Friday, November 19, 2021

Can We Please Stop Using the Term "Identity Politics"?

One thing neo-Marxist collectivists understand is the power of language. They know that if they can redefine concepts, they can manipulate how we think about things, and thus infiltrate their worldview into billions of uncritical minds. It's a strategy straight out of Orwell's 1984.

The collectivists do this redefinition game constantly, across a wide swath of issues. Take "progressive" (a term I always put in sarcastic quotation marks), which they use to assert they are in favor of some undefined social progress -- which, when actually defined, means a neo-Marxist, social-engineering agenda. Or "liberal," which long ago used to mean favoring freedom, but which today means the opposite: subordinating individual freedom to politically defined, coercively imposed, collectivist ends. "Gender" has supplanted "sex," because the former can be proclaimed subjectively and inflated infinitely, while the latter has an objective biological basis in one's chromosomes and genitalia (which are now dismissed as merely "assigned" at birth, apparently at the whim of the attending medical personnel). "Hate speech" is a term invented to criminalize, hence censor, any expressed opinion that conflicts with that of the collectivists. The charge of "hate speech" rests on psychologizing: ascribing malicious motives to opinions one doesn't like. Similarly, "hurtful speech," a term which attempts to criminalize any expression that allegedly hurts someone's proclaimed feelings.

Again, there is no objective, fact-rooted basis for any of this. But once personal subjectivity is elevated to the status of moral-legal supremacy, then anyone's mere assertions acquire the weight of unquestionable legitimacy.

What offends me most is that many people, including those on the so-called political right, tacitly accept this wholesale hijacking of language without critical consideration or pushback.

A while back, for example, I took issue with the term virtue signaling. This term was actually minted by the political right to criticize the common practice by "liberals" and "progressives" of making a public, symbolic show of their various philosophical and political commitments. Yet the term "virtue signaling" tacitly accepts the premise that what those people are practicing is, in fact, virtuous. That concedes morality to their motives and their causes -- exactly opposite what the political right intends. I suggested the term be replaced with virtue posturing, which indicates the behavior is a phony claim to virtue.

A similar way the political right tacitly, thoughtlessly concedes the premises of the political left is when they use the term identity politics. This term is intended to criticize the left's constant focus on race, sex, and ethnicity in their arguments and agendas. However, what their use of this term actually does is tacitly accept the premise that one's "identity" is equivalent to one's genetic attributes -- and nothing more.

But "identity" is individual, not collective. When we "identify" something, we distinguish it from everything else by focusing on its unique, particular attributes. Your identity is not my identity. But a so-called identity resting on widely shared attributes, like race or sex, is no "identity" at all. It is homogenized class membership.

Using the term "identity politics" thus concedes that identity is, in truth, nothing more than collectively shared attributes. It tacitly ratifies our thinking about identity in terms of groups and classes -- which is exactly the goal of the collectivists. In addition, it is too narrow a term: "identity politics" reduces to mere politics what is actually a much broader worldview and outlook.

Today's "woke" collectivists want to obliterate individualism -- seeing and judging people as individuals -- and instead to substitute tribalism: seeing and judging people as members of DNA-based groups, classes, and collectives. We need to employ language that makes this clear.

To that end, I suggest critics of collectivists use terms like racial tribalism/tribalists or sexual tribalism/tribalists to specify the mindset and worldview they oppose. "I oppose identity politics" is vague and misleading. However, "I see and judge people as individuals, not as racial and sexual tribes" is an easy-to-grasp, appealing, and ultimately winning position.

One caveat: There is a subset of collectivist tribalists on today's political right, too. It's understandable that they'd be uncomfortable with my suggestion that we identify ourselves as individualists who are opposed to all forms of tribalism. But those of us who are individualists can, by publicly rejecting "racial tribalism" or "ethnic tribalism" or "national tribalism," at least get right-wing collectivists to identify themselves. It's always good to know who your real friends and foes are, and it's time we smoked them out.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Thoughts About Stories, Myths, Narratives…and Ourselves

I haven't read Jordan Peterson sufficiently to know exactly how he uses the term "Narrative," and how it may differ from how I use it. But capitalized, I use "Narrative" quite expansively, to mean a fundamental "story" that explains for each individual the basic nature of reality, and of his or her own place in the world, and that provides a vision of "right and wrong" (hence, moral guidance) by which to navigate the world. Each of us experiences this worldview in the form of a usually implicit "story," in which the individual casts himself or herself as the main character.

