Friday, 17 January 2020

Nutpicking Left and Right

The Left, the Right and the Milkshake
Recently, there occurred an interesting conversation between one Stephen Woodford, better known as Rationality Rules - the title of his YouTube channel, and Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad. It delves into the nature of belief systems and how they're defined and represented.

The crux of the conversation comes down to a video wherein Woodford defines Sargon's overall method as being:

1 - Find a nut.
2 - Ridicule and expose that nut.
3 - Conflate that nut with the entire group to which they belong
4 - Profit

And a response made by Sargon here.

Examples presented by Woodford show Sargon highlighting celebrity leftists and progressive politicians expressing extremist positions on a variety of issues: Michael Moore claiming that white people should be feared, Lily Allen and Jess Philips making similar claims about men, and so on. Woodford charges Sargon with "nutpicking" - which is defined as selecting and presenting a weak member of a particular set as a representative member of that particular set.

Is it really true that "the left" as a whole engages in the wholesale demonization of men and white people? Does it truly hold that all whites are racist, or that all men are rapists, etc? These contentions, among others, are the subject of a cordial discussion had between the two, What's Left?

In this conversation, a resurgent religious right is presented as a possible right wing counterpart to the hardline social justice crowd that Sargon so often likes to attack, at least in the United States. Are anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage fanatics a kind of right wing counterpart to the militant SJWs? Woodford's channel, Rationality Rules (comes with my recommendation, btw) might suggest they are, though I haven't surveyed his material exhaustively so can't say precisely one way or another. But his channel is devoted to promoting atheism, agnosticism, skepticism and criticism of religious claims, with a special focus on the logical fallacies that religious and ideologically dogmatic groups tend to make, so I would be surprised if he took a generous stance towards the religious right. Were I in his shoes, I sure wouldn't.

Is there a meaningful comparison to be had between both the character and influence of the two groups? Are the most strident progressives and Christians representative of the whole?

I'm going to suggest that's perhaps the wrong question to ask. What's more important is this: are the "extreme" positions taken within a particular religious or ideological camp consonant with the broader ideological thrust of that particular religious or ideological camp as a whole?

What do I mean by this?

Suppose one were to claim, based on biblical scripture, that adulterers and homosexuals should be executed for their behaviors. Surely this would be an extreme view, right? One not endorsed by any mainstream or significant Christian denomination and believed by only a small handful of self identifying Christians. This would be true. But now lets suppose a preacher were to come along and call for precisely that - the execution of adulterers and homosexuals. It would surely be wrong to condemn this preacher's views as being in line with Christian thought, right? To hold such a preacher up as exemplary of Christian thought would surely be "nutpicking", right?

To answer this, we'd need to look at and define precisely what Christian thought is. If one definition of Christian thought would be to regard the bible as the irrefutable word of God, than the claims that our violently fanatical Christian preacher do not, in fact, accurately reflect Christian thought fall apart. The bible is actually quite clear in its calling for the execution of adulterers and homosexuals:

Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death.”

Leviticus 20:10: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife— with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.”

Now one can counter argue that these passages have to be interpreted in a specific context or the like, or one could cite other passages that might call for a more lenient stance: Christ's admonition in John 8:7 that "he who is without sin cast the first stone" or something similar. Or one could even deemphasize scripture all together and hold up "the life of Christ" or some similar concept as the yard stick of Christian thought and action. Any of these are entirely possible and doable.

But one cannot argue, based on the above passages from the Book of Leviticus, that it is not a sound and viable interpretation of Christian doctrine that homosexuals and adulterers actually be put to death, if one takes a view of the bible as the inerrant word of God. And that most certainly is a plausible means of defining what is and is not Christian thought. This matter is obviously quite controversial in Christian clerical circles, and it's also quite obvious that Christians in the west have had to reconcile their doctrine with prevailing attitudes on these matters and soften their stances accordingly. That's all true, and also a bit beside the point.

What matters is that it is consonant within the ideological thrust of the Christian belief system that adulterers and homosexuals be executed for their actions. Their scripture is rather unambiguous in calling for it. That is not the only valid interpretation of Christian doctrine, but it is a valid interpretation of Christian doctrine. That's what really matters here. That such a view is "extreme" or not representative of the typical Christian is ultimately beside the point, even if true in the west in the current year. This is the real reason why one does see evangelical ministers taking such positions from time to time. They're actually valid positions within the belief system they profess, whether the rest of us like it or not.

Along similar lines, let's look at the apparent fringes of Social Justice ideology. Are claims calling whites and males dangerous or at least potential, if not actual rapists something that can fit within their broader ideological framework?

In this, I'm reminded of what is often cited as the most ludicrous straw man position held by feminist theorists: the equation of heterosex with rape. Or at the very least to suggest that heterosexuality itself is structured so as to benefit men at women's expense. To support such a claim, one like Sargon could point to feminist theorists who've supposedly made this claim. Theorists and activists such as the late Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, for instance. They're the usual suspects here.

