Political correctness and moral dogmatism

A new podcast from the University of Macau, featuring philosophy professor Hand-Georg Moeller and doctoral candidate Dan Sarafinas, focuses on “virtue speech,” which is Moeller’s philosophical term for political correctness.

Moeller connects virtue speech to civil religion; in the United States, civil religion begins with the fundamental dogma contained in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to Moeller, this dogma is written so you can’t argue with it; all you can do is interpret it. (Although as Moeller points out, there are all kinds of ways you can argue with this statement; for example, Europeans like Moeller are not likely to believe in a Creator, let alone a Creator who endows human beings with unalienable rights.)

Virtue speech — politically correct speech — starts with this fundamental dogma and interprets it by applying it to specific situations, such as the MeToo movement, or Black Lives Matter. While Moeller says he’s generally supportive of the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, to someone who believes in the Enlightenment ideal of the use of reason, virtue speech is going to be just as much of a problem as fundamentalist Christianity: both are founded on dogmas that require you to accept them without reasoning. Moeller points how virtue speech subverts well-reasoned argument:

“Most of these people who are attacking virtue speech, who are attacking political correctness: in the beginning they’re just appalled by this virtue signaling. They’re appalled by this self-aggrandizing moralism or the moralists. But then they start thinking, ‘OK, I’ll prove that their morality is wrong.’ And then they get drawn into a moralistic, dogmatic discourse, because they start talking about the issue. They come up with very indefensible positions, even.”

Moeller’s title for the podcast is “The Issue Is Not the Issue.” He doesn’t want to get involved in moralistic, dogmatic discourse himself. Instead, he wants to point out the problems with dogmatism:

“The point is not to deny the values of liberty and equality, but to understand and critique dogmatic speech, no matter what the issues are. That doesn’t mean that these things are wrong. It’s just to point out the problems of engaging in dogmatic speech.”

While I highly recommend this podcast, I think it will be very challenging for many religions liberals. In their religious life, religious liberals studiously avoid dogmatism, but in their political life too many religious liberals engage in dogmatic speech with little consciousness of what they’re doing; indeed, many Unitarian Universalist congregations, while eschewing religious dogmatism, are hothouses of political dogmatism.

You can listen to the first episode of “The Issue Is Not the Issue” here.

Generational viewpoints

Zoe Samudzi, doctoral candidate in sociology at UCSF, on class and race:

“I think it’s really telling about the kind of limitedness with which we understand wealth redistribution because of the ways we refuse to understand white supremacy as a necessary part of capitalism and race as the kind of anchoring structure through which resources are inequitably redistributed.” (interview in Geez magazine, winter, 2018, p. 42)

Adolph Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a Marxist who specializes in race an American politics:

“Anti-racism — along with anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, etc., as well as diversity as the affirmative statement of them all — is a species of a genus of social and economic justice that is utterly compatible with neoliberalism: parity in the distribution of costs and benefits among groups defined by essentialized ascriptive identities.” (interview in Platypus Review #75, April, 2015)

I feel that Samudzi represents a younger generation of thinkers and activists who have abandoned traditional Marxist critiques of capitalism in favor of critiques based on identity politics; Reed represents an older generation of thinkers who continue to extend Marxist critiques of capitalism and who criticize identity politics as neoliberalism, which is to say, another form of capitalism. As someone who had training in the Frankfurt School as an undergrad (under a black Marxist professor, interestingly enough), I’m aligned with Reed’s generational cohort. But the zeitgeist is now blowing in the direction of Samudzi’s generation.

What does it mean to be cisgender?

In article on Feminist Current, a Canadian Web site, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the Univ. of Texas Austin, questions his assignment into the category of cisgender:

“…Sex is a question of biologically determined male and female, gender of socially determined masculinity and femininity. The dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture asserts that men are naturally competitive and aggressive, and that being a ‘real man’ means struggling for control, conquest, and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants, and takes it. This is sometimes labeled ‘toxic masculinity,’ which implies it is an aberration from some ‘normal’ masculinity. But this understanding of masculinity-as-seeking-dominance is the default setting for most males growing up in patriarchy, especially through the glorification of aggression in the military, sports, and business.

“All that definitional work [Jensen continues] is necessary to explain why I am not cisgender. As a male human, this patriarchal conception of masculinity is not my ‘chosen’ identity, nor do I believe it is my fate. As a short, skinny, effeminate child … I never felt very masculine. As an adult with feminist politics, I reject and struggle to overcome the masculinity norms in patriarchy. If we were someday to transcend patriarchy, would I feel more ‘like a man’? That would depend on how the term was defined, but in the world in which I live, I refuse to embrace the patriarchal gender identity handed to me….

