Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Labels and conversations beyond the ideological x-axis

No one yet seems to have registered any disagreement with this December 2015 essay advocating transcending the political categories of "right," "left," "conservative," and "liberal." But the labels in question are still used with some frequency, and they continue to play very divisive roles in our discourse.

Lots of people seem to be giving more thought to how they relate to these terms. We seem to see them in quotation marks more frequently, and more people seem to be explicitly deciding not to identify with either side of the dichotomies these terms represent. When they're used in political polemics without quotation marks, they still seem to me to be some of the very least helpful terms in our discourse. I'm not saying to ban any words from your vocabulary, but rather just to give more thought to them. When I mention "chucking" or "eschewing" or "transcending" these categories, it's shorthand for transforming our relationship with them, going beyond habitual linguistic loyalties. These particular political labels really seem frequently to perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies of divisiveness, partisanship, factionalism, hostility. Chucking them can help us get past some of the superficial levels of discourse, to the more substantive levels of processes, policies, practices, paradigms. Of course, there's a lot invested in playing linguistic games on relatively superficial levels. Those who can see and function beyond such investments can become an example and beacon for others.

In addition to "conservative" & "liberal" & "right" & "left," a newer pair of terms seems useful to mention: "status quo warrior" and "social justice warrior." (I want to note that there are differences between these three pairs, though they've often been treated as equivalent. Nevertheless, I think the points in this post can be fruitfully applied to all three pairs.) The terms SQW and SJW seem to have come to be used mostly derogatorily. Why is that?

If we use simple, charitable definitions of "status quo" and "social justice," they can be looked at as another basic duality of the universe.

Status quo is what exists. Reality. Truth. Empirical, informative, descriptive facts.

Justice is rightness. Goodness. Values. Preferences. Normative stuff.

So we have the "is," and then we have the "ought." 

If we ignore the status quo, or if we disrupt it too much, too fast, this can clearly bring problems. Ignoring values can lead to stagnation, destruction, and suboptimal experiences, and we can make mistakes in the values that we choose.

To illustrate this duality, let's say you're holding some mushrooms. Another person approaches. This is the status quo: you have mushrooms and someone's coming.

Now let's look at some of the more normative aspects of the situation. You've evaluated these mushrooms as exquisitely delicious and/or good for you. The other person, for whatever reason, looks like they could use some.

Facts and values are inextricably intertwined, dual aspects of any situation, both involved in making a good decision, like giving some mushrooms to the other person, helping to produce a new and probably better status quo: two happy mushroom munchers instead of one.

So it's the "warrior" part that really seems to bring a lot of negativity to these terms. War has been widely perceived as one of the worst plagues of human history. And war isn't just outright violence but also cold wars, the mistrust & suspicion & seething resentments that we carry around, which are unpleasant and draining in themselves, and which can sometimes erupt quickly into hot wars.

If we're identifying heavily, in our general political orientation, with one side of a definitionally balanced duality, then this imbalance seems almost bound to lead to an overabundance of disturbances. Fighting or hostility could be considered the epitome of social disturbance. These are phenomena such that, generally speaking, when we substantially decrease them, our lives get substantially better. The idea of fighting for one's values, fighting the good fight, fighting against nefarious forces, is still very widespread. Certainly, we don't want to discount the importance of fighting if the occasion really calls for it. And our world has been so full of violence that fighting has often been used as a metaphor for passionate, idealistic societal engagement. But a major part of The Fight, in this metaphorical sense - a major part of the righteous mission we're on - is surely overcoming the era of violence. A critical examination of our political rhetoric and allegiances can aid this mission.

I think there's been a feeling that forgoing these labels may amount to a hollow and even dangerous equivalency or relativism. I think this is a legitimate concern, and we should take care that we're not just trying to linguistically project an existentially unattained unity while erasing or papering over important distinctions. But all things considered, I think clarity and unity and other worthwhile goals are best served by, by and large, retiring these terms (or using them very carefully, preferably in quotation marks, or in contexts where they have a clearly conveyed, precise meaning), and talking instead about the deeper issues, which have been connected to these terms, but which all too often seem to be ignored, forgotten, neglected, as we get hung up on labels and on interpersonal drama, etc.

Words mean things. The words "conservative," "liberal," "left," "right," "SQW," or "SJW" might mean something so important to you, as ways of describing yourself or others or both, that it seems essential to keep using them. But what if the worthwhile positions, causes, and principles that you hold dear are better served by eschewing these political labels? When someone does use these words in a way that seems to be perpetuating the uncritical adversarial assumptions that have prevailed through so much of our discourse, we can take this as an opportunity to unpack some baggage. The cycles of hostility to which these words have been connected over many decades, and the fact that they're defined in opposition to each other, suggest that they're helping keep us at an impasse where no one's goals are being achieved the way they could be if we were to get past the impasse.

We can think of these changes as an innovation, an expansion, spawning new ideas and opportunities, rather than as a contraction or a loss. It's not that anyone should suddenly stop being who they are - if you lean "left," "right," "conservative," "liberal," you'll retain all the knowledge and experience that have influenced you to lean that way, you'll retain your values and passions and commitments, but you can embrace the other side of the duality also, at least in the sense of the labels you use for people, and in the sense of your readiness to relate to people, and even maybe in a more literal sense, expanding the circumstances and conditions in which you're likely to hug someone. We can imagine new standard practices emerging that reflect these expanded affections. At various events with specific agendas, in which people gather in a room or outdoor space, there could be hugs all around before and after the agenda.