Of course, these figures and their supporters would answer that they've truly made no such claim and that their statements are being taken out of context. Defenders of feminism would claim that these activists don't represent the whole, that their views are controversial even within feminist circles, and that they're just two out of innumerable feminist advocates and that it's disingenuous to cite them as being exemplary of feminist thought. Then again, Dworkin and MacKinnon could well constitute the no-nonsense 'Leviticus' strand of feminist thought, and be the heterophobic counterparts to homophobic preachers like Steven Anderson and the late Fred Phelps.

Either are possible. And quite beside the point. What we should be considering isn't whether Dworkin or MacKinnon held views that equated heterosex with rape, or at least was part and parcel of male dominance over women. What matters is whether such views are possible under a sound understanding of feminist theory.

I'd suggest that they are, and all that's really necessary to come to such conclusions is a willingness to take core principles of feminist theory to deterministic extremes. If we truly live in a patriarchal society, one wherein institutions and relationships are structured for the benefit of men at the expense of women, then the idea that the most intimate of those relationships should reflect this privileging of the male over the female should follow quite logically. Indeed, to exclude heteroromanticism and heterosexuality from a feminist deconstruction that casts them as, if not inherently misogynistic, at least corrupted in a misogynistic manner by the patriarchal societies in which they are normalized, would actually be the out-of-step stance to take.

Of course, in the real world, many women who identify as feminists would identify as heterosexual and are in romantic and erotic relationships with men and enjoy the benefits thereof. This was even true of Dworkin(!) and MacKinnon at some points in time. Plus there are very real questions that one might raise about the societal consequences of a wholesale condemnation of heterosex along feminist lines. Fair enough. Consequences I wished mainstream media pursued a lot further instead of simply taking feminist propositions entirely at face value, but I digress. Feminists would no doubt appeal to a "my body, my choice" line of reasoning when it comes to defending their own heterosexual choices and proclivities, when and where these proclivities exist. Again, fair enough.

The point, however, is that it's not inconceivable under feminist theory to regard any kind of heterosexual relationship as something that oppresses women for the benefit of men. Why exempt personal relationships from the overarching social critique, especially when the personal is the political, after all?

I would go as far as to suggest that to exempt heterosexuality from the inevitable conclusions of feminist theory would be like to exempt homosexuality from condemnation under Christian theology. While it may make the doctrine more socially palatable, it also amounts to a form of cherry picking. So anti-homosex Christians and anti-heterosex feminists alike, far from being "nuts" may in fact be the most consistent in their views. They're willing to follow the logic of their core ideologies to their inevitable end conclusions, even when those conclusions would be quite understandably unpopular.

This isn't to say that their more moderate and liberal takes are "wrong." Sometimes, such as in the case of postwar social democracy vis à vis Marxism, the more moderate and watered down variant of the ideology actually also produces vastly superior results when put into practice. I strongly suspect this would be true of feminism also, and even Christianity were one to define it so loosely as a mere adherence to the golden rule, for instance. But in either case, we have to accept the fact that the more extreme views are not untenable given the core belief systems, and actually tend to hew more faithfully to the underlying axioms of those belief systems.

This goes a good ways towards answering the question of why the "nuts" end up in charge of movements like the religious right and the progressive feminist left. Plus, both belief systems are quite manichean, which is to say they both see things in very black and white terms. It is a valid interpretation of either to claim that you're with Jesus or you're with Satan. You're a feminist or you're a misogynist. Such ideological systems don't easily lend themselves to moderation or accommodation with rival belief systems in their core areas of concern.

They can and do moderate so as to accommodate themselves to the realities of the world they operate in. But this moderation inevitably arises from a begrudging acceptance of the need to work within the realities of the world in exchange for at least a shot at changing the world to at least a little bit better reflect their aims, rather than true compromise on principle. As such, both are susceptible to "revivals" and "reformations" wherein corruption by worldly/patriarchal thought must be excised and the movement returned to an initial pure state. The radical feminists of the 1970s, the SJWs of the 2010s and the religious right of the 1980s and 90s are all examples of this, or at least featured these kinds of revivalist currents within their broader movements.

Suffice it to say, questioning core doctrines in movements with these kinds of ideological systems is not the done thing, to put it mildly. If the bible really is the inerrant word of God, what does it say about you if you question it, or try to interpret it in a way to better reflect a preferred stance or doctrine? In the case of the progressives, it's a bit more nuanced. A bit. But questioning feminist, queer and critical race theorists and activists is frowned on as showing a glaring lack of empathy and commitment to equality at best, especially if done by a white male. At worst, it's outright collusion with the oppressor, just as questioning Marxist Leninist dogma back in the USSR was seen as aligning oneself with capitalists and imperialists and could entail a one way train ride to Siberia.

This is why Sargon can have this conversation with Rationality Rules but not Anita Sarkeesian, and why Rationality Rules couldn't have this conversation with Steven Anderson. When one sees the world in stark good vs evil terms, one does not negotiate with the forces of evil if one is to remain pure on the side of good.

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