One of the great pleasures of reading Richard Rorty is experiencing his precise neglect of nonhuman actors. The man lived in a wordworld of free-floating humans whose sole purpose was conversation. It helps make what I learned from Bruno Latour extra tangible, that what we converse about is rooted as much in our tacit interactions with things and people as it is in the explicit content of our language.
I think Latour made (somewhat) immediate sense to me because his own thinking was formed on his experiences doing ethnography in biology laboratories, and that happens to be my own sole exposure to scientific activity, which, fortuitously was 1) participatory, and 2) frustratingly contrary to my positivistic expectations.
One thing I have discovered about myself over the decades is I am a highly concrete thinker. Anyone who thinks I’m “abstract” is just too psychologically removed to realize how concretely immediate philosophical problems are for me. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are “how do I think out this mess?” problems. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who must be supplied with a defined problem and a mature vocabulary to think, you’ll never experience philosophy, only its conclusions. One of my greatest worries about our times is this: I fear most students who could be philosophical are fed such philosophical conclusions (what x believed and argued) and never encounter the perplexities that motivate philosophical activity, driven by the “stick” of intense anxiety and the “carrot” of faith that something potentially knowable in principle but as-yet-unknowable in fact is uncannily right there. This awe-ful experience is what a religious soul should follow, not bliss. Following bliss turns you into yet another insufferable meditating narcissist with nothing better to do but to cultivate inner peace and emit positive vibes, in the manner of that expensive bronze buddha statue you ordered from dharmacraft.com, the one that looks just perfect sitting in the center of that zen garden you made meditatively, raking rocks, carrying water, inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling, really being present in the moment, and contemplating the superiority of doing the work instead of wasting your time conceptualizing. Fuck that so much. I am about to discuss misnorms of science, but this religion as seeking peace is a common misnorm of religion, and I detest it. But now I’m two self-indulgent digressions deep.
Back to being concrete. I have discovered working as a human-centered designer that when people talk semi-abstractly about concrete stuff of business — processes, technologies, budgets, etc. — until I’ve seen the people interacting with the systems, following processes, I do not get any of it at all. My mind just rejects it. It connects with nothing, and it all evaporates like a routine dream. I have to go stand on the rough ground, talk to people, ask questions, get confused and then unconfused and try to converse with people about what I’ve learned to develop the kind of working knowledge I need to design well. It’s mostly a disability, but like so many disabilities it produces compensatory alternative capabilities, and makes me “differently abled”. My differently-abled superpower is knowing exactly what I’m talking about, and even better, projecting my mastery of the materials to folks too dull or lazy to process the content of my talking. This applies to design, to philosophy, to religion, and happily, thanks to my brief immersion in laboratory life, to how science actually works.
I was hired to work part-time in a lab for a medical university. Mostly, I did a lot of boring basic IT stuff, but I did get to do one legit scientific task. My job was to use my limited PASCAL programming skills to make a program to measure the twitching of mouse heart cells.
I think I’ve described this before, but this time I want to describe it explicitly expanding that pat “measure the twitching of mouse heart cells” into the kind of actor-network Latour delights in tracing out.
First, let’s expand mouse heart cells. Unfortunately, I was not there to observe how labs work, so I never found out how the lab mice were procured, shipped, stored, etc. All I know is when it was time to do this experiment, lots of mice were brought into the laboratory and situated at the end of the lab benches, along with big vats full of liquid nitrogen. The lab benches were equipped with specially designed rodent guillotines. The lab techs would behead a large number of mice, cut out their still-beating hearts and plop the hearts into the liquid nitrogen. The frozen hearts were then somehow pulverized. I always avoided seeing these activities, so I cannot describe the specifics. The pulverized hearts were placed in a centrifuge, I believe to separate out the various kinds of heart cells. Some particular kind of heart cell (which was the focus of the study) was extracted. The extracted cells were placed in a dish with a collagen ring (no idea how these were produced, but a good ANT researcher would find out that, too) and I’m guessing they were placed in some controlled environment where the heart cells could grow together onto the collagen rings. And, disgustingly, and for biologists, fascinatingly, they would twitch.
Now, let’s expand “measure the twitching”. The heart-coated collagen rings were put onto an electronic caliper. This caliper would return some raw number between zero and some large binary-convenient number, probably 65,535. No constriction is zero, full constriction is 65,535. My program would, when told to start, would capture all these numbers at some interval of time I can’t remember, until it was told to stop, at which time it spat out the average twitch, converted to some unit which I also cannot remember, by a formula which I believe might have originated with the manufacturer of the caliper, but which was handed down to me by a series of forwarded emails. And just to give a sense of time, I checked my email by telnetting to a mainframe operated through command line. I hope this makes my forgetting of details more forgivable.
The problem for me was that these twitches were all over the place. The data seemed ludicrously messy. So being a 20-something smart ass I provided a list of averages calculated a number of different ways (mean, median, and other basic math known even to liberal arts students). I thought I was part of some pretty lame science. Science was supposed to be far more orderly and elevated. I’m not sure which number they used, or even if they used it as written. It had to have been enraging to use. I cannot believe I made it through my youth without being beaten up by an angry mob of reasonable people, but I continue to feel grateful I was spared what I deserved.
