Monday, December 3, 2018

The Intellectual Impoverishment of the Left

Unitarian Church, Charleston
In my introductory essay, “Growing Up Left”, I contrasted Right & Left, Liberal & Progressive, Liberal & Conservative and expressed a few thoughts on Privilege & Discrimination. The Left arose as a populist movement, one that challenged the existing societal hierarchy and leadership based on appeals to authority grounded upon hierarchy and power, that of the church and the aristocracy. Instead, the Left in their better moments and over the long term embraced Enlightenment values, prominent amongst them appeals to authority based on reason. This characterised the rising mercantile bourgeoisie class whose very existence was one of continual negotiation as they sought to expand their markets and even more so of the natural philosophy (science) and medical disciplines that had found safe haven in the universities. The triumph of free markets and liberal democracies over the authority of the church and nobility came largely not through force, rather initially as a steady intellectual movement that sought more general education and the enfranchisement of more and more of the population with the intent of an increased self  determination for themselves and their communities. The elimination of serfdom, chattel slavery, indentured servitude, the suffrage of women and minorities, the protections and rights afforded workers, all of these and more are victories of the Left built largely upon successive appeals to reason with a respectable track record of reliance upon force only when absolutely necessary.

It’s not as if the Left were formerly more educated than the Right. That was certainly not the case historically as education was a privilege of the church and nobility. The Right by and large looked down upon the populace, the unwashed masses as certainly ignorant, if not utterly deplorable. They wouldn’t imagine sharing authority with such common people. There was of course a sense of responsibility towards the lower classes, a basic level of care was exercised towards them but any thought that they could have a meaningful contribution to the dialogue of societal organisation was considered quite beyond the pale. This low opinion was undoubtedly confirmed during the French Revolution where as the commoners seized power, all hell broke loose and blood filled the streets for years. Nevertheless, subsequently the Left learned to be patient in granting enfranchisement over successive generations largely through programmes of education incorporating persuasion through reason. The bastion of the Left’s authority became the university. The university was a place where you came in with your provincial world view and had it dashed to pieces against the bulwark of reason. It was a place where everything you were raised to believe and hold dear was challenged through dialogue and debate. A place where you were no longer taught what to think, rather how to think. That was the purpose of the university and particularly the core curriculum of liberal arts, to prepare young men, to free them psychologically so as to be contributing members of society whatever that might entail.

Yet, in my lifetime the offerings of the liberal arts have taken a disturbingly turn. Much of the universities programmes and resources today are devoted to professional workforce training, fair enough. However, the remaining core curriculum of liberal arts is anything but liberating. The very commitment to reason that made the university we know today possible if often vilified as just another instrument of power and oppression. In the place of reason, the various silos preach their ideological commitments. The drawing out of the potential of the individual has been largely replaced with indoctrination into the collective of a favoured identity group of which the student is prepared to be an activated avatar of the chosen ideology. Speech and dialogue once thought of as instruments of reason for free individuals to work out their differences without resorting to physical force are likewise condemned as nothing more than instruments of violence in the hands of oppressors. The possibility of striving towards at least a provisional truth or consensus between conflicting views through dialogue and speech is denied and speech labeled hateful or offensive is suppressed.

What has speech and dialogue been replaced with? For the most part, “memes”. Memes are short for memetic viruses or rather viruses of the mind, a pre-existing concept Richard Dawkins articulated as such in the early 90’s with an emphasis on how oversimplified ideas might spread socially using the analogy of viral transmission. Of course, we’ve recognised memes by other names for quite some time. The propaganda of the early 20th century, short ideological phrases easily propagated to the masses through public relations, infamously utilised by the Nazis and Soviets but still very much with us, conspicuously so in the advertising world. Slogans, literally the war cries of the dead, ideological imprints that long outlived their progenitors; the slogans of the architectural community “form follows function” and “less is more” continue to wreak havoc on the built environment e.g. Memes, propaganda and slogans are typified by a few characteristics. They’re vague or ambiguous, that is to say they have unclear meaning or could be interpreted in a number of ways. They’re not dependent on reason or evidence (logos), credibility of the source (ethos) but instead strictly belief, conviction and commitment (pathos). And clearly, they have to be simple enough to be easily transmitted, best if they’re devoid of intellectual content as cognition arrests transmission.

I’ve always had a healthy resistance to manipulation. I especially don’t appreciate the shallow attempts of memes that are nearly or entirely devoid of intellectual content. That this now appears to be among the principle strategies of the Left is both surprising and incredibly disappointing. I’d like to exhibit an example in the purported “Banner for the Resistance”, going over each meme individually.

In philosophical terms this is what is called a tautology, except it's somehow not quite. A tautology at least compares two apparently different things showing them to be in fact equal such as 2 + 2 = 4. This meme is just simple repetition. A moment's reflection shows the complete emptiness of the phrase. Any meaning can only come from what the reader projects upon the meme. Different readers can repeat “Love is Love” with deep emotional fervour yet have completely different associations for what love is or what they feel they’re expressing about it. Essentially it becomes a contagious meme that conveys a false sense of unity based on nothing.

