Should identity politics dictate beliefs?

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Arguments with self-described liberals, feminists and various other sorts of people were part of the motivation for my column last week, in which I argued that it’s always illegitimate to dismiss an argument simply because it’s expressed by someone you regard as speaking from privilege. In summary, the person whose view you’re dismissing might be simultaneously privileged as well as correct.

The other side of this particular coin involves the labels we ascribe to ourselves. While people sometimes preface claims and opinions with formulations like “as a liberal, …”, I wonder whether that’s typical or whether we instead believe the things we do regardless of (or even, despite) those labels. Jonathan Haidt’s provocative (albeit not entirely convincing) paper “The emotional dog and its rational tail” (pdf) makes the case for (moral) reasoning always being after-the-fact justification for something we already believe, rather than an account of why we believe that thing. For political labels, I worry that we have the causal relationship back-to-front in a similar sort of way.

Namely, that instead of using a label like “liberal” to describe or summarise our general stance, the label ends up dictating the positions we feel we should take. Instead of thinking about and debating each issue on its merits, we instead assume that the one corresponding to our label is the correct one.

If there’s something to this, then just as it would be wrong to dismiss someone else’s argument because of their privilege, it would surely also be wrong to take up a position simply because a group you identify with tends to hold that position. To put it more simply: Whatever ideology or political stance you have should really be a general description of how you view a certain political or epistemic terrain, rather than a set of instructions for how to interpret the evidence. The evidence can speak for itself, and we might simply corrupt it when ideology intrudes on interpretation.

On this view, it would be wrong to say “as a liberal, I think that x should be the case”. Instead, we’d say things like “I believe that x should be the case, and it’s therefore somewhat accurate to describe me as a liberal”. Because if you think liberalism superior to some other political stance, your primary reason should be that you think liberalism gets certain positions right where other views do not.

In other words, liberalism is a summary term for someone who holds certain positions. If we instead start treating liberalism as a binding set of instructions for how we should make up our minds and which positions we should hold, we’re handing some of the responsibility for thinking about things over to dictionaries, spin-doctors and sometimes hysterical media, all of whom play a part in re-defining how these words are deployed in our various debates.

The essential problem is that the perspective we tend to hold or usually hold isn’t guaranteed to be the best one on every issue. It’s partly because some positions borrow or inherit virtue that they can get away with bestowing the impression of respectability on a claim. Saying “as a patriot, I believe that South Africans should care about the country’s image abroad” gets you part of the way to persuading, because who would want to sound unpatriotic by interrogating you? What you might have gone on to say could have been utter nonsense – but we won’t ask, and you won’t need to tell.

As much as it is oversimplification to say “as a liberal, I believe that free speech trumps dignity”, it’s nevertheless one of those useful oversimplifications, where the reasons for its evolution are perfectly sensible (clichés and stereotypes are sometimes entirely accurate, after all). These devices are timesavers, and also help save us from having to constantly repeat old arguments. But just as it’s only a signal for caution rather than a disqualification when someone who is privileged expresses views on poverty, or when a wealthy Republican male expresses views on women’s rights, we should also be cautious of justifying our political views via these labels. It’s not wrong, but it can be lazy – and eventually, make us more prone to error.

Not only do we save time with these devices, but they also help give us something to say and a way of making our interventions sound more authoritative. As I’ve argued in the past, the urge to have something to say can be part of the problem, because we forget that not only is agnosticism okay – it’s often the most rational position. You’re not forced to have an opinion, and forming one can be the first in a chain of errors.

Reclaiming intellectual humility is essential for re-invigorating public debate, whether on nationalisation or on Nkandla. This doesn’t mean that we can’t hold strong convictions. But whether you’re a liberal or whatever else, it’s the argument and not the label that should change our minds. In other words, I’m speaking of the possibility that we might sometimes forget the difference between the convictions we hold strongly for good reasons, and those we hold strongly mostly because, well, we and others “like us”… hold them strongly.

Atheism + some mission-creep and potential confusion

So, the battle lines are now being drawn – at least according to some. Yesterday, Richard Carrier posted this:

In the meantime, I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less? Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.

There’s much more to his post, and much of it is very good, very thoughtful and not at all disagreeable to me. So I’d encourage you to read it, and not to read this post as a rejection of what Carrier said. But I do want to reject his conclusion, and try to explain why it’s important that we all should reject it. The reason for this rejection is not simply the logical fallacy it seems to contain – namely asking us to embrace a false dichotomy – but more because it’s premature to ask for us to choose between poorly-defined (and potentially undefinable) alternatives.