“So [Jensen concludes], I’m not cisgender and I’m not transgender. I am not gender fluid, non-binary, or multi-gender. I self-identify as an adult biological XY male who rejects patriarchal gender norms and works from a radical feminist perspective to eliminate patriarchy….”

While it has some problematic moments, I think Jensen’s essay offers a small but useful addition to the ongoing debate about the term “cisgender.” If you haven’t been following that debate, some have argued that “cisgender” is analogous to the introduction of “heterosexual” as the opposite of “homosexual”; similarly, “cisgender” can help non-trans people realize the extent to which they have the privilege of not having to articulate their gender; therefore it is a necessary term. Arguments against the term include the possibility that setting up such a strong distinction between transgender and cisgender may actually work against a widespread acceptance of transgender as normal; others claim that transgender and cisgender are Western cultural concepts that don’t apply cross-culturally (e.g., Native Americans who reject the identification of the Two-Spirit tradition with transgender).

What Jensen offers to this debate is his personal experience of gender. He does not see himself as typically masculine; therefore, he does not see that his biological sex matches society’s expectations about the gender role he should take on. Yet he does not consider himself transgender, either. There’s an argument to be made that Jensen has cisgender privilege because he’s non-trans, and thus the term is useful; however, I’m not convinced that biological men and boys who are not masculine, but also non-trans, get the same level of privilege as a stereotypically masculine biological male since (depending on how effeminate you are) a straight non-trans non-masculine man will tend to experience some level of bullying and teasing.

The word “cisgender” is not going to go away, and I feel it remains useful in some settings. What Jensen makes me realize is that we should be careful in how we use the term: we shouldn’t use the term “cisgender” in such a way that it reinforces gender stereotypes. For example, we wouldn’t want to reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity by grouping Robert Jensen together with Donald Trump under the rubric “cisgender men”; Trump is constantly enacting stereotypes of a hyper-masculine gender role (marrying a woman much younger than he, asserting his virility in various ways, putting success above everything else, etc.); Jensen is taking on a significantly different gender role.

So I’ll continue to use “cisgender” as a term for larger groups of people. But I’m going to be disinclined to apply it to a individuals, aware of its cultural assumptions, and careful not to turn it into yet another binary division.

Two definitions of neoliberalism

As I look into the economic and political forces driving global environmental collapse, I’ve been researching neoliberalism, an economic doctrine that was first tried on a practical basis under Pinochet in Chile. Neoliberalism now has come to dominate much of the world, including the United States, where neoliberalism is now so entrenched that it represents an unquestioned economic consensus of both major political parties.

Here are two definitions of neoliberalism. The first comes from journalist George Monbiot, author of How Did We Get into This Mess?:

“Neoliberalism claims that we are best served by maximum market freedom and minimum intervention by the state. The role of government should be confined to creating and defending markets, protecting private property and defending the realm. All other functions are better discharged by private enterprise, which will be prompted by the profit motive to supply essential services. By this means, enterprise is liberated, rational decisions are made and citizens are freed from the dehumanising hand of the state….

“[T]he most powerful promoter of this programme was the media. Most of it is owned by multi-millionaires who use it to project the ideas that support their interests. Those which threaten their plans are either ignored or ridiculed. It is through the newspapers and television channels that the socially destructive ideas of a small group of extremists have come to look like common sense. The corporations’ tame thinkers sell the project by reframing our political language…. Nowadays I hear even my progressive friends using terms like wealth creators, tax relief, big government, consumer democracy, red tape, compensation culture, job seekers, and benefit cheats. These terms, all deliberately invented or promoted by neoliberals, have become so commonplace that they now seem almost neutral.

“Neoliberalism, if unchecked, will catalyse crisis after crisis, all of which can be solved only by the means it forbids: greater intervention on the part of the state.”

George Monbiot, from his 2008 article “How Did We Get into This Mess?” (written, you will notice, before the 2008 Depression hit).


The second definition of neoliberalism comes from leftist geographer David Harvey, quthor of A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

“There are two things to be said [about defining ‘neoliberalism’]. One is … the theory of neoliberalism and the other is its practice. And they are rather different from each other. But the theory takes the view that individual liberty and freedom are the high point of civilization and then goes on to argue that individual liberty and freedom can best be protected and achieved by an institutional structure, made up of strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade: a world in which individual initiative can flourish. The implication of that is that the state should not be involved in the economy too much, but it should use its power to preserve private property rights and the institutions of the market and promote those on the global stage if necessary….

