The Blue Pill Without Amnesia–On the Philosophical Foundations of Political Correctness, Part 1.
Nietzsche is well known for a terrifying thought experiment: if one night, a demon would visit you in a dream, and reveal to you that you would re-live your live again and again for all eternity, what would you do?
Nietzsche’s initial hunch is that most people would wake up screaming, having glimpsed the horrible inevitability and inescapability of their predicament – a real gaze into the abyss if there ever was one.
One of the fears on which this thought experiment plays is the realization of inescapability.
It is the menacing presence of inescapability that makes for instance The Matrix so compelling as a story.
The red pill offered to the main character Neo provides a moment of insight in the structure of reality that can only be characterized as traumatic.
The scene in which Neo surveys the endless rows of womb-like pods in which human bodies are trapped vividly illustrates the pure horror of inescapability.
It is hard to say who is best off here: is it not better to live one’s life unconscious of one’s true predicament than to be like Neo?
Even the choice that Neo is offered is merciful. Alongside the red pill, he is also offered a blue pill which will make him lose the memories of his traumatic encounter with reality if he chooses to take it.
In other words, he is offered a chance to “unsee” what he saw and to “unhear” what he heard. Most of us are not afforded this luxury.
I think it would have made a more interesting dark plot twist to refuse Neo the forgetful mercy if he had chosen the blue pill.
He would have lived out his life in an artificial coma in a biotechnical contraption, while being aware of the terrible reality he chose to evade during the normal – but illusory – life he experienced while in this cryogenic state.
Neo-without-amnesia would have experienced something more terrible than even Nietzsche imagined: he would be the only one who knew the truth denied to his contemporaries.
However, no one would be able to understand him, even if he told them what he saw and heard in the clearest of terms.
He would be the loneliest person in existence, a kind of Kierkegaardian antihero that knew the truth lurking behind the veil of reality, realizing that he would be scorned and ridiculed for pointing it out.
Kierkegaard wrote in Either/Or that he imagined the end of the world as a clown appearing on stage, announcing that the theatre was on fire.
Everyone would just take it as a joke, because surely a clown can’t be taken seriously….
Why this prelude?
I suppose that most of us can recall situations in which they thought they were the only sane person in the room.
If you never experienced something like this, be thankful, because it is far from pleasant.
Note that I say this without any boasting of my own intelligence or insight. I would rather have avoided this experience altogether if that was even possible.
The experience that I refer to took place at an academic conference.
During one of the sessions, a female speaker (as they say, “with an ethnic background”) presented the following simplified narrative of history: modernity conceived of the world as a kind of highway to progress and universal human well-being.
All obstacles that stood in the way of the train of progress were demolished or removed by technology.
This lead in turn to the privileging of mathematical and technical knowledge over other forms of knowing.
Since modernism has universal aspirations (“happiness for all”), the intricacies and sophistication of local cultures were overlooked or dumbed down.
Everything that was not modernist was seen as inferior or backward and was erased from history – or sometimes literally from the face of the Earth.
While modernism viewed history as a kind of linear progress towards the highest attainable good, it rewrote history by omitting all unpleasant facts and other voices.
This was mainly the work of “the West” and more specifically “Europe” and its morally corrupting correlate “Eurocentrism”.
After presenting this “simplified narrative” of world history, she almost received a standing ovation from the audience.
Many participants loudly claimed with absolute conviction that this vision was the key to (verbatim quote) “overcome misogyny, patriarchy, oppression and racism.”
I estimated most participants were between 25-40 years of age and a variety of nationalities.
I do not know about you, but if I am confronted with all-too-agreeable-yet–coercively-moralistic insipid group-thinking of this kind, my response is a kind of intellectual revulsion, combined with an instinct to disagree as much as I humanly can muster.
What happened to those who are slightly younger and older than me?
What is the lack of judgement that allows a feeble, badly informed, one-sided and self-loathing narrative like the one presented to receive praise in academic circles?
Why does a whole generation not see through the blatant lies fed to them in the guise of “diversity” or “multiculturalism”?
Why does an unthinking majority buy in lies and half-truths that are so easy to undermine and dismantle if one does some effort?
I think I can see the outlines of an answer to these questions.
The first thing to do before providing an answer is to analyse how fact and fiction are blended in order to avoid being associated with alt-right groups who claim all too easily that any criticism on modernity is just whining about the past, or that the grievances of non-white people are just unsubstantiated myths.
So, a disclaimer: I am not a far-right supporter, nor do I have sympathy for those to deny the horrors of history in order not to think; but I equally dislike political-correct, left-oriented narratives of “Western guilt” and “promoting diversity.”
