Saturday, May 26, 2018

Defining the Left

This is a continuation of my previous post on the political correctness issue raised in last week's Munk Debates with Jordan Peterson, Michelle Goldberg, Michael Eric Dyson, and Stephen Fry (who stayed on task, so won't be discussed here). The rest of the debate skirted around the issue of political correctness but focused more on the extreme versions of left and right. Again, this is what I heard in the most charitable reading I can give it. That being said, I find Peterson difficult to follow at times. He has a tendency to mix clear and obvious truisms with a suggestion of something more controversial. Then when that controversial point is questioned, he can easily insist it's not what he said at all, without then clarifying what it is he actually meant by the suggestion. It's all a little slippery.


Peterson indicated his concern with the collectivist nature of the Left, in which you're not an individual, but a member of a group categorized along lines of ethnicity, sex, and race. The problems with this perspective, he says, are that it leads to tribalism, it doesn't allow free speech because "when you speak, you're just playing a power game on behalf of your group," and we can't have group rights because we can't have group responsibilities.

Goldberg and Dyson both referred to Peterson's view of the left as a caricature that, if the case at all, is an insignificantly small minority.

About group identity in general, Dyson said, "Identity is foisted on people of colour. Who wants to be part of a group attacked at Starbucks? We're treated as a group and denied the ability to act as individuals. . . . Nobody is a bigger snowflake than white men who complain 'they won't let us play with the old regime where we hated other races.'" And Goldberg said,
"Wanting more minorities in power is not because we're looking for crude equity, but because many individuals are not able to reach their potential on their own. It's classical liberalism. . . . A huge part of politics is groups struggling for rights for individual members: women seeking the right to control over their own body and minorities seeking redress from police brutality. We can't contend with those social problems if you see society as just atomized as individuals. There's nothing pernicious about people banding together to redress injustices." 
Goldberg also took him to task for the false analogy between individual and group responsibilities. We can have group rights and then take individual responsibility within that group.

Their main argument is that being a member of a group is the only way for the disenfranchised to get freedom for the individuals within the group, especially now that we're at a point where technology and outsourcing are taking even more jobs. Nora Loreto has a similar concern with Peterson's slant:
"Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have demonstrated that there is a link between precarious work and increased anxiety, depression and emotional difficulty. These trends can change only when people work together and demand improvements, whether it’s locally through community activism, or on a larger scale. But that kind of thinking would put Peterson out of work. Peterson’s logic preys on people already in despair and puts them into a cycle that they cannot improve on their own. He’s creating a cadre of dependent disciples.
That being said, however, there is a legitimate concern that political correctness is a surreptitious way for people to get power. It can be seen as a type of vigilante justice in which small groups try to define the rules for the rest. I saw this first hand as I had to gently remind a parent that the province sets the curriculum for my course, so, no, I can't remove an entire unit in order to accommodate her daughter's comfort in my class. That's new and weird, but it feels like it just takes a little push back to remind people that what makes them personally uncomfortable can't be solely what determines what's available to the rest. As I said yesterday, we need limits to political correctness, but let's not thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And, when we use these terms, it's imperative we discuss specifics so we can have real arguments about the true consequences of ideas rather than nebulous theoretical debates. If people feel persecuted, it can help to scrutinize the barriers to freedom they're addressing in order to assess whether or not our pity is warranted. We have to start talking about this issue with real examples on the table to be able to get at the nitty gritty of the border between demanding respect for others and abusing power from the bottom up.

ETA a little de Beauvoir (America Day by Day, p. 94):


According to Peterson, we live within a hierarchy, and they tend towards tyranny when they're corrupted, but we have mechanisms to stop corruption. Our current hierarchy is one of merit. He said, "Foucault* believed the only basis for hierarchy is power, which is part of the PC doctrine. In our imperfect hierarchy we have constructed, it tilts at least somewhat to competence and ability as evidenced by staggering achievements." If we aim for equality of outcome, we'll regress to a state of tribalism.

The moderator asked, "How does Peterson get an equal voice back if it's implied that white privilege doesn't allow it?"

Dyson was incredulous considering Peterson's bid for equal access to the masses despite his popularity on YouTube: "How can Peterson get his equality back?? Why the rage? You're doing well!"

It brought to mind a similar exchange with my own children. When my children were little, about ages three and one, a wall in our kitchen was dedicated to their artwork. At the time, it was entirely my oldest's creations, but one day I added some artwork from her little brother. She balked at the intrusion, complaining that, "You're covering all my work with his!" So, together, we counted the twenty or so pieces she had up, and then that one piece from him. It really felt to her that her space was being taken over. As the oldest, she hadn't had to compete with anyone like this before. For two- thirds of her life she had my undivided attention. She learned to get a better feel for equity later on. She was just little. As for the others: "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." It's time to give others a chance to speak.

