Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The crucible of argument.

 Note: This is actually a post I wrote over two years ago, and put up elsewhere on the Internets. But I think it is worth reposting and, I've had trouble getting to this blog lately!
I have a theory about arguments. Political or intellectual arguments, that is. If any argument could be carried on to its smallest unit — if all the evidence, sub-arguments and assumptions entailed in each could be worked through by two opponents — inevitably the combatants would whittle the argument down into a very few, or even a singular, unproveable assumptions on which each has a different position. All the other details of disagreement rely on and can be traced back, ultimately, to this central philosophical difference.

I call this a theory for good reason, since it would work in an ideal world but, probably not too often in this one. People misrepresent facts, sometimes with only one conscious eye on the fact and, sometimes deliberately. They also ignore facts that they kind unconvincing or unimportant simply because they butt up against their opinion. Even a simple matter of data can run up against a whole slew of objections — whether this data set is the most accurate or that one is, whether this data set or that one is relevant to the question at hand, etc. And thus, if we can’t even decide on facts, it is harder for us to work our way down to the central disagreements that are not so factual. Additionally, some people are just plain disingenuous; they don’t really have any intellectual interest in the question, but merely get whatever kicks they need from being dogmatic warriors.

I do not mean to argue here that because truth is illusive, it does not exist and therefore, let’s all be moderate and listen to each other’s opinions with equal respect, even when some opinions are patently absurd. That would suggest I am content with what my theory implies. I’m not. Increasingly I am disturbed by how those, when confronted with convincing evidence that opposes their opinion, manage to weasel their way out of consciously admitting fault or reshaping their assessment. There is nothing anyone can say, for example, to libertarians convinced the New Deal made America worse off. There is nothing anyone can say, for another example, to someone who really believes the moon landing was faked. And there is nothing anyone can say to a religiously minded conservative that really believes that civilization is headed for the toilet once gay people can get married. These are mindsets immune to historical or factual reasoning. But, this is not to imply that all opinions are so ideological or resilient to reasoned debate.

However, it does imply that as humans, we have done a pretty bad job at teaching ourselves to truly reason. It does mean that currently, there are other things – religious sentiment, ideology, dogmatism — that while our society does not always openly place above reason, a whole slew of subtle and not-so-subtle influences in our society actually do encourage the dismissal of evidence and reason. Additionally, many people rely on such overarching mindsets as the means of supplying meaning, understanding and purpose in life — with so much at stake, they cling to them like desperate little birds about to fall out of trees. They will take any pathway out of having to question them, including falling under the spell of less-than-reasonable modes of thought.

It is unfortunate that so few are willing to concede that at heart, many of their cherished opinions are based on improvable assumptions. I too of course, have values that shape my thought that cannot possibly be validated by empirical evidence or pure reason. But I feel encouraged by the conclusions they lead me to because I see evidence of their efficaciousness and positive effect in the real world, in the realm of the actual and the factual. Regardless of whether humans are really created “equal” — obviously this is man-made idea, insofar as being empirically unproveable in the way it is meant to be read — it is certainly true that multiculturalism, pluralism and the division of church and state allow for more freedom of expression, which leads to more varied cultural products, which leads to more human creativity in general. I am with Chomsky in assuming man is happiest this way. But I fail to think of many examples where open minds, intellectual diversity and curiosity have resulted in a more miserable or less functional populace. Perhaps things are less conflicted in largely homogenous communities, but that is not because diversity is a bad thing in and of itself; it is because people have a negative response to diversity, which creates all sort of negative things. Ignorance, in other words, is the problem, not diversity. And diversity is perhaps one of the most stubborn characteristics of human nature and modern society.

If all people were aware of their starting assumptions, we could then have a fruitful discussion about how much our assumptions match real-world phenomena, or how well they work in a real-world context, to put it in a better way. But few consider their fundamental beliefs as “assumptions” — rather, they are truths, and truths do not respond to mere facts.

Furthermore, even if we were able to throw arguments into this crucible of debate, it would be difficult, in our current society, to find a medium in which to realistically do it, particularly due to the disagreement over facts. We would have to throw the two central representatives of a contested issue in a room (or force them into continuous written dialogue with one another), with access to every reference or experimental procedure and then force them to explain and defend each and every one of their points. In the age of infotainment, when even the analysis of important issues in the most prestigious newspaper makes an undergraduate paper look thoughtful, it is unlikely that anyone would be willing to pay attention long enough to absorb the lesson.

Yet so often I fantasize about being able to get to the heart of fundamental issues in this manner. It makes watching our sorry excuse for public discourse even that more painful.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Liberals: we just want to feel good!

More than any other backlash meme, I am personally familiar with the idea that all that lies behind the concerns of leftists is a desire to “feel good.” Two things are meant by this – one, leftists enjoy the delight of being idealistic; they are dreamers, people who would rather make up fairy tales to swoon them to sleep at night rather than face reality. As a consequence, they are constantly advocating policy that directly contradicts reality, with all the dysfunctions of the welfare state as a result. Two, leftists enjoy the thrill of being self-righteous, of believing they are the victim and “fighting the power” – the rebellious stance is always appealing, after all, to those who cannot take personal responsibility and have not grown up.

