Liberals and conservatives: setting the limits of “rational” discourse.


From Sidewalk Bubblegum.

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of the margins of discourse (also called the Overton Window, a term which is unfortunately associated with a terrible book by Glenn Beck) set by the elite to the political dialogue that takes place in our societies. The margins of discourse not only determine what issues are seen as “important” and which are not, but they also determine how we talk about those issues, which positions are “reasonable” and which are not, and the limits of what is possible.

In most Western societies we have a “right-wing” and a “left-wing” which delimit the scope of possible positions and are usually distinguished by their stance on economics. Usually the right-wing is either ultra-capitalist or close enough to it that it can be said to be the extreme end of right-wing thought, but the left-wing is usually, in absolute terms, centrist at best, and nowhere close to the extreme end of left-wing thought. Most left-wing parties have more in common with their right-wing counterparts than with the vast majority of left-wingers.

This is the expected result of living in a culture where capitalism is dominant. But the end result is that left-wing authorities end up being gatekeepers towards anyone who disagrees with the status quo. The role of a gatekeeper is to keep their ideology “protected” from all those who’d radicalize it and thereby make it “unsellable.”

The net effect is that we have severe limitations on the kind of political discussions that we have in the Western world. Many social issues are reduced to property issues (abortion, gun control, minimum wage, corporate power) or work issues (immigration, education, sexism and racism), which is not surprising given that we think and discuss within a capitalist framework.

In the US, the people setting the media agendas (such as journalists, editors, and political commentators) are all capitalists, which magnifies the effect greatly.

Take the example of gun control, which I’ve already discussed. The right-wing position is that anyone should be free to own firearms, while the left-wing position is that there should be severe restrictions on who is allowed to own firearms, as well as on the kind of firearms that can be owned.

What is omitted from both positions is firearms ownership by the State and, by extension, the violence committed by the State. From a capitalist standpoint, the police and military functions of the government are part of the implicit infrastructure of property rights and must remain unquestioned.

The left-wing position, that firearms sold to the general population should be restricted, is understood as the limits of discussion on the subject, and left-wingers know that in order to protect the credibility of their “gun control” policy (i.e. certain specific kinds of guns and certain specific kinds of control) they must suppress more “radical” positions such as questioning the use of firearms by the State.

The further irony is that the individualistic framework through which we analyze political issues also hides the control over our discourse as “free speech.” We are told that we are “free to hold any opinion without interference,” even though this control represents major interference with our ability to hold opinions.

The more vigorous the debate, the more effectively the basic doctrines of the propaganda system, tacitly assumed on all sides, are instilled. Hence the elaborate pretense that the press is a critical dissenting force — maybe even too critical for the health of democracy — when in fact it is almost entirely subservient to the basic principles of the ideological system…
Noam Chomsky

The more vigorous the debate, the more people believe that right-wing positions and left-wing positions are distinct and opposite frameworks, and the more their commonalities remain obscured. These commonalities form the core of what we call “rational” and “pragmatic” political discourse. Furthermore, these positions can be referred to in a rapid manner, while positions outside the margins must be explained and defended, making them unsuited for media exposure, which also means that breaking the margins of discourse is particularly difficult even for sympathetic actors.

There is this bizarre, abstract belief that the “middle ground” is where the truth is, that searching for the middle of two positions is “reasonable” and a “compromise,” and so on. Logically, this is a fallacy called argument to moderation.

Politically, I think this way of thinking results from the fact that we are constantly confronted with two general positions which are opposed in “vigorous debate,” and that people are seen as “reasonable” when they are not “argumentative.” If both positions are “argumentative” and these two positions delimit what is “rational,” then the truth must be somewhere in the middle. There’s nowhere else to look!

The “middle ground” depends on two extremes to define it. But how are these extremes chosen? In the political arena, these extremes are chosen by left-wing gatekeepers and the right-wing mainstream. Why should we believe that the democratic process is any better at fixing these extremes than anything else? Few people even believe that the democratic process is good at what it’s supposed to be actually doing, which is choosing the best person to rule over a nation. So why should we think the democratic process is good at fixing the margins of discourse?

Both mainstream positions are pro-hierarchies, because they both vie for power within a hierarchical system. If you believe, like I do, that hierarchies are a fundamental problem, then the idea that the truth must be somewhere “in the middle” can’t possibly work. A gradient between two positions can only encompass all the possibilities if they take opposite sides on every single possible variable, which is just not going to happen.

In most cases, if we delimit the issue properly, the truth is actually one of the two extremes. Between slavery and no slavery, the truth is obviously on the no slavery position. Between genocide and no genocide, the truth is obviously on the no genocide position. No “middle ground” is necessary here.

But my point is that the “middle ground” is never necessary. It is imbecilic to believe a position to be true just because it’s in the “middle” of some arbitrary brackets. That ain’t reason, just superstition.

Muddling the issue even more is the concept that you have to be an expert to speak authoritatively about political issues. So a lot of people think that they are entitled to hold to ignorant beliefs or opinions on the basis that rational political discourse should be left to experts (i.e. people who are not themselves). But it also leads to the belief that the experts, even those at the pay of corporations or governments, must know what is rational and what is not.

As Chomsky says, this seems to be particular to areas like politics:

No one has ever asked me whether I have the appropriate credentials to speak on [mathematics]; the mathematicians couldn’t care less. What they want to know is what I have to say…

In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is the concern for content.

Theoretical political concepts are actually not that complicated. Any individual, willing to spend some time to read about these issues, can have a reasonable grasp of things like power, freedom, law, hierarchy, rights, and so on. They are not intuitive concepts, but they’re not exactly rocket science. Most of this stuff is meant to look more complicated than necessary by intellectuals who want you to believe they’re complicated.

What everyone needs to understand these things is information. But relevant information, information that helps you understand politics, is not given to you by the education system or the media. You do have to seek it out on your own. And most people have no clear reason to do this. They are content to keep to partisan media and “experts.” But that won’t expand your understanding of social reality.

Non-fiction is not the only thing that’s worth reading. Fictional stories are equally powerful, and the imaginary provides a counter-weight to the crushing impositions on our concept of what is possible. If you’re interested, I’ve made a list of recommendations.

One thought on “Liberals and conservatives: setting the limits of “rational” discourse.

  1. Independent Radical October 10, 2015 at 06:01 Reply

    There are a tonne of limited debates in our society and you do not even have to be a radical to notice. This is particularly true of debates between politicians. They debate how to best stop refugees from enter the country (in Austalia is takes the form of people chanting “stop the boats”), who can extract more resources from the earth and how to generate the highest GDP (i.e. produce the most amount of junk whether anyone needs it or not), but there is no debate over whether any of these three things should be objectives to begin. We need to agree on an objective before we move onto any other debates, but it is hard to make people have that debate. There are all kinds of minor, irrelevent-if-you-do-not-accept-some-fundamental-premise points which distract people.

    Are we scared to have the sorts of discussions that lead us to admit that there is not point in having any kind of debate because our objectives are vastly opposed to one another? Those in power want to maintain their rules, we on the radical left want to overthrow them. There is no point to debating them, because you cannot debate someone out of greed and self interest. They have to value humanity more than they value themselves for the debate to have purpose and members of the ruling class do not.

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