What a "Narrative" is for the individual, a myth is for a culture. I believe they serve the same basic purposes.

Briefly, I believe that the initial source of Narratives (on the individual level) and myths (on the social level) lies in the nature of the human subconscious, and its interaction with lived experience.

Our subconscious automatically processes our lived experience in the form of concretes -- that is, in terms of perceptions and sensations, rather than abstractions. Our dreams are windows into that subconscious processing. We have no conscious control over dreams when we sleep, but our daily lived experiences become elements that our subconscious automatically, involuntarily sorts, associates, and integrates.

Also, during these associations, certain of our underlying emotions and past experiences -- often deeply buried in memory -- become fodder for psychological projections, in the form of symbols: images and "stories" that allude to what we have felt and experienced.

Again, we have no conscious control over any of this. That's just the way the human subconscious works. It is what makes we humans "the storytelling animal."

Unlike dreams -- which are subconscious, involuntary, automatic, and individual -- myths are consciously guided, symbolic projections that draw upon our subconscious reservoir of widely shared human experiences. But what "experiences" am I talking about?

I believe that the primary purpose of myth-making -- of storytelling in general -- is to help us grapple with causality in the world. Cause-and-effect is the universal "life experience" that stories are trying to sort out; and myths are accounts, in story form, of the most fundamental causal relationships in the world.

The relationship between abstract theory and story is important to understand. Both provide accounts of causal relationships in the world. You might say (crudely, and not entirely accurately) that a story is a populated theory, and a theory is a depopulated story. What an abstract theory does is generalize about causal relationships in the world. What a story (including a myth) does is personalize an abstract theory, showing the direct (or analogous) relationships and impacts of a causal process upon individuals, and its meaning for their lives.

For example, look at what may be the most popular or core myth: "the hero's journey" or "The Quest." It is a projection, in symbolic form, of the life experience of most individuals.

We are all born in a helpless state of sensory bombardment and confusion. As infants, we slowly begin to sort out sensations into perceptions, and then into very basic causal interactions. In myth, this primal chaos and early sorting-and-integration process is captured symbolically in the opening verses of "Genesis."

As infants and young children, we are utterly dependent upon our parents to meet our basic life needs. This is the comfort zone of our early lives, when we are taken care of and nurtured, and when we are not forced to take action -- hence, when we face no risks and exert no effort. In mythology, this is commonly symbolized as the "Golden Age," or "Garden of Eden": a past, primitive state of automatic wish-fulfillment that, in memory, seems like blissful "perfection." In the classic three-act storytelling structure, this is the "Ordinary World" at the start of every tale, in Act One -- the comfort zone of the protagonist.

But as we mature, we become more aware of the larger world outside of our little home-bound Eden. We become curious about it and wonder whether there are values out there to be obtained. So, we become more exploratory and active.

However, activity intrinsically entails effort and risk. To satisfy our curiosity and to achieve any of our individual goals, we must slowly venture forth from our comfort zone, from the automatic security of parental nurturing. We must begin a slow process of separation from them, and launch our independent life's adventure. In Greek mythology, this is the Iliad and the Odyssey; in Genesis, this is Adam and Eve; in the three-act storytelling structure, this is the Act One "inciting incident" or "Call to Adventure," followed by the protagonist's passage through a "Doorway of No Return," into the Act II "World of Adventure."

And on the story goes, along a course clarified by mythologists such as Joseph Campbell (drawing upon Jung's subconscious "archetypes"). Along the way, the life passages during our Hero's Quest lead us to encounter enemies, allies, mentors, shape-shifters, etc. We face mounting challenges and confrontations; encounter setbacks and betrayals; experience reversals of fortune, major turning points, and the darkest lows of failure. Yet in heroic stories and myths, the protagonist -- a projection of our own life journey -- presses on; faces the challenges and evil enemies; finds hidden resources and abilities within; and, in a climactic confrontation, overcomes all adversity to achieve his vital goals.

