Friday, April 24, 2020

Taking people seriously

I've written, or thought out loud, before about unseriousness on the political right. I want to return to that idea now and have another go at saying what I was trying to say. Specifically I'm interested in the apparent disagreement between Raimond Gaita and Kate Manne about cruelty and dehumanization. Gaita's talk of a lack of seriousness and sobriety here is relevant to what I want to say, but I mention his name more because of what he has written elsewhere about racism. Here, for instance, he connects racism with dehumanizing others, and suggests that racists fail to see the full humanity of those they denigrate. This seems true, perhaps even indisputable.

But then there's Manne's view, described here, according to which:
people may know full well that those they treat in brutally degrading and inhuman ways are fellow human beings, underneath a more or less thin veneer of false consciousness.  
One question this raises is what exactly it means to "know full well" that someone is a human being. Gaita warns explicitly that he makes no claim to know "what it is to be fully human." Manne talks about various capabilities, such as rationality, agency, and judgement, that human beings are recognized as having, but she doesn't talk about meaning in the way that Gaita does. In other words, I think it would be possible to know full well that someone is human, in Manne's sense, while still failing to see that person's full humanity, in Gaita's. They aren't using the same concepts.

A second question raised by the quotation from Manne above is about what difference is made by the veneer of false consciousness to which she refers. To know that someone is human, but to do so under a veneer of false consciousness, is not to know fully that that person is human after all. The false consciousness undermines the belief involved in knowledge (conceived of as something like justified, true belief). Racists both do and do not believe that their targets are human beings, which is at least part of how they fail to see their full humanity: they see parts of it, perhaps including the capabilities Manne identifies, or perhaps even all of it, but only to a limited degree. They might, for instance, recognize the full range of emotions, but deny that they have the same depth in some people as in others. And part of seeing the full depth of another's emotions is caring about them, taking them seriously.

The racists' lack of seriousness about selected others comes out in humor. It is notable that in Paul Bloom's review of Manne's book (and others) he describes mockery of black soccer players and of Jews in Nazi Germany as if it were merely sadism. In reference to the taunting of soccer players he says that "the whole point of [the taunters'] behavior is to disorient and humiliate." Surely, though, part of the point is to have a laugh at the players' expense. We may not find it funny, but the racists who mock and taunt clearly do. They are cruel partly for the sake of laughter and they laugh, partly, in order to encourage further cruelty. The lack of seriousness feeds on itself.

[You can see how old this post's origins are in this paragraph.] The same lack of seriousness is evident, it seems to me, in chants of "Lock her up!" and "Build the wall!" No doubt some people really want these things to happen, while for others it is simply fun to join in the shouting (to "own the libs", for instance). But I suspect for most there is no question of whether the idea in question is seriously meant or not. It is part serious, part joke, and there is no interest at all in thinking about it any more than this. To the extent that it is meant, for many it is probably something they want more as a joke than anything else. That is, it would be funny to them if Hillary Clinton were really locked up. They don't seriously, soberly believe that criminal justice requires it. They also, of course, don't really care about justice much at all, at least not while they are in chanting mode.


  1. Cora Diamond has written about the ambiguity of "human" in ethics:

    Another connection I've seen a lot of people draw regarding the issues at the end of the post is to Sartre's essay on antisemitism: even in the 40s, people were "not serious" if you pressed them; the lack of seriousness was deliberate and self-consious.

    1. Those are both good essays. I wonder how deliberate the lack of seriousness is. No doubt it is quite cynical in some cases, but some people seem almost incapable of really taking others seriously (apart from friends and family, say). I'm thinking of young people especially, so perhaps it's something one grows out of, but I don't know.

  2. One of the first lessons in humanity I consciously made sense of is that to be human is to be, in some if not many instances, a hypocrite. It seems too often we try to understand ourselves and others as representing some consistent inner core while all the evidence points to a multiplicity of different "modes", as you call them at the end of the essay. We lead a double life if not a compromise of non-debilitating schizophrenia. There is a pluralism of interests that don't always align, so what we say and do and feel in one context can be an outright contradiction of what we say and do and feel in others.

