site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of December 5, 2022

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Topic: The disappearance of procedural rules of fairness as a public value

A gripe that continues to be articulated around these parts is that almost no-one seems to regard procedural rules of fairness as values per se. Most political actors seem to care only about their instrumental value and only insofar and as long their adherence helps their cause or tribe. Based loosely on Rawls' notion of justice as fairness, I define these rules of fairness as outcome-independent rules of play that bind all players equally. Examples include:

  • The free market place of ideas

  • Accepting the outcome of participatory events such as elections, polls, etc. as valid even if one does not agree with the outcome

  • Valuing facticity even when inconvenient

  • etc.

A commonly articulated hunch - one that I share - is that the political liberal left at least paid lip service to these ideals as values in themselves up until roughly 2010. After the woke capture of many cultural and political institutions, these values were discarded. I expressed this elsewhere:

Liberalism is everybody's second-best solution to everything. The best solution is of course to make everybody else live according to my preferences. The worst is that I have to live according to the preferences of my enemies. Under liberalism, we agree to an eternal truce where neither of us gets to dictate how the other person has to live (to a degree).

But now one side has the power to do exactly that and actualise their best solution with impunity. Most people aren't principled liberals. A ceasefire doesn't make sense when you can easily crush your enemies.

This keeps raising the following questions:

  • Has the appreciation of procedural rules of fairness in fact waned?

  • If so, when?

  • What made the political "left" shift from a celebration of these values to a purely opportunistic application? Was this always purely instrumental, as outlined above?

I would be very interested in how the above questions could be approached empirically. I know this is a sentiment shared among a lot of people here, but in the absence of serious research on the matter (or is there?), how can we actually test it other than through links to silly google search trends?

The roots of this rejection of procedural fairness in leftist thinking can be traced back quite far, for example Herbert Marcuse published an essay in 1965 called "Repressive Tolerance" containing ideas that really seem not all too dissimilar to most current leftist rhetoric. It's critical theorist-talk, which means the entire text is 11 pages of violence against the English language, but here's a link anyway:

In it, Marcuse argues that the rationale for free speech - which was one of determining truth - has been invalidated, because society would have to be "free of indoctrination" for free speech to serve its function (he never coherently outlines what a society "free of indoctrination" would look like and under what conditions he would consider free speech valid). He then claims that society exists in a state of "false consciousness" which precludes rational thought and discussion and disadvantages the left, and states that if the pathway to a subversive (read: leftist) majority developing has been blocked by what he calls "indoctrination", it is okay for people to use undemocratic means to re-open that pathway.

Of course, he seems to constantly imply throughout that he wants special favours to apply to his ideology where it's okay when he does it, because he then calls for making a distinction between "progressive and regressive indoctrination". Despite stating that media is one of the great vectors of indoctrination where truth is determined for the masses, he also makes it clear that he is okay with journalists editorialising in line with his values, in fact he outright endorses this because impartiality is misleading and "such objectivity is spurious". If this was done by his culture war opponents Marcuse would almost certainly label this as indoctrination, but he seems to want an exception for himself.

On page 6:

Or, if a newscaster reports the torture and murder of civil rights workers in the same unemotional tone he uses to describe the stockmarket or the weather, or with the same great emotion with which he says his commercials, then such objectivity is spurious — more, it offends against humanity and truth by being calm where one should be enraged, by refraining from accusation where accusation is in the facts themselves. The tolerance expressed in such impartiality serves to minimize or even absolve prevailing intolerance and suppression.

Marcuse then goes on to argue for "intolerance against movements from the right and toleration of movements from the left". He posits that right-wing ideas constitute "clear and present danger" and advocates for "the withdrawal of tolerance before the deed, at the stage of communication in word, print and picture". He posits that tolerance of certain viewpoints in the current environment creates and maintains a repressive society, it prevents their attempts to emancipate and liberate, and that means that "tolerance has been perverted". In Marcuse's conceptualisation of things "true" tolerance was always about being a partisan tool of subversion which was intolerant towards the repressive status quo, and non-partisan tolerance is a bastardisation of that because it "serves the cause of oppression". Which seems like a clear redefinition of its meaning to me.

