Monday, 9 May 2016

Please argue with me about reality

I have been remiss. I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half years now, and I think I’ve mentioned twice, in passing, the guy who’s guided my thinking more than any single other person on the internet. That would be Mark Rosenfelder, or Zompist as he calls himself online. He has a blog, which you’ll see on my sidebar, but that’s mostly about computer games. The essays on his website are much more interesting. A large part of it is devoted to a fantasy world he’s created, which may or may not be your thing – it’s more detailed by now than Middle-Earth. But Rosenfelder is also a sophisticated political thinker, and that’s where this blog post starts.

Recently Rosenfelder posted a piece called The Morality of Liberalism. It’s a follow-up to one from four years ago, simply titled Liberalism – which goes to show that Rosenfelder writes like me. (I will finish the Imponderable series some day...) Liberalism was mainly about why the political philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors was pragmatically better than the one which has prevailed since Ronald Reagan’s presidency; the recent essay is about why it’s also morally better. I can find very little to disagree with, and hence write about, in either one. I’m just about reduced to nitpicking side details like this:

Some researchers claim that liberals aren’t motivated by feelings of moral disgust, but I disagree. Liberals think incidents like these are disgusting. Racism is viscerally wrong, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

I take this to be a reference to Jonathan Haidt, who doesn’t actually say that liberals, as people, aren’t motivated by disgust. The moral instinct is cross-wired with the disgust response; that’s a feature of most human brains, liberal or conservative. What Haidt says is that liberal moral philosophy doesn’t begin with disgust. Things like racism are disgusting because they are immoral, but nothing is immoral because it is disgusting.

Haidt contrasts this with the conservative stance (which Rosenfelder himself attributes to a fear of modernity) that most sexual practices are immoral not because they harm anybody but because they somehow contaminate some undefinable thing called “purity”. For reasons I do not understand, human sexuality, like morality, is cross-wired with disgust. Likewise, many conservatives oppose immigration and ethnic diversity not because there is anything objectively wrong with Them Over There but because, I don’t know, cultures are like wet paint and if you mix the colours up you lose them, or something.

But, like I said, side detail. The real reason I sat down to write this was because of a political-studies lecture I take notes for on Thursdays. The course is titled “Global Political Economy”, and the lecturer substantially agrees with what Rosenfelder says in the two Liberalism essays. The third quarter of the twentieth century was an era of increasing equality and rapid economic growth, with the market held in check by regulation, and tax-funded social benefits keeping things safe for humans. And then from the Reagan era onward we saw the return of market utopianism and the dismantlement of the welfare state, with a consequent ballooning of inequality and poverty.

The main difference between them? Rosenfelder uses the word “liberal” for the Rooseveltian welfare state. Our lecturer uses it for the Reaganite market-utopians.

I read a lot of internet political commentary in one form or another. Most of it these days is from my general region of the political spectrum, so that I don’t lie awake all night coming up with counter-arguments. I can cope with the heat that political debates generate – when they’re about substantive issues. What gets my goat is when people get into capslock-matches over nothing but words. Rosenfelder and this lecturer are both thoughtful people, who wouldn’t be taken in by that. But I can just see two people, one a POLS student at Otago and one a Rosenfelder fan, getting into a rancorous quarrel over “liberalism” without ever noticing that they’re on the same side.

Like more of my philosophy than I care to admit, I learned this principle from Rosenfelder himself:

A correspondent tried to define libertarianism at me the other day. Naturally, I didn’t stand for that nonsense.
People love to work out definitions, as if this told them something about the world. In Understanding Comics, to use a neutral example, Scott McCloud defines comics as juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence blah blah blah. It’s nice to say what you’re going to talk about, but it would have been simpler and no less accurate just to enumerate: “I’m going to talk about comics, but I won’t be talking about single images or animated cartoons.”
He borrows this method from academics, who love to begin by defining their subject. Generally you’d might as well skip to Chapter Two, where they’ll forget about their own definition and start to actually talk about things.
When it comes to political terms, definitions are little more than propaganda. Libertarians like to talk about “freedom” – with a very idiosyncratic definition of “freedom” such that if you can’t leave your house because the roads are privatized and you can’t get a job because the employers don’t care to offer a living wage, you are enjoying absolute “freedom”. If you accept this, they can then paint their opponents as enemies of “freedom”.
Anyone can play this game; for instance, I can define liberals as people who are for prosperity, liberty, and justice. Naturally, then, anyone who’s not a liberal is for poverty, slavery, and oppression.
Mark Rosenfelder, “Never define”

