Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Decline of the left, part 5: Guilt by resemblance

This is the final post in this series of arguments against the modern left. There's more to say, but then there always is, and there will be time for it.

My previous post concerned the town of Ferguson, the scene of the death of Michael Brown. It argued that the commentators and supporters of the left failed to do what true friends to the people of Ferguson would have done, and counselled against violent rioting – the cause of this failure was an inability to distinguish between clear-headed but sympathetic criticism of African-Americans on the one hand, and the unprincipled criticisms made by racists on the other. Their headlong flight away from the mere possibility of this resemblance, even though it was only a superficial one, drove them towards absurd and self-defeating arguments.

In this final post, I'm going to look in more detail at this phenomenon, which I call guilt by resemblance.

The fear of guilt by resemblance is a crucial policing tool of the modern left. See, for instance, those gimmicky online quizzes where players have to guess who said something: 

David Starkey or Enoch Powell?  
A men’s magazine or a rapist?  
Nigel Farage or Enoch Powell? 

The second of these, incredibly, is from a piece of seemingly respectable psychological research.

The point of the quiz, it seems to me, is to show that the moral equivalence between the two people quoted is borne out by the indistinguishability of their words. From the fact that we cannot distinguish their statements, so the quiz setter implies, it follows that they are alike in some other, non-trivial way – usually their supposed moral or ideological equivalence. Granted, perhaps all that is being pointed out are the syntactic peculiarities that mark the speech of both Nigel Farage and Enoch Powell – but you'd surely agree that this is a doubtful explanation.

You can probably guess my issue with this: if I, or anyone, can be denounced on the grounds that I merely sound like a sexist or racist or homophobe – and it was fear of exactly this denunciation that tipped supporters of the Ferguson rioters over the edge into unreason – then there is no hope for me, because even if am totally innocent of any misdeed, I am still condemned by my uttering exactly the same words as used by truly terrible people. Thousands, perhaps millions of times during my life I have revealed chilling commonalities between myself and Peter Sutcliffe, Cecil Rhodes, Bernard Manning, and even Robin Thicke. When I asked waiters for the bill, when I repeated my credit card number to the call centre operator, asked for a single to town – time and again I have used the same words as the worst of humanity.

Admittedly I'm driving the point home to the point of absurdity, when maybe I shouldn't – guilt by resemblance is a serious matter. It is the basis for making monstrous accusations, and is especially dear to those writing on ‘rape culture’. It is clear, surely, that the debased form of entailment that tars the wearer of spectacles as the sort who might try to thwart the revolution, is exactly the same debased entailment that tars the fan of a risqué pop song as an apologist for, and possible perpetrator of, rape.

The modern leftist, that is, has foolishly borrowed the depraved logic of the totalitarian in order to denounce those she anathematizes ideologically.

Consider that, for the anti-rape culture campaigner, certain statements are a slippery slope towards having incriminating words, intentions, and thoughts put into our mouths. This means that we are not entirely free to say what we mean – other people, our inquisitors, determine what we mean by a process of imputation. This is obviously dangerous – we might refrain from holding an innocuous, maybe even a useful opinion, because lying blackmailers will insist that that belief forces other, entailed beliefs on us. But who says my individual beliefs are part of a package deal? At what point are they coopted as part of that package deal without consulting my own thoughts and wishes? Why should I be threatened with being bundled down slippery slopes, towards conclusions that are not mine? And what happened to my dignity as a free-thinking individual?

This isn’t just wrong. It is shabby. No, it’s worse – it is a howling, blood-boiling disgrace.

It's extraordinary that it should need explicit statement at all, but (as I have said already) we cannot afford close-mindedness. We cannot usher people towards foregone conclusions that they were never actually heading towards – we need to hear them out first, because we do not know what the thoughts of others are, and always stand to learn something from finding them out. 

It is not a necessary inference that two identical statements imply a parallel identity of political outlook between the two speakers of the statements. This merely equates imputation and innuendo with intention.

Consider: what would the modern leftist do with a statement that is made alike by the bigot and by the virtuous leftist – ‘group x are on the bottom rung of our society’, say. The bigot would tend to imply in saying this, or would tend to go on to say, ‘because of who and what they are’, while the leftist would imply, or would go on to say, ‘because of how our society is’. On the grounds that co-occurrence entails moral equivalence, neither would be able to make their statement about group x without implying the exact opposite – the bigot would be aping the language of those lefties who seek to deny personal responsibility and let bad people off the hook; the leftie would be making an essentialist (racist/sexist) argument, like a true bigot. Neither party could speak their mind without being forced to contradict him or herself.

