I’m often accused of being a nihilist. It’s hardly the nastiest accusation thrown my way.
While I was touring in the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this year, I met with a reporter who asked me if I was a nihilist. She’d clearly been reading blog posts written about me by ignorant, mean-spirited people. I asked her for the definition of nihilism — I look it up now and then, and I wanted to take her on the journey — and she opened dictionary.com on her smart phone. Together, we deconstructed my so-called nihilism several different ways (one for each definition).
The first definition is definitely not me: “total rejection of established laws and institutions.” Chaos is the absence of rules, anarchism the absence of rulers. As an anarchist, I reject rulers, not rules. I’ve been clear about this point since expressing my original thoughts in this space, as well as during more than two decades in the professoriate.
The second definition expectedly conflates anarchy with chaos: “anarchy, terrorism, or other revolutionary activity.” I readily admit to being an anarchist. I’m not a terrorist, at least not in the violent, take-down-the-government sort of manner. And I’ll thank anybody who calls me a revolutionary. I’ve compared myself to the magnificent revolutionary Che Guevara. I point out a single line from Guevara in the current essay: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” If you want to compliment me, please call me this kind of nihilist.
Definition number three is terrifying in its scope: ”total and absolute destructiveness, especially toward the world at large and including oneself: the power-mad nihilism that marked Hitler’s last years.“ As a naturalist and conservation biologist, I’m a lifelong fan of the living planet. I’ve no interest in destroying life, including my own life, although many others are attempting both my personal destruction and the devastation of the living planet. I’ve been pointing to a less-destructive way of living, beyond civilization, since the earliest essays in this space. The only resemblance I have with Hitler is with his attempt, albeit unintentional, to dismantle industrial civilization (I gave up my own interest in such an approach when evidence pointed to the extreme effects of global dimming and the catastrophic meltdown of the world’s nuclear facilities).
The next three definitions provided by dictionary.com focus on philosophy. The first of these: “an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.” Oh, my. I’ve been pointing out the opposite of this definition since the earliest posts in this space. If you want to insult me while ignoring evidence, please call me this kind of nihilist.
The second definition within the realm of philosophy is closely related to the first: “nothingness or nonexistence.” Any cursory examination of my writing or public speaking will conclude that this definition applies to neither me nor my work.
The final definition of philosophical nihilism provided by dictionary.com is specific to a group of which I’m not a member: “(sometimes initial capital letter) the principles of a Russian revolutionary group, active in the latter half of the 19th century, holding that existing social and political institutions must be destroyed in order to clear the way for a new state of society and employing extreme measures, including terrorism and assassination.” I’d never heard of this group or this idea until I read about it in the dictionary. This definition does not apply to me.
Finally, dictionary.com concludes its treatment of nihilism with: “annihilation of the self, or the individual consciousness, especially as an aspect of mystical experience.” I’ve killed the proverbial Buddha a time or two (that is, abandoned my prior identity). Otherwise, this definition does not apply to me, as is easily understood when one considers my avoidance of mysticism since I was about 15 years old.
The rational journalist wound up with the conclusion I reached long ago: I’m not a nihilist. Trolls, liars, and people unfamiliar with the proper usage of English call me a nihilist, and worse. However, anybody familiar with the definitions of nihilism in the English language, and also familiar with my actions, cannot conclude I’m a nihilist.
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