Our perceptions are not determined by our language (contrary to postmodernist claims), but we do use language to decide how to categorize the world, sometimes even when it clashes with reality. An example: apparently, wherever in the world a Medical School and a Dental School share a building, the corridor joining them is colloquially known as “the Time-Tunnel” – the dental students are about a century behind. Dentists just don’t get the respect, nor the funding, that doctors do. Now, by any rational standard, if an optometrist is an “eye doctor” then a dentist is a “mouth doctor”. But we don’t call dentists doctors; we speak of “doctors and dentists”. That contentless verbal distinction has consigned at least four generations to needless lifelong oral health problems.

So when Rosenfelder heads a section of his essay “Capitalism is . . . OK I guess”, that’s when I have to write a response instead of simply posting a link to him on Facebook. Because I know I have a mild allergy to the word “capitalism”, which I share with my sociopolitical tribe. I have to be very careful, when arguing about “capitalism”, to be sure I’m responding to the substance and not merely to a label. Under this heading Rosenfelder goes on to say

Corporations will put filth in your food, defraud you, poison the environment, and avoid paying a living wage if they can get away with it. Capitalism needs activist consumers, workers willing to organize, a nosy media, and a strong government to make it work for the population as a whole...
If you have some radical ideas besides “throw out everything” . . . I’m not necessarily against them, and I might even be convinced. My personal bugbear is the CEO system: I think we’ve kept monarchical rule in corporations long after realizing that it’s a terrible system for governments.

If you’re wondering how someone could put all that under the heading “Capitalism is OK”, Rosenfelder points out that

Other folks, of course, think that capitalism is evil. But you know, working alternatives are hard to come by. Premodern societies were miserable for everyone except the elite. Fascism and communism were disasters... Anarchism is at best untried, and at worst seems completely unprepared to handle human violence and oppression.

The system Rosenfelder favours would run on private property and open markets, and thus meets the minimum diagnostic criteria for capitalism as used by our POLS lecturer. But if we ditch “monarchical rule in corporations” we’re looking at an arrangement where the working class controls the means of production, which is the diagnostic criterion for socialism. (Obviously you can’t have working-class control applied via the state and also private property and open markets, but not everyone who identifies as “socialist” favours the state as the instrument of working-class control.) What if firms trading in the open market were privately owned and democratically run by worker-shareholders? Is that capitalist or socialist? Or both?

If you’re a leftist on the internet you’ll be familiar with the use of “socialism” as a scare-word. It’s an insidious way of making ridiculous arguments look reasonable, at least to people for whom the word already has negative associations. The following argument is a screamingly obvious non sequitur:

  1. Barack Obama favours state-funded healthcare.
  2. Therefore, Barack Obama is planning to turn the United States into a totalitarian dictatorship.

Now the only way to turn a weak argument into a strong one is to adduce new evidence. Slapping labels on things doesn’t count. It leaves your argument exactly as weak as it was before. But somehow, at least to some people, this version sounds more convincing, even though it’s not:

  1. Barack Obama favours state-funded healthcare.
  2. State-funded healthcare is socialism.
  3. Socialism means totalitarian dictatorships.
  4. Therefore, Barack Obama is planning to turn the United States into a totalitarian dictatorship.

We’ve all run into the loudmouth who thinks calling everything left of Donald Trump “socialism” is unanswerable. Keynesian economics? Socialism! Minimum wage? Socialism! Unions? Socialism! Environmental values? Stealth socialism! And I’m sure I’m not the only leftist to whom this kind of conversation brings a warm glow of intellectual superiority. But sadly neither side has a monopoly on loudmouths; it’s just that, when they’re on our own side, we’re not standing in the path of the stream of crap they produce. Here is another non sequitur:

  1. Multinational corporations harm vulnerable people.
  2. Therefore, Fair Trade initiatives don’t help.

And here’s the label-slap that makes it look plausible:

  1. Multinational corporations harm vulnerable people.
  2. Capitalism means multinational corporations.
  3. Trade, including Fair Trade, is capitalism.
  4. Therefore, Fair Trade initiatives don’t help.

