These days it seems like the worst insult you could think up is to accuse someone of being biased. I’ve often noticed that online, but I bet you’ve also had discussions IRL where that rhetorical strategy cropped up. Perhaps you’ve used it yourself at times.
I won’t take issue with anyone doing that. I’m prone to dismissing points of view that stink of certain biases myself. It’s only natural. One might even say it’s perfectly rational. So is there anything wrong with it in the first place?
Not exactly. There’s a lot to be said in favour of impartiality. But it’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t exist in any pure form. Your approach to an issue might be as rooted in reason and empiricism as you like, there will always be a mediator involved in drawing the conclusion. Raw data doesn’t interpret itself. But it’s still very handy to have at your disposal – and to demand from those who claim to have it.
Even if you encountered a seemingly unblemished piece of capital-T Truth, its conception would have had to involve some form of omission, some boundary-setting and prioritizing. Someone would have had to look at the situation and decide where it is to be distinguished from other areas of concern with which it narrowly intersects.
This is all common sense. Scepticism toward supposedly universal truths as a weapon against the demagogues who spread them as such – that’s pretty much the entire rationale as to why we value critical thinking, that elusive ideal the contemporary West inherited from the Enlightenment but apparently never found a way to fully incorporate into its education systems.
I don’t want to downplay achievements like the self-correcting mechanism of the scientific method, the legal prohibition of censorship, or the impressive catalogue of logical and psychological fallacies that allow us to understand ourselves better, be it for the sake of some sociological study or the latest craze in the “brain-jogging” tradition of self-improvement. At the end of the day, it’s probably best to attribute the persisting irrational tendencies to human nature and move on. Where politics is concerned, however, people don’t like to move on.
My own mind has long ago distanced itself from the rationalistic mindset that you can observe in many comment sections of online newspaper outlets. This ideology is particularly hard at work wherever an anonymous reader rants about an article that so clearly pursues “an agenda” instead of reporting the facts. I’m not often drawn to making these criticisms, not only because almost every variety of the ideology that drives you to do that comes with an in-built blind spot toward your own political leanings and biases, but also because I find it worthwhile to allow other people’s experiences of oppression access to my own outlook on life, the universe, and the way it’s all organized. An abstraction from immediate experience to a systemic reality, after all, is not automatically fallacious.
I still hope to be wary of generalizations, but I’ve recently come to crave exposing myself to authors who do have an overt agenda and who take pains to lay it out and subject it to the scrutiny of others. I actively seek out opinionated authors – especially those who don’t fear the accusations of impracticality their utopias provoke. Would I be committing a black-and-white fallacy if I claimed that any author without a clear agenda simply comes out in support of the status quo? Perhaps. But I will submit that those who oppose it are too often dismissed simply because they oppose it.
Radical left-wing thinkers can serve as a guiding example here. They’re either co-opted by centrists for their more moderate ideas – George Orwell comes to mind – or, more likely, they’re intellectually ostracized for their overestimation of human nature. In fact, the retort that socialist ideas are desirable in principle but not in actuality is just about as old as the ideas themselves. Writer and activist Emma Goldman (1869 — 1940), one of the authors I’ve sought out lately, has the following to say about this argument as it pertains to anarchism, the political theory that promotes order without hierarchy:
Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?
John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?
What prompts moderates to argue against libertarian socialist theory is its insistence to do away with coercion (i.e., acts of authority) through the state and similar institutions. Don’t there have to be positions of power higher up the ladder to prevent society from slipping into crime and chaos? This Hobbesian defence of the status quo is understandable as a simple gut reaction, but seeing as the empirical evidence is a mixed bag, I believe that you should at least acknowledge the possibility of a society organized without centralized authority.
I enjoy delving into anarchist thought because I find the questions it raises about human nature so compelling. It makes you rethink things, temporarily unmoored from your own status quo bias. Sometimes it even lets you look at seemingly unrelated things from a new angle — say, an anthropological memoir. In Daniel Everett‘s book Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes about a linguistically as well as culturally exceptional Amazonian tribe, he notes,
One reason for the idea [common among Westerners] that all tribes have chiefs is the universal fact that societies entail control — and centralized control is easier for most people to understand than the kind of diffuse control and power that is found in many American Indian communities. Émile Durkheim, the French pioneer of sociology straddling the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrote convincingly that coercion is fundamental to the constitution of society. The members of any society are bound together by group values and limits and the majority of a society’s members stay within the boundaries of their values (criminals and the insane being two of the more obvious counterexamples — the marginalized members of society, the transgressors). (…) Through spirits, ostracism, food-sharing regulation, and so on, Pirahã society disciplines itself. It has very little coercion by the standards of many other societies, but it seems to have just enough to control its members’ aberrant behaviour.
An anarchist reading of that passage wouldn’t even have occurred to me without the common-sense anarchism I adopted from Noam Chomsky. He’s repeatedly said that members of a society ought to look out for limitations to their freedom which are normalized through coercive institutions but lack justification. Because — and this is what I find so commonsensical about it — the “burden of proof” lies on them. If the justification for some form of authority is erroneous or outdated and if the institution enforcing it fails to prove the opposite, then it’s in the society’s best interest to dismantle that authority lest it expand its reach. In a modern industrialized society, you’ll be hard-pressed to find such mechanisms protecting the freedom of the individuals comprising it; and that’s where we’ve gone wrong. It’s not acts of authority in and of themselves that are problematic — it’s the extent to which we allow them to govern our lives without demanding a good excuse first. Like the Pirahãs, we need little, but just enough coercion. With such drastic inequality in political, economic, social terms as we have, a society modelled on that principle is indeed something of a pipe dream. In order to change that, we need to start fighting these inequities. We need to call into question the power we have and don’t have.
I can’t yet say I’m entirely on board with libertarian socialism, but that much I definitely agree with: individuals must be allowed to live as freely as possible, so any political agent obstructing their freedom must provide valid reasons for intervening before that intervention becomes permissible. The very representative democracy I sustain with my ballot clearly fails that test. Because it’s easier that way.
For the longest time, I’ve kept a very open mind about political issues. Maybe that’s because they never used to ring true to me in any intimate way, so I didn’t dwell on them enough to form a stable opinion. But whatever the reason, over the past two years, my views have somewhat cemented. Or rather, they’ve been moving more steadily in one direction, which has left me less vulnerable to populist stirrings, to prejudice masquerading as truth. My receptibility to different points of view, which has proven an intellectual blessing as well as a curse, has led me down many paths: pacifism, atheism, conservatism, populism, social democratic centrism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, (queer intersectional) feminism, and most recently, anti-capitalism. Rarely with a label, but somehow present, deep down.
So what’s next? Veganism and libertarian socialism? Is this the final evolution my Cultural Marxist brainwashing will produce? Well, whatever happens, I hope to gradually put an end to this ideological hopscotch. My goal is to maintain beliefs which act as a methodology for understanding the world; so those have to be well-founded. I’ll never rid my mind of prejudice entirely, but I’m sure I’ll be able to wear this new badge of bias with pride.