Antagonism


A great deal of the anguish I feel over the BP oil catastrophe lies not only in the ecological damage it has wrought, but in what a missed opportunity this is turning out to be. As I remarked in a previous post on the disaster, this is a prime moment to enact a progressive version of what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine“. The Obama Glee Club has focused on how he’s doing everything he possibly can to stop the link and ensure that clean up proceeds apace. However, this misses the point. Discontent with Obama’s handling of the oil spill revolves not so much with how he’s dealing with the spill itself– though there’s plenty to be discontent with there as well –but with his failure to seize this opportunity.

One of my central reasons for voting for Obama was his profound rhetorical ability. It is my view that we exist at a point in history where it is of crucial importance to shift the reigning commonplaces underlying American politics. For thirty years our airwaves have been filled with neoliberal propoganda, convincing us that the primary function of government is to create an optimal business environment and that the best way to achieve this goal is through the privatization of government functions and through the deregulation of all markets and industries. On the one hand, the thesis runs, the private sector knows best how to run things and government botches everything it puts its hands on. As Reagan famously said, “government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” And indeed, in the late 70s when neoliberalism began to ascend from a wacky fringe position defended by only a few cranks to a hegemonic ideology constituting the common sense of the American public, there was good reason for being suspicious of the government. On the other hand, the argument runs, where business flourishes money will trickle down to average people, improving their standard of living. As the old saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

The BP oil disaster is not simply an ecological and economic catastrophe, but is a symptom or a symbol of all the failures of neoliberal ideology. And this is precisely what has been largely missing in Obama’s handling of the issue. What we need right now is not someone who seeks bipartisan legislation, nor someone who works quietly and competently behind the scenes. No, what we need right now is a Lacanian master.

Perhaps the best way to understand Lacan’s discourse of the master is in terms of the moment of kairos in rhetoric. In Greek, kairos means the “right or opportune moment.” The rhetor is the person who is adept at taking advantage of the opportune moment to generate action that leads in the right direction. Situated in terms of Lacan’s discourse of the master depicted above, we see the top portion of the graph pointing from S1 to S2. S1 refers to the master-signifier, whereas S2 refers to the battery or collection of free floating signifiers. The function of the master, the kairotic act of the master, lies in unifying the chaotic and free floating battery of signifiers (S2’s) under a master-signifier that renders them structured and intelligible.

And this has been precisely what is missing in Obama’s presidency so far. If Obama has failed to step up to the plate, this is not because he is dealing with a recalcitrant congress or an obstructive opposition party, but because he has failed to step up to the plate and perform the kairotic act. Here we have an event that is going to have massive economic and ecological impact that will reverberate for years, an event is a direct outcome of deregulation and corporate greed, an event that will, in one way or another effect all Americans, and we have an administration that refuses to quilt this event into a whole series of events that have buffeted both the country and the world. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze speaks of repetition in terms of resonances, echoes, and reflections of the past. In repetition the present actuality somehow is haunted by all sorts of other past events.

It is precisely something like this that is the case with the BP oil catastrophe. The oil catastrophe echoes and resonates not only with past oil catastrophes, but with the financial collapse, the West Virginia mining disaster, the exploitation of American tax payer dollars by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the exploitation of American citizens by insurance companies, and on and on. If there were ever a moment to quilt together our economic woes, the impending environmental apocalypse, and rampant corruption among the corporations and government as a result of neoliberal ideology, this is that moment. Obama needs to step up to the plate and take advantage of this moment, performing a Kennedyesque moment not unlike that of persuading the American people to go to the moon.

The point isn’t that Obama will necessarily be successful in all that he asks for, but that asking for it plays an important function in structuring the dialogue and changing popular consensus as to what the function of government is and whether or not corporations truly are the best at running things. Now is the time to ask for big things. While I am aware that he has put more money into funding public transportation, why is he not linking the use of public transportation to patriotism? Here he would have a way of quilting the use of public transportation to the war in the Middle East, the death of soldiers and innocent civilians, massive expenditures on that war, and the environment. And here, also, he could make a call for boosting public transportation in the suburbs, encouraging us to take the bus or a train to work, rather than drive our cars. And while he’s at it, he could address highschool kids, who are much more environmentally minded than the older generations, and encourage them to take the bus to school rather than driving their car. He could work to make this a “cool” or “hip” thing to do for the environment.

In addition to public transportation, he could call for a radical shift in the trucking industry. In the United States alone trucks travel trillions of miles a year. Now is the time to call for a shift from diesel to natural gas in trucks, or, ideally, some environmentally friendly, biodegradable fuel. It is also the time to call upon congress to give large tax cuts to families that buy hybrid cars and who do things to make their homes more energy efficient.