Presumably the numbers were recorded, visualized, situated in a paper, submitted journals, juried, and hopefully published, widely cited and used as evidence supporting more research funding, and increasing the prestige and salaries of my bosses. I learned this part only years later reading Latour. Back then I was just trying to earn $5/hour so I could pay my part of the rent for the ratty roach-infested un-air conditioned mansion I inhabited with six other classic late-80s era slackers.
But the more important thing I learned from Latour and other ANT people is that this was real, legitimate science! All these tenuous connected physical linkages, translations from movements to numbers to units to averages to graphs to inferences to arguments to papers to prestige to dollars, these bizarre supplies all converging in one place for obscure purposes — this is science as it is normally done. So many non-human actors — not only mice and instruments and programs, but concepts, procedures, aspirations — were in play here to produce something scientists could discuss. My standards of “good science” were misnorms, causing me to condemn science as it really works on the basis of standards that would condemn all science if viewed close-up.
And I believe Richard Rorty, through sheer practical ignorance, never heard the babble of the nonhuman actors in the human-language conversations among scientists.
I wouldn’t either if it weren’t for my random part-time job at the med school lab.
The reason I still adore Richard Rorty’s writing, despite the key omission I just described, is how precise it is and how well his ideas hold if you insert the omitted considerations the right way. I always read him with “what about the non-human interlocutors?” at the ready. And when I plug in my answer, the thoughts work correctly.
And this helps me grasp the importance of Actor-Network Theory as the talented heir to Pragmatism — a basically wonderful way to think that functions even with incomplete parts. And Pragmatism is the philosophical champion of Liberal Democracy, which is the political vision I love. And then I remember that the United States of America, the first nation founded on philosophical argument, was also the nation where Pragmatism was discovered-created-instaurated and then I get to feel intense patriotism like a normal person.
I need to replace my American flag bumper sticker on my car. It was lost when my bumper was repaired.
Maybe I’ll make some PRAGMATISM flag stickers. Text me if you made it to the end of this wildly rambling post, and I’ll get one printed for you, too.
We are going to work this crisis of American politics out, in our characteristic American way. Back to Liberalism. Let’s deepen and strengthen Liberalism in our return, by recognizing our fellow non-human citizens, given voice through science.
It seems that in the 19th Century “metaphysical need” for “metaphysical comfort” was more common than in the 20th Century, where the needs and comforts were anti-metaphysical.
This strikes me as an ontological analogue to the epistemological struggles (or were they actually also ontological struggles regarding the being of knowledge?), which concluded that if knowledge as we conceive it cannot exist, then knowledge itself is impossible, resulting in vulgar relativism.
If God as we conceived him and used him is no longer believable, then God is impossible: vulgar atheism.
objectivism : relativism :: idolatry : atheism
pragmatism :: religion
So many colons.
Every authentic religion eventually produces its own fundamentalism.
An authentic religion is a finite self’s whole-being response to infinite being. It is both actively receptive and receptively active toward reality which no self can contain, which contains all selves, in which self participates as one spark among myriad fellow-sparks, who are respected as messengers from beyond self. Religion is an aid for keeping a self responsive to infinite being. Religious existence is uncomfortable, elusive and perpetually challenging, and formal religion provides a moderate degree of comfort, definition and assistance in maintaining such an existence.
Fundamentalisms result when the basic toward-infinity response is forgotten and unconsciously replaced with a within-me set of concepts. The religion is everted, and all religious concepts are flipped with respect to their “image schema” relationships. Let’s just call this process dysfinition and the resulting state of mind dysfinitude.
In a state of dysfinitude, infinite reality is packed inside a self’s finite mind. Fellow participants in infinity are packed inside the mind as well, becoming messengers of what is already known, either a confirmation of truth or a known bearer of falsehood. And the locus of religious texts — always addressed to and read from and primarily applicable to the first-person self — is shifted to the third-person. One’s own known doctrine addressed to third-person others, to whom it is addressed, for whom it is read and applied. The Golden Rule is deformed to mean that everyone else is obligated to treat me however I believe is right to treat others, whether they like it or not.
How does dysfinitude happen? Miseducation. Students are no longer taught the relationship to infinite being through participation in religious existence. Instead they finished religious forms are thrust into their hands to master without ever first experiencing a need for such forms, which is the only way to recognize their purpose.
I believe Leftist Identitarianism is the fundamentalist deformation of postmodernism.
It is important that every individual American citizen recognizes that somewhere in their life on some vitally important matter they hold a minority opinion, and that if it weren’t for our collective commitment to individual liberty, they would be vulnerable to majority tyranny. This point of conscious vulnerability in an individual is the fulcrum for moving them toward recognizing the need to defend the rights of others who, like themselves, are members of a minority group needing protection from fellow citizens.
To deny or dismiss as trivial these points of conscious vulnerability for all but a defined canonical set of “real” identities based exclusively on race, gender and sexual orientation is wrong on multiple levels. First, the canon glaringly incomplete. What about identities based on class and ideology? Second, is it not a betrayal of liberalism to decide on the basis of your classification scheme what another individual can or cannot do? But worst of all it makes zero political sense! Why alienate potential allies? We need more identities, a proliferation of minority identities to spread the passion for protecting all minority interests.