Pages 9-10:

Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: ... it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word. The traditional criterion of clear and present danger seems no longer adequate to a stage where the whole society is in the situation of the theater audience when somebody cries: ‘fire’. It is a situation in which the total catastrophe could be triggered off any moment, not only by a technical error, but also by a rational miscalculation of risks, or by a rash speech of one of the leaders. In past and different circumstances, the speeches of the Fascist and Nazi leaders were the immediate prologue to the massacre. The distance between the propaganda and the action, between the organization and its release on the people had become too short. But the spreading of the word could have been stopped before it was too late: if democratic tolerance had been withdrawn when the future leaders started their campaign, mankind would have had a chance of avoiding Auschwitz and a World War.

The whole post-fascist period is one of clear and present danger. Consequently, true pacification requires the withdrawal of tolerance before the deed, at the stage of communication in word, print, and picture. Such extreme suspension of the right of free speech and free assembly is indeed justified only if the whole of society is in extreme danger. I maintain that our society is in such an emergency situation, and that it has become the normal state of affairs. Different opinions and “philosophies” can no longer compete peacefully for adherence and persuasion on rational grounds: the “marketplace of ideas” is organized and delimited by those who determine the national and the individual interest. In this society, for which the ideologists have proclaimed the “end of ideology,” the false consciousness has become the general consciousness — from the government down to its last objects. The small and powerless minorities which struggle against the false consciousness and its beneficiaries must be helped: their continued existence is more important than the preservation of abused rights.

In Marcuse's writings, you can also see the groundwork for why leftists seem to love percolating their propaganda into the education system. Because people grow up in a repressive world, repression will find itself in the academic enterprise too, and this is a "pre-empting of the mind" which means impartiality and autonomous thinking is impossible. To Marcuse, it is only right as a result that the student learns to "think in the opposite direction", to internalise subversive leftist propaganda.

However, he goes even further. He identifies neutrality when analysing history as being distortion of reality, because it doesn't impose his preferred value system onto historical occurrences. People shouldn't be allowed to evaluate these occurrences on their own merits without it being already coloured by selective framing because it "reproduces acceptance of the dominion of the victors in the consciousness of man", and therefore bad. And he identifies the young as the vector through which his views can spread, because they have not had enough time to properly internalise "repressive" ideas yet.

Page 10:

In a world in which the human faculties and needs are arrested or perverted, autonomous thinking leads into a “perverted world”: contradiction and counter-image of the established world of repression. And this contradiction is not simply stipulated, is not simply the product of confused thinking or fantasy, but is the logical development of the given, the existing world. To the degree to which this development is actually impeded by the sheer weight of a repressive society and the necessity of making a living in it, repression invades the academic enterprise itself, even prior to all restrictions on academic freedom. The pre-empting of the mind vitiates impartiality and objectivity: unless the student learns to think in the opposite direction, he will be inclined to place the facts into the predominant framework of values. Scholarship, i.e. the acquisition and communication of knowledge, prohibits the purification and isolation of facts from the context of the whole truth. An essential part of the latter is recognition of the frightening extent to which history was made and recorded by and for the victors, that is, the extent to which history was the development of oppression. And this oppression is in the facts themselves which it establishes; thus they themselves carry a negative value as part and aspect of their facticity. To treat the great crusades against humanity (like that against the Albigensians) with the same impartiality as the desperate struggles for humanity means neutralizing their opposite historical function, reconciling the executioners with their victims, distorting the record. Such spurious neutrality serves to reproduce acceptance of the dominion of the victors in the consciousness of man. Here, too, in the education of those who are not yet maturely integrated, in the mind of the young, the ground for liberating tolerance is still to be created.

Marcuse's entire essay is basically "We're right and they're wrong, and their ideology is dangerous and it's everywhere, so we get to suppress our outgroup however we want in service of our Utopia and proselytise our values in the education system". In short this rejection of procedural fairness has existed in the left for a very long time, and if I had to guess what caused the shift you outline I'd say that, for the most part, the recognition leftist thinkers were previously paying towards actual liberal values was done primarily out of convenience and based on what they thought they could get away with.

The most scary thing about Marcuse's logic is that if you can suppress your ideological opponents, your ideology is probably not a subversive minority without the power to become a majority in the first place. It is a perfect weapon for an ideological group who is in fact powerful but pretends not to be for the purposes of political convenience. Once basically every institution was under their control, the left got to continue indulging in their intoxicating delusion of being a subversive movement under attack by a profoundly repressive society, and using that as a pretext to attack and suppress their culture war opponents.

EDIT: added more