Monday, May 30, 2016

Numbskulls, Nitwits, and Dastardly Knaves

It has become a bit of a truism that the left and the right can’t fathom each other’s reasons for their respective positions: that someone on the left can’t imagine why any person of good will would oppose a higher minimum wage, while someone on the right can’t understand why a clear-sighted individual can’t grasp the value of the free market.  Arthur Brooks even has a TED talk devoted to solving this conversational impasse, one of many pieces of commentary the problem has spawned over the last few years.

In this situation, the Renaissance scholar has the moderate relief of knowing that the problem is not new.  The divide between papists or would-be papists in sixteenth-century England and between those Protestants who leaned towards Calvinism was a deep and seemingly unbridgeable gulf.  The difference was indeed so great that (not for the first or last time in history) people died over the issues; in a best case scenario, neighbors who chose not to report on nonconformity might ostracize the nonconforming family—itself a kind of slow death for anyone living in a small town or agrarian region.

We can take comfort, then, in the fact that the divisive nature of our modern intellectual differences is not unique, and that only our modern American distaste for bloodshed (and indeed for corporal punishment) prevents any stakes or ear-and-nose-loppings from cropping up (pardon the expression) in the near future.  Martyrdom has been replaced by Twitter assassination; and while the personal effects of such snowball-from-the-hilltop slaughter can be quite nearly as damaging now as then (Brendan Eich and the woman who tweeted about not catching AIDS in Africa come to mind), one does not simply starve these days (at least, not as far as I know).

And in any case, such cases of dramatic and headline-making social ostracism will probably remain relatively rare, because we live and interact chiefly with like-minded people: family, Facebook friends, and even coworkers are likely to share our beliefs … or else we keep silent about them, since social norms practically demand any response to doings of the other side involve an “I can’t even.”

“She feeds her children GMO cereal.”  “I can’t even.” 
“Last I heard, they were using Timeouts on Emma. 
That poor child is only two-and-a-half!”  “I can’t even!” 
“You haven’t finished your free-range, cage-free,
organic, vegan Cobb salad.”  “I can’t even …”

This sort of response to people who are ideologically “other” has existed for some time.  But over the past month or so I’ve been struck by how common it is to treat people on one’s own side of the fence with a degree of disbelieving disdain.  My Facebook feed is littered with posts whose opening sentences, the very reverse of click-bait, urge me to scroll on as fast as possible in embarrassed frustration.  On the right Trump and Hiroshima have become bête noires: either one is a numbskull for accepting that Trump might be better than Hillary, or a nitwit for not seeing that he’s far worse than she is; one is either a dastardly knave for saying that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were or might have been justified, or else one is practically a quisling for suggesting that they weren’t.

I naturally have opinions on these topics—moderately informed ones, albeit ones that could be changed by more persuasive arguments or facts of which I am currently in ignorance.  But why in heaven’s name would I bother to read an article which condemns my reasoned position in the first few lines as the fruit of either stupidity or moral decrepitude?

I wouldn’t!

On the left, there are comparable issues: the nest of problems that include microaggressions (a word my spell check does not even recognize, so new is its coinage), cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, and campus free speech is one example of a situation where liberals form two mutually incomprehensible sides; the emerging focus on transgenderism, and the opposition of certain feminists and gays to this new emphasis, is another.

But these divisions within parties or ideological coalitions are themselves nothing new.  Once again, the Renaissance affords an instructive comparison, inasmuch as it presents readers of history with heated debates between English Catholics about recusancy or conformity, and among English Protestants about just how far towards Calvinism or Puritanism the established Anglican Church ought to go.  Once again, history tells us that there’s nothing fresh or ingenious about dubbing one’s allies of yesterday the heretics today.  But it remains disquieting that we so often insist on pretending that not only the other side, but also certain subgroups within our own, are intellectually and morally decrepit.

I have a theory about why this happens.  It’s not a pretty one, and I myself may occasionally be guilty of the sin involved in it: namely, the sin of quietly selling a few of one’s own friends to purchase credence with the enemy.  The process goes something like this:

ENEMY: All you people are totally unreasonable, driven by your hatred of yellow grapefruits.

YOU: But wait!  I sort of agree with you that yellow grapefruits can be edible at times.  At least, I have an aunt who used to put them in fruit salad, and I really liked her fruit salads.

ENEMY: That’s nice.  But most people on your side …

YOU [quickly]: Yeah, I know.  Really dumb, huh?  [Addressing your own people:] You salad-hating idiots!

