Sunday, February 05, 2017

Tied up with a bow

Shipping Containers at the terminal at Port Elizabeth, New Jersey - NOAA  taken  2004 June
We often package ideas the way shippers package freight
photo by Albert E. Theberge, NOAA via Wikimedia Commons
As an activist in the 1980s, I routinely encountered exhortations to "make connections" or to act, and think, "consistently". Much of the time, these exhortations came out of a genuine effort to understand and live out the ramifications of "left-wing" beliefs. Some of the time, efforts to make "connections" covered for pragmatic coalition building. In not a few cases, people appealed for "connections" and "consistency" dishonestly, in order to get support for weak arguments that depended on "connections" with ideas people already accepted.

Well meaning or otherwise, honest or shady, the emphasis on "connections" and "consistency" led to an acceptance of package politics by the Left. By commission or by acquiescence, we created a political environment in which participants could wrap up their opinions, beliefs and positions in a single imagined whole.

The fusing of political opinions into a whole, the pressure to conform in matters large and small, would have developed without the acceptance of rhetoric about "connections" and "consistency" by the Left. Developments in mass media, and even more, the developments of social media, all exert pressure to conform, and to accept a pre-selected set of political positions. Nor can we blame pressure to conform in politics on the development of social media: George Orwell wrote about the absurdity of attempts to reconcile Marxist idealism with Stalin's actual foreign policies.

Whatever the genesis of political packaging, it does a number of real harms. When we consider an idea, we ought first consider its truth: whether the claims underlying the idea arise logically out of information based on evidence. If instead we ask ourselves whether other people on our "side" accept the idea, whether it fits into the package we and others have constructed, we don't evaluate it, we don't think. We do not do the essential work of politics in his or any other century: we do not look for ways of living together.

Signs and posters at Occupy Boston By GorillaWarfare (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By GorillaWarfare, via Wikimedia Commons
From that essential failure, other defaults and contradictions arise, which will lead us, if we allow them, into dishonest ways of thinking and living. We reject good ideas because they don't "fit" with our own, according to the model of ideas "fitting" we have accepted. We accept dubious ideas because they do fit the ones we hold, or because people whose approval we value recommend them to us. The ideas we accept contain contradictions; the more we try to fit all our ideas into a unified whole, the more we have to pretend the contradictions do not exist, or else ignore the reality behind those contradictions. In the end, the effort only makes our positions less convincing, even to ourselves. The less power our ideas have to convince, the more we exert ourselves to make them convincing.

Since people on all sides do this, we all lose the ability to persuade one another. When we define our politics as seamless edifices, we cannot allow anyone challenge any of our beliefs lest the whole structure come tumbling down. We react to any challenge with the greater anger, perhaps, because we ourselves see, all too clearly, the cracks in the structures we have built. When we refuse to compromise on anything, our politics solidifies comes to suffer from a literal form of sclerosis. Ideas and positions fuse together like a hot bearing finally seizing, and we lose the ability to adapt to basic reality.

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