Trivial Pursuits

Civilized debate stands no chance against the forces now arraigned against it, from the lowest depths of the ‘blogosphere’ to the highest reaches of the US government. ‘Fake news’ is the aspect being highlighted presently, turning President Trump’s neat phrase against himself, but in a way that casts doubt on all sources of evidence, Left- as well as Right-leaning, and indeed – assisted here by some of the wilder ‘post-modernists’ – on the very possibility of objective ‘truth’. I’m reminded of my American radio-show caller-in a few years ago, insisting that the London Blitz was an act of retaliation for the bombing of Dresden (three years later); on the grounds, ultimately, that ‘I’m a free American, and so can believe anything I like’ (https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/22/btl/). There’s no way that rational argument could penetrate that mind-set. I imagine him sitting in dirty overalls, chewing baccy, and strumming his banjo somewhere in the Appalachians.

But there are other obstacles to civilized debate. One is the sort of stereotype I’ve just shockingly perpetrated in that last sentence: pre-impressions of whole groups of people whom you identify with the opinions you take issue with. Today the most common ones are, on the Left, stupid working-class people – blamed for example for Brexit – or, on the Right, ‘intellectuals’. Identify a Brexiteer as the kind of person who appears on the Jeremy Kyle Show, or a Remainer as a toffee-nosed academic who thinks too much, and you’re half-way there. (‘We’ve had quite enough of experts’: Michael Gove.) As an academic, I’ve had experience of this (‘it’s OK for you in your ivory tower…’). Brexiteers clearly have, too. In their case it – being looked down on, after years of being politically ignored – must stoke their feelings against the Establishment élite. I tend to attribute the ‘Brexit’ vote to this, although by doing so I may well be falling into the same trap. It really is difficult to get beyond these ad hominem (or feminem) generalisations, or to persuade people that you need to, in order to address the substance of their arguments. So very often the debate simply stops there.

Recently – or it may not be so recent, but is new to me – another factor has intruded; which is the reduction of an argument to such a trivial level that it obscures the larger issues. A recent example was the movement in Oxford to boycott or ‘no platform’ an on-going research seminar about the ‘Ethics of Empire’, on the grounds that there is nothing to discuss: imperialism was immoral, so shut up. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2018/01/04/oxford-and-the-ethics-of-empire/.) What is ‘trivial’ about that is the simplistic notion that some issues are finally settled; together with the totally unfounded suspicion that the seminar might turn out to excuse imperialism; and the reluctance to accept that the issue might be more complex – and so worth discussing, for clarity’s sake – than the simple black/white view of it. The efforts of the objectors to stifle that kind of discussion, on grounds of what I imagine will be called ‘political correctness’ – though I hate that term: most ‘political correctness’ is correct – are not only intellectually trivial, but also academically offensive – almost fascist, I would say. And the ‘I’ here is someone who has always regarded himself as an anti-imperialist, and is old enough to have actively protested against the remnants of British imperialism, but is also informed enough to know that ‘it’s not as simple’ – as trivial – as that. ‘Simple’ equals ‘trivial’. It may be as simple as that. (!)

The same is sometimes true of those who are continuously accusing the Labour Party of ‘anti-semitism’, when there is little solid evidence for it. I’ve posted about this before: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/05/02/the-political-and-the-personal/; https://bernardjporter.com/2016/05/04/antisemitism-again/ ; and https://bernardjporter.com/2017/12/19/more-anti-semitism/. Those pieces are mainly about the way criticism of Israel’s current government is so often confused with racism. The most recent ‘trivialisation’ of this anti-Labour charge, however, is the argument that the party’s failure to find this evidence is itself proof of its unwillingness to take the accusation ‘seriously’, which in its turn is evidence of anti-Jewishness. In the words of one critic, it illustrates ‘a deeply prejudiced view of the Jewish people’s concerns about antisemitism’ . (That’s in yesterday’s Observer: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/20/jewish-labour-group-accuses-failing-act-antisemitism.) That would cover me. And of course it’s not necessarily true – and is unlikely to be – but is yet another illustration of what I would regard as a ‘trivial’ way of arguing: from pre-formed conclusions rather than on the evidence.

My third example of ‘triviality’ is the ‘Me-Too’ movement, or some of its activists, and is slightly different. Yet again, if one has a criticism of ‘Me-Too’, one feels obliged to start off with a statement of one’s basic feminism, like one does in the other cases (of one’s anti-imperialism and philo-semitism), which immediately sets other feminists’ (or anti-imperialists’ or Zionists’) hackles rising, on the grounds that you are ‘protesting too much’; but the virulence of the current debate makes it necessary to try, at any rate, to pre-empt this kind of response. So: I am a feminist, and believe that in general the Me-Too movement has been a great force for good. But the ‘trivialisation’ in this case comes in the form of its inflating even the mildest form of ‘harrassment’ – touching a woman’s knee is an example, which has subjected many men to undeserved vilification, and even cost a number of them their jobs – to the same level as far more serious forms, from rape down to serial stalking, generally from a position of (male) power; which of course has the potential to diminish the seriousness of those very real crimes as they’re perceived, and to undermine respect for the Me-Too movement as a whole.

