The gift. It is an area of inquiry in deconstructionist postmodern philosophy, that connects to all the human aspirations we might classify as altruistic. The true gift asks nothing in return, not even recognition. At the heart of the act of giving, there lies a paradox: one must have the intention to give in order to do it, and yet awareness of the intention is itself a kind of recognition. Despite the impossibility of the perfect act of giving, a fundamental ethical call requires that we value and aspire to achieve it.
We are always already called.
By the very fact of being able to conceive of a human subject—the first-person singular, the experience of being the “I am” that we are—we establish an ethical relationship to the vulnerability, intentionality, right to be rightful, and ethical value, of all others who have this experience. The Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would have others do unto you—is not a wish or an idea; it is the structurally integral ethical universe that emerges from the fact that any of us is conscious, alive, and in any way vulnerable.
If you have the experience of existence that can be expressed “I am”, then you have discovered the obligation to pursue the impossible giving of the gift, to navigate all uncertainty with generosity toward others who carry that same burden, and to exist ethically in the world. If you have a right to exist, then so do I, and so do others besides us. If your right to your own thoughts and feelings is sacred to you, then mine must be as well, and so should the honest selfhood of others.
In each of those experiences of selfhood, there is truth, and there is world-building, and there is a unique and sacred contribution to the whole of human experience. Some say that human attention is the most sacred resource in our lived experience, and we should not discount or squander it, and we should not overburden it with degradations or unkindnesses.
Civilization is, at its core, a promise that we will find a way to this better selfhood, together and for one another.
Bigotry is moral corrosion, weaponized and aimed at the heart of civilization itself. Its implicit aim is to deny the humanity of all. This is why it aligns with such angry and deeply unhappy emotional experiences. This is why there is so often a rash of self-loathing eating away at the bigot himself.
What we have witnessed in Charlottesville and in Barcelona and Cambrils, as in so many places across the world and throughout history, is the moral corrosion of hate.
In his autobiography about the tortures of slavery and the path to freedom, Frederick Douglass describes witnessing first-hand the spiritual corrosion of a person’s transition from naturally decent to violently hate-filled. He watched the destruction of the beautiful soul of the woman who first sought to teach him to read. Once she had “permission”, through the moral debauchery of slave-owning, to treat him as less than human, she began to indulge that license more and more, until she had become an angry, empty, valueless gearwheel in slavery’s engine of dehumanization.
Douglass was not excusing her as a victim. Far from it. He was describing the difference in experience between himself and her. He, a bonded slave, had dignity and a free soul, and the moral intelligence to know without doubt that evil is evil and must be rejected; she, a free person with a free soul, had spent all of her dignity and decency in exchange for a new selfhood, characterized by lies, hate, violence, and a general tolerance of evil. That was the show of her character, but it was also the demonstration for Douglass that the slave can be free in mind and spirit and build a path to liberation.
That is what he did, despite the terrible risks and ubiquitous injustice of the world he knew until then.
The bigot has followed a path like the woman Frederick Douglass observed—denying her own full selfhood by becoming wholly ungenerous, lying to herself pathologically to rationalize her own inhumanity toward other human souls. There is no truth, no justice, no honor, in such a path, and the result is the evisceration of the moral aptitude of the bigot. Civilization implicitly treats such deviation as a threat, and so the bigot is constantly feeling the counter-threat experienced by the hated outsider. And somehow, just as children intuitively understand the difference between fairness and unfairness, the bigot knows he deserves no comfort or aid from civilization.
So Nazis, fascists, and pseudo-religious hate groups, lose their humanity and begin to lust after attacks on civilization—on those who innocently enjoy the protections of the law, of representative government, of human society’s endless collaborative potential.
This is as incomprehensible to the rest of us as it is simply explained by the luminous intelligence of Frederick Douglass. So, we should never allow the recognition that bigots and fascists are infected by a contagious and debilitating anger distract us from the fact that violent extremists and hate groups are people making choices.
They value themselves at nothing and seek to rise above others by tearing them down to even less. Their violent agenda is an impossibility more extreme than the perfect gift. No innocent victim could ever be less than these eroded spirits by any human ethical standard. And every victim is another incomparable gift stolen from the rest of us.
Ethical integrity and empowerment of others are the only true standards for measuring power in our world.
Treating racism and hate as “controversial rhetoric” does not make us more tolerant or democratic; it is a shortcut to abdication of the moral responsibilities of citizenship. Racism and hate are acts of evil that connect directly to structural and physical violence, tyranny and genocide. There is no circumstance where saying so is not the first, best use of language on the subject.
Every bigot is a suicide attacker, aiming their moral bankruptcy at the heart of what is good and decent in humanity. As they obliterate their own personhood in an openly declared war against the Golden Rule, they target the load-bearing pillars that hold up the edifice of human civilization.
Though her death is a tragic loss, we should be eternally grateful to Heather Heyer for giving the incomparable gift of selfless devotion to fairness and justice for all people. Her use of human awareness stands as an example to all people. We can say the same for the innocent lives lost in Barcelona and Cambrils, and in Paris and New York and Karachi, and in so many places; their innocence itself was a gift and an example to us all, and we must commit every ounce of the moral intelligence we have to making sure their sacrifice helps to liberate all of us from these degradations.
The gift—of being, of innocence, of awareness—is a call to be just, always and everywhere. Aiming for that is our irrevocable duty.