Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, both philosophers at Vanderbilt, recently published a piece about “Our Polarization Problem”. They distinguish between political polarization — a measure of distance between political groups, whether in terms of policy or groups’ attitudes toward each other — and belief polarization, wherein members of a group of shared belief talk mainly with other members of that group and thereby come to embrace more extreme versions of those beliefs. Political polarization waxes or wanes as rival political groups move further apart or closer to one another in their views, whereas belief polarization waxes or wanes within a group. I have some misgivings about their categorization, but the phenomena in question are familiar and well studied. Aikin and Talisse think that what we less often fail to appreciate is how belief polarization not only changes us, but changes our views of others:
One feature of belief polarization that is not frequently commented on is that as we become more extreme versions of ourselves, our beliefs about those with whom we disagree also shift. Again, repeated interactions with our fellow partisans transforms us into more extreme advocates of our partisan views, but it in addition makes nonpartisans look more alien to us. As we belief-polarize, we begin to regard those with whom we disagree as increasingly inscrutable, irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. We also lose the capacity to recognize nuance in their views; that is, belief polarization leads us to regard our opponents’ views as monolithic, brute, and extreme. We moreover come to regard larger and larger portions of their behavior as explicable by their political commitments; in other words, as belief polarization takes effect, we come to see more and more of what our opponents do – their shopping habits, what they eat, their profession, where they live, how they spend their weekends – as expressing their misguided political beliefs.
This other-regarding dimension of the belief polarization phenomenon provides the connection between belief and political polarization. As belief polarization leads us to regard our political rivals as increasingly benighted, irrational, and unreasonable, we become more and more inclined to distrust, dislike, and resent those who we regard as our opponents. We thus isolate ourselves increasingly among our political allies, and this in turn contributes further to belief polarization. Our political alliances thereby become more tightly knit and exclusionary; and consequently political parties and their leaders are incentivized to punctuate (and overstate) their policy and platform differences. All of this occurs within a self-perpetuating, spiraling dynamic that intensifies civic divisions and inter-partisan animosity. That is, belief polarization sets in motion a broader dynamic that not only codifies political polarization, but also erodes our capacity for proper democracy.
Seen on Facebook:
Wasn’t John Brown ‘antifa’? Who today would object to his actions?
Here’s the reasoning as I understand it. Obviously, John Brown was cool. But John Brown was like antifas, and antifas are like John Brown. Therefore antifas are cool. QED. It’s obvious. Obviously obvious. Who would even think of denying it? Except racists, I mean?
Here is Wikipedia on the Pottawatomie massacre, one of John Brown’s ‘actions’:
Some time after dark, the party left their place of hiding and proceeded on their “secret expedition”. Late in the evening, they called at the house of James P. Doyle and ordered him and his two adult sons, William and Drury to go with them as prisoners. (Doyle’s 16-year-old son, John, who was not a member of the pro-slavery Law and Order Party, was spared after his mother pleaded for his life.) The three men were escorted by their captors out into the darkness, where Owen Brown and one of his brothers killed them with broadswords. John Brown, Sr. did not participate in the stabbing but fired a shot into the head of the fallen James Doyle to ensure he was dead.
Brown and his band then went to the house of Allen Wilkinson and ordered him out. He was slashed and stabbed to death by Henry Thompson and Theodore Winer, possibly with help from Brown’s sons. From there, they crossed the Pottawatomie, and some time after midnight, forced their way into the cabin of James Harris at swordpoint. Harris had three house guests: John S. Wightman, Jerome Glanville, and William Sherman, the brother of Henry Sherman (“Dutch Henry”), a militant pro-slavery activist. Glanville and Harris were taken outside for interrogation and asked whether they had threatened Free State settlers, aided Border Ruffians from Missouri, or participated in the sack of Lawrence. Satisfied with their answers, Brown’s men let Glanville and Harris return to the cabin. William Sherman was led to the edge of the creek and hacked to death with the swords by Winer, Thompson, and Brown’s sons.
Who today would object to those actions? Except a racist, I mean? C’mon, people, let’s go punch some nazis.
Antonio: Behold, this is an interesting work of philosophy entitled Foundationalism and the Foundations of Ethics, by one Irfan A. Khawaja. I have been reading this work carefully; it issues a formidable challenge to certain dominant assumptions in contemporary analytic philosophy and offers an intriguing meta-ethical view of its own; I have numerous objections to its positive view, and I believe that its critique of several of the prominent alternatives is unsuccessful at points, but I also think that its criticisms can be strengthened and at least certain elements of its positive view more fully defended. I would like to discuss this work with you fine gentlemen.
Bartolo: Ahh, yes, I have studied this work of which you speak. ‘Tis merely an effort to legitimate an especially noxious breed of selfishness and individualism. Its teems with a neurotic desire for certainty, with a fear of contingency and a childish longing for an external validation for our beliefs and particularly our values, and with adolescent fantasies of independence. It aims to join the comforting belief in moral absolutes eternally grounded in and guaranteed by nature with the narcissistic flatteries of self-indulgence and the belief that one controls one’s own destiny. Most of all it panders to the delusion that morality and self-interest conveniently coincide, that the most moral thing of all is, after all, to pursue one’s ‘true’ self-interest, and that this will work out marvelously for everyone. It is a horrible work, but not without interest; few manage, after all, to combine these ideological fictions in quite the way Khawaja has done.
Antonio: Uh-huh. Have you actually read it?
