lines are thus not meant in the tradition of justice theory that claims a superiority of moral judgment. Zizek’s point here is that knowledge of such situations does not preclude their occurrence in a future time. Humanity is not a notion that can simplistically be applied to a particular group that holds moral superiority; precisely because doing so is what leads to the inhuman acts. Did not the Nazis in fact hold precisely that belief? What this insight gives us is the mirror image of our own excessive possibilities. And in this sense it lets us see the neighbour as more than a merely inhuman other, but as a form of our own constitution. The moment the other is deemed inhuman, we have created the necessary condition of acting inhumanely towards them.
There is, furthermore, nothing paradoxical in claiming inhuman treatment by the humanists, as Carl Schmitt eloquently reminded us, “because the idea of humanity is two-sided and often lends itself to a surprising dialectic” (Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, p. 103). It is this dialectic that Zizek is concerned with in his view of humanity; for a conception of humanity leads to a conception of the other as inhuman. Is it still surprising that the Nazis aimed to eliminate Jews in the name of humanity? But perhaps a more contemporary example would do: Abu Graib. This, counter theme of my blog, is not at all paradoxical precisely because the ‘ascent to humanity’ (to echo Hermann Cohen) demands the descent of the neighbour – unless, one is willing to confront the neighbour.
Confronting the neighbour
We are thus turning a full circle. Denying ourselves the traumatic experience that is the result of confronting the neighbour, we are exposing ourselves to a possibility of dehumanisation. It is easy, and fully understandable, to consider the other a monster that needs to be eradicated. However we look at it, there are some people in this world who cannot wait for the afterlife and actively seek to destroy this life on earth. Zizek’s response is to view even that ‘monster’ as oneself – the meaning of neighbourly love is the confrontation with the mirror image of ourselves as perpetrators of atrocities.
It is equally easy, and indeed understandable, to demand higher ethical standards from our neighbours. But one should bear in mind to reject moral absolutism and to recognise that we too have held values that we now despise. This is not a point of moral relativism1, this is precisely a point of continuously revaluing our values, and rejecting a stalemate in morality. An understanding of humanity is only possible by an understanding of its counterpart, the inhumanity in us.
Neighbourly love is this critical approach to the other. It rejects the absolutism of ethics and morality, while maintaining the possibilities of change. It may be volatile and capricious, but it gives rise to possibilities of love as a more encompassing notion. Zizek’s conception of neighbourly love does not simply reject that which cannot be loved (i.e. the inhuman acts) nor does it simplistically accept them (i.e. as a universality); more fundamentally, neighbourly love seeks a continuous realignment of ethical and political qualities, which is only possible by confronting the other as they are – that is, to confront them as we would ourselves, by loving them as we would ourselves.