These are just a few things that come to mind. Once again, the point is not that Obama will get all that we want. We won’t. The point is that things have to be put out there to get anything. As a result of all that’s taken place in recent years, I believe Americans are gradually waking up to the devastation wrought by neoliberalism economically, environmentally, in terms of political instability throughout the world and so on. However, we need a kairotic act that links these things together and that registers them for the big Other as a sort of force field in the symbolic order. Nor can we drag our feet at this time in history. We are not living in times of business as usual where incrementalism and political pragmatism is an acceptable way of proceeding. As the environmental apocalypse continues to intensify we will witness massive economic instability as the result of food shortages and the scarcity of water and fossil fuels, more pandemics unleashed as a result of the world heating up, and political instability and war as a result of the scarcity of these resources. Perhaps Obama will find the courage to engage in such kairotic acts if he is lucky enough to be elected for a second term, but it’s increasingly difficult to see him getting re-elected. There is nothing pragmatic or realistic about proceeding in such a wishy washy manner where winning the support of the electorate is concerned. The damage is largely done in the Gulf, but perhaps something good can nonetheless come of this catastrophe.

Responding to my post on Diamond, Yant writes:

One way of approaching the, I think, quite legitimate reservations that Johan raises is to recognise (and this should be quite obvious really) that just because we’ve got a noun for something doesn’t mean we should take it to be an object!

To use words like ‘European, Inca, Maya, European maritime technology’ do not necessarily make a work ‘object oriented’ – this is too hasty a conclusion. Whether a ‘culture’ or a ‘nation’ or a ‘state’ can be legitimately referred to as an ‘object’ at all I think is a very important point.

I study international relations and it is of the utmost importance to the theory of this discipline whether one accepts the state and thus the international system to be closed, black-boxed ‘objects’ (as the dominant, mainstream neo-positivist theories hold) or whether it is actually necessary to insist on opening up this black-box and actually denying it closure (both for ontological and ethical reasons). Similar concerns are routinely raised about Diamond’s histories and I think an OOO driven social science needs to address these problems as problems head on not just accuse critics of correlationism.

I think the problem with Diamond’s work is not that it is oriented towards objects (which is good) but that it is (like Braudel and McNeill certainly) overwhelmingly macro-oriented; this is not necessarily a bad thing but it is certainly something with a lot of problems attached to it.

If we are to advance object oriented theory into the humanities and social sciences further (and this is very much my intention) we need to square some circles. For example, are not the histories of Diamond et al. not the absolute anti-thesis of Latour’s ANT? (And is not Latour’s ANT somewhat the cause celebre of object oriented approaches in the social sciences so far?)

Being ‘object oriented’ doesn’t necessarily forgive one all other sins. I don’t think one need be ‘correlationist’ to recognise the problems of macro-history. That isn’t to dismiss its relevance, however, just to insist on the recognition of its problems.

I initially misunderstood the problem that Jonah was alluding to (here and here). My mistake. Yes, this is all absolutely correct. We cannot assume that just because there is a noun for something that something is an object.

With that said, I think it’s important to exercise some caution where Latour is concerned. OOO and Latour are not identical. Graham already shows some major divergences in Prince of Networks, where Latour falls into the internalist camp pertaining to relations, while OOO is externalist. To this, I would add that Latour, in my view (Harman need not be guilty of this criticism) is often confused with respect to mereology.

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In thinking through the strange mereology of object-oriented ontology I’ve been particularly fascinated by the example of couples. Subtractive variants of object-oriented ontology are all agreed, I believe, that objects are independent of the parts that make them up. When I refer to “subtractive object-oriented ontology”, I am referring to the positions of Harman, Bogost, and myself where it is held that objects are independent and autonomous from their relations. Subtractive OOO is thus to be contrasted with relationist object-oriented ontology, where objects are held to be real, yet nonetheless possess domestic or internal relations to all other objects in the world.

Insofar as all objects are necessarily aggregates of other objects, it follows that objects cannot exist without their parts. However, while subtractive variants of OOO concede that objects cannot exist without their parts and that, indeed, one way of destroying an object is through the destruction of its parts, nonetheless objects are independent of the parts that compose them. In other words, objects cannot be reduced to their parts. The parts of an object are themselves objects that have their own autonomy and life. The larger object composed out of these parts is another object that has its own autonomy and life. If this is the case, then it is because parts of an object can come and go, while the object remains. Thus, for example, we might argue that the parts of the United States are the citizens of the United States. However, citizens are born and die and sometimes renounce their citizenship, yet the United States remains. Moreover, it is possible for someone to be a citizen of the United States without knowing anything about the United States or that the United States exists. Indeed, we are often a part of objects without scarcely knowing we are part of these objects. This is why sociology renders a service in revealing the way in which we’re entangled in larger scale objects that effect our lives in a variety of ways without being aware that we’re part of these objects.

