Moral Vertigo And Civil Dissent: The Fear Of Self-Destruction

There’s an idea that vertigo is less a fear of heights and more a fear that you might jump. A similar sensation can be found in certain social situations. On a bus, at work, at the grocery store – it often occurs to me the exact wrong thing to do and then I find myself all caught up in a mad desire to do it and a mad fear that I might. The most notable and consistent example is when I’m watching live entertainment. A play, comedy show, or other. What’s to stop me from running on stage and shouting obscenities? Well, nothing. Nothing at all. Only convention. And that freedom scares me. That I so possess the ability to actively ruin myself and others.

The question presents itself: why the fear? Why the trepidation of possibility? Williamson said that our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate but that we’re “powerful beyond measure,” and within that implied negative space is where you’ll find moral vertigo, that mad possibility. What’s frightening is not necessarily the freedom to self-destruct — the fear is of unbridled possibility which naturally means that there’s also potential for self-fulfillment and being good to others.

However, instead of focusing on this natural good, the attention is on natural negatives. Consequences. If I sprint on stage and flip something over, what happens? I’ll be cast out. Despised by a large number of people, might even make some minor headlines depending on the stage. I’ll possibly face legal repercussions. I will feel guilt. It’s with these things in mind that mad urges are quelled. To be clear: this doesn’t include serious harm to other people; that is a by-product of a maladapted psyche.

What vertigo prompts in us is a renewed sense of living. When faced with the ledge, with the possible ending of our life, we become aware of two things, usually: 1) I could end my life right now; 2) I want to live. It’s the immediately imposing knowledge of the first that makes way for the second. Actual vertigo exists in that negative space previously mentioned. Within that space, we strongly affirm the second and act accordingly, backing away form the ledge.

Moral vertigo works the exact same way. It prompts a reappraisal and a renewal of our social contract. We know two things: 1) I could disrupt social order right now; 2) I want to maintain order and be socially accepted. It’s the first realization that makes way for the second. In both instances, the reasoning at work is self-interest. Vertigo: I don’t desire death. Moral vertigo: I don’t desire societal exclusion. The only thing that disrupts vertigo is when personal reasoning decides that life is no longer desired. Lacking desire to live is almost already being dead. To find yourself on a ledge about to jump is to find yourself an animated corpse. Moral vertigo works the same way. The thing that disrupts it is when personal reasoning decides that maintaining order is no longer desired.

This disruption of moral vertigo is what leads to civil dissent and revolt. It begs the question of what circumstances and trauma has made way for mass rebellion. The answer, to me, is simple. When a person in society already feels excluded from it, they have nothing to lose by challenging it, disrupting it, and ultimately destroying it. So, they jump. History shows that sometimes when people jump, they find they can fly. TC mark

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