Death and the Parochial

by Arran James

The following is a repost of something I wrote on an old blog last June. I’m reposting it here because it fits with the general themes here and, more importantly, because of the resonance with Terror Management Theory and the idea of thanatophobia. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

If it is true that people increasingly tend to feel life as suffering, first and foremost as their own suffering, then this explains why so many chauvinists are ready to take ownership of the suffering of those they seem to share so much with. Our boys on the front-line, our old people, our kids.

There is a paradox at work in chauvinism. In a world where nationalisms still hold influence we claim ownership of groups in order to elevate them as abject only so that we might bring our suffering closer into focus. Yet it is not our suffering but the suffering of proximate (in one sense and another) others. Simultaneously this allows us to increase our quotient of suffering: we indulge in a safe form of pain and are able to express outrage about that pain, so as, precisely, not to face up to our own. A double evasion though: we do not have to face up to those sufferings that exist on an altogether more monstrous, undomesticated scale. The suffering of distant others, of swathes of humanity, those sufferings of which we ourselves are the cause and finally those sufferings that rear up in obscene dimensions. At the extreme, it is the ecological and cosmological dimensions of suffering that are being disavowed.

Parochial concern is the attempt to both experience and negate intimate and cosmic suffering and, at the same time, to indulge in a certain masochism without really being hurt. Parochialism is, in all its forms, little more than an exchange with death. In order to admit precariousness, existential vulnerability, sometimes it isn’t enough to pretend invincibility or to defer thinking about it…sometimes we have to stage it for ourselves.