One of the many disappointing features of contemporary classical scholarship is its guarded detachment from the modes of engagement that lead people to love Greek and Latin literature in the first place. The ancient Mediterranean world holds many and diverse attractions, but ordinary readers of great classical authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Thucydides, Vergil, Horace, or Tacitus tend to enjoy their works because they appeal to the heart and the mind in distinctively rewarding ways, presenting us with visions of human life and action that are worth taking seriously even when they venture so far into the land of myth that there can be no question of whether to believe them. They’re also just extremely entertaining, even if only to somewhat refined and dorky tastes. Scholarship, however, frequently approaches these works not as products of thought and expression intended to engage our emotions and our intellects on matters of serious human concern, nor even as high-brow entertainment meant to amuse us, but as exercises in the ideological manipulation of appearances, moves in a discursive game whereby power relations are negotiated, typically in the service of the status quo and those whose interests it promotes — or so it often goes when literature is not seen instead as an ultimately frivolous indulgence in rhetorical artistry wherein authors compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can cram into their works and scholars compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can convince other scholars to talk about. Very little scholarly work on Greek or Latin literature these days approaches these texts as sources of potential insight into human life, as offering some perspective that might well be, if not exactly true, at least good to think with. In fact, many scholars scoff at this kind of approach and seem somewhat embarrassed when someone in the room seriously articulates it. They describe it condescendingly as ‘humanism,’ where being a ‘humanist’ correlates with being a naive simpleton who probably wears tweed jackets with elbow patches, smokes a pipe, and would definitely be more at home in 1917 than in 2017.
A few days ago I posted some contrasting literary conceptions of hell. Today hell makes the news. Evidently Bernie Sanders (yes, the Bernie Sanders) thinks that the traditional Christian belief that salvation requires faith in Jesus disqualifies a person from holding public office. Such, at any rate, seems to be the reasoning behind his inferring that Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Budget and Management, “is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about” from Vought’s refusal to deny that Muslims — or any other non-Christians, and probably, by Vought’s lights, many people who think of themselves as Christians — will be going to hell if they do not come to faith in Christ. There’s some dispute about the legality of Sanders’ questioning, but it seems likely that Sanders can vote however he wants for whatever reason he wants and that simply questioning Vought about his religious beliefs does not amount to a religious test for office. Legality aside, though, Sanders’ reasoning and behavior here seem monumentally stupid; refusing to vote for someone for holding this traditional view seems wrong in principle, and it seems especially moronic strategically.
A revised, refined, and improved version of this post has been published in Reason Papers. You can read it here.
Comments on my previous post reporting Mill’s comments on the American Civil War led to some discussion of education. I’ve been teaching for ten years, and so I’ve given a good amount of thought to education, but much of that thought has been about the peculiarities of the subjects I teach: classical languages, literature, and philosophy, with a bit of writing and rhetoric thrown in. I’ve thought less, though still quite a bit, about broader questions in education. Probably the most politically divisive issue in education concerns public education: should we have it, what is it for, how should it be done, and how should we regard various alternatives to it? As often, mainstream political opinion seems to split into two rival camps, neither of which strikes me as satisfying. Though people disagree about details, there’s a discernible trend: progressives tend to be fans of public education and want to increase its funding massively, conservatives tend to be severe critics of public education and prefer some sort of alternative. Rather, many and perhaps most people don’t have strong views about this topic, but when someone does, the severe critics tend to be conservative and the fierce supporters tend to be progressives. As usual, I do not have a firm, settled view on these matters. But insofar as I have any views on the matter, they tend somewhat in the conservative direction in one respect and in the progressive direction in another: we ought to have a much greater variety of schools to choose from, with much greater local autonomy on the part of the schools (the ‘conservative’ part), and we ought to have a lot more funding of a far more equitable sort (the ‘progressive’ part).
I don’t find anything odd about this combination, but it seems to be an unpopular one. Support for ‘school choice’ in general and for charter schools in particular tends to be seen as a right-wing view, while support for vastly increasing public spending on education tends to be seen as a left-wing view. Of course, there’s a reason for this: conservatives hate taxes, while the mantra of ‘school choice’ stands not only for an increase in the diversity and autonomy of schools, but for efforts to have taxpayers fund fully private and religious schools. Debates about charter schools are also complicated by differences among charter schools and the kind of oversight to which they’re subjected in different states; while the best charter schools are non-profit organizations that seek to admit students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, some prominent charter schools are in reality for-profit businesses that effectively price out lower-income families through fees and related expenses. So, as so often, the issues here are complex, but our political discourse tends to reduce them to two bad package deals. On the level of general principle, though, I wonder just what is wrong with John Stuart Mill’s take in On Liberty (I promise that the Mill posts will stop soon!):
In nearly four decades of life as an American, I’ve heard a whole lot of conflicting things about the Civil War. Probably the most contentious point is about what slavery had to do with it. My own elementary education made clear that the principal issue in the war was slavery, but that this issue was mixed up with more general disputes about states’ rights and federal authority. That same education made it clear that the North fought the war primarily in order to end slavery, but also to “preserve the Union.” It was only in early adulthood that I learned that this is apparently not how the Civil War is presented to many young Americans and that there is a lot of disagreement about it. Evidently many, maybe most, kids are taught that the war was primarily about states’ rights and that slavery was a secondary issue. People — including historians who actually have some claim to know what they’re talking about — disagree about exactly what combination of factors motivated the North to fight. But a fair number of people I’ve encountered, mainly people without any historical credentials but a few with some, have barked at me about how the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery at all, but was entirely about economics; slaves mattered for that reason, but for that reason only.
I’m not about to enter into this dispute. I do, however, find it worth noting what J.S. Mill — yep, him again — thought about the war and his report of English opinion about it. No doubt historical causation is complicated, but it is interesting that, to an outside observer at least, this war was very definitely about slavery, and immensely important.
Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.