This is the second of two segments featuring Brazilian writer Marcia Tiburi. The following excerpt is from her 2015 philosophical treatise How to Talk to Fascists and is Tiburi’s English-language debut. To learn about Tiburi’s story of exile, read her interview with Maya Best.
How to Talk to Fascists
Selected sample translated from Portuguese
by Eric M. B. Becker
There are eras in which love is the dominant public sentiment and there are others when hate prevails. The inevitable problem with theorizing about love and hate is the impossibility of evaluating that which is subjective but nonetheless prevails over us. We experience hate without understanding it, and by not understanding it we are often left without the tools to stanch it.
By way of mechanisms that only appear subtle to those who opt for naiveté, hate is fomented on a societal scale through a barrage of terrifying images, such as those we see on television. The distortion of reality to win over the people is also connected to this strategy of manipulation of the emotions through discourse. At the root of all hate is common gossip, bullying, and defamation in general.
Hate Borne of Fear
The way in which fear is produced is directly related to the production of hate. They are related feelings. A society that promotes insecurity — and sells “security” at every turn — depends on the success of fear-creation. Fear of the economic and the political, and — first and foremost — perpetual “fear of the Other.”
In its most calcified state, fear can become paranoia. Paranoia devolves into hate. In this way, we can speak of fear-hate. “Fear-hate” being an ugly word for something that does us a tremendous amount of harm: a sort of intransitive hating, quite nearly hating for the sake of hating. As a worldview, paranoia serves to negate the Other whom the paranoid wish to destroy. The origin of paranoia escapes us, but we know its effects: hate everywhere we look, spreading without restraint.
In very simple terms, we can speak of love as a horizon of understanding that takes into account the true place of the Other, that doesn’t invent the Other according to our own projections, that remains open to the mystery of the Other. If love is open to the Other, hate closes us off to him. We have a tendency to not want to see the hate that closes us off because such hate diminishes us. “Not wanting to see” is a trap, for all of us are affected by hate and we all make our own contribution to hate’s endurance.
We think that hate is always something found in the Other, but this is a trap that only snags those who have never stopped to realize that they themselves are the Other in the eyes of the Other. So close are our ties to one another that we are capable of losing consciousness of these ties. At this point, the unconscious begins to act for us.
When we speak of emotions, in the sense of Spinoza’s affects, we mean that something “affects,” takes us over, provokes us. Hate presents itself in the form of a miasma, or, if you will, an atmosphere. It exists like an air we breathe. It makes us feel things that perhaps we’ve never felt before. However, hate is not a sentiment that we keep stored within us and which is simply waiting for the right moment to appear but an experience that is possible at any moment through the contact we have with the Other who affects us. Within this general framework, posing questions about the state of the affective experience of hate deep inside us can provide a good starting point to free ourselves of it.
For centuries we’ve been saying that “power corrupts” as though we’ve been trained to repeat this bit of popular wisdom without much understanding its meaning. In the same way that many talk about “useless people,” imitating one another’s speech in this spectacular gesture of speaking simply to speak. Speech-as-imitation is borne of citation. Authoritarianism is “citationist.” It repeats ideas that are to be found in the sphere of Fascist propaganda, itself vicious and repetitive. Authoritarianism depends on repeatability. It is a machine producing unconsciousness and a subjectivity deformed through discourse. Therein lies the importance of hateful utterance. We don’t think about what we’re saying. To understand the meaning of what we say, we need to understand the way in which we say it. And this is a very complicated process. Dialogue is more complicated still because we don’t spend our time paying attention to that which could be the start of a dialogue, dialogue itself a powerful form of conversation that is easily undone if we don’t insist on its continuation. We don’t experience dialogue in the micropolitics of daily life, where so much could be said about a power of transformation in macropolitical terms. The dialogue between the singular and the plural — between what we are (or desire to be) and that which surrounds us—would do us well. It would require we think more, this is true, but we live in a thought vacuum, to which we can also add an action vacuum and an emotional vacuum. The vacuum is our era’s strange ethos.
At the present moment, as in all eras in which authoritarianism is a practice of the extermination of the political, the citizenry receives a daily call to hate training. We know that no emotion is entirely spontaneous, that no sentiment is natural. Training individuals to love or to hate is accomplished through the repetition of discourses. It is necessary to repeat and to join in, to copy and to imitate. To talk for the sake of talking. Repeating what one hears on television and via other media outlets. Spending a great deal of time listening to the same thing only to repeat it all over again. Or to speak without thinking about what one is saying. In the act of merely “sharing” without reading that has become so easy (as easy as “one-click purchases” on the Internet), we act in a vacuum. We live in an era of mere reproducibility of information that says nothing but is akin to doing. This empty doing is a form of consumption. We retreat from analytical and critical thought via the empty consumption of repetitive language and actions. We turn our back on the discernment that analytical and critical thought require. We fall into the trap of linguistic consumerism.