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Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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Both Ben and Austin have posts up responding to some claims Zizek makes about nature. Ben writes:

For Zizek nature must be non-all or barred, but this nature never goes beyond the range of the earth. Zizek those go on to argue that the appearence of the whole in nature, that the very possibility of nature-in-itself is merely a result of subjective experience, an argument he ties to the experience of the sublime. Zizek then argues for ecology without nature thereby following Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature. I have unfortunately not yet read his text of the same name. From what I have read it seems that what he attacks as the concept of nature is a dominant mode of nature – one stemming from the rationalist tradition where is an immense but separate entity. Zizek writes: “what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on.”

Here my largest issue (which seems to come up with many commentators on nature and ecology) is that the ecology of concepts of nature is severally narrowed for the sake of argument. Zizek seems to make a reversal when discussing the films of Tarkovsky and in particular Stalker but then shifts back to focus on transcendental subjectivity.

The ontological priviledge of the subject remains a serious stumbling block for any approach to nature that is not too shallow or too obfuscated. The finitude of the subject has become increasingly transcendentalized at the expense of nature, nature becomes merely an elaborate background. Nature goes right through the subject.

Following up on Ben’s criticism, it seems to me that there is a fundamental ambiguity in how Zizek refers to “nature”. When Zizek critiques nature is he referring to nature as such or the discursive concept of nature as it functions in a particular ideological discourse? If the former, it is completely appropriate for Zizek to critique this concept of nature and how it functions ideologically. Within this discursive framework, nature is treated as a whole that is harmonious and independent of culture. That is, culture is treated as something other than nature and outside of nature.

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Somewhere or other Lacan speaks of a fundamental choice of subjective-structure that precedes any actualized form that subjective-structure might take. Thus you get the choice of hysteria that protests the legitimacy of any particular master, figure of authority, or father, leader, or expert, the choice of obsessional neurosis that constantly licks the heels of every master while secretly stealing pathetic bits of enjoyment behind his back by pissing in his lemonade, the pervert that shows the neurotic what his desire is really about, and finally the psychotic that bucks the whole damned system, refusing it altogether. Zizek, in his writings on Schelling, speaks of this as a choice that precedes choice or a sort of transcendental choice to choose. In other words, you get your average obsessional sort of neurosis that chooses not to choose, saying that the game is set, that this is the way things are, and that our only option is to steal little bits of jouissance while maintaining the system.

Zizek’s tells a marvelous vulgar joke that perfectly exemplifies this logic. A peasant couple encounters a nobleman on a dirt road. Evoking the ancient law of prima nocta, the nobleman demands the right to sleep with the peasant’s wife. However, to add insult to injury he demands that the husband hold the nobleman’s testicles while he does the deed so they don’t get dirty from the road. After the dirty deed has taken place and the nobleman has trotted off, the husband laughs hysterically. Distraught by her husband’s response after this terrible encounter, his wife asks how he can possibly laugh. The husband responds, full of mirth, that he didn’t hold the master’s balls. Such is always the logic of those who want to be recognized by their master’s. Here the husband thinks he’s scored a major victory, but he’s kept everything important in place just as it was before. He steals his little bit of jouissance, but it only functions to sustain the unjust system within which this event took place. This, for example, is the universe of the Larry Craig’s, Sanford’s, etc., that keep the system in place while stealing bits of enjoyment behind the scene, but also the logic of all of those who identify with their oppressors, believing that they will get their eye and recognition. They strive to get recognition from their masters even as they despise them. On the other hand, there are those that prior to any choice they make recognize that the frame of decision is itself arbitrary and can be changed. The philosophical difference here might be characterized in terms of the difference between Badiou and Deleuze on the one hand, and Habermas and Rawls on the other. In the latter case we are constrained by a lifeworld and can only act and decide within the framework of those constraints. The constraints themselves cannot be questioned or interrogated. In the former case, by contrast, it is the frames themselves that are contested and the entire issue revolves around how those frames might be abolished or transformed. Of course, the latter position always wins out because you cannot show an alternative possibility, but only enact it. As a result, the latter position is always the “sensible” or “common sense” position.

