If the determinist hypothesis were true, and adequately accounted for the actual world, there is a clear sense in which… the notion of human responsibility, as ordinarily understood, would no longer apply to any actual, but only to imaginary or conceivable, states of affairs. I do not here wish to say that determinism is necessarily false, only that we neither speak or nor think as if it could be true, and that it is difficult, and perhaps beyond our normal powers, to conceive what our picture of the world would be if we seriously believed it; so that to speak… as if one might… accept the determinist hypothesis, and yet to continue to think and speak much as we do at present, is to breed intellectual confusion. If the belief in freedom—which rests on the assumption that human beings do occasionally choose, and that their choices are not wholly accounted for by the kind of causal explanations which are accepted in, say, physics or biology—if this is a necessary illusion, it is so deep and so pervasive that it is not felt as such. No doubt we can try to convince ourselves that we are systematically deluded; but unless we attempt to think out the implications of this possibility, and to alter our modes of thought and speech accordingly, this hypothesis remains hollow; that is, we find it impracticable even to entertain it seriously, if our behavior is to be taken as evidence of what we can and what we cannot bring ourselves to believe or suppose not merely in theory but in practice… it is not much easier to begin to think out in real terms, to which behavior and speech would correspond, what the universe of the genuine determinist would be like, than to think out, with the minimum of indispensable concrete detail… what it would be like to be in a timeless world, or one with a seventeen-dimensional space. Let those who doubt this try for themselves; the symbols with which we think will hardly lend themselves to the experiment; they, in their turn, are too deeply involved in our normal view of the world, allowing for every difference of period and clime, to be capable of so violent a break. (Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, 71-72)
Gertrude Stein mentioned that she likes having habits, but she’s not a utopian because she doesn’t like other people talking about her habits. This seems to me a better starting place for inquiring into basic human rights than those grounded in either natural law (God given rights based on the divine image in each of us and contingent upon the use of the protected liberties to serve God) or natural right (the most basic right to protect oneself, as a lone, rational beast, against threats to one’s life). First of all, Stein’s observation is just as universal as those of natural law or natural right; second, it doesn’t require belief in the utopian fictions of a divine image or a lone, pre-social proto human. We all have habits, regardless of “period or clime,” and it is a fact well worth noting—animals certainly have repeated patterns of behavior but habits shape a human reality. Through our habits we carve out a space; you could probably learn more about a person through sustained study of their habits than sustained exposure to their speech, much less a recitation of their beliefs; indeed, one’s speech is itself a set of habits, replete with variations on widely shared formulas, chunks and grammatical constructions, accent, intonation, gesture and so on; and beliefs are just more specialized habits of speech, the way we answer certain kinds of questions when others need to know whether to include or trust us. And we do observe each other’s habits, with the same range of deliberate and focused to deeply unconscious attention as constitute the habits themselves. Habits are, on one level, private rituals, the creation of sacred spaces; on another level they are the internalization of the complex set of traumas (which habits apotropaically ward off) and moments of ecstatic bliss (which habits seek to recall in the manner of a cargo cult) which shape us all. Habits range from the highly intimate, even shameful, to the broadly public and contagious. We all like having habits—the notion of a free, rational individual on the Enlightenment model is utopian insofar as we would have to imagine beings without habits, habits which we can only with great effort wrench ourselves out of by giving ourselves repeated imperatives to construct practices which directly and usually painfully counter some habit until the point where the new practice becomes a habit itself. The “symbols with which we think will hardly lend themselves to the experiment” of imagining a single individual freely and rationally making it through a single day, or even a single hour, rational choice by rational choice.
