This post is half political, half confessional, and half dyscalculical.
Few like having their core beliefs called into question. That’s why philosophy is a tough old slog. That’s not to say that the many other parts of life that require critical thinking are not a tough old slog. Generally speaking though few disciplines compel a person to be wary of their unexamined beliefs quite to the same extent that philosophy compels them†. We look at the world through the window of our beliefs, which is why people come to radically different conclusions about identical circumstances. The more fearless the philosopher the more transparent and without defect the window. This is one reason to mistrust technocrats, formalists, and all those who would instruct with mathematical, formal, or technical language.
Because we see the world through our beliefs it is difficult to remove focus from the world and re-focus on the unexamined or partially examined beliefs themselves. Many of these unquestioned beliefs come to us pre-packaged in bundles from the culture we swim in. The stronger we hold onto these beliefs the more ideological they become. When incompatible ideologies come into contact each other or the “real world” all manner of mischief and mayhem can be let loose.
Why am I saying all this? Firstly, because I have gone through a bit of a political wakening over the last few months. This is third such time in my life.
The first time was when I properly encountered anarchist thought. In London, early in the millennium – specifically I discovered the Freedom Press bookshop in Whitechapel completely by accident. Boy, was that an eye opener. That’s not something you can un-learn. I’m one of those people who gets jolly upset when people unthinkingly treat the term anarchy and terms like unbridled lawlessness and total chaos as mere synonyms. Yes, I’m one of those people. But as I say, once encountered one can’t un-learn it. And you can’t appreciate anarchist thought until you’ve read some of the key anarchist texts. This is such a simple and obvious observation that you would imagine it hardly needs stating. To my shame I have lost count of the times I have mischaracterised an idea or misconstrued a claim because I haven’t done due diligence and tracked it back to the source. Each tracking back is a tough old slog. Now try doing that all the time, for everything. It gets exhausting, so most people don’t bother, or just assume that what they’re looking at is bedrock.
The second time was, I can be quite precise with dating this, 9:34 pm EST on the 19 March. I, along with much of the world, watched Shock and Awe paint pretty fireballs and explosions in the darkened sky over the ancient city of Baghdad. I learnt the word hegemony, I re-aquainted myself with 20th history in the light of colonialism and imperialism. Again, there’s no going back from that.
All through these times I was a lefty – whatever that means. I had always been a lefty. Politically, economically. I just assumed because I agreed with a lot of lefty positions and policies and their world outlook that I must be a lefty. I knew, however, that wasn’t staunchly or resolutely anti-capitalist. I would argue with anarchists and others who thought utopia could only be achieved via, among other things, the abolition of money. I read some Marx, agreed with his critique of capital, but disagreed with his treatment of the diagnosis. More on that another time though. So I knew I wasn’t against capitalism and globalism per se, I was against crony capitalism, unregulated capitalism, and wage arbitration via off-shoring. I was far from being a communist, hell I was far from being a socialist, I still sort of believed in democratic institutions even though clearly current implementations left a lot to be desired – I agreed with the Churchillian, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”‡ – I was a social democrat I thought with strong libertarian and anarchist tendencies. Of course I just assumed that lefty identity politics was correct and that anyone who thought otherwise was an unmitigated bigot/racist/fascist/nazi.
Well, my bad. An unintended consequence of the culture wars clued me in. I’m not sure if I was heading that direction already but Bill C-16 and Jordan B. Peterson’s opposition made me sit up and pay attention. If I was a bit less libertarian (a term I have not yet defined I realise) or if I had not stumbled across his YouTube channel with his explanation of his position things might be different. I have spent the last few months becoming acquainted with conservative, alt-right, and far right thought. When you live in the so-called liberal media bubble, when most academia leans liberal, when you assume most of your friends are liberal it is very very difficult to understand conservative thought. The fact that economic and political and cultural positions are all kind of smushed together makes these strands hard to untangle and renders one’s window semi-opaque. I can now see, by way of example, why Roger Scruton detests most if not all contemporary architecture, a few months ago I would not have been able to understand why.
A couple of things clued me in along the way before this third shift in my views. The first was discovering Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff. Another was that I had been thinking about ideology for a long time and had been collecting and reviewing works in that genre and it always struck me that continental philosophers were much more preoccupied by the concept of ideology that analytic philosophers and I couldn’t really understand why. I wondered why those on the right were more reluctant to accepting the science behind climate change and its consequences. And lately observing the populism that lead to, you guessed it, Brexit and Trump – but more importantly the hysteria of the responses to these events. I had completely missed the bigger picture of culture wars.
Going to publish this now before I lose my nerve.
More anon …
† Compare and contrast: few disciplines compel one to be wary of one’s unexamined beliefs quite to the same extent that philosophy compels one
‡ I am aware that dear Churchill did not coin the phrase.