Nearly 70 years later, much of Sartre’s analysis of antisemitism, and its godfather, racism, resonates all too hauntingly.-isms
“Hate is a religion,” writes Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1944 essay “Portrait of the Anti-Semite,” penned just after the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. Nearly 70 years later, much of Sartre’s analysis of antisemitism, and its godfather, racism, resonates all too hauntingly—a sensitive reader cannot help but see this “Portrait” as a profile and prophecy for our times. Whether it is the violence of white supremacists against blacks, Latinos, or Jews, or the rhetoric of name-calling and other-ing that defines so much of political discourse. Hate and racism are not mere beliefs or psychological states, but political weapons that are deployed with violent and deadly consequences.
The shouting becomes cacophonous (Antisemite! Racist! Fake News!), and essential terms like hate become convoluted, equivocal, and evacuated of any meaningful force. When words lose their meaning, dialogue becomes impossible, and politics tends towards either noise or silence, which is to say, the impossibility of the communication that makes possible a thriving human community.
It is no small task to demand clarity when it comes to language, not only abstract concepts, but the concrete power that words have to shape the world in which we live, for this killing of language inevitably is always also a violence against life.
In the case of the concept of antisemitism, Sartre’s essay is an important foundation that not only offers a place to stand but perhaps a fulcrum to resist.
First, Sartre dismisses that racism is an opinion, a merely subjective taste that is only one part of the landscape of an individual’s personality. Some believe racism can exist harmlessly alongside other sets of beliefs and virtuous practices. “A man can be a good father and a good husband, a zealous citizen, cultured, and philanthropic and an anti semite at the same time,” Sartre writes. The classic apology: Sure, Uncle Joe’s a racist, but he’s really a good guy.
Sartre insists this is dangerous and false. He writes, “I refuse to call an opinion a doctrine which is expressly directed toward a particular persons and which tends to suppress their rights or to exterminate them...Anti Semitism is not in the category of thoughts protected by the right to freedom of opinion.”
Racism is not just one belief amongst many simply based upon taste. Rather, it is a view of the world and a view of one’s place in that world. It is not merely a belief, but a reality that masquerades as a value. Racism claims that there is some objective truth about race that translates not only into descriptive value (good or bad), but a prescription to violence (murder and genocide).
In believing that racism is a reality, an objective fact about Jews, persons of color, or whomever, the racist assumes they have no choice in the matter, that they are simply acknowledging a truth about the world in the same way we all must acknowledge the truth of gravity or electromagnetism. The racist believes that racism is not only a natural law, but a Divine Law, that he only has to follow or obey. “He is a man of the mob,” says Sartre.
But this is precisely the problem: racism is always a choice, and this is why Sartre uses the racist as the paradigmatic figure of the person living in bad faith or self-deception.
The structure of bad faith is the belief that one can choose not to choose, which is itself a choice. By this very choosing not to choose, we have proven we cannot escape this radical freedom. We are condemned to be free, something that, for the existentialist, is a source of both anguish and creativity, and, especially for Sartre, always inextricably linked with responsibility—a responsibility not only for our individual choices, but for the entirety of the world itself.
“[T]he responsibility…extends to the entire world as a peopled-world…The one who realizes in anguish his conditions as being thrown into a responsibility…has no longer either remorse or regret or excuse…But as we pointed out…, most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith.”
The person of bad faith lies about his freedom. It is a lie he tells to himself, thus making him both the liar and the lied to. But in order to lie about freedom, the liar, at some level, chooses to lie and therefore must acknowledge the fact of his freedom. But because he is also the lied to, he also chooses to accept the lie that he knows is a lie. The person of bad faith deceives himself into believing that there is no possible choice, and in so doing attempts to negate his own freedom, and, consequently, his own responsibility, which, for Sartre, is a contradiction of his own consciousness. The person of bad faith flees his freedom; he is the portrait of a coward.
So too the racist: The racist flees his freedom; he is the portrait of a coward. Or even, worse, a stone that cannot do anything but fall.
The racist knows that his beliefs, statements, and actions are lies, and because he disavows his freedom and responsibility, is able to be wholly careless with his speech and actions, to play with those fundamentally empty beliefs:
They know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because by putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good arguing but of intimidating or disorienting.
One of the great dangers of the reduction of such odious beliefs to mere opinion is that at its heart, it is a destruction of language, which is to say, the conditions that make communication and community possible. Many on the Right equate racism and anti-racism as merely different opinions. Thus, to stand against or repress racist speech is to somehow violate freedom of opinion.
But hating hate is not hate. Perhaps hating hate is a mode of care, even love. Silencing racism is not unfreedom, but precisely the demand that the racist affirm their freedom to choose, to not lie to themselves about their responsibilities to themselves and their responsibilities to the world.
The racist lives in fear, and the perceived object of his hate is only a projection of the fear he has of himself, namely, the fear to be a man, that is, the fear to choose, the fear to be responsible, the fear of freedom. The racist is a man of the mob who, because he denies his freedom, also denies the possibility of creativity and construction. Thus, the racist only wants to destroy, to level those that are free, creative, and responsible, those that make worlds and take responsibility for those worlds. The racist “has no illusions about what he is. He considers himself an average man, modestly average, and in the last analysis a mediocre person,” Sartre writes.
And so, his strategy is to bring those around him down to his level of emptiness, not only through the destruction of language and meaning, but all too often, through the annihilation that comes from the barrel of a gun or the heat of an oven. For the racist, “there is no question of building a society but only of purifying the one that exits.”
Sartre concludes the racist “is the man who wants to be pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lighting: in short, everything but a man.”