Even more, none of us like others speaking about our habits—or, at least we would each get to our own point where direct reference to and examination of our habits would generate enormous, even panicky, resistance. That is, most of us (who knows, maybe Stein as well) would have little problem with playful satirizing of our insistence on a particular dish being made just right, or our over-reliance upon a particular expression, our “addiction” to some TV show or (in more intimate relations) lovemaking script—but it will not take very long before such probing will make further conversation simply impossible. Even more unbearable is other people talking amongst themselves about our habits, even more if their talk involves reforming our habits, even more if such reformation is to be carried out insidiously, by working on those habits themselves and, most of all, is it is to be attempted on a large scale, by authorized pseudo-expert elites, with the aim of making us fit into some scheme of social betterment. And that is the essence of utopianism, along with the source of social determinisms which, as Berlin notes, are both impossible to imagine or live while being real enough to wreck entire societies and hundreds of millions of lives during the 20th century. To plan a utopia you need exact knowledge of the human material you need to rearrange, knowledge of what has made it what it is and how it can be remade. For making the revolution, vaguer knowledge of how large social masses move in response to certain events and processes may suffice; to sustain the revolution once made you need knowledge of habits. Knowledge which you can never have, because habits will evolve in response to your attempt to track and re-train them.
Berlin’s (and not only his) critique of determinism and its link to totalitarianism is well known, and so, thanks especially to George Orwell, is his insight into the need for deterministic totalitarian movements to directly assault the common language shared by humans. But I don’t know of anyone who has grounded that common language in habit, or stated the corollary that not liking others’ talking about your habits is a basic, let’s say the basic, human right. Now, habits, like language, change, in superficial and more wide-ranging ways. But that you have a right to interrupt others when they speak about your habits wouldn’t change. And, unlike abstract rights to life, speech, property, religion, etc., which tacitly and, ultimately fantastically, presuppose some third agency who will be there to prevent someone else from taking your property, burning down your house of worship, threatening your life if you don’t shut up or, for that matter, just taking your life already, the right not to like others talking about your habits presupposes something much more realistic: people will, after all, talk about your habits but you won’t like it and the only way that talking about your habits can continue despite your interruptions is by shutting you up or you shutting up. There are all kinds of ways of shutting up and being shut up: establishing an independent board empowered to determine whether, say, allocating resources depending upon whether treating diseases characteristic of a particular demographic with identifiable life-styles is cost-beneficial is a way of shutting you up. And that marks such a board as utopian, which means that we can’t imagine, in ordinary language, the world that would match its deliberations any more than we could imagine a world with “seventeen dimensions.” The right to not like others talking about your habits doesn’t and can’t mean that some super-agency will prevent that board, established by some hypothetical health care law, from doing a cost-benefit analysis of your habits—it just means that you don’t recognize a political world in which that happens as anything other than a violent imposition on you. What that means practically is as hard to say as what it means to insist upon free speech rights under a tyrannical regimen, but your defense of your right not to like others taking about your habits (and it’s a right that can only exist in its defense) would speaking, and continually learning to speak, and learning how to only speak with others in a language presupposing freedom and responsibility and, to add to Berlin’s analysis, idiosyncrasy and mistakenness. Obviously, I could not consider giving a set of speech rules for freedom, but the reason why that can’t be done is rather interesting—as soon as anyone were to say that anyone who speaks in such and such a way speaks in a way inimical to freedom we would realize that someone speaking in that way in order to parody it would be speaking in a way that epitomizes freedom, and that one could never establish meta-rules for distinguishing one way of speaking from the other. This is just to say that the margin of freedom lies in the possibility that one might be mistaken—another might take my parody of totalitarian speech as threatening, or vice versa. The way that margin works in ordinary language is to open up language onto, not so much the abyss post-structuralism liked to invoke as a different rail. Habits of speech are idioms, and all habits require ongoing tending because habits are intimately dependent upon some parts of the environment while being highly resistant to other parts and there can’t be a general theory that will determine which is which for any particular habit and environments are always changing—language goes off one rail an onto another when idioms are dislocated and there is a discrepancy among the interlocutors over which presuppositions must be true for a particular statement to be understood. You say you really need a cup of coffee and the context and everything I know about you leads me to assume that you are struggling with your attempt to give up caffeine, while you are in fact mimicking what I would expect you to say and thereby signaling your transcendence of that craving and foiling of my expectations. You can triumphantly laugh off my gesture of sympathy. I can then join in your laughter or be offended because the joke seems to be on me, while if I join in you can leave it at that or tease me for my gullibility and if I take offense you can try to appease me or get offended in turn by my elevation of my own vanity over your life changing accomplishment. And so on—that is the rule for speaking freely and responsibly: each meeting of intersecting habits opens up ever ramifying binary choices, each of which is ultimately whether to more fully engage the scene and continue the ramifications, on the one hand, or to withdraw and put them to an end, on the other. That is normal speech, what human beings do, and what political and cultural theorists can do is expand our sense of the possible bifurcations by pointing out where habits lead anyone to see a straight, pre-determined path instead. When you make visible anyone’s habits in this way they won’t like it, which is their right, but attentiveness to the ethics and esthetics of the situation will make it possible for their resentment to be complemented by gratitude; if you are really attentive, even their expression of resentment will get incorporated into a learning habit and once speaking about your habits becomes a habit then you won’t want to give that up. And once we get the habit of not liking others speaking about our habits of speaking about our habits then all the other rights—speech, property, religion and so on—rights which presuppose an individualized world worthy of protection—will come firmly into place.
