Sunday, November 19, 2006

Postmodern word magic: taking the realness out of reality

I think I need an editor. I thought I published this post back when it was still warm up north.

Something crossed my desk or my mind a while ago on gun control (Google "gun control logic" and look at the second item at the Freerepublic link, or the whole article at Posse Incitatus for a reasonable impression) that I kept forgetting to post about, and I was finally moved to try writing when I saw some adolescent on TV saying everything non-anarchic was fascist and yelling at people not to defend ideas she didn't like because the power of their words might compel others to believe them instead of believing the ideas she did like. Really high school caliber philosophy--which is only fair, despite how often I hear it from so-called adults on the Internet and elsewhere--but it captured the essence of a lot of what I see on the broader stage in the world at large: that facts don't matter as much as symbolic gestures. I've touched on it before, but I'm past due on making myself clear.

Well, as clear as I ever get.

Maybe the insistence of having reams of laws against guns, despite criminals not following them anyway, is based on this postmodern (although conservatives have their Orwellian moments as well, like the recent redefinition of torture) notion that words have power--not that they really have none, but the notion is that they have power above and beyond material facts. Thus the notion that it is not simply more convenient to suppress unwelcome ideas, lest someone be swayed by them, but actually better than countering them with words that are powered by such things as logic and truth; and efforts of pure propaganda are as valuable and effective as efforts of, well, work. Thus, banning guns makes neighborhoods safer, even though criminals will break laws anyway just to maintain a tactical advantage during a confrontation--or at least people will feel safer because something has been done--or at least people will feel useful because something has been done, and as long as it's a gesture towards safety of some sort, then the feeling of usefulness or accomplishment can be sublimated into the illusion of genuine safety.

A more accessible example may be free speech "safe spaces" on college campuses where criticism is curbed, but rather than guaranteeing the opportunity for dialog on unpopular issues, public opposition ends up being prohibited on the grounds that any critical rationale is itself suppressive or offensive, that the ideas that deserve to be aired also need to be protected from disproof all the more because the disproof may be so compelling. They say they're protecting free speech from being overwhelmed by some other kind of speech, but what's actually happening is unpopular speech is being protected from fair engagement. While it's true that unpopular speech might evoke irrational, drowning responses, there is a difference between giving unpopular ideas a fair chance to face popular ideas on a level playing field, and saying "Free speech means giving the unpopular idea the appearance of popularity; it will be protected and promoted, and popular ideas, which might run against it, will not be permitted to trample it." Almost a conceptual Affirmative Action.

Zombie has a good example (although the obscured sign's pretty tacky anyway) here.

After all, words are just labels anyway, or vice versa--trying to reclassify things that are offensive in PC terms to make people feel better (not that there isn't such a thing as tact); as if putting a good label on something bad heals it, and putting a bad label on something good taints it far worse than anything in reality could; or putting a label at all on something nebulous is what really causes it to manifest, as if we were God.

(Now that I think about it, I'm wondering: is this phenomenon of hocus-pocus relabeling, of making superficial gestures, with the presumption of a material improvement of some unjust situation even though the only apparent change is how we act around the situation, a mere coincidence, or is it a systemic mockery of a certain liturgical event where something changes substantially, at the speaking of a few words, into something greater, even though the change isn't visible?)

Philosopher Michael Levin made a similar point, particularly about language use and thinking. "The failure of 'comrade' and 'citizen' to induce political equality suggests that language does not and cannot shape thought in the manner or to the extent supposed by egalitarian reformers. Attempts to alter putatively biased thinking by altering the language which expresses this thinking reverse cause and effect." Positive thinking does have some power, but only God's will is sufficient to enact change by the strength of its own presence.

I saw such rhetoric in the Affirmative Action debates back when the University of Michigan's admissions policies were all over the news. Trying to correct, or even overcorrect, for systematic oppression is one thing, but they had folks who weren't just saying that a little reverse discrimination is the price we have to pay to rectify an injustice in our society, but were actually proposing that a little reverse discrimination was the magic bullet, an end in itself, because it gives the historically downtrodden minorities a tactical advantage, and it shows capable rich white students what it's like not to get what they want. At first I thought it was just anti-AA people tearing down straw men, but my impression wasn't entirely accurate.

