Zygmunt Bauman. Wikimedia Commons

The Tunnel and the Light

Zygmunt Bauman, one of the greatest intellectuals of our time, goes to the root of the “existential insecurity” that marks our world, and explains why the one way out has a name, “encounter,” and a face, that of Pope Francis.
Davide Perillo

A light. The only one, at the end of “the long and uncannily dark tunnel we currently walk.” But it is “an uncannily bright light.” Uncannily, that is, “mysteriously, surprisingly,” rendered in the form of an adverb. Zygmunt Bauman says the word twice in two sentences when speaking of Pope Francis and their encounter in Assisi last month at the meeting of representatives of the world religions requested by the Pope and organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio. “What did I say to him? It would be preposterously vainglorious of me to suppose that I can have much, if anything, to add to what Pope Francis already knows of the human predicament and what suffering means to those who experience it firsthand… I only confessed to viewing him as a light.”

Ninety-one years old next month, a Polish Jew by birth and a cosmopolitan by vocation (he lived in Warsaw, London, and Tel Aviv before putting down roots in Leeds, Great Britain), Bauman is one of the most famous– and prolific–intellectuals in the world. A sociologist and philosopher, inventor of formulas capable of defining epochal changes in two words (for example, “liquid modernity,” that is, a society marked by an ever-increasing absence of bonds, one that is frayed and indefinable), Bauman is above all a great observer, a man able to photograph the world and its inhabitants in detail, deep down, with a gaze that is at once acute and charged with empathy.

He has been directing this empathetic gaze for some time now at the phenomenon of immigration. Or better, at migrants, the Strangers at Our Door (the title of one of his most recent books) who undermine our certainties and become an easy target for our deep, deaf insecurity, an insecurity that cannot be alleviated by the solutions proposed by the politics of walls and strong men. “Once this measure is refused to those who request asylum from wars and destruction, and more migrants are repatriated, it will become evident how all this is irrelevant for resolving the real causes of the uncertainty,” he said in an interview for Corriere della Sera. “The demons that persecute us–the fear of losing our place in society, the fragility of the achievements we have made–will not evaporate or disappear” because the root of that uncertainty is deeper. It is existential.

Let’s start from here, then. What is this “existential insecurity”? Where does it come from? From the “rupture of all ties”–as you stated in that interview–or is there something else?
Kant, the most indefatigable explorer of the mysteries of the uniquely human mode of being-in-the-world–to whose wisdom we all, thinking humans, are in debt and of which we are either willing or unwilling, enthusiastic or despairing heirs–famously confessed and pro-claimed: “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” The “starry heavens” represents things beyond human reach and human ability to tackle, and the “moral law” the dilemmas facing humans who are, despite them, doomed to choose. More than a century before those words had been recorded in The Critique of Practical Reason, Blaise Pascal elaborated in his Pensées on the roots of that harrowing, fear-generating inadequacy: “When I consider the brief plan of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after, the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?” And further: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” The snag is, though, that however hard they try to follow that decision, the activity of thinking and the thought, the ever-renewed thought, remain stubbornly irremovable, part and parcel of the human condition. This is why “existential uncertainty” is ineffaceably carved into the human way of being-in-the-world. There it is where you come from and from which you cannot escape.

The first reflection of this insecurity is the “fear of the other.” You have clearly articulated why “strangers at our doors” scare us so much. But don’t you think, deep down, there’s also a fear of having to ask ourselves certain questions? I mean, the other who’s knocking at my door inevitably forces me to ask who I am, what I think about life, about relationships and what really matters… Is building walls also a way of avoiding these questions?
The feeling of “insecurity” derives from a blend of uncertainty and ignorance and the humiliation that results from inadequacy to the tasks of life, and, in the last consequence from the collapse of commonly held self-esteem and self-confidence. “The others,”particularly those among them classified as unfamiliar, alien, or foreign, are especially fertile in gestating and strengthening that sentiment.

What recycles strangers into dangers (dangers all the more awesome and intimidating for their nagging under-definability) is the absence of reliable knowledge of their intentions and of their behavioral code, as well as of the skills required to tackle relations with them properly and to adequately respond to their gambits. In addition, you correctly put your finger on one more factor of crucial importance. Strangers (mostly migrants, the newcomers among them) tend to question what “we,” the natives, hold in the realm of “doxa” (the knowledge we think with but not about). They press and nudge us to explain the way in which we go about our life pursuits: convictions and actions that to us are obvious, self-evident, and therefore self-explanatory. By doing so, they disturb and unsettle our spiritual tranquility and erode our self-assurance so necessary for resolute action. And how many of us welcome such a state of affairs?

