left/right: manichaeism, optics, virtue-signalling + the ring of Gyges

Speaking generally, in my experience observing and sometimes participating in political ~discourse~ as we so often like to call it (if we can even call it that), people say a lot but very little. When I attended rallies or observed particularly tense post-lecture question periods, it was always very apparent to me, if not altogether uncomfortable, that people with a certain ‘brand’ of politics are not used to talking to people who maintain a brand different from their own. Not only are they unfamiliar with speaking to the opposition , but they are quite bad at it. Both sides. Again, I’m speaking generally, I can of course think of several anecdotal instances of thoughtful and substantial political discussion, but at large, these two (apparently) opposing sides struggled terribly to do anything productive with their argument. Even worse, the insistence on right and wrong and the conviction from both sides that a pre-determined right/wrong already exists always seemed to empty opportunities for debate entirely,  replacing them with reductionist, ill-thought-out and chaotic battles of rhetoric: who will falter under the pressure first?

At first I was bewildered by this catastrophic and often volatile performance of politics, as a young and eager politicized first year on campus. Next, I was uninspired. The whole thing felt enormously disingenuous to me, but I convinced myself, alright you must just not be understanding it properly: try harder. Discussion would ossify, stagnant and unchanged, our politics solidified themselves as identity; it’s easy to disavow and avow when social capital is involved and an entire set of politics are already drawn out, reduced in their complexity and available for instant consumption and reproduction. The capitulation of the left towards the actual right was also confounding. How is it that we could spend so much of our time harping on each other for small and nuanced disagreements (natural in any moral community I assume)? Did we do this to avoid the actual arguments sitting across from us on the right? It was esoteric at best, irreverent at worst.

I have ruminated on this for a couple years really. Those who are close to me, the people who after months of trying, I finally trust, know. They know I bring this disillusionment up time and time again, each time reconfigured or reinvented with the inclusion of something new I read. Whatever. But finally, last night I was sitting at the top of a huge garden, smoking a j with my good friend and inevitably, the topic climbs into our conversation yet again. She tells me about her philosophy 100 course where a professor was clear in saying: (and I am paraphrasing) a good debate requires two individuals to engage in a conversation unattached to any search for truth – there can be no aim to convince your opponent of a pre-conceived perspective, only two people discussing a concept, completely free to explore all the possibilities, unbound by a ‘side.’ And although this prescription for debate sounds naive if not obvious, it struck me so profoundly, I felt immediately relieved. It seemed so straightforward: manichaeism stifles debate, derails discussions and silences productive discourse.

MANICHAEISM. What is it? You probably already know but put simply, it’s the belief in absolutes: absolute good vs. absolute evil (right/wrong – insert whatever dualism you want.) Manichaeism has its origins as a dualistic religious system with Christian, Gnostic, and pagan elements, and was founded in Persia in the 3rd century by Manes. For so long I’ve been describing my own thought patterns and the patterns around me using words like “dichotomous” “all or nothing” “black and white”, or even the good old “binaristic” here and there. But really, this restricted way of seeing the world, as a fight between “true” good and “true” evil, has severe political consequences. Freedom of speech is flattened entirely when Manichaeism interferes with natural problem-solving discussion.

This had me thinking back to Plato’s Republic, and Glaucon, Plato’s brother, giving the tale of the ring of Gyges. The ring grants its owner the power to be invisible at will. Basically Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. The ring, of course, prompts the questions: is it better to appear just or to be just? Classic appearance vs. reality sort of stuff. Is it more important to appear like you have the right set of politics than it is to act, often unobserved, practicing a specific set of personal morals and ethics? This is why it is so frustrating to see the left collapse so quickly under the pressure of scrutiny: it is so glaringly obvious that a lot of people, often those most visible, do not even know what exactly they stand for. Perhaps they didn’t actually read the news article that detailed the politics involved in their opposition to ___ policy or maybe they figured they love people and these people also love people (all people) so of course they had to “stand for it.” Sorry if this is getting a little scattered or abstract. I hope you know what I mean.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time watching “___ confronts protestors at Bernie rally” style youtube videos. And while framing is likely the culprit of the disappointing responses of said protestors, I was struck by the similarities in these videos and the messy, often incoherent profusion of politics at rallies I’ve been to. I am not separate from this either, I am often so completely disempowered by the fact that I know if I am interviewed by any reporter, I will have a rambling, disjointed and equally incoherent answer to give them. It gives me anxiety: not knowing what the fuck I’m even trying to prove. This is my own fault of course, I should always research the facts etc. etc. But this is a pattern. It’s something I’m certainly guilty of and it’s sort of destroying our ability to have meaningful interactions with those on the other ‘side’.

Virtue-signalling. In a lot of cases, it’s replaced praxis. Virtue-signally, if you don’t already know what I mean by this, is basically the expression or promotion (conscious or unconscious) of viewpoints that are especially valued within a social group, especially when this is done primarily to enhance the social standing of the speaker. I want to say I heard the term from Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice (now infamously hated in the left). I am willing to attest that the left is guilty of this more than the right. We are so eager to make sure everyone knows how ridiculous we think ___ segment on Fox News was and how said celebrity is a raging misogynist and equally as enthusiastic to describe to you, in our own words, the atrocities plaguing our conscience at any given moment. It’s the performance of politics filling in for the actual act of doing what you can where you can and shutting the fuck up about it.

The optics, exacerbated by social media, override all other aspects of the politics process: our teams (political, social and moral) are defended in theory, online, in casual conversation, but we shelter ourselves from even listening to anyone who may think differently than us. The right is now understood as a fucking joke, even entertaining the idea of contemplating a counterargument from the right is seen as a waste of our time. This is common. You try and bring up a valid argument, articulated by the working class citizenry of a country, and it’s laughable, it’s automatically categorized as (fill in buzzword ending in phobic) and shelved for later consideration (never). If people would stop to consider for a brief moment the context in which moralities other than the one you so desperately cling to have developed this specific set of values and anxieties, they would discover common ground quite quickly.  I’m not saying the left or the right is correct, I’m actually just saying there should never be left and a right to allow us to engage in this anti-political behaviour. These teams make us intellectually lazy, circular, intolerant and unprogressive when it comes to solving problems; more concerned we are saying the right things rather than listening, learning and acting.

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