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:
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 B celebrates freedom of speech, rule of law, and democratic government purely because these are British values, and B 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.