Once again, no new argument has been brought to the table – only a politically-charged word, “capitalism”. I’ve seen far too many calls for political violence for which the only justification offered is: “capitalism” has caused these environmental or human-rights problems (as it might be), so they won’t be fixed until we get rid of “capitalism”. This is precisely as convincing to our opponents as their bogeyman “socialism” is to us. If you think you can make a case that our entire economic system needs to be dismantled and refounded, go ahead and make it. The mere word “capitalism” won’t make it for you.

To the specific question of which side of the Rooseveltian–Reaganite divide we should call “liberals”, I would answer that we should avoid it altogether in favour of less ambiguous words. Rooseveltian “liberals” like Rosenfelder fall within the semantic range of the term “social democrats”, which, if itself a broad category, at least is unmistakably leftward of the political median. The theorists on the other side called themselves “neoliberals” until their ideas were put into action by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher, after which they dropped the word (perhaps because they were now allied with conservatives) but their critics have kept it alive.

Another example crossed my Facebook feed while I was writing this post: a discussion of the term “reverse racism”. Of course, this phrase is most often heard when white people whinge about things that are not racist in any sense, and in those cases this critique doesn’t apply. But humans are human regardless of race, and regrettably one psychological trait common to all humanity is a tendency to dehumanize members of outsider groups. If a Pākehā (a white New Zealander) blamed some political misfortune on “the Māoris” but allowed that there do exist a few “good Māoris”, I think we would agree they were racist. What about the converse, a Māori person inveighing against “the Pākehās” while admitting that a few exceptions are “good Pākehās”? Is one of these people “racist” but not the other? Why?

“Racist” and “racism” are just words. Step back from the words, and the rights and wrongs of the situation become clearer. In New Zealand as in most of the English-speaking world, people in one ethnic category (Pākehā) hold social advantages, such as the ability to trust the police, which people in other categories (Māori, Pacific Islanders) do not. These privileges are reinforced and entrenched when Pākehā exercise outsider-dehumanization towards Māori and Pacific Islanders. Dehumanization in the opposite direction does not have the same effect, because Māori and Pacific Islanders do not hold social privileges which Pākehā lack. These facts remain facts regardless of exactly which elements of the situation you choose to call “racist”.

Here the label “racism” is merely irrelevant; it might even be a helpful simplification. In more complex cases, trying to boil things down to which party is being “racist” can create positive headaches. Which side is it all right to dehumanize in the Israel debate, Jews or Arabs? Most Irish people are white, so discrimination against them by white Britons is not “racist” – does that make it more morally acceptable? If anti-Irish discrimination is “racist”, does that mean Irish discrimination against black people isn’t? Word-quibbles aren’t the only issue here; another human psychological flaw is the assumption that in any morally charged conflict there must be a “good” party and a “bad” party. But getting hung up on the definition of “racism” doesn’t help.

Obviously my conclusion is not going to be “Stop using words”. And words cannot, by their nature, ever succeed at their fundamental function. The world is fuzzy, complicated, and made of millions of billions of things that are none of them quite the same as any other. Words are a quixotic attempt to somehow parcel all that into discrete, consistent categories. All I’m asking is: if we’re going to argue, can we please argue about reality instead of about definitions?


  1. This is good!

    I have one counter-example where I think that talking about definitions is pretty much always useful, and that's the specific word "liberal" as applied to politics. The reason I think it's worth talking about is that (especially in America) "liberal" is assumed to mean the opposite of "conservative" but "Liberal" with a big "L" also refers to a political project with ties to Utilitarianism. I've seen people get very angry about critiques of Liberalism because they assumed they were attacks on a liberal (as in "left of Trump") political position.

    1. Er... given how much of the above post is about precisely the word "liberal" applied to politics, I'm kind of feeling right now like I'm in one of those dreams where nothing I do has the slightest effect on my environment...
      Yeah. If it's unclear what you mean by a word, you need to try and make it clear. But -- like I say in the post above, just up there, no, really -- the word "liberal" applied to politics is one of those words where it's so unclear that it's nearly always better to pick another word instead.