I wonder if John Locke, when he penned his acclaimed essays that would later inspire the American Revolution, could have guessed that hundreds of years later, foulmouthed American men on Facebook would be distorting his work through Internet memes, gleefully spreading misogyny and racism alongside references of pop culture. Did Voltaire know that in the 21st century, racists would excessively misquote his writings to justify their embarrassing yet unabashed support for Islamophobic hate groups? Perhaps Immanuel Kant, one of the most enlightened of all the Enlightenment thinkers, could have predicted that misogynists and racists on Twitter in the year 2015 would deform his call for reason and self-reliance into a projection of dogmatism and bigotry.
All of these Enlightenment thinkers, and many others, have had untold influence on Western thought and society–for better or for worse. By “worse,” I mean that however brilliant and groundbreaking the thought of the Enlightenment Era was, no renowned Enlightenment thinker properly instilled the capacity of analysis of multi-leveled power hierarchies into the general population. As a result, many lack this capacity today, and the non-white, non-cis, non-male populations of America are suffering for it.
“That the step to competence is held to be very dangerous by the far greater portion of mankind (and by the entire fair sex) is seen to by those guardians who have so kindly assumed superintendence over them,” wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784. In this quote, Kant means to illustrate how the majority of men – and all women – of his society are under restraints of fear and lack reason. Therefore, they cannot reach the true enlightenment of how to think for themselves. By instilling the fear of reason and enlightenment into their subjects, the most powerful in a society, referred to as “guardians,” control these unenlightened men and women like tethering cattle to a cart – his metaphor, not mine. These ideas have influenced generations of men after him, and the genius of his many works persists today.
Often left out of conversations about Kant are his beliefs about women and people of color. Kant dismissed all women and Africans as incapable of enlightenment. “They can be educated but only as servants (slaves), that is they allow themselves to be trained. They have many motivating forces, are also sensitive, are afraid of blows and do much out of a sense of honor,” Kant wrote about black people, having also provided directions about the proper way to whip one’s “Negro.” Here, Kant demonstrates that his preachings of “reason” and “morality” are just as primitive as the “incompetence” or lack of reason he condemns. Much like many of the respected scientists and philosophers from the Enlightenment Era, Kant was a misogynist and a white supremacist. Kant believed that white males belonged at the top of the hierarchical chain of power and affluence, which non-coincidentally is exactly how our society works today. Unfortunately, as brilliant as some say he was, Kant could not produce thought that analyzed race and gender hierarchies in any relevant or applicable way.
Almost two and a half centuries later, much of the white, cisgender, male American populace have adopted Kant’s words as their own moral philosophy, vowing to resist all attempts of control, oppose the mainstream modes of thought that entrance the masses, and to without exception, think for themselves. The dominant Western-style discourses of thought and validation of truth derive largely from the writings of Enlightenment thinkers like Kant. Just as Kant could not thoroughly or accurately analyze gender and race relations, many of these men have trouble understanding the multi-leveled systems of oppression that their American peers experience. Thus, Kant’s thinking and similar philosophies resonate strongest with a specific portion of Americans who also do not understand intersectional oppression–namely, white, cis, male-assigned men. And yet, white, cisgender men still use his interpretations of society and “reason” to torment women and people of color about being truly “enlightened” and “self-aware.”
I call this the Enlightened Complex.
Those with the Enlightened Complex pride themselves on their critical thinking abilities, their refusal adhere to what society “wants them to think,” their capacity in logical and reasonable thinking that surpasses all others. Ironically, all of these points of pride are in vain, because while they fancy themselves to be the most critical thinkers, most have absolutely no ability at all to comprehend nonKant or non-Enlightenment modes of thinking. Contrary to the teachings of the American public education system, the Enlightenment Era was not the only age and place in which great thought was produced. Thus, when sufferers of Enlightened Complex stumble across a mode of thought that does not match up with their own, only anger, frustration, and lashing out occurs, not any learning, progress, or multi-dimensional thinking.