If we do not show the majority of Americans the importance of liberalism to their own lives and their own interests, this liberal democracy will continue to devolve into an illiberal democracy.
“When a poet is not in love with reality his muse will consequently not be reality, and she will then bear him hollow-eyed and fragile-limbed children.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
It seems to me that few people agree with me on what a philosophy is. It is not that they disagree, but rather that they have done so little philosophy themselves that they lack any capacity to agree or disagree. They have not developed a capacity to understand what philosophy is as I understand it.
They have not even developed a capacity to look into why they ought to hear me out on how I think of it, not only for the sake of understanding something new, but for the sake of friendship.
Here is how I understand philosophy:
Philosophies are not reducible to assertions. Philosophies are not even reducible to language.
Language and assertions belong to the praxis of a philosophy. Yet a philosophy is not even reducible to its praxis.
Philosophies produce praxis, but they are “behind” praxis, moving and shaping perceptions and conceptions, values and emotions, recognitions and responses. Or let’s say they stand-under these things as capacities for conception, action and feeling: a repertoire of possibilities of understanding the world which activate long before we find words for them, because these capacities are who find our words for us. These capacities are what constitute our soul.
But don’t we primarily read or hear philosophy? — Yes, but we do not receive it the way people expect to receive ideas. The normal priority of comprehension is reversed. Normally, when we struggle to understand difficult material, we do so in order to grasp factual content. With philosophy, we struggle to grasp the factual content in order to gain new ways to understand.
Engaging philosophical writing is a mimetic linguistic activity intended to expand our repertoire of understandings, which enriches our awareness of and capacity for pluralism, which I call pluralistic sense.
Finite truths overlap in reality’s infinitude. The myriad finite truths are one part of reality. Our pluralistic sense permits us to relate to this overlap with sublime irony. Each of us is a soul among souls, overlapping with souls, swimming in souls, but each of us only gets one. Or at least only one at a time.
Doing philosophy is the effort to densify one’s soul.
For nearly ten years, I have been uncomfortable with the phenomenological term “horizon”. I think it is because this metaphor suggests that what we cannot see is invisible because it is distant.
The metaphor is not without merits. I like the implications that distant things are obscured by the curvature of the very land upon which we stand. I like that the pragmatic consequence of a horizon is a requirement to get peripatetic. Stand up and move and view things from some other perspective.
But as a young adult I spent too many hours seated in meditation, mining the sensations in my body and mind for insight into being to believe ignorance is primarily a distant thing.
And I have suffered too many ocular migraines, and far too often “seen” the blindspots in my eyes burst into bloom and cover my entire field of vision with nothingness, which is not black. Black is something that marks something missing. Blindness is nothing, including nothing being there but also nothing missing.
Too much we don’t know is close to us and in us. I think much of our ignorance takes the form of insufficient density, not only in our factual knowledge but in our capacities to know.
Our souls can lose density if we do not strain them. They can become inflexible, osteoporotic and brittle. We move only one way and see only one way. Trying to move and see other ways is uncomfortable and feels wrong. So we fend off enemies, and refuse to hear any validity in what they say. And as we become brittler, our enemies increase. We begin to discover unacceptable beliefs in our friends. We cling to fondness, but we can no longer converse without fear that words will break our bones.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that most misunderstandings are misunderstood as factual disagreements, when in fact the disagreements are artifacts of different modes of understanding. So some of my friends pore over sociological and psychological studies, because sociology gives us substantial scientific evidence for belief, unlike philosophy which only speculates and doesn’t provide enough factual meat. It takes philosophical thought to see what is dangerously ignorant about this kind of epistemology which says philosophy is “too abstract”. Other friends like to bravely entertain forbidden facts — facts which, if properly weighted and thoroughly considered, would wake us up to an imminent emergency requiring immediate action. The facts all point to ominous actors we cannot see directly, but a thorough connecting of dots leaves a lacuna the shape of diabolical intention.
I think the imminent emergency is that everyone already knows everything, at least in outline, including the obvious fact that their enemies know nothing. No need to listen — there is no point. In fact, listening is folly. Force is the only suitable response. Both sides think they have the numbers to force their will if things go to plan, and if they don’t… well, truth is on their side and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
We have failed to teach our children to be citizens in a liberal democracy. Now there is too little tolerance and no willingness to fight for a fellow citizen’s right to disagree with us.
And we have failed to teach our public intellectuals philosophy. There is desperately little pluralistic sense in the upper reaches of our culture. What is known as Political Correctness systematically cultivates brittleness in our elite class by prohibiting all discomfort of pluralism. We are manufacturing narrow ideologues who experience disagreement as life-threatening.
I need to own my reaction to the rhetoric of the mainstream Left a little more, I think. It is not only about how Trump folks react to the way they are portrayed and addressed by the left. I am also alienated by it as well, and I believe this gives me insight into what is happening.
I have this incredibly wise little how-to book called Difficult Conversations that my company had me read back in 2011. One principle in this book stood out to me when I read it: if you are in a tense conversation with someone, attributing motives to their word and actions shuts down the dialogue. When I told Susan about it we decided to make this one of the basic agreements of our marriage.
