Sunday, January 10, 2016

Power and Political Correctness

The always excellent Arthur Chu has a good column in Salon: Don’t blame me for Donald Trump: The liberal “p.c. police” didn’t make this monster, a response to How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump by Tom Nichols. Chu is spot on; Nichols is completely full of shit.

There is a standard in academia sometimes labeled as "wallowing in complexity." (Google will give more examples.) All well and good; it's our job to wallow in complexity, to bend over backwards to find as many different perspectives on a question as possible, and treat them all as fairly serious.

The whole point of academic discourse (even the physical sciences) is to actively avoid making a shared decision. Every now and again we have to make a shared decision — we rightly can't hit on the undergraduates any more — but we try to avoid it as long as possible. This philosophy underlies the notion of academic freedom: that professional academics can resist almost any position, however widely held, without losing their jobs. Everyone has a personal bias, and the norms of academic discourse (well, the good ones) exist not to eliminate bias but to make bias more transparent and try to overcome it.

And its fine. That's what we do. Someone has to look at things from every possible angle, and explore every topic until we're sick to death of the "complexity."

Academic discourse is fine in academia, but it's not at all a universal norm, and academic discourse actively poisons real-world politics. Academic discourse is about not changing anything until we absolutely must; in the real world, politics is about changing things right now, not by intellectual exhaustion but by the exercise of power. Indeed, absent politics, academic discourse would rarely change anything in society: there is always more complexity to wallow in.

(The physical sciences tend to move a little more quickly than the social sciences, because protons and electrons, and even organisms and ecosystems, are orders of magnitude less complicated than human society. Even then, scientists typically take a generation to change paradigms.)

All societies, from hunter-gatherers to modern industrial capitalist "democratic" republics, are characterized by power relationships. I don't think there ever was a single power relationship that was ever overturned by intellectual argument or moral suasion. Chu offers an excellent example in slavery: all that argument and suasion ever did was make the slavers double down on their own intellectual and moral justifications for slavery. It took a literal war and the deaths of more than a half million soldiers (2 percent of the population) just to move from literal chattel slavery to Jim Crow, wage slavery, political oppression, and economic hyper-exploitation, and the South still hasn't dug itself out of the moral hole it dug itself into before the Civil War.

People can and do overturn social, political, cultural, and economic power relationships without actual war and killing. But these efforts still require power; argument and moral suasion are useful for gaining power, but only the use of power, the ability to inflict suffering on opponents, can actually change the social power relationship.

We must remember that existing power relationships exercise actual power, including violence and killing, to employ and preserve that power. Oppose segregation and the oppression of black people, and the police will arrest, imprison, torture, and kill you. Try to build a union and use it to secure rights already guaranteed by law, and the company will fire and blacklist you, and the national guard will massacre you. Even observe (adhering to the most rarefied standards of academic discourse) that video games often depict female characters ways that marginalize and subordinate women and you will receive fatwahs that would make Salman Rusdie paranoid. Those who hold power actually use it with no moral restraint, but only the restraint forced upon them by the power of their victims.

I'm still reading Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism. Based on a quick skim, part of the work seems like a justification of specific measures Lenin's ruling Communist Party and Trotsky's Red Army used to actually implement communism under extremely difficult circumstances including the violent hostility of the West, which I might or might not agree with. But I absolutely agree with the fundamental message. The bourgeois state uses every means at its disposal, including violence and "terrorism" (which Trotsky uses to generally denote the violent exercise of state power), thus there is no moral justification to deny those same means to those overturning the bourgeois state. There are always pragmatic considerations — the point of any revolution is to establish and maintain legitimacy, and revolutionaries should avoid means that legitimize their opponents or undermine their own legitimacy — but the only moral consideration is the ends.

If you approve of the bourgeois state, then it is morally coherent to approve whatever means are necessary to maintain the bourgeois state; if you disapprove, then it is morally coherent to approve whatever means are necessary to overthrow it. It is morally incoherent to condemn the bourgeois state and approve its efforts to maintain itself and condemn efforts to overthrow it. In other words, we cannot separate the judgment of the ends from the means that must be used to achieve those ends. To approve the ends but condemn the means is simply to appear sentimental while maintaining one's own power and privilege.

What is true of revolution is just as true of reform. I personally have zero confidence that substantive long-term reforms are possible under capitalism, but I might be (and hope I am) wrong, and even if I'm right, even failed attempts at substantive reform undermine capitalism. But even the tiniest reform requires the exercise of power: not asking, not even demanding, but making people change and punishing people who refuse to change. The punishment need not be violent — loss of social status is an extremely effective punishment — but it needs to be forceful.

To argue otherwise is simply to protect your own privilege behind the shield of sentimentality.

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