Both camps derive their simplistic thinking from murky waters – the right seems to revert to old-fashioned “Blut-und-Boden” fascism, while the left seems stranded in a compulsive-obsessive disorder induced by overdoses of Foucault and Derrida, all too hellbent on “deconstructing power structures” wherever they may be found.
I deeply distrust both types of zealotry.
2. Facts and Fictions
Looking at history, there is absolutely enough to criticize in the core ideas of the European Enlightenment, and here at APP, we have not been holding back on that point.
For instance, Descartes’ classification of knowledge and the importance he accorded to mathematics has absolutely left its trails in the development of the natural sciences during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Notably the Cartesian-inspired doctrine of natural mechanism has received substantial criticism on this website.
Likewise, the palpable racism in works of both Hume and Kant has been well-documented and criticized.
When Enlightenment philosophers talked about progress for all, they certainly excluded certain groups.
The same can be said with regard to their universalism.
The universal validity of the natural sciences was echoed in the development of political ideas that championed a kind of “perpetual peace.”
There would be progress for certain groups or a kind of “ideal individual,” but it was clear that not everyone belonged to that group.
In this sense, the French and American Revolutions were hallmark events: down with the old order, here comes the new king.
Rightly – although often on political and religious grounds – commentators of the Counter-Enlightenment criticized this tendency to start with a clean slate by forcibly removing tradition from the picture altogether.
Apart from the validity of their criticisms, one should be careful with welcoming the new order: not seldom, the new order has only place for one type of citizen, moulded after the requirements of those in power.
How deeply ingrained and relevant this criticism is can be observed even in recent political philosophy, when the supposedly liberal philosophy of John Rawls was criticized by so-called communitarians.
The communitarian critics attacked Rawls for conceiving of an “abstract,” atomistic, impoverished conception of the individual and for placing too much emphasis on regulating society instead of relying on communally developed traditions to serve as social substrate.
Whether the communitarians were right or not is not a point of dispute here – what matters is the continuity of this criticism from the Enlightenment to present-day philosophers.
A similar line of criticism on Enlightenment can and should be levelled at the colonisation and slave trade that took place when the intellectual cornerstones of modernity started to take shape.
Notably European nations caused severe and lasting suffering by actively trading slaves, occupying whole nations and imposing their rules on the local population as if they were irrelevant.
All of these events have been thoroughly documented and deserve meticulous attention in higher education.
Moreover, historians who bring these stories to the general public deserve praise, as the story of suffering is the story of humanity.
Likewise, the glorification of technology took wing during the modernist years of the early 20th century, promising a kind of disaster relief for the whole of humanity by literally rebuilding whole nations and cities based on what was termed “Objectivity” – i.e. a narrow kind of scientific rational paradigm of knowledge production.
Modernism would deliver objectivity in the arts, the sciences and life itself.
One of the most important claims of the modernist architectural agenda was to provide the “universal building,” a typology that would function everywhere, irrespective of climate, culture, location or geography.
The world was the clean slate, ready for conquest by progress.
Not surprisingly, problems introduced themselves quite quickly.
The ambitions of modernism proved to be too megalomaniacal.
As a consequence, we still possess half-finished modernist cities that either do not function at all, or only with heavy modifications.
Last but not least, I am heavily in favour of the demand for teaching philosophy from all places on the globe, instead of focusing only on the Western tradition (and happily, I am not alone here).
The philosophical traditions developed in for instance India, China, the Islamic World, Africa and Latin America deserve attention, and should be taught parallel to the western tradition.
This is not because of some desire of mine to comply with contemporary calls for “diversity,” but just because I believe they beautifully and convincingly reflect the fact that humanity is everywhere endowed with the capacity for reason.
So far, I support deserved criticism of the European Enlightenment and its undesirable and morally impermissible consequences.
So why do I still take serious issue with the “simplified narrative” discussed above?
3. The Retrospective Twist
My reason for vigorous dissent is simple: it stems from revulsion at the application of a technique that I shall label “the retrospective twist.”
Formally, if fact A happened at time X (let’s say, two hundred years ago), the retrospective twist reads (and twists thereby) fact A in such a way to make it conform to
(i) contemporary moral convictions and sensibilities, and
(ii) a larger narrative that allows one to interpret fact A as part of a larger, purposive ideological scheme that is held up as “the enemy.”
This description seems somewhat abstract, so a specific example might be in order. For example, the fact is that modernism in the sense of the French Revolution had universal political aspirations.
This can be easily inferred from the writings of a broad range of Enlightenment thinkers, ranging from Rousseau to Kant, and Voltaire to Robespierre.
So far, little dispute seems possible.
If we retrospectively twist the fact, we assert that these tendencies are specifically Western, that they overlooked the plurality of voices and rights of minorities, or even worse, complete ethnic groups.
Again, these assertions might be factually true. Western nations carried Enlightenment ideas with them across the oceans and overlooked or destroyed complete cultures in the realization of what they viewed as their right and ideal.
