Category Archives: Politics

Agonistic centrism?

What if I cast left versus right in terms of effort required to maintain equality or inequality?

The further left one’s ideology leans, the more one believes that equality with others should require no effort. Enforced preexisting equality of all people is the ideal.

The further right one’s ideology leans the more one believes inequality should be maintained effortlessly. Enforced preexisting rank among all people is the ideal.

A centrist — at least an agonistic centrist — wants to see equal access to an unstable system of inequality, where all individuals have an equal chance to move up or own the social order based on the effort they expend. Work and rise; slack and sink.

effortless egalitarianism <–> effortful achievement <–> effortless rank

I think this is a flawed and maybe vapid idea, but I can’t decide how flawed yet, because my damn cat woke me up two hours early and I’m too groggy to attack myself properly. The questions I plan to confront myself with are: Enforced by whom, exactly? State, obviously, but I think the state is only one kind of organization with enforcement powers. What about the ANT idea of creation of irreversible processes that produce stability and gradually decrease requirements to expend effort? How much stability is permissible. Here I might even lean right of center! But then… how do we ensure equal access to mobile inequality if stable inequality becomes entrenched inequality? A libertarian would argue that removing all state involvement would naturally produce the ideal balance here, but I’m not ready to assume that. It’s too tidy, and tidiness excites my skepticism.

A minority majority

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.

Density of soul

“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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Doing philosophy is the effort to densify one’s soul.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Leftist Identitarianism is an identity

(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.

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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.

Laddering

In marketing there is a research technique known as laddering for getting at a customer’s root motivations. I’ve also heard it called the “seven whys”. When interviewing a customer about her feelings about some aspect of a product, the interviewer asks “why?” and then “why?” again, until the customer is unable to go further. This technique is used to uncover the fundamental emotional drivers of a customer’s behaviors.

A journalist friend of mine uses a similar technique to get at the emotional drivers behind people’s beliefs. When an interviewee makes an assertion she asks “How do you know?” and then “How do you know that?” until the interviewer is no longer able to produce an answer. She then asks “Why do you care?”

I think a procedure like this is necessary in politics. When a person claims our system needs to be overhauled and replaced with some radical alternative we should ask “Who decides that?” and then “Who decides that they decide?” and so on until there no answer but “because that is what is right.” And that answer, of course, means “Me. I decide.”

Liberal symbol

I’ve been marking passages in Inventing the Individual that show the emergence of liberal traits. I’m making a list of these traits in the back of the book, with the goal of distilling a set of liberal family resemblances which, when viewed together as a gestalt, might give me new ways to understand liberalism or reveal new kinds of liberalism that better suit the needs of this moment in history.

But this post is not about that project. It is about the circle-L symbol I have been using in the margin to mark the proto-liberal passages. I like this symbol. It is the anarchy circle-A’s elegant cousin.

In these days of rampant illiberalism on both the right and left, where liberal ideas are more likely to inspire doubts, cynicism and scorn than consent, maybe it is time to equip liberalism with a re-revolutionary symbol. Because liberalism is revolutionary, and on the grand scale of history nothing could be more prosaic than a collectivist relapse, however intense the overturning feels.

George Soros

I’ve been hearing such dark and incredible tales about George Soros’s depravity and deviousness I felt I’d better look into who he is. And what better better place to start than to go directly to the source and read one of their books?

It turns out Soros is a philosopher — a Popperian. Not only does he have a well-developed liberal ethic, he has developed a profound and liberal metaphysic, which is not something I normally expect from an investor.

The profundity of his metaphysic is what makes him truly exceptional, and I suspect it is also what triggers such violent paranoia in far-right circles. This is what happens when souls who know everything because they need to know everything encounter a soul who knows a much bigger everything.

If only the far-right conspiracists weren’t deluded about Soros’s goals and the extent of his power! If Soros were in a position to actualize his political vision we all would be better off.

I intend to continue reading Soros, and to study Karl Popper’s political writings. This might be the re-fortified liberal philosophy I’ve been looking for.