And who is surprised by this sort of absurdity? It’s the wholly predictable result of putting words in people’s mouths, of prejudging, of purposefully reducing systematic belief to mere lists of statements.

Again, the modern leftist has foolishly borrowed the depraved logic of the totalitarian in order to denounce those he anathematizes ideologically. The only difference is that the Khmer Rouge had power but feminists, say, argue that they have none – and that the lack of power is what determines and justifies the moral nature of the positions feminists take. The fact that the feminist and Pol Pot make the same argument is, apparently, irrelevant – what matters is that they take place under different power relations, and this superordinate factor ultimately determines and engineers any argument’s worth, truth, moral significance. An identical action is morally different depending on whether or not it is performed by a powerful (or privileged) person.

Isn’t this a taster of how very bad, how ugly this thinking is – that power is everything? Logic, reason, good-and-bad all bow down to power, and cannot be meaningfully considered independently of it. This, too, is of course exactly what the totalitarian thinks. ‘Power’ is certainly a big issue in those areas of identity politics influenced by theorists like Foucault, but I’d say most leftists (even the reasonable ones) believe at heart that the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless are essentially different moral entities.

How on earth have we come to this pass, whereby progressives end up thinking like totalitarians – like bullies, oppressors, and bigots?

Problems with premises

Consider how badly put together, how badly engineered modern-leftist arguments consistently are – the modern leftist:

  • consistently blunders into self-defeating arguments;
  • counters the prejudice of the bigot with what is merely a different flavour of prejudice; 
  • answers the problem of African-American exclusion by proposing merely another type of exclusion;
  • doubts his own ability to distinguish discriminatory from merely discriminatory-seeming arguments (hence the refusal to criticize rioters); 
  • is nevertheless happy to use this same vagueness as a means of condemning the merely discriminatory-seeming arguments of others.

The consistent underlying problem is, I think, a problem with premises. That is, a difficulty or a reticence in identifying and establishing the basic A-to-Z procedure of how one part of an argument causes the next part of the argument to follow. And this problem with premises is, I suspect, caused by mere reactiveness – the modern leftist merely reacts to the arguments of the right-wing bigot, and as he is too intellectually timid either to re-engineer the bigot's premises, or to establish entirely new premises, he condemns himself to adopt the bigot's premises. The entirely unsurprising result is a left-wing argument that it self-defeatingly similar to that of a right-wing bigot.

Such at least is my explanation for why the modern left so often thinks along such similar lines to even its extreme opponents. Now I need to demonstrate exactly what I mean, and then to suggest a cause for this markedly feeble approach to argument.

Consider the following argument, similar to the one made in my previous post concerning Ferguson:  
British nationalist celebrates freedom of speech, rule of law, and democratic government purely because these are British values, and thinks that British is best. 
I, however, celebrate freedom of speech, rule of law, and democratic government because I believe they are good things in themselves. I consequently celebrate Britain inasmuch as it embodies these good things.
It is entirely plausible that the nationalist and I could express large parts of our beliefs using exactly the same words. However, I hope you would take the time and patience to deduce the different premises from which B and I start out. In my belief system, Britain’s relation to the values of free speech and the like is entirely contingent; in fact Britain could be entirely irrelevant to the extent that the same arguments could be made even had Britain never existed. To get to this point of disentanglement, however, you would have to refrain from reacting to the immediate semblance of similarity, and come to realize how different founding premises take the arguments on different trajectories.

But this disentanglement requires patience and reflectiveness and fairness, and the modern leftist generally has no time for these. Especially not when there is the option instead of lashing out with an immediately rewarding, superficially empowering denunciation. This is why, I suggest, the commenters on the Guardian’s D-Day piece behaved with such predictable ugliness: they thought couldn’t celebrate the fight against Fascism without also celebrating British jingoism, which they despise: they showed either unwillingness or complete inability to get at the underlying premises that entirely differentiate the former from the latter.

As much as a fixation on mere similarities can enable the modern leftist to issue catch-all denunciations of ideological enemies without having to do much actual thinking (‘that’s the kind of thing sexists say, and so I dismiss you’), it leads inevitably to ill-considered arguments that aren't grounded in, or driven coherently by, any founding premise. As a result the modern left:

  • believes in race, gender, and sexuality as determining factors on the basis of which we should operate double standards; 
  • believes in the validity of identity-based prejudice; 
  • holds that our best defences against an unequal society are faith and self-chastisement, yet all the while ridiculing the religionist.

