Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Moments of Formulation

  In Clark Park, there is a feature called “The Bowl.” It’s next to the playground. It’s a depression in the ground where people let their dogs off the leash. I am sitting under a tree that my friend Es/Five-Asterisk/En (not, that’s not actually his name, I am sci-fi’ing it) and I enjoy, that overlooks the bowl. There are no dogs yet. It’s 5:58 AM. I am on call 24/7 this week. This is the fourth day of my “vigil.”

On Call means I handle after-hours and weekend emergencies (like transportation and placement of children in DHS custody) for my agency. There has been an emergency almost every night. I’ve been working late, sometimes, into early morning hours. It’s stressful, but it’s also an opportunity to practice my coping skills.

I apologize for neglecting this blog.

I have been frustrated lately by the way people talk about politics, especially people who insist, as many do, that “not everything is political.”

When a person does this, they are appointing themselves the arbiter of objective truth.

I am distrustful of this and reject it on philosophical grounds.

There is, simply put, no such thing as ideological neutrality. Truth is different from fact. Facts are uninterpreted truths, but there are many more interpreted truths than there are facts. Within any community, on some level, is a diversity of political (small p) opinion. These opinions are formed from the personal and subjective experiences of the members of those communities. But I have found, as I previously stated in my post about trauma and ego, that most people formulate political statements in the heat of the moment. They don’t necessarily consciously ascribe these formulations to an ideology. But no one exists outside their social context, and ideology is embedded in social context.

The moment of these formulations usually seems to be a moment in which a person’s ego is threatened. They tend to cling in that moment to whatever power structure they think will support this challenge against their ego. Often the stress of this moment is rooted deeply in some trauma. This is, for example, how a person who experienced childhood poverty might internalize the ideology of the ruling class.

Now, these mechanisms of ideological ego-defense are not necessarily anti-capitalist critiques. But they do align with a Marxist understanding of dialectical history and dialectical materialism. This theoretical synthesis explains in many cases why, for example, some working class people might vote against their own economic interests. Coupled with trauma theory, this pretty much explains a lot of contradictory personal and collective behavior. Most bad behavior is maladaptive coping.

Why do we smoke, drink, and do drugs? Why do we engage in reckless behavior?

Because we are trying to fulfill some emptiness deep inside ourselves. Our hierarchical social organization under authoritarian statist and capitalist systems has impacted a lot of communities negatively over multiple generations. So, our parents did not necessarily have great coping skills. Maybe they were neglectful or abusive, physically, or emotionally. Maybe they also could be loving and warm. Maybe they were mentally ill, or struggled with addiction. And as a result, most of us don’t have great coping skills.

This is where I remind right-wingers and moderates that personal accountability does come into play for the radical left. We absolutely believe in personal accountability. As a social worker I try to hold people accountable for abusive behavior every day. As an organizer I am part of a community that often challenges my own biases and prejudices. As a result, I grow. And yet the radical left is stereotyped as a hive mind of people who all agree.

I am a cis white man on the left. The fact that I am gay isn’t some kind of negative arithmetic in that equation. I try to hold myself accountable to other people who were not born or raised with my privileges. That is an important thing to me. It is how I learn and grow into a better human being. As a result, I can’t really do relationships. Most people come off to me as rather immature. Even people much older than me. I’m not trying to boast. I am trying to express why I sometimes feel isolated. I have undertaken a lot of effort to be a better person and a big part of that is exposing myself to things I disagree with routinely and trying to give the other side the most charitable interpretation possible.

There is an episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series” where the Enterprise crew encounters two planets locked in a computerized war for hundreds of years. The destruction of bombs is simulated, and the people in the “impact” areas do their civic duty by marching in great numbers to disintegration chambers. Spock at one point comments that it does make a certain amount of scientific sense. The alien leader quips, “I’m glad you agree,” and Spock says something to the effect that he understands, but he does not agree.

Spock, the logical Vulcan, is distinguishing between science and ethics. While science can inform ethics, it is only an indirect relationship. I say that as someone with a fair amount of training in research and science. Before I was a social worker, and before I was an anarchist, before I was working, when I still harbored many more biases and assumptions about people and the way the world worked that I have taken effort to deconstruct, I was a student of biological anthropology, and my MSW program included an education in the scientific methodology of social research. So I’m not talking out of my ass or spouting leftist propaganda. I am speaking from a position of expert knowledge of human behavior. And I don’t even think we fully understand human nature. My training in scientific methodology leads me doubtful that this is objectively possible. I used to believe it was, but that was a long time ago and I was much younger and more naïve.