In this post, I am not going to launch into a defense of the various progressive causes – I am not going to exhaustively detail how opposition to racism ultimately traces back to strange fruit from Southern trees, or how opposition to Proposition 8 ultimately traces back to the Matthew Shepards of history and the millions of lives lived in isolation and depression because one would lose their job, their family, and their whole lives if they came out of the closet. I’m not going to talk about the increasing wealth disparity in America, the shrinking middle-class and the deplorable working conditions for those on the bottom of the social totem-pole. It has been done so many times, so well by so many people, and if those who want to dismiss the left as merely masturbatory indulgence have seen this evidence and still lack understanding and empathy, I’m certainly not going to change any minds here.

But I do want to look at the cognitive, or psychological, mistakes that are going on here. First, I will not for even a moment deny that many leftists who are politically active – or more likely, are dabblers who troll on YouTube – do not participate for reasons of sincere interest or concern, but out of self-righteous bitterness or delight. Surely by the late 1960s, many in the student movement did not understand what they stood for or why they stood for it and were merely along for the thrill ride. But what the backlashers fail to be honest about is that this is the case for all social movements and ideologies. Would any conservative – fiscal or social – really suggest that for every self-righteous, shallow liberal, we could not produce an obviously equally self-righteous conservative who cares more for having something or someone to loathe than building (or rebuilding) a better world? Especially in the world of the Christian Right, one does not have to dig very far to find men that even the majority of conservatives would readily admit are clearly not men of a loving God.

It is in the nature of social movements that the motives of all who are attracted to them cannot be identical or even always similar – if they were, you would end up with a cult or a monastery rather than a social movement. The very openness of democratic organization and association means that a certain amount of people who are not really “in it” for the right reasons will be absorbed by the movement and identify themselves as a part of it. This does not mean, however, that the original impetus for the movement, the original reasons that it resonated powerfully and widely enough to reach thousands and millions of people, were or become shallow or self-serving. Injustice remains injustice.  It simply means that in an open society, you cannot always control who joins your group or why.

Secondly, this is what I like to refer to as a frisbee accusation – no one can hurl it at others without it immediately applying to themselves. Because quite frankly, who adheres to an ideology or a philosophy that makes them feel bad about themselves? Calvinists aside, very few of us are capable of self-laceration – sincere, not merely pretended, self-laceration. The conservative claims the liberal only wants to “feel good” – and at this precise moment, he feels quite good himself. He feels proud that he can see the “real world” for what it is, and very often, he is a successful man who has a stake in seeing this “real world” as the legitimate ordering of society. He is not shallow, he thinks to himself; he is not indulgent. He is pragmatic, he is intelligent, he is virtuous. Now, the liberal, too, is happy to think about how his philosophy, and his hopes for this world, reflect on his personal character. He is open, he is loving, he is unafraid, he tells himself. The point is not that both the conservative and the liberal are lying to themselves – sometimes they very well might be, but very often they are simply identifying actually commendable aspects of their personalities. The point is that everyone does this – what is a political philosophy if not a reflection of the characteristics we most admire in ourselves and others, painted onto a world that we think would therefore be the most admirable of societies? And so of course, again, the mere taking of psychological pleasure in one’s political position says nothing about the truth or falsity of a given opinion, or the more objective desirability of a certain vision of the world.

Despite these commonalities between those on the left and those on the right – which is merely to say, the commonality between all human beings – there is something odd about accusing liberals, in particular, of indulging in their philosophy and political hopes merely for the sake of self-indulgence. For what is hope for change if not a dissatisfaction with what we have seen thus far? What is progressivism if not the argument that despite the justice we have achieved, there is still too much injustice? While conservatism usually (but not always) looks to an idealized past of how things used to be, and thus still has the comfort of believing its ideal had once been reality, progressives are constantly pushing forward into the unknown, the untried, the uncertain. But they do so because they feel a deep seated need for something more – they cannot bring themselves to accept as “natural” or “inevitable” the degree of suffering and injustice they currently witness.

When held sincerely, these are not views that are likely to make one “feel good,” about either the world or one's personal place in it. Indeed, for those of us who are progressive and privileged it involves a constant awareness of just how random and unearned much of our success is – for those born without such boons, it means a constant awareness of limitations they have very little power to push against. After all, if you are looking to what can be you are constantly looking at what is – and while there is much to be proud of, and much to rejoice in, the hard work of political consciousness asks us to constantly see the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the bigotry, the ignorance, the inequality, the poverty, the fear, and the hate that still creeps over so much of this country and indeed, so much of the world. There are plenty of insincere leftists around, and they come in all shapes and sizes – but the philosophy of the dreamer, in and of itself, is not for the faint or shallow of heart.