For those who are new to the event, here’s the format of my speech-- I’m going to talk about the folly of some concept or activity, and then contradict myself by promoting that same concept or activity. And the whole thing today will take 10 minutes.
Today’s topic is: The Folly of Participation.
Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage to Be, offers three different meanings for “participation,” and I experience folly in each one of them. These meanings are: (1) sharing, as in sharing a room (2) universality, or having in common, and (3) being a part, such as participating in a political movement. Participation is: Sharing, universality, being a part. Let’s talk about the folly of each.
First, the folly of sharing
You can only share something that’s yours, and that requires a feeling of possessiveness. Here’s what I mean by that-- if I only want half of my sandwich, then giving you the other half isn’t sharing; it’s giving you something I’ve already disavowed. By my definition, sharing must involve sacrifice, and therefore involves folly-- because I want what I want, even as I’m giving it away. If you can imagine, in this household I sometimes make food, and then Naomi wants a bite. Every single bite I’ve ever shared with her brings me gratification... but also regret. Why give away what I want?
Of course, refusing to share, or rather refusing to cooperate around sharing, also has its follies. We see this in the classic “tragedy of the commons” in which a shared resource is consumed in an unsustainable way. Everyone takes as much as they want, and we’re soon left with nothing.
A brief summary so far-- to share is to deny desire, and therefore to betray oneself; not sharing is to deny relationship... which weirdly enough is also to betray self. More on that later.
Now then, the folly of having in common
To have in common is to be common, and to be common is to be robbed of uniqueness. Sorry for the abstraction; let’s get specific. I’ll use commonality in conversations as my example:
If a topic of conversation is common enough, we call it “small talk.” Some people say they hate small talk, because there’s no individuality revealed by discussing common topics like the weather. If we’re not being individuals, then we cannot actually connect as individuals. The same holds true for more substantive talk, if it’s full of cliches. I see this happen when people discuss politics or current events, but are just taking turns regurgitating talking points they’ve absorbed through common media. It feels foolish to me because it’s a conversation with very little encounter— just memes passing in the night.
My horror at cliche and small talk peaked at the beginning of the pandemic-- within a week of things shutting down here, I was quickly overwhelmed and bored by the fact that every conversation was about the pandemic. The way it took over our attention, and there was nothing else to talk about-- I felt disgusted by the suffocating commonality of it all.
I may be just revealing my own issues here, but I’m gonna share one more example. I also lived in NYC during college, and sometimes I would find myself on the subway, lost in my head about some personal or interpersonal drama. And then I’d look up, across the aisle on the 1 train, and see other people’s faces, and realize they were having their personal drama, and I would feel silly for taking myself so seriously. Maybe it’s a numbers thing-- there’s just so many other people living their lives that, whatever I’m going through, no matter how private and personal it feels, is just one more universal thing, one more tired cliche.
Another brief summary-- acknowledging my own commonality is embarrassing; of course, denying it is simply foolish.
Finally, the folly of being a part
And now let’s turn to the indignity of being a part and not the whole. Here’s where I’ve found myself struggling with this- in joining political chanting or political marching. In being part of a hora. In sitting through group meetings, unless I’m running them.
Why do I hate being a part? Is it just me being a contrarian? Well, that’s definitely part of it. But, like, what’s really going on? Being a part makes me vulnerable to the bigger thing I’m a part of it, and that vulnerability, that helplessness, can feel undignifying. That discomfort with vulnerability intensifies if I see the larger whole as chaotic, destructive, or simply uncaring about me as an individual.
A humbling image that captures this for me— in the fall I see the trees changing color, and I like to imagine that I, too, am a tree-- only to realize that I’m clearly a leaf, not a tree. A part of the whole, yes, but so easily discarded.
Beyond my discomfort with the smallness of participation, there’s also a rich spiritual tradition of distrusting groups, of refusing to participate. In the gospels, Jesus tells rich people to give away their wealth, asserting that rich people cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. There’s a great leftist interpretation which frames Jesus’ statements as a condemnation of participating, of benefiting, from an unjust system. In an unjust society, only the destitute, only those excluded from participating in the system, are innocent.