    The illusion of the human being as a fully consistent and rational agent is wishful thinking by people invested in understanding the world as importantly consistent and rational by design. To really take people seriously we would need to take seriously that we ourselves are complicated by hypocrisy, not as a defect, but as part of how we navigate from one incompatible situation to the next. It isn't so much that we get others wrong, but that we do not understand our own selves enough to embrace our own fragmentation.

    1. We're all complicated and flawed, no doubt. But it still seems worthwhile to try to become less hypocritical and to pay more attention to other people's humanity.

    2. Paying more attention to people's humanity is definitely worthwhile, but I'm not sure it makes sense to suppose that there always is a resolution or ultimate alignment between different values we hold such that we are not at least sometimes torn between them. Hypocrisy is what happens when we are confronted with a situation where we feel two opposing things at the same time, and sometimes we express one of those things in words while expressing the other in actions. And it is not something we necessarily do consciously. If hypocrisy only meant being duplicitous, then, yes, I would say it is worth becoming less hypocritical.

      But part of understanding other people's humanity is understanding that they have many masters, and that doing them all justice sometimes requires that we hold contradiction at bay only by observing them in different aspects of our lives. Saying and doing merely present alternatives where we can make sense of both things that may not add up otherwise. And this happens all the time in subtle and unimportant ways.

      There are many truths to any one human situation, not simply one Truth that covers everything equally and exhaustively. Hypocrisy isn't a state of mind or some psychological defect. It is the state of conflict between the plurality of our agendas. Sometimes this conflict is manifest in our actions and our words. It doesn't happen in people's heads, it happens in the conditions of living a human life where speaking and doing simply represent different and inconsistent values.

      Somehow the human being holds all these different priorities together. But it is important that we do, because some situations call for one thing and others call for something else. The world is itself too complex for a mere human being to face it with anything less than inconsistency and hypocrisy.

      Or are we somehow supposed to be entirely consistent? Who said so? And does it even make sense that I should be entirely the same thing when I am different from you and we are different from people in another culture? Don't I myself evolve as I grow up and learn new and different things? And all those things are somehow supposed to add up in a consistent way? How is it possible that anyone has only a uniform and unhypocritical relationship to the world they are in?

      You may be a parent in one part of your life, but you are not my parent. The more we pay respect to the appropriate moments to be one thing rather than something else, the more we present ourselves in conflict with the rest of our lives. It isn't blissful harmony at the end of the rainbow, but an uneasy alliance of competing obligations and agendas.

      Did that make sense?

    3. That made sense to me at least, because it was reminiscent of some pretty familiar arguments in analytic philosophy (e.g. Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons) that we literally are not the same person throughout our physical lifespan. Unless you want to disclaim any association with those?

    4. Maybe I've overstated my opposition to hypocrisy (not that I'm now saying there's nothing wrong with it). What I think I mostly want to affirm is the value of paying attention to people's humanity and of being, in a particular sense, serious. Which involves things like attention to particulars, being realistic, and avoiding the kind of bad faith that Sartre describes (not so much in the waiter example but more in the example of the anti-Semite). I agree that perfect consistency is not necessarily desirable.

  3. "No doubt some people really want these things to happen, while for others it is simply fun to join in the shouting (to 'own the libs', for instance). But I suspect for most there is no question of whether the idea in question is seriously meant or not. It is part serious, part joke, and there is no interest at all in thinking about it any more than this. To the extent that it is meant, for many it is probably something they want more as a joke than anything else. That is, it would be funny to them if Hillary Clinton were really locked up. They don't seriously, soberly believe that criminal justice requires it. They also, of course, don't really care about justice much at all, at least not while they are in chanting mode.

