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The Blue Pill Without Amnesia–On the Philosophical Foundations of Political Correctness, Part 3.

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.

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The Blue Pill Without Amnesia–On the Philosophical Foundations of Political Correctness, Part 3.


PART 1

PART 2


6.  Coercive Liberalism

“We are condemned to be free” may have been a key slogan of Existentialism, but it is equally true of today’s liberalism.

But at least, the existentialists viewed the human condition as absurd, since we had to experience the responsibility of freedom without ever being able to shake it off, or even living up to its demands.

Today’s liberals condemn others to be free: that is, to forcibly enjoy the freedoms followed by the liberal, politically-correct order.

You may exercise your free speech, as long as the things you say are not considered exclusionary; you may espouse any policy you like, as long as it is of a left-wing egalitarian brand; you may support each type of state, as long as it is democratic; you may even be religious, as long as you are not too religious.

This is a coercive liberalism, something that should not be possible at all.

Why has this type of sans libéralisme evolved?

We have seen how it manifests itself and what its tiresome tricks are.

We do not have a full explanation of why this type of liberalism emerged from classical, post-war liberalism. But we do have some indications.

A useful guide that provides some clues is a perceptive essay called The Coddling of the American Mind, published in The Atlantic in 2015.[1] A quote on campus culture:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

Here, a first fundamental difference with the core tenets of post-war liberalism surfaces.

Whereas the likes of Rawls, Scanlon, and Dworkin emphasized individual rights and the importance of communal institutions and attempted to create a level playing field by thinking about the relations that emerge between individual and society, the new political-correct liberalism is a movement focused on emotional well-being.

The structure of the institutions has to be moulded to conform to the emotional well-being of individuals.

This leads to a strange problem: even prima facie it is impossible that collective structures can cater for the whole plethora of personal preferences and tastes. From a practical point of view, this demand is nonsensical.

But from a theoretical point of view then? Wouldn’t it be desirable if collective structures and institutions catered for as broad a public as possible?

Yes, possibly – but this affirmative answer leads to difficult questions that are continuously avoided or that re-enter the debate as obsessions.

For instance, who will make the decision on what the broadest possible public is, and where we should draw the demarcation lines?

It cannot be the majority, since that would be arbitrary in the extreme.

It would mean that if you happen to belong to a minority, the collective structures are not made for you.

And since you cannot determine whether you are born into a minority, this would be unjust.

To circumvent this difficulty, the notion of “inclusion” has been the favourite moral plaything of coercive liberalism.

From now on, the focus of policies and political actions is to track-and-trace minorities or “the oppressed” – as an aside: not all minorities are oppressed – and elevate them to the status of protected species.

In the meantime, those not belonging to said minority make elaborate public displays to show the unknowing remainder of society how “unsafe” the spaces are that we create and how “racist” we really are by staging public spectacles that can only be described as utterly self-congratulating and political-masturbatory.

It feels good to be right, doesn’t it?

By punishing and humiliating others who do not share the coercive-liberal vision, the core aims of liberalism are universally shared, making life better for everyone.

If the last sentence sounds Orwellian to you – that’s because it is.

The “vindictive protectiveness” is an utterly egotistic response, no matter the excuses of those who carry out its intellectual reign of terror.

No matter how many times the “minorities” are invoked, they serve just as excuse to bully, beat and stamp out those who disagree.

Under all the altruistic talk is just a simple ingroup/outgroup mentality – and political correctness has provided a variety of sticks to beat outsiders with, while the group ideology provides all the excuses and ideological legitimizations.

You can bully, shout, and beat those who disagree in the name of freedom, without having to feel guilty – as per Steven Pinker – you are on the “good side” of history.

On this account, a remark on punishment.

In civilized countries, we leave this up to judicial authorities.

Why is it then that the so-called intellectuals of the coming generation feel the necessity to play judge, jury and executioner themselves? (Or, if you want a darker example that seems to me just as apt: a civil combat squad as armed force of a political movement).

Would you like to live in a society where “the group” decides on a whim who could live and die, based on norms that are as fickle as they are unclear?

Would you like to give yourself over to authorities who change the rules behind your back and accuse you of committing crimes that were not crimes yesterday?

Even worse, would you feel comfortable in a judicial order where verdicts were passed by random groups of individuals (and individuals furthering their agenda by inciting group hatred) and were directly carried out?

In short, a situation where due process was removed in favour of telling you that you trespassed, followed by instant verdict and punishment.

In the beginning of Discipline and Punish, Foucault observed that during the 17th and 18th centuries, the body of the accused was confiscated by the State in its role as punishing institution.

It was generally perceived as the “site” on which punishments were inflicted.

By being sentenced, the criminal lost his vote on what happened to his body.

Consequently, the most repulsive tortures and punishments were inflicted on manacled human beings to serve as deterrent measures and public spectacles.

That this practice is not dead, can be observed by looking at the Cultural Revolution, in which “oppressors” or “capitalists” were publicly forced to “confess” their purported crimes.

