Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Matter of Opinion

I just read Occupy, Noam Chomsky's new pamphlet of interviews and speeches on the Occupy movement.  It's a slim volume, and there's nothing new in it, but it's always interesting to read what Chomsky has to say.  (The appendix by the National Lawyers' Guild on dealing with police and arrest, however, will be immediately useful to many people.)  One bit that caught my attention was a question and Chomsky's answer to it in an interview with an NYU student:
The late British philosopher, Martin Hollis, worked extensively on questions of human action, the philosophy of social science and rationality.  One of the claims he made was that any anarchist vision of a society rests upon an idea of human nature that is too optimistic.  In short, he argued that anarchism is only viable if humans by nature are good.  He says that history shows us that humans cannot be trusted to this degree; thus, anarchism is too idealistic.  Would you mind responding to this objection very quickly, given your commitment to some of the ideals of anarchism?
It's possible to respond to arguments.  It is not possible to respond to opinions.  If someone makes an assertion saying, "Here's what I believe," that's fine -- he can say what he believes, but you can't respond to it.  You can ask, what is the basis for your belief?  Or, can you provide me with some evidence?  What do you know about human nature?  Actually, we don't know very much about human nature.  So yes, that's an expression of his belief, and he's entitled to make it.  We have no idea, nor does he have any idea, if it's true or false.  But it doesn't really matter; whatever the truth turns out to be, we will follow the same policies, namely, trying to optimize and maximize freedom, justice, participation, democracy.  Those are goals that we'll attempt to realize.  Maybe human beings are such that there's a limit to how far they can be realized; okay, we'll still follow the same policies.  So whatever one's un-argued assertions may be, it has very little effect on the policy and choices [66-7].
I disagree with Chomsky on several points here.  I think you can respond to opinions.  I'd consider the kinds of questions he suggests to be responses to opinions.  Chomsky has certainly spent more time debating people in his career than I have, and he has his own approach, but to me it seems important not to let opinions stand unanswered or uncriticized.  I've encountered many people who believe that their opinions should be "respected" without question or criticism, but I haven't observed that they draw a distinction between arguments and opinions: they just won't tolerate any disagreement with their beliefs (though they feel free to disagree with the beliefs of others).

Besides, it looks to me like Hollis was making an argument, though I can't be sure since I can't look at his own words; the interviewer doesn't give a source, and I haven't found one online.  It looks like he was arguing something like this:
If anarchism is to work, human nature must be good.
But human nature is bad.
Therefore anarchism can't work.
It's a badly flawed argument, but it's an argument, and a response can be made to it.  It's flawed, first, because "good" and "bad" beg numerous questions about human nature.  (A Randian Objectivist, for instance, would consider selfishness and a refusal to cooperate with other people as "good.")  It's flawed because of its assumptions about what anarchism requires in order to work, and also about what it would mean for anarchism or any other political system to work.  These are objections that would have to be answered before you even get to Chomsky's, valid as they are: we don't know enough about human nature to say whether or not anarchism is compatible with it, and even if we did, we wouldn't necessarily be required to behave in ways that we consider wrong.

The anarchist Paul Goodman addressed virtually the same objection forty years ago, in his last public speech, reprinted in a posthumous collection of his political writings, Drawing the Line (Free Life Editions, 1977).
Question: But people are naturally greedy – without some political compulsion they’ll do harm to each other and never reform.

