Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Narrative self-enforcement and the refusal to notice

If believing X makes one a good person, then avoiding evidence to the contrary preserves one’s virtue.

Don’t see, hear or speak anything that threatens my identity and standing.

Contemporary progressivism regularly treats failure to embrace various beliefs or narratives as a sign of intellectual or moral delinquency (or both). The various -ist or -phobe terms that get bandied about label people as suffering morally crippling cognitive delinquency.* At its most trenchant, this attitude to dissent leads directly into an ongoing pattern of “submit or be stigmatised”: either accept claim X or be stigmatised as an -ist or a -phobe.

The claim that those who significantly disagree are morally delinquent is often also tied to a claim of intellectual delinquency: that there are either (1) obvious facts or truths about the world that such dissenters are ignoring or denying. Or (2) that there are facts or truths about the world that folk clever enough to notice understand and yet those who disagree are ignorant of. Moreover, ignorant of in a way that is typically taken to either condemn them, or elevate those who do so understand, or both.

Both sorts of claims are claims about being well-informed. That the folk making such judgements are so very well informed about how the world is, what other’s beliefs are, how the crucial factors work, and so on. Such claims imply a certain willingness to make an effort to be so informed.

It is therefore quite striking to see a pattern of quite the opposite. A pattern of people using various techniques to not be informed. Or, more precisely, to not be inconveniently informed. Comedian Konstantin Kisin has observed that, in the Soviet Union, you would avoiding looking at (or into) certain things, for if you did, that would lead to wrong-thinking, which was dangerous. A similar pattern has become increasingly pervasive in Western societies.**

The protective flaw
The most common technique I have observed to avoid being inconveniently informed is finding some reason why some commentator, publication or other source is so inherently flawed that nothing that they say can be taken seriously. What that typically means in practice is that the source in question does not adhere to the correct narratives and perspectives.***

As a way of self-policing the information one receives, it is excellent. As a way of genuinely understanding what is happening the world around us, it is dreadful. Even if the alleged flaws ascribed to the source are actually in some serious sense a problem, just because a source has problem X it does not mean it is not an accurate source about Y. For instance, just because Sir Isaac Newton engaged in numerological examination of Biblical texts does not mean that he was not a great scientist.

Statements should be judged on their factual merits. But this is precisely what is not being done. Instead, their author or bearer’s alleged position in the moral universe is taken to eliminate the possibility of them providing useful information.

This is both a very bad strategy to being genuinely informed about the world and an attitude that is deeply corrosive to freedom, democracy and science. If a person, group, publication or whatever can be so comprehensively dismissed, then their entire participation in public discourse becomes “problematic”. The narratives of virtue are apparently so powerful, that it enables people and sources to be entirely cognitively dismissed in advance. While that is a deeply self-flattering attitude to take, it is also utterly incompatible with any serious commitment to freedom, democracy and science in its utter dismissal of any legitimacy for dissent and its blocking of anything resembling serious discovery processes.

A version of this strategy is to dismiss some perspective or analysis because of who also endorses, propounds or agrees with it. This is, if anything, even worse because it makes cognitive and moral illegitimacy contagious.

Such strategies are very obviously products of status strategies. They exemplify a sense of being profoundly morally and cognitively superior to any proponents of dissent.

Hijacking science
As part of the rhetoric of moral dominance, the hijacking of science to support narratives of virtue has become a recurring pattern. Such hijacking is a perversion of science in the service of establishing moral authority and narrative dominance. Philosopher Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shopcraft as Soulcraft (a nice review of which is here), expresses the fundamental conceptual error involved well:
You can’t really follow the science because science does not lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action, for example by quantifying the risks that attend each, to specify the trade-offs. But it can’t make the choices for us.
Via such slogans as “follow the science”, science is being used as a rhetorical bludgeon in service of moral presumption. Any notion of rule by or through experts, including alleged moral experts, has to involve some moral framework, typically embedded in some legitimating discourse, that frames and directs the expertise. By pretending proper social action is a matter of “following” “the” science, the underlying moral framework is both hidden behind science (or claims about “the” science) and elevated out of the realm of the legitimately contestable.