And then, of course, one can compliment oneself on having brought the world closer to peace, because this is how coalition building works.  And besides, it does make one very superior not to fit the stereotype of liberal or conservative or what-have-you on all counts.  It’s almost as if one made up one’s mind on one’s own …

There’s also a whole Catholic stereotype of
which carries its own flavor of righteousness.

In any case, regardless of the unconscious motives which may taint shouts of heresy against one’s own party, such shouts are profoundly unproductive, for the same reason that it is unproductive to assume that everyone on the enemy’s side is a fool or a knave.  I am reminded, for the third time, of the Renaissance.  Littered with polemics, it was also littered with dialogues purporting by the nature of their genre to give a fair hearing to two sides.  In point of fact, that was rarely the case; the enemy within a dialogue, if initially resistant, was generally reduced in short order to a “Surely, O Socrates,” stance.  Spenser’s diatribe against the Irish is a fine case in point.

Irish have some sort of local civilization worth preserving? 
was wrong!  Death to all their leaders!!!

The nervous reader will be relieved to learn that I don’t anticipate any movement today comparable to the English attempts at Irish genocide.  Perhaps some portion of the losers in out modern debates may find themselves, like Huxley’s savages, living life on a happy reservation in the Midwest—an extreme form of the Benedict option, mutually agreeable to all parties concerned.  Or perhaps, unable to deintegrate from mainstream society, the losers may find themselves increasingly in the position of recusants, forced to equivocate about religion, politics, the raising of children, and other such minor details of life.

Or perhaps (since I’ve never liked dystopian endings, only reconciling myself to Hamlet when I decided that it hadn’t got one after all) we may manage to actually reach some sort of understanding amongst ourselves on each side, and each side with the other: converts will be made, not forcibly but intellectually, and we will live, as some sixties ballad whose name I can’t recall promised, in perfect harmony.

But there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening as long as we continue pretending to ourselves that all these debates are as simple as they look, and as long as we persist in treating enemies and friends alike with equal indignity, as numbskulls, nitwits, and dastardly knaves, with the occasional nincompoop thrown in for good measure.


  1. The phenomenon you describe is indeed nothing new. Perhaps the most distasteful part of it though from my perspective is how often people (random Facebookers or well-known columnists) impute particular motives to the side they disagree with.
    'People justify Hiroshima because of an excessive Americanism.' 'We're at war in Iraq because we want their oil.'
    I think these are often falsely attributed and perhaps worse than the initial disagreement.

    I think people claim these motives to their opponents because of repressed material indulgence in this very technologized world...

    1. Agreed about the imputation of motives. Really, if we're going to do that with actual people, wouldn't charity demand that we more often assume the best?

      Repressed material indulgence ... hm, now that's a theme for another post. But I'm not sure I follow the connection you're seeing there.

  2. Hm. Either Mr. Mason is illustrating for us, ironically, the very imputation of motive that he laments, or there is something very charitable in supposing "repressed material indulgence..." is (um... I don't know how to parse it, actually) the underlying cause of others imputing strange motives.

    In a mood for Paradox, I might suggest that bad motives are indeed "the best" (the most "charitable") explanation modern discourse can suggest for... er... opinions on world events that give us pause. (May I call us "us"? I hope you know what I mean.) There is a strong current these days against personal responsibility; bakeries aren't responsible for, say, more people being fat today, because they don't force anyone to eat their cookies, and people who eat too many cookies aren't responsible for it either because their brains make them do it. And no-one (it seems) is responsible for what their brains do, so long as they don't think about it, Especially if the brain is highjacked by the chemical gastronomics the bakeries are studying...

    So, that poor fellow is so gosh darn patriotic he can't see nor say that the Holy City of Nagasaki should never have been burned; he should be locked away where he can't do any harm to anyone or even himself and certainly not his children, but of course he can't help being what he is.

    I might suggest those things, but I haven't decided yet if I will.

  3. That was a joke - I was wildly imputing motives. ;)

  4. Well this is embarrassing. Apparently my irony meter turns off in the mornings? But I'm glad I wasn't actually missing anything serious.

    I suppose it could be a very Chestertonian paradox (Chesterton on a sly day) to suggest that it is more charitable to assume bad will than insanity on the part of those who hold "opinions on world events that give us pause." But while that might be suggestable, I don't know that I would suggest it ... though certainly modern discourse would find it hard to understand how one could possibly prefer the crazy old church lady who is violently for or against nuclear warfare for reasons of the heart--to the clever, sane social scientist whose position on the matter is justified by a Bad Motive.

  5. Hmm, well it seems to me the motives that are assumed are often uncharitable...