At times, the retreat from thought produces a vacuum. This vacuum hinders thought. The thing is, this thought-vacuum isn’t silent, it’s not a vacuum in the sense of an open space where we might seek to understand the unfamiliar. It’s a vacuum full of platitudes. It’s full of propaganda that stunts the growth of free thought. Only the interruption of this vicious cycle of the thought-vacuum, which generates more vacuous thought — repetitive and marked by imitation — is capable of changing the destructive course of our politics on both the micro- and macropolitical level.
Hate begins to spread and appear in this vicious cycle of thought. It is the miserly emotion par excellence, the emotion of those who have absolutely nothing to contribute — and who foment the diabolical death of dialogue. The political is, on the contrary, a form of symbolic production. It is synonymous with democracy if we think of it as a loving tie between individuals who can speak and listen to each other not because they are identical but because they’ve crawled out from under their shells of hate and have abolished the cement walls behind which their subjectivities are buried.
The political as a bridge across ideological walls depends upon persistent resistance. It depends on our learning how we might find a dialogue that acts as methodological guerilla warfare and must be stronger than the current climate of hate. We’ll overcome hate not by preaching love but by acting in the name of a dialogue that not only demonstrates that hate is impotent but brings about its impotence. Dialogue is not a means of salvation but an experiment worth coalescing around if we still value a collective political project.
For this to happen, we need to begin to change the way we conduct the conversation, even if doing so appears impossible.
A Theoretical and Practical Challenge
Authoritarianism is a mode of exercising power, but it is also a way of thinking, a mentality. And, what’s more, it is a school of thought. Authoritarianism is a way of thinking that has an influence on knowledge. It establishes itself not only in ethico-political terms but also in aesthetic ones. Put otherwise: in the sphere of one’s upbringing, one’s social relations, but also via a way of life developed in terms of a destructive lifestyle that enables authoritarianism’s destructiveness.
In this sense, we can speak in terms of a democratic way of thinking that in its very essence is opposed to an authoritarian way of thinking. As a worldview, authoritarianism is shut off to the Other. It always operates via a discourse and a practice that go hand in hand, which are organized in the mold of a enormous fallacy in which thought is, in reality, the production of emptiness or, to use Hannah Arendt’s famous expression, of a thought vacuum. An authoritarian mode of thinking that fights against free thought and expression. This is accomplished via the fomentation of clichés, by maintaining and repeating pat thinking, what we could also term a logic of marketing. In this last case, what’s important is presenting an idea whose power has no relation to something like the force of truth but which might lead the individual to reconsider his or her certainties. The logic of marketing seeks to gather thought-consumers — in other words, it seeks to sell an idea. It manufactures thought-consumption; language consumption. The sphere of truth (as a desire to uncover) is out of play. The same is true in the sphere of action that we might term “pseudo-action,” repetitive action, pre-programmed action, such as that of consumerism.
Thought and action are joined and establish a complex — and at the same time automatic — theoretico-practical imperative, and therefore a compulsory way of thinking and acting, of great performative impact: the Other does not exist and if the Other exists, he ought to be eliminated. That which I earlier designated as treating somebody as though he or she were nobody. This performativity, manipulated according to the theoretico-practical imperative, lacks the least bit of spontaneity and serves to preserve what we call power. Whoever puts this performativity into practice may be in agreement with the system but might not be conscious of this agreement. We make a compact with power when we engage in discriminatory speech and action. Power is one of these words that many use and about which much is said but little is understood. Power is what produces a type of Other who we need to understand. There is, in every way of thinking, some sort of production of the Other. The Other is never pre-existing, he or she is always imagined. He or she is always, in some sense, constructed, but more than this, the Other is “materialized,” “performatized.”
We throw into relief a way of thinking when we speak of authoritarianism. We realize a mental operation related to the Other when we speak of learning. This is because learning is a cognitive gesture toward the Other, toward the new, the different — in a word, the unknown. It is precisely this Other who is destroyed by authoritarianism. Authoritarianism invents the Other to then destroy him. In this sense, what we call learning or knowledge doesn’t in fact exist in the authoritarian way of thinking. In such thinking, knowledge is a faceless mask. What we call ideology, the camouflaging of undesirable social truths, is directly related to this process of masking of the self by the creation of an Other to be hated. What it all comes down to is that a projection is set into motion.
None of what we might term knowledge can be conceived beyond its ethico-political configuration. If the configuration of this knowledge works by rejecting the Other, this knowledge works to destroy itself. Strictly speaking, it’s not knowledge at all. Without the Other, knowledge dies out. This calcification is the proof of the death of knowledge, which gives way to ideological blindness. Ideology is the reduction of knowledge to a mere façade, a mask for something that’s already dead. Knowledge, which ought to entail a process of discovery and openness to the alterity that composes it, succumbs to this rejection. As a result, we have the impression that an authoritarian personality is the personality of an idiot, since he is unable to understand the Other or anything that falls within the Other’s ambit. The territory of the Other is inaccessible to such a person because this person lacks the cognitive conditions to access it but, above all, lacks the empathy and imagination that are forms through which we might approach this territory whose epicenter is, in itself, always inaccessible. If we think of the Other as a spectrum it’s because he is not rigid, he is a system of representations composed of juxtaposed images, on varying levels and categories. In this way, I can relate to the idea of the Other, the image of the Other, the body of the Other. Thinking of the Other — either in favor of or against him — originates, therefore, from the emotion that guides our thought.