Dyson and Goldberg addressed the idea that if we don't make any accommodations for people previously left behind, then those people never have a chance to reach their individual potential. It reminded me of a Chris Rock joke about white men having a 400-year head start. And there have been a few studies (herehere, and here) that sent out identical resumes with different names at the top to show that people with names that sound white and male get significantly more calls for an interview than their identical counterparts. Equality of opportunity is only logically fair if we really believe that racism and sexism are over. But they're so clearly not.

Dyson added, "If you free a person after oppression, with no skills or means of status, then you've liberated him into oppression. Peterson is not suffering from anything but that his privilege is invisible to him." And then he reminded him of some of the horrors being faced by minority groups, currently and historically. This takes me back to what Matthew Stewart said in a recent Atlantic article about the wealthiest 10%.
"We have figured out how to launder our money through higher virtues. . . . Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary. . . . If the system can be gamed, well then, our ability to game the system has become the new test of merit."


Peterson suggests that the left goes too far in its bid for diversity, inclusivity, and equality of outcome.  His view is that equality of outcome is abhorrent. And if that's not the worst case of the radical left, then, he challenged his opponents to answer, what is? At what point should we be concerned that the left has gone too far? He's trying to differentiate the reasonable left from the pathological left that has dominated the universities according to irrefutable studies from Johnathan Hiadt (duly refuted here and here).

Goldberg responded with "violence and censorship," but Peterson didn't accept the answer. "Saying the radical left goes too far when it's violent is not sufficient. It's a set of ideas that led to catastrophes in this century."

However, at the extremes, equality of outcome in which everyone ends up with the same stuff isn't what anybody's hoping to achieve. Even Marx didn't hope for that result. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx explains,
"The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence, which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence. We by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour, an appropriation that is made for the maintenance and reproduction of human life, and that leaves no surplus wherewith to command the labour of others. All that we want to do away with, is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it." 
Nobody wants everybody to get the same pay regardless their effort or ability or marketable skills. Guaranteed Basic Income only works if most people continue to work, as they will, to improve their lot beyond the basics. But the left hopes that the basics are covered. We don't want anyone to be scrambling to survive while others have more than they can use. It's not a matter of destroying the hierarchy entirely, but of flattening it enough that the bottom are able to thrive, not at the expense of the top, but merely without exploitation at their hands.

And nobody wants the extreme view at the other end either: equality of opportunity. That, I imagine, would look a little like Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron," in which characters have to accept disabilities imposed on them in order to create a true level playing field. That side wants complete freedom as if it's entirely merit based. Peterson mentions that our imperfect hierarchy has mechanisms in place to prevent corruption. Isn't the Employment Equity Act just one such mechanism?

If we can keep from the extremes of the political dichotomy, and get specific about what the world should look like, then I think we're all uncomfortable with needless suffering, aren't we?


*This is besides the point, but Peterson claims that Foucault said the only basis for hierarchy is power, and because of that, it's implied that Foucault wanted to dismantle or had a problem with, or saw something wrong with hierarchies, and then Peterson objects to this. But that doesn't jibe with what I've read on Foucault. For instance, this is Foucault on power: "We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production" (194). If it IS the case that somewhere Foucault said hierarchies are only based on power, then surely they can also be based on productive power. It would appear that Peterson and Foucault are more in agreement than the former would prefer to admit.

Also besides the point, several pieces have been written about Peterson since Nellie Bowles wrote that New York Times article about his solution to the incels just over a week ago. Tabatha Southey compiled his most sexist views in Macleans, and McSweeney's satirized it in verse. And then, just yesterday, a former colleague of his, Bernard Schiff, called him 'dangerous' in The Star.
"Jordan has studied and understands authoritarian demagogic leaders. They know how to attract a following. . . . Douglas Murray described the atmosphere at one of Jordan’s talks as “ecstatic.” I have no way of knowing whether Jordan is aware that he is playing out of the same authoritarian demagogue handbook that he himself has described. If he is unaware, then his ironic failure, unwillingness, or inability to see in himself what he attributes to them is very disconcerting. . . . 
Jordan has a complex relationship to freedom of speech. He wants to effectively silence those left-wing professors by keeping students away from their courses because the students may one day become “anarchical social revolutionaries” who may bring upon us disruption and violence. At the same time he was advocating cutting funds to universities that did not protect free speech on their campuses. He defended the rights of “alt right” voices to speak at universities even though their presence has given rise to disruption and violence. For Jordan, it appears, not all speech is equal, and not all disruption and violence are equal, either. . . . If Jordan is not a true free speech warrior, then what is he? . . . He is a social order warrior. . . . He is a biological and Darwinian determinist. Gender, gender roles, dominance hierarchies, parenthood, all firmly entrenched in our biological heritage and not to be toyed with. . . . 
I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now. He has done disservice to the professoriate. He cheapens the intellectual life with self-serving misrepresentations of important ideas and scientific findings. He has also done disservice to the institutions which have supported him. He plays to “victimhood” but also plays the victim. . . . Jordan may have, however, welcomed being fired, which would have made him a martyr in the battle for free speech. He certainly presented himself as prepared to do that. A true warrior, of whatever. . . . Jordan is seen here to be emotionally explosive when faced with legitimate criticism, in contrast to his being so self-possessed at other times. He is erratic. . . . 
“Bernie. Tammy had a dream, and sometimes her dreams are prophetic. She dreamed that it was five minutes to midnight.” That was our last conversation. He was playing out the ideas that appeared in his first book. The social order is coming apart. We are on the edge of chaos. He is the prophet, and he would be the martyr. Jordan would be our saviour. I think he believes that."
I wonder if the debate was his swan song, unbeknownst to him, or will his followers relish the attempted sacrifice and grow in numbers? Time will tell. Until then, here's some Charles Taylor to bring us back to political correctness:
"Misrecognition shows not just a lack of due respect. It can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need."