These changes don't even require giving up the idea that the side you've been leaning toward, or affiliating with, has better positions and a better history than the other side. We're talking about changing some of the ways we use labels to describe people. It may seem superficial or gimmicky, but it can have real effects. If we want to manifest a future where we all win, let's use language that makes room for that. And if you consider the people on "the other side" to be tragically misguided, that would seem to be good reason not to expect them to be the first to carry out these cultural/linguistic innovations. You'd better take the initiative and set the example.

If we stop identifying with one side of a duality, it doesn't mean becoming, or succumbing to, or conceding to, the other side. It can be a transition to a new level of sophistication, a greater ability to communicate and relate and cooperate.

Are misguided people amenable to persuasion? Very often, yes, naturally. And if a greater consensus can happen, it will surely bring enormous benefits and forestall significant pain. So let's really optimize our rhetoric, upgrade and restock our linguistic tool chest.

We have an infamous capacity for rationalizing to support our favored positions. We can think we're being reasonable, clever, even generous, magnanimous, when in fact our behavior just comes off as smug or worse to those holding different positions. If our aim is reconciliation and unity, this outcome can't really be considered that clever.

Pride remains a tricky problem that it seems we can stand to keep working on. Its pitfalls have been noted frequently throughout history, but we're still learning. We definitely want to feel good about our good deeds, but taking it to the point of pride seems like an inelegant solution, ultimately a folly, though one that's still fostered, reinforced, advocated, facilitated, in many ways.

I don't say all this just to admonish others; I'm very inspired, and sobered, by ways I've personally fallen short karmically. I noticed myself appearing to flip the bird on video a few years ago, when talking about some adversarial dynamics I was involved in. I don't seem to have realized I was doing it at the time; I noticed it when I watched the video. But an unconscious gesture like that can belie other, less visible modes of judging or dismissing others and inflating oneself. More recently, I deigned to participate in some conversations on social media, with my contribution sometimes consisting of little more than sloppily tarring people with labels, without getting much involved in deeper discussion of the issues involved. I also pretty carelessly curated a public list of questionable characters, lumping together people with pretty widely divergent views/characteristics into this small, ill-defined category.

The power of habit is strong. If we hold views similar to those of our ancestors, then it could be said that we're continuing with habits that go back to long before we were born. And when we change our views during our lifetime, when we have a conversion experience, we might then form a habit of associating our former views, along with the people who still hold similar views, with our wayward youth, dismissing those people as "childish," etc., and constructing a new insular identity, different from the previous one, but still insular.

People convert from "right" to "left," "conservative" to "liberal," and vice versa -- a two-way street -- and sometimes go back and forth multiple times. But the conversion from strong identification with any of these labels, as general political descriptors, to a perspective that transcends and includes them, seems like it may be a one-way street.

Luckily, factors like the accelerating feedback loops of culture and media make it plausible that we can learn from our mistakes faster than ever before.

The habit of looking for ways to unify, congeal, integrate - finding points of contention and resolving them - can be very fun and rewarding.

We can build oneness without sacrificing eachness. We'll always have interesting differences; each of us will always be unique in many ways. In fact, attaining greater oneness will undoubtedly help there to be greater eachness. There seem to be many constraints and barriers that simultaneously constrain both unity and individuality.

Trying hard to transcend the divides represented by a few particular, frequently used, political labels isn't saying anything against labels in general, of course. All discourse involves labels. What other labels might we suggest using? What ideologies or methodologies do we want to signal-boost?

Advocating "centrism" in a political context seems possibly liable to invoke and reify the same frameworks, the same linguistic divisions or dualisms, that we're trying to overcome.

Two models I think are worthy of note are the circular economy and the resource-based economy.

Various strands of "liberatory" and "libertarian" thought have pointed toward horizontal methods of organization that go beyond quid pro quo transactions and/or hypercentralized government control.

There's voluntarism[1]; there's 100%ism[2]; there's Pay It Forward; there are many labels that could come in handy.

We may be on the verge of creating new media that will help us communicate much more effectively, but as we build those media, we may want to keep some of these points in mind with regard to the conversations we have in the meantime through our current media. Many of our current conversations are dysfunctional, to various degrees. You might take a look at Science and Sanity and Prometheus Rising if you've never done so. These books are antiquated in many ways, but pretty fascinating, quite possibly still very relevant. Given the stakes, we should give very high priority to putting into our communications maximum clarity and best intentions for the well-being of all. Let's be willing to take long pauses, let there be dead air, as we bring our truly best efforts to our linguistic behavior. Let's prioritize facilitating open, productive, earnest discussion of salient or controversial topics, with an eye toward real resolutions, real meetings of the minds. For instance, there's disagreement about climate change. We can set up in-depth conversations (via podcast, etc.) between people able to present some of the most robust possible cases for different points of view on the issue. Eric S. Raymond or Dr. Judith Curry could represent the perspective that the changes probably aren't as dire as often depicted. That issue has connections to conversations about fossil fuels and other energy sources, though of course many other factors besides climate will come into our energy conversations too.

One salient consideration seems to be that many banal, counterproductive, & destructive activities are greatly accelerated by the ways we define, promote, and incentivize economic success and growth. Economic success and growth as we measure them include a significant amount of economic activity that has no life-sustaining or -enhancing value apart from helping to generate income that people use to buy access to resources. So, by fundamentally changing our economic system, we can help put our technological activities into better harmony with life on earth, while also freeing up the time spent performing actions that contribute to success within the economic system but that have no other utility.

Let us know what you think; thanks for reading!

[edited 2-18-17]

1 comment:

benjamin ozegowsky said...

Mind expanding. I love how the author remained undefined throughout. Safety in Individuals.