So this seminal myth, the Heroic Quest, is really a psychological projection of the basic course of our lives. Its source is the universal experience of all individuals in the world, from birth to maturity to death. We cling to this core myth because it speaks to our deepest experience and emotions as we navigate life -- which is why it is retold again and again, in novels, plays, songs, and films. In each telling, the story has its circumstantial variations, as does the protagonist: He is "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," as Campbell titled his seminal book. But it is a story we need to see and hear, again and again -- for encouragement, inspiration, and reminder of who we are and why we are here, and how we can create a life of meaning, purpose, and identity.

"The Hero's Journey" obviously is not the only myth. But if you examine the most popular, you'll find they are projections of common, widely shared human experiences. And most of them seek to grapple with the fundamental fact of causality. How does the world work? Why? What explains the natural processes we see around us? What are we going to do about it?

Seeing that humans and animals are causal agents in the world, it's only natural that primitives -- and children -- would personify natural processes, attributing to unseen spirits and demons control and causal power over them. That desire to understand the world has thus given birth to countless explanatory myths and fables.

But so too has the need for correct guidance in navigating the world: our need for a moral code. Through experience, societies realize that certain human traits are helpful and to be celebrated (virtues), while others are destructive and to be condemned (vices). These become symbolized in stories of heroes and villains, with their actions (and the consequences) becoming either sources of instruction and inspiration, or cautionary tales of evil and harm.

From our earliest childhood, we are exposed to these lessons in causality in the form of interesting stories: fairy tales, fables, myths, songs, cartoons, TV shows, films, novels, plays. Those that capture a common human experience and resonate most broadly with a vast number of people, become our cultural myths. Those that speak to us privately and intimately become our own personal "Narrative" -- our individualized "story" of how the world works, and our place in it.

This is why the most important battle of our time is the struggle to craft and establish a guiding myth for our society, and a Narrative for each of us as individuals. This battle is well-known to those whom historian Paul Johnson labeled the "Enemies of Society," in a book of that title. Their most consuming passion is "narrative control." They are telling an ugly tale about our civilization and its heroes, knowing that their success will deprive us of a unifying myth and tear our society apart.

Storytellers who understand what is at stake need to get busy. By providing a fresh, inspiring mythology for our time, they will become heroes of tales that will be told and retold to children in the future -- and the shapers of personal Narratives for generations to come.

Monday, April 27, 2020

A Meditation About the Popularity of "Self-Sacrifice"

Politics is force -- and the initiation of force necessarily creates classes of victims and their victimizers. Politics invariably results in "zero sum," or "win/lose" relationships, where some people succeed only at the expense of others. Politics thus fuels resentments, hatred, and social polarization -- which we see all around us, as our society has become so thoroughly politicized.

The coercive interactions that characterize the political world are exactly the opposite of the peaceful, voluntary trade transactions that characterize a free market, which are "win/win" relationships to mutual benefit. Every day at checkout counters we willingly exchange our money for goods or services, and both parties to the transaction customarily smile and say, "Thank you." Why? Because we have both gained something we wanted from the transaction. Neither party has taken something from the other, against his will. It's a peaceful, "win/win" trade, to mutual benefit.

So, you'd think that people who truly want a peaceful, benevolent, harmonious society would realize this, embrace free market capitalism, and reject coercive political interventions that pit people against each other. But no.


Here's where I think Ayn Rand and her followers got things a bit wrong about the popularity of "self-sacrifice." They believe that all value-preferences are driven by philosophical ideas. And they believe intellectuals have spread the moral doctrine of altruistic self-sacrifice, which lies at the heart of various collectivist ideologies. They conclude that to fight the left effectively, they must train their fire upon the moral idea of self-sacrifice, philosophically refuting it, thus undermining its appeal.

But I think this interpretation is mistaken. On its face, self-sacrifice seems unattractive and nonsensical. I believe few people ever become liberals or leftists because they find self-sacrifice to be appealing, or because they've become persuaded of its merits through philosophical argument. Instead, I think their affinity for "selflessness" is a conclusion they've derived -- perhaps even reluctantly, but quite logically -- from their broader worldview or "Narrative" about how the world works.

What worldview?