The victory of the marketing worldview

The training of students to conceptualize themselves in terms of “intersectionality” of identity represents the victory of the marketing worldview over all other philosophical competitors. Those who are truly of our times have internalized their demographics and have no desire to be anything but demographics.

And consider this: kids today understand their own personalities in terms of “personal brand”. This is the reverse of how all older generations made sense of brand. For them, personality was the immediate reality, and brands made sense only as the personalities of organizations. Now kids find more reality in Apple and Starbucks than in each other, which is hardly surprising because the best marketers in the business are branding these companies, where the self-branding efforts of young people are amateurish. They’re still trying to get a grip on their category (that is, their intersectionality) and haven’t figured out their differentiation, yet, much less their unique brand attributes and their look, feel, voice or tone.*

And for kids, most of what is called “social interactions” take place on social media, which is really more of an interpersonal marketing platform than a medium for individuals to know other individual. What takes place outside of social media serves primarily as social media PR material. Again: this is how marketing pros think.

So, given all this, is it surprising at all that the entrepreneur is the new rock star? The kids don’t want to be in bands. They want to be in startups. And this is more true for kids of the left than anyone else.

Marketing won. Socialism lost.

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*Note: For the kids tying to find themselves, I recommend Marty Neumeier’s Zag or maybe Blue Ocean Strategy. By now most companies have figured out they can’t differentiate on the standard corporate cliches like “quality”, “reliability”, “our people” or “innovation”, but the kids haven’t learned the same principle, which is partly why their branding is so inferior to that of the Fortune 500s. They haven’t yet gotten it through their heads that they can’t differentiate on the analogous personal branding cliches. Exotic sexualities and gender definitions are the “we are innovative” of youth self-branding. When everyone’s differentiating the same way, nobody is differentiated. Cutting and other destructive habits also now fail to differentiate. Weakness positioning has become too common, too expected, and is all played out. I expect the current victim bubble to collapse soon. My recommendation is to do the opposite from the herd. Look into strength positioning strategies. Not many people are doing that right now. It’s harder, and harder is perennially unpopular.

 

Naive moralism

A naive moralist cannot discern the difference between his own moral views and justice, which adjudicates precisely between conflicting moral views, assuming the ultimate validity of none. Justice does not “privilege” any moralism over any other, but this view requires a capacity to put one’s own morality in pluralistic perspective, which is much harder than it sounds.

Naive moralism is not incompatible with hyper-awareness of naive realism — in fact, they might even belong together. A person who scoffs at self-evident facts, who knows the canon of cognitive biases by heart, is entirely capable of wholehearted belief in self-evident moral principles, for instance, fairness.

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Most talk of “privileging” privileges its own knowledge of what privilege is, how it works, who is and is not privileged, and what ought to be done to whom to redistribute unfairness and to establish justice. And it does so with privilege’s oldest trick:unconsciously privileging the assumptions and arguments it uses to demonstrate the objective truth of its claims.

Coalition of opposites

One group of individuals is systematically oppressed by another group of individuals. Two witnesses to the oppression are offended and moved to stop the injustice, but for opposite reasons.

The first witness sees the rights of individuals being violated by other individuals.

The second witness sees one group violating the other group’s right to equality.

What is the injustice?

For the first witness, the injustice is focused on the attempt to strip individuals of their status as citizens and to impose a different status upon them. In a liberal democracy only one category matters: citizen.

For the second witness, the offense is focused on the power imbalance between the two groups. Justice demands equality among groups.

When the two witnesses discuss the oppression, they seem to agree.

The first witness sees that the power imbalance between groups is what makes the oppression of individuals possible, and agrees with the second witness that this inequality between groups must end, but (and this is left unsaid) for the sake of the individuals whose rights are violated.

The second witness sees that the rights of individuals are being violated, and that no individual should be subjected to such indignities, but (and this is left unsaid) because no group is inferior to any other group.