They served as pawns in a public spectacle that was intended to demonstrate the reach and cruelty of those in power, as well as deterrent measure for anyone sympathizing with the victims.

Their bodies and their capacities (in particular their capacity for speech) were confiscated by the Communist Party to espouse a form of propaganda – namely a reinforcement of the new order by “confessing” how far the accused had strayed from the benevolent State.

In today’s coercive liberalism, a similar strategy is deployed internally and externally.

It is deployed externally against those who are perceived as enemy or as obstacle to the coercive-liberal agenda.

Even disagreeing with the basic tenets of political correctness is enough to be branded as an enemy, since the group vindictively protects its territory.

What is even more frightening, the rules are constantly changing, so that even as a group member you are not safe  – you may guilty of a crime even without knowing it.

This silent terror and arbitrariness keeps all members in line by discouraging questioning or acting autonomously.

The same tactic is deployed internally, resulting in the pathetic spectacle of public self-flagellation.

It takes the following form of an emphatic confession: “I know I am privileged and that I am not queer/black/disadvantaged/not non-binary” (fill in the label which fits – you may choose more than one) – “and I cannot possibly know what you are going through, but please allow me to make my point X (fill in a political-correct remark here) – “I hope I did not offend you in any way.”

What is the point of this theatrically emphatic grovelling?

It is simply to show one’s allegiance to the group by displaying a kind of fake virtuousness and empathy towards one’s peers.

Similarly, it doubles as insurance policy, so that it is clear that one is an ardent supporter of the collectively enforced norms.

It combines theatrical empathy with calculating cowardice, providing us yet with another depressing glimpse into the minds warped by coercive liberalism.

Note how the application of deterrent techniques like public confession replicate exactly the power structures that coercive liberalism is so hellbent on destroying.

If you assume that the group structures of political-correct collectives is organic in the sense that every member is equal to others, please think again.

In a true Orwellian vein, some are more equal than others.

Nowhere else can this be better observed than in the sordid Avital Ronell affair.[2]

When one of the instigators of “critical” thought was accused of sexual misdemeanour, the whole higher echelon of political correctness rushed to her defence in a misguided written diatribe of half-hearted excuses, incoherent accusations, denial-driven statements and appeals to overlook Ronell’s behaviour.

The people who for years thought that they could tell everyone else what political correctness was, and who embodied its infectious potential in the academy turned out to be just as sinful as the rest of us.

How have the mighty fallen, one is inclined to think, if it were not already a public secret that the power structures they created mimic exactly the systems they publicly condemned.[3]

And exactly the same behaviour can be observed in SJW subcultures.

These groups are not horizontally organized – they are just as hierarchical as the structures that are being attacked.

The problems outlined above (coercive measures, arbitrariness, public confessions, self-flagellation) stem from a single source that – like the rest of coercive liberalism – is not new either: namely, the claim to negative universality or contra-universality.

In a strange paradox, those who criticize “Western universalist thought” or “universalist tendencies” insist on a new kind of “inclusive” negative or contra-universalism – because, if you disagree, you are exiled and vilified.

I have two problems with this contra-universalism.

The first is that when everyone is included, there is no outside; the second is that generally, totalitarian regimes had similar megalomaniacal ambitions.

No one may disagree, and the contra-universalist reign shall last until the end of days.

The means to reach such contra-universal control can only be reached by dictatorial means, and it does not matter whether you call the desired end-state Paradise, The Kingdom of Heaven, the realization of communism or the Caliphate – in the end it all boils down to a small group of people holding all the power, and a majority that can be manipulated at will. In other words: some people do the commanding, the rest of us have to obey.

In such contra-universalized, ideal kingdoms there is no outside.

Even if you can choose from a range of options when it comes to your convictions, the real freedom has been curtailed by those who decide what the range of options is.

The outside is equated with “the Enemy.”

Again, it is ironic that the very coercive-liberals who invoke “the Other” as a philosophical category to show us how racist/xenophobic, etc., etc., we are, treat those who disagree with them exactly as Others to be shunned and scorned.

The noble-sounding goals of coercive liberals (like equality, inclusivity, preventing racism) are betrayed by those who claim to be its defenders, even if they have to use force.

The lyrics of Rage Against the Machine’s song “Killing in the Name Of,” as they performed it at PinkPop in 1993 are apt as ever:

They use force

To make you do

What the deciders have decided

You must do

The only response fitting those demands is their defiant refrain:

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!

But apart from a forceful and resounding “no!” to coercive liberals who seek to enlist everyone in service of their universalist paradise, the real source of the problem must be located in the heart of liberalism itself.

In his 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper formulated the so-called “Paradox of Tolerance.”

The paradox turns on a single question: what should a self-professed tolerant society do with people who do not extend a certain degree of tolerance towards others? Or in other words, how should the tolerant treat those who are intolerant?

Popper’s solution is that tolerant people should – on pragmatic grounds – refrain from violence, as long as the conflict can be settled with disputes.

Otherwise, again according to Popper, coercive violence is the right answer to intolerance, as a form of self-defence.

