Saturday, December 5, 2015

Identitarian deference is an enemy of civilization

A long while back, Matt Bruenig wrote a pretty good thing about the philosophical failures of identitarian deference:
Roughly, identitarian deference is the idea that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression...To practice ID, you already must have a detailed theory of what makes someone oppressed. But if you already have a detailed theory of what makes someone oppressed, then what do you need ID for?
This is an excellent critique of ID as a truth-finding procedure and one that I'm inclined to agree with, but I think there's also a powerful progressive argument against ID that doesn't assume preference for rational discourse.

That's because ID can also be understood as a political instrument. It can be evaluated not as a mode of rational discourse, but as a mode of irrational discourse, one that mobilizes raw tribal psychology against ideology. Arguably, this makes ID intrinsically anarchic insofar as it rhetorically nullifies asymmetric advantages conferred by ideology, reducing political discourse into a raw power struggle between competing identity groups. This case for ID relies on a series of claims that I think are at least arguably true:

  1. People find tribalistic argumentation as persuasive, if not more persuasive, than just about any other mode of rhetoric - including rationalism. Tribal cognition historically antedates most features of rational cognition as a matter of uncontroversial evolutionary fact, and extensive research demonstrates that it still significantly governs our ability to reason, our perception of facts, and so on. That includes specific research that tribalism strongly influences political thought, and even operates as a rational substitute for exhaustive political deliberation, since "voters are only acting rationally when they cut information costs by using shortcuts like partisan identification or demographic facts to evaluate complex vectors of political variables." (Ferguson)
  2. Politically, tribalism tends towards an anarchic war of all against all as interest groups vye for power. It's the logical conclusin of capitalist / Objectivist self-interest.
  3. Tribalism can only be overcome by ideology. As Hume writes, "men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. 'Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded..."
  4. ID essentially undercuts this function of ideology by preempting it with a raw power struggle over discursive franchise. It refuses to let rationales and justifications for Humean governance get off the ground by delegitimizing them with claims about privilege. 
It's not difficult to imagine how all of this works out in practice. ID ends up being a powerful rhetorical weapon that literally anyone can mobilize in their own self-interest, simply by demanding deference and undercutting objections with tautological demands for further deference; from there, it becomes an unbreakable lock on the door of epistemic closure. 

This tendency is certainly agreeable if you want to overthrow civilization and return society to the bellum omnium contra omnes, but it doesn't seem like one that progressive should be inclined to support.