Both witnesses agree that the oppressed should unite and stand together to oppose their unjust treatment. Isolated individuals cannot overcome the oppression of another group. Only individuals functioning as a group can effectively resist another group.

In the urgency of stopping the immediate oppression the two witnesses fail to notice that their differences are greater than their commonalities.

When the political conditions shift, the coalition fractures.

The first witness is shocked to discover that the second believes that all members of the oppressing category are responsible for the current crime and the entire history of oppression perpetrated by its category. The justifications are a drawn from the social sciences, but the moral impulses driving those justifications (the “motivated reasoning” as they say) are now far too close to those of the oppressors: individuals are understood as manifestations of a group, and never mind that such justifications are persuasive only to those who share that impulse, the truth is self-evident and everyone whose opinion matters sees this to be true — and now our group has the power to impose these categories.

The second witness is shocked to discover that the first witness wants to defend the rights of individuals to think whatever they want, even to believe in an essential inequality among groups, even to publicly state these opinions, even to state them with the intention of inflicting emotional distress on other groups, or even to try to persuade them of their own essential inferiority! What is not permitted is any effort, whether by an individual or group to violate any other individual’s rights.

Political Platonism

When one person commits a crime against another, a liberal habitually sees an individual criminal and an individual victim. You can conceptually thematize the parties involved in the crime and the nature of the crime itself in myriad ways, but ultimately it is an individual responsible for the action. Liberalism views the world in terms of responsible agents with specific rights, not as examples of categories.

Whenever I hear illiberals describe crimes, I hear something very different. An example of a category has done something bad to another example of a category, and it seems that the crime is viscerally felt as a manifestation of an enduring crime of one category against another. It seems to be some sort of political Platonism where what happens on Earth is just a reflection of the real events in Heaven acted out by archetypes who are the real villains and victims who matter.

Even our differences in choice of Heavenly ideals is the action of archetypes.

When a Liberal (in the popular vulgar sense) sees a crime of White against Black or Man against Woman, a Conservative sees Liberalism once again committing its crime against America. When a Conservative sees a crime of Foreigner against American or Muslim against Christian, a Liberal sees Conservatism once again committing its crime against equality.

Very few people feel individuality anymore. What we feel far more intensely is categories and concepts.

A literary friend of mine tells me that even our novels are no longer centered on individuality. Readers want moving tales about instances of categories suffering as their categories at the hands of instances of other categories.

And increasingly we see ourselves as manifestations of categories and concepts, and we take aggressive exception to anyone who does not.

Most of us have lost our taste for individuality — and we’re too busy, scattered and degraded to notice.

 

America’s new religion is Antiracism

John McWhorter has observed that America’s new religion is Antiracism:

…they have developed a new religion. That religion is antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.

For the most part, I agree with him, but, being a disagreeable type of person, of course I am compelled to split some hairs: What McWhorter describes in his article is not a religion, but a fundamentalism. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I consider fundamentalisms to be pseudo-religions that work against the purpose of religion. It would be more accurate to call fundamentalism an anti-religion.

This morning, talking with Susan about a paper on diversity and multiculturalism she is writing for one of her ESOL certification courses, I had an insight. I could never understand why, despite my efforts to study, wrestle with and actually practice pluralism in my daily life, the adherents of Antiracism I’ve known have rarely been interested in what I’ve learned or what I have to say on the subject of alterity. They usually just avoid conversation, but when I do engage them, they condescendingly speak to me as someone who doesn’t yet understand what they just know, without any trace of recognition that their assumption of epistemological privilege is both odd and unsupportable. I have put many hundreds more hours of work into understanding these issues than they have. Wouldn’t it make sense to at least entertain the possibility that these hundred hours produced something worthwhile? And given the difference in motivation to learn, can they really claim to care more than I do?

But now McWhorter has helped me see what is going on: this is a religion vs. fundamentalism conflict. This is how it always goes: There are the religious people who live their religion with their whole being — feel it, love it, breathe it, and allow it to soak into their lives and to transform them. And there are those who adopt and enforce the conventional opinions, customs, language, symbols, rituals and behavioral norms of the religion and assume all deviations from these conventions must be symptoms of defective faith, or even heresy. My genuine religious faith in Pluralism looks like heresy to Antiracist Fundamentalists.

