Life during the culture wars

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Our political Manichaeism

Throughout his recent book Moral Tribes (2013), American psychologist and experimental philosopher Joshua Greene portrays a cultural and political tribalism that divides modern liberal democracies into groups of angry, warring enemies.

Likewise, high-profile social psychologist Jonathan Haidt emphasizes what he sees as a “political Manichaeism” in current cultural and political debate. Manichaeism was an ancient religion, dating from the 3rd century, whose key teaching was a supernatural dualism of absolute good and evil confronting each other in an ongoing cosmic struggle. Too often, it appears, disputants over cultural and political issues take a similar attitude; they see themselves as involved in a struggle for political power against utterly evil opponents. This creates an environment inhospitable to compromise, reason, good will, and ordinary civility.

In such an environment, tribalists demand ever more costly displays of ideological purity from their allies: this can involve insisting on more and more extreme views, as well as self-censoring any doubts or heretical impulses. At the same time, the culture warriors of rival tribes view opponents as morally corrupt, and as fair game for social destruction.

In the extreme, moral tribalists engage in threatened or actual violence, directed at others whom they regard as evildoers or complicit in evil. Among the worst examples are the murders committed by radical Islamists, such as those who attacked the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, and the actions of extreme right-wing terrorists, such as Anders Breivik, convicted of 77 murders that he perpetrated in July 2011. Breivik was judged by the Norwegian justice system to be legally sane, but he subscribed to a bizarre and apocalyptic conspiracy theory involving attempts by elite “cultural Marxists” to destroy Western morality and civilization.

When nastiness becomes normal

Radical Islamists and extreme conspiracy theorists such as Breivik cling to ideological systems that are far outside the mainstream in Western liberal democracies. However, more mainstream participants in cultural and political debate, some of whom would never resort to outright acts of violence, can also be culpable in creating an environment in which nuance, charity, and compromise disappear.

When this becomes commonplace, we can find ourselves treating it as normal and acceptable. We may find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who merely disagree with us on issues and may have done little or nothing wrong. We may seek to advance our favoured causes by taking names and claiming scalps, rather than exploring and debating ideas. As a result, largely (or entirely) innocent people can have their good names trashed, their lives made miserable, and their careers damaged or ruined.

In some cases, mainstream politicians cannot resist getting in on the act. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to accept that politics is a dirty game and that it is (sort of) okay for professional politicians to try to destroy each other’s credibility and careers. That may be an ugly sight, but it’s so much worse when powerful politicians turn on far less powerful individuals, treating them as enemies to be destroyed.

The firing of Scott McIntyre

Consider the the harsh treatment of Scott McIntyre by the Special Broadcasting Service, in Australia.

What was McIntyre’s crime? He did no more than publish a series of trenchant tweets criticising the mythos of Anzac Day.

Taken as a sequence, the offending tweets stated as follows: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan. Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered. The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society. Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima.”

Many of us might disagree with McIntyre’s sentiments, or at least feel uncomfortable with their emphasis; we might raise our eyebrows at their expression on a solemn national day for remembering those who died or suffered in war; and we might deplore McIntyre’s tone, including his apparent contempt for many of his fellow citizens (“poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers”). McIntyre may be open to some kind of moral criticism for the tweets, their wording, and their timing. Nonetheless, his views lie well within the usual boundaries for tolerance and consideration in a liberal democratic society.

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume there are some opinions that are beyond the pale of tolerance. Views involving the advocacy of genocide are obvious candidates. Staff who are closely identified with their employer – such as its senior managers or individuals who provide its public face in one way or another – inevitably bring the employer into disrepute if they publicly express truly hateful, Nazi-like viewpoints. But nothing in McIntyre’s tweets was remotely like that: despite the aggressive language he chose, he expressed opposition to violence, not advocacy of it, and he sketched a rather tame and familiar left-wing critique of war and what he evidently understood as its glorification.

Yet, the SBS moved swiftly (with “decisive action”, as its senior managers expressed it) to fire him with immediate effect. This followed an outcry on Twitter that included denunciation of McIntyre by a government minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Here, then, we see a crucial issue. Should such powerful individuals as the ministers of national governments be using their very large public platforms to attack individual citizens who are not professional politicians or others with great power?

All sides of politics

I hasten to add that the problem does not lie on just one side of politics, though government attacks on public broadcasters provide some salient examples in Australia.

