Thursday, December 05, 2013

I'm A Man Without Conviction, I'm A Man Who Doesn't Know How to Sell A Contradiction

Brian comments on the previous post:

Scribbler, by the time you are 40 I expect you will be patrolling your property with a shotgun muttering about the liberals and feminists and all those progressives. 

He's mostly kidding, of course, but still, this serves as a useful springboard to make a broader point, a sort of meta-musing about my ever-evolving worldview. My isolato manifesto, if you will. The implied question he poses is: am I morphing into a curmudgeonly conservative? The short answer is no, but the long answer is, as usual, more nuanced.

There's a number of unspoken assumptions that inform the understanding of most people who read, write, and comment on sociopolitical issues in the blogosphere. The idea that we're all, to some degree, political animals, and that a developed political awareness is the height of sophistication and maturity. The idea that all of us, whether we admit it or not, fall on one side or the other of the fundamental political divide, which in this country is understood as progressive/conservative, or Democrat/Republican. The idea that most such opinions should not be taken at face value, but rather interpreted in relation to this or that agenda, reduced to their supposed common denominator, examined for their hidden implications. The idea that we're all speaking as if to the largest potential audience, with the intent of swaying or convincing as many as possible. The idea that heretical, offensive, or discomfiting opinions should be treated like outbreaks of contagion, to be quarantined and avoided for the sake of one's mental health. Well. If these sorts of assumptions are the common coin of online discourse, perhaps my intent is actually to storm in, violently overturn the tables of those who trade in such counterfeit currency, and chase them away. (The megalomania implicit in that metaphor is entirely ironic and offered for amusement purposes only, I assure you.)

It is a fact: I am utterly insignificant and completely lacking in influence. This blog is a pure labor of love, a love of writing and foolosophizing for their own sake, which is a good thing, because I could probably count my regular readers on my fingers. To me, that represents freedom. If I have a role model here at all, it's Montaigne — I am free to focus on whatever I want for however long I want, to follow my thoughts wherever they lead, with no concern for whether they advance or inhibit some arbitrary agenda, support or detract from some party line. And what the honest fuck do I know about anything anyway? My only responsibility is to tell the truth as I see it. The thing is, this medium, as far as I can see, offers that freedom to almost everyone. Not every blogger is as publicity-adverse as I am, and not every blogger is quite so invisible, but still, there is a lot of potential for experimentation within the blog format. And yet, so many of them hustle to their self-assigned seats and begin producing the same on-message content as everyone else. They couldn't be more uniform and predictable if they were following orders from a drill sergeant. There are countless Jon Stewart-wannabes and countless amateur pundits covering the exact same viral stories. If I want to hear snark about the latest stupid thing uttered by a Christian/Republican, I'd watch the Daily Show. If I want to hear some yammering yob on Wordpress pontificate as if the fucking President should hire his amazingly insightful ass to be the new Chief of Staff, I'd... well, I'd lie down with a cold compress on my head until I came to my senses, but still, the point is, such cardboard cutout opinions are ubiquitous and worthless. I am utterly baffled by the existence of so many people who can think of no more entertaining use of their thoughts and free time than to act as unpaid copywriters for the DNC. Eyes turned up toward the canopy, where all the important action is assumed to be taking place, they ignore all the potentially interesting growth taking place among the understory.

Over the last couple of years, especially following the appearance of the schism in online New Atheism, I've been more interested in things like the psychological roots of ideology than the irrelevant details of ideologies themselves. This has led to me writing more on topics like identity politics, campus-style radicalism and free speech, issues which, to a perspective that sorts everything through a political filter, tend to "code" as conservative, if not reactionary. This isn't actually a new thing for me — my views haven't really changed since the early days of this blog, when I was equally scornful of shallow progressive pieties. The only thing that has changed is that I've shrugged off any meaningful political identity and thus shed any inclinations to muffle such criticism for the sake of some broader loyalties. A lot of liberals/progressives would probably agree with me privately that the sort of lunatic feminists who populate Freethought Blogs, Tumblr and the like are ridiculous, but, so goes the thinking, at least they're not Republicans. It's the flip side of the lesser-evil strategy they employ during elections — as long as there's a greater evil to fight, i.e. reactionary Republicans, it would be counterproductive and misguided to expend any serious effort on attacking people on "our side". Well, this is a perfectly reasonable and valid perspective to hold, but I reject it nonetheless. I reject it because though it may be valid, it's not the only valid perspective. I especially reject the dubious political calculus which pretends to know exactly which compromises need to be made for the sake of securing some vague greater good. There never will be a "convenient" time to have such battles. There never will be a time when reactionaries have been neatly and completely dispatched, allowing us to turn our full attention to our own lunatic fringe. Both types of malignant personalities will always be with us. Dishonest ideologues are dishonest ideologues regardless of which button they push in the booth on Election Day, and, not being a politician, I have no interest in trying to manipulate one set to my advantage.