My concern with the way identity politics operates, there is a readiness — even an eagerness — or is it a habit that has become reflexive? — to immediately reach for a psychology that tells us the real motives of anyone to our right, despite what they say, or even what they privately think. Further, we apply this psychology differently depending on how we classify them, and again regardless of how they publicly classify themselves or how they understand themselves.
The experience of being treated this way is deeply offensive, and it might even touch on the essence of offense: being treated as if what we say does not matter, and worse being treated that way because of what someone else had decided we are. If this is not Othering, what is?
Now, I cannot prove to anyone who decides that the words I have just said are only a semiconscious or unconscious tactic for preserving my identity group’s power, and not, as I claim (and possibly even believe) the appeal from one individual to another to be respected, heard and conversed with as a fellow individual who might (despite how they categorize me) have things to teach you as well as learn from them. Maybe, if dialogue with me fails they will have no choice but to reach for theories to explain why I refuse to converse with them as a true equal. But if they reach for that theory before we even get going, it will be me searching for reasons why they are unwilling to treat me as an equal.
One more note, spoken in the language of Judeo-Christianity: if racists attack you with racist ideas, does it make sense to balance their racism with an equal-but-opposite counter-racism? Can that even be called antiracism? To liberals, this seems to be just another form of racism requiring a principled liberal stance against all dehumanizing reduction of individuals to categories. It is very difficult to do this. It is extremely tempting when faced with prejudice to pick up the sword of prejudice and start fighting. Liberalism, the modern heir to the long refinement of Jewish tradition universalized and disseminated throughout the world by Jesus and his followers, calls us to transcend the conflict and instead of fighting racists with counter-racism, to fight racism with respect, dialogue, reason and rigorous demonstration.
The political foundation of liberal democracy is democracy, but the philosophical foundation of liberal democracy is liberalism.
A majority of citizens must actively want a sphere of liberties protected by liberalism more than it wants to impose its collective will on individuals within that sphere. If the majority decides it wants to determine how individuals are to live, speak and think more than it wants individuals to choose for themselves, liberalism will be voted out of existence, law by law.
But liberalism is a difficult worldview to acquire and keep. It must be taught and cultivated.
An educational program that views its mission in terms of preparing its students for the labor market, or worse, qualification for entering it — a prosperity ticket — will mistake training for education and create qualified workers and illiberal citizens.
A semi-formed thought to entertain: If the the primary goal of liberalism is optimal distribution of judgment throughout society, then optimal distribution of material resources might be one means to that end. But this means must be balanced against the ultimate question every liberal must unceasingly ask: who decides? Whose judgment prevails? Or to put it more liberally, by what procedure is the decision made? To say “by the market” is to beg the question. To say “by ballot” is to forget the essential tension between liberalism and democracy. To say “by judicial ruling” is to forget the tension in the opposite direction.
In liberal democracy there are no easy answers, and appearances to the contrary signal a misframing of controversies, perhaps symptomatic of blindness to the liberal-democratic metaphysic. To put it in language popularized by “design thinking”, it is leveling down wicked social problems into tame technical ones.
To say about any social problem, “this problem has an obvious solution, and if people would get out of my way and let me solve it, they would see I’ve been right all along” contains a self-delegitimization.
“As soon as a religion comes to dominate it has as its opponents all those who would have been its first disciples.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
My older daughter has joined a reading group studying gentrification, and we’ve been having sporadic conversations on the topic of economic and cultural transformation of neighborhoods. I’ve also been reflecting on some similar transformations I have seen in my life, in particular what happened to the field of UX over the last 25 years — not only the methods, the culture, the politics of the field, but also the qualities and quality of the output of the field. From where I stand I see an explosion of productivity, unceasing change and novelty, and a dramatic diminishment of genuine excitement. There is a lot of force and motion, but somehow without much energy and life. Today, I see this in terms of disciplinary gentrification…
Any novel situation presenting new problems without established methods for resolving them will attract a particular kind of mind drawn to experimentation and improvisation, groping by intuition and tolerant of ambiguity, perplexity and anxiety, (and perhaps repelled by routinization, methodological constraints and prioritization of efficiency over exploration). Let’s call this type “pioneering intuitive”. The field is still more or less open, and this openness attracts intuitive pioneers exactly the way an open plain attracts settling pioneers.
Once the novel situation has been worked on long enough, the experimentation pays off, through development of general approaches to identifying, framing and resolving particular species of problems within the situation. The field develops language and reusable methods, guided by common heuristics. The open field becomes a discipline.
As the discipline matures, more and more methods continue upon the path Roger Martin describes in The Design of Business. What began as a mystery, and gradually developed as general methodology, now formalizes into an established methodology, with defined roles, procedures, specialized tools, technical language, and products. More and more, judgments guided by rules-of-thumb are sharpened into decisions determined by defined rules and criteria. There’s less need for deliberation and experimentation (though these things never completely disappear). The discipline now attracts experts who can march into a problematic situation, quickly diagnose it, provide a set plan using proven best practices and then efficiently resolve the problem effectively. At this point, the discipline becomes highly attractive to other experts who view competence almost exclusively in terms of expertise of this stamp.
It is important to note, experts are a type — a kind of mind very different from the intuitive pioneer type. Experts are analogous to the specialist tradesmen who flocked to western cities after the cities grew out of isolated trade posts. Experts want to ply their trade and their greatest joy is productivity, meeting set goals, honing skills, growing organizations and reaping the rewards of their work.