Anonymous said...

Charles taylor is of course completely wrong.

John said...

Hi Marie, I recognize this comment is three months overdue, but I have only recently begun to delve into the Peterson PC extravaganza. Of course the Munk debate comment section on YouTube was filled with JP adherents enraged by the blatant racism of Dyson and somewhat unsurprisingly the debate itself was bland. However, this issue is interesting to me as someone who spent the last 7 years reading and agreeing with leftists and SJWs of the type that are oft-caricatured by anyone who is against political correctness.

For reasons that are not altogether clear to me, the last year has brought increasing doubt and even more recently strong disagreement in response to some of these beliefs. My intellectual focal points shifted from Marx/Trotsky/Chomsky toward the postmodernists during the portion of the time I spent with qualitative social science. I agree with your objection to Peterson's understanding of Foucault, as one of the central points of Foucault's oeuvre is that power is generative of and coextensive with knowledge. However, I think this position is central in analyzing and understanding leftist PC norms. What JP tirelessly argues (often with more panache and less facts) is that the postmodernists emerging from May '68 retain Marx (more accurately Gramsci) almost as an a priori framework which continues to elusively ground their anti-empiricism. I think this is ultimately more or less correct, or at least a sort of bourgeouis iconoclasm, as evidenced in Foucault's discussion of the prison system and the retraining of power toward self-discipline (panoptocism) as an increase in power which is all the more maniacal because we view it as a beneficial means of helping a person to fit in. What Foucault calls the increased focus of power, most social scientists (or at least lay people) would call an education in social norms and self-discipline, which is more obvious when Foucault critiques the school as a reincarnation of the prison model.

One of Foucault's most obvious influences is Friedrich Nietzsche, who argues in the Genealogy of morals that egalitarian ideology is nothing more than an exercise in self-interest by the weak, downtrodden, or self-important ivory tower folk (the last a modern addition). Nietzsche's logic follows that to cede equal power to the downtrodden is a one-way ticket to a reversal of lots, not to mention a complete misunderstanding of the purpose and beauty available in life. Equality is not an end, it should not be the defining goal of one's life but instead self-mastery. This antiquarian stance is obviously reprehensible from our modern liberal perspectives, but the characterization of power relations as ubiquitous, capable to generate knowledge, and driven by self-interest for all groups is instructive...

John said...

I believe the ideologies intertwined with "political correctness" are rhetorically placed beyond reproach far more often than they should, and these neo-truisms, which portend to aim toward equality, become rhetorical hammers to fight oppression and privilege but also to dominate unsuspecting parents and conservatives (read bigots; I do take bigotry seriously but conservatives are almost exclusively painted as bigots in SJ circles). Academia has seemingly become transfixed by social constructions to the point that everyone is unquestioningly taught that gender, sex, and race/ethnicity have no biological component (I agree race is almost exclusively socially constructed but this seems to co-occur with the idea that genetic commonalities between sub-populations of people based on regions is nonexistent which is patently false). The redefinition of racism as prejudice+power is one banal example of this sort of redefinition that is constantly used to bop unsuspecting students (and especially parents) over the head when they describe a minority group member's outgroup hostility as racism. "Black people can't be racist because they're a marginalized group. Racism is power+privilege." Is this white suburban teen seeking justice by redefining racism or smug superiority over their ignorant family members? I'll give you an example of rhetorical silencing/redefinitional power in real life. After a black history museum visit, a black student in a black majority class explained how annoyed they were with all of the white people there who kept getting in their way or talking. They lamented that they wished no white people had been allowed to come in that day, maybe they should only be admitted certain days. As a white person, if I had exclaimed, "That's racist!" I would have been summarily lectured on power+privilege ad nauseum.