Goodman: Let’s assume, as you say, that people are greedy. First, people are just what they are; the beauty of the decentralist, anarchist position is that nobody can do much harm. As an anarchist, and all anarchists are decentralists, our view is not that human nature is good, but on the contrary, that human nature is probably lousy. It’s improvable, but probably lousy. People are corrupt as hell, therefore don’t give anybody any power, because that’s where the trouble comes from, because the people who have power are not going to be better than the other people. In fact we know that the more power people have the more corrupt they become. Let’s make sure that everybody has an independent free-hold of their own, and if they’ve got that then there will be a limit to how bad things can get. And that’s all you want out of politics. You don’t want politics to give you a good society. All you want is a tolerable background so the important parts of life can go on. We all know what the important parts are, the arts, the science, sex, justice, worship of God, love of nature. The political things are insignificant. But if they are bad, wow, can they cause damage. I don’t want to change human nature. I couldn’t care less. All I want to make sure is that there are enough goods to go around, and there will be enough goods to go around in this highly productive and intelligent race, on this highly productive planet, if you don’t allow it to get concentrated [271-2].
As Goodman said, even if you grant the assumption that people are naturally "greedy" (which I suspect is close to Hollis's), it doesn't follow that some people should therefore be allowed power over others -- the opposite, in fact.  The same people who hold that human nature is essentially greedy and corrupt tend to be the same people who support hierarchies of power.  I don't know whether they believe that some people are less greedy and corrupt than others, and therefore can be trusted with that power, or that pyramidal hierarchies somehow keep those at the top from abusing their power.  Experience would seem to suggest that neither is true in any case, so it is at least a fair to question to ask how to prevent such abuses, and Goodman's anarchist answer -- make sure no one has much power -- is reasonable.  (How to get from a centralized, hierarchical society to a decentralized anarchist one is another question, which numerous anarchists, including Chomsky, have addressed.  Only the very young, I think, believe that the process will easy or short, but then the young are more inclined to believe that five years is a long time.)

The biblical scholar James Barr made a similar point in his writings about fundamentalism, though it extends to conservative Christianity in general: the same Christians who insist on the inescapability of human sinfulness tend to structure their churches according to a cult of personality which quietly exempts their leaders from Original Sin, with scandals both small and large resulting.  On the secular side, there are the various forms of social Darwinism, which claim that people who make large amounts of money or achieve high political office have proven their superiority to their fellows, by definition.  As Chomsky wrote at around the same time Goodman made that speech (in For Reasons of State [Random House, 1973], 375):
One might speculate, rather plausibly, that wealth and power tend to accrue to those who are ruthless, cunning, avaricious, self-seeking, lacking in sympathy and compassion, subservient to authority and willing to abandon principle for material gain, and so on. Furthermore, these traits might very well be as heritable as IQ, and might outweigh IQ as factors in gaining material reward. Such qualities just might be the valuable ones for a war of all against all. If so, the society that results (applying [Richard] Herrnstein's "syllogism") could hardly be characterized as a "meritocracy." By using the word "meritocracy" Herrnstein begs some interesting questions and reveals implicit assumptions about our society that are hardly self-evident.
As Chomsky says at the outset, this is speculation -- but so are the opinions he and Goodman opposed.  If Chomsky's speculation pointed us in the right direction, though, we'd face another difficulty: it would mean that "human nature" is not uniform, and that some people appear to be constitutionally unsuited to living peaceably and cooperatively with others.  If anything, it's those who become our rulers who would have to be recognized as the dangerously inferior breed of Homo Sapiens, not the many. How would an anarchist society, which rejects compulsion, deal with such people?

There's plenty of evidence (most recently gathered and discussed by Rebecca Solnit and Alfie Kohn) that people prefer to cooperate, even in times of great stress.  Once again the notion that people need to be repressed when there's a disaster, that the only alternative is rioting and mob rule, turns out to be a projection by those who have scrambled to the top, and assume that the majority of people are like them.  Whenever someone stresses the human potential for cooperation and nonviolent forms of conflict resolution, there's bound to be someone else who derides it as a wishful kissyface-huggybear hippie fantasy.  From what I've seen, that's not the case either: those who stress cooperation don't suppose an absence of conflict, only that conflicts needn't be resolved by violence alone; or even the disappearance of greed and selfishness, they are arguing that these traits needn't be regarded as the human default.  In practice, despite their occasional crocodile tears about the horrors of war, or the dreadfulness of rape, the critics of cooperation clearly prefer war as the first resort of international conflict resolution, and they're much more upset by the possibility that men might be restrained from forcibly making sperm deposits than they are by the suffering of the victims. (Indeed, as I've pointed out before, many men have real trouble telling the difference between rape and consensual sex.)

Beware the (self-styled) clear-eyed realists who cheerfully accept the necessity of hierarchy and violence -- for other people -- and lightly dismiss other possibilities.  The assumptions they select reveal what really turns them on.