Once a field develops this far, it begins to lose the qualities that attracted the first wave of practitioners. And in fact it starts to drive them away. Seeing smoke from a neighboring cabin is unsettling because this signals change — change back into the regulated, routinized highly constrained and controlled existence the pioneer fled out into the frontier.
For experts, experimentation, reflection, deliberation, openness, indefiniteness, improvisation — those are means to an end of developing a mature, predictable, repeatable and highly efficient discipline. For intuitive pioneer types, these indeterminate qualities are the challenge of the work, and the primary pleasure of it. They begin to move away into other types of problems that have not (yet) become the domain of experts. And the field left behind has all the qualities that gentrified neighborhoods have. They’re stylishly and respectably cool, safe, highly valued and powered by ambition and accomplishment, but nothing deeply unexpected, daring or surprising can happen there anymore. The weirdos have moved on. Something is lost — some intangible feeling of inspiration and life has dampened out — and the products seem less interesting despite their increasing flawlessness.
This happens to all kinds of spaces — physical, cultural, intellectual — and they happen on all scales. Cities, nations, civilizations, questions, topics, fields of study, companies, industries, economies.
Our humanity is bound up with freedom of interpretation.
The capacity to interpret and respond effectively is what is meant by the word judgment.
To the degree an individual’s capacity to interpret is denied and interpretations suppressed, that person’s individuality and humanity is denied.
Society always requires some degree of denial — tempering — of individuality, but the proper degree is contestable and is a matter of judgment. The belief that such tempering is unnecessary and unjust might sound liberal, but in fact is typically the result of illiberal privileging of one’s own judgment over the judgment of others who might experience excesses of untempered individuality as interfering with their attempts to live a reasonably peaceful life. The belief that the tempering of individuality can be settled unambiguously and rendered incontestable by laws or rules is also illiberal, because this belief generally presumes the objective correctness of one’s own interpretation of law.
Forms of liberalism that try to create conditions of material and social equality according to a single privileged interpretation of fairness are not only shallow, but they inevitably degrade into illiberal leftism. Deep liberalism is democratic and agonistic.
Are you a liberal? Ok, then: Where are you prepared to make painful concessions to public will? Where will you sacrifice intense superficial convictions to your deeper loyalty to liberal principles?
Every afternoon Father Nicanor would sit by the chestnut tree preaching in Latin, but Jose Arcadio Buendia insisted on rejecting rhetorical tricks and the transmutation of chocolate, and he demanded the daguerreotype of God as the only proof. Father Nicanor then brought him medals and pictures and even a reproduction of the Veronica, but Jose Arcadio Buendia rejected them as artistic objects without any scientific basis. He was so stubborn that Father Nicanor gave up his attempts at evangelization and continued visiting him out of humanitarian feelings. But then it was Jose Arcadio Buendia who took the lead and tried to break down the priest’s faith with rationalist tricks. On a certain occasion when Father Nicanor brought a checker set to the chestnut tree and invited him to a game, Jose Arcadio Buendia would not accept, because according to him he could never understand the sense of a contest in which the two adversaries have agreed upon the rules.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Respect for someone — or even something — is maintaining an attitude that this person, or thing — this being — has something to teach us. Normally respect consists in a general mood of regard, maintained by various formal (etiquette) and informal signals.
This ambient background mood of respect is sometimes activated in an appeal to be heard and trusted on some matter that might not be considered if the one making the appeal is not respected. — “Hear me out…” “Trust me on this…” “Stay with me…” “Think this over…” — The “object” of the appeal might be a prediction or a plan, or a counter-intuitive fact or difficult concept, or maybe a gut sense or incipient insight, or a feeling or ineffable experience, but the activation of respect always involves some kind of extension of faith beyond the personal limits of the respectful, whether experiential, cognitive, predictive, practical, judicial, etc.
There are situations where an appeal for respect reveals false signaling of respect. The person was treated in respect a respectful manner, but was not actually respected. The appeal is denied, and what the person has to say is disregarded.
There are people who are so profoundly disrespectful they are not aware that respect is a reality indicated through the signals of etiquette. They think respect is etiquette.
If a person has a rigid and unfaithful mind that resists learning, etiquette will be the closest approximation to respect they can muster, and it is far better than nothing.
There are also situations where a person intentionally treats a person with contempt while maintaining perfect manners of respect. This is a delicate game that requires both mastery of the formal rules of respect and control over one’s own emotions. The players in this game compete to provoke the other to produce damning evidence of formal disrespect to present before a judge. This is a game of polite contempt.
The trick to surviving this game, if you lack one or both skills needed to win it, is to know how to change the game.
A kind of elevated, benevolent contempt can develop across power differentials — where the powerful go so long with so little sense of vulnerability to their inferiors that respect slips away unnoticed. It is simply a known fact that the disrespected do not know, are unaware they do not know, and are not even aware of the factors that obstruct or distort their knowledge. Their views can be safely dismissed. But not letting them speak is impolite, so the superior listens patiently — very patiently, because this is an act of waiting for the other to finish saying things that are known to be wrong. It is all done in innocence, but innocence is grossly overrated.
This is a variation on the game of polite contempt. Let’s call it benevolent contempt.
