Monthly Archives: July 2020

The left and social justice overreach

 

I have been interested in, and somewhat put off by, that spectrum of the left that considers their moral status to be so fundamental to the principles of the democratic state that they become almost fascistic in their expression and implementation of these principles. The belief that society is saturated with illiberal forces and it is the responsibility of the left to constantly surveil and adjust these forces such that the political system moves more toward equality and ethical pluralism.

In the truly moral political society asymmetries in power and access to resources (both symbolic and material) are to be subject to equalizing forces. In other words, if an ethnic, religious, political, or social class group holds particular power, then that power is to be attenuated.

There are two classes of power, one economic and the other symbolic. Economic inequality is difficult to manage unless the state is described as highly centralized or socialist and the economy is centrally managed. The issue of how centrally managed an economic system should be is the subject of persistent political debate. The political parties typically organize around these issues with liberal parties favoring more central management in pursuit of social goods and weakening of debilitating group differences, and conservative parties relying less on managed government.

 But other inequalities are symbolic and refer to differences between group status and the perceptions of group rank and significance. This is where ethnic, religious, or social class differences develop into stereotypes and distorted perceptions of others and result in unequal groups and the resultant group tensions. So, racist speech on campus is considered harmful because it attacks the goals of education, inclusion, and it interferes with rational discourse. The key issue here is how much difference do we tolerate. And the attempt to manage these groups – typically by changing language – is what is referred to as political correctness or PC. Tactics and strategies are controversial such as speech codes, language policies, and restrictions on how one speaks in the workplace etc.

This is where the left slips into repression operating under the guise of group sensitivity. This is the area of social justice overreach. Pre-scripting in the form of a speech code is nothing less than prior restraint where language and communication are censored first and examined later.

The logical extension of speech codes, prior restraint, and group identity rights is state-promoted conformity. This results in support for the liberal state to counteract oppression and inequalities in the name of justice. The state becomes 1984-ish and coupled with restricting individual liberties rather than increasing them, which was the original liberal goal. Consequently, the left’s attempt to smooth out inequalities and enhance social justice, ends up doing just the opposite.

But it gets worse. In the leftist postmodern conception of social justice anything that claims to move us toward truth or a more accurate reflection of reality (such as science, or reason) becomes disreputable because it is a hegemonic system that is destined to reproduce its own power. Thus, the left has again overreached.

The liberal agenda is noteworthy in its attempt to moderate differences and more equally distribute justice and fairness. And even some sort of soft censorship might be acceptable. But when the liberal left institutes policies and infrastructure designed to forcibly oversee the use of language, that is engaging in illiberal behavior on the basis of the misguided notion that such oppressive behavior is justified.

New Ways to Argue in America

America has always benefited from the tradition of rational discourse. It is part of our political DNA. And more than many other political cultures, we have at least approached the Habermasian ideal of moral communication conditions and the value of the best argument. The bases of American political history – that is, the foundational ideas upon which the nation is based did not fundamentally begin with religious precepts, the divine right of kings, or an oligarch’s economic theories. This is not to say, however, that we are not a religious country. We are. But a country in which Jeffersonian pragmatics and democracy were more important to our founding ideals then kings or religions.

There is no arguing with kings and religions. They have an immovable set of principles and everything is measured against those principles. The epistemology of ignorance begins with moral absolutes and the desire to consistently reproduce their truth value. It is what Jacob Siegel writing in Tablet calls the arguer-commander or that person who believes himself to be the deliverer of justice. It used to be the case that the American tradition of rational empiricism in the political realm sought truth and logically justified inferential conclusions. In the true scientific sense, it was possible to change your mind, be wrong, or accumulate new information that intellectually forced one to change or consider new options.

But the argument-commander, who rejects science for example, emerges more from a tradition of religiosity than deliberation. This new form of argument is populated by people who do not represent the tradition of reasoning from empirical premise to conclusion but consider themselves rhetorically untouchable. For example, a racist who holds a set of distorted beliefs about racial characteristics that he or she considers inviolate, thereby concludes that certain issues are beyond dispute. The person will consider a right to be beyond argumentation.

And holding these moral commandments that are so true they are beyond justification is not the sole province only of the left or the right – although it is more characteristic of the right – because both positions can hold commanding precepts that the arguers are more interested in perpetrating than in some type of genuine deliberation.

Holding a moral-political position that one considers so fundamentally true that it releases him or her from the normal requirements of reason and reflection is related to the polarization in American society.

The basic component of the epistemology of ignorance is that ignorance underscores distortions in thinking such as racism, sexism, or ethnic stereotypes and establishes arguments based on different assumptions; it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices. Rather, they play a role in promoting racism and white privilege. But ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool to wield against white privilege and white supremacy.

