Partisan Identity and the Death of Representative Governance

 

There is a danger in thinking of ourselves as political and—more precisely—partisan animals. A big chunk of our modern political derangement flows directly from incorporating ideas like “liberal” and “conservative” into our individual identities. As I write in an essay at MerionWest, this is dry kindling for the spread of partisan discord.

On either side of the political spectrum, discourse is dominated by unhinged ideologues whose voices are amplified by their reactionary opposites and an attention-hungry media that feasts on controversy. The most salient opinions are often those most thoroughly divorced from discernible reality. From pole to pole, nuance and clarity are actively derided. On the political right, a pandemic has become a hub for belligerence and conspiracy theories. On the political left, race, gender, and power have suddenly transformed into religious fetishes, and dissent has become an act of intolerable violence. The political arena is no longer a contest of ideas, but of identities.

None of this reflects a political reality anyone would esteem. And most of us—regardless of how we voted in the last election—recognize this. But because the idea of left and right, of liberal and conservative, has seeped so deeply into our brains and characterizes so much of our political discourse, many of us are left fumbling for fresh traction. There is something kooky—even dangerous—going on in the shrill fringes. It is true wherever you look. Unfortunately, our way of understanding ourselves as political animals does not leave us with a lot of options. Open dissent from political orthodoxy risks excommunication—from friends, from family, from professional affiliations.

Read more at MerionWest.

Thinking Thoughts About Gods and Science in Other Venues

I recently wrote a couple of brief op-ed for the website Atheist Republic, an online community for folks inclined toward secular thinking.

I figured I would link to them below. Follow the links for the full text.

Religious Belief is Hard Work 

Religious belief stands in belligerent indifference to information about what the world is like. It persists in spite of nature, not because of it. The scales started to fall from eyes as I developed a deeper and more expansive understanding of science. In a panicked state of youthful naivety, I tried to justify my religious beliefs despite the fact that they were contradicted by many of the more elegant and substantive truths derived from science. It was an exhausting struggle.

Aspirational Atheism

…an embrace of reason need not stop at recognition of and resistance to the harms of superstitious belief. It can also inform our sense of what we want for ourselves and our fellow humans. Reason leads us to reject religion, but it also leads us to recognize our shared humanity. It leads to the eradication of disease and the recognition of individual human rights. Embracing reason is the groundwork for unleashing human potential and building a world increasingly amenable to the business of human thriving.

On the Value of Work

Historian James Livingston has written an interesting piece for Aeon. In it, he asks “what is the value of work?” – a question given added urgency by the fact that, hanging just over the horizon, is a future where advances in AI and automation may wipe out a huge segment of job market.

The conviction that there is a clear correspondence between effort and reward probably emerged on the pre-industrial American frontiers. Out in the hinterlands, the connection between hard work and economic return is always obvious. If you’re a farmer, the amount of food you harvest follows directly from the amount of seeds you sow, the work you put into building irrigation systems, and the time you spend tending your crops. Ranchers would have had more beef to sell if they spent more time watching their herds. For a fur trapper, supplies and money varied in proportion to the number of hides he could sell back to a company at the end of the season. Gold prospectors got more money out of mining more gold.

Today, the relationships are considerably more nebulous. Those who have had a lot of luck in life are quick to point to the efforts that preceded it. No doubt, those are causally efficacious, but they are hardly comprehensively explanatory. There are plenty of people who work hard and go nowhere. Likewise, there are even a few people who become wealthy beyond any coherent sense of proportion to the value they add to society. Was the work Lloyd Blankfein did in 2015 really worth over $23 million? Are there products circulating the globe whose value has been increased by $71.5 billion dollars by the efforts of Warren Buffett? Those questions are clearly rhetorical, because the objective answer is a flat, unequivocal “no”.

To argue otherwise is to imbue markets with a sort mystic omnipotence, suggesting that the prices that emerge from economic transactions are always and everywhere reflective of their true value. Which is pure, unadulterated nonsense. There’s simply no way for economic agents to account for all the information that kind of computation would require. As a result, situations emerge where subsidiaries achieve market valuations in excess of their parent companies, or where an 86 year old man is worth $71.5 billion dollars despite never having invented a world-altering technology, discovered a lifesaving medical treatment, or even sold a piece of art. That people have profited immensely from grossly unethical – sometimes even outright criminal behavior – without ever suffering the slightest consequence suggests that the myth that human value is somehow reflected or enhanced by wages and net worth is not only misguided, but laughably deranged.