And really, I see no less irony in the puritanical, inflexibility and intolerance toward doctrinal otherness of today’s multicultural monolith than I do in the hostile insularity most Christians make of Jesus’s teachings of transcendent love.

Slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions of interpersonal being

Wow, this post really sprawled out. It hits a lot of my enduring interests. I’m not sure it is suitable for reading. It might just be a personal journal entry written to myself. Feel free to eavesdrop if you wish, but I cannot promise it will make sense or yield any value.

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I listened to a fascinating Radio Open Source podcast on Hannah Arendt’s conception of evil, which ended with a wonderful discussion on empathy.

Jerome Kohn: Empathy is a fancy word or fancy theory that she argued passionately against. First of all she thought it was an impossible notion in the sense that it really means feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy, fellow feeling, is another thing. But empathy is the claim that you can actually feel what someone else is feeling. And for that Arendt found no evidence whatsoever. One could say it’s even the opposite of her notion of thinking from another person’s point of view. What you have to be able to do is to see a given issue from different points of view, to make it real. And then through those different points of view, with your own eyes, you don’t feel what the other person is feeling, you see what he is seeing through your own eyes, and then you can make a judgement. The more people you can take into consideration in this enlarged mentality, that actually is the foundation of reality for Arendt, the more valid your judgement will be.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Jerry’s exactly right. Hannah Arendt was always opposed to these slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions about what binds people to each other. And she felt very keenly that what really binds one person to another is a commitment to try to see the world from that person’s point of view with your own eyes. Not to subscribe to their point of view or to merge with their point of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. But looking at it with your own eyes, so that you can then, as it were, discuss it with them. Not merge with them in some way, but discuss it with them. She was all about discussion. Not empathy in that sentimental way.

Christopher Lydon (host): And yet, well, there are distinctions without huge differences in some way. To put oneself in another’s mind is the beginning of something important.

EYB: To think that you can put yourself in another’s mind in the beginning of a terrible arrogance which has tremendous consequences. It’s a difference with great consequences. People who think they that they can know what another person thinks or feel what another person feels are narcissistic.

CL: Well, ok, I don’t want to make a philosophical or an endless argument about it. Isn’t it the incapacity and the lack of interest in that perspective precisely what she found at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil, really?

JK: Well, no, it was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

EYB: Exactly. And these are very important distinctions.

This exchange is especially interesting to me for three reasons.

First: as a Human Centered Design researcher/strategist/designer, I am constantly telling people that I am in the “empathy business.” However, I have long been uncomfortable with the characterization of what I do as “empathy”. To characterize understanding another person subjectively as primarily a matter of experiencing how they feel misses the mark in a very Modernist way. (em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). While feelings are important to what I do, they are not the primary focus. I would prefer to characterize my work as concrete hermeneutics, but words like that do not fly in the flatlands of business where thinking lags a minimum of three philosophical generations behind. So, I’ve adopted “empathy” and accepted the inevitable misconceptions that attend it, because that’s what it takes to be understood at all by most people.

It is hardly surprising that I see things similarly to to Young-Bruehl and Kohn, because I belong to their tradition. Heidegger taught Arendt and Gadamer who both taught my favorite thinker Richard J. Bernstein. A Clifford Geertz quote from Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism has stayed with me as an anchor for my understanding of what a good human centered designer does.

Second, I think that when we see things this way, we tend to treat emotionally-oriented people who are very sensitive and sentimentally responsive to people around them as having some kind of monopoly on human understanding. In my experience, there are multiple stages of coming to understanding of another person, and a talent for sensing and responding does not always correspond with a talent for grokking the “logic” of other people’s worldviews, nor an ability to think, speak and create from another worldview. It takes a fairly vast range of talents to function pluralistically.