In Of God and Man, you say that, “The moment that uncertainty was born was the moment that morality was born–together with the moral self, aware of walking a tightrope. Sentencing them to choosing, [...] God invited humans to participate in the act of creation.” In front such a huge problem are we afraid of this “invitation”? At least, are we afraid of our freedom? And if so, why?
An old, familiar story again... Perhaps better described as a sort of perennial story; after all, rebellions against freedom occur with amazing regularity– well-nigh every gallant fight against servitude, oppression, and constraint on liberty is likely to lead, sooner or later, to the pendulum of public disposition and passion turning 180 degrees, with the ranks of those ready to accept and even welcome the tightening of screws and battening of hatches swelling (a phenomenon described in much detail by Erich Fromm in his classic Escape from Freedom). We are currently living (at least in the West and among the generations lucky enough to forget or to never experience first-hand the charms of a life under despotism and tyranny) through another such turn of the pendulum, triggered by the same factors as in the past; namely, the fact that liberty can only arrive in a double deal with the burdens and risks of responsibility. To a growing number of people–prompted, encouraged, aided, and abetted by a rising number of aspiring (and in a growing number of cases victorious) vote-seekers (of the Trump, Marianne Le Pen, Orban, or Fico type)–trading rights to choose tied to responsibilities too heavy for individual shoulders to endure, in exchange for reductions in the scope of personal freedoms, seems a good bargain. The weaker the individual shoulders and the heavier the responsibility loaded upon them in the course of the state-sponsored and market-enforced privatization and commercialization of social functions, the more we may expect to see a fast-growing crowd of strongmen (and strongwomen) sniffing the opportunity of electoral success and eager to surrender to the temptations it exudes.

It’s a heavy risk…
The numbers of people exposed every day to the risks, traps, and ambushes of a life lived under market rule are growing, people whose nostalgia after lost Paradise focuses on freedom from choosing; more precisely, on emancipation from the duty of caring for, and contributing to, the well-being of the world and hospitality to its human residents. But this dream of following the example of Pontius Pilatus by washing our hands of the battles between good and evil, morality and indifference, and truth and lie means the renunciation of human dignity, which (as Pico della Mirandola and Immanuel Kant taught) involves God’s invitation extended uniquely to the human species to participate in completing the act of creation, and which in turn was the motive behind endowing humans with reason, sociability, and freedom of choice.

What can overcome the fear?
Again, surely not quick fixes, shortcuts, and instant solutions... Having pointed out (in his speech at the Charlemagne Prize ceremony) the development, absorption, and daily practice of the culture of dialogue as the royal road to humanity’s peaceful coexistence (and by the same token to a gradual yet steady dispersion of reciprocally aroused fears), Pope Francis emphasized the need to introduce the art of dialogue to school curricula at all levels of education. Clearly, education is the opposite strategy to one-off campaigns; calculated to achieve lasting and preferably irreversible effects, it takes time (possibly even a few generations), and calls for a lot of patience and unflappable determination resistant to the petrifying impact of occasional and difficult-to-avoid missteps, errors, and lapses. And let’s note that in our age of universal access to the media of information and the massive, ubiquitous pressure of PR and advertising, education is no longer (if it ever was) an activity limited to schools; however carefully school curricula are composed, they are far from alone in the field of mindset and character formation, and anyway their superiority to a plethora of competitors is not a foregone conclusion.

You mentioned the Pope. Lately, you have often spoken about him with admiration. You said that to truly face the problem, “we’d have to study and apply Francis’s analysis” and “pray that his word be incarnated in our actions.” Why? What struck you about him?
I believe Pope Francis to be the most precious gift the Christian Church has offered to our troubled, lost-in-its-way, confused, and drifting world, missing its compass. Francis has restored vigor to wilting/fading hopes for an alternative, better world made to the measure of human needs and dreams. He is perhaps the only public figure in the limelight willing and able to do so, thanks to a voice reaching well beyond the incestuous circle of political elites to the hoi polloi whom the managers of loudspeakers fail or don’t care to reach, let alone to lead out of their present quandary.