Once, decades – maybe even centuries – ago, under certain conditions at the fringes of the industrialized world, that was true. Not any longer. Some people work hard and do pretty well for themselves. Others work just as hard and accrue riches greater than the GDPs of entire nations. Some work even harder – two jobs and brutal swing shifts – and can’t save enough to retire or afford health insurance. Desperate to preserve that crusty, ramshackle American ethos of rugged individualism and the self-made man, some might interject that surely, while it is possible to succeed tremendously or fail miserably despite your best efforts, it is also true that it is impossible to succeed at all without at least putting your shoulder to the wheel in the first place. For the most part, that’s probably true – but I would remind that misty-eyed romantic that there are people alive and wealthy today because a rich man’s sperm fertilized a rich woman’s egg – generations ago.

Speech and Expression on the University Campus: Insights from a Concerned Millenial

Let’s be clear at the outset. The world is populated by the victims of injustice. Aside from an incredibly small coterie of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people, it’s difficult to find many individuals whose family tree is not somewhere populated by people who have been oppressed, marginalized, or brutalized by the privileged and powerful. Examples of vicious, criminal exploitation and fiery intergroup conflict are littered across the reaches of history. Deeper still, into prehistory – written in depressed skull fractures and broken bones and embedded projectile points that tell the story of some anonymous group’s inability to recognize the members of another as fully human.

Most of the time, when a person claims to have been the target of racism or sexism or ethnocentrism, politically or economically disenfranchised by a culture indifferent to their experience, it’s worth taking them seriously. But there is a segment of Western intellectual culture that has inadvertently begun to corrupt these legitimate grievances into an engine for authoritarian control. Rightly recognizing the colossal disparities in opportunity scattered across modern social, political, and economic landscapes, they seek to champion equality by creating strict parameters on the bounds of permissible speech and rigorously silencing dissent. Laudable intentions aside, they have launched a campaign that begs for resistance from those who prize intellectual liberty and cherish diversity.

Nowhere are the battle lines more clear than on university campuses, where social justice warriors (SJWs) are pressing a hard front against what they perceive as a system that has consistently marginalized minority and fringe groups as a matter of institutional design. Universities are, for them, mechanisms for neoliberal indoctrination, where students are taught to perpetuate a destructive social and economic order.

Generationally speaking, most of these people are my peers – millennials who have been taught to frame the world in terms of narratives and identity. It’s impossible to understand their motivations without recognizing this. Whether they realize it or not (and many of them don’t), they are acting on the tradition of idealist thought that begat postmodernism, a pernicious school of intellectual pedantry wherein subjective experience is given primacy as arbiter of truth. Grossly misguided on a number of fronts, the postmodern tradition nonetheless exerts a powerful influence on the reasoning of those who seek to foment social change by either co-opting or reframing what they see as the prevailing narrative.

This places them in conflict with defenders of classical liberalism, who view truth as something discoverable. In this view, reality has a singular nature and there are objective truths about the world that can be uncovered through criticism, discourse, observation, and experimentation. Importantly, this goes beyond the realm of physical reality and hard scientific fact. Even in the social world, there are conditional facts. These take the form of statements like, given goals A, B, and C, social system x is better than z and y. Classical liberalism sees progress as not only possible, but desirable. Necessarily, this breed of liberalism celebrates diversity, debate, and boundless inquiry.

Sparks fly between classical and “postmodern” liberalism when it comes to setting up the conditions of discourse. Given their view on truth, adherents to the classical school oppose most limits on expression. Absent forms of speech and lines of inquiry that lead directly to measurable harm, everything ought to be on the table. This sets the stage for reciprocal patterns of criticism and feedback that, however gradually, tend to improve our understanding of how the world works – and the lives of those who live in it. In the postmodern view, discourse is a matter of narrative – it’s about who can do the best job of disseminating their ideas about how the world does or should work. No one is searching for truth because they don’t think truth – in the strict sense of objective, universally applicable facts – exists. Instead, they’re trying to get their personal truth the highest platform and loudest megaphone. Not surprising, those sympathetic to this line of thinking are far more comfortable with tactics that involve limiting the speech of their ideological opponents. All they are doing is clearing a path for what they perceive to be a more righteous narrative.