This is all after democracy because democracy, with its ever growing pantheon of rights, is utopian. Once the rage against hierarchies begins it will race right past the hierarchies you happen to dislike and not stop until it’s attacking the hierarchies you are unknowingly implicated in—in the end, there is no criterion other than the appropriation of signs of antinomic agency, also known as “cool.” The endpoint of liberal democracy is that the satisfaction of the rights of one require a great deal of talking about the habits of everyone. Putatively racist, sexist and homophobic impulses need to be programmed out of the population, but what counts as racist, sexist or homophobic is resistance or even indifference to the need for programming. We are all collectively responsible for everyone’s health, so we must all be concerned with everyone’s taking care and being insured. It isn’t often noticed how much can’t be discussed within liberal democracy, and it would be hard to tell how much that we can’t discuss goes unnoticed—and more will go unnoticed, since that of which we can’t speak can’t be noticed. The most obvious example to me is gender difference—everyone knows that there are differences between men and women, important and trivial, always with plenty of exceptions, capable of misunderstanding and misuse, but undeniably there—yet, except for the pervasive, smug, maternalistic assumption of female superiority spread through the advertising and entertaining industries it is virtually impossible to discuss them, especially in mixed company. And this in spite of the fact that the topic is very interesting in sheer intellectual terms (especially given women’s now extensive participation in all areas of social life, which reveals all these differences in very diverse ways as well as removing the issue of distorting, imposed social roles from the equation) as well as being of vital interest in everyone’s personal life. Equally obvious is the taboo on discussing racial differences, which genetic science is sure to disclose in years to come, probably in ways that bear little resemblance to the stereotypes that terrify us. In short, any expression that might by any chain of events conjurable by the imagination bear upon anyone’s exercise of their rights is beyond discussion. Also unspeakable is the fact that immigrants to the US have always brought the socialism and cronyism from their native countries and implanted them here—not just the Hispanics today but the Italians and Jews of yesteryear—the only difference is that previously the culture of Anglo-Saxon liberty was robust enough to contain the damage for a while and allow for at least a sizable proportion of those groups to expend their energies more productively. Anyone saying such things now would find himself banished to the far reaches of crankdom. What can be discussed are the supposed pathologies inimical to rights and what can be analyzed and dissected are the bearers of those pathologies—white racists, male sexists, heterosexual homophobes, Christian “haters,” the 1%, etc.
