Friday, December 08, 2017

On My Blog Anniversary. Take Four: Or Where In The Political World Is Echidne Now?

This is a rant about American politics in 2017 and my place in it.  Let me begin by noting that I have never liked politics as a horse race or a ballet performance, except when it's about something I regard trivial, I have never liked arguing for just the sake of arguing or for the sake of the type of winning where being right doesn't matter, but crushing the opponent does (1).  I have never enjoyed debates where ad hominem or ad feminem slurs are used or where some people are closed out of a debate due to lack of proper tribal credentials.

So it's a miracle that I have kept this blog going for fourteen years, right?  Or possibly not a miracle but a side effect of the hallucination that makes me swear that I am an avatar of a snake goddess?

The following list is about my pet hatreds in American politics.  It tilts toward the liberal and progressive end of the political dimension, despite my belief that our end is much better on almost all counts.  The reason for that choice is that so many of my posts on this blog already are about the heinous acts of the Trump administration, the Republican Party, the fake information factories, and so on, but very few address the issues I write about below.


1.  On Political Tribalism 

I find the games many people play in politics increasingly distasteful and illogical.  Sometimes there is no logic at all, or even a pretense of it.  But often the reason is in political tribalism of various types.

I'm not sure if tribalism is more common in the United States than elsewhere, but it might be, because the two-party system provides a perfect soil for it to grow.  Most real people belong to several different thought tribes (2), but the "winner-takes-all" American political system tends to demand our allegiance to just one political tribe (conservative or liberal, in essence).

In my view this makes American politics look like football or ice-hockey or basketball, where fans root for their own teams, even when those teams do something troubling, and where fans of one team pretend-hate the fans of all other teams on purely tribal grounds.

In politics, however, the tribal hate against the "outsiders" is very real, at least online.

Tribalism is the reason why the Republicans have decided to support the  US Senate race of Roy Moore, an extreme Christianist (3) from Alabama, even though he appears to have stalked and groomed underage and vulnerable girls when  he was in his thirties, a presumably mature man.  That such behavior might not be exactly in accordance with this Biblical quote: "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" doesn't seem to matter as much as getting a tribal member into the Senate.

Tribalism is not limited to the American political right.  On the left it often takes a mirroring form:  If Republicans, or at least Trump-voters, decide what they support by what Democrats, or at least the Obama administration, do not or did not support, then often the Democrats, liberals and progressives do the reverse and object to anything the right supports.  These reactions are knee-jerk for many.

An example from the political left might be its approach to the conservative battles against the mostly imaginary threat that sharia might replace American secular law in some places.

The left points out that these fears are imaginary (which is correct), but then pretty much stays silent on the problems with ancient religious laws in general and with the sharia in particular.

That silence, in turn, the right interprets as lefty support for some of the principles ancient religious laws such as the sharia contain:  The inherently unequal treatment of men and women in it  and the use of punishments which most people today find cruel and unusual.  In my view this silence is because tribal values are prioritized over liberal or progressive values concerning social justice, such as the equality of men and women in law.

American politics currently has many more tribes than the two I have discussed above.  Among Democrats, the Hillary-bots and the Bernie-bros are hostile terms created for the two tribes (those supporting Hillary Clinton and those supporting Bernie Sanders, respectively) by some members of the other (opposing) tribe.

Only a small minority of those who voted for Clinton or Sanders in the Democratic primaries can be said to belong to such tribes, but some certainly do.  We can spot the tribal membership of someone by checking if their arguments center on the infallibility of their favored candidate or on their own favored policies.  The former suggests greater tribalism.

How do we end up being sorted into such political tribes? I wonder if anyone has researched this question.  I am not sure of the entire answer, but suspect that being the object of a lot of vicious criticism by what one interprets as members of the "other" tribe contributes to stronger tribal identification (4).  In short, the more people are yelled at and belittled for their choices, the stronger their adherence to those choices become.

But tribal thinking also seems instinctive for most humans, and guarding ourselves against it requires that we bring it from the hind-brain to the front-brain and pay it explicit attention.  Perhaps the most important reason for that is that I believe racism and xenophobia to be ultimately based on tribalism (5).  But tribalism of all kinds can make the building of bridges difficult, and such bridges are sometimes necessary in politics.

Maybe politics has always been tribal and always will be? But I, for one, yearn for more politics based on the stated ideals of various political groupings, on factual evidence concerning how the proposed policies match those ideals and on reasoned and polite debates which make learning possible (6).

2.  On False Generalizations 

I detest false generalizations.  They are extremely common in political debates on the social media (the other day I counted fifteen in the first ten minutes of reading my Twitter feed).