This benevolent contempt is often present in pity and exercised through charity.
It is why recipients of charity so often hate their benefactors.
The fact that the crime is committed innocently with conceit of equality with no trace of ironic self-awareness makes things far worse.
Contempt dehumanizes, alienates and infuriates. Even polite, benevolent contempt.
People treated with contempt will win back respect, one way or another, sometimes violently. “You thought you had no need to listen to what I had to say, didn’t you…?”
I am terrified at the ubiquity of contempt.
Everyone already knows everything, including why their opponents mistakenly think they know everything.
Behind the symbolic forms of any person’s “religion” is something much deeper, a religion-behind-the-religion which cannot be spoken about in any direct way but which can be effectively summoned, concentrated, evoked, extended, intensified and hopefully shared through religious forms — through performing, plastic and social arts.
My religion is Reform Judaism, but my religion-behind-the-religion is radical liberalism, which I believe grew out of Judaism, and in fact developed from the unceasing active reforming of the tradition.
Some people sneer at liberal religions, and view them as watered-down, lukewarm, modernistically-compromised versions of religion in pure form. From the perspective of the religion-behind-the-religion called Fundamentalism and its antithetical opposite Atheism, it is impossible to see liberal religions any other way than dilutions of pure religion, but from the perspective of religious liberalism, religion reduced to its forms and to passions about those forms has ceased to live as real religion and has devolved into something more about beliefs than relationships with God.
Friends ask me why I want to reclaim the hopeless word “liberal”. I will list a few answers.
- Liberalism is descriptive. Liberalism prioritizes individual freedom above all other political values, all its efforts are focused on protecting the freedom of all individuals within its domain, and all political problems are framed in these terms. To a liberal, there is no oppression of a group, there is oppression of individuals who have been classified as belonging to a group. Hannah Arendt spoke as a liberal when she said “the physical extermination of the Jewish people… was a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people, and that only the choice of victims, not the nature of the crime, could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism.”
- Liberalism is despised by exactly the right people. Now that the illiberal left has joined the illiberal right in heaping scorn on liberals, this is a perfect time to re-embrace liberalism as a political identity and to oppose the common illiberal tendencies of its critics. The differences between Trump supporters and social justice warriors are superficial. Both ideological tribes vocally identify as a category of person, defined against and opposing other categories of people — while never allowing themselves to notice that their core loyalty is to Identitarian ideologies that exploit identity and tribal resentment to advance the interests of those who ditto/re#hash/retweet the party line to signal that they are woke/red-pilled to the true truth. Each Identitarian denomination enrages and justifies the other, while failing to see its own role in the other’s intensification.
- Appropriating the liberal pejorative is the punkest option. It is a linguistic reclamation (apparently!) that defies antithetical assignment — that is, avoids the pitfall of positioning as a member of your enemy’s enemy, who is also an enemy). By doing so, you become a reviled outsider’s reviled outsider. The two most highly respected, most mainstream tribes of “reviled outsiders” competing for the status of most aggrieved and oppressed group in America, Trumpism and SJWism, will reject you with equal disgust. It’s hardly surprising they react the same: from a liberal perspective the two tribes are more alike than different, and what unites them is an incapacity to see politics in non-Identitarian terms. Both feel vastly superior to the strawman liberalism of their stunted imaginations and like to attribute their own confusions about liberalism to liberalism itself, seeing liberalism as a confused and unconscious agent of its antithesis. (Thus, “All politics is identity politics; you just can’t see it, silly liberal.”) Calling yourself liberal ensured wins you the honor of double-rejection, with nowhere to go. Punk.
- Liberalism is ripe for rediscovery and rearticulation. Liberalism luxuriated in hegemonic complacency throughout the second half of the 20th Century, and like all hegemonic successes became boring. Requiring no help, it stopped attracting intellectual help, and got neglected, dusty and stale. But under the grime is fallow soil and untapped reservoirs of inspiration.
I have been wanting to present my view of liberalism in terms that have inspired me. The following is a hasty first draft. I’m publishing it for the sake of getting it out there. Expect revisions, because this is an obsession:
- Liberalism exists to maximize individual freedom.
- Liberalism strives for human identity, specifically on the right to individuality shared by all members of this universal identity group. This striving is never perfected and is subject to gross delusions and missteps, but the ideal stands.
- Liberalism frames political problems in terms of the ideal of maximizing the freedom of all individuals. Liberalism, left-leaning, right-leaning or centrist can be recognized through it use of liberal framing of political problems and solutions.
- One important and often overlooked form of freedom is freedom of judgment. Freedom of judgment means judgments can, will and ought to differ, even on core questions of freedom and infringement of freedom.
- These differences in judgment produce radically different practical worldviews (aka lifeworlds). These worldviews can produce radically different visions of life. They are the stuff of religious conversion. Those who have been “born again”, or “woke”, or “red-pilled” or “enlightened” only one time should attempt a second conversion in order to grasp what is meant by pluralism, which is a central deep fact of liberalism.
- When freedom of judgment leads even to different judgments pertaining to the limits of individual freedom (for the sake of individual freedom) there are no means for settling differences before they are hammered out with actual trial. Conflict is necessary for liberalism, and the principled embracing of this fact is agonism.