    I think this gets it exactly right. That's why Trump's followers have no problem with his lies and other rhetorical manipulations. Though they do not generally make or even recognize the distinction, it is not the truth of his words that they attend to but their effects, effects they enjoy for whatever reason (a way of satisfying a thirst for revenge, for getting even, for diminishing those with whom they are in policy disagreement). Facts are merely supporting actors in this case, useful if they can be invoked in a way that enlists others' agreement, but not essential to the rhetoric in themselves. Trump has somehow, at an instinctive level learned this (I hesitate to say "figured this out") and so has made it an effective rhetorical tool in his career, both in the past and in his more recent political foray.

    We tend to think facts matter and, if they don't to some, that they should. If we can only get them to see what is factual and what isn't, then they will come around. But in fact in the Trump case and in the case of his supporters, facts are beside the point. It's the effect that motivates them and enlists them in the cause.

    Somehow many of us have lost belief in the value of facts in our discourse. Perhaps facts always had a more secondary role than we ever acknowledged though, as with the Big Lie technique made famous by Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels. What makes an idea stick, so to speak, is not our recognition of it as a fact but the fact that it occupies our thoughts as a meme, that it somehow gets wedged in among our other ideas. Dislodging it by argument fails because it didn't get in there by force of successful argument in the first place.

    It's not a conservative phenomenon, however, but a very human one. Chanting, along with repetition and the amplification of a claim that comes with many repeating it, works. It's a crowd effect. The more we hear it, from the more sources, the more it sticks. And Trump knows how to repeat and emphasize and so command the coverage so that his words qua memes find lodging in many minds, like the Corona virus infecting our respiratory systems.

    Rhetoric infects rather than convinces.

  4. 1)

    "They don't seriously, soberly believe that criminal justice requires it": in fact, and rather startlingly, there is empirical evidence that this is the case: if people are asked as an opinion poll question whether something that generally only holders of their political views are liable to claim as true but others false, actually is true, a much larger percentage will claim it true than when they are asked the very same question as a quiz question, with a prize worth money being offered for the correct answer!

    And in this case, this offers "a way to interpret the utterances and other behaviour of a creature as revealing a set of beliefs largely consistent and true by our own standards", without which "we have no reason to count that creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything" (to quote Donald Davidson's "Radical Interpretation").


    In Gaita's first piece, I fastened upon this: "to be looked down upon, to be treated with disdain, can inflame a rage so fierce that it cares nothing for the consequences of its expression." Inasmuch as I have any view of the roots of the lack of seriousness you talk about, it is this, but it seems to me to be just a brute anthropological fact – and one that is neutral as between educated/uneducated, left/right, majority/minority and so on.

    Not too long ago I read Roger Scruton's autobiography, Gentle Regrets (having had my attention drawn to it by the same friend who years ago introduced me to the then still unknown Kate Manne, incidentally). I found that Scruton had been that rarest of the rare among bigots: an anti-Finnish bigot. The book has an entire chapter, using as a springboard a visit Scruton made to Finland in the late 1980s, where he talks about Finland, Finnish culture and the Finns in exactly the terms in which, say, a garden-variety anti-black racist talks about blacks or a run-of-the-mill antisemite about Jews. For instance, due to their characteristically Finnish subdued mien, Scruton's favourite term of abuse for Finnish academics, including some of my own teachers, is "mouse": a classic dehumanising move straight out of the playbook of a Goebbels. (I felt like pointing out that due to the peacetime draft here, most of the male "mice" Scruton came across in academia were NCOs, trained to shoot to kill, while he himself of course never spent a day in the military.)

    Well, not only did this "inflame a rage so fierce that it cares nothing for the consequences of its expression", but I actually found myself looking forward to giving it expression and doing it in the most thrillingly voluptuous, orgiastic way possible. I had to stop when this got out of hand and I started looking forward to giving it expression to people whom only the longest and thinnest conceivable chain of association connected to Scruton in my mind: for instance, people who had footnoted him in one of the papers on the philosophy of music that I have read while writing my book on music.

    So: in my view you are talking largely about a phenomenon that I can easily identify not just in people with views similar to mine, but also in myself. (If even I, someone who has appeared on a TV morning show as an authority on political irrationality, am myself subject to such irrationality as I am, then what?)