I think a lot of the political problems we are experiencing today result from shoddy and retrogressive philosophical conceptions of alterity (“otherness”), which still see understanding of other people as very literally empathic. To know what is going on with another person, we must ourselves have had the experiences and emotions that other person has had. In an effort to understand and to demonstrate our understanding we must induce emotions similar to theirs. Two consequences follow: 1) The one who understands must try to produce the right emotions, and this production of emotion is the demonstration of understanding, which leads to some fairly repulsive public displays of political sentimentality. 2) The one who is understood is put in a position of judging the authenticity of those emotional displays, which is more or less being given the role of arbitrary judge. And if the feelings of the understood is viewed as the central datum or a special kind of insight (being “woke”) into a political situation (typically gauging the degree of prejudicial unfairness, its impact on those victimized by that prejudice and what is required to rectify that unfairness) this amounts to extreme epistemological privilege. Only the victim of prejudice has access to the reality of the situation, and those who are not the victims are incapable of perceiving how they participate in the perpetration, so to use the charming the formulation of today’s hyper-just youngsters, it is their job to STFU and to accept the truth dictated to them. It never occurs to anyone within the power hierarchy of wokeness that there’s anything superior to all this illiberal mess to awaken to. There are philosophical worldviews that are more thorough, more comprehensive and more expansive than the dwarfish ideology of the popular left, but for all the reasons they are eager to point out to anyone who defies them, they are entirely incapable of seeing beyond the motivated reasoning of their own class interests. (This does not mean I think the popular right is any better. It is not. We are in a Weimaresque situation of resentful evil left idiocy vs paranoid evil right idiocy, with the reasonable voices shoved to the margins.)

Third, I’ve found myself misunderstood by many close friends on how I view relationships, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did a great job of capturing how people think I see them: a “slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notion about what binds people to each other.” I think the misunderstanding is rooted in this same conception of human understanding being primarily an emotional phenomenon. When my own ideal of marriage or of friendship is strained through the filter of today’s left worldview, it looks like a mystical merging of souls that arouses (and should arouse!) suspicions of domination and anxieties around loss of self. But any attempt I make to try to explain the difference between what I have in mind looks like, well, an attempt at philosophical domination and a threat to the selfhood of whoever is foolish enough to take it seriously. Who am I to tell someone something they don’t already know? And anyway, it smells very cultish to listen to someone claiming to know better than the public what is true and right. So, by the circular logic of the popular worldview of the left, it is superior to form one’s own individual opinion (never mind that this opinion on opinions is a product of an unexamined and manifestly broken worldview.)

Obviously, this means extreme alienation for anyone who adopts a sharply differing worldview that affirms the importance of collaboratively developing shared understandings with those around them. In an environment of extreme ideological conformity (with brutal social consequences for infractions) that exalts above all the importance of intellectual independence — but strictly within its own confined philosophical horizon — a philosophy of interdependence, of collaborative development of the very concepts one uses to form one’s opinions, and exalting a togetherness in shared worldview is marked for expulsion.

Anyway, what I really have in mind when I imagine ideal personal connections is, once again, that ideal sketched out by Bernstein, captured so well by Geertz, which I will now go ahead and re-re-quote.

…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.

And now I will quote myself:

“Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem…” or knowing how to design for them.

A design that makes sense, which is easy to interact with and which is a valuable and welcome addition to a person’s life is proof that this person is understood, that the designer cared enough to develop an understanding and to apply that understanding to that person’s benefit.

A good design shares the essential qualities of a good gift.

The kind of merging I have in mind is just sharing a worldview and using it together to live together, what Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher) called a “lifeworld“. I’ve called the process “enworldment”.

The merging aspect of this ideal enters the stage through my belief (shared, I believe by Process Theology) that souls are universe-sized. The pragmatic consequence of what one means when one says “everything” is the scope and density of one’s soul. To enworld* with another is to bring two “everythings” into harmonious relationship, and to begin to function more like a culture than two isolated individuals within this isolating milieu so many of us, without ever choosing, without even knowing we had a choice, inhabit as prisoners of our own destitute freedom.