May I ask a personal question? And for you? What is the origin of your outlook? I ask because reading your comments I often find myself wondering, “But how can he look at society, at things, at man with such acute insight? What’s does he take to heart?”
This question should not be addressed to me, as I am not the best person to provide a credible and trustworthy answer. With this proviso, the sole “unpacking” of the way to “look at society” I can intimate is an attempt at “sociological hermeneutics” (that is, interpreting human modes of behavior, circularly, as responses to their life conditions as established by the society which their conduct creates and reproduces), as well as resorting, as much as I can manage, to empathy (trying to view those modes from their practitioners’ perspective, or in a simpler formulation, to walk the world, potholes and all, in their shoes).

In Strangers at Our Door, you write, “The sole way out of the present discomforts leads through rejecting the treacherous temptations of separation […] we must seek occasions to come into a close and increasingly intimate contact.” And further on, you go deeper using an expression that really impressed me: you explain that walls, populism, basically this entire defense mechanism against the other and against fear “appears flawless and unbeatable. It could indeed be so, were it not for the presence of a counterforce: the phenomenon of encounter,” that leads to “a dialogue that aims at mutual understanding.” What does this “encounter” consist of for you? Why is it so decisive?
Equipped as we are nowadays with the online alternative to the offline world, we can shelter from encounters in electronic “comfort zones” by the single expedient of eliminating the “otherness of others” from sight, hearing, and concern. Such comfort is, however, unattainable in the offline world–in the neighborhood, street, workplace, in the schools our children attend. The reality of others, with the constant risk of encounter, buttonholing, conversation, and interaction it contains, cannot be electronically eliminated or even suspended, left out of account. There is still the possibility, as Martin Buber observed, of diluting unavoidable encounters by degrading them to the emaciated form of “mismeetings,” or carrying the escape exits in the form of a mobile phone in one’s pocket. The chance of “mismeetings” being inadvertently raised to the level of true encounters calls for mastering the art of dialogue and for accepting the fortuities and jeopardy endemic to its practice. Until we reach Hans Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” in which the otherness of others fades away–ripping the curtains, taking apart the stockades and barricades, and wrecking the walls always remains possible in the offline world.

Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of CL, said to the young people who were following him at the very beginning, back in the fifties, that “dialogue is communicating your own personal life to other personal lives; it’s sharing in the existence of others in your own existence.” In other words, dialectic has nothing to do with it. But rather, it is an enormous opportunity. What do you think? How would you define “dialogue?”
Where to go, what to explore in search of answers to the questions of the “who am I” kind? From Descartes on, his “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) pointed inwards. Luigi Giussani, in close affinity it seems with George Herbert Mead, points to an interaction between inwards and outwards–the interplay of “I” (my self-definition) and “Me” (my perception of how others define me). As recent as a few decades ago, investigations of the birth and development of selves were aimed at “authenticity,” which was squeezed into and stored in hiding inside the murky innards of psyche and all too often exposed to the repressive pressures of cultural norms, waiting for therapist-assisted and -monitored efforts to break from prison. At the moment however, as anticipated by Giussani two decades ago, there is a tendency to replace the orthodox Cogito by something steering clear from Descartes’s egocentrism and coming closer instead to “you are, therefore I am.”

Last month, in Rimini, the Meeting was held: a massive event for culture and for a people, with guests from all over the world, 106 panel discussions, 17 exhibits, and 800,000 visitors. The title was “You are a good for me.”
In his message, the Pope said, “For these times, it’s a courageous title.” In your experience, what do we need to be able to go back to saying to the other “you are a good for me”? It will take, I fear, more than 106 panel discussions and even more than 800,000 visitors filling Rimini exhibition galleries to make those noble words into flesh. Another case of “cultural lag” is one of the most conspicuous markers of our present-day condition: we are aware of many more problems waiting to be urgently tackled than of ways and means likely to tackle them. We tussle, haplessly and hopelessly, between powers let off the leash and institutions no longer capable of taming and curbing them–let alone controlling the mode and purposes of their use.

And what is it that you are certain of?
I keep repeating that the sole certainty of the 21st century, enamored as it is (at least so far) with deregulation, flexibilization, contracting-out, and “outsourcing,” is the growth of uncertainty.

But in the Corriere della Sera interview, you said that when we finally see that building walls is “irrelevant in resolving the real causes of uncertainty, the game is not over: “at that point we can wake up again and develop the antibodies.” What are these antibodies? What kind of certainty do we need to live?
Maybe humans may find sooner or later the golden mean between a deficit and an excess of certainty... However, having perused many proclamations, scattered over space and time, of it having already been found, I am inclined to doubt whether such a hoped-for result (tantamount to the end of history) will be ever attained.