Notwithstanding such examples, the problem can be found on all sides of contemporary cultural and political controversy. Left-wing political activists are not always clean. Indeed, they often seek to advance their causes by opportunistic attacks on individuals who are portrayed as somehow deserving it. Hyperbolic and uncharitable attacks on specific, identifiable people provide a well-established tactic on the Left, one that was explicitly advocated by the legendary activist Saul Alinsky in his influential “how to” book, Rules for Radicals.

As I described in a post at Talking Philosophy, and republished recently on my personal blog, political activists may rally supporters by pretending that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Alinsky candidly acknowledged, the opponent – the person considered to be in the wrong in a particular situation – may actually, on a more objective assessment, have some admirable qualities and be 40 per cent right. As a result, activists often isolate and demonise essentially decent, reasonable people, pretend that situations are far more dire than they really are, and otherwise engage in deliberate misrepresentations. Those who are rallied – rather than doing the rallying – may thus come to misperceive named individuals not only as their opponents but as morally vicious people who are fair game for ill-treatment.

There may be no substitute for such tactics in genuinely dire situations where many people are suffering terribly, and where activists desperately need swift, dramatic victories to ameliorate the suffering. Thus, we may not regret that dishonest and hurtful tactics have been used in the past to achieve victories against slum lords, exploitative corporations, and oppressive regimes. However, distasteful it may be to say so, perhaps the ends can justify the means in truly urgent circumstances.

But even if we accept that much, what kind of society will we be living in if this approach becomes normalised? Do we want a cultural and political environment where intellectual dishonesty, social destruction of individuals, and pressures to engage in tribal displays (shows of ideological purity and of a willingness to adopt extreme views) become the daily currency of social interaction?

Our predicament

Much of our current political and cultural disputation takes the form of culture warring, waged across many fronts, rather than good-faith attempts at mutual understanding and shared deliberation. This is not, of course, entirely new. Social media such as Twitter and the blogosphere make it more visible, but we might wonder whether it is actually any worse than, say, twenty years ago.

Such trends are difficult to measure. Haidt, for one, is convinced that there has been a decline in civility and mutual good will in American politics – and if he’s correct, his observations probably apply beyond the US. On the other hand, we might recall the extremes of other decades, such as the 1960s and 1970s (the volatile era when I came of age).

However new it may be, the Manichaeism that Haidt identifies appears to be real. If that’s not obvious, try it out as a working hypothesis. You’ll likely see ongoing outrage, abuse, and demonisation of opponents from all sides of political and cultural debate. Note that the warring sides will not always be Right versus Left in the traditional sense. That has changed in the new culture wars of the twenty-first century: unusual alliances are forming, often cutting across old divisions or exposing deep disagreements within what we think of as the Right or the Left.

Cultural warfare is dividing good people from each other, creating a general environment of hostility where many of us are constantly on hair-triggers (and where many people feel they must self-censor or else be turned on by their own tribes). All of this hurts good people, lowers the quality of debate, distorts our understanding of the problems we confront, and harms the process of democratic deliberation.

What’s less clear is what we can do about it. I’ll return to that in later posts.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  1. Great restraint in not naming names.

  2. I was listening to a psychoanalyst interviewed on the radio the other day.

    He said that the masses, when they participate in politics or in other mass sports, have an emotional age between 5 and 10, independent of their individual emotional age.

    The joy of returning to kindergarten and seeing life as a fairy tale.

  3. Thing about Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, that even for politicians who didn’t read it (I imagine many didn’t), it became the consensus for all of western politics.

    Fukuyama was a political “insider”, he was in the Reagan administration. So, his descriptions of our liberal democracies not really being democracies at all, instead being cordial dictatorships of social elites, is the reality as he witnessed it, and not the ramblings of a paranoiac. Fukuyama saw this an ideal situation. And this was credible for a short period, until it all started to go horribly wrong.

    Fukuyama imagined an end of politics (he didn’t believe it was an end of democracy, as he didn’t believe democracy had begun at any point.) Fukuyama’s politicians would be apolitical managers, with a shared ideological consensus. That is the right would have accepted that the welfare state of the typical liberal democracy was here to stay, and the left would accept the rich shouldn’t be shook down for all they were worth. And this is the first point where it goes horribly wrong.

    People like the Clintons and Tony Blair, abandoned their beliefs concerning the economic inequities of their relative democracies, and embraced neoliberal ideologies. This is bad enough, but it’s once it’s combined with Manichaeism is when it becomes really toxic.