“Liberal theory goes back a very long way … to the 18th century: John Locke, Adam Smith, and writers of that sort. Then economics changed quite a bit towards the end of the 19th century and neoliberalism is a really revival of the 18th century liberal doctrine about freedoms and individual liberties connected to a very specific view of the market. And the leading figures in that are Milton Friedman in this country and Friedrich Hayek in Austria. In 1947 they formed a society to promote neoliberal values called the Mont Pelerin Society. It was a minor society but it got a lot of support from wealthy contributors and corporations to polemicize on the ideas it held.”

From an interview with David Harvey, On Neoliberalism: An Interview with David Harvey, in MRonline.

Boomers and privilege

I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse; what can be a useful tool for analysis among like-minded persons does not always translate well to a wider context. For example, when white people of the professional and upper middle classes gain awareness of how they have personally benefited from structural racism, they may find it helpful when speaking with others who are challenging structural racism to use the phrase “white privilege”; in that context, “white privilege” becomes a useful shorthand way of referring to the specific benefits professional and upper middle class white people get from structural racism. However, when professional and upper middle class white people use the term “white privilege” in public discourse, working class whites can rightfully challenge them on at least two counts: first, the experience of white working class people in accessing the fruits of structural racism is different from that of white people of the professional and upper middle classes; second, white working class people have themselves been the targets of discrimination by white professional and upper middle class people (for one example, see Nancy Isenberg’s analysis of why upper middles class whites embraced eugenics, in her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America).

A big part of the problem here, I think, is that the nuances of intersectional analysis get lost in public discourse — “white privilege” is a short-hand phrase that sums up a good deal of thoughtful analysis, and short-hand phrases often do not translate well to the public arena. Obviously, the same applies to the phrase “male privilege,” another phrase that is sometimes used in public discourse. Nevertheless, just because I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse, I do find that talking about privilege is helpful when I’m trying to analyze structural inequalities; with the caveat that when you’re dealing with individual people, one individual can experience more than one kind of structural inequality. So it’s important not to reify specific kinds of privilege, e.g., “white privilege” is an abstraction, not an actual thing.

With all that in mind, I’d like to explore the notion that here in the U.S. Baby Boomers have some kind of privilege. “Boomer privilege,” if it exists, arose for a couple of demographic reasons. First, there are large numbers of Boomers, and so it is easy for them to find many others who share a set of life-shaping experiences; because of this, it’s easy for Boomers to assume that their experiences are normative, and then to extend what they perceive as normative to other generations who may have a quite different set of experiences. This perception of what is normative is similar to one of the generating causes of white privilege, dating from when whites comprised the vast majority of the U.S. population: “whiteness” came to be seen by many white people as normative. Continue reading “Boomers and privilege”

Couldn’t’ve said it better myself

From “Forget Shorter Showers” by Derrick Jensen (Orion Magazine, 2009), excerpted in the zine “Know Your Shit,” UC Santa Cruz, 2018:

Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would ahve gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal ‘solutions’?

“Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal comsumption — changing light bulbs, inflating tires, dirving half as much — and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent world wide….

“I want to be clear. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

Couldn’t’ve said it better myself.

Our personal consumption profiles are not going to stop all the global environmental justice crises. What is going to save us is a combination of political activism and change in the global economic structure; some moral technological innovation (as opposed to the now-dominant amoral technological innovation driven by the profit motive) may help, but only if coupled with political activism and economic change.

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades….”

Philosopher Peter Leiter makes some crucial points in a May Day interview with Il Manifesto, “Italy’s leading communist newspaper” (look for the link to download an English translation of the interview). Here are three highlights from the interview:

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades, starting with the state purge of communists in the 1950s and continuing with the neoliberal revolution since the 1980s and the war on the organized labor movement — so Trump is more symptom than cause of the fact that there is no left in the U.S….”

This is probably the most important thing that Leiter says in this interview. The lack of meaningful leftist politics in the U.S. not only means that Bernie Sanders, a center-left politician, is popularly thought to be a socialist — it also means that most U.S. residents do not actually know what leftist politics look like. This is a huge hole in our political discourse. Leiter goes on to add:

“‘Identity politics’ is the narcissism of the aspiring bourgeoisie, who want to get their share of the ‘capitalist pie,’ including their share of ‘respect’ as reflected in language and culture. … Insofar as ‘left’ politics in the U.S. has been captured by identity politics, it has been rendered impotent against the real obstacle to human flourishing….”