A huge percentage of people harbor the misguided view that economic transactions are zero-sum, winner-loser relationships. They believe human economic interests are fundamentally in conflict, so that the "self-interest" and gain by some necessitates the "exploitation" and sacrifice of others. They therefore see socio-economic interactions in terms of a binary choice: either gain power over others, or submit to the power of others. And that's why they gravitate to the "class conflict" theories of Marx and other collectivists. Those political theories ratify and rationalize their underlying core belief about the inherent predatory "unfairness" of economic relationships.

This inherent-conflict-of-interests Narrative is rooted deep within humanity's tribal past, when human relationships were all about dominance or submission. We have to remember that, historically, free-market, win-win capitalism is very new -- and from the outset it was misinterpreted through the distorting lens of the traditional zero-sum, win-lose worldview. Early capitalists were thus "robber barons," not society's creative benefactors. Marx, and generations he influenced, construed capitalism and social relationships in terms of class warfare. Today, "identity politics" rests on the same view of inherent tribal conflicts of interest among demographic groups.

So, if I'm right about this, then many people's idealization of the ethics of self-sacrifice makes a warped kind of sense. They come to it not from philosophical/ideological persuasion, but from their deep-seated belief in inherent conflicts of interest among men -- and the corollary conclusion that the only way for people to live in social harmony is for all sides to sacrifice their "selfish" interests for the sake of "the common good."

This puts a different interpretive spin on the popularity of the morality of altruistic self-sacrifice. Again, on its face, self-sacrifice makes no sense. Deliberately sacrificing one's own best interests and well-being is bizarre, and why people should want to accept it as a moral ideal is even more bizarre. Ayn Rand and her followers, who have viewed human action as powered entirely by philosophical ideas, tried to explain the popularity of self-sacrifice by arguing that philosophers and thinkers have pushed it upon the gullible in the form of various religious and philosophical "isms." They have written countless books and articles trying to refute it as a moral idea. Yet we see that their critiques have had little societal influence.

My explanation for their failure is that their attacks on self-sacrifice, though philosophically accurate, are strategically misguided. Altruistic self-sacrifice is less a moral cause than a moral conclusion, for those who believe that socio-economic relationships necessarily involve inherent conflicts of interest. If that's your Narrative about the social world -- if you see transactions as nothing but power relationships about dominance and submission -- then you have a logical choice to make: either to become a cold-blooded predatory brute, or to remain "nice" and allow yourself to be an exploited victim. Those who truly believe in this Narrative may conclude they'd prefer to keep their self-respect by being victimized, rather than join the criminals and brutes. Such erroneous premises and conclusions would explain, for example, the rise of Christianity and the appeal of its altruistic ethics, as summarized in "the Sermon on the Mount."

Is my view of this so far-fetched? In a discussion on Facebook with Objectivists, I found many participants recoiled from the view that even emergency situations are zero-sum conflicts that might require us to become brutes, surviving at the expense of others. That is not the Randian view of "selfishness": Most principled individualists, in fact, would prefer to keep their humanity and self-esteem by dying nobly rather than survive like predatory beasts.

Well, to them I say: Imagine how you'd live if you truly believed that normal life was all about zero-sum conflicts of interest -- that each transaction under capitalism entailed someone gaining at someone else's expense. You'd conclude, logically, that economic winners would have to be rapacious robber barons. You'd conclude, logically, that to keep your soul, you'd have to sacrifice your prospects for economic well-being, doing your work solely for the love of it, and not for commercial success. You'd conclude, logically, that to keep the economic predators in check, we need a strong cop to suppress predatory "greed": a powerful government to regulate Evil Businessmen.

If my interpretation of altruism's appeal is correct, then the real target of individualists' moral criticism ought to be the zero-sum Narrative -- the false belief in inherent economic conflicts of interest -- and not altruistic self-sacrifice per se, which is mainly an emotionally driven reaction arising from the zero-sum worldview. We need to show that economic relationships in a free society are "win/win," not "win/lose." We need to explain what 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat labeled "economic harmonies."

And we need to teach that the "win/win" marketplace is the moral antithesis of the coercive world of politics, where all relationships are in fact zero-sum and "win/lose." The more relationships we can keep outside the political realm of force and coercion, and within the private sector of peaceful production and trade, the better for our social harmony.