What if the Church and the State
Are the mob that howls at the door?
–William Butler Yeats
Strange days are upon us, hard to behold amid all the blinding glitter. In sports, for example, a player can hardly even question the officiating—despite the many scandals in recent years—without being fined or suspended. And when it comes to minor tiffs and scuffles, the natural athletic testiness that was readily shrugged off up until around the mid ‘90s is now scandalous, the stuff of “anger management issues.” Socrates, when his debunking sting had prompted a fellow Athenian to strike him, as many did, would simply shrug off the blow, remarking that he had been done no serious harm. Such was the wisdom and hardiness of the great man who knew that, after all, life is always already hard enough. Today, by contrast, to use virtually any kind of assertive language is to create an “intimidating environment.” Frank and direct speech is effectively “abusive.” Meanwhile, the tireless Dr. Phil cannot save everyone from the trauma of a bruised ego or hurt feelings, so more and more melancholy Americans must become doped up on Prozac.
It was wise of John Stuart Mill to argue in On Liberty that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Such a point of view is central to the modern world and democracy. But contemporary Americans are too easily “harmed.” Taking our cue from the touchy upper and middle classes (mostly spineless Anglos), we will use just about anything that some find offensive as justification for exercising power over others. “The ozone layer is thinning,” many proclaim, but what they most long for is protection from their fiery fellow man! So you had better be careful about how you tell your neighbor not to blast his music at 3am. Before you know it you may have a “protection order” against you! Such is the silly thin skin of Americans in 2014. Again, your boss may be a domineering idiot, but you must endure him, team player. Do not object, or he may decree that in order to keep your job you undergo “sensitivity training” or take an “anger management class,” though he himself is the monster.
The banning of directness
A little while back, living in Florida, I had an interview for a copy-editor job at a company called Postcard Mania. Though it had the good sense not to hire me, the aptly-named company did turn out to be a crazy bunch of slaves and ninnies; for, in order to maintain “positive office morale,” each team member had to follow an instruction manual comprised of some of the wonderful ideas of L. Ron Hubbard, great American original. The ostensible aim was to prevent “office politics.” But another one, I could see, was to make natural, frank talk about unfairness unprofessional by definition. Good team members were not to voice discontent among themselves. There was a “procedure” to follow; it was necessary to go to the person of the proper rank. And from past experience in such situations, I could not help believe that most of these bland working cattle had no objection to the paltry bureaucracy; such servile conformity seems quite acceptable to the culture of “success.”
Today it is common for a pair of teenagers, fooling around as teenagers do, to be labeled “sex offenders” even when the age gap between them is only a few years. One might reasonably think that, like sexting, such hook ups are the business of the teenagers themselves and their parents or guardians. Still, by a mere touchy and fearful misuse of language, it happens that when a few years later a potential employer does a background check, they find that the potential employee is a “sex offender.” Immediately there arises the mental image of some dirty old man hanging around a school playground. So much, then, for getting that future good job, horny young men and women!
All of these examples, extremely dangerous misuses of language and evidence of idiotic touchiness in the American way, recall Jonathan Swift’s definition of the human as “an animal capable of reason.” Though Americans think they are free, the control of consciousness, thought and language that stems from our narcissistic sensitivity, is endless and endlessly subtle; and the only sure thing, besides its existence, is the almost universally smug response to it: the lunatic, self-righteous assumption that it is just. And again, here it is the upper and middle classes—and the highly educated among them—who lead the way.
Larry Summers and Ariel Sharon
In Writing Poetry After 9/11, Marjorie Perloff asks us to
Take a seemingly straightforward little sentence, Cornell West’s declaration in April 2002 that Harvard’s President “Larry Summers is the Sharon of Harvard.” Earlier, West had made numerous comparisons between Sharon and Hitler, so that, in essence, he was here saying that Larry Summers is like Hitler. So inured are we to this sort of double talk that few people object, and the trustees of Princeton promptly and unanimously voted to give Professor West a Chair. But the remark is not only inaccurate and slanderous; it is meaningless.
The notion that a university president who actually dares to challenge the work of one of his chaired professors can be compared to a prime minister, deploying what many take to be extremist, excessively violent tactics in his war against the Palestinians, makes no sense. In a democratic society like ours, university presidents actually do have freedom of speech. Summers had not done anything to West except, possibly, to humiliate him by suggesting that he produce more hard scholarship and less popular writing. What it has to do with Sharon is anybody’s guess, except that what West is saying is that they’re both, you know, bad guys! Bullies!
But now let’s take the comparison the next step. One may hate Sharon, but just how is Sharon like Hitler? I suppose West links them as twin oppressors and murderers of innocent people. But Sharon is fighting what is in essence a civil war: before 1948, there was neither an Israel nor a state called Palestine, and the complex question is how these two ethnic groups can conceivably live together. Sharon was voted into office in a democratic election, and, no more than his Labor predecessor Ehud Barak is he likely to remain Prime Minister for long.