(Note: that “enworld” link above is a pretty old post, and I’m not sure right now how much of it I still agree with. It makes me want to engage my old self in dialogue and try to discover how much common ground we have. How enworlded am I with my 9-years-ago self?)

Bernard Loomer

From Bernard Loomer’s “Two Conceptions of Power”:

The world of the individual who can be influenced by another without losing his or her identity or freedom is larger than the world of the individual who fears being influenced. The former can include ranges and depths of complexity and contrast to a degree that is not possible for the latter. The stature of the individual who can let another exist in his or her own creative freedom is larger than the size of the individual who insists that others must conform to his own purposes and understandings.

Under the relational conception of power what is truly for the good of any one or all of the relational partners is not a preconceived good. The true good is not a function of controlling or dominating influence. The true good is an emergent from deeply mutual relationships.

Perfect. I’m going to read as much Loomer as I can.

This concept of linear/unilateral power and relational power is going to be valuable.

Critical reverence

In Torah study my fellow students regard our heritage with a distinctive attitude that can be characterized as critical reverence. We are horrified by much of what the Israelites did in God’s name, but we know that this is where we, who now judge, learned our judgment. Without them, we would not be in a position to see how we would prefer them to have behaved. And we can only hope our children and all of posterity will regard us with the same attitude, gratefully accepting what we bequeath but — even better, refusing to repeat our mistakes.

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The Left and the Right seem to agree on at least one thing: they both think that criticism and reverence are incompatible. If you revere, you cannot criticize. If you can criticize, you can no longer revere. This is a side-effect of philosophical impoverishment. True reverence and criticism are mutually dependent. Criticism without reverence (or respect) is condemnation. Reverence without criticism is delusional fanaticism.

When the Left learns to revere as it criticizes, and the Right learns to criticize as it reveres we will be prepared to reconcile and recommence our national project.

Autumn 2011, when the canary died

A friend texted me a link to an article by “Authoritarian by Instinct“. What follows is a somewhat edited (and hyperlinked up) version of my SMS avalanche of a response.

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I was about to say that I’m surprised at the naivety of so many liberal critics, and that this reminded me of my frustrations with Mounk… Has he not read Arendt?

The whole thrust of authoritarianism is to replace all principles, all laws, all ideological systems with the arbitrary rule of one person, whose momentary intuitive impulse is all-powerful! We think of intuition as this lovely creative thing that just wants to generate beauty and novelty in the world, and in a sense this is true, but not nearly true enough…

I discovered the dark side of intuition when I went to work at an ad agency after toiling for a decade under the “rigid” methodologies of  User Centered Design (UCD) consultancies.

I was the crazy intuitive guy at my UCD jobs — the guy with the big bold ideas. I thought the free-wheeling intuition-friendly air of an ad agency would be refreshing…

Wrong. The ad world was crushing. Layers of creative directors with more organizational clout were intuitively deputized to creatively intuit and dictate to their subordinates what was best. The pace and ethos made appeals practically impossible.

I came to realize that UCD — or as many of us have decided to broaden it — Human Centered Design (HCD) — might slow us way down, and require us to articulate, justify, experiment and demonstrate the virtues of our ideas, but it gives everyone a chance to contribute and to shape what the team is doing.

These processes and requirements meet exactly the same resistance in the workplace as liberal institutions meet out in the public political sphere. Slow. Expensive. Formalistic. Uninspiring.

This is not a coincidence. Human Centered Design is liberalism for the workplace. HCD designers have managed to institutionalize liberalism on teams, in departments, even in whole companies. It has everything to do using the scientific method, government by assent, respect for reason and adherence to processes that make reason possible.

So, here comes my “design as political canary in the coal mine” story that I compulsively retell to anyone who’ll listen, and to many who won’t:

The reason I have been so upset about the state of design is that in 2011 — autumn of 2011, to be exact — all the liberal progress I’d been seeing in my field suddenly reversed. Three things: 1) Steve Jobs died (October 5, 2011), 2) Lean Startup was published (September 13, 2011), 3) front-end frameworks, like Bootstrap (August 19, 2011 and Foundation (September 2011), hit the development world.