But first, a backwards step, seeing as many of you might not know what I’m talking about. On August 18, Jen McCreight published a post that called for a new wave of atheism. Three posts since that one have sought to define what Atheism+ is (or should be), and have repeatedly emphasised the communitarian aspect of this definitional process – we are all encouraged to chip in with our ideas and suggestions. There’s plenty to love about all those posts, and I heartily endorse the sentiment of Atheism+.

What is that sentiment? As the name implies, it’s atheism, plus a focus on other things. To quote McCreight’s second post in the series:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

That’s a good list, as I’d imagine that most readers of this blog would agree. But we wouldn’t necessarily agree on how to care, support or protest those things. We wouldn’t even agree on how to define the things we’re supposed to care about, protest or support. We’d agree about being decent people, in other words, but not necessarily agree on how to do that. And while reaching agreement on how to do that might be an important task, it’s not clear that it’s atheism’s task. To put it more clearly, I’m not sure that all of those (and other) worthy goals can best be accomplished under the banner of “atheism”. Especially not on Carrier’s terms, because – as someone who cares about social justice, for example, I’ll be damned if I’ll let him tell me that I can’t collaborate with a Methodist (not an A+ person, so someone “to avoid”) to address some issue of gender discrimination in a community.

Carrier might of course simply be indulging in a little hyperbole, which is understandable given the battle-ground I recently alluded to. I doubt that he’d have a problem with my collaborating with a Methodist – he’s rather asking us to take a stand against people who are unsympathetic to those goals. Certainly, at least those people described by Jean Kazez as

people who are seized by a desire to attack women when there’s the least hint of a question about male behavior at blogs and conferences. The notion of codes being imposed on their behavior sends them into a rage. These are the people whose existence you have to find surprising … and very disturbing. At the very least, they’re seriously lacking in empathy. Some of them even seem to feel an awful lot of hatred. I don’t know how numerous they are, but too numerous–and their ranks seem to be growing too.

But others also, like the “subtle trolls” I spoke about in my previous post on this topic area. And, those who enable or support the people Kazez describes above, or those who don’t denounce them. There’s a range of people who could be included in those who should be ostracised. But the problem is that it’s not always easy to identify them. One commenter on Stephanie Zvan’s site seems convinced that I’m one of the enemy camp, and I’m of course certain that I’m not. How will these decisions be made? A tribunal, or a democratic vote perhaps? And how does one repent after being exiled, and who gets to do the forgiving?

That’s somewhat facetious, I know. But the terms that this debate is quickly taking on lends itself to that. People are working towards what will quickly become an orthodoxy, and it’s going to happen too rapidly to be carefully thought out. Or, it’s simply going to be forgotten in a few months, as Notung argues here. As mentioned above, I’d have to agree with the 3rd point he makes – that it’s unclear exactly which issues should follow the ‘plus’. As for then deciding how to define those issues, I don’t think we can be complacent or confident (as some commenters at McCreight’s posts seem) about how difficult that might prove to be.

For social justice projects or strategy, we’d need to agree on an economic policy. As polarised as this issue is in an election year in the US, just after/during a global financial meltdown, while #Occupy rhetoric is still fresh in our minds… what chance is there of agreement on this? If we’re going to include a concern for the environment, can we simply throw climate sceptics out of our “circle of trust”, or do they get a chance to make their arguments? For feminism, what about people like me, who support it only as a contingent, necessary evil, because I hope to one day live in a world where race, gender, sex and so forth make absolutely no difference, so am loath to emphasise any such features, even in the short term?

My concern, in short, is that if we’re going to reach agreement on any of these issues, we might only get there through ruling certain question as out of bounds – perhaps even bullying them off the table, a phrase I think I owe to Jean Kazez. And if we’re forced to choose sides, a consequence might well be that all we succeed in doing is to institutionalise the current disagreements in the freethought community, rather than to get closer to solving them. In the meanwhile, there are groups already in existence that support those “plus” goals, or at least most of them, and who can probably be persuaded to support a larger list if a case was made.

I think, for example, of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, or the Council for Secular Humanism. They’ve been working hard for quite some time on a closely overlapping set of goals to those of the “Atheism +” movement. The question I’d urge the A+ supporters to consider is whether they’re not reinventing the wheel to some extent here, and also making life significantly more difficult for organisations like these – who often already struggle for support and funding. Just the sort of organisations, then, which could do with the ideas, energy and insight of all those who are currently enthusiastically talking about starting something new.

What is the point of feminism?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

I used to consider myself a feminist. Then I read Andrea Dworkin, and realised that a concern for credibility made it prudent to not identify with any of the summary terms she did, at least insofar as this was possible (terms like ‘human’ being a somewhat insurmountable problem). And now that we’re in the seventh (I think) wave of feminism, it’s perhaps time to consider this the terminal wave, and to consign this particular version of identity politics to the dustbin of history. Continue reading “What is the point of feminism?”