The subtle twist hides in the language used here: the contemporary focus on “ethnicity,” “minorities,” “other voices,” etc., is smuggled into the debate in the guise of “being critical.”
All of a sudden it looks as if the Enlightenment thinkers are the sworn enemy of today’s political-correct agenda for universal happiness.
And this is because – so the argument goes – you must be out of your mind to refuse the validity of multiculturalism, egalitarianism, democracy, let alone the struggle against misogyny, racism etc.
Here, point (ii) silently enters the debate.
Suddenly, it seems that those who oppose the contemporary moral view on what is good are complicit in a dark, oppressive, history-denying, blood-soaked, morally unacceptable political enterprise, based on the scorned universalist and Western Enlightenment values that have been so mercilessly and illuminatingly exposed by the retrospective twist.
It makes all dissenters to the received view complicit in an intellectual-political plot that is purposely designed to block progress, but it is veiled in the language of tolerance.
(And yet, is tolerance not just a poor substitute for actually living together in authentic solidarity with others?)
Again, I am not against resisting misogyny, racism or oppression.
I resist it when someone else tells me what these terms ought to mean by projecting their vision of the world on me.
Moreover, I resent being framed as someone who by dissenting is already morally wrong.
Is that not the ultimate dictatorship?
The use of the retrospective twist and its malicious utilization of language as political tool is a bad sign for public debate, especially when group pressure and moral manipulation become weapons in the hands those who clearly see themselves as being the “good side of history.”
Incidentally, a review of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now! perceptively noticed that Pinker seemed intent on proving exactly that point.
The abuse of language deserves special attention.
Its insidious potential can be illustrated with an anecdote from the former Soviet Union.
A photographer wants to create a series of photos of the natural environment in Central Asia and applies for a travel permit.
The civil servant asks him what he wants to do, and the photographer answers: “I would like to shoot a photo series on the wilderness of Central Asia.”
The civil servant replies: “This is not possible. We have no wilderness in the Soviet Union.”
The photographer replies “But surely, we have the wilderness in Central Asia….”
At this point, the civil servant interrupts: “That is not wilderness! What we have in Central Asia is unspoiled nature, which is the heritage of the people. So, you are allowed only to take a photo series of unspoiled nature.”
Only after the phrasing was changed, was the permit given…
It is too easy merely to laugh at this joke.
We are knee-deep in the same situation already.
In a time when “trigger warnings” are rampant, in which the idea of a “micro-aggression” takes hold, and in which narrow-minded political correctness is reflected and enforced through the concept of “being inclusive,” you know that the rise of a dictatorship does seldom take place overnight.
Instead, it is more like a slowly rising water level.
First, it only sloshes around your ankles, and you can easily ignore it.
Then it reaches your knees, but free movement is still possible.
As it reaches your hips, movement is constrained, but still possible.
After that, however, the bottom seems to disappear beneath your feet and you have no choice but to swim.
The constant – even obsessive – artificial tinkering with language should be taken as a dire warning.
If those in power decree the use and omission of words or phrases, why should we not think of the Middle Ages, when such practices were common among theologians?
The prospect is alluring but should be resisted.
The reason that such an analogy falls short is that it is no longer very clear who are in power, and that “the group” or “the collective” has been institutionalized as main power structure for enforcing social or desired behaviour.
This is why group thinking is terrifying: whether it concerns jeering SJWs, an angry mob demanding the stoning of a freethinker, disgruntled peasants shouting for the head of a nobleman, or “the people” demanding the deportation of the “elite” – in all cases and at all times, a mindless, easy-to-excite group-thinking is at work.
This type of thinking scorns individuality, independence, originality, criticism, probing and questioning. No creed is valid but the collective creed of the group.
However, in the case I described, it is the group itself that presents itself as benign both internally and externally.
This makes political correctness such a dangerous ideological tool.
Group-thinking presents itself externally as a benign political and social force, claiming to rally to the causes of the oppressed, the downtrodden and the poor.
In reality, it is the civil-looking mind control of an affluent share of the population that has spread throughout academia.
Internally (and this is clearly reflected in the schismatic development of Marxism) propagated dogmatic impulses lead to unending schisms and opportunistic discussions.
Yet, those in power of the warring factions defend the fiction that they stand united against an evil outside world.
In this case, those espousing the mind-numbing version of today’s political correctness would have us believe that they are our last defensive line against a rising tide of barbarism.
If this is really the case, then our predicament is far worse than I anticipated, and I’d almost be inclined to prefer barbarism.
) Aphorism 341 of The Gay Science
) On this account, I can highly recommend Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, both in book and podcast format.
) See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/books/review-enlightenment-now-steven-pinker.html [accessed 23 September 2018].