  5. I don't think the unseriousness I had in mind is particularly conservative in the sense of libertarianism, say. I was thinking more about racism and misogyny, which I'm sure exist on the left too but are not really embraced as part of left-wing ideology in the way that racism, e.g., is embraced by the far-right. It seems different from rage, although I'm sure the two can go together. And I'm certain we are all capable of it. It's hard work to really take someone seriously.

    1. Leftist opposition to right-libertarianism can itself assume racist forms, but usually much more tacitly. My favourite example of this is one that the political philosopher Philippe Van Parijs uses in his "Justice and Democracy: Are they Incompatible?" (which competes with Nigel Pleasants's paper on slavery for the prize of being my all-time favourite paper in political/moral philosophy):

      [...] justice requires us to remove the obstacles to the circulation of capital (especially to its free movement towards the poorest countries) and to the circulation of workers (especially to their free migration towards the richest countries). But is this where democracy leads us? That is certainly not what a brief glimpse at the evolution of the political fate of policy toward migration of people and of money over the course of the last century would urge us to think.

      When international disparities began to widen because of the emergence of industrial society, capitalist nations were far from being democratic. Politically, neither the influx of foreign workers nor the exodus of capital was then a problem. The bourgeoisie who exercised direct control over political power had little to fear, and much to gain, from the influx of a cheap and eager work force whom they did not even have to risk having to suffer in their fashionable suburbs). The borders, consequently, could remain wide open.

      The requirement to obtain an entry visa made its appearance in the course of the nineteenth century but only became generalised across the industrial world in the period after the First World War. What caused this sudden general closing of borders, new to the history of mankind? Essentially it came because of the conjunction of two factors: first, the deepening of the inequality of conditions on a world scale, which derives from the expansion of capitalism and the demographic and ecological developments more or less directly linked to it; and second, the growth in the political power of the working class and its organizations, closely related to the progressive implementation of universal suffrage. (pp. 108–109)

      I'm not sure that a victim of racism is interested in whether the racism that has made their life a misery is the product of political ideology, identity politics, or whatnot. For all I know, the "rage so fierce that it cares nothing for the consequences of its expression" may drown out any interest in the question.

  6. You talk about those for whom “it would be funny […] if Hillary Clinton were really locked up. They don't seriously, soberly believe that criminal justice requires it.” Tommi pointed out that there is empirical evidence that this is in fact the case: that these people don’t really think criminal justice requires it. But I still wonder.
    I wonder about this as someone who is trying to understand a strand of American culture, namely conspiracy theories. You don’t mention conspiracy theories in the post, but I think this is essential. It seems to go deep in some sort of American thought.
    Conspiracy goes, I think, with a whole mythology that a significant amount of people live by in the US. The mythology includes some combination of beliefs in super-heroes, self-sufficiency, zombies, and conspiracies, and probably other things as well. This is a mythology that somehow goes to characterize a whole society, even for people who don’t literally believe in super-heroes, for instance. It is deep in the culture somehow. (For comparison, In Israel, the mythology is different and much simpler: it says that there is someone who is trying to kill the Jews—there has always been someone like that, and there will always be. The Israeli mythology is not less false, but sometimes it strikes me as more “sane.” But perhaps that’s just because I’m Israeli; I’m not sure.)
    Anyway, such mythologies can function like tainted glass through which people look at things. They structure reality for people. For those who truly and wholeheartedly believe in conspiracies (the ideal believer), this is sometimes the only way for reality to make sense. It is not a belief in a fact; but a way of organizing reality—a grammatical truth, so to speak. And I think that even if the facts Tommi points out are real, there is still a possibility that for some, at least, and perhaps more than some, a conspiracy is such a fact. Even for those who know in some sense that criminal justice does not require locking Clinton up, it could still be true of them that they don’t have access to a way of structuring reality that does not involve a belief in some conspiracy.
    And this connects to what you say about seriousness, because it seems to me that it is possible that for some people here in the US seriousness is not accessible. It is not merely that they *are* not being serious; they rather *can’t* be, there is no way for them to be.