I won’t elaborate on this. I tried to in a couple of earlier posts, but was misunderstood so much – I was putting perfectly reasonable arguments – and as a result was subjected to such scurrilous attacks, that I took the posts down, and determined not to return to that topic again. Recently the Toronto professor Jordan Peterson sparked a similar outbreak of vicious trolling over his suggestion that not all pay inequalities by gender were the results of ‘the oppressive patriarchy’: see https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/jan/21/no-excuse-for-online-abuse-says-professor-in-tv-misogyny-row. The same has happened to women who have stood out against Me-Too’s perceived extremism (or ‘puritanism’), like Catherine Deneuve and my old friend Germaine Greer – though I understand that Deneuve has already been persuaded to row back. (Here’s Germaine: http://www.newsliveupdates.com/feminist-germaine-greer-slams-the-metoo-campaign/.) This indicates – as was suggested by one of my supporters – that the present atmosphere is unconducive to rational debate.

If so, that’s a terrible shame. If we can’t have rational discussion, what’s in store for us? I hesitate to raise the ‘F’ word (for Fascism), but others have. This ought to be the crucial topic for public debate now, given precedence over, for example, the ins and outs of the imperial, the Jewish and the women questions. Fix the engine before deciding where to drive.

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3 Responses to Trivial Pursuits

  1. (Philip) Re your 4th point, you’re probably right. But it’s difficult to change views that have been carefully and painstakingly honed – and gradually adapted to new evidence – over the course of 60-odd years. What seems to be happening now is that events are confirming and rehabilitating opinions I used to have years ago, before the events of the intervening years modified them. For example, I’ve gone back to a Marxist view (of the present and past, not necessarily the future) that I had lost faith in during the years of social democracy in Britain.

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  2. 1. “I’m reminded of my American radio-show caller-in a few years ago, insisting that the London Blitz was an act of retaliation for the bombing of Dresden (three years later); on the grounds, ultimately, that ‘I’m a free American, and so can believe anything I like’.” That idiocy has nothing to do with the theorists who have been classified as postmodernists. To link the two in that way is to engage in the very activity you are attacking: trivialisation. There is nothing wrong with attacking ‘postmodernism’; however, it has to be done b y deploying the intellectual rigour you recommend for others. Let’s hear, for example, your critique of the philosophy of the late Richard Rorty.

    2. I agree that resentment against intellectuals probably played a role in the Brexit vote, and that the left must avoid ad hominem (or feminem) attacks. However, what if research strongly indicates that a large fraction of Brexiteers were motivated by racism? Do you suppress such research, refuse to discuss it? Sentiments that are based on rank prejudice are generally not connected to “the substance of their [for example, pro-Brexit] arguments”. There have been no shortage of instances where social movements have been driven by racism, sexism, homophobia etc, which were totally impervious to rational argument; indeed it is obvious in the Trumpist case that opposition to rational argument is a feature of its rightist ideology. How does one deal with such a phenomenon? I think you have overlooked the largest obstacle to civilised debate.

    3. “But the ‘trivialisation’ in this case comes in the form of its inflating even the mildest form of ‘harrassment’ [sic] – touching a woman’s knee is an example, which has subjected many men to undeserved vilification.” Unfortunately, some instance of touching a woman’s knee can be experienced by the victim as far from trivial. The 18 year old female, working at night in a supermarket, who is touched on the knee by her middle-aged supervisor may be understandably traumatised by the invasion of her personal space. It is not possible to write off a whole class of complaints as trivial unless the experience of the victims are understood. The 18 year old might reasonably accuse the deniers of her suffering of trivialising her predicament. On the other hand, if a woman has touched a man’s knee and then complains when the gesture is immediately returned, then that is certainly problematic. Each instance needs to be judged on its merits.

    4. In civilised debate, the participants have to be prepared to change their position as a result of the arguments and evidence presented by their interlocutors. Research suggests that this rarely happens. I have read your excellent and informative posts for a long time, Bernard; however, I cannot remember one instance where you have changed your view as a result of arguments and evidence that opposes your own opinion. A certain amount of ex cathedra behaviour is understandable when you are operating your own site, of course – all readers would expect that; however, if you are lambasting others for undermining rational debate, then obedience to the values underpinning rationality needs to be observed by yourself as well.

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