I would like to roll some of my recent reflections on the victimary, the alt-right and related matters into this very fruitful way of thinking about the victimary from Eric Gans’s latest Chronicle:
“PC” suggests political orthodoxy, but it is more useful to understand its root basis in ethical terms, which alone can explain its power even in conservative circles. The fundamental ethical posture of PC is the fiction that, as in the originary event, all humanity is present at every conversation, so that any utterance that can be suspected of predicating something unfavorable, whether factual or not, of a category of people, particularly an ascriptive category, is to be avoided out of consideration for that group’s claim on universal human status. If all political discussion be considered the equivalent of such a universal conversation, then any reference to disparities in competence, however “objective,” violates the moral model in which all humans participate symmetrically, as in the originary event, in the exchange of signs. Any suggestion of unequal competence is not merely impolite but immoral, the equivalent of denying someone the vote because he or she is less intelligent or well-educated than others. The enforcement of originary equality, on the back burner throughout the long history of hierarchical society although affirmed in principle by Christian doctrine, was brought to the fore in reaction to the racialism of the Axis in WWII and particularly to the Holocaust. We should not forget that the expansion of the political/voting class in Western countries to include Jews, the members of nonwhite races, persons without property, and finally, women, took place over several generations and ended in most places less than a century ago.
The notion that the fundamental fiction of “PC” is that all of humanity is present at each conversation is, I think, not only exactly right but a way of thinking about the victimary that is originary, down to earth and commonsensical, and generative. Let’s work through the above the discussion step by step.
…so that any utterance that can be suspected of predicating something unfavorable, whether factual or not, of a category of people, particularly an ascriptive category, is to be avoided out of consideration for that group’s claim on universal human status.
The so that makes some very specific assumptions about conversation. First, that a conversation can only be sustained among those who make maximal assumptions regarding each other’s shared humanity. Only the most favorable assumptions about all the others can guarantee this shared humanity: if I consider some others stupider than me (or, for that matter, smarter), or crueler (or more compassionate), etc., that would somehow preclude continuing the conversation. (What counts as a favorable assumption? What seems favorable to me privileges my own scale of values while disprivileging that of the other.) This would have to be true of any difference, though, wouldn’t it, since no difference can be declared absolutely non-ascriptive, once and for all, and any noticing of a difference can be considered derogatory (considering the other more creative and imaginative, for example, can be exoticizing condescension). In that case, though, what is there left to talk about in this universal conversation?
If all political discussion be considered the equivalent of such a universal conversation, then any reference to disparities in competence, however “objective,” violates the moral model in which all humans participate symmetrically, as in the originary event, in the exchange of signs. Any suggestion of unequal competence is not merely impolite but immoral, the equivalent of denying someone the vote because he or she is less intelligent or well-educated than others.
To the assumptions about conversation we can add some regarding morality. In what kind of conversation could I not offer to someone (and would that person absolutely refuse to listen to) comments regarding their performance in the company softball game, or suggestions regarding how to improve the paper they are working on, or, between lovers or spouses, how requests might be made in a more considerate way, etc.? All such comments can be taken to reflect adversely on disparities in competence in some area—any comment about competence can be taken to reflect some disparity, insofar as how could one comment on another’s competence without implicitly asserting a greater competence in, at least, observation? Couldn’t we go even further and say that any conversation, insofar as each participant says something that isn’t exactly the same as what the other participant(s) would say, implies the capacity to proffer some insight the other has not arrived at on his own? In that case, what counts here as “symmetrical,” and therefore “moral,” is representing each person to him or herself exactly as that person would like to see him or herself represented. The only moral conversation would then be reciprocal effusive flattery. But in the originary event all participants are reminding each other that each is on the verge of making a dangerous situation far more so—that leads to a very different (and far more demanding) kind of morality than the one Gans finds, correctly, to govern “PC” exchanges. The insinuation that the retraction of voting rights would follow close behind any invidious distinction is, indeed, the method of the SJWs, but we can see the slight of hand exercised here, insofar as there is no reason to assume that those questioning others’ competence are ending the conversation—to the contrary, on the assumption Gans’s example provides, that is simply their side of the conversation. In some cases assertions of incompetence might involve exclusion—say, when firing someone—but in other cases it might be tied to pedagogical intent or moral exhortation (“you can do better!”).