As Crawford points out, falsifiability is a key to what makes science, science. Authority, on the other hand, requires certainty (or, at least, an aura of certainty). Turning science into a tool and prop of authority means trading in what makes science, science in the service of generating deference. Science becomes incorporated in alleged certainties, so a faith system, so becomes something more like a religion.

To wield science in such a way is to profoundly undermine it as a discovery process. This undermining is very congenial to all those who regard science as a tool of patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacy. It is not remotely a path that is in any way good for the health of science. Nor for freedom of thought, nor for democracy, as any dissent becomes “anti-science” and so illegitimate.

Crawford makes the point that the expanding rule-by-expertise, which is also to a significant degree rule through emergency, involves:
... a de-legitimising of common sense as a guide to action.
This fits in very nicely with “woke” progressivism, which characterises the entire existing society as a set of moral emergencies due to being a structure of power, oppression and marginalisation. Such progressivism also pushes moral narratives regarded as of such obvious moral power that any significant dissent is inherently delinquent. It grounds its justifications in complex theory. It sets up a structure of ever-evolving linguistic taboos developed by, and selected for, the highly educated in a way that naturally tends to exclude those who are less educated from the realm of legitimate public discourse. “Follow the science” and the de-legitimising of common sense supports all these elements.

One of the reasons I have trouble identifying contemporary critical constructivist (i.e. “woke”) progressivism as “left” is because it is so profoundly antithetic to popular, and particularly working class, participation in public debate.

Identity self-protection
This hijacking of science as a moral bludgeon in the service of the prestige-and-dominance plays that are central to contemporary progressivism fits in very well with narrative self-enforcement. If progressivism is just “follow the science”, then any dissent must be “anti-science”. Anything that is “anti-science” is clearly not worth attending to, so can be excluded from one’s consideration, thereby protecting your adherence to the narratives that establish one as one of the smart and good people.

Such narrative self-enforcement, such not noticing, is required to sustain the claim that one has to believe X to be a good person, the more so the more particular to a time and place such a belief is. And many of the current you-have-to-believe X-to-be-a-good-person claims are very particular to this time and place. Such as all the results of conflating sex (which gametes your body is structured to produce) with gender (the sets of behaviours, expectations and cultural narratives associated with how your body is structured).

When folk wonder how mad and destructive claims keep spreading, the short answer is because so many folk have come to believe that either endorsing them is required to show you are a good person, that you are an informed person, that you are a smart person, or that adversely noticing their spread deprives you of such status. So long as such claims, or such avoidings of noticing, continue to be successfully paraded as being what the smart-and-good-people believe and do, people will continue to practice narrative self-enforcement so that they can stay within the set of persons who constitute the smart and the good.

If I wanted to summarise contemporary progressivism in one sentence it would be (1): the systematic sacrifice of discovery processes in the service of moral status. (Including shielding one's moral status.) Or (2) the possessors of human capital and the possessors of commercial capital getting together to screw over the working class. (But that is a pattern for another time.)

Narrative self-enforcement, blocking one’s own acquisition of inconvenient facts or confronting realisations, is engaging in such systematic, sacrifice of discovery so as to protect one’s sense of being one of the smart and the good. Doing so, so as to clothe oneself in the protective public status of being such.

I used to wonder how people in the past could not notice that the social system, or key parts thereof, that they relied upon was threatening to, or was, collapsing around them. I now realise that it can be remarkably easy to simply refuse to see what is too cognitively threatening to notice.


*For instance, finding some statement that, if you squint at it in just the right way, can be derided as racist, thereby discrediting everything from that person or source.

**Commentator Steve Sailer has just about built a career on noticing how (progressive) folk refuse to notice.

***This can be used to discount an individual, a group of individuals or an entire organisation.

[Cross-posted from Medium.]

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