- Individual freedom of judgment necessitates democracy. Democracy is grossly imperfect but it is the best available means for achieving practical equality and symmetry of judgment. Nobody’s judgment can be privileged over another’s however much that judgment judges itself correct and proves its correctness by criteria and methods it judges sound.
- Freedom of judgment entails objective pluralism. People sometimes bat around the term pluralism, to mean diversity of feelings or opinions about objective truth, but this misses the point. Objectivity is a hard-won accomplishment — not a starting point, and certainly not a firm foundation, regardless of what fundamentalists of religion or science tell you.
- Because democracy is imperfect and because factions can form, consolidate power and use nondemocratic means — bullying, terror, commercial coercion, even legislation — all for righteous and necessary causes (national defense or civil right emergencies calling for emergency measures, because EMERGENCY!) — it is crucially important to allow individuals to form creative alliances to oppose what they view as oppressive forces.
- To feel entitled to assign individuals to groups, and to not only see them primarily in terms of their group membership, or to treat them as such, or to expect them to accept this identity assignment — but to require them to accept legal status as a group member whether they want it or not is a violation of liberal principle and indicates that some group has gained so much power that it no longer feels democratic obligation. Such groups — whether formally organized or organically united under common ideology — are ripe for being taken down a few notches until they regain humility and a sense of liberal mutuality.
- The right to self-determination of one’s own alliances and group identities is an individual right, as is the right to reject the identity claims of others. Any practical imposition of categorization on another individual ought to be resisted.
- And finally, in case any illiberals have made it this far and still mistake themselves for liberals, I will scare them off with this: liberals understand that the single most important liberal institution is the free market. Left-leaning liberals think the market must be regulated to some degree to preserve its liberal effect. Right-leaning liberals think the market is inherently liberal. But all liberals value the free market exclusively for how it supports liberalism.
I looked up the etymology of the word “entertain”. Inter- (among) + tain (hold). To hold-among.
Then I looked up “consider”. Con- (together) + sideris (stars).
It is hard to miss the stark difference in situatedness between entertaining a a possibility and considering it: holding it among us versus gazing at it from lightyears away.
(The following is a rant inspired by the recent debate between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein.)
Leftist Identitarianism is itself an identity, one with more real-world reality and salience than any of the canonical identities it recognizes and focuses upon.
Where people habitually list their identities before speaking — “speaking as an x, y and z…” — they should say “speaking as a Leftist Identitarian who identifies as x, y and z…”
Once you recognize that in academia and most popular culture Leftist Identitarianism exercises hegemonic power to 1) define which canonical identities are really real and which are fanciful inventions, 2) what moralities are truly fair and moral and which are subjective interests disguised as objective principle, 3) which opinions are uncomfortable truths that must never be silenced and which are harmful prejudices that must be deplatformed, 4) what is an unjust privilege and what is a qualification for claiming superior insight, 5) what is righteous indignation at being told what you can and can’t do because of the color of your skin (or your sex or who you love, etc.) and what is merely rage of the dominant identity when it feels its sovereignty being challenged — you can see why members of alleged dominant identities are lining up around the block to check their privileges: the advantages of the canonical identities are positively dwarfed by the privileges gained through membership in the Leftist Identitarian identity.
Let’s go back through the five privileges I listed above, but apply them to Leftist Identitarianism viewed as a hegemonic power.
1) Leftist Identitarians believe they know the true identities, and understand them so well they can precisely calculate their effects in order to counter-balance them. But the possibility that they maybe they have defined identities in a way that conveniently removes their core identity from similar calculations and counter-balancing is unconsciously excluded from consideration. 2) For all their talk of combatting privilege, Leftist Identitarians privilege their own convictions and calculations concerning who is overprivileged and to what degree, and who ought to be granted more privilege, how much they should be given. Leftist Identitarians even privilege the perceptions and judgments of people from marginal groups — who then ditto the truths of Leftist Identitarianism, while white, male, straight Leftist Identitarians piously shut up and “let other people’s voices be heard”. 3) Leftist Identitarians have unilaterally imposed purely demographic ad hominem criteria on whose anger is hate and whose is frustration. Under Leftist Identitarian redefinition of racism, based on the color of your skin, not only are you allowed to judge other people by the color of their skin, you might even be celebrated for doing so if you support it with socio-poetic eloquence that move white Leftist Identitarians to tears. 4) Leftist Identitarians see their own class privileges as deserved qualifications and proof their knowledge is more objective, their judgments more circumspect and their altruism purer. A degree from an Ivy League school is evidence a person is better educated, better informed and more insightful on social issues — and not a token of superior social class that entitles them to scold, lecture and behave dismissively toward their social inferiors. Knowing the best people, eating the best food, drinking the best wine, wearing the best clothes, reading the best books, having the best health habits, displaying the most natural, graceful manners, being up on the latest everything — these are simply evidence of subtle discernment, not open flaunting of class. Whenever unfairness is assessed, the massive material differences and social advantages of class are presented as givens built into the human condition, unfortunate but unavoidable, but the differences among the canonical identities within classes are presented as unconscionable crimes. Where are the cries for removing institutional class prejudices? Who’s demanding the removal of alma maters from resumes? from preventing the well-connected from using their connections to get ahead of those who have not been given access to exclusive social network? from using excellent breeding to signal upper-class membership? 5) No person likes to be treated with contempt. No person of any race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, or any other categorization wants to be told that their perceptions and beliefs are just symptoms of social pathology and that their opinions can be summarily diagnosed away and dismissed. Anyone in a position of weakness who tries to make appeals to someone in a position of strength but is not given a fair hearing because the strong can dictate terms and those terms exclude the validity of the appeal. Hegemony bestows the luxury of dominating the question of justice, defining the terms of the debate and decreeing who is the hegemonic self-deluded and who is the righteous defender of the oppressed, marginalized and silenced.