The enforcement of originary equality, on the back burner throughout the long history of hierarchical society although affirmed in principle by Christian doctrine, was brought to the fore in reaction to the racialism of the Axis in WWII and particularly to the Holocaust. We should not forget that the expansion of the political/voting class in Western countries to include Jews, the members of nonwhite races, persons without property, and finally, women, took place over several generations and ended in most places less than a century ago.
Let’s keep the trope or fiction of conversation in mind here: what has happened is that many others have joined the conversation recently. Whether they were actively trying to interrupt, or were invited in, or, as it turns out, were already part of the conversation without being taken note of, makes a difference but can be set aside for now. I think that the most fundamental moral component of this fiction is the fact of finding others on a scene to the surprise of the veteran or founding members of that scene. Everyone has experienced these kinds of shocks or embarrassments: you are talking about someone, and all of a sudden realize that person is standing right there; you are a part of an informal cohort or cadre, and some new person joins and you realize they don’t know the slang, the anecdotes, the jokes that operate as currency within the group—either they must be instructed (often a tedious or impossible task) or the lingo of the group must be revamped (at great risk to the cohesion of the group) or the newcomer is simply ridiculed and expelled, on no grounds other than the tautological one of not “belonging,” and hence immorally.
In this way the fiction of a universal conversation is directly relevant and highly revealing of contemporary humanity, especially when we consider the vastly expanded means of communication now available, which, in fact, makes this something more than a fiction—someone in Nigeria really can see someone in China’s retweet of a comment made by some Mexican about Nigerians. There does seem to be a moral conclusion we can draw from this observation: don’t say anything about someone that you wouldn’t be prepared to say to them. This imperative clearly distinguishes our condition from that of early 20th century Westerners (for example), who certainly weren’t thinking that the objects of their conversations might also be participants as they explored the intellectual and moral implications of relative skull sizes of the different races. But people are starting to say those same things once again today, aren’t they? Well, yes, but let’s add a corollary to the imperative just adduced: when speaking, explicitly or implicitly, to someone, you should be prepared to hear from them and respond accordingly. This simply derives from the reality that you will hear from them and many, including your own supporters, will expect to hear what you have to say in response.
This brings us back to our respective models of conversation. On one extreme, we have the extremely stilted, heavily choreographed and strictly policed model of “PC” conversation, the ethical basis of which (or the interpretation or exploitation of the ethical basis of which) Gans has very accurately explicated. On the other extreme, we have an increasingly universal conversation (circulating through Nigeria, China, Mexico, and so on) in which everyone is addressed by or overhears everyone else, but which fact is taken to be a cause to “up one’s game” and be prepared to engage one and all. I have not yet seen anyone on the alt-right refuse a conversation with others, whether on the Left or what they would consider the faux-right; VDare, for example, publishes both anti-Semites and Jews (their one “speech rule,” apparently, is that you can’t express absolute despair regarding the possibility of “patriotic immigration reform”). There is no evidence that people who consider blacks on average less intelligent and more violent than whites are unwilling to address what blacks, including critical and antagonistic ones, have to say. And when they are, well, then, the universal conversation will see to their self-marginalization, won’t it? Certainly for now it is in the interest of the alt-righters to take on all comers, and that seems to be their practice. It is the “establishment” types who seem obsessed with narrowing the conversation and issuing entry permits to acceptable interlocutors—and that is what reduces the civility and level of conversation, and makes us less intelligent (it’s possible to imagine, for example, the elementary logical procedure of examining hypotheticals going extinct, insofar as it’s very hard to construct hypotheticals without assumptions about others’ likely behavior).
