Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Passion of the Moral Mind

Yo, Is This Racist? suddenly erupted onto my Facebook feed recently,* for the first time in months.
Anonymous asked: I came across this libertarian who said she didn't believe in women's rights but individual rights.  Is it safe to say she's a bigot?

Bigots, always think they’ve found some kind of rhetorical loophole that allows them to ignore the obvious nature of existing inequality, that the reason people who aren’t total pieces of shit support “women’s rights” or “black rights” or whatever, is because those groups of people (and others) have fewer rights than the people who control everything, and that allows them to pretend that people who want more equality in the world are over-reacting, or even that we need “men’s rights” or “white pride” or whatever.

It’s telling, however, that if someone only espouses any rhetoric about equality in support of the PEOPLE WHO ALREADY HAVE FUCKING POWER, they miiiiiiiiight just be complete piece of shit bigots, or, I guess, if you want to be nice, so fucking stupid and clueless that they’ve been fooled by this pathetic argument. Could be either, I guess.
It occurs to me that I haven't mentioned a book I read lately that I found really useful: The Tactical Uses of Passion: An Essay on Power, Reason, and Reality,** by the anthropologist F. G. Bailey.  I hope to read some more of his work, but what I want to bring from The Tactical Use of Passion is Bailey's distinction between what he calls "the moral mind" and "the civic mind":
The moral self excludes, we argued, ideas of right and duty.  But it is evident that such phrases as “not oneself” and “above oneself” make sense only if we measure performance against the rights and duties expected of the person.  In some of these cases displays of emotion (for example, being “beside oneself”) indicate a flaw in the self, an inadequacy.  A person who is beside himself is unable to undertake the responsibilities that normally attach to his status.  Often the judgment means that he is absolved from guilt: “He could not help it.”  Evidently this self, unlike the moral self, is validated by accounting procedures.  It is the “civic” self and it includes an element that is apart from emotions, either dominating them as a control or standing as a rival for the use of available avenues of expression.  In other words, the “civic” self signals that a mind is at work.  Let us look at situations in which this idea of the self controlling emotion (rather than being revealed in displays of emotion) appears [51].

... What reasons could be advanced to justify such an image of the weakness of rationality and the strength of passion?  First the moral self carries its own defenses in that it is rooted in the passions and is therefore immune to rational arguments.  It has a facility for twisting and rendering unintelligible negative messages from outside the relationship: a jamming device, so to speak.  This, too, is a kind of fa├žade: a pretense that the real world can be left to go its own way.  It is also a shield keeping away what Weber calls” the cold skeletal hands of rational orders” and “the banality of everyday routine” [77] ...
I hope it will be fairly clear why Andrew Ti's outburst brought Bailey's discussion to mind.  Bailey doesn't consider the "the moral mind" to be bad; it's one way to organize and prepare for action.  "The civic mind" comes on the job when goals and directions have been decided by "moral" means, and it's time to figure out how to get to the goal.

The thing is, in a narrow technical sense, that Libertarian Lady was correct.  Civil Rights, for example, are rights of the individual, not rights of a group.  But facts should never get in the way of a good ragegasm.

So I take Ti to be exercising his moral mind, waxing passionate for Righteousness.  But my civic mind is at work now, and I'm reminded of some of Sartre's remarks on anti-Semitism and irrationality:
I mentioned awhile back some remarks by anti-Semites, all of them absurd: "I hate Jews because they make servants insubordinate, because a Jewish furrier robbed me, etc."  Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies.  They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge.  But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.  The anti-Semites have the right to play.  They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors.  They delight in act­ing in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.  If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.  It is not that they are afraid of being convinced.  They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.
I recognize the syndrome Sartre was writing about here, and I think this applies to Ti no less than to the "libertarian" he's discussing.

* To be honest, not all that recently.  I'm trying to clear out some posts from my backlog from the Drafts folder.

** Cornell University Press, 1983.