John Rawls–always the more conscientious liberal–in his 1971 A Theory of Justice, presented an alternative version of the paradox that shows the real deadlock: Rawls held that societies have a right to self-preservation, but this particular right sits uneasily with the aim of justice itself.

If a self-professed tolerant society is intolerant towards the people it perceives as being intolerant themselves, it ceases to be just. It violates its own norms in its zeal for realizing them.

Thus, the real issue lies at the heart of liberalism itself.

Following its core tenets to the end leads to a deadlock, whereby the measure to combat injustice is almost worse than suffering it.

The deadlock here swings between justice and injustice: one must be theoretically unjust in order to be just.

Apart from this deadlock, a second problem arises: who decides what is intolerant and what is not?

If, according to the standards of contemporary political correctness, asking someone where he was born already is a “micro-aggression,” then the bar for intolerance is set so low that looking at someone the wrong way can already be seen as intolerant.

This creates the undesirable situation that the self-professed tolerant people have to stamp out the intolerant ones left and right, since their wide definition of intolerance covers everything, thereby leading to a world of endless conflict.

And indeed, this is exactly what the crusaders of coercive liberalism have been doing.

Forming a classical “thought police” in order to detect and combat unwelcome ideas, they have been rooting out perceived intolerance root-&-branch with a zeal that borders on the maniacal.

This conflict-driven witch-hunt cannot even be the “open society” of Popper, or the “just society” of Rawls.

Alongside Foucault and Derrida, I imagine they too are spinning in their graves just now.

7.  Beyond Coercive Liberalism

And right here, on the silent graveyard of autonomous thinking, directly above the final spinning places of Foucault, Derrida, Popper, and Rawls–is where thinking and acting that genuinely move beyond coercive liberalism have to start, in my opinion.

We must move away from the conceptual deadlock that opens the door to coercive forms of liberalism.

The central difficulty has already been mentioned earlier in this essay: every form of political thought can be abused for malicious ends.

If this is true, no conceivable political system or society will ever be completely insulated against its core tenets being put to use for morally impermissible ends.

This is certainly pessimistic – but there are grounds for sombre optimism.

Time and again, autonomous thinking and acting, both of which are inherently anti-coercive–precisely because coercing someone is violating their autonomy, and also violating empathetic respect for their human dignity–have proved powerful antidotes for political systems that attempted to blind us to the truth.

Therefore, the best self-defence against totalitarianism in its myriad forms is the exercise of autonomy, together with empathetic respect for human dignity and the refusal to coerce.

How is that for “plurality”? – It’s not the kind of bland diversity of susurrating and indistinct voices for its own sake, but instead a kind of “polyvocality” that is organized around a single principle: a robust sense of human dignity.

It is a kind of human dignity that makes one thing clear from the outset: we do not vilify or punch those who disagree, because we are utterly against coercion – the violent imposition of our ideas, on dissenters would turn us in everything we oppose.

If we have a Kantian duty to treat ourselves as ends and not only merely as means, this is it – to resist all coercion, without turning into dictators ourselves.

Kant was certainly right to emphasize the fact that it is immoral to deliver subsequent generations into dictatorship – how would they ever be able to reverse this decision?[4]

Therefore, again, the best antidote to coercive group-thinking is to think and act for yourself in the most radical sense possible, namely, the sense that fully heeds empathetic respect for human dignity and refuses coercion.

In this way, you are not starting a new identity-group that vilifies and coerces others, but instead you are providing a medium and a vehicle for all those who are thinking and acting alongside you, who are nevertheless (and fortunately!) different from or opposed to you.

Let’s call this Autonomous Dignitarian Anti-Coercive Solidarity, aka ADACS, just to give it a jazzy new acronym.

If you are not a coercive liberal of some stripe, and yet you are also a leftist-progressive, then ADACS should not be offensive to you–indeed, it should come as somewhat of a moral and political revelation.

The time for a type of thinking that counters the counter-productive ideas of the so-called “regressive left” is long overdue, as the new radically progressive left will need to play a crucial role in a world that is increasingly embracing its fascist past and practices.

But if you are a coercive liberal, and therefore the very idea of thinking and acting for yourself, while also empathetically respecting the human dignity of all others and always refusing coercion, i.e., the very idea of ADACS, offends you to the core–(politically correct chorus:) shame, shame!, on you, you Enlightenment racist sexist misogynist homophobic patriarchal xenophobe, etc., etc., etc.!, we’re going to doxx you and punch you!–then please consider yourself hereby officially trigger-warned.

NOTES

[1] See: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/ [accessed 23 september 2018].

[2] See: https://www.salon.com/2018/08/18/when-a-woman-is-accused-of-sexual-misconduct-the-strange-case-of-avital-ronell/ [accessed 24 September 2018].

[3] See for an inside testimony: https://www.chronicle.com/article/I-Worked-With-Avital-Ronell-I/244415 [accessed 24 September 2018].

[4] Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784) in Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (eds.) Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p. 19–20.

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Otto Paans

Published a month ago