Now, everyone detests the false generalizations that come from the enemy tribe in those debates.  For instance, progressives get very angry when right-wingers blame all Muslims for the Islamist terror attacks or demand all Muslims to publicly repudiate such attacks or apologize for them.
But far fewer people seem to detest the false generalizations from their own side.  Indeed, they are often matched with reverse false generalizations.  This is one example, though used with full knowledge of what I just wrote:

In detesting all false generalizations I'm pretty much alone, or that is how it feels.  My reasons for that emotion are at least threefold:

First, false generalizations are FALSE.  All Muslims are NOT terrorist supporters, all men are NOT scum or trash which sexually harasses women, all women are NOT over-emotional and incapable of logical thought, all recent refugees or migrants in Europe are NOT criminals.  And so on.

Indeed, the actual percentages in various demographic groups who are guilty of some heinous deeds or who have some undesirable characteristics can vary widely, from roughly zero to some larger but still small percentage.  It's not terribly hard for any writer on such topics to add the qualifying words to false generalizations that stop them from being clearly false.  For example, turn "men are scum" to "men who harass or rape or assault women are scum" (7).

Second, false generalizations are an integral part of how sexism, racism and many other types of bigotries operate:  By picking some aspect of the behavior of some individuals in a particular group and then generalizing that aspect to all the members of that group.  Stereotypes are created in this manner. 

To see the same trick used in reverse does not fill me glee, rather the reverse. It is not a step toward the ideal world where everyone is treated mostly on the basis of their own individual merits and flaws.  It's a step toward a world where everyone is treated as undifferentiated spoonfuls of some amorphous group characteristic.  It's as if we think we are fixing things by extending stereotyping rather than by reducing it, and by creating more walls, rather than by tearing them down.

Third, there's but a very short step from false generalizations of this kind to either dysfunctional essentialist thinking (if all people in group x are monsters, it must be based on something that cannot be changed, so what's the solution?  banning them from the country?  genocide? or what?) or the assigning of genetic guilt to all individuals in a particular demographic group.  Assigning guilt to someone who has had nothing to do with a particular crime is ethically wrong (8).

Like tribalism, false generalizations of all types seem to be part of the basic human hind-brain kit.  And because they have so long been used against certain demographic groups (in terms of, say, sexist and/or racist generalizations), I get their appeal when used against other demographic groups:

They turn the tables, just as defining some groups as privileged rather than defining other groups as oppressed turns the tables. They feel good, they feel right, they release our righteous anger and they are also exactly what has been employed against us. 

Besides, punching up in the social hierarchies is nowhere near as harmful in its outcome as punching down is.  But the outcome of the expanded use of false generalizations is unlikely to be politically productive.  Rather the reverse, because these linguistic devices serve both to guard our own tribal borders and to teach others where to draw their tribal borders.

An Interlude

I have spent time trying to understand why tribalism and false generalizations matter so much to me.  Is it that false generalizations are being made about me in more ways than before?  Am I just a spoiled brat stamping her foot while sobbing that nobody pays attention to her way of arguing?  Am I missing something crucial here?

I tested the ideas on one friend who told me that they are nothing new in politics at all, that I'm the princess who could feel the pea through thirty mattresses in the fairy tale, and that if I can't take the heat I shouldn't be in the political kitchen.

Well, I added that bit about the political kitchen.  But my friend is probably right.  I'm not at all suited for either activism or political writing.

My own theories about my discomfort with these lines of thought are based on when I most feel them, and that's in the context where someone from my side of the aisle makes a claim which I know to be incorrect.

If I point out the flaw in the claim or give alternative evidence, the tribal way of thinking (think of baseball fans here) labels me as an outsider and some of the response is not going to be pleasant (9).  This is the case even when the corrected evidence still supports the original conclusions and even when I'm very clear about that.

So because of that princess-and-the-pea thing I now seldom participate in debates in, say, online feminism. That, and the hordes of trolls who grab one's coattails on Twitter, for instance,  and  then follow one home.

I still believe that my criticisms matter from a more neutral and objective angle for the reasons stated in this post.  But it's always possible that I am wrong about that.

3.  Excess Focus On Speech

Note the qualifier "excess" in that subtitle.  How we speak matters, who has the right to speak matters, and the hidden messages built into our language about various demographic groups and so on matter.  Political debates are important, and the freedom of political speech is one of the foundations of democracy (10).

But I believe that some progressives, liberals and feminists in at least the United States and the United Kingdom are giving too much attention to "correct" speech as compared to institutional and economic policies which would do more for fairness and justice in those societies (11). 