Hitler, by contrast, seized power by criminal means, could do whatever he liked (which is hardly true for Sharon!), and set in motion a calculated plan to kill off anyone who could be shown to have so much as a drop of Jewish blood. He also exterminated other ethnic and social groups and nations. If Sharon were a Hitler, he would already have taken over Jordan, with Egypt next on his list. To call Sharon Hitler is thus simply irresponsible, as it is irresponsible to call Milosevic a Hitler. Indeed, all three of these cases are quite different.
The limits of language
It was Wittgenstein who taught us that the limits of language are the limits of our world and that each word or sentence had to be understood in a particular context. When Christopher Hitchens dared to criticize Islamic Fundamentalism, the cry of “Fascist” immediately went up! Never mind that Hitchens has been a Socialist all his life; if he says X, then it must be Y. But Fascists were real people who practiced real things like stamping out all dissent in the Italy of entre deux guerres, like killing their enemies in cold blood, and running a hideous dictatorship. What did Hitchens do? He dared to say in The Nation that perhaps the U.S. needed to defend itself against the attacks of 9/11. When the adjective “Fascist” (or its close relative “McCarthyite”) is applied to such an opinion, the language cannot help but be debased.
How the academics and intellectuals chimed in like the people watching The Jerry Springer Show! What orgies of fellow-feeling! Very religious experiences, and I regret only the absence of snake-handling and speaking in tongues, though, to be sure, Summers might someday join with the adulterous Tiger Woods and Jonathon Edwards in order to give all of us “a national apology.”
We should feel grateful for people like Marjorie Perloff who perceive such wild misuses of language and who aren’t afraid to oppose them. They are the invaluable custodians of thought and its expression. Without them, we shall be less likely to perceive the cant all around us, as dear to academics and intellectuals as it is to politicians and the media. Indeed, it is telling that ordinary people of good sense tend to perceive this cant where those in the professional class do not.
The response to Larry Summers—glib, obtuse and self-righteous—is precisely the sort of thing that keeps so many of us afraid of offending the politically correct orthodoxy. You had better not have the wrong views on gender, race, immigration, climate change, renewable energy, foreign affairs, etc. If you do, you are sure to be attacked, often after having been misunderstood. Call this the mob mentality of the intellectual crowd.
Tolerance and political correctness
It is ironic to note here that, with respect to tolerance, most people believe our secular, liberal democracy represents a huge improvement on traditional, more authoritarian governments. But are we as tolerant as they think? No. Political correctness is in fact the liberal version of the very intolerance liberals purport to oppose; the hypocrisy is that in order to consider themselves tolerant, people require that others submit to their own intolerance. Hence, instead of actual tolerance we have mere hypocrisy. This makes for a weak and spineless culture, and in this grim context we can easily see the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton’s maxim that “tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” Immanuel Kant is also apt here: “If man makes himself a worm he must not complain when he is trodden on.”
In the past few years I have encountered several women who used to have an “abusive boyfriend.” It is interesting that the abuse was never physical, only “verbal,” because from what I could tell what these women understood by “abuse” was usually nothing more than men refusing to put up with their bullshit. For most attractive young women in this country today are so blindly self-interested, and so devoid of any notion of personal responsibility, that they either do not see or else just do not care about how their behavior may drive any man who is not a chump to lose his temper. A man refuses to be a typical whiny white woman’s doormat, telling her, for example, to “shut up and cut the shit,” and now he is some kind of villain. This way of thinking is like that of the many minorities and white liberals who assume that a white police offer pulling over a black man is in itself evidence of racism. In both examples we have a rash and simplistic view of human affairs, driven by a herd tendency to resentment and victimization. Many Americans really do not understand basic cause and effect or the full contexts of their relations. Things do not work out as they want them to; they do not get what they want; ergo, they have been wronged.
Consider another example, that beloved academic shibboleth the “social construct.” For many academics and intellectuals, bent as they are on asserting an agenda of resentment (for there is far more of this than any serious notion of social fairness, to effect which very few of us are really prepared to change our entire way of life), it simply cannot be that all human differences are not reducible to different types of social constructions. Even if empirical evidence seems to support the contrary belief—that is, to provide evidence of natural differences—it is necessary to project (and thereby assert) some discrimination or bias in the method: so that, after all, we are all still the same—that is, one big liberal happy family!—and all differences reducible to varieties of social constructions: a result that leaves the agenda of resentment intact, with its important notion of victimization, used by academics and intellectuals to present an appearance of righteousness and even rebellion, or as they put it in their stilted way, “transgression.”
