(replace Calvin with society and Hobbes with the power elite, and you’re getting the idea)
There are tiresome arguments which are not logical arguments, nor are they emotional appeals or attempts to manipulate, but exist in that twilight between honesty and lies that we call pragmatism or “being realistic” or “being reasonable.” They are seemingly based on facts, but the application of those facts is not logical, but rather based around a kind of ontological despotism: whatever is expressed in the world is justified, and whatever is not expressed in the world is not justified. In this way, they aim to whitewash injustice and, whether they are aware of it or not, pursue the interests of the power elite. They whole-heartedly agree with the Genesis song Way of the World:
We all agree as far as we can see
It’s just the way of the world,
that’s how it’s meant to be
There’s right and there’s wrong
There’s weak – oh and there’s strong
It’s just the way of the world
and that’s how it’s meant to be
Or for the more aggressive sort, “shut up because you’re just being annoying.” The actual justification can take a number of forms. The simplest one is the “there’s nothing you can do to change reality” approach.
If we take it at face value, the proper response would be to point out that this would apply to everything and any single person, since no one person can end any form of injustice. So what? I fully agree that there’s nothing I alone can do to change anything. But I try to get like-minded people to agree with the things I have to say because I think they are important in bringing about goodly, lasting change.
From a more logical standpoint, the justification is just irrelevant. Whether I, or anyone, can do anything to change an injustice does not make it just. If a man tortures and kills a little girl in a forest, and no one’s there to stop it, it’s still wrong. If an army rapes and then mows down entire towns of civilians, and the opposing army can’t stop them, it’s still wrong. The justice or injustice of an action is based on whether it fulfills or hinders valid social values, and that determination is not changed by whether we have the power to influence that action or not. I know this may seem too obvious to even point out, but, as bizarre as it sounds, there actually are people who think like this.
Beyond this simple-minded rhetoric, there is a sense in which two different views of the world as clashing in these arguments, one that is about truth, which we may call realism, and one that is orthogonal to the truth and concentrates more on the effects of propositions or actions than on their adherence to known principles, which can be called pragmatism.
When someone argues so as to say “your ideas will never be brought about, so they are not worth it,” and the person introduces concepts of usefulness (especially immediate usefulness), you know you are dealing with a pragmatist. This rhetoric forces us to highlight the difference between usefulness and truth. Pragmatism is inherently an elitist ideology because any truth that has to be put forward against “common sense” (that which we have been indoctrinated with) is necessarily not pragmatic because it is always difficult to change “common sense.”
It was not pragmatic to be against slavery. It was not pragmatic to be for women’s rights. It’s not pragmatic to be an Anarchist or an antinatalist. They bring little usefulness to people apart from those who have a hobby of writing about them on their blogs or who have a particular love for philosophy and thinking about concepts. Yet all of these positions are obviously true.
The lure of “usefulness” is strong. People flock to political solutions because then at least they can “do something.” This mania of doingness instead of beingness is grounded in the pragmatic standard of usefulness. But ultimately we know that political solutions have never accomplished any goodly, lasting change. All such change is accomplished by a painstaking process of activism and direct action, and even then it usually fails. But only a principled adherence to the truth really “works.”
Pragmatism often degenerates into a “might makes right” sort of argument, or even an argument from logical necessity. We are asked to “just accept” things that are logically necessary. For example, people will say things like “hierarchies are part of human nature, so just accept it,” “people are evil, so just live with it,” or “bringing a new human life into the world necessarily entails some harm, so just accept it as a fact of life and make children.”
In some cases, these propositions are just plain lies, such as the fact that hierarchies are not part of human nature or that people are not evil but rather act in the way dictated to them by the incentives in their society. In other cases, we are faced with what I call the fallacy of misplaced conclusion. The correct conclusion to the statement that “bringing a new human life into the world necessarily entails some harm” is that we should stop bringing about new human lives, not to ignore the harm and make more children.
There are more egregious lies, things like “no non-hierarchical society or organization has ever existed!” or “potential people suffer from not experiencing the pleasures of life!,” things which are so obviously false that they just boggle the mind, and yet they are commonly said.
Obviously people have some motivation for lying so blatantly, or for misdirecting people so blatantly. One reason may be that some, with good intentions, actually believe this nonsense because they heard it from someone else who had bad intentions. Another reason may be bad intentions, such as a desire to “win” an argument or affirm one’s ideological superiority. Yet another reason is that received ideas always benefit from fast-paced discussion, and using quick points which cannot be refuted without a longer discussion, is to the advantage of the person who is on the side of the received ideas.
There is also the “might makes right” type of rhetoric. I’ve once had someone say something like “a pregnant women can do whatever she wants with the fetus, so just accept it.” But, just as “might makes right” has nothing to do with ethics, such statements are only correct insofar as they describe states of affairs. Yes, it is true that a pregnant woman can mostly do whatever she wants (she cannot sign her future child away to slavery, for example). But that doesn’t make it right. It is wrong for a pregnant woman to do binge drinking, or take heroin, for example. This, I think, is pretty uncontroversial. The only reason why we have not put it into law or widespread ostracism is because of the belief in “reproductive rights.” But this is a strange right indeed which permits one to break other people’s rights.
It is also bizarre reasoning which deals with injustice by stating that the fact of the injustice itself (that is to say, the abuse of power) is the proof that we shouldn’t do anything about it. Since there are people so dumb as to believe that suffering isn’t bad or that suffering serves some greater purpose, I suppose there may very well be people who believe that injustice isn’t bad either, or that it serves some greater purpose (the Third World exists so you’ll stop throwing out your food!). But it’s hard to grasp the magnitude of stupidity needed to accept this belief at face value.
To simply accept “the way it is” implicitly means to step out of the way of elitist policies which benefit the power elite, not the people. The remedy to “the way it is” rationalizations is to point at the way things can and must be, to point to the ideal of egalitarian, bottom-up societies where the lack of centers of power makes the imposition of harm too difficult for it to become widespread as it is today. The remedy to “the way it is” is to capture people’s sense of justice, and ultimately their imagination and belief in ideals.
[M]aking sex as much as possible an act of the imagination stimulates the imagination. And imagination is the inveterate enemy of the status quo. In daring to imagine things that might be, we undermine complacent acceptance of the way things are.