We can go even further back, to the Hebrew Bible, to that great myth against participation-- the Tower of Babel. All the peoples of the world are working together for a single cause, and even God sees this and basically says: “If they can do this, they can do anything!... So I better put a stop to it.” The people united will never be defeated, and that’s exactly the problem. God doesn’t trust large groups, and neither do I. I’m afraid of the group getting carried away, and me with it.
Ok, let’s summarize the whole critique so far:
My aversion to participation is based in concerns about protecting my identity, or as Tillich would put it, my self-affirmation. To share what I have is to let go of the supremacy of my desire. To have in common is to have my uniqueness revealed as illusion. To take part in something bigger than myself is to abdicate power over my meaning and my fate. These are fair concerns, stemming from distrust of others, and disgust at being reduced to less than one.
Ok, now let’s critique the critique
First, let’s call bullshit on my hatred of participation. I clearly love participation in all three meanings of the word. First, sharing: while I might have an in-born concern about food scarcity, I also take joy in giving up what I have in order to see another enjoy it. Next, having-in-common: I’m obsessed with the existential givens— the experiences and challenges faced by all humans— embodiment, emotion, freedom, isolation, meaninglessness, and death. My therapeutic practice is mostly focused on encouraging clients to take personal ownership of these ultimately common experiences. Finally, about being a part: well, I’m actually not a total misfit— I like being a part in all sorts of situations. I may not like chanting at rallies, but if George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars want me to chant, I will do it gladly and extensively. I say I don’t like meetings, but I love a good class, or men’s group, or brainstorming session. I say I hate the hora, but really I just hate ones that are uncoordinated, or in cramped spaces. Really I love participation in many forms specifically, coordinated and safe forms.
Besides the fact that I love participation, I could also point out how hatred of participation can reveal some neurotic and unrealistic tendencies. 20th century psychoanalyst Karen Horney described it as a neurotic phenomenon. I’ll share her words, because I found them pretty damning of my anti-participation sentiments. Talking about the individual who wants to detach from the larger whole, she says: “He simply takes it for granted that he should derive all the good of living at a particular time in a particular social system, but resents being linked with others for good or ill. Therefore he cannot see why he should suffer from anything in which he has not been personally implicated” (Our Inner Conflicts, 175-6). Resentment at being linked with others— is this the height of concern for liberty, or the height of immaturity?
A client recently told me, sadly, that her partner found her needs taxing on him. This metaphor of taxes perfectly captures the ambivalence we have towards participation. Any good liberal (or Ned Flanders) will tell you that taxes are ideally a civic good, with each individual paying into the pot, and benefiting all (including themselves). A good conservative will tell you that taxes are theft, forced participation which diminishes the individual. The verb taxing always has a negative connotation, but we should reconsider what that implies. Taxing is only a bad word if I see taxes as simply taking away my good. If I find society’s needs taxing, that means I see my own good as something separable from society.
Beyond the folly of separating my good from the common good, Judith Butler points out the folly of even thinking of myself as separable from the common. In On Giving an Account of Oneself, she reminds the reader that any story about the self is always already involved in a social context, sets of relations, sets of norms. You can try to deny participation, but you can’t actually escape it. Those who hate traffic are forgetting that they are the traffic. And there’s no moral high ground in refusal to participate— it’s just righteous indignation without actual righteousness. Righteousness involves action, and action is participatory. Thus the foolishness of separating your sense of self and your sense of good from that of the whole.
So what do I have here?
It appears that I love and hate participation.
Participation entails a loss of self and a gain of self.
Sharing is caring, and caring is vulnerable and dumb.
Commonality is undignified and inescapable.
Participation is morally suspect, and a moral necessity.
I feel the need, as always, to leave you with something definitive, or at least beneficial. And yet, all I have is this:
- Don’t be a fool in separating yourself from others.
- Don’t be a fool in joining others.
No, that’s too negative; lemme try again.- Be a unique fool! And be a fool with the rest of us.