Zygmunt Bauman, Collateral Damage. Or, The Forgetting of the Importance of People
To my recollection, I first encountered Zygmunt Bauman in 1996 through reading Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. As I remember, I appreciated what I was able to encounter of Bauman there. I subsequently came across Bauman more frequently in readings and really appreciated his Globalization: The Human Consequences. It was some time after he wrote Globalization and as we entered into the new millennium that his discussions about the concept of liquid modernity began to emerge.
In this text, Bauman takes up the topic of how inequality and collateral damage are dance partners. Particularly, the leader in Bauman’s dance is inequality. Inequality leads to increasing levels of willingness to abide “collateral damage.” Of course, the opposite can also be suggested to be relevant – collateral damage can lead to further inequalities, but this is less Bauman’s focus.
Inequality, to use a popular turn of phrase, “widens the gap” in almost every sense that a person can imagine. The greater the inequality the greater the tendency for social disconnectedness. As inequalit(y/ies) increases all of the classic forms that come from unknownness tend to more strongly manifest: fear, hatred, suspicion, violence, verbal barbs, legal barriers, social ostracization, misplaced blame, etc.
Bauman doesn’t specifically engage this following notion in his text, but I think it’s fair to suggest that it is there implicitly. That is, inequality and difference/variation are not fully the same. Bauman does argue that the loss of communal stability has both driven us to and been driven away by liquid modernity and this has led to both further difference and inequality, but he is not arguing for their definitional commensurability. Inequality by definition will always suggest difference of one sort or another, but difference does not have to suggest inequality. This is a vital distinction. Thus, one can be significantly different and yet not lose the connectivity that leads to, sustains and furthers healthy communal interchange. But, the more one is significantly unequal – especially if this includes multiple areas/manners in which one is significantly unequal – the greater the likelihood for communal (socio-political [which includes the economic]) disconnect.
Inequality leading to social disconnectedness and the results that follow from this are what pose the major problem for Bauman. History has shown time and again that loss of recognition of the bonds of communal connectivity between people lead to increased violence in various forms. And this increased violence often showcases itself in language. Bauman argues in this text, that such violent disconnection can be seen for example in the use of the term “collateral damage.” With this term of “collateral” present inequalities become starkly exhibited. People become collateral rather than integral, peripheral rather than central, unnecessary rather than necessary, non or undervalued rather than valued, objects rather than subjects, things rather than persons.
One of the poignant aspects of Bauman’s text is his discussion of the various results of the loss of community for society. In his terms the loss of proper oikos, ecclesia and agora (a healthy parish in more religious parlance) has led to the seeking of greater purpose through monetary transaction as a form of communal connectivity. This is not necessarily bad in and of itself, but pales in comparison to the depth of good that can be experienced and sustained in robust communal settings. The vacuum left by the destabilization of communal ties due to liquid modernity’s allegiance to economic drivers over socio-political stabilizers has led to increased objectifications.
The main point is not that there is loss of any kind of connection, but that meaningful, subjective connection is lost. Sometimes there is a complete disconnect – at least on some levels and related to some topics. But more often, there is negative connection begun and/or continued and increased. People are asked to work longer hours for less pay, more ordering occurs with less choice offered, technical education is promoted over theoretical education (so that one can work in a skilled fashion for someone without asking outside-the-box creative questions for which there might not be good answers), etc. People are viewed less as an intrinsic good for their own being and instead seen according to utilitarian purposes of how they can further the structure of the system.
A summation offered more simply than does Bauman’s work full justice, but that I believe honors his intentions: Bauman encourages us to see the full humanity of people and not to sacrifice people – techonologically, economically, socially, or politically — on the altar of any kind of bureaucracy .
A very important message in a book well worth a read.
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