Prior to where anyone stands on any particular issue, there seems to be a fundamental existential decision that precedes any “ontic” decision one might make regarding social and political issues. There are, basically, two types of people in the world, though this point can only be made through ontic examples. There are those who side with the insurance companies, holding that the reason prices are so high is that there are spurious lawsuits against doctors for malpractice. And then there are those that side with the people, seeing insurance companies as profit driven entities designed to inflate cost for their own benefit. There are those who side with corporations, believing that policy should be designed for their benefit because, after all, they’re the ones that give us jobs, and then there are those that side with the workers seeing little or no connection between the interests of corporations and the interest of workers. There are those that side with the protesters on May of ’68 against an oppressive academic and work regime, and then there are those who see May of ’68 as a youthful burst of naivete that had no meaning whatsoever. There are those that side with the raped woman and then those who said she shouldn’t have dressed so provocatively. Most recently there are those who side with Gates and those who think he was an uppity black man who should have been more respectful to the officer. And then there are those that claim that all intellectual work should be constrained by the tradition and strictly defined by that framework. Where one falls is always a fundamental existential decision that precedes any specific decision one might make. What is interesting is how those who have chosen not to choose somehow nonetheless end up talking endlessly about the pie in the sky naive ones who have chosen to choose, almost as if the former are aware of their own ephemeral and irrelevant place in the order of things.

X 3 13 SHORT CIRCUIT 1An old chestnut has it that if you are pissing everyone off you must be doing something right. This is especially the case if the charges against a position are themselves completely contradictory or diametrically opposed. In recent dust-ups surrounding my onticology and Harman’s object-oriented ontography, this has certainly been the case. On the one hand, there are the endless anti-realist critiques of onticology charging it with falling it into a sort of naive realism and naturalism, to the detriment of mind, culture, signs, and all the rest. Again and again you hear the charge that the human and all these formations are being banished and ignored. Of course, this criticism is baffling as Harman’s thesis is not that the natural world is the “really real” world and that we must exclude the human to get to it, but rather that the withdrawal of objects is not unique to human-object relations but holds for all inter-ontic or inter-object relations. In other words, there’s a very real sense in which Harman’s position can be read as a radicalization of Kant’s thesis about the unknowability of the thing-in-itself, holding that it is a general ontological proper of all relations among objects and not simply of human-object relations. The situation is similar in my case as well. My principle of translation has it that there is no transporation of a difference from one object to another object without a translation or a transformation of that difference by the second object. These sorts of processes of translation are what I’m principally interested in understanding. Since the human and cultural phenomena are counted among the field of real objects producing differences, there’s nothing in my account that excludes the human. I merely make the claim that the human isn’t included in all inter-object relations. Yet still, somehow, I get situated as a naturalist and a reductive materialist.

However, if this were not comic enough, from the other end I get the charge of rejecting naturalism and materialism, thereby falling into a sort of humanism. Thus, in a couple of truly obnoxious posts written by John (not to be confused with the great John Cogburn who has been sadly absent of late), ire is expressed because I am alleged to reject neurology, quantum mechanics, and relativity theory (here and here). Needless to say, I suspect I won’t be posting any further comments from John as I don’t particularly care for sarcastic assholes, especially those who remark, from the outset, that my project will not hold up under scrutiny. There’s little possibility of dialog with a person who dismisses you from the beginning. At any rate, John charges me with claiming that all things are real, seeming to miss the point that my thesis is not that everything is real, but that if something makes differences it is real. From John’s end of the spectrum I am thus accused of some sort of wild and wooly postmodern idealism where everything goes.

In the meantime, Glen, in a set of criticisms I don’t really understand as they seem to be making many of the very points onticology and ontography makes, charges object-oriented ontology with being profoundly humanist, despite the fact that everywhere speculative realism strives to dethrone the centrality of the human. Elsewhere, in a post also characterized by a rather obnoxious tone, he charges speculative realists with being entirely too pre-occupied with responding to Kant and not doing enough to develop an ontology. This is a curious claim given that I’ve written literally hundreds of pages on this blog alone developing the details of onticology, and there are literally thousands of pages worth of speculative realist writing developing various realist ontologies. The only time Kant ever seems to become a focus is in discussions with anti-realists, which comes as no surprise. Barring that, I think the speculative realists are by and large simply working through the details of their various ontologies. Even more ironic is the fact that this charge is made in the context of other charges where object-oriented ontology has been accused of not attending to Kant enough (usually accompanied by a number of lengthy posts explaining Kant to the poor speculative realists that just don’t get it).