    Manichaeism is necessary in politics. Unless you have a single party system, parties need at the very least a little something to differentiate themselves from each other. The right party always needs to be a little right of the left party. It’s needed at the bare symbolic level to provide at the very least a superficial raison d’etre, (If you don’t have a raison d’etre, you don’t d’etre; if you have no justification for your existence, you don’t exist)

    Imagine a parliamentary democracy, where a left and a right party dominate. The left demand a 10% increase in the old aged pension, the right huff and puff in outrage, and they settle on a 5% increase. But what would happen if the left party leadership had lurched to the right. The left now demand 5% cut in the pension (though they demand this while wringing their hands and being so apologetic and weepy). The right party to differentiate themselves from the left, now huff and puff and demand a 10% cut in the pension.

    And, since there’s an economic “consensus”. The Left and Right parties embrace opposite ends of cultural issues. This allows people within the left, who are right wing extremists in their economic positions and socio-economic beliefs, to wave the rainbow flag and believe themselves to be authentic lefties. Marriage Equality; Yay. Socio-economic inequality; shush (don’t say that bit out loud). In America the parties polarised the cultural issues, and engaged in an epic struggle that still rages. Full of sound and fury. It’s been speculated that it was the cultural issue of same sex marriage, that won GW Bush a second term. Does he really have an issue with SSM? He’s been photographed at a few SSM weddings since leaving office, and not clutching a ‘God Hates Fags’ placard either. In England, David Cameron used a different strategy. By embracing cultural positions of the left, SSM, he damaged the Labour party’s raison d’etre.

    But by far the worst thing to happen. A deeply misguided social ideology that has come to dominate; that aggression is bad, and the absence of aggression is good. This hasn’t panned out as intended either. The Blairite inner party of the British Labour party now identify themselves as passive aggressive Tories, while the Tories are the aggressive Tories. (They wouldn’t put it that way, but that’s the way it is.)

  4. JMRC,

    Open debate of political options or positions isn’t the same as aggression.

    I can believe that measure X will promote the general good and you can believe that it will not. We can argue about that and debate it without calling it each other names, without seeing the other as having “evil intentions” and even recognizing that politics is not an exact science and that you could be right and I could be wrong.

    There is no need to project Manichean fantasies about the other person being “evil” and we being “good” in politics, although at times branding the other side as evil helps rally votes to one’s cause. However, in the long run using that recourse seems to debase the political debate.

    Finally, isn’t good politics about making the world a less stupid place, among other things?

  5. Politics in the U.S. is not exactly Yin and Yang; a reciprocity that would lead to balance. It is all opposition, polarization, and intolerance. Instead of building on what the President from the opposition party accomplished in office there is the desire in the other party to scuttle it all.

    It may have started with Richard Nixon with his call to the moral majority. The settlers worldview had little to no impact with the founders who may have used them as an example of what to guard against, based on what happened in England.

    Now, to win in the primaries, the conservative religious-right has to be appealed to by one party. Many of this demographic; (the most strident), do not believe in centralized government, laws, human agency, evolution,(either physical or psychical), plus they have weird views on women. They want their off-shoot brand of pseudo-Christianity to dominate the culture.

    Apart from that there is the greed factor with money and power being almost synonymous terms.

    In spite of all of that there is a longing abroad among the populace; evidenced in the support for the decent Bernie Sanders.

  6. s. wallerstein,

    “Open debate of political options or positions isn’t the same as aggression.”

    The idea of aggression being bad is ideology. Neither implying either aggression or ideology are good or bad. You could have, and there are, social ideologies where aggression is always a positive. It’s in the realm of ideology.

    If a small child is punished, for losing their temper, or blurting out inappropriate truths, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll end up with an adult who can’t really manage their anger, but will express it indirectly, and they’re more prone to lying if the truth causes them anxiety. A sick person.

    Enough of these sick people, not only do they confirm each other’s delusions of wellness, but they will ostracise those who are not sick.

    Only people who are not sick can have a truly open discussions. You may have to think about this a bit.

    As for Manichaeism. People have a cognitive bias in seeing the world in dualities, polar opposites; Man/Woman, True/False, Left/Right, Sweet/Sour, Hot/Cold, Good/Evil. Our reality is in fact multidimensional, binary views of the world are one dimensional. A duality like Sweet/Sour, is completely meaningless. Hot and Cold, are always relative; a hot coffee is always cold in comparison to a candle flame, a cold glass of water is always hot in comparison with an ice cube. Nietzsche’s Good/Bad/Evil, underlines the problems in that kind of dualistic perspective. Which has been a political reality; GW Bush and Tony Blair, summing what they believe to be the greater good with the lesser bad, and getting something evil.