In other words, in the absence of actual leftist politics in the U.S., we have a putative leftist politics that does not aim to reform the economic injustice perpetuated by capitalism; instead, this putative leftist politics wants to keep capitalism going by offering it to historically marginalized groups. Even for those who strongly support capitalism, it’s important to understand that the goal of identity politics is not fundamental economic reform; its goal, while worthwhile, is much narrower.

Leiter will be taken to task here by U.S. academics who will point out that he is a white man and therefore can not understand identity politics; but as Leiter points out, most academics come from “bourgeois backgrounds” and indeed some of them are “actual or aspiring members of the ruling class”; as apologists for capitalism, they are not going to engage in serious critique of capitalism. So if he as a white man can’t understand identity politics, then they as aspiring members of the ruling class can’t understand leftist politics.

And here’s perhaps my favorite passage from the interview:

“Moral and political ideals are very important to human beings, but there is no evidence that the often unintelligible theoretical writings of academics about these ideals make any difference at all. Marx, who was a good writer (unlike Habermas), seized the imagination of revolutionaries in the 19th-century because he explained to them the causes of what was visible to them and what to do about it; he didn’t have to persuade them that they were suffering. No one who reads Marx could mistake him for Habermas….”

I once went to a lecture given by Jurgen Habermas. He spoke with a heavy German accent, but the real reason I found his lecture incomprehensible is the same reason I find his books incomprehensible: he’s a lousy writer. You can’t go about changing the world if you write specialized books that only appeal to a tiny number of professional philosophers and other academics.

There is more to Leiter’s interview, and no matter what your political persuasion, it’s definitely worth reading — it’s hard to find any American these days who can speak intelligently about leftist politics as they relate to the U.S. context.

Why my blog will leave Facebook

For several years now, I have linked my blog posts to Facebook. I’ve decided to end that arrangement.

I’m not doing this because Facebook helped Cambridge Analytica meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There is nothing new in that ongoing news story. We have long known that Facebook steals information about us and uses that information to make money. We have long known that as a corporation, Facebook has no moral scruples; if corporations were really persons, as the U.S. Supreme Court asserts, Facebook would be a psychopath. Psychologist Michael Tompkins of the Sacramento County Mental Treatment Center describes psychopaths as “skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain”; a phrase that accurately describes Facebook. Facebook lost 14% of its capital value in the last couple of weeks, astonishing that psychopathic corporate entity; and now that entity is trying to figure out how to pretend to be moral, thus allaying our fears so that it can continue to lie and cheat and steal even more from us. But this is a long-standing pattern of behavior; the Cambridge Analytica debacle is nothing new, and there’s nothing in that debacle to make my change my ideas about Facebook.

What has changed for me is I’m beginning to see clearly how Facebook makes its users mean-spirited, unreasonable, and rigid. Facebook reduces public discourse to meme graphics, rage porn, and incestuous conversations among people who already agree, worsening the political and social polarization of the United States. I’m particularly troubled by the effect Facebook has had on the thought processes of Unitarian Universalists.

In particular, I’ve watched Unitarian Universalist ministers re-post meme graphics that play fast and loose with facts; these are ministers who are careful to fact-check their sermons, and it troubles me that they won’t fact-check re-posted meme graphics. I’ve watched Unitarian Universalist ministers re-post rage porn — graphics, videos, or text designed to induce rage, rather than to promote dialogue — these are ministers who would actively resist inciting rage in committee meetings, or in sermons, or in pastoral counseling sessions, and again I am troubled that they feel it is acceptable to induce rage through a social media platform. And I have watched as Unitarian Universalist ministers expel from their Facebook “conversations” anyone who disagrees with whatever narrow conception of “truth” that prevails in that particular conversation; by so doing, they erase nuance, leaving behind only binary, either-or thinking.

It’s not just Unitarian Universalist ministers who do this. Unitarian Universalist lay people are just as bad. I don’t like what Facebook is doing to Unitarian Universalism. To me, one of the strengths of Unitarian Universalism is that it encourages tolerance of other people’s thoughts and feelings, even if I happen to disagree with them. Another strength of Unitarian Universalism is the insistence of the importance of reason, a human faculty that is disengaged by rage porn. Facebook is designed to get you to spend as much time as possible staring at it — that’s how they sell advertising — and to do that, Facebook disengages your reason and erases your sense of tolerance.