The trope of “conversation,” with its suggestion of civility, face-to-face intimacy and mutuality, can be misleading, though. These conversations are not always going to be polite—but name-calling and insults, as long as it keeps going, and something new keeps happening, is as much of a conversation as an Oxford-style debate—and far more so than the bizarre ballets the victimocracy demands we all get trained in. Of course, often, new things no longer happen—but, then, the conversation dies on its own, and there’s no cause for concern. Even more literal conversations work on multiple levels, with, say, overt politeness subtly undermined through dismissive body language or barely detectable irony. All these ways of expressing solidarity and opposition can now be dismantled and rearticulated in numerous ways through various media, e.g., through mash-ups on YouTube. In a sense we’re all also talking about each other to our cohorts in full awareness that all the others are listening, thereby allowing for new layers of indirection and implication. One line of attack on the part of establishment conservatives on the alt-right has involved pointing to explicit and often obscene Nazi and racist iconography and verbal expression. I suppose it’s worth a try, but there are enough people who realize that such modes of expression are not necessarily a way of saying “kill all the Jews/blacks” but, rather, a way of saying “you’re telling me I can’t say x but I’m going to go right ahead and say y.” Prohibition and inhibition breaking obscenities are also “conversational”—they make it possible to say other, more reasonable and productive things that were arbitrarily anathematized; they rattle and demoralize the enemy, exhaust their resources and weaken their policing powers; and they serve as bait, eliciting symptomatic responses from potential allies and enemies alike. “But you’re just justifying the unjustifiable, making excuses for the abhorrent!” If you like—but from my side of the conversation, by refusing to disavow those beyond some arbitrarily defined pale, I’m demolishing the SJW’s tactic of guilt by association. In this way I believe I am expanding the kind of all-inclusive conversation in which we are all ready to speak both about and to everyone—the kind of conversation that is not only the best chance of saving civilization, but is virtually synonymous with civilization. (And, anyway, if it turns out that there are really enough people who want to kill me to create a danger, I want to know that, so I can prepare to defend myself or make other arrangements.)
The fiction of new entrants onto a conversational scene provides a helpful way of understanding the historical privileging of excluded participants in sequence. In the US, first Jews, then blacks, then the colonized, then women, then gays (it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the disabled seem to have dropped out of all these discussions and agitations—presumably, they couldn’t be shoe-horned into a “struggle for liberation” narrative). We can also, then, see how the terms of the conversation had to change in each case, and how each change provided a model for the next one. What kinds of invitations, interruptions and revelations were involved in each case? There is no doubt that we could target very specific “chunks” of discourse that were once deployed heedlessly about each of these groups that seemed crisis-inducing once taken as addressed to them. The hows and the whys of each case would be interesting to explore. The strategy that ultimately became “PC” was to treat every “about” as a “to,” and, moreover, a “to” that couldn’t sustain itself in the face of a response “from.” In the end you have no choice but to let the other (the third person, in grammatical terms) supply the rules for the “about.” The universal morality of the West was taken hostage here, precisely by accusing it of being a “straight White male” morality. This excuses the new participants from themselves responding to this morality that they presumably take to be both inadequate and the basis of a compelling indictment. For a while, through the 80s and maybe the 90s, there were feminists and postcolonial theorists aware of this paradox, and willing to take up the challenge. That all seems like ancient history now, which seems to suggest that there was, in fact, no real response. All that’s left, then, are constant interruptions of the conversation—but, since the others have long been inside the gates, what gets interrupted is the rejiggering of the terms induced by the latest pseudo-crisis. This is not only lucrative for the most shameless interrupters, but ensures that we speak about nothing other than how to narrow the discursive terrain even further. It’s all ripe for explosion, and the new interrupters can only laugh when accused of violating some universal ethical norm.