If the modern left cannot find its own premises (or, indeed, find its own arse with both hands, as the Australians say) then it is hard to see how it can defend the causes it stands for, and indeed know how they are at root distinct from other, opposing causes. It is precisely because of this vagueness and the insecurity it causes, I suggest, that the modern left instead anchors its place in the intellectual marketplace by means of moral supremacism, tribalism (as argued much earlier), false anathema, ‘virtue signalling’, and that squalid love of denunciation and grievance.

The causes and the effects

One reason why this generation of the left wing has, despite its extensive education, lapsed into intellectual spinelessness and, thence, hopeless fallacy is the desperately poor health of the humanities, which we largely rely on to teach moral reasoning at university level. Critical theory has left us wibbling pseudishly instead of making a coherent case for what we believe. Here is Camille Paglia:
Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.
‘Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students’ – not at all an overstatement, as I have previously argued. The inky thumbprint of crit theory can be found all over the arguments of the modern left, particularly theorists’ insistence on the politicization of everything: once you adopt the licence to insinuate political ‘assumptions’ to any and all forms of thought, there ceases to be much point in actually asking people what they think and what the premises of their arguments are. Why bother, when assumption does just as well? Imputation is one of the main analytical tools of critical theory.

And why bother with reasoning, with uncovering premises, with testing arguments, when reason, truth, logic, ‘rational argument’ are nothing but political constructs? With my background and my education I am exactly the sort of person likely to use these constructs, which can be seen as nothing but tools for denying the plurality of truths, with the ultimate socio-economic goal of excluding from discourse the textual subjectivities of those whom I consider ‘other’.

There you go: a small illustration of how easy it is to come up with this rubbish.

More particularly, I think the reason the critical theorist, and thence the modern leftist, make such heavy weather of basic reasoning is because of a wide emphasis on materialism, in the form of the cultural materialism of the Marxist and New Historicist, and the post-structuralist’s insistence on the primacy of ‘text’. Thus modern leftists tend to focus on the socially visible surfaces of arguments – the things that sexists and racists say, e.g. – because to delve into the notional premises that motivate and underlie the statements is to veer into the dark side of ‘metaphysics’. The same materialism, I suggest, underlies the modern leftist’s impatience with, perhaps even contempt for, individual conscience and intention: if the thoughts and beliefs that form the premises of my arguments are mere metaphysical constructs, and therefore of no consequence, then no harm is done if the critical theorist dismisses them entirely and imputes a whole new set of ‘assumptions’ in their place which supposedly explain why I think what I do. I find it desperately inhuman.

Hence the sadly inevitable result of some of our most intelligent young people not being taught how to test ideas, how to argue, how to reason through uncertainty: a belief that moral persuasiveness is found in immediate obviousness, in glibness and self-evidentness, rather than in the durability of moral arguments and their ability to withstand testing.

That is one cause, as I see it – I have further thoughts on other causes, but they can wait. Now the effects. The danger, I think, is huge. The modern left is estranging itself from the norms and modes of reasoned debate that underpin our democratic and legal processes. Worse still, they are doing so without proving that such an estrangement is justified or rational, that our democratic and legal processes are defunct, and without proposing an alternative. It is mere empty disaffection.

Take the blog post by Rebecca Roache, 'If you're a Conservative, I'm not your friend', in which the philosopher Roache (a philosopher! how has it come to this?) lodges her disgust with the Tory election victory by proposing to defriend all Facebook friends who are Tories. Or consider this shameful idiot who runs a garden centre in East Sussex:

The notion that you can punish the legitimate winner of a free and fair election is disturbingly at odds with the basic ethics of democracy. If Manchester United beat some hypothetical football team I support, I don't get to punish the Man Utd supporters, as no wrong has been done to me that I can avenge or punish: I accepted my team's possible defeat as a potential legitimate outcome of the system I participated in. This left-wing lack of sportsmanship is, I accept, not universal, but it is a worrying sign of a petulant, and not particularly principled, rejection of the rules of our game. There's every reason to suspect that any new rules the modern left have in mind are less than pleasant, and considerably worse than our current ones.

The timidity and insecurity in thinking through and testing the premises on which modern-left beliefs rest lead not only to the obvious – unreflective and bigoted thinking, self-contradictory arguments – but also all the emotive negativity that always attend fear and insecurity: aggressiveness, over-sensitivity, and ill-will. And despite undoubted good intentions, modern-left arguments are so badly conceived, so self-defeating that they risk doing more harm than good to the interests of those to whom the left appoints itself guardian.