To this end, trigger warnings, no-platforming, social and/or institutional sanctions on microaggressions, and concern over cultural appropriation are being wielded by social justice warriors on the postmodern left as instruments of social control. They seek to advance narratives of marginalization and disenfranchisement (that, I can’t stress this enough, are far too often rooted in reality) by erasing the narratives that have served to justify or perpetuate cycles of oppression and victimization. Correctly, they recognize that black Americans, transgendered people, immigrants, and other minorities have been systematically mistreated and abused by a dominant social and economic order that is, at best, indifferent to their concerns. Partial resolution and recompense, in their view, comes from stifling the vectors by which the ideas perpetuating that old order are spread.

For the postmodern left, to countenance – or even listen to – the expression of ideas that run contrary to their agenda is to legitimize them. Thus motivated, they frequently pressure university authorities to disinvite speakers who promote concepts and perspectives they feel are controversial or threatening. Failing this, they berate and harass speakers, hoping through sheer voluminous and cacophonous antagonism to prevent the expression of viewpoints that make them feel angry or uncomfortable.

In some cases, the targets of the postmodern left’s righteous ire are truly reprehensible people, trumpeting discredited or hideous notions about race and sex and inequality. Other times, their crimes are more mundane – regular folk who happen to have said something in poor taste. Bad manners – recently rebranded as “microaggressions” by the authoritarian left – are often sufficient grounds for excommunication from the realm of civil discourse. As a result, everyone from leftist comedians and former democratic politicians to right-wing ideologues have seen their opportunities to speak in university venues threatened or outright rescinded.

The problem with all of this is, chiefly, that using one person or group’s subjective experience of offense to curtail the speech of another makes the field of legitimate discourse an infinitely retreating frontier. In classical liberalism, the threshold between acceptable and unacceptable speech is clear. For the postmodern left, it’s nebulous and fluid, changing with the company. Taking their strategies for muffling opposition seriously immediately begs the question: who gets to decide who says what and where? If the answer is that everyone has a right to hit the mute switch on any ideas they find hurtful or distressing, limitations on speech become an unstoppable kudzu, spreading and choking expression into a pacified husk.

In my experience, members of the postmodern left recoil at the suggestion that their views on speech – and the range of mechanisms they feel are appropriate for protesting the speech of others – are tainted with such blatant authoritarian overtones. It is, according to the common refrain, about privilege and positionality. Privilege is, of course, highly germane to any discussion that touches on concerns over the politically and socially disenfranchised and positionality is just an obnoxiously pedantic repackaging of a childhood truism: different people have different perspectives.

Properly boiled down, concerns about privilege return to the problem of unequal access to the tools and mediums that help people promote their perspectives. This is, in the vernacular of the postmodern left, a worry over who has the capacity to get their narrative to the most ears. Granting the obvious, they are right to note that not everyone has equal access to platforms for spreading their ideas. For instance, I could get my ideas about the ills of society and their appropriate remedies to a lot more people if I had a TV show somewhere in the quagmire of banality that is the 24 hours news cycle. But, to the detriment of humanity, I don’t – which places me in a relationship of unequal access to those that do. By the same token, there are those against which my access to tools for self-expression looks remarkably privileged: I have the Internet in my home – not everyone does; I have a passing grasp of written English – not everyone does; I have a college education – not everyone does; and so forth.

According to the SJW playbook, expression is a zero-sum game. Those who have extraordinary access to the most effective means for disseminating their ideas do so because other people do not. Consequently, efforts to limit the speech of the privileged – and thereby curtail the spread of the narratives they promote – are considered valid ways of leveling the playing field. If everyone can’t have their own TV show on a major network, no one should. If this sounds puerile in the extreme, it’s because it is. Nevertheless, it is precisely the reasoning SJWs have deployed to justify their efforts to badger their ideological opponents into silence. Recently, the activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied used this line of thinking to argue that white novelists shouldn’t be permitted to convey the perspectives and experiences of minorities in their fiction. Doing so, in her mind, represents a form of theft. If a white author tells the story of a gay black woman, it spells fewer opportunities for gay black women to tell stories of their own.

