Activist Leftist Discourses – Opacity and Moralism

I would both consider myself something of a leftist and a liberal. The two terms are not interchangeable as there are leftists who decry liberalism, and liberals who identify with the political right. An example of the former would be a left wing Catholic like Pope Francis who sees liberalism as something of a failed experiment in unfettered individualism. While an example of the latter is easily identified by the ubiquitous attitude of the person cares much for the equal freedom of people and the flourishing of the market but sees no role for the state in regulating culture and morality; this is the person who is “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” The Economist magazine may be the most obvious example of this kind of outlook.

I give this autobiographical note not because I think it is important to express my political identity, but to position myself as more of an internal critic of certain trends in left wing politics that I find troubling and problematic. From my perspective, left wing political discourse in the last ten years has at once been too moralistic and too opaque and removed from the concrete understandings of ordinary people. In what follows I will explain the rationale behind these judgments and the negative effects of the political left’s dominant modes of rhetoric.

It should be noted that none of this is too suggest that right wing discourse has been more enlightened than left wing discourse and is without flaw. Instead I am just focusing on what I see as the shortcomings of the rhetoric of the political left. Ironically, being of the left makes me somewhat more critical of left wing political discourses, because I expect more from it than I do from the right.

To begin I find the discourse of left wing politics too academic because of its failure to explain its ideas to those that are not already part of the activist community. This failure to explain its idea is made most evident by invocations of racism and sexism without context or explanation. Racism and sexism have very particular meanings when they are invoked in left wing political discourse, but this meaning is quite distinct from the everyday meaning of the term that most citizens of post-industrial liberal democracies hear when the terms are invoked.

Most ordinary people think of sexism as explicit discrimination against people based on sex or race, or a personal attitude that claims that people belonging to a certain group are inherently less than those of other groups. However, typically in left wing discourse these terms refer to forms of oppression that systemically disadvantage women and non-whites. These forms of oppression are not simply based on intentional acts or negative attitudes, but on unconscious prejudices, the cultural association of value with norms of masculinity and whiteness and the historical residue of previous attempts to intentionally disadvantage these groups. A clear example of this invocation of systemic sexism occurs when activists raise the point that that American society pays women approximately 70 cents for every dollar men make constitutes a form of sexism in itself. What has lead to this inequality is often unexplained by activists, instead the point is brought up as if it speaks for itself. This makes it very easy for people to rightly point that the stat itself is a bit misleading. While men working in the same job as women typically make more than women, this stat does not compare the pay of men and those who are women in the same professions, but rather men and women as a whole. In this case, what accounts for the stark difference are not just inequalities in pay in the same profession, but also that work that is associated with women, and where women constitute the majority tend to be paid significantly less than professions associated with men. Now, this stat gestures towards the insightful point that “masculine” professions are more highly valued than “feminine” professions, but this stat is rarely brought up with this additional context and explanation. Instead, the stat becomes a talking point whose meaning should be evident and transparent to all. In which case, it is hardly surprising that when people hear the stat and are told that it reveals the inherent sexism of our society that they automatically get defensive and think that they are being told they themselves have sexist attitudes. This does not logically follow from the use of this stat without explanation, but it is a common and deeply understandable psychological response based on the audience’s understanding of sexism.

To explain further, when the term sexism is thrown at someone without an explanation of the concept of sexism being invoked people are going to default to their own understanding of what it means to be sexist. Consequently, given that most people understand sexism as a personal attitude rather than a systemic concept of oppression, they are not going to be convinced when they are told that our society is inherently sexist, as they do not think less of people based on their sex or gender, and know few people who think less of people based on their sex or gender. Furthermore, they are likely to see the invocation of sexism as a hyperbolic personal attack. While this is only one example of a miscommunication occurring between activists on the left and others that are not part of that community, I think it is plausible to posit that this form of communication has become far more common due to the changing nature of media. This change will be adumbrated below.

I think it is fair to say that over the course of twentieth century forms of media have gradually begin to focus more on soundbites, talking points and slogans as opposed to lengthy arguments. Our political dialogue must be digestible in small chunks because we do not have the time to focus our attention on a complex issue amongst the business of contemporary. I refer to this change in media as the soundbitification of media. While it would take an entire book or more to document the nature of this change and its causes, the prima facie experiential evidence for this change is made quite clear when we consider two aspects of our political discourse: social media and televised political punditry.

