Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Would You Like a Nice Progressive Punch?

This meme baffles me.  At times I wonder if it was intended as a Zen koan, a saying that deliberately makes no sense in order to frustrate and derail one's logical thinking, and ultimately force one into Enlightenment.  But most of the time I think it's just another glitch in human thought.

I regularly encountered another example of this sort of thing during and after the Sixties, when people would dismiss the hippie slogan that you should do your own thing as long as nobody gets hurt.  Someone would triumphantly riposte: "But what about Altamont?  What about Charles Manson?"  Yeah, what about them?  People got hurt in those and other cases, so they didn't show that it's a bad idea to do what you like as long as no one gets hurt.

I suppose the idea was that someone will always get hurt when human beings aren't policed and regulated and overseen and held in check by Authority.  But even in the most tightly patrolled societies, people get hurt -- often enough, by the Authority.  And who watches the Watchers?  One important lesson of history surely is that people given power over others will often abuse it.  I don't think that "Do your thing as long as nobody gets hurt" implies that there shouldn't be consequences when you do hurt someone, though as we also should know, there are rarely consequences for Authority when it hurts people.  You're just not supposed to notice it.  (What, your unarmed child was shot to death by a policeman?  Oh, look over there -- a Mexican took your job!)

I admit that the Sixties counterculture, at least its rank and file, didn't seem to think much about what consequences should follow from breaking its golden rule.  It's the kind of question that most people don't like to engage, because it involves judgment and gray areas and other messy complexities; the kind of core philosophical question that children ask and adults can't answer, because like most core philosophical questions there is no simple, firm answer.  But in one form or another, that maxim is virtually proverbial.  "Your freedom ends at the end of the next person's nose," for example.

Lately I've been seeing the same kind of diversion being used in the wake of the Charlottesville killing, as people try not to grapple with the limits of free speech.  Apart from the misconception that "hate speech" isn't free speech, people have trouble applying their own limits consistently.  Speech is free as long as it doesn't carry into action that hurts other people -- most people I know agree with that in principle, but their next move is to point to acts of violence.  Violence hurts other people, so it doesn't count as free speech.  Yeahbut the Nazis in Charlottesville pepper sprayed other people!  Yeahso that's violence, not speech -- where's the problem?  There are hard questions that can be raised about freedom of speech, but this isn't one of them as far as I can see.

On the other hand, sucker-punching a Nazi is so good that it's probably protected speech, all peace and love and shit.  So many liberals and progressives squealed with delight when Richard Spencer was punched that I believe their confusion over the boundary between speech and and action (which, I admit is another one of those messy complexities) is willed.  As the philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote, "Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal."

As I wrote yesterday, I could be classified a nihilist in certain realms, like the heat death of the universe.  Choosing, deliberating, and applying principles is hard; but to throw them out altogether at the human level is nihilism at the human level, of the most destructive sort.  Yet the people who are now agitating for further restrictions on freedom of speech fancy themselves principled advocates of justice.  It never occurs to them that the government at all levels is much more likely to suppress their speech than the speech of the Right; that's how it has always played out before. (They disagree with what you say, but they will defend to the death the right of the Trump gang to crush them like bugs.)  They'd be more honest to admit that they want a war of all against all, which (typically) they assume they'll win, and people caught in the crossfire will be glorious martyrs.  No, thank you.

It appears that I've never quoted this passage from Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Anti-Semite and Jew" here before.  It was written in 1944, just after the Nazis withdrew from The anti-Semite as Sartre analyzed him stands for all anti-rational people, as you'll see:
Do not think that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of these answers. They know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because by putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good argument but of intimidating or disorienting. If you insist too much they close up, they point out with one superb word that the time to argue has passed. Not that they are afraid of being convinced: their only fear is that they will look ridiculous or that their embarrassment will make a bad impression on a third party whom they want to get on their side. Thus if the anti-Semite is impervious, as everyone has been able to observe, to reason and experience, it is not because his conviction is so strong, but rather his conviction is strong because he has chosen to be impervious [13-14].*
I've encountered such people from the political right -- but also, alas, from the center and the left.  Sartre wasn't being "prescient," of course; he was describing people in the France of his day, who also exist in all countries and eras.

What Sartre described here is also what Patricia Roberts-Miller calls demagoguery.  If it worked as a way to bring about social justice, we wouldn't be in trouble now.

*Anti-Semite and Jew.  New York: Schocken Books, 1948.