Even if my thesis were partially right (I don't want to claim that more extreme feats of PC culture are only power-motivated at their root), this doesn't negate the reality that there are real, systemic issues of inequality in US society. I agree completely with the sources you cited re the effects of racism and support the left political platform you advocate almost completely. Perhaps the "issues" I have outlined have little effect on the long march toward justice, but I take issue with what I see as implicit assumptions within the left: 1. Empirical research and free thought can and should be subjugated to the pursuit of justice (often without acknowledgement). 2. If equality of outcome were to be reached w/r/t race, economic status, or whatever else this equilibrium would be more or less maintained (that is, there are no incentives for identity groups to attempt to obtain and maintain privilege either social or economic) and 3. This mission of progress and equality can be applied to international relations in which the evil, neo-colonialist US peaceably transfers its inordinate economic and military power to the global south while maintaining the prosperity which allows for such altruistic politics and does not result in ecological destruction. I fear that the rabid, sometimes bordering on delusional, beliefs of the left are setting the west up for a Trotskyite->Neocon type conversion that will pale in comparison to the post-9/11 era. As I have begun to interrogate the dogma (and truths) that I picked up as a SJW, I have realized just how much panoptic, self-disciplining there is involved in PC/SJ rhetoric, especially for a cis, hetero, white, able-bodied male. I have constantly countered any questioning of my prior beliefs with an inquisition as to the privileges I am trying to protect and the repressed racism/homophobia/etc that may be propelling these thoughts. I am quite perplexed and somewhat saddened that I have begun to view PC rhetoric as a disguised power-grab. The hermeneutics of suspicion are and remain strong in the left.

Marie Snyder said...

I agree with you that there's a new belief system that gender is entirely a social construct or "performative" as Judith Butler calls it. It's certainly partly true, but I've heard the extreme position from peers in social sciences, and I'm stunned by it. Surely it just takes a cursory understanding of genetics and hormonal interactions to recognize significant biological elements to gender. It's that dogmatic cheering of either of those polarized ends that's the problem. And I've agreed with Peterson before on the problem with people from a minority group feeling untouchable because of their status as a minority, which adversely affects the potential for healthy disagreement.

But do people on the left want equality of outcome, or just less inequality? Peterson argues against the leftist dream of equality of outcome, but I'm not aware of any well known leftists actually arguing for that. When I think "equality of outcome," I picture a 1984-type scene with everyone in matching jumpers. I think if we think about it a bit, we all (left and right) want people who work more or in a more specialized field to be able to earn more, but we also might all draw the line at CEOs making 300 times their employees. As Marx argued, we don't want to make everyone earn the same, we just want to stop the exploitation of the working class. So, it's not a matter, for instance, of the US giving up their power to weaker nations, but of the US being prevented from exploiting people, e.g. prison slavery or bare subsistence wages being paid in places with non-existent labour laws, or actual old-school slavery as still exists in chocolate, coffee, and cotton industries.

But I'm with you on concerns with a PC power grab, and I think Nagle did a good job of elucidating problems on both sides. The left isn't what it used to be, and we desperately need to fix it in order to better deal with some of the more frightening ideas coming from the right.

John said...

I think we are largely in agreement, but I disagree on the equality of outcome bit. W/r/t socioeconomic status broadly defined, I agree that the left largely stands for equality of opportunity. However, re certain identity groups it becomes equality of outcome in which men and women should have equal footing in the tech industry and Congress (for example). Because society generally (sometimes) agrees that women are not inferior to men intellectually and minority ethnic groups are similarly capable of inyelligence, equality of outcome becomes the de facto standard at which the end of oppression could be marked. I haven't met someone on the left who doesn't want to stamp out oppression full stop. We both agree the left is increasingly toothless regarding economic issues, but with identity-based oppression I do think equality of outcome is the goal.

I think this seeming dichotomy between the political telos of class-based politics and identity politics is an obvious sticking point, leading white men focused on the economy (those chauvinisticchauvinistic who are all about the modes of production) to be derided as brocialists. Reduce inequality is perhaps the most inane, anti-utopian slogan possible while end oppression (read equality of outcome or thereabouts) is far more catchy. It is the latter battle cry that the "Tumblr left", as Nagel might call them, chooses to march to.

Marie Snyder said...

Yes, I see, equality of outcome via Employment Equity / Affirmative Action policies. I had been looking at it from an entirely monetary point of view. While I agree with the policy in that people will naturally tend to choose to hire people most similar to them, so it's useful to encourage employers to aim to hire from all races and genders, I think the goal of 50/50 m/f is unrealistic because of the bit of biology that does affect us. It seems ridiculous to aim for 50/50 m/f kindergarten teachers or construction workers. But it's less ridiculous in congress or the house of commons. And equal pay for work of equal value is a no brainer, provided we're honest about the value of the work.