Here the explicit meaning is obvious and therefore trivial. Of course black lives matter because human lives matter. The implicit meaning or better said meanings are at the very least ambiguous and again have a lot to do with personal projections. I’ll follow up with a few common implications:
  • Black lives matter less than those of other racial groups to those other racial groups
  • Black lives matter less than those of other racial groups to institutions. 
  • Black lives matter more than those of other racial groups period. 
To be charitable, I might suggest that this is an attempt to isolate racial discrimination which in practise is difficult to do as human beings tend to participate in a smorgasbord of discriminatory categories simultaneously: not only race but also age, sex, education, wealth, attractiveness, intelligence etc. I would say that it would be common to find someone not black that faces more discrimination than someone who is black; however, the implication is that all other factors being equal black lives matter less than those of other races in our society.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett recently coined the term "deepity" to describe this sort of pseudo-profound phrasing of which we'll encounter a number of them on this banner.

Again the explicit meaning is obvious. As with metabolism or life, change is wrapped up in the very definition of climate. I suppose one implied meaning might be that humans are responsible for detrimental change to the environment that is resulting in unnatural changes to the climate. Fair enough, admitting there is a problem is a good first step to addressing it although those that would deny such climate change are now in the minority and I find this meme printed en masse on toxic polyethylene banners won't go far in convincing them of much.

Yet again, the explicit meaning is obvious and trivial. The implicit meanings surround immigration and refugee policies and again suffer from ambiguity. Is this implying a need for a clear immigration policy? Should there be a more open immigration policy? Or perhaps, should there be completely open borders dispensing with immigration policy altogether? When this phrase is chanted it’s easy to imagine there is a wide range of interpretations as to what is meant. 

The last of the deepities. Similar to Black Lives Matter the explicit meaning is obvious and therefore trivial. Of course, women’s rights are human rights as women are humans. Yet again we’re confronted with the ambiguity of the phrase making possible a variety of implied conclusions. Women have inferior rights than men. Women have some rights that are different than men. Women and men should have exactly the same rights. Women should have superior rights to course correct for past inferior rights. Who knows, everyone just takes their pick I suppose.

A slogan, the change in tactic is almost refreshing...almost. This one is a bit more complicated as four things are being said: three separate characteristics being applied to gender and then something implied about gender itself. So what is meant by gender? Biologically, with extremely rare exception we’re dealing with two genders, male and female. How gender has recently been defined attempts to include social constructs such as how a person identifies themselves, typically male of female with some exception and how they express themselves, again typically as male or female with exceptions. Regardless, upon a moment's reflection I don't know if a gender if good or bad, it just seems to be. I'd have to really have a clue as what is being said here before I could even think of agreeing with any of it.

The New Credulity

However, I don't think it's the understanding of the aforementioned memes that's being expected, neither agreement per say. I find it interesting that as Western civilisation becomes increasingly secular the religious impulse of man does not appear to be diminished in the slightest. What is expected by the Left appears to be the ritualised recanting of the new catechisms, summaries of the tenets of belief such as those expressed on this banner or as a bumper sticker, or yard art before the faithful. How are you viewed if you say, "Sorry, I just can't accept that" or "No thank you, I'd never put that in my yard"? or maybe just, "Can we talk about it?"
Talk about it? Unlikely, is there really anything to discuss with a sexist, racist, homophobe...a sinner?

At the very least, if you disagree hold thy tongue, dare not speak of it. We've entered a period of superstition and nouveau taboo. There are new sacrileges and blasphemies, words you're forbidden to say and entire subjects that are off limits. And certainly there are shunnings, brandings and excommunications for those who transgress the holy rites or desecrate the sacred icons. Increasingly, scientists such as biologists and psychologists are being branded as heretics, among them lifetime academics whose personal sympathies lies deep within the Left, yet whose scientific research yields uncomfortable results that contradict the confessions of faith. Then there are the apostates, children on the Left brazenly critical of the new credulity. There is simply no hope for a former believer who has willfully turned aside.

Well, I lack certainty on this point but I've my doubts that the current coalition of the intellectually vapid can hold. Much of the memes above appear to hinge on a disposition to the world and Western civilisation in particular as a killing fields of injustice: towards the earth, toward women, towards blacks and minorities of all kinds. The cultivation of such an attitude seems to me to be more seething resentment than any true pursuit of fairness. Intellectual content aside, the Left has become in my view a bitter, mean-spirited movement. Perhaps a subtle shift of tone could heal it though, a spirit of charitableness and generosity: towards the earth, towards women, towards men, towards blacks, towards whites, simply towards one another. My belief is that in doing so we might just reap a bounty of gratitude.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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