I call it the Enlightened Complex, because its victims are already so aware, so intelligent, so enlightened, that they cannot possibly be “enlightened” again with new information or challenges to their thoughts. Most victims are inculcated so deeply into the cult of Enlightenment Era thinking, they don’t even realize they’re simply regurgitating the same, primitive lines of thought produced over two centuries ago. Some symptoms of the Enlightened Complex are quizzical, such as an unadulterated reverence for Banksy and quoting Marx out of context. Others are predictable, such as victim-blaming rape survivors whose skirts were too short at the time of the attack. Most are just dangerous, such as being unable to empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, as they view black people as criminals and therefore, suitable targets for police brutality. Some of the biggest ones are listed below. Talk with your doctor to check for the Enlightened Complex today.
1. Equates emotionality with irrationality.
The Enlightenment Era came with a de-centralization of religion and fear of God with an emphasis on self-reliance and autonomy. Somehow, admirers of the Enlightenment thinkers contorted what was first a criticism of a hyper-religious society into a downright abandonment of all emotion and emotional thinking. Therefore, sufferers of the Enlightened Complex automatically discredit and dismiss all arguments that have an emotional aspect and all arguers who exhibit even a shrivel of emotion. For example, in the eyes of the Enlightened, the argument, “You should not be racist, because it hurts my feelings,” is not valid. In connection to current politics, the Enlightened condemn America’s black population for exhibiting anger in response to systemic and institutional police brutality, citing that anger is an obstacle of progress, not a justifiable consequence of systemic oppression.
2. Assumes every conversation is a debate, not just a conversation.
People of non-cis male genders and people of color cannot even talk about their own lives without an onslaught of the Enlightened waiting for their moment to pounce and tear down their safe space, proving that they’re somehow wrong about how they understand their own life. While they are gunning to win the competition that doesn’t exist, their “opponent” doesn’t have the privilege to desensitize themselves from the topic at hand in order to apply “debate tactics” to the conversation, because it is actually their own personal experience, not a distant hypothetical. If one simply notes the systemic racism within Greek culture at American universities, a sufferer of the Enlightened Complex might retort, “Not all Greek organizations.” Of course, this statement is technically and logically true, but it fails to recognize patterns and institutional perpetuation of racism, because they, like Kant and his counterparts, cannot comprehend multi-leveled power hierarchies and their consequences.
3. Demands evidence for your lived experiences.
Similar to symptom number two, the Enlightened assumes at every point that the burden of proof must be placed on anyone who is not them. Firstly, burden of proof is a concept for a courtroom, and yet, the Enlightened insist on applying it onto situations outside of the courtroom because they are infatuated with the ways in which Western societies validate truth. If one woman states that she feels rape culture is real and harmful, suddenly she has the burden of gathering and presenting all the evidence of rape culture in a concise and digestible manner to the judge, the Enlightened. The evidence available to “prove” rape culture exists is so abundant and so apparent, that this task is nothing short of exhausting, frustrating, and unnecessary. One goldfish asking another goldfish to prove that they live in water, not air, would be a comparatively easier task. Secondly, the woman should not have to prove that it exists. She stating its existence in a casual conversation is enough evidence to continue a civil discussion about her own life.
4. Self-appoint themselves as an expert on every topic, ever.
As a result of a combination of the teachings of the Enlightenment thinkers and a deeply-rooted sense of entitlement, sufferers of Enlightened Complex present themselves as credible speakers on any topic they want. Subsequently, they offer their opinions especially in locations where it is most unwelcome. A few examples include their opinions on dress codes in high schools, racial bias in the workplace, microaggressions, trans rights and sexuality. When accosted for these unwanted interjections, the Enlightened always resort to the same defense: “I’m still allowed to have my own opinion.” That one sentence alone oozes with entitlement, and it is a bastardized version of the principle that Kant lived by – that is, “to think for oneself and to resist against the masses,” distorted into, “do not listen to those who think differently than you.” The Enlightened can have an “opinion” just as someone without testicles could have an “opinion” about whether or not getting kicked in the groin actually hurts.
The Complex is insidious, and there’s no immediate cure. The most one can do to protect against it is to watch out for the symptoms and avoid the sufferers at all costs. Don’t subject yourself to unnecessary violence, especially since it’s likely a lost cause.
Check out more from this month’s issue here.