I appreciate TC’s comments on Walking Suburbia and On Being at Home. I hope to address some of these comments more generally in later posts, but I thought that I would at least do TC the immediate courtesy of responding to the question of what exactly I mean by a social holocaust.
The phrase does not only serve my penchant for rhetorical excess, though it certainly does this too. It names accurately, at least in my opinion, what is happening to social relations in the cultures I inhabit; that is, it describes the systematic and systemic elimination of relational encounter in favour of technical connectivity. The symptoms of this displacement are everywhere. They can be seen in the replacement of cooking and eating together with the consumption of fastfood and preprocessed dinners, often in isolation; the replacement of walkable neighbourhoods with suburbs that can only be driven, usually in isolation; the replacement of mixed housing with mass produced developments that reinforce class distinction, sometimes gated for protection, and for isolation. This list could be made almost endless, and it would include everything from how we are employed, educated, entertained, medicated, and buried.
The impetus for this annihilation of encounter with the other is a fear of the other as such, a fear of anything that I cannot reduce to my self, a suspicion of anything that is not in my own image. It is not the logic of a genocide, which would eliminate only others of a particular race or culture. It is not the logic of a crusade, which would eliminate only others of a particular religion. It is not the logic of a political pogrom, which would eliminate only others of a particular politics. It is the logic of a holocaust, which eliminates anyone who is other to my idealized self, on whatever basis whatsoever.
The Nazi atrocities were a holocaust for precisely this reason. The final solution was not just a genocide directed at the Jews. It was several genocides, directed at Jews, and Slavs, and Gypsies. It was also a moral pogrom, directed at the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, homosexuals, and others deemed socially unacceptable. It was also a religious crusade, directed at Judaism and Islam. It was, in short, the means by which Nazi Germany defined and eliminated what was other to its ideal self: a final solution: a holocaust. This is precisely the logic of our culture’s elimination of relational encounter, only we have taken it much nearer to its limits, where anyone who is other, for any reason, is to be feared, where the other as such is to be feared, and where encounter with the other is always to be avoided.
Our holocaust is social rather than physical, obviously. We understand ourselves to be too civilized for the physical extinction of others. We are, in fact, quite proud of the tolerance that we show to others in the ideal, regardless of their race or gender or sexuality or whatever. What we fail to realize, however, is that our increasing tolerance for others in the abstract is being accompanied by a decreasing openness to encounter with the particular persons around us. We refuse to discriminate on the basis of age or religion, but we also refuse to actually know anyone, whatever their age and religion. The fabric of social relation, and therefore of ethics also, which is based upon encounter with the other, is annihilated. We kill no one, but treat everyone as if they are dead. This is our holocaust. This is our final solution.
Now, it could be objected that I go too far here, that we do still encounter others, sharing our homes with family, our cubicles with coworkers, our pubs with friends. This is undoubtedly true. It is never possible entirely to eliminate encounter with others, not on this side of death and sanity. Even so, long work hours, full schedules, job turnover, cubicle farms, technical gadgetry, frequent moves, all produce estrangement among families, coworkers, and friends, all permit us to be among each other without really encountering each other. This is partly why, in an era where connectivity is easier than ever before, counsellors and psychologists are treating ever growing numbers of patients who describe themselves as lonely, depressed, and disconnected. They have become isolated by a fear of encountering the other, by a refusal to be open to the possibility of encountering the other, by a rejection of the intimacy that is only possible through encounter with the other. This is our social holocaust.
The reasons for this fear of the other in our culture are complex, and I do not have the space here to discuss them adequately. I would suggest, however, that they have to do with a certain political expediency and with a certain economic efficiency, not to mention the various individualisms, religious, political, philosophical, economic, and otherwise, that have characterized modernism and those of us who are its heirs. There is much that could be said in this direction, but it must wait for another occasion.