All three of these factors marginalized design in crucial ways that have brought the digital water we users swim in to a rolling boil.

There’s a reason why our digital lives are immersed in pleasureless turmoil. Remember back when we would count the hours to the next Apple product release, and get excited when we saw that an upgrade was available to the software tools of choice? Now it all makes us uneasy, because it means yet more disruption where we really need stability. New features are more likely to make things harder for us than improve our lives.

This is not an inevitable effect of the world getting more complex. It is a direct effect of design’s marginalization. Engineers now run the show, and they’re into the Thing they make, as opposed to the experiences real-life people have interacting with things in real-life situations. This is what designers do, and it is why we use the language of “experience” when speaking about our practices. They are all focused on getting at the experiences people have.

But now the language of design has been appropriated and emptied. Engineers call their Things “Experiences”. When they hack together a front-end using a front-end framework, they call this “designing the User Experience”.

People who lack understanding of the radical paradigm shift (meant literally, in the Kuhnian sense) at the root of HCD — a root that could not be more at odds with the objectivist Industrial Age paradigm — are blind to the relapse to which we’ve succumbed. They never made the shift anyway, and these new retro-practices make more sense to the engineering mindset.

And sadly, this relapse has spread into politics, hitting both left and right extremes of the political spectrum, each feeding on conflict with the other, and is rapidly closing in on the center. We have the brainless sophistication of children trained by disillusioned Marxists to perceive the world in the terms of racist, sexist and other identitarian sociologies (ironically called “hermeneutics” of this and that) facing off against aggressively anti-intellectual thugs. Liberalism is now widely disparaged and declared vapid, naive and obsolete by the very people who are blind to what Liberalism is, how it is done and why it is so important.

Hopefully, soon everyone will have known all these things I’m saying all along, and I will retroactively have not been the only one freaking out about the loss of liberal democracy, the loss of design and seeing very vividly the connection between the two. Until then, stuck in this present, I am isolated in my own obsessive interests and worries.

 

Update on my “LEF” political model

Since my last update on my “newish political model” I have continued trying it out on different political positions and playing with new ways to conceive the various dimensions, and I’ve developed a slightly new (and, I think, improved) way of thinking about it. The difference is in the way I am thinking about the Fraternity dimension.

If you remember my descriptions of Liberty and Equality, you might want to skip to Fraternity.

Liberty (individual autonomy): freedom of individuals versus authority of collectivities. Who determines how individuals are to think, feel and act?

+) an individual alone determines individual being;

-) the collectivity determines individual being;

0) at the center an individual determines individual being within reasonable limits set by a collectivity.

What kinds of collectivity are we talking about? According to this model any group capable of imposing its will on an individual is considered a collectivity capable of curtailing individual liberty. This differs from Political Compass, which views liberty as curtailed primarily by the federal government.

And what are reasonable limits? That is a matter of perpetual debate and dialogue to be continuously re-determined by Centrists.

Equality (power distribution): desirability of equality versus desirability of rank. How much disparity of power among individuals is acceptable and ideal?

+) each individual is given the same power and resources as every other;

-) each individual is given different amounts of power and resources according to rank;

0) at the center every individual is guaranteed a fair opportunity to acquire power and resources.

What kinds of rank are we talking about? According to this model every value system ranks differently and imposes rank according to its own logic. Societies can rank-stratify by family, class, wealth, race, education, talent, temperament, party membership — anything to which the word “deserve” can be applied. This differs from Political Compass, which casts equality issues in terms of government regulation.

And what is fair? That is a matter of perpetual debate and dialogue to be continuously re-determined by Centrists.

Fraternity (membership in political order ): essentially universal membership versus essentially exclusive obligation.