Utopianism breeds irreconcilable contradictions and makes it impossible to discuss them: the rights of seniors to free health care and undiminished pensions, health care coverage for everyone, increased spending on education, increased workplace, financial and environmental regulation, promises of jobs or some type of perpetual support for all can’t all continue forever, and it was fascinating to see the Republican candidate for President this year go out of his way to avoid giving the impression that he would infringe upon any of these “rights.” The left can at least claim that government will give all this to you—since they want to run the government, at least you can imagine them doing it. Conservatives, though, have to make the more counter-intuitive and equally utopian claim that the free market will provide all of these goodies, and its easy to see why people would be skeptical since on some level they know that getting these things on their own on the free market requires hard work and risk taking, and even then can’t be guaranteed. To say that no other way of life is remotely plausible than one in which our habits brush up against the rough edges of others’ habits, that a social order in which some rough relation between desert and outcome is discernable is the only endurable reality, is to mark oneself as consumed with hatred for those who, according to your own model, will fall short in some respects. It’s at least as bad when it comes to foreign policy, but why bother going into that, since the U.S. will not have any coherent foreign policy for some time to come. The point is that the most basic observations about undeniable social realities are unspeakable and any hint of them simply calls forth a barrage of aspersions on the habits of those who make the observations. Liberal democracy is not totalitarian, so we can of course speak about such things amongst ourselves (as long as we carefully choose “ourselves”), and write about them in marginal arenas like this blog. But the safeguarding of public discourse from such discussions is made ever more complete.
This utopianism cannot be attacked from within, so we will have to wait until it collapses, due to the contradictions I just pointed out and even more profound and unspeakable reasons like the demographic ones often discussed by Mark Steyn (rising aging population, declining birthrate, the need to import foreign workers to support the increasing benefits those workers have no reason to expect to see and therefore no reason to work to support for long—and, yes, Steyn is a fairly well known writer and so these ideas are not censored, but outside of conservative circles Steyn is demonized as a racist, war-mongering madman, to the extent that he is taken note of at all). When it does collapse, I think that “not liking others talking about my habits” or something close to it (I wouldn’t quibble over the wording) will provide a “remnant” with a way of restoring normal speech to public and even private discourse. There is no better way of refreshing one’s relation to reality than committing oneself to recognize, work around, subtlely re-shape, occasionally comment on and refrain from too openly examining others’ habits. And this can only happen publicly when people join together by explicit agreement to accomplish something, where they all have something to gain and something to lose, where the success of the work depends on them alone, and where they therefore allot to everyone specific responsibilities and rights while developing an “oral law” or set of idioms (normal, infinitely ramifying speech, sedimenting tacit agreements in the explicit ones) that keeps the project open. And that can only happen when enough people accept, to quote Gertrude Stein again, that “the most important thing is knowing what is your business and what is not your business.”
For now, though, it is at least possible to stop speaking democratese, predicated upon the supposedly compatible faiths in the individual and the people and the concomitant hatred of everything undermining such faith. A good starting point is the default assumption that no one can have any idea of what another might be capable of, for good or evil; but anyone right away puts forth signs that break that unknown “anything” down into two broad possibilities, to which one can tentatively assign probabilities; each new engagement leads to adjustments in the probabilities and further bifurcations within the original possibilities. Your own habits and idioms converge and diverge with theirs in particular ways, as you read your habits and idioms off their response to you and you assume they are doing the same—this is the establishment of joint attention. Entering any discourse involves alienating one’s desires and resentments, otherwise every conversation would involve each interlocutor simply listing things he/she loved and hated. The problem with democratese is that it cuts off the pathways from desires and resentments, which, cumulatively, are habits and idioms, to the shared public discourse. For some people this is certainly liberating—rights talk, like theory talk for academics, can be very empowering. Others see too many things they might like to say or hear said be denied utterance. If you are one of those “others” then I would propose taking sides with the lesser probability at each bifurcation because if you inculcate that pataphysical habit you will at the very least create a lot of new ways of having your habits and idioms intersect with others’.
In more straightforward political terms, that means looking for the signs of secession and nullification—for the free associations liberal democracy can’t digest. Obtaining exemptions and waivers for alternative markets and even currency will be the most worthwhile expenditure of political energy in the coming years. Instead of speaking democratese, it is possible to push back the frontiers of the state by imagining private ways of performing many, most, eventually all state functions, until references to statist abstractions are resolved into descriptions of possible yet denied agreements, tacit and explicit.