Sunday, April 3, 2016

ignorance & infidels

Lately I get the sense that the term "ignorant people/ppl" is semiotically congruent with the medievalist appellation "Saracen." It has become a tribalist slur against an Other, an anonymous corporate entity somewhere out there that isn't like us, doesn't see things the way we do, and deserves nothing but our contempt.

When we accuse someone of ignorance, we're not stating that person is, to our regret, unaware of certain facts as a consequence of a lack of education of life experience. We're basically saying that person is an irredeemable heretic.

This is not to say that ignorance of the facts and of the world isn't a problem in any society. (Of course—in the the filter bubble paradigm, the question is: which facts, whose world?) And it's not to say it's not that the American body politic isn't embarrassing itself with the persistence of climate-change denialism or the horrifying viability Trump's candidacy. But the tendency of people—mostly on the left, from what I've seen—to use "ignorant" as shorthand for people with political beliefs at variance with their own has me worried.

This was brought up in a recent IQ2 debate about the real or imaginary threat to free speech on college campuses. Participant John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist, strikes the nail squarely on the head:
I love the left. It's not that the left is wrong. The problem is when the idea seems to be that if you don't agree with the leftist position, then you are ignorant at best and immoral at worst.
He elaborates, using the affirmative action  as an example:
It is a question whereas you're saying that affirmative action is being talked about and, if I may, Shaun, you're pretending that people are just sitting and sipping tea and talking about it, whereas we both know——both of us live on college campuses——that the major tone of the way it's spoken about beyond a certain small and beleaguered feeling rightist circle is that anybody who questions affirmative action in a real way is either ignorant and they need to learn some facts, or if they learn the facts, and they still disagree with somebody who is liberal or even further on the left, then they're immoral, then they want a kind of society that would frighten us, and words like fascist are tossed around.
I'd bet that "ignorant ppl" and "fascists" mean pretty much the same thing when they appear in most tweets.

A reminder: I consider myself a leftist. I voted for Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and 2012. I support gay rights and feminism, and I believe people of color in the United States have had it too damn bad for too damn long. But the dogmatism and mean-spiritedness I'm seeing on the part of people with similar beliefs makes me almost as uncomfortable as the publicized nonsense spouted by Trump supporters.

Civil society is predicated on the assumption that people can disagree vehemently and still maintain a courteous working relationship. To assert that someone is a Bad Person because they understand the facts (or certain facts) differently than you is tribalism. And tribalist discourse is a recipe for bad politics. It is the doom of pluralism.

An anecdote. Some time ago, my friend Lizzie and I confessed to each other our misgivings about the authoritarian streak lately exhibited by certain elements of the progressive movement. She pointed out that on Facebook, her conservative acquaintances (we all have them; the boys who read Batman comics in middle school and grew up to be men who read Breitbart at the office) are generally more tolerant of their liberal acquaintances than their liberal acquaintances are of them. They'll still comment on progressive former classmates' posts about movies and memes, even after getting into an argument with them about the 2015 Baltimore riots or gun laws. They'll keep a conversation going, she said, even when they think our views are as batty as we believe theirs to be—while our left-leaning friends boast to each other about blocking people who espouse beliefs they find distasteful. Not that the plural of anecdote is data, but I admitted to Lizzie that I tended to observe the same thing on my own timeline.

The more we shut out the other side, the more set in their ways and hostile to us they're likely to become. It is arrogant for anyone to assume they have a monopoly on what is Right and True, as it is to assert that the experiences that shape belief—even beliefs anathemic to our own—aren't real and aren't worth our while to try to understand. And if our plan to combat ignorance and social atavism is through non-engagement and derision, I suspect what we'd really prefer is to keep pillorying those living in the dark rather than persuading them to come into the light.


  1. This, this is exactly the same problem I have had when I express my suspicions of counter-productiveness about the more extreme positions that certain modern feminist apologists take. By making of men the "other", the irredeemably corrupt and forever, unforgivably guilty party they are making those who need to be educated, those who need to understand why change is necessary and that they are standing guard on the closed doors that disallows it, close their ears and hearts in the face of hostility, contempt and mockery. But when I point this out to them, I'm quickly lumped up with misogynists and rapists as "part of the problem".

    Why do people that otherwise you'd believe smart cannot see how damaging is to their own agenda to antagonise those on the other side of the argument? That hatred and spite widens the divide instead of allowing the building of bridges? Or that discourse can change someone's mind but mockery and aggression will only make them redouble their stance if only out of stubbornness and spite?

    1. Two young women I'm close to recently complained about feminism and feminists. ("There's too many feminists in this town," one said.) *I* had to be the one who was like WHOA THERE, HANG ON

      If that's not an indicator that social progressivism needs to reform its approach to PR, I don't know what is.

  2. This is also important because a large part of the rise of people like Trump, movements like Gamergate, and the growing alternative right are fueled by blowback to this strain of the left. Not that all these movements are exactly the same, nor should that concern be the only reason to criticize this kind of leftist tribalism, but it is something to note regardless.

    I've name dropped Freddie deBoer to you before. Ever read him? He's a really great place to start if you want to find strong voices from the left that largely resist this mentality.

    1. Sometimes I fear that both sides are mutating into the straw-man versions of themselves their opposites rail against. Although because of my own biases, I'm more concerned about the left becoming a parody of itself; the right has always looked pretty ridiculous to me. From my perspective, it is only useful insofar as it attenuates the left's excesses. Or was, anyway. Now it seems like both tribes are compelling the other to be more, well, tribal. Myopic.

    2. Sherpa conservatism, as Jonah Goldberg would put it (obviously contemptuously, given his politics).

      If you want to see the dark side, its perspective, its energy, check out Something Sensitive's election threads sometime. What's even scarier is finding the points you agree with, and seeing how they're very seductive with people disillusioned with the left.

      I still think the odds are stacked against Trump, to be fair (though it's certainly not an impossibility). My bigger concern is the longterm power of these varying movements, and how I think they're fueled by the left's excesses.

  3. I had mentioned, a few weeks ago, that I thought it was wrong to physically assault someone based on their beliefs, no matter how distasteful those beliefs were, up to and including racism, sexism, or homophobia, because that was cutting out freedom of expression at the root (to say nothing of the precedent it would set when those in charge had less salient beliefs). I was instantly and almost unanimously set upon by my friends who talked about what a terrible position that was to take, with one friend admitting that "freedom is speech does not excuse racism". I was stunned as how the only person agreeing with me was the Libertarian anarchist I normally thought to be totally batshit crazy. I wasn't saying I agreed with racist rhetoric, or even that such rhetoric should be tolerated; only that we shouldn't actually beat people up for opinions they have, even if those opinions are reprehensible. I actually lost several friends who now probably think I'm some kind of monster.

    1. Yyyyyeah. Shit's weird. Shit's tribal. Did you really actually lose friends over this? Like, have you seen/spoken to them since then?

      ...suddenly all I can think of is this They Might Be Giants song.

    2. Actually lost a friend, who has since actually avoided me in the halls.