Or else the method and evidence won’t even be considered: the conclusions are not consistent with people’s a priori beliefs; therefore they must be rejected, by a show of moral outrage, of course. This fidelity to the omnipresent truth of the social construct is really a kind of fundamentalism or neurosis. When reading about the nasty, irresponsible responses to anything contrary to this and other academic idols, I have sometimes thought of John Locke’s insight into the character of the prejudiced person:
…if, after all his profession, he cannot bear any opposition to his opinion, if he cannot so much as give a patient hearing, much less examine and weigh the arguments on the other side, does he not plainly confess it is prejudice governs him and it is not the evidence of truth, but some lazy anticipation, some beloved presumption that he desires to rest undisturbed in?
–Of the Conduct of the Understanding, sect. 10.“Prejudice”
Bias serves self-interest
The dark truth is that, like intolerance, human touchiness arises naturally from our cognitive limitations. Most people, it is clear, do not consider things disinterestedly, and it may be that they cannot. After all, few of us ever learn to think with much analytical rigor. Meanwhile, bias serves self-interest—the most powerful force in human affairs, as everyday life overwhelmingly displays. So, most people are not objective. Reason serves their particular passion, which they are ever keen to advance. As Francis Bacon wrote in The New Organon: “The human understanding is not composed of dry light, but is subject to influence from the will and the emotions, a fact that creates fanciful knowledge; man prefers to believe what he wants to be true.”
And so it happens that when they contemplate a certain thorny subject, people usually try to confirm an a priori view; regardless of the context or what might be added to their knowledge, they perceive things in a distorting light. They don’t examine the matter analytically and objectively, then make a judgment. They examine it in terms of their ideology. A post-hoc rationalization of their evaluative endeavors, the “truth” is determined by their particular desires. And often they do this unconsciously, thinking they are objective where they are merely biased. They intend to set other people straight, but are in fact quite ignorant.
If people are generally all eyes and ears for whatever is going on around them, it is because people themselves are all eyes and ears. No wonder that throughout the course of life we encounter many more assertions than arguments. Truth, as most of us can understand it, is a poor player in an unforgiving world of anxious self-interest. Moreover, it is hardly the mind’s primary function to discern truth (advancing belief is clearly something else). Otherwise myth should not have preceded science. Physics should have come before animism. The mind, rather, is pragmatic by nature, and there is no prima facie reason to believe rational reasoning is any more natural to us or altogether superior to what is imaginative and to what is not rationally the case: it all depends on one’s purposes. And if it is the mind’s primary function to allow us to realize basic animals needs and impulses, then it is hardly necessary that everyone should be able (or even want) to get at the truth with much accuracy or precision.
Here it is no wonder that the gross distortions and simplifications we so often find in the media are not always deliberate. Quite often, people are simply mistaken, doing what they can with their particular (limited) mental equipment. And yet, many people are thrilled to be informed of inaccurate scandal and other false though juicy news, because these afford pretexts for their tendency to righteous indignation, and what is much the same thing, for their anger and hatred. If a scuffle breaks out in a bar, and one person ends up getting the worst of it, there are often many people around who are happy to get in on the fun, to kick a man when he’s down, as the saying goes. So it is with any sort of controversy. Tapping into their unconscious anxieties and fears, to their resentments and spleen, people will rush to have an opinion. The result is a distortion which serves an utterly irrelevant purpose: but by thus venting their discontent they are able to get on with the hard work of living.
On a similar though more primordial level, outright violence and conflict provide a crucial outlet or escape: like getting drunk or having sex, they relieve anxiety, so that life becomes more vital and interesting than we feel when performing the same burdensome tasks day after day. In life we are like children who need to replace one game with another.
Though our time is marked by an unmanly touchiness that causes many foolish and seemingly avoidable problems—a touchiness we will eventually get over as material conditions become less comfortable (like spoiled children, we owe this touchiness to our high quality of life)—observation shows that there is an irrational obstacle, just touched on, to the virtue of tolerance generally: that people have many unconscious fears, anxieties, and resentments that often surface unawares, but which are still evident in things like the West-Summers affair. These create distorted perspectives which sometimes reflect the way people want reality to be, sometimes the way they don’t want it to be, sometimes both. In all this, human nature remains intractably self-interested, however it may don the masks of morality and speak loftily of liberal intentions.
In the practical affairs of life, a completely disinterested person must be essentially fearless, but almost no one is that. We should therefore expect to encounter many gross misunderstandings and misinterpretations that create countless problems and miseries. For a skewed sense of reality is a permanent feature of our condition; there is no reason to think it will change, as though we were somewhere meant to interpret things clearly and distinctly.
Read More: How America Makes Smart People Stupid