    1. Yes, there do seem to be people who are incapable of beings serious, but I don't think I know any adults (i.e., people above college age) like this, so I'm not sure.

      I wonder where this mythology comes from. Is it just that stories and pictures of a certain kind are told and repeated so often that people come to see things in terms of them? If so, why are these particular stories and pictures popular? In Clinton's case it seems partly that mud was thrown at her so often, for political reasons, that many people came to feel that there must be some truth to the accusations, even if none stood up on its own. But then it is also true that there are rich and powerful people who get away with crimes and unethical behavior, so perhaps Clinton is a kind of symbol of this phenomenon to some people. That would be different from making a mistake of fact.

    2. I don’t know where this mythology comes from. Sometimes, when you ask, people say that the mistrust of authority comes from the revolutionary war, and mistrusting the English king. But this is only part of the story, I think. There is also the fact that as a culture the US is relatively new. The traditions here go back only a few hundred years. I think this might partly explain why in the US, as opposed to other places, people are so drawn to the idea of self-sufficiency (self-creation is the only alternative), and also why there is the feeling that people here don’t share a sense of reality (No tradition can be trusted to help with that). Hollywood fills in some of the vacuum, giving people a vivid and attractive alternative. This discussion connects to the discussion about relativism, but I think also to that about utilitarianism and empiricism: namely to shallow “default” positions. – But this is all very blurry.

      Do you agree? – Where do you think this mythology is coming from? How deep in the culture do you think it goes?

    3. I don't know where it comes from. Talk about the revolutionary war seems like part of the mythology to me rather than a plausible explanation of its origins, but I'm basically just emoting when I say that. My hunch is that it has more to do with the history of slavery (and the destruction of Native Americans, although that is more firmly in the past). If the truth is ugly or makes you feel guilty it's nicer to turn to myth. The history of superheroes is certainly connected with racism (Superman, hooded vigilantes, etc.). But this might be simplistic.

      There is a lot of emphasis on symbols in the US (the Founding Fathers, the flag, the troops, cowboys, rugged frontiersmen, etc.), which are all something like idols. And the kind of Christianity that is most popular here emphasizes faith over reason. Part of this might be historical accident, part might be to do with the US being a young country and wanting something to unite people, and part might be the result of Cold War propaganda efforts. Perhaps this is just a natural way for countries to be unless something comes along to destroy their idols. Wherever it comes from, there seems to be a sort of religion of US exceptionalism and nationalism that can make criticism, or just rational assessment, of the Constitution or foreign policy, for instance, seem blasphemous. Perhaps by extension rationality itself becomes suspect, which could explain part of the opposition to wonkish politicians like Al Gore and Elizabeth Warren (and support for people like Biden and Trump). But it could just be that human beings in general don't like bookishness and prefer symbols, slogans, etc. In short, I don't know. I don't know how deep it goes either.)

    4. The history behind all this is long and convoluted. Since it probably isn't that well known among Wittgensteinians, I feel like putting in a good word for one of the greatest classic texts in the intellectual history of the United States: Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (1964). Which, fittingly, was originally delivered as a lecture at Oxford University the night before John F. Kennedy's assassination.

    5. And on the flag, etc., the best thing I've read is Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (1999) by Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle: a putting-side-by-side, in something quite like the spirit of the "perspicuous representation" Wittgenstein calls for in the Frazer remarks (to which the authors however never refer), of 1) talk and practices surrounding the Stars and Stripes, 2) indigenous religions that involve blood sacrifice.

    6. Thanks! I'll have to look that up.

    7. I think that the sense that we might be surrounded by people who are very different from us (and so possibly dangerous, and possibly saviors) is not only true on a general political level. To an extent, this is true on a much more everyday level—regarding our neighbors and colleagues etc. I think people here in the US often have a sense that the person they live next door to might be living a very different life. It is easy to imagine that they are werewolves, or superheroes, or serial killers. – If this is true, this must have an effect on one’s sense of reality.