Thursday, 16 March 2017

Regressive Left Pt. 3: Academic Anarchy


By the late 1980s and early 90s, hate speech and harassment laws – powerful legal tools in the hands of regressives – were in the early stages of codification, and already being used against critics and dissidents.  The holy grail of the early academic SJWs was to use hate speech and harassment laws to give legal force to the previously described rationalizations for “offense equalling oppression” and denial of guilt for oppression itself equating to oppression due to the use of “privileged voice” to “invisiblize the oppression” of marginalized groups, or something similar.  

The results would doubtless provoke the admiration of Holy Inquisitors and Witch Hunters down the ages were they alive to see it.  It is imperative that harassment and hate speech laws not be crafted in this manner.  Ideally, legislation crafted around hate speech and harassment laws should require proof of intent or malice not rooted in ideological rationalizations, even if at a relatively low bar in a legal sense: “substantial evidence” or “preponderance of evidence” as examples – before a person’s career can be ruined or they are held civilly liable under these laws.  This needs to be a high priority goal for an anti-regressive left movement.

Women and other oppressed groups were, it was suggested, legitimate in engaging in behaviors that white males would be rightly condemned for.  This included ideological gatekeeping – obtaining positions of influence and authority first on college campuses and then in positions in the wider society that their academic credentials allowed them to access – and using those positions to help or hinder the careers of others based on whether they towed the feminist party line or belonged to preferred, read “marginalized” demographics.  This has contributed to the dangerous trend towards growing ideological uniformity on college campuses.

When, in 2014, a backlash ensued against the encroachment of feminist and progressive ideology in video game criticism and design, the early gamergate movement had no idea just how deep the rabbit hole they’d stumbled onto went, and to this day its culturally libertarian successors continue to be shocked and blindsided by how pervasive cultural leftist influence over popular culture really is.  It had been going on for decades even then.

Been told to “check your privilege” recently?  Have you heard anything about how different forms of privilege “intersect” with one another, creating multiple and layered forms of oppression?  These bedrocks of present day SJW theory were not invented with tumblr and did not emerge in response to MRA neckbeards and gamergaters in the social media era.  Privilege theory as presently understood dates back to a 1988 essay by feminist Peggy McIntosh entitled “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies”, though the concept of white privilege goes back much farther, with white supremacy being described in 1935 by W.E.B Dubois as a “psychological wage” being offered to otherwise low wage white workers. 

In 1989, a year after Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack of privilege was first unpacked, another feminist theorist by the name of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw proposed the concept of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.  The whole basket of deplorables comes into play here: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and so on.  Both Crenshaw’s and McIntosh’s theories, though looming large on social media these days, are not new and in their time built upon an already deeply established bedrock of theories.

That certain demographics suffer from discrimination to greater degrees than others and that intersecting combinations of marginalized identities compound the effects of such discrimination are not objectionable observations, and there is nothing wrong with trying to narrow the gap in the life prospects of the marginalized and privileged.  These ideas become problematic when “marginalized identities” become weaponized in social contexts and appeals to identity are used to buttress claims (usually implicit) of the comprehensive moral superiority of some groups over others.

The term “Oppression Olympics” has come into use to describe the petty and passive aggressive forms of competitive victimhood that have become so rampant in SJW circles.  Identity - who people were by accident of birth, was coming to overtake older notions of institutional power as explanatory factors for overall social inequality.  Crenshaw and McIntosh's theories were a factor in this.

Far more significantly, however, was the final discrediting of Marxism (though the move away from his theories, even on the left, was many decades old by then) that occurred with the dissolution of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  The other great communist superpower, The People's Republic of China, was also experiencing success as a result of market reforms implemented during Deng Xiaoping's ascendency in the Communist Party of China.

Outside the communist world, social democracy was reeling under a worldwide shift to the right typified by Reagan in America and Thatcher in the UK.  The growing tide of corporate globalization, enabled by information technology and a more business friendly political climate allowed for global corporations to relocate production, usually to the aforementioned reformed China, and use capital flight and investment strike to curtail efforts at social democracy.  Deindustrialization weakened the political clout of organized labor, who were then unable to resist the curtailing of union rights especially in the United States, and to varying degrees throughout the first world.

The effect that the rout of socialism in the 1980s had on the psyche of the political left during the 1990s in the west can hardly be understated.  The white male working class, now less likely to be unionized and therefore more susceptible to supporting conservative governments on social issues, became a scapegoat for the ongoing political malaise suffered by a left increasingly dominated by a more professionalized, educated and technocratic class.  College degrees eclipsed union cards as the ticket to a middle class life.