There are other horrible aspects of Facebook: it induces feelings of isolation; it is addictive, and interferes with other activities; it is destroying public discourse, and thus directly attacks democracy. These results are not side effects of Facebook; these are direct results of the way Facebook is designed. Obviously, other social media platforms, with socially-manipulative designs similar to Facebook, produce similar results. I abandoned Twitter some time ago. I stay away from Snapchat. And now it’s time to pull back from Facebook.

I’ll still use Facebook to find Sacred Harp singing events. But I no longer want to link my blog directly to what I can only describe as a psychopathic corporate “person” that turns otherwise reasonable people into mean-spirited, unreasonable, intolerant, ill-mannered destroyers of democracy. If you want to read my blog, from now on you’ll have to go directly to my blog.

(Something I should make clear: Amy, the Unitarian Universalist minister I work with, is a responsible user of Facebook.)

Domination vs. understanding

“We may perhaps survive as humanity if we would be able to learn that we may not simply exploit our means of power and effective possibilities, but must learn to stop and respect the other as an other, whether [the other] is nature or the grown cultures of peoples and nations….” So said Hans-Georg Gadamer in 1992, at a time when he was increasingly worried about aspects of the Industrial Revolution — weapons, technologies, ecological disasters — that made it questionable whether our species will survive.

There are at least a couple of philosophical alternatives to learning “to stop and respect the other as other.”

First, you could engage in deconstruction, that philosophical fad of the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those who do deconstruction claim that understanding the other isn’t really possible. (This claim always made me wonder if they could ever make me truly understand what they were saying about deconstruction.) I sometimes feel that the public discourse in the United States is dominated by a half-assed version of deconstructionism, in which everyone has their own truth and they have given up on understanding anyone other than a small circle of allies all of whom think exactly the same thoughts. While deconstruction can be a useful intellectual tool, it can also be an excuse for not listening to anyone else.

Second, you could simply attempt to dominate others. I think there are many people who start out with the best of intentions and wind up trying to dominate everyone else unwittingly. It takes a lot of work to really understand someone else’s viewpoint, and it’s easy to get lazy: why try to listen to someone else when it’s so much easier to yell at them? So that’s one way you can slip away from understanding and slip into domination. But for the college-educated professional class, there is a still more insidious path to domination, and that is being condescending. A great many college-educated professionals think they are much smarter than everyone else; and the more successful they are, the smarter they think they are. When yo have that attitude, it’s easy to slip into the mistake of believing that you know best, and that everyone should just do what you tell them to. It’s pretty ugly when you see it. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the most egregious examples, with their foundations giving away money only to those causes which Gates and Zuckerberg, in their supreme condescension, think are worthy. But condescension is equally ugly in the average software engineer or college professor or minister, because condescension is nothing but an effort to dominate other people instead of listening to them.

And maybe these two alternatives aren’t all that different; I suspect that deconstruction has devolved into yet another way that college-educated professionals can condescend to other people. Perhaps both these alternatives are the basic ingredients of the toxic brew that fuels public discourse in the U.S. today — where each person gets to have their own private truth, their own truth that they must defend against all others.

I prefer Gadamer’s alternative: Stop and respect the Other as Other. Listen to the world of non-human organisms. Listen to the “grown cultures of peoples and nations”; and so “we would be able to learn to experience the other and the others, as the other of our self, in order to participate with one another.”

Then we may have a small chance, perhaps, of surviving as humanity.

The Gadamer quotations are from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics, trans. L. Schmidt and M. Reuss; ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 152; quoted in Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography by Jean Grodin (Yale, 2002), p. 329.

Political statement for geeks

You’ve seen those bumper stickers that some political progressives have, right? You know, there’s the word “Resist!” and under it or beside it the circuit diagram symbol for a resistor. (Though there’s a part of me that wants to know how many ohms of resistance I’m supposed to provide.) Now here’s a version of that meme aimed at geeks who are also politically progressive…

The middle two statements are nonsensical (is “capacitate” the opposite of “incapacitate”?). But the last statement is actually my preferred slogan for action in today’s political climate: I don’t want to resist, I want to transform (though let’s be clear that I do not mean this literally: I don’t want to transfer electrical energy through coupled inductors via a magnetic field, OK?).