There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new American mode of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times,  and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over discourse are now waged. Intermingling the technical vocabulary of reasoning with endless moral generalities about rights and truths, held passionately by individuals, results in the corruption of defensible discourse. The arguer-commander is animated by rhetorical purgatory—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress and society as a ceaseless subjection to identity assault. “In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.”(See Siegel reference above)

Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Again, as Siegel points out “Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist —and so on?”

 In the end, the execution of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin and others is a white supremacy lethal public health issue that should be treated as such. I will continue to make the case but increasingly “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore.”

New Ways to Argue in America

America has always benefited from the tradition of rational discourse. It is part of our political DNA. And more than many other political cultures, we have at least approached the Habermasian ideal of moral communication conditions and the value of the best argument. The bases of American political history – that is, the foundational ideas upon which the nation is based did not fundamentally begin with religious precepts, the divine right of kings, or an oligarch’s economic theories. This is not to say, however, that we are not a religious country. We are. But a country in which Jeffersonian pragmatics and democracy were more important to our founding ideals then kings or religions.

There is no arguing with kings and religions. They have an immovable set of principles and everything is measured against those principles. The epistemology of ignorance begins with moral absolutes and the desire to consistently reproduce their truth value. It is what Jacob Siegel writing in Tablet calls the arguer-commander or that person who believes himself to be the deliverer of justice. It used to be the case that the American tradition of rational empiricism in the political realm sought truth and logically justified inferential conclusions. In the true scientific sense, it was possible to change your mind, be wrong, or accumulate new information that intellectually forced one to change or consider new options.

But the argument-commander, who rejects science for example, emerges more from a tradition of religiosity than deliberation. This new form of argument is populated by people who do not represent the tradition of reasoning from empirical premise to conclusion but consider themselves rhetorically untouchable. For example, a racist who holds a set of distorted beliefs about racial characteristics that he or she considers inviolate, thereby concludes that certain issues are beyond dispute. The person will consider a right to be beyond argumentation.

And holding these moral commandments that are so true they are beyond justification is not the sole province only of the left or the right – although it is more characteristic of the right – because both positions can hold commanding precepts that the arguers are more interested in perpetrating than in some type of genuine deliberation.

Holding a moral-political position that one considers so fundamentally true that it releases him or her from the normal requirements of reason and reflection is related to the polarization in American society.

The basic component of the epistemology of ignorance is that ignorance underscores distortions in thinking such as racism, sexism, or ethnic stereotypes and establishes arguments based on different assumptions; it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices. Rather, they play a role in promoting racism and white privilege. But ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool to wield against white privilege and white supremacy.

There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new American mode of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times,  and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over discourse are now waged. Intermingling the technical vocabulary of reasoning with endless moral generalities about rights and truths, held passionately by individuals, results in the corruption of defensible discourse. The arguer-commander is animated by rhetorical purgatory—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress and society as a ceaseless subjection to identity assault. “In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.”(See Siegel reference above)

Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Again, as Siegel points out “Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist —and so on?”

 In the end, the execution of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin and others is a white supremacy lethal public health issue that should be treated as such. I will continue to make the case but increasingly “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore.”

The challenge of popular discourse

 

Reprinted From: The Conversation

Deliberative processes must confront populist rhetoric and help return to the tradition of informed and moral discourse. Populist discourse remains insufficiently informed and outside the boundaries of the American historical tradition.

This article is part of the Democracy Futures project, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

This piece is part of a series, After Populism, about the challenges populism poses for democracy. It comes from a talk at the “Populism: what’s next for democracy?” symposium hosted by the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra in collaboration with Sydney Democracy Network.


We are “living in the end times”, or so Slavoj Žižek tells us. We have seen the arrival of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: the global ecological crisis, sharp inequalities in the economic system, the biogenic revolution, and exploding social divisions.

The global rise of populism, it seems, is only a symptom of these long-standing tragedies in the making.

Populist claims – the grand promises that prey on unrealistic expectations, those that dodge responsibility by conjuring “alternative facts”, and the kind that leaves citizens committed to the project of Enlightenment dazed and breathless — are both outcomes and drivers of Žižek’s apocalyptic vision.

How should we make sense of these realities? Wicked problems and intractable conflict have indeed marked the past few decades. But these have also been times of widespread democratic experimentation.

Participation in “traditional” politics such as voting and party membership may be declining, but there has been an explosion of activities that seek to “do democracy differently”.

The promise of deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy could once have been dismissed as pie in the sky with no bearing on the world of practical politics.

More recently, practitioners of deliberative innovations have generated compelling evidence to show the democratic virtues of mini-publics. These involve small(ish) groups of randomly selected citizens who meet several times to deliberate on an issue.

Random selection, similar to the logic of jury selection, underpins this process such that the forum represents a microcosm of the wider population.