Occasionally a dissenting professor would write to the local paper explaining how quotas hurt everybody, because students, who got quotaed all the way through grade school, would get quotaed--someone please suggest a better verb--into U-M (it seemed like usually the less affluent districts enacted such unnuanced policies themselves), so classes would fill up with students who didn't need a break from the admissions board so much as they got too many breaks in the classroom. Good, rich students had a harder time getting in. Even good, poor students got less help than advertised. What did the bad students who were admitted get? Lousy grades. They lacked the chops to handle college courses, not just the flowery extracurriculars that made kids in rich districts so appealing to the boards.

Before you ask, I'm not implying any connection between race and academic potential, or economic class and academic potential. I am only saying that when you favor nonacademic criteria, you tend to select against candidates who are more academically qualified, which should be self-evident to anyone but the most pathologically egalitarian. Preferential admission from a pool of qualified candidates may be a good thing to try; regularly cutting slack for individuals in underprivileged categories who've consistently underperformed is exactly the same thing that leaves colleges with all-star athletes who can't read or subtract.

So, what kind of response do these troublemaking professors get? A little bit of "We're stopping the buck with you. Find a solution; you're the instructor. Besides, social engineering takes time." Also a disturbing amount of "Shut up. We have Affirmative Action in place. The problem's solved, the trouble's over. The only thing holding us back is you saying otherwise." Not that "If it weren't for you" is exclusively a postmodern relativist's technique.

I guess it's only "fair," though. Smart kids end up without college degrees and jobs that don't make the most of their talents; illiterate athletes get sheepskins they don't need after getting professional contracts, or at the least don't deserve; mediocre students, having beaten out better applicants, drop out and fight smart, uneducated kids for so-so jobs or graduate with credentials that don't impress anyone and end up fighting smart, educated kids for so-so jobs.

Wow, am I being unfair? Life's unfair. Expect much from the one to whom much has been given; don't tear it away from him. I'm happy to help people who need it--which isn't fairness but charity--but rewarding people in inverse proportion to their achievements is even less fair.

We saw a lot of this "make a gracious gesture" thinking that valiant efforts are as important as--even the same as--successful efforts in the sentimentally pontificating "apology is policy" 1990s. The way the rhetoric was flying around ten years ago I wondered if people weren't so much interested in forgiveness and reconciliation as they were in getting a gesture at saving face in the public record.

On one hand, a little positive spin is fine if you want to do something like encourage an uncertain child in the face of an embarrassing situation, or to teach him that winning isn't everything, but finding the value in not winning is important because it's not the same as winning. A good coach, for instance, knows his athletes learn more when their team loses than when they win. He could fairly say that they're winners in different ways, like they learned something about themselves and probably gained a little humility, or by losing with dignity they've won some battle with themselves. If the coach claimed that they should go to the playoffs because they're the moral victors, though, he'd be laughed off the field.

May as well give every Little League team a trophy so they all feel like winners, or don't keep score so no one loses. Let 'em have fun but never let them experience anything akin to accomplishment! You're making the good effort, so the reality you choose to picture yourself in must conform to the success you desire. Let's see how well the kids who have never known defeat will handle it when they finally enter the adult world, fail to achieve what they want, and don't have someone to tell them how they're still good (or the other guy is good despite keeping the win from them) despite concrete signs that they're not the best. Yeah, let's give them a childhood free of any lessons like "there are hard things in life" and "you'll get over it," then we'll really shock 'em!

To be fair, I don't mean to pick just on contemporary feel-good relativists. "Be excellent to each other" theologians, not just politicians, need to try harder to explain why no one would come to a war if the U.S. just decided to stop hosting them, for one thing. For a lighter example, Christian rock bands also need to stop presuming that their music is better than secular artists' music just because it used a cliched, paraphrased pastiche of the Psalms for lyrics. Turning a traditional hymn into a power ballad is rarely an act of talent, nor of inspiration. If some people can praise God to a synthesized backbeat, good for them, but an artist should not come between his worshipful art and worship itself by doing things like butchering the art. I'll go with it in church because I'm worshipping too, but I won't buy it, and I wouldn't sell it.

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