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One of the things that has often frustrated me about Continental political theory is that I find in it a tendency to focus on the content of concepts, positions, and arguments to the detriment of the form through which these positions are articulated. Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not simply to represent the world, but to change the world. Part of the production of this change involves having good concepts, arguments, and the right positions. However, if these concepts do not circulate around the world, if they remain cloistered within our skulls or accessible to only a select group of elite individuals, then these concepts do little to change the world.

The form of a discourse, as well as its materiality, matters every bit as much as the content of that discourse. It is not enough to simply have the right ideas or the just position. If that position does not take place in some sort of material inscription, if it does not have the right sort of form, it is unable to in-form at all. That is, it remains incapable of producing any difference outside of the small and select group of elites capable of receiving the message. Where the form is lacking, one suspects that the theoretical engagement is akin to an obsessional exercise, where the obsessional is perpetually preparing to go after the object of desire but in such a way that all of his acts are designed to insure that everything remains exactly as it has always been. In other words, the obsessional form of activity is designed to insure that nothing changes regardless of what the obsessional claims at the level of the content of his discourse. It is here the form of obsessional activity that matters, that is crucial to understanding the obsessional, not the content.

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Laughing_buddha_statue_Buddha_gift_mRecently some charges of Orientalism have been floating about the blogosphere with regard to a particular thinker. I don’t care to get into the nuts and bolts of this discussion, but I do think it might be of value to raise some issues about some of the sociological, anthropological, and linguistic assumptions that might underlie this sort of charge. As the Wikipedia article on Orientalism succinctly puts it, “Orientalism implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples.” In response to this short definition, we might ask “what are the conditions for the possibility of Orientalism?” On the one hand, we are told that Orientalism is an essentializing interpretation of Eastern cultures and peoples; while, on the other hand, we are told that this interpretation is an outsider interpretation.

picture_kafka_drawingBeginning with the second criteria or feature characterizing the “phenomenology” of Orientalism, I think we should ask “who is the outsider?” When it is claimed that someone or some mode of discourse is an “outsider” mode of discourse we are implicitly claiming that an inside exists. Put otherwise, what we are suggesting is that cultural identities, cultural “types”, cultures themselves, exist. But is this a warranted assumption? Are we not every bit as much strangers or outsiders within our own culture as we are with respect to other cultures? Do we not wonder how to be Americans, English, Egyptian, Chinese, etc? Or put otherwise, in Lacanian terms, do we not find ourselves perpetually fraught with the hysteric’s question of what we are for the Other? Quoting Zizek quoting Hegel, the mysteries of the Egyptians were mysteries for the Egyptians. The mistake of the sort of culturalism presupposed by the charge of Orientalism is that it implicitly advocates a sort of immediate and non-mediated relationship to cultural identity such that insiders and outsiders actually exist. But if the aphorism that the big Other does not exist means anything, it is that there is no internally consistent and totalized set of signs and signifiers capable of defining a cultural identity and fixing one’s identity as a member of a group. Our encounter with our own cultural system is every bit as fraught and mysterious as our relation to the so-called “other”.

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Perhaps I’m a mean spirited, miserable bastard– okay, yes, I am a mean spirited, miserable bastard –but two of my greatest pet peeves with what passes for “leftist” political thought as practiced in the United States revolve around a superficial politics based on the “kumbaya” that seemed to emerge around and following the sixties. I encounter this sort of political thought not so much in political theory circles, as I do among certain democratic activists still in the grips of 80s and 90s identity politics as the paradigm of all politics, to the detriment of anything having to do with political economy. “Kumbaya Politics” seems to be based on the thesis that the root cause of all suffering and conflict arises from the friend/enemy distinction as it organizes social groups. In other words, the thesis runs, if we would just recognize that everyone is human, that there is no genuine friend/enemy distinction, then human conflict would come to an end and we would all live harmoniously with one another. The reason there is conflict, strife, and struggle in the world lies in the operation of this artificial friend/enemy distinction among groups. Were we to just be tolerant– and here I think the Enlightenment concept of tolerance becomes twisted beyond all point of recognition –human conflict, cruelty, and struggle would end.

The second, and closely related, thesis that irritates me to know end is the thesis that the goodness or evil, justice or injustice, of a person’s actions is a function of their intentions. That is, the only people who are genuinely unjust, who are genuinely evil, are those who intend to be unjust and evil. Or, put differently, a person must consciously entertain unjust, wicked, and hateful thoughts to be unjust, wicked, and hateful. Given that the vast majority of people do not intend to be wicked, unjust, or hateful, given that the vast majority of people think of themselves as doing good and desire to do good, it follows that the vast majority of people are not “bad” people.

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