Indeed, the anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobia movements will founder if they persist in identifying wrongdoing unfairly and unreflectively, seeking not to help society by identifying wrong, but instead to narcissistically assert the virtuous credentials of the accuser. Most of us know from experience, I think, the unpleasantness of arguing with the modern left: the unfair and often personal accusations, the railroading into condemnation, the shouting down. Time to say ‘enough’. Their arguments are all too often shamefully bad: rebarbative, dismally uneven-handed, contradictory, and unreflective. Theirs is a universal cause, one important to all of us, and they are miserably unequal to it. So let’s do the right thing: let’s smash their arguments to pieces, and build stronger arguments in their place.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Decline of the left, part 4: Ferguson, Baltimore, and race

Since the previous post in this series it has become ever clearer that left-wing commentators are wise to the failings of the left that I have been describing. This article by Owen Jones, as well as this one, for instance, seem to grasp the nettle – if politics is about persuading people, then the left’s assumption that left-wing beliefs are self-evidently morally right, no argument necessary, is obviously bad, dead-end politics that won't persuade anyone. It is heartening to see commentators like Jones see the problem for what it is – and I will enjoy a small feeling of vindication for having reached this conclusion before a whopping electoral defeat made it throbbingly obvious for all to see.

While it may seem that there is no need for me to keep on pointing out problems that the modern left are addressing themselves – which would be problematic as this stuff is all pre-written and I’ve got to offload it somehow – I’ve still got an axe to grind with the identity-political left, which is increasingly distinct from the Labour left (though, again, so do left-wing commentators, as here. From now on, then, ‘modern left’ will refer quite specifically to the identity-political left ). 

Test case no.3: the Ferguson disturbances 

To recap: previously, I argued that, despite good intentions, modern-left arguments concerning discrimination are so badly conceived that they are self-defeating, and are more likely to harm than serve the interests of those to whom the left has appointed itself guardian.

I’m interested in why the issue of race in particular causes the modern left's moral compass to spin so wildly. Arguments about the corrosive effects of colonialism in the third world, for instance, despite being well-intentioned, invariably career towards the colonialist’s own premise that the peoples of Asia and Africa are infantile and unfit for responsibility, usually because the modern leftist’s attempts to diminish third-world responsibility inevitably also diminish third-world agency. This is hopelessly self-defeating.

The same genius for the self-undermining argument is seen in the debate surrounding cultural appropriation (white women ‘twerking’ e.g.). When white Brits appropriate American blues, say, they are at some level affirming its cross-cultural, cross-ethnic value as art – it expresses human universals of sadness, love, stoicism, etc. that we can all get. But when the anti-appropriationist denounces this appropriation, and says that blues only has its true value in the ethnic and cultural context in which it originated, then the blues’ universal value is diminished and it is made narrowly parochial, a mere intra-ethnic shorthand.

Given that the anti-appropriationist's stated intention is to protect the value of black-American culture, this is another profoundly self-defeating argument – a crystal-clear example of cutting off the nose to spite the face (even worse, it’s usually someone else’s face). It protects black culture by making it not worth stealing in the first place. Great art says much more important things about us than our ethnicity. Shakespeare does, and so does Howlin’ Wolf – that’s why they belong to all of us, not just to white Britons or black Americans.

Now take the modern left’s response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri provoked by the shooting of Michael Brown. The recent events in Baltimore are also relevant, though I’ll focus only on Ferguson – it’s anyway the commentariat’s reaction that I’m interested in. First things first: I read the Department of Justice report on the killing in as much detail as I could, and as a result my basic opinion is:

  • that the shooting of Michael Brown was regrettable but justified;
  • that the Ferguson police are corrupt and racist, and that Ferguson’s black community was therefore justified in its anger;
  • but that nevertheless, that anger did not justify the violent rioting, which was anyway misplaced (it very likely was not a racist killing in this instance).

What interests me is why modern-left commentators were so often unable or unwilling to concede basic truths that they would normally agree to as a matter of course: namely, that anger can be justified but does not justify, and that the interests of Ferguson’s black community were not well served by rioting. In fact, modern leftists were contorted into all sorts of odd and self-defeating postures in their attempt to avoid at all costs the conclusion that, while understandable, the actions of the rioters were unwise and wrong.

Ok, consider this. We all agree that, in addition to the (premature, as it turned out) assumption that Michael Brown was unjustly killed, there were very valid socio-economic and criminal-justice reasons for Ferguson residents to be angry. 

Granted, yes?

What is the best way, then, of making an economy and a criminal-justice system fairer – consensual politics, or violent coercion? 

We’d all go for the former, I hope. 