    “Finally, isn’t good politics about making the world a less stupid place, among other things?”

    Yes, but there are people with a different ideology. Where the people need to be kept ignorant, so they can be controlled, because they are too ignorant to look after themselves. That’s the ideology of the Catholic Church, and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

    I wouldn’t be too pessimistic. I believe that within the cohort of children born today, there will be the most intelligent people in human history. But the stupid, alas, like the poor, shall always be with us.

  7. JMRC,

    It all depends on what we mean by “aggression”.

    There are aggressive drives behind all or most human interactions and debating ideas has a clear aggressive component, whether conscious or unconscious, the drive to win over the other party, to convince them, to win the applause of the imaginary or not-so-imaginary spectators, what the Greeks call “agon”.

    In formal debating there are rules which regulate that aggressive component, for instance, the rule against the ad hominem fallacy, which means we cannot insult the other.

    Then there’s overt aggression, what one finds in most political debates, where the ad hominem fallacy is the most common rhetoric resource, where one tries to depict the other as “evil”, as not worth listening to, as motivated by base intentions, while our intentions are inevitably noble and pure.

    The fantasy that we are right and that you are wrong is one of the most pleasant highs known to mankind, and able political leaders capture and cultivate their political followings by getting the masses high on moral self-righteousness.

    That high leads to stupidity. Of course at times one is right and the other is wrong. Bush and Blair lied about the weapons of mass destruction in order to invade Iraq, which was wrong and those who opposed the war were right to protest against them. However, there is no reason to get high on that self-righteous drug and to spend the rest of one’s life congratulating oneself about it.

    Since we all have aggressive drives, we need to become more conscious of them, especially more conscious of how they power seemingly rational arguments, more conscious of what Nietzsche calls the “will to power” which underlies philosophical reasoning so that we can see what we’re “really” up to.

    Insofar as we become more conscious of our will to power, we can sublimate or channel our aggressions and thus, avoid destructive and pointless overt aggressiveness.

  8. JMRC

    I am trying to understand what do you mean by

    “The idea of aggression being bad is ideology”

    Some definitions of ideology:

    “a : a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture”
    “b : a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture”
    “c : the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program”

    And I understand “aggression” in this context as: they way we relate to other people/groups with ideas different that our ouwns in either the same or different cultures.

    Based on these definitions, it appears to me that aggression has undesirable consequences in human lives; it results in war, exploitation, genocides, etc (the list is along)

    So why do you believe that aggression being bad is ideology and not that it is actually bad- it hinders both our ability to live together and in the current time (nuclear time) our ability to survive.

    Thank you for your answer

  9. s. wallerstein,

    “It all depends on what we mean by “aggression”.”

    It all depend on what we mean, and what others mean, and believe.

    And to some people, aggression is as little as open communication.

    Your other points, we could really write a very long book concerning the psychology.

    I didn’t have any satisfaction in being right about Iraq. I felt deep despair. Before that war began I could see the future; I could already see the refugees coming out of the sea. And I will not have any satisfaction in seeing more of my prophecies coming true. One of the predictions I had before the 2003 invasion, was that the invasion would lead precisely to the current problems with Russia. But right up to the last minute, I didn’t believe the invasion of Iraq would actually happen, because I couldn’t believe they could be stupid enough to go ahead with it.

  10. JMRC,

    Besides the immorality of an invasion under false pretexts, the weapons of mass destruction, they really did create an incredible mess in the Middle East by disrupting a precarious equilibrium. Yes, in some sense the refugees can blame Bush and Blair for setting the whole insane drama in motion. It’s frightening that two world leaders, surrounded by scores of advisors with PhD’s from what are supposedly the world’s best universities, were so blind to the possible and even probable consequences of their foreign adventures.

  11. John M,

    “Based on these definitions, it appears to me that aggression has undesirable consequences in human lives; it results in war, exploitation, genocides, etc (the list is along)”

    The people who start wars, exploit, commit genocides, don’t believe any of these things are bad. They think they’re all good. And that is their ideology. And the people who think they’re all bad, have a different ideology.