Given the cultural climate on college campuses even then, this made non-discrimination a much more central priority than collective agreements, which had no place in the on-contract, just-in-time workplace emerging in the 1990s.  The white working class, once the blue collared, unionized standard bearers of the new deal liberals, were now despised for their racism, religiosity and patriotism.  Like the weakening of the religious right that would occur in the early 2000s, the demise of socialism in in the 1980s created an ideological vacuum that the ideas of Crenshaw and McIntosh would gradually come to fill.

The post 1960s left came to share in their neo-conservative cousin’s disillusionment with Marxism, Lenin, Chairman Mao, the USSR and the like.  Closer to home, the unions and democratic socialist parties – themselves not immune to dogmatic and regressive tendencies – fell out of favor as the 1970s wore on.  And with some good reason.  Picket line strife, ongoing disruptions of essential services due to strikes, and climates of us-vs.-them militancy and groupthink led to disillusionment with organized labor and its political wings.  Sprawling government bureaucracy and bloated union contracts were widely blamed for the stagflation of the late 1970s, which helped usher in a climate of free market dominance in economic theory that would remain unchallenged until the Lehman Bro's meltdown thirty years later.

Disillusionment that both the neo-conservative right (unions cause unemployment and inflation!) and the postmodern left (unions are white male dominated) were able to exploit.  But the process of shifting from economic to cultural priorities on the left was already decades old.

The theorists of the Frankfurt School, which had begun in 1920s Germany, found a more fertile ground in post world war 2 academia.  By the time of the emergence of the Students for a Democratic Society on UC Berkeley in the very early 60s, Frankfurt school theories were themselves already decades old.

The Frankfurt School is best known for its concept of Critical Theory – a school of revolutionary thought that borrowed as much from Sigmund Freud as it did from Marx.  It used some elements psychoanalytic theory to suggest that the degree of control exerted by culture and prevalent ideologies exerted over people was far deeper and more pernicious than traditional Marxism, with its emphasis on economic relations, believed possible.  Better known Frankfurt theorists include Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and others.  The doctrines of critical theory were complex, but tended to revolve around criticism of authoritarian and hierarchical norms in fundamental social institutions such as the family, religion, patriotic sentiment and so on.  

Parallel to Critical Theory and just as important to the development of present day regressive thought is the emergence of  Postmodern Philosophy.  Like critical theory, postmodernism has roots going back to the early 20th century, but does not emerge into prominence until after the second world war.  Associated with philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, postmodernism is not an easy concept to pin down.  Postmodern scholarship is notoriously abstract, impenetrable and jargon laden. 

Wikipedia defines it as being, “defined by an attitude of skepticism or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies, and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, including the existence of objective reality and absolute truth, as well as notions of rationality, human nature, and progress.  Instead, it asserts that knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, or political discourse and interpretation, and are therefore contextual and constructed to varying degrees. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, self-referentiality, and irony.”

In short, extreme cultural relativism.  And this relativism doesn’t just apply to morality, but to the very foundations of philosophy itself.  Metaphysics – the nature of reality, and epistemology – basic theory surrounding man’s means of acquiring knowledge, are assumed to be socially constructed and therefore likely to vary by culture according to each culture’s own unique history and characteristics.  

There is something to be said for this.  Human thought processes do not take place in a vacuum.  It is rational to assume that our upbringings and cultures will have a significant impact on our own value systems, means of perceiving the world and even the subconscious process by which we intake and process information.  The awareness of this, and propensity to question our own assumptions – to “deconstruct” in postmodernist jargon is a mark of philosophical and moral depth.  

It is worth being aware, however, of the potential for cultural relativism to lend itself to nihilism or even a propensity to rationalize genuinely barbaric and harmful aspects of other cultures.  If taken to its natural and logical conclusions, its deconstruction of western liberal principles as being the byproducts of western – and thereby racist and misogynist – culture opens the door to enabling decidedly illiberal ideas.

If all cultures are equal and there’s no such thing as any kind of objective morality, on what grounds can postmodern feminists, for example, assume that egalitarian cultures are in any way superior to patriarchal or racist cultures, especially since racial and gender equality are decidedly western liberal notions?  Naturally, of course, postmodern academia does not tend to entertain such questions.  Regressive leftism seems to cherry pick postmodernism to enable the deconstruction of the western canon they so despise, but exempt their own often unstated moral and philosophical presumptions from similar analysis.

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