Hinges & Doubts: Musings on Social Justice & Activism
It’s not far before one’s contemplative gaze is interrupted by the crude clamorings of some activist claiming that we are the problem, and that everything is going to hell in a handbasket. That I cannot sit and admire a forest without being reminded of the alarming rates at which we are cutting down trees or the statistics of global warming is surely a sign of decay in our society. However, I tend to not take these musings seriously if only because there existed pessimistic, cynical, apocalyptic prophets in every age—at the very least it allows me not to get swept up in the overly-idealistic rhetoric and attractiveness of ‘doing good by the world.’ Each age, however, preached a—if only slightly—new message about what will be our downfall, our doom. Like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” going up an octave, it’s all variations on the same theme. Today isn’t different by any dramatic sense of the word, but it may be harder to deal with.
This difficulty stems from what Gadamer and many others call the ‘prejudice against prejudice.’ The idea that prejudice is the worst thing one can possibly have, so we must avoid all prejudice. Neverminding the silly personal aspect of this, social justice warriors tend to take this as their creed, and, as most are finding out, this presents a monumental problem if only conversationally: you cannot talk to people who believe prejudice in and of itself is the worst thing we humans can do.
The ‘prejudice against prejudice’ affords the ability to doubt absolutely everything from the outset. This doubt, no doubt, rests on the flimsiest of historical foundations, usually amounting to taken as faith histories written in the tune of Howard Zinn and Charles Beard: that nearly everything can be looked at as a product of self-interest or power means the perspective of the warrior is one of, as one Harvard Crimson commentator put it, ‘a near-constant assumption of bad faith.’ I, conversely, am not downplaying the importance of the Zinns and Beards of the world; these stories need to be told. However, if these stories are going to be not only told but used as a foundation for looking at everything else with disgust and disdain and not merely as another story to be told, I’m not so sure my attitude would stay the same. I can only imagine radical activists salivating at the thought that their new book—probably titled something to the effect of Why America Was Never Great—is being shipped directly to their door by, somewhat ironically, UPS.
Though my ultimate point is that these conversations are becoming increasingly frustrating because, frankly, there is seemingly nothing around us that can be construed as ‘good-faith.’ When everything is viewed as the remnants of a bygone past of self-interest, greed, and selfishness, how does one argue for change without at once urging revolution? Perhaps this is what is wanted.
This awkward wavering between reformism and revolution is the world in which we are inhabiting; that people can protest so abstractly means that appeasement is not in the cards. There is no concrete offering the ‘establishment’ could offer even if they wanted to. Tweaking this or that will amount to, they say, simply arranging the shattered glass on the ground to make it look prettier—we need a brand new mirror, they will cry. I quite agree with Richard Rorty that at one time the Left was intellectual and reformist, whereas now it is purely ivory-tower elites who, for the most part, have removed themselves entirely from the situation while commenting mercilessly on said situation.
As Charles Peirce said a while ago, “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have… let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” One doesn’t have to tweak this much—or at all—to see how applicable this is. We may say rather that “let us not pretend to doubt in our lives what we do not doubt in our hearts.” That is, in the social justice warrior’s crusade for free speech and its limits, we should remember that it is because you have free speech that you can say this. In our confident philosophy of having ‘no prejudices,’ we feel as though we aren’t prejudiced toward this free-speech culture, that this is simply a given. Is the First Amendment simply a manifestation of bad faith? I am reminded of another quote from Wittgenstein: “The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn… If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.”
The Enlightenment’s ‘prejudice against prejudice’ project is an impossible one. So too is fooling ourselves into thinking we are free-floating, tetherless spontaneous idea machines with no creed, agenda, or tradition. As Dalrymple has said: “one cannot escape convention.” If nothing else can be gleaned from this, it is the basic idea that if the social activists wish to succeed on any front they must not eschew the hinges on which they want the door to turn. We cannot question everything at once, but apparently this obvious human fact leaves us susceptible to the worst of all evils: prejudice. Even in their most abstract and ambiguous forms, stripped of their imperialistic pressures and missteps, there must be something good about the concept of Western values. If nothing else, the concept of “Western values” means continuing the conversation; never letting anyone get the last word. As it were, though, the last word is exactly what social justice activists are trying to get to with all of their cries of injustice, and it’s no longer a question of how or why but when.
Undoubtedly, my words will be twisted to “so you don’t believe they have a right to say whatever they want?” Of course I do; I wish only to show that the content of what they are saying leads down a road in which saying whatever one wishes whenever one wants won’t exactly be a reality anymore. I’m not sure anyone envisioned (or perhaps they did) that in 2016 Americans would be heading down a road in which the only destination is one in which we don’t have to deliberate about or ask whether something is right or wrong, but simply have to ask if it’s legal or illegal.