The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)

Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity

Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis

Boston, Polity, 2013.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 2)

There is much of value in this volume, but it is not always easy to find. A joint reflection on our postmodern age, Moral Blindness explores themes of evil, indifference, and loss—of moral autonomy, and with it of moral solidarity and a sense of belonging and mutuality, and even of the ability to communicate.

The book is structured as a dialogue between Leonidas Donskis, professor of politics at Vytautas Magnus University, in Lithuania, and Zygmunt Bauman, emeritus professor of sociology at Leeds University, in England. For the most part, the individual dialogues begin with a long excursus by Donskis, to which Bauman responds, usually by picking up one or two threads from Donskis’s presentation and developing them along lines he finds interesting. Often this is enlightening, though the conceit of the dialogue is sometimes hard on the reader. Such interjections as “I am overwhelmed, dear Leonidas.… A long time has passed since I encountered a similarly incisive, poignant and illuminating reflection” are tiresome and somewhat off-putting.

Reflecting on many of the ills of the contemporary world, especially as they are experienced in Europe (and particularly, I would add, by certain members of Europe’s educated elite), Bauman and Donskis bemoan the loss of privacy, the destruction of the individual, the unhampered invasion of our life-worlds by technology, and the accompanying loss of the high-bourgeoisie markers of a civilized life (moral autonomy, economic security, a sense of social responsibility and bounded existence within a community, a sense of home). Critiques are offered of the new cults of celebrity, self-promotion, and social media addiction, all of which all have little to recommend them other than their function as “advertisements for myself.”

Moral Blindness has a shrill tone, and the points are made more by fiat than by argumentation. Consequently, this is a book for the believer, not one to convince the skeptic. The authors sometimes seem unaware of their own somewhat limited and provincial perspective. The view from the mosque or church or synagogue would not support many of their assumptions about contemporary reality, for instance. Again and again, Bauman and Donskis describe the loss of individuality and communal association our current form of “liquid modernity” entails. Nowhere, however, is there even the suspicion that this may not be the case for millions of religiously committed individuals (and their communities), whether in Birmingham, England; Istanbul; Jerusalem; or even Paris. The assumption that the authors are writing about secular society, for secular individuals, is so transparent that it almost goes unseen.

This is no quibble. Bauman makes a telling point when he claims, “The essential distinction of ‘networks’—the name selected these days to replace the old-fashioned ideas, believed to be out-dated, of ‘community’ or ‘communion’—is precisely this right of unilateral termination. Unlike communities, networks are individually put together and individually reshuffled or dismantled, and rely on the individual will to persist as their sole, however volatile, foundation.” This is the type of insight that makes this book worth reading. Bauman hones in on a ubiquitous contemporary term, community, one that we encounter daily without reflection, and problematizes it, showing us its true meanings and social implications. This is of great value. But again, the value lies in the insight, not the analysis. Communities do indeed remain, many of which are religious. People united by deep commitments and obligations make up these communities, in which there is a sense of both individuality and mutuality, and where “liquid modernity” does not penetrate, at least not in the same way as it does at the local gym (where many members of such communities may indeed be members, which is what makes reality more interesting than any polemic against it).

Until we have an analysis that also takes such realities into account, and that doesn’t conflate modernity with secularism, we will have only a partial view of our current and emergent world order, an order that begs for sociological study rather than ideological condemnation.

Adam Seligman is professor of religion at Boston University and research associate at the university’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs. His books include The Problem of Trust, as well as Modernity’s Wager: Authority, the Self, and Transcendence and, most recently, Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity, cowritten with Robert Weller.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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