If anything, I've just sidestepped the false binary of partisan political identity and returned to the Zen/Taoist sensibility I've been nurturing since adolescence. Zen taught me a lot about mental discipline and dispassionate objectivity; Taoism taught me that authoritarian busybodies are a perennial (and bipartisan) occurrence, and that the best response to them is mockery and a refusal to counter their harebrained dogmas by asserting your own. Topping that off is a genuine antisocial instinct, a mild misanthropy, which has me daydreaming about counterfactual histories where humans somehow evolved from a less-social species (orangutans, perhaps) to become much more solitary, instead of our current existence as meddlesome chimps obsessed with monitoring and regulating our neighbors' behavior. And finally, to reiterate, I'm fully aware that none of this sound and fury is anything more than entertainment. Nothing written here (or indeed, most anywhere else in the blogosphere) is changing any minds or influencing any policy. It's just something to skim over while killing time at work. There's no need to read more than that into it.


noel said...

It's just something to skim over while killing time at work.
But... someone's wrong on the internet! To the keyboard!
Politics is a struggle for power with winners and losers. There are those who would trick their neighbors out of their stuff, and there are those who would poison the well. I would like to see not the poisoners win. Fuck me, right?

The Vile Scribbler said...

No, I agree with all that. What I'm saying is: this, what we're doing here, is not politics. This is just an insignificant blog, and we're just a tiny group of schmucks frittering away the day. I'm saying there should be something that isn't about politics. There should be some cultural space, however small and insignificant, where ideas and aesthetics can stand on their own without being pressganged into service as political issues. Not everything should be reduced to a question of, "Does this benefit Democrats or Republicans?"

If the President takes time in a speech to criticize Tumblr-style feminism, that's politically significant. That means and implies all sorts of things and calls for all sorts of analysis. If an anonymous blogger does it, it doesn't necessarily mean anything. We should feel free to consider it without feeling immediately pressed to react. And so, to continue the earlier example, if an insignificant blog with no power or influence isn't a safe place to criticize progressive pieties from a non-reactionary point of view without fear that doing so will somehow, magically, empower reactionaries, where is a safe place? I'm saying, for most of us, dicking around on the Internet like this should be an opportunity to experiment, to question, to break out of those Internet silos without worrying about whether you're giving aid and comfort to the enemy in the process.

Brian M said...

LOL. Glad I could inspire this post!

If you observe my commenting times, they are not in line with "policy".

"Taoism taught me that authoritarian busybodies are a perennial (and bipartisan) occurrence, and that the best response to them is mockery and a refusal to counter their harebrained dogmas by asserting your own."

A nice turn of phrase, Scribbler! I try to avoid binary thinking, but not as successfully as you do. I still even (gasp!) read a couple of FreeThought blogs (not PZ or Ophelia, to be honest, because I found the latter too engaged in the Offense Wars, which ultimately becomes...boring)

noel said...

I know - I agree. I certainly don't believe in avoiding criticizing those on "my" side! I say kick the tires hard! If they come off then we need a new vehicle. That said, "both sides do it" arguments are facile, ignoring the profound importance of intentions and consequences of the wrong-doing in question.

The Vile Scribbler said...

"Look before you leap", but "he who hesitates is lost". Most bromides and principles are like that -- true sometimes, depending on context. Sometimes "both sides are equally bad" is a cheap, lazy way to avoid carefully considering a specific argument, like the XKCD cartoon -- "The important thing is, you've found a way to feel superior to both." Sometimes, though, looking for strong similarities between supposed polar opposites can be a useful way to break the hypnotic spell of tribalism and confirmation bias. Depends.

That's why I mentioned Zen and Taoism. I've yet to find a better source for teaching the discipline and attention necessary to avoid dogmatism. To me, the Buddhist parable of the raft is a profound illustration of the vigilance needed to avoid dragging useful concepts into situations where they're more of a hinderance. What was true and useful earlier may not be now. You never get to take a break from exercising your consideration and judgement.