Monday, May 09, 2016

The heart of the matter

In a previous post, I wrote about the so-called "Overton window": the conviction that policy proposals have a simple linear value; that setting them out, ordered, on a line makes it possible to define a range, or a set defined in linear order from a minimum to a maximum value (the "window") that opinion makers empowered to do so will deem acceptable.

This linear view has no relation to the complicated reality of politics. Using it distorts and even corrupts approaches to politics in many ways: ultimately, treating politics as symbols with single ordinal values offers considerable scope for attempts to control the process.

Politicians and their advisers have sometimes attempted to exercise a crude influence over the political process by asserting positions they consider extreme in order to induce the public to perceive the actual solutions they offer as moderate and thus acceptable. Some political observers have gone so far as describing this technique as moving the Overton window.

A more subtle form of this takes place at the intersection between messy, multi-faceted reality and the fantasy of a simple linear order in political positions. If politics, after all, consists of symbols with ordinal values, then someone has to say what they mean, and that someone takes a considerable measure of control over the discussion.

A recent example occurs in the much-praised article by Emmett Rensin in the online magazine  Vox, on The smug style in American liberalism. The larger point of the article, that American liberals ought to stop posting smug comments sneering at their supposedly less intelligent, less educated compatriots, and instead put together a working program, makes perfect sense. But Mr. Rensin detours through the case of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. To make Davis the sympathetic figure in his parable, he emphasizes her rural, working class roots, the disruption of her value system, and effectively assigns her situation a place along an ordered line that concerns the plight of the American ("white") working class. In making that the point of the story, Mr. Rensin effectively edits out the other issues her actions raise. For a great many people, Kim Davis's actions do not illustrate the plight of the working class; Ms. Davis, after all, refused licenses to Gay men and Lesbians of all classes without distinction. Nothing Ms. Davis did benefited working class people in any measurable way whatever. Ms Davis's actions, in fact, had much more to do with homophobia: and for a great many people, not all Gay or Lesbian, homophobia remains a real and painful issue, a matter of actual bruises, lost jobs, even memories of friends lost to brutality or to government policies that allowed HIV to ravage the Gay community for years. For those who remember this history, and especially those who remember in broken bones, bruised flesh, and lost friends, Kim Davis's actions do not relate primarily to the suffering of rural American workers. Some of the anger directed at Ms. Davis, which Mr. Rensin deplores as "not a good look" has its roots in real injury and loss.

Abstracting one ordinal value from a political event to site it on a line simplifies reality in a way that makes calls for action ineffective. Appealing to the plight of the working class, or a segment of it, does not good if the people you wish to appeal to have memories of suffering inflicted in the name of the value system of that class, and the methods you use simply deny that pain. The linear reductionism of the ordinal approach to political thinking also reduces effectiveness.

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