In recent years, the case for mini-publics has been articulated more boldly, by David van Reybrouck and then, just this year, by Brett Hennig. Both make a case for sortition, where a group of citizens drawn by lot are given a mandate to deliberate and propose, if not decide, policies that bind the rest of the polity.

Given the enthusiasm for mini-publics, why has this not been enough to avert “the apocalypse”? There are three ways of looking at this.

1. We haven’t scaled up enough

The application of mini-publics has been disparate, inconsistent and small-scale.

Had people, especially the so-called “pissed-off white men”, had more opportunities to participate in deliberation, they would have, potentially, taken a more complex view of issues that they feel threaten their identities, such as immigration or gay rights.

Had “smug cosmopolitan liberal types” engaged in deliberation with “pissed-off white men”, societies could have developed a shared vocabulary to cohabit a world with meta-consensus on the range of legitimate discourses.

Forms of deliberative democracy are not only effective, but also much needed in deeply divided societies. Joe Flood/flickr

There is evidence that mini-publics work in deeply divided societies. Examples include deliberative polls in Northern Ireland and deliberative forums involving ex-combatants and paramilitaries in Colombia.

We can only wonder how the US elections or the UK’s Brexit referendum might have turned out had they convened a “deliberation day” where citizens deliberated systematically before the vote.

2. We are scaling up incorrectly

One could argue that mini-publics, by themselves, are not the answer to mass democracy’s legitimacy deficit. Even where well-resourced, excellently designed and high-quality deliberations unfold, these have little bearing if the epistemic gains and civic virtues developed in these forums do not spill over into the broader public sphere.

To scale up deliberation is not simply to host bigger mini-publics (mega-publics?) but to think of ways in which mini-publics can be linked to the broader public discourses.

What use is it if we replace politicians with a randomly selected group of citizens if the public sphere is mostly still characterised by partisan point-scoring, cheap political tactics, spin-doctoring and market-driven media?

The reforms of deliberative politics must equally focus on reforming the broader structures that shape public discourse.

3. Mini-publics are not the answer

The logic of mini-publics primes participants to be respectful, public-spirited, other-regarding and open-minded. Unsurprisingly, citizens who harbour deep scepticism, strongly held views and defensiveness in their private interests may not find these forums to be the most understanding and supportive spaces.

In other words, mini-publics may have inherent limitations in processing populist rhetoric. This is because they, by design, aim to keep loud and insistent voices out of the room to celebrate the voice of the “average reasonable person”.

Discursive enclaves such as those found online, or in assemblies of populist supporters, may provide a more hospitable stage for impassioned, confrontational and sometimes bigoted discourses.

While mini-publics enable citizens to carefully reflect on their prejudices, one must take a step back and consider that some do not want to reconsider their views.

Research on climate change deniers provides evidence for this. Australian studies have revealed how deliberation not only fails to dispel scepticism but also makes the deniers feel like they are not listened to, so they become more dogmatic and belligerent.

Other research data demonstrate how people with a “social dominance orientation” tend to see participatory processes as rigged if the forums do not produce their preferred outcomes.

ABC’s Q&A often illustrates the limitations of some forms of deliberation.

The issue of trust compounds such alienation. Mini-publics typically rely on information presented by expert witnesses and resources persons, and we now know that many people have simply had enough of experts.

Beyond expertise, public trust in Australian politics and politicians is at a staggering low. Recent research suggests the public has little trust in any level of government in Australia. For the most part, mini-publics in Australia are instigated by or at least associated with government.

Even though the best-designed forums are independently organised and facilitated, we have to recognise that people may simply not trust the process, organiser or the expertise presented. “Micro” deliberative events don’t exist in a political vacuum. We cannot design out the broader context and power relations.

How can things go right?

There are many reasons to consider populist rhetoric as the opposite of deliberative reason. Populism appeals to base instincts. It sacrifices intellectual rigour and evidence to the promise of quick solutions.

The polarising speech style of populism creates information silos, which bond rather than bridge, opposing views. Inherent in the populist logic is the division of the “virtuous people” versus “the dangerous other”. This inflames prejudices and misconceptions, instead of promoting public-spirited ways of determining the common good.

Given the coming populist apocalypse, then, it is worth revisiting how deliberative democrats conceptualise power and its relationship to knowledge.

The populist moment reminds us of the insidious legacies of power, the kind we generally take for granted, but experience every day. Drawing on the “epistemologies of ignorance”, the solution is not simply to offer facts, but to lay bare the structural phenomenon that disables people from seeing in a certain way. We undeniably find ourselves facing:

… an ignorance that resists … an ignorance that fights back … an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go away.

Deliberative democracy may have been the punching bag of those who remain sceptical of the virtues of participation governed by reason. But it has also been a beacon of hope for visionaries who keep on asking how we can make democracy better.

This field of democratic theory and practice has a lot more to offer, especially when we set our gaze towards spaces for reform beyond the forum.

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