The absurdity of this argument should be self-evident, but allow me to expound. It’s not that members of marginalized groups don’t deserve better, more effective platforms for sharing their perspectives. They do. But getting them to that point isn’t a matter of putting caps and boundaries on the expression of other people. My lack of a cable news show or book deal isn’t due to the fact Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have lucrative contracts in both domains. That’s not to say there aren’t people who face real – even insurmountable – institutional barriers. It just that getting the right people over those barriers, or – better still – permanently obliterating those barriers for everyone, isn’t a matter of erecting new obstacles for the people lucky enough to have been born with more privilege and power.

Positionality, on the other hand, fuels a brand of identity politics that inadvertently justifies and encourages authoritarianism. Because the postmodern left disavows the very notion of objective, discoverable truth, they are disturbingly sympathetic to the view that personal experience is the source of an infinitely expanding world of subjective truths. This opens the door to arguments of the form “as a person of identity A, I have access to experiences a, b, and c, creating opinion X, which – due to identity A – cannot be questioned.” The idea that anyone’s personal experience grants them unique access to an unassailable personal truth is, in no uncertain terms, absurd. Individual identity and personal experience gives one access to a unique opinion and perspective – open to endless challenge and dispute and, by metrics independent of their identity and experience, potentially wrong. Individual opinions on the causes of climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, or the roots of police brutality are immaterial to the hard reality of their causes, efficacy, and roots.

Privileging personal perspective in this way is not only logically fallacious, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Make no mistake – this line of thinking has the capacity to corrode the very foundations of civil society. If objective reality is either entirely unknowable or directly dependent on personal experience, all claims to truth are automatically granted equal validity. A postmodern SJW campaigning against racial discrimination or economic disenfranchisement has no basis for questioning the views of her ideological opponents. She can’t claim that the bigoted, hateful beliefs that motivate many of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters are wrong – the inferiority of black people, the chaos wrought be Mexican immigrants, and the inane white victimhood narrative aren’t ill-founded nonsense, they’re a part of that person’s lived experience and personal truth. It would be surprising if most SJWs did not find this line of argument repellent, but it is implicit in their worldview. If you think truth is subjective and “positionality” grants a person special access to distinct, unquestionable realities, you can’t claim that a member of the Aryan Brotherhood’s opinion on white superiority or a Wall Street hedge fund managers opinions on economic equality are unfounded. You’ve abdicated your entire basis for evaluation by rejecting the notion of objective, discoverable truth.

Paradoxically, this is problem of privilege on all fronts. It’s difficult to spot a person pleading for trigger warnings or bemoaning the proliferation of microaggressions from a gutter. These are concerns for people who attend liberal arts classes in a rich, modern, industrialized country. Imagine a person complaining about the apparent misuse of cultural emblems while struggling to get out from under a predatory title loan, forced into poverty because a stint in prison over a petty drug offense is strangling their job prospects, or starving to death in a third-world hovel. Certainly it’s not impossible, but it seems strikingly unlikely. The recent authoritarian push from the postmodern left is only possible in world where people have the luxury to fret on behalf of the truly marginalized and oppressed.

Likewise, it’s easier to disparage the notion of objective truth if you live in a social climate that distances you from the costs of your ignorance. Objective truths about the nature of illness and efficacy of vaccines have eliminated diseases and extended human lives. Living in a society where at least some influential segment of the population – including scientists, entrepreneurs, and some politicians – have consistently endorsed the notion of objective, discoverable truth and rigorously applied that perspective for generations has gone a long way toward buffering the postmodern left from the costs that would be entailed by taking their views seriously. They don’t have to worry about catching smallpox, have the ability to navigate unfamiliar cities via GPS, and maintain virtually limitless access to numerous outlets for instantly communicating their identity narratives because other people have accepted the idea of knowable reality and universal truth and made incredible scientific discoveries as a result. In the same vein, all social progress – representative government, the abolition of slavery, public education, women’s suffrage, civil rights, marriage equality, social assistance programs – emerge from the work of people who accept the proposition that there a conditional truths about how to build good societies.

