Thursday, February 25, 2021

Individuals and the Collective

From an interview with Jordan Peterson by Dennis Prager. (Updated:  I forgot to include th link the first time.  Thanking engineerlite for picking that up.) This quote comes in after the 35 minute mark, when Prager has asked him whether the colleges are now doing more harm than good, and whther we would be better off if, exclusive of STEM, law, and some other specific trainings, all the high school graduates in North America decided to not attend college. Peterson does one of his characteristic pauses, a self- taught discipline he uses to make sure what he is about to say next is true, and exactly what he wishes to say.  In the course of answering that he interrupts himself at the 36 minute mark, to dive deeper into a specific philosophical and ideological point that needs to be explained before he can proceed further.

You hear that there are debates about free speech on campus.  About who should talk and who shouldn't. And people think that's what the debate is about. About who should talk and who shouldn't, but that's not what the debate is about. You're not even scraping the surface of the debate if that's what you think it's about. The debate on campus is about whether a human being has the capacity to communicate intelligibly as an individual or not, and the answer for the postmodernist collective types is that there is no such thing as an individual, and therefore the very notion of free speech is absurd.

I was told about this on a walk with one of the occasional commenters here who sent me the link. I am always intrigued by assertions "What you think is the problem is not the real problem.  It's something deeper and disguised." While these sometimes turn out to be nothing more than a monomaniac trying to steer every discussion to their favorite universal explanation ("It's the Jews." "It's because there's no free market there."), it is more often immediately apparent that there is something to this.  As here. 

Examples came to mind immediately, of the Duke lacrosse scandal in which the Group of 88 lamented that the opportunity for "an important discussion" about race was being denied them as the evidence of any crime evaporated. This had always bothered me as being illogical.  None has ever apologised for this terrible treatment of their student, and I had heretofore chalked that up as mere cowardice and dishonesty - perhaps condescension. If there was no crime, there was no basis for it opening into a larger discussion, though (heh) it might open up in the opposite direction logically, of why this was overblown. In the recent Smith College scandal over an accusation of racism, as a follow-on to a witch hunt based on an earlier accusation of racism which proved unfounded.  Again, the underlying facts turned out not to matter. There was an incident and everyone was to act their role from that point forward. There was a ritual that had to be performed, and it seemed psychologically important to the participants that the ritual not be interrupted or altered. The college's president, Kathleen McCartney did call one actual victim, whose lupus had been activated by the stress of community threats and hatred, and apologise, but this was not made public. To her mild credit, the president had enough humanity to care a bit about a flesh-and-blood individual's actual suffering - but the show must go on.  That was more important. 

There were facts about Jared Loughner shooting Gabrielle Giffords, but those turned out to matter far less than the opportunity to re-enact a ritual of the dangerousness of conservatives. There were facts about the death of the Capitol Police officer on Jan 6, but the opportunity to re-enact was more important. Before I went off FB, I was unfriended by relatives for pointing out that a posted story was made up, had never happened.  I was told that it was still important because it expressed what many black people go through every day. (It was about a black doctor, and I actually know black doctors, all of whom thought the story ludicrous.) It seems almost daily that some report is brought up of the facts not mattering because the narrative was too important.

In only a month, look how often Jen Psaki has answered a question about an individual in the administration by referring to her group membership as a woman or an Hispanic. The Babylon Bee handled this well. We have treated that as merely evasive. Without disallowing evasiveness as a partial explanation, what if Peterson is correct and that really is they way they view this. Many have said that making accusations of racism are merely changing the subject when they don't have a better argument. Yet what if, still only in early stages but growing yearly, they really think it is us changing the subject. This may be the natural result of all prejudice, as in an individual black man in 19th C America who had done nothing wrong, but "the Negro needs to be reminded that he must not look at a white woman," so the lynch mob did what they were pretty sure the courts wouldn't. As Peterson says, we are regarded merely as an avatar of our group, not as someone made in the image of God with value of his own.

Conservatives have tended to look at such things through the lens of fairness to an individual. They rail against favoritism and unequal treatment because some individual has suffered and that person's rights should be protected.  They are not immune to treating something as a morality play about groups, either. While no one says right out loud "look what they did to this white person," as might happen quite openly in a speech about a minority who is mistreated, they do come close to that at times, or some do. On the free speech issue, it is very much focused on "Jordan Peterson should not be censored.  Dennis Prager should not have his channel cancelled," and other individuals getting fired, deplatformed, treated differently by businesses ostensibly open to the public.

As further evidence, look what happens to African-Americans who try to speak out against this and weigh events on a case-by-case basis, the Glenn Lourys and John McWhorters in the academy, and thousand others in business and industry. They are not regarded as truly black. Thus, they as individuals are not to be heard, only the abstract black may be heard. The idea of blackness, the definition of black opinion is what must be preserved.  What happens to individuals is of no importance unless they can provide a new opportunity for one of the group rituals to be enacted. The Smith student who made the false accusation of racism - who by description seems to have engaged in entitled behavior traditionally (but perhaps not fairly) associated  with Seven Sisters college women of any race - does what happened later to her matter in the least? My search engine says "not so much."

First - we should notice when we are doing the same thing in our own over-identified responses.  If we want it to be about individuals, then we should hold ourselves strictly accountable on that. Holding others accountable is a very complicated question, but that should always at least be on the table. This should keep us alert to not rejoicing when some liberal is cancelled, as I have seen a lot of conservatives do this year.  If it is the ability of the individual to assert opinions for themselves alone that is the issue, we should guard that. No nonsense about just deserts over the surface issue when the deeper issue is at play.  We do it too.

Second, we should recognise this as an essentially philosophical and spiritual issue, playing out on the fields of law and fair play, not simple issues of fairness. If the stakes are higher - and I now think they are - we should treat them as more important.  More 3-D chess, please. Less reflexive irritation (I remind mostly myself.)


james said...

"There was a ritual that had to be performed". I think this is key. I've made an unsatisfactory stab or two at trying to pin down what the religion is that undergirds this.

Sam L. said...

We must ALL be incorporated into the BORG (sayeth the Borg). Well, I will unsheathe my sword and CUT MY WAY THRU A WALL OF LIVING FLESH. (I like saying that.)