This is partly because the political power in both countries is currently held by conservatives who are extremely unlikely to support such policies as guaranteeing equally good public schools, public services and job opportunities to all their citizens, whatever their particular demographic group or incomes might be.  Real institutional and economic changes cost resources and money, and the left in both countries has less of those than the right.

But I also believe that the excess focus on speech is because the arenas of so many of our fights are on the internet.  Speech is about the only weapon we can easily use online, after all.

I find this a pity, because many of the problems we argue about would best be fixed by reallocating economic resources and by correcting institutional forms of discrimination (12).  And yes, I know, that the Trump administration is currently working very hard in the exact opposite direction.

In Conclusion

So where in the political world is Echidne now?  Not sure at all.  Sometimes I feel as if I'm pretty much floating on an iceberg, all alone in the dark sea.  Or the princess on thirty mattresses still feeling the pea.  Sometimes I'm just Eeyore.  But I'm beginning to think that my approach to political or feminist writing is no longer effective, if it ever was.

My thanks for any of you who read this rant to the very end!  You deserve a badge for that.


(1)  Though of course I am always right when I debate, whether I win or lose.  That should go without saying.  The crushing of the opponent is then just the icing on the cake.

(2)  This is similar to the idea that we all have many different identities, depending on the context.

(3)  I use the term "Christianist" to stress Moore's desire to create an American Christian theocracy which would follow the principles of right-wing fundamentalism.

(4)  If I am correct about this (and I believe I am),  most truly vicious online political debates accomplish the reverse of what their intention might be if it is to convert people or to acquire allies.

(5)  I'm not as clear about the role of tribalism in misogyny or sexism, because all human actual tribes include women, though the role of women in most traditional tribes is carefully circumscribed and limited to reproductive and routine maintenance tasks.  It could be that any upheavals in that create a new definition of the insiders and outsiders and new definitions of "tribes."  Still, I doubt that the generic class of "women" sees itself as a tribe.  It's too splintered for that by other allegiances.

(6)  Here's where I demonstrate my membership to the imaginary tribe of "objective, idealistic and morally superior analysts of the hurly-burly politics of the masses."  Just in case you didn't get that already.

(7)  This example is taken from a recent article about Facebook banning women who used such statements in the wake of the #MeToo, and while being seriously attacked by vicious misogynist trolls.

I strongly stress that I am not disagreeing with the arguments in the article about the banning practices of Facebook being off if such statements result in banning but vicious and frightening misogynistic assaults by trolls against individuals do not result in banning.

I also get that the statements were aimed at the trolls harassing those women, not at all men in this world. 

(8)  This issue is a separate one from something slightly different:  Individuals born into certain demographic groups can benefit from that accident of birth, and it's important that they are aware of it and the extra power it awards them to fix problems.

For example, men in all countries are more likely to have their voices listened to than women are, all other things (race, class etc.) held constant.  Thus, male "allies" can be extremely effective in combating misogyny and sexism.  So can white allies (in the United States, say) in combating racist speech among other whites.

(9)  The unpleasantness is of at least two types:  People from the same side of the aisle dislike the comment and get very suspicious about the reasons for making it.  People from the other side of the aisle like the comment and believe that it shows support for their side.

(10)  I am not a First Amendment absolutist.  I fail to see what informative value we miss if  Yiannopoulos, say, is not allowed to give a campus speech when that speech pretty much just lists all the different ways he hates liberals or minorities or feminists and so on.

We already know that he hates those groups and he hasn't done any new relevant research that we might wish to learn about.  So what is the value in his messages which should somehow justify bringing his list of hatreds to campuses?

But I do believe that bad scientific arguments, to pick an example,  can best be killed by debating them, not by making them something which cannot be uttered at all.  The latter approach is a bit like hiding seeds in dark soil, the former exposes them to sunlight and withers them.

(11)  Such phenomena as no-platforming in the UK and related approaches in the US are too complex to address in this post.  They would demand a very long post all on their own.  Most of what I say in the post about the excess focus on speech is not about college campuses but about social media.

(12)  Even such seemingly unrelated causes as the excess police brutality against African-Americans are somewhat linked to unequal resources:

Poorer urban areas are often more heavily policed, resulting in more police contacts by innocent locals, and  African-Americans are a higher percentage of those living in poorer urban areas.

If the racial income and wealth differences were reduced, the power of African-Americans to fight police brutality would be increased and opportunities for that brutality would be decreased.  — None of this is to be read as arguing that racism in itself does not matter, only that economic disparities make it more feasible.