Certainly there are students whose ethnicity or gender identity presents them with unique challenges. For me – a white, cisgendered male from a middle-class family – to criticize their activism places me on incredibly fraught ground. In many ways, I am privileged. But the notion that my privilege bars me from the conversation, fatally hobbling my capacity to offer constructive criticisms or a defense of cherished liberal values like unfettered speech and intellectual freedom is reprehensible. It suggests there is gulf between me and my fellow humans that is fundamentally unbridgeable, and that kind of thinking has never been a recipe for building a more just, inclusive society. Yeah, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a black man in routine traffic stop or a transgendered woman searching for a restroom in the rural American south. But these are graver instances of a more mundane truism, because I’ll never really know what it’s like to be my white, male neighbor either. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in trying. Putting bounds on what people can and cannot say seems like a reliable way to make sure no one ever succeeds.

Conversely,  no one’s individual identity or personal experience supplies them with exclusive access to information about the causes of or solutions to the world’s social, economic, and political woes. These are subjects for rigorous, boundless investigation and intense, open discussion. No one’s personal truth will solve racism, nor will putting limits on what varieties of personal experience and individual heritage  are considered germane to the debate.

By all means, advocate for the disenfranchised. That is immensely important work. Those who make it a driving force in their lives are worthy of immense admiration. But no part of a campaign to make the world as good as possible for the most possible people can entail a reduction in anyone’s capacity to express themselves or engage in their favored intellectual pursuits. Bigotry and oppression won’t be erased by silencing their advocates. They’ll be erased by open criticism and debate, by exposing people to other points of view and showing them the inherent humanity underneath superficially insurmountable cultural divides. It’s not about the triumph of individual identity narratives. It’s about the triumph of a single, inescapable truth – that all human lives are inherently valuable – and making that truth manifest in the lives of more than just the socially and economically privileged.

Accepting that aim necessarily entails accepting that there is still a hell of a lot of work to be done. It doesn’t entail establishing endlessly malleable strictures on who can contribute and a priori constraints on what types of contributions are useful. That’s not a recipe for utopia, it’s a recipe for misery. Progress demands accepting the truth of our shared humanity and convincing people that progress entails maximizing the happiness and well-being of all humans. Then we can set about the business of discovering how to best achieve that end – which, it turns out, is a matter of measurable fact, not infinite subjective opinion.

OFFENSIVE

I couldn’t find the identity of whoever created this dandy little flow chart (whoever you are, thanks), but I leave it here in honor of all the SJWs who will ignore everything I’ve written here, then tell me to check my privilege and think of other people’s positionality.

What Do You Know for Certain? If You’re Trying to be Rational, Absolutely Nothing

People often greatly overestimate the ease and accessibility of rational decision making. Most choices – from where to eat for dinner to what to buy with disposable income, from who to vote for in presidential elections to what ideas to accept as good explanations for natural phenomena – are not based on a logical assessment of the available facts. On a proximate level, most people do not have enough information to reliably anchor a process of rational analysis. But more fundamentally, most people lack the combination of intellectual fortitude, integrity, and humility to admit that they are wrong, and – on a more rudimentary level – unsure. Uncertainty is the cornerstone of rational decision making. Those unwilling to shoulder the burden of perpetual doubt are forever hobbled in their ability to coolly and reasonably evaluate the relationships between claims and evidence.

Of course, even those willing to accept the reality of ubiquitous uncertainty are not immune from the pitfalls of emotional reasoning, limited information, and practical time constraints. Emotional preferences are a critical ingredient in any process of decision making. This fact is inescapable. What we “feel” about things often matters as much as what we “think” about them. It is also true that people rarely have access to a table set with all relevant information, nor is it reasonable to expect anyone to have the cognitive capacity to fully encompass it all even if they did. Viewed properly, perfectly rational analysis is a mirage – a fiction of Platonic form.

Nevertheless, those willing to nurture a sense of doubt can, at the very least, aspire to rationality. For the doctrinaire and dogmatic, rationality is a hopeless dream. Those who claim to know, absent any and all provisionality, that a certain perspective is best – that their religion is true, that their favorite “-ism” (capitalism, socialism, feminism etc.) represents the best way to view and structure the world – are signally incapable of intelligently assessing whether or not their ideas are actually useful reflections of anything that exists in the world.