Propaganda is the means for sustaining the rejection of the Other. Fascist propaganda — the propaganda of hate — preaches intolerance, makes shocking affirmations of a highly performative nature, or in other words, affirmations capable of provoking real-world effects and guiding concrete actions. This discursivity is embedded in the most common speech and in the toxic discourse of those in power. In day-to-day life, above all during certain periods of economic crisis, we see this in abundance. An interesting example is that of a Brazilian congressman named Luis Carlos Heinze who, in a speech that can be seen on YouTube to this day, revealed himself to be the very image of authoritarian thinking that excludes the Other. In his speech, which became known across the country, “quilombolas, native Brazilians, gays, lesbians” were representatives of “useless people.” “Useless people” is, without a doubt, a way of disqualifying these Others. In this case, those “dis”-qualified in the speech and through the congressman’s act of speaking were minorities. Minorities historically oppressed by capitalist behavior. But with the use of his unfortunate expression, he expressed the fundamental concept of contemporary Fascism. Besides openly choosing to participate as an actor. The phrase “useless people” relegates the minorities cited in his speech to the position of “useless.” Well, “useless” meaning useless for what? “Useless” for a system of production and consumption. The “useless” are judged from the point of view of a system of production and consumption.
The “Fascist,” for his turn, is the epitome of the authoritarian personality, he who imposes this value judgment of the Other according to his utility. The logic of quantification. The Fascist is the high priest of capitalism whose liturgy necessarily entails this judgment; through this perverse baptism, the Other is discarded and declared expendable.
At the same time, the expression “useless people” appears as a standard response, a cliché. This is an example of the destruction of learning as desire for discovery, which comes to constitute a way of engaging with the Other. Of the desire for knowledge that is at the root of a desire for democracy. This move against discovery is an affirmation of one’s own ignorance, of one’s own ascribing to stupidity. But it is, at the same time, the destruction of politics via an anti-political discourse by an agent who is himself part of government, in the case above, a congressman who ought to develop politics but who is instead inclined toward an anti-political instinct for death.
In a case such as this, we might speak in terms of a dangerous discursive practice in which is we can easily note a tendency toward extermination, toward expendability. This discourse of extermination is the ultimate attack against what could be the construction of the Other. A perfect example of a discourse aligned with contemporary “tanatopolitics” (from the Greek word thanatos, meaning death). We return, for a moment, to the concept of biopower laid out by Foucault in his History of Sexuality. Biopower is power’s calculated management of life. A typical form of the exercise of power in modern times, when it’s no longer possible to simply order someone’s execution, as in Antiquity—though that era and its mechanisms persist to this day in a curious meeting of the ages—but to simply act against life; for example, by controlling prices and access to food, health, and shelter. Exclusion is a process enabled by a class of “useless people” to which so many are relegated and a condition for which they are condemned.
We are never free, therefore, of expendability. Elimination, in a context of a lack of public policies and a radical commitment to democratic government, is always a guarantee. If the state doesn’t serve the people, it serves the elite. “Tanatopower” continues to act via a system of biopower: placing a price on life so as to condemn to death those who have been deemed “useless.” This “uselessness” needs to be guaranteed epistemologically, a feat managed through discourse, which is itself part of this order. But who is it that this discourse serves to convince? That’s a question that we need to ask ourselves, if for no other reason than to find a way to combat these forms of discourse or create alternatives so that a democratic form of politics can survive, so that we might practice a better politics, for a power structure that embraces difference, an inclusive power structure that makes room for what Walter Benjamin denominated a “tradition of the oppressed.”
Those who push this discourse of “uselessness” without the least bit of responsibility ought to, on the one hand, face legal consequences; on the other, it’s crucial to shed light on the conditions within our culture that allow forms of speech such as those that, in the process of disqualifying the Other, enact a symbolic humiliation, and, what’s more, foment hate and incite violence, sometimes fatal. How is it one feels in the right to engage in Fascist discourse? How is it one is convinced by such speech? Theodor Adorno examined the question through the prism of people’s susceptibility to Fascist propaganda: Who is it, after all, who is susceptible to propaganda in general and who is susceptible to Fascist propaganda? If Fascist propaganda, which is a type of discourse, and a real methodology of social alienation through language, continues to make inroads, we have no future. This is a point that should not be forgotten, though there are those who prefer that theory serve a purely analytic role that absolves us of finding alternative ways forward. An urgent philosophical question imposes itself at this moment: what action must we take in light of the current state of things?
Marcia Tiburi is a Brazilian writer and activist, popular for her pro-democracy and pro-feminist work. She is well known for her prescient voice of warning against the rise of far-right authoritarianism and fascism. Since completing her three-month residency with the City of Asylum, she has gone on to continue her exile, living without a permanent address.
Eric M. B. Becker is a writer, literary translator, and editor of Words Without Borders. He has translated the work of numerous writers from the Portuguese and is a recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Commission, and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund.
This translated excerpt of How to Talk to Fascists (2015) is published by Sampsonia Way with permission of the author. Read her discussion about the book’s reception in Brazil here.