And should a political solution be imposed on Ferguson’s black community by a white political elite, or would the solution work better if the community were involved in the process of their own healing? 

Unquestionably the latter. 

And if America’s political processes are, or should be, strictly non-violent, then surely Ferguson residents’ violent rioting pushed them away from this desirable goal, rather than pulled them towards it? Surely it did more harm than good, was a step in the wrong direction?

The rioters’ violence was assuredly a bad thing, then, and an unwise choice. Understandable, mitigated even, but unhelpful and harmful to their interests – cementing the dysfunction that did so much to prompt the disturbances in the first place.

If all this holds good, then why did so many people find it so hard to say that, whatever the legitimate feelings of the rioters, rioting was a bad idea? Why, indeed, could they not bring themselves to be true friends to the black population of Ferguson, and instead waved them on them as they sped headlong towards more dysfunction, more violence?

People who would say that every violent death should be followed by an inquests, a trial, due process, not by immediate violent retaliation – why were they unable to keep hold of this principle regarding Ferguson? Why did they, extraordinarily, parrot the rumour that Brown had his hands up when he was shot – they surely knew that rumours spread by angry crowds (even justifiably angry crowds) are not reliable, and certainly not reliable grounds for accusing someone of the callous murder of a defenceless victim? (But then, as we've seen, disproportionate accusation is a modern-left forte).

Even more culpably, why was the modern left happy to normalize violence as a form of political expression appropriate for black Americans, but not one they would adopt themselves? Remember, if the series of conclusions above is correct (and I think it is) then violent political expression can only lead black America away from success and equality. What is it about race that so consistently leads the left into self-defeating arguments?

Perhaps I need to be more even-handed. There is an argument for saying that we should go easy on the rioters, even though their actions violate our legal and political norms, because society failed them in the first place by excluding them from the benefits of living in America. Seeing as America excluded them from the good things such as wealth, why should America only decide to include them when it comes to bad things like legal sanction and punishment? Wouldn’t this be arbitrary? Wouldn’t America in fact be punishing them twice – impoverishing them in every way, and then punishing them for reacting in the only way they could react to their impoverishment?

Provided that two wrongs do indeed make a right, this is a compelling argument. However, two wrongs do not make a right, and it is a wretched argument. 

If the exclusion of black Americans is bad, how could we possibly remedy that exclusion by creating, as the left do, another exclusion in which black Americans are accorded a separate moral and legal and political status? How could this 'gift' of a double standard, by which black America is cut some slack, be anything but a poisoned chalice?

We know, surely, that this is a bad idea. This whole problem was caused by segregation and double standards, and it is clear that nothing has changed such that, this time around, it would be a good idea to have a legal and political system determined by double-standards based on racial difference. Moreover ethnic minorities would almost certainly end up being the victims of such a system. Isn’t the modern leftist making race as dangerously determinative as the racist ever did – making Ferguson’s citizens black first and citizens second?

If democratic non-violent legal and political systems are good things, nothing but bad is likely to result from exempting black Americans from them: we know that failure to equally share America's wealth is a bad thing, and I think we know too that failure to share access to its consensual, non-violent political and legal systems is an equally corrosive denial of a common good. 

Here, I think, lies the rub: if our non-violent legal and political systems are good things. I have no doubt that they are – or at least, that non-violent laws and politics are much better than the violent sorts. The modern leftist, however, feels an intense squeamishness here, because to say that rule of law is better than mob rule, to say that the black population of Ferguson did something unwise, and should instead be urged to participate in legal and political systems – for the modern leftist, to say these things is to line up on the wrong side of the ideological barricade, to identify with hegemony. In fact, to sound like a racist.

When there is such danger of resembling a racist, and thereby being denounced, why take that tightrope walk across uncertainty and difficulty? Why think carefully when there is the much easier option of automatic anti-racism, even if it is unreasoned, self-defeating, and ultimately harmful to victims of racism? If careful thought incurs the danger of resembling a racist – superficially, wholly falsely – then it is much safer to be thoughtlessly anti-racist, because the risk of denunciation is much greater for the modern leftist than the risk of absurdity.

And so we see the intellectual spinelessness and short-termism of so much modern-left thought: building society’s long-term anti-racist values on shabby, unreasoned foundations merely to avoid the immediate risk of denunciation, of being called a name, of losing face.

Worst of all, at its heart is fear: fear of denunciation, but also fear of being forcibly misrepresented, of having thoughts imputed to us and words put in our mouths because of a merely coincidental resemblance. This is what I call the fear of guilt by resemblance, and it will be the topic of the next and final entry in this series.