In the case of social media, Twitter is particularly illuminating. Due to the inherent character limits on Twitter, political talk on Twitter tends to revolve around cheerleading for a cause, insults and sloganeering rather than the exchange of ideas. I cannot make a good argument about why I like the idea of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) in 140 characters, but I can create a tweet that others sympathetic to this policy will spread. Furthermore, while Facebook posts have no inherent character limit the norms of usage surrounding this platform mean that political talk on Facebook is more about garnering “likes” as opposed to the exchange of ideas. Once again political talk does not focus on exchanging ideas but on signaling one’s allegiance and rallying for the cause. In this soundbitified media context we are likely to hear a lot about rape culture and white supremacy in the public sphere, but little about what these concepts actually mean.

Televised political punditry more obviously encourages sloganeering, as pundits are given just 30 seconds, if they are lucky, to explain their perspective on a complex issue. The result is obviously that issues are dumbed down and that there are few genuine exchanges of ideas. Instead people are more worried about shutting down their opponents and identifying themselves as authentic fighters for their particular political cause.

It should be emphasized that activists don’t just engage in soundbites to get media attention, although that is certainly one reason for it. Instead, the forms of communication through which social activism occurs, and is organized, such as social media and street protest encourage a heavily sloganized and soundbite oriented politics. In this context politics becomes a very tribal activity where though my clever use of buzzwords and slogans I signal to others that I am one of the true believers fighting for good, against the evils of the world. Explaining my points to people who disagrees and persuading them is not the point. Winning the war is. And it is in this aspect of our modes of political communication that we also see why left wing discourse has not just become opaque to those outside of the group, but also excessively moralistic.

Moralism as a concept may seem to refer to someone concerned with morals, in which case those of us who care about ethics would rightly praise moralism. But on my understanding moralism is a mode of thought that condemns actions, individuals or agencies by expressing indignation towards anything that does not agree with them, as uncompromisingly evil. In this sense moralism is linked to fanaticism and zealotry. For moralists there is only the light and the darkness. Capitalist moralists cannot see anything in socialism that is redeeming, and likewise socialist moralists can only see capitalism as a Satanic presence. As a result socialist moralists are peculiarly theoretically opposed to Marxists who recognize capitalism’s failings, but also see the gains it has made over feudal and explicitly aristocratic modes of social and economic organization.

Now, in what sense is left wing discourse moralistic? It is moralistic precisely because its modes of communication are meant to signal virtue and that one is a righteous warrior, but it is also moralistic because of the way that it denigrates aspects of the culture without thinking about how this denigration will be seen by those outside of the activist community. For this latter aspect let us look at a contemporary example. This example is the characterization of corporations and banks in popular activist left wing discourse. This characterizations sees corporations as an insipid evil with leaders that only care about profit. It is important here that the critique is not that these groups have illegitimate power and therefore are at risk of increasing inequality and injustice. Instead, the critique is that bankers, CEOs and shareholders are greedy, mean and unfeeling and put profits before people. Our economy is critiqued not for being unjust or unfair, but rather for being without compassion. While there is some merit to this critique of the character of the powerful it will be seen by many as mere resentful moralism for good reason.

The public mores of our society put a very large weight on the importance of economic success to a fully successful life. Our culture admires those who are successful in private industry because we do not see pursuing self-interest ambitiously as a vice; rather we see it as in some sense admirable and integral to the freedom and prosperity of our society, but at the same time as something that can be taken too far and destroy other valuable elements of life such as friendship, family and romantic love. This belief in the value of career ambition may be mistaken, and I think the value of it is at the very least deeply overstated, but it is a significant aspect of our culture. Therefore, many ordinary people who are not deeply committed to an ideology will tend to see people criticizing successful business people as resentful individuals who just weren’t able to be successful in their own lives, and therefore need to knock the powerful down a few pegs. And even those who do not have this strong of a reaction may find the characterization unfair as they have likely worked in a private industry and known business owners who seemed to be kind, admirable people. Therefore, the characterization will strike them as simply untrue and overtly judgmental and narrow-minded. While their boss may have pursued profit they are not the moral monster that a particular kind of activist is depicting. As a result many of those outside the activist community will have missed the valid point that activists are gesturing towards. This point is that our economy should not be structured just to generate growth, but instead should be structured to ensure equitable outcomes and a decent life for all, and the current role of corporations prevents the creation of this kind of economy.

The key forward for left wing discourse is to get away from simply communicating to organize the faithful and moving to genuinely persuading others. This require us to actually think about why we believe what we do, rather than communicating in ways that assumes that we all already agree and have the same understanding of what is wrong with our society.