Which is not to say one can’t be more or less confident about this or that idea. One can – and must – deploy an unequal distribution of confidence regarding different claims about the nature of the world. But only – as Descartes argued centuries ago – if one is willing to start from a place where all claims have been reduced (at least in principle) to targets of open and honest inquiry. This much is obvious. The more important point relates to how one treats his or her beliefs going forward. No one should hold a view in such high regard, imbued with such a high level of confidence, that they are unwilling to drop it in the face of newer, more reliable information.

All of this begs an important question. Perhaps you’ve already guessed it: how realistic is it to expect people to behave this way, to display this kind of zen detachment toward cherished ideas? The answer, in most cases, is not very. Yet there is value in the striving. The very attempt to apply this kind of balanced skepticism and uncertainty elevates one’s ability to fruitfully evaluate information well above that of anyone mired in a false sense of certitude. The very essence of absolute certainty is irrevocable irrationality, rooted in crass braggadocio or grasping emotionalism. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is not only an expression of humility, it is an accurate reflection of the kinds of knowledge we can realistically hope to attain, giving us the best possible angle from which to test ideas against evidence.

Doubt is the quintessence of rationality.

Trophy Hunting the Trophy Hunters – Why the Outrage of Digital Mobs Sets a Dangerous Precedent

Johann Eckstein's (1791) depiction of a mob burning Joseph Priestley's home.

Johann Eckstein’s (1791) depiction of a mob burning Joseph Priestley’s home.

Trophy hunting has recently become a sociopolitical lightning rod. With the high profile cases of Walter Palmer and Sabrina Corgatelli circulating through the headlines and echoing across social media, people are taking note of a form of recreation whose propriety is in need of serious evaluation. To the extent that this has drawn attention to issues of sportsmanship, fair chase, and conservation, it has been a positive development.

However, these developments have also cast light on something rather ugly. Clamoring for justice and retribution, denizens of the internet’s most popular social media platforms have allowed their understandable feelings of disgust and outrage to coalesce into reactionary mobs. While I can sympathize with the underlying sentiment – the feeling that what these people have done is hideous and reprehensible – the response has been altogether baffling.

Make no mistake: this type of behavior sets a precedent whose sinister implications are myriad. The potential for ideological allies to cohere into frenzied mobs – posting people’s personal information, calling for their termination at their place of employ – whenever they catch a whiff of dissension is something everyone should look at with sickening unease. The winds of righteous indignation can be rather indiscriminate. What sates one person’s lust for justice stands to infringe on another’s ability to achieve the same.

The signal fact that nothing good has ever come from acquiescing to the demands of mobs should not be casually swept aside when you happen to find yourself agreeing with the base sentiments that stimulate a given mob’s rancor. Would it not seem an affront to the ideals of individual liberty and freedom of expression if Christians began to demand the termination of vociferous atheists? Would it seem appropriate if conservatives clogged the social media account of an organization upon learning that one of their employees had recently had an abortion?

People will sometimes do things we don’t agree with. There will even be times when it might be possible to pose a strong argument that those things are unethical. But the idea that anytime someone offends the boundaries of someone else’s ideological sensibilities is a time we can expect the formation of digital witch hunts, bent on driving their targets from their place of work and leaving them no quarter anywhere in the public sphere, is truly abhorrent.

People should feel free to debate ideas – even contentiously, when civility seems beyond reach. They should not, however, feel it their right to foist their ideas on others through the brute force of mob outrage. There are far more productive means of combating nefarious behaviors like trophy hunting.

For instance, perhaps you might consider pouring all that emotional energy into an email to your congressman, demanding a ban on the import of trophies. Or maybe give a few bucks – as much as you can – to a reputable conservation agency and do your part in undermining the economic incentives associated with trophy hunting. Maybe the World Wildlife Fund, the National Geographic Society, or the National Wildlife Federation. It might not be a sure cure for your raised hackles, but it will definitely do more to help preserve the species the opponents of trophy hunting are concerned about protecting than getting a few individuals fired.

Just don’t make it your mission to become the cosmic hand of justice. That’s never worked out well for anybody.

Johann Jacob Wick's (1585) depiction of the burning of three witches in Switzerland.

Johann Jacob Wick’s (1585) depiction of the burning of three witches in Switzerland.