    Ideologies tend not to be codified into definitive texts. The texts themselves are not the ideology. It can be nearly impossible to know what the ideologies actually are, they often involve stating one thing, then believing something different, and of course doing things that contradict the stated beliefs. And often ideologies are only partially transmitted, leading people to do, and believe, things, they have no rational reason for.

    If you’re on some nasty underclass sink estate in England. Differences of opinions are often settled through direct physical violence. If you’re in a nice upper-middle-class university, disagreeing with a professor might result in a slightly tense smile ………followed by years of back stabbings, well poisonings, and other passive aggressive attempts to destroy your life and career.

    If we look at the Syrian refugee crisis. Let’s take England. The gentlemen and gentleladies of England, would be horrified if anyone were to regard them as brutal savages who would rather machine gun a boat of refugees, than take them to safety. They wouldn’t regard themselves in that way, either. So (and this was actual stated British government policy) British naval rescue missions were withdrawn from the Mediterranean, for a publicly stated reason in the House of Lords, by Lady Muck (look her up yourselves), that by rescuing the refugees in boats, it would be an incentive for other refugees to attempt the voyage, now it was safer. Do you see how it works. Machine gunning refugees in boats (As it appears in the first chapter of Orwell’s 1984), would be nasty (aggressive)….Letting them drown at sea by comparison would be nice (passive aggressive).

    And that’s the point I was making.

    But for the hell of it, I’ll be a little more explicit. If you’re in a rowing boat, and there is a man a few feet away from you drowning, if you reached for your revolver, and put him out of your misery by shooting him in the head, then that would be murder (aggressive). If on the other hand, you just gently rowed away from the man and let him drown, you might not think it was murder, because you were passive. But any reasonable person would conclude your are in fact a murderer, and your actions were passive aggressive. The words ‘passive’ and ‘aggressive’ appear to be polar opposites. Which they are, but it’s a truth that is only true over a limited domain.

  12. s. wallerstein,

    “Besides the immorality of an invasion under false pretexts, the weapons of mass destruction, they really did create an incredible mess in the Middle East by disrupting a precarious equilibrium. Yes, in some sense the refugees can blame Bush and Blair for setting the whole insane drama in motion.”

    Are Bush and Blair guilty in the sense of having mens rea (the legal term for a guilty mind). They are not, but guilty in every other sense.

    Geopolitics is impossibly complicated. If you’d ask Dick Cheney while he was in George Bush senior’s administration in the early 90s, for a full account of what he believed would happen in the event of removing Saddam Hussein. Millions of Syrian refugees would have been in the picture. There’s a video clip of him on Youtube that only surfaced after he had left power, where he makes these kinds of statements. Why he behaved as he did in GW’s administration is a mystery. Donald Rumsfeld is now trying to acquit himself by saying before the invasion he did make these kinds of warnings (which he did, but in an inaudible whisper….but the documents exist….as if he were already preparing his defence in a war crimes tribunal even before the war had begun.).

    If you asked me in the 90s, what might result from the removal of Saddam Hussein, one of the things I may have said is the violent disintegration of Russia. I hope it doesn’t happen, but current indications are not encouraging.

    How do I know all this? Well, unlike GW Bush, I have read more than one fucking book in my life.

    “It’s frightening that two world leaders, surrounded by scores of advisors with PhD’s from what are supposedly the world’s best universities, were so blind to the possible and even probable consequences of their foreign adventures.”

    Advisors with PhD’s, like Paul Wolfowitz. Academics are not always firmly rooted in the reality based community.

  13. Most of us confuse authority with intelligence, probably because it’s frightening to realize who is in charge in the ship.

    Those who govern us may well be not the most prescient or the wisest or the most far-seeing, but rather the most ambitious, the most cunning, the most expert at back-stabbing and manipulating their way to the top. That’s true on the left and on the right, as true in Bolivarian Venezuela as in Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition in Israel.

    As I said above (my September 9, 6:51AM comment), almost everyone who participates in politics regresses to an emotional age between 5 and 10. We see the leaders whom we side with with the same innocence as we saw our parents at age 5, wholly good and wise and in control and we see the leaders we oppose as the opposite. Actually, there seems to be a psychology of political leadership, whether on the right or on the left, and Nixon and Lenin probably reasoned in much the same way, with the same ambition, the same cunning, the same scorn for honesty and the same lust for power.

    Plato saw that and that’s why he wrote the Republic about a city where the wise rule. In reality, among Plato’s philosopher-kings the most ambitious and the most power-hungry would probably elbow their way to the top and turn the whole thing into a dirty little dictatorship.

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