To use Ezra Klein’s words: “That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is. I will tell you… when people who do not look like you hear you telling them that this is just identity politics, they don’t think, ‘God he’s right. That is just identity politics.’ They think this is my experience and you don’t understand it.”
Until Ezra Klein and his fellow Leftist Identitarians start applying their own principles symmetrically, and start shutting up and really listening to the voices of people who do not look like members of their in-group and who speak from a different perspective and out of different experiences than their members — those systematically excluded outsiders will continue to say “This is my experience and you don’t understand it.” They will continue to elect right-wing illiberals who at least give them the illusion of being heard and considered.
Given the emotional connotations of the word “empathy” and my suspicion that few people have actually had firsthand experiences with empathy outside of merely emotional understanding I am going to re-adopt the term synesis.
Synesis is a greek word for understanding, and it literally means togetherness. It is a capacity to take-together otherwise chaotic data together-with other people. Synesis does tend to generate sympathy — similar feelings — but it also produces similar interpretations of data, suggesting similar practical responses. Where these intellectual, evaluative and practical responses differ, they appear to be the effects of subjectivity or taste — different but not altogether alien.
What is most important to know about synesis, and where it differs in connotation from empathy is synesis is social and learnable.
With empathy, we can respond to another person’s subjective experiences with emotions of our own, but we are permanently locked out of first-hand knowledge. We have our feelings about what the other experiences, and we can remember what they tell us and try to remember and relate it, but the other person’s experiences are theirs and they have privileged knowledge to these subjective truths. If we treat empathic knowledge as the goal of understanding others, true understanding is the insight that acquiring real knowledge of another person’s experience is impossible. This is true as far as it goes, but it artificially limits the possibilities of learning and gaining synesis.
With synesis, we can learn to make conceptual, moral and practical sense of the world in the way another does, and in fact the way groups understand other members of groups. The learning is never perfect, but it is far more adequate than those whose knowledge of otherness is limited to empathy, who tend to wax pious about the unknowability of the Other. As we develop synesis we get progressively better at anticipating how others will perceive things, how they will feel about them and what responses will seem advisable and acceptable, and we get better at speaking fluently, appealing persuasively and acting productively with them. We learn to make room for one another in our understanding.
This is crucial: synesis is the basis for all political alliance. Where it seems otherwise, look closer.
I think I am going to try to organize political conversations around a single all-purpose question: “With respect to this change you want, if you could wave a magic wand and pass any legislation you wanted, what would you legislate?”
This idea is not mine. I think I’ve heard it from at least two friends of mine. But I’m starting to think that this format is essential to political discussion. Until an issue or concern is framed in terms of legislation it is merely cultural or social and pre-political.
I’m sort tired of pretending that personality disorders expressed in political terms are political conversations. This is not because I find personality problems boring. On the contrary, I think they’re fascinating: it’s the legislation part I find hard to think about.
I am not sure I am interested in politics as I defined it. I think there are better ways of talking about my interests.
I think a lot of what is currently lauded as strength is actually aggressive weakness.
Aggressive weakness says “I’d be stronger if other people didn’t prevent me from being strong.” It resents signs of strength in others, interpreting them as evidence that these others are consuming an unfair portion of a limited supply of power that ought to be shared, so everyone can be equally strong. It celebrates outbursts of indignation, irritable analyses, passionate denunciations and other articulations of resentment as “brave” or “insightful” — despite the fact that they are riskless repetitions of tried-and-true formulas that guarantee applause, head-pats, dittos, retweets, etc. from fellow weak aggressives.
Strength is different. Strength likes strength. It wants resistance, challenge. Strength will even acknowledge its own weaknesses, often in the form of self-mockery. Strength does not need other people to make way to allow it to be strong, and in fact any refusal to make way and grant it permission or even better — to confront it — provides strength an opportunity to activate and to experience itself.
It could be argued that aggressive weakness is a preliminary to the taking of power in order to gain strength. I’m skeptical that strength is ever gained that way. I suspect if weakness manages to seize instruments of control its own weakness ensures it will use the control unskillfully, and at best will only undermine the strength of others without actual gain of strength.
In my experience strength is generated through living as one ought to. When one is prevented from living in a way that generates strength, then one has a case for taking aggressive action. But the focus is not on other people and how they live, what they believe or what they have. The focus is on the goal of being free to live in a strength-generating way. Other people’s lives, beliefs and possessions might be altered in the effort to free one’s self, but if the other and resentment toward what they have is the focus, my bet is on catastrophe.
I believe this is a liberal attitude, as opposed to what is called “liberal” today, but what is, in fact, a degrading left-wing illiberalism.