+) membership in a universal political order is automatically extended to all of humanity;

-) membership in a particular political order is restricted to a group defined by involuntary essential characteristics ;

0) at the center potential membership in a particular political order is universal, and actual membership is entirely voluntary (and not defined by essential characteristics).

 

Illiberal delusions of depth

In general, the social sciences teach us more about societies of social scientists than it does society in general.

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Show me an example of political or sociological “realism” — a claim of inalterable facts — and I’ll show you an ideologue with an investment in society being some particular way. It might even be the key to an intellectual’s soul.

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Once the foundations of liberalism erode away, and public opinion starts asking hard questions of public truths grown complacent through luxuriation in universal acceptance, the truth of liberal values are anything but self-evident. They epitomize vapid conventionality, and all-too-conveniently, most of the people who continue to uphold them do so through inertia and timidity.

In times like these it almost requires a radical’s personality to excavate the layers of pious dust and quotidian debris that settle over generally accepted moral facts and to burrow into the ground where the wellsprings of liberal morality still flow clear. It turns out, these apparent self-evident (that is, long unexamined) moral principles, such as the ultimate value of the individual, the importance of free speech, thought and action, the exercise of reason, and above all, pluralism are not in the least self-evident once they are flooded in long-suppressed illiberal light and tag-team interrogated by left-wing and the right-wing inquisitors.

Fact is, liberalism was never the natural and inevitable state of society once tyrants are removed from the scene, but rather humankind’s hardest-won accomplishment. But the belief that liberalism exists with mere removal of impediments has led to the neglect of liberal education, and especially a self-aware philosophical explanation of morality.

Instead, the last several generation were rigorously trained to emote on demand: to sympathize as intensely as possible at sacred signifiers of its tribe (generally of categories of people) and to produce anger in equal amounts at the tribe’s categorical enemies, who are those who fail to produce the requisite emotions at key symbolic stimuli. Every tribe can produce its own elaborate supporting theories, including its own homegrown theories on why the other tribe’s theories are nonsensical and the result of nefarious influences.

And bystanders who decided to spare themselves all indoctrination and believe themselves independent observers fared no better. In fending off miseducation, they fend off necessary education as well, and fall into ideological traps they are ill-prepared to detect or to escape once they learn whatever “the truth” their habitual reading conceptually habituates them to understand.

At this point I am interested neither in expounding nor defending my views for people who are by nature or second-nature unsympathetic to liberalism. Instead, I plan to continue my private project of exposing the wellsprings of liberalism to those who have already learned to love them. And I do mean learn to love, because love of liberalism is either learned or latent, never accessible to naive or misled minds.

But it is true: as a liberal I do owe my fellow-citizens an account. But I do not owe it on their philosophical terms or their schedule. These are the things you learn when you work at education, which is another word for allowing learning to change you.

Mark Lilla on the trajectory of ideologies

From Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: “Successful ideologies follow a certain trajectory. They are first developed in narrow sects whose adherents share obsessions and principles, and see themselves as voices in the wilderness. To have any political effect, though, these groups must learn to work together. That’s difficult for obsessive, principled people, which is why at the political fringes one always finds little factions squabbling futilely with each other. But for an ideology to really reshape politics it must cease being a set of principles and become instead a vaguer general outlook that new information and events only strengthen. You really know when an ideology has matured when every event, present and past, is taken as confirmation of it.”

Mark Lilla on political thought today

From Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind (2nd edition): “Never since the end of World War II, and perhaps since the Russian Revolution, has political thinking in the West seemed so shallow, so clueless. We all sense that ominous changes are taking place in Western societies, and in other societies whose destinies will very much shape our own. Yet we lack adequate concepts and even vocabulary for describing the world we now find ourselves in. More worrisome still, we lack awareness that we lack them. A cloud of willful unknowing seems to have settled on our intellectual life. This, it seems to me, is the most significant development since The Reckless Mind was published [on September 9, 2001], and the first thing we need to understand about the present.”

I cannot wait to read Lilla’s latest book, The Once and Future Liberal, due August 15, 2017.