Commodification and Amusement: Postman on Television and Print Media

Recently, I finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. While this work was published in the 1980s and focuses on analyzing the effects of the rise television as the dominant mode of communication on public discourse, it still raise many insightful points. Postman’s central argument is that the typographic age of the 18th century (the age of the printed word) was able to foster rational argument, and a healthy democratic discourse while the age of television fails in this regard as we are bombarded with incoherent mixed messages, information for information’s sake and even when television tries to be serious it fails, because even the most serious program must be entertaining. Television as a medium cannot escape from the fact that it is a vehicle for amusement or entertainment. All of these points seem to me to be more or less valid, but Postman fails markedly in describing the way that print media and television both are connected to the logic of commodification. Thus his analysis is insufficiently historical as it takes two points in history and connects them without fully establishing the relation of these historical eras to one another.

Postman does provide a historical explanation of sorts, as he points to telegraphy and photography as forerunners that began the march towards television. Telegraphy conquered space and allowed messages to be shared across far distances very quickly and easily, while photography moved the focus away from the printed word and onto the image. But unfortunately this is merely a technological explanation; it just shows that there were other technologies that arose before television that made the way for it, but it does not show why the general technological trend towards conquering space and the image themselves replaced the printed word. This would be analogous to explaining the rise of automobile merely by reference to the horsedrawn carriage, but without asking why human beings have desired to have vehicles that move them from one place to another as quickly as possible. Consequently, while he gestures towards a historical explanation he does not go into enough detail in showing the relation between the rise of print media and the rise of television.

One important factor that unites the development of print media and television that Postman does not discuss is the logic of commodification. The logic of commodification renders all things whether tangible or intangible into objects that can be bought and sold on the market. This logic seems to be built into capitalism itself as more and more objects, ideas and practises are transformed into something that can be sold at a profit. The idea of selling bodily fluids would be unheard of in the 18th century for numerous reasons while today this is a common practise in the USA. The rise of the commodification of bodily matter cannot be disconnected from the rise of print media and television as a dominant mode of communication, as both are linked to an overarching trend in which all relations must be modeled on the relationship between commodities and buyers and sellers.

One way in which Postman fails to identify the link between the logic of commodification and the emergence of television is that Postman compares the typographic medium with television as if they were polar opposites, rather than seeing that the development of the medium of print is a forerunner to the development of television in that television serves to further entrench the logic of commodification that print itself had already served to entrench.  This can be seen in the way that Postman unequivocally praises print media for its rationality while decrying all television as a mere tool for amusement; he clearly does not identify any link between the two in terms of their relation to commodification, but sees them in an almost binary fashion. However, the link between the two forms of media are quite evident as while print media in the 18th century may have had a seriousness that much television does not have, it was still a commodity. Before print, mass copies of communications could not be created and so the idea of selling communication products as a commodity to the masses made no sense. It was only after the emergence of the printing press, and written communications could be produced on a mass scale that the idea of selling communications about the events of the day as a commodity began to make sense. Before the printing press the clergy largely was occupied with maintaining knowledge through the activities of scribes and others. These groups would maintain collections, but these collections were merely a store of wisdom for the limited few with access to them, rather than a source of information to sell to people. In this sense while there are many qualitative differences between print media and television there is a deep connection between the two because they both are part of an overall development in capitalist society towards the ever growing reach of commodification.

Furthermore, if we compare television to typographic media we see the way in which television further entrenched what print media had begun to entrench. As we just noted typographic media like any other can be bought and sold, and it was bought and sold during the 18th century when it was at its peak, but because typographic media was still rooted to a particular place because of the absence of technologies like the telegraph it was not a fully mass produced commodity. In the 18th century the news in Pennsylvania covered events relating to life in that area, and in this sense information about the context of life in Pennsylvania was bought and sold, but information about life in this area was not sold to those in Copenhagen as a commodity, as there was no simple means of getting the information to Copenhagen quickly. Consequently, the sale of the information was geographically limited. Postman notes the way in which news was confined to a context of life in the typographic age, but he does not note that the decontextualization of news so that it can be sent anywhere on the world is part of the overall logic of commodification that extends from the initial step of commodifying information for sale. The movement to wider distribution of news as commodity was made possible by the telegraph, but the reason the telegraph and television caught on as an important technology for distributing news was because of the already existing historical trend towards commodification of information that the printing press had served to establish. It is somewhat doubtful that the news of the day would have become the commodity for global consumption that it has become today if print media had not already transformed information into a commodity for sale to a mass audience. Consequently, the telegraph and television merely took the logic of commodification in communications to a further limit.

Despite all that I have said above, I still think Postman’s book is worth a read, but I wish he would have spent more time discussing the way in which typographic media and television are part of the same historical trend, rather than fixating merely on the ways in which they are different. By taking this step he would have been better able to show the roots that underlie both developments.

The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.