In that moment of ego-defense, when most people formulate political expressions, they employ stawmen and argue in bad faith. I am sick of hearing tropes and memes. I am sick of having the same argument over and over again. I would rather feel challenged. The radical left is challenging. I feel it makes me a better person than I was before I got involved in organizing.

I think science fiction can be a useful tool in the anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian arsenal. But I am skeptical of utopian science fiction because I think it offers a falsehood. I don’t believe in utopia. I think human beings can learn to not be abusive or neglectful of each other, but it takes work, and I hear a lot of people express a hope for some distant future post-scarcity classless society, but I don’t think they are comfortable being told that post-scarcity starts with unlearning some of their automatic ego-defenses, deconstructing their own (often, unrealized) ideology, overcoming some of their deep traumas, and being less judgmental. And when people do this there will still  be conflict. But I think those conflicts can be resolved more fairly and with restorative justice than they can under our current social organization, which is predicated on the assumption of scarcity and also on most people having internalized the ideology of the ruling class.

I realize not everyone wants to be an organizer. But I think this particular political expression, and its set of assumptions, is like asking for the benefits of something without putting in the work of at least trying to hold other people in better esteem, even if they have flaws. Part of that is understanding that we are all part of something bigger. Activists and organizers do a lot of that work anyway, and we’ll keep on doing it because we are passionate about justice, but it would be nice to get some credit for that instead of it going to the political class or the bourgeoisie!

6:38 AM. First dog sighted in the Bowl.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Myth of the Context-Neutral Objective Rationalist And Other Political Tropes (Things Crypto-Elitists Say That Make Me Cringe, Part 2)

I don’t like blogging.

I don’t like attention.

I like being part of a conversation. I don’t like being the conversation.

I'm exhausted from working a long and emotionally punishing day right now and don't particularly want to be writing a blog post. But people keep insisting that their biases are true, and as long as people are going to do that, it's going to rub me the wrong way, and since I got roped into having a blog anyway as a way of finding and engaging the kind of reader who wants to read the kind of science fiction I am writing, I guess this is one of many annoying obligations today. I am hoping it will help me process some of the things that are frustrating me, because I keep hearing them, especially from people who should know better.

A lot of the things I am about to say will probably be rejected at face value and not further critically assessed by most people who read this who are not already anarchists. If I were as susceptible as most other people to guilt or shaming, that alone would be enough to put a dent in my armor. But I think what I have to say in this post is correct. These are my opinions, but they are opinions informed by practice and a deep understanding of history.

Liberals, centrists and conservatives tend to dismiss my social critiques as “Raven’s anarchist beliefs” without considering that they gleaned from formative experiences before I considered myself an “Anarchist.” It’s a disingenuous mode of argumentation, but then, as I explained in my previous post, most people do not engage about politics in good faith or with a genuine desire to critically evaluate the other side’s propositions. I benefit from an extraordinary degree of privilege in my life in that I have had access to quality mental health services and a high level of professional training as a mental health provider and social services agent. But no one, despite the wishful thinking or obstinate insistence of my liberal friends, exists outside of their own social context. There is no “objectivity” outside of math and science, and scientific theories about biology don’t explain all of human behavior. Sociology, anthropology, and the so-called “soft” sciences do, but they don’t do it by an appeal to “rationalism” or “objective knowledge.” These theories admit social context and historical context because they have a left-wing origin. The left wing invented sociology and that it was conservatives hate it and centrists and liberals cherry pick from it selectively or disregard it when it doesn’t validate their biased assumptions.

I am willing to call this, if not a “fact,” then an “observation.”

I have a scientific background. I’m the furthest person you can find from an anti-science dogmatist. I was trained to think critically, and I don’t think I’m that mythical rationalist either. No one is. No one who claims to have that objective knowledge is being honest, not with other people, or at least, not with themselves.

But it seems, as a myth, that it has a lot of power, because people persist in believing it. Or in some ideal approximation of objectivity. People who support some form of capitalism (whether regulated or unregulated) are making an appeal, whether they know it or not, that approximation of objectivity, in terms of reconciling merit and achievement and disparity and oppression. I will broadly refers to those in that set who support a regulated form of capitalism as “the center-left,” I.E. what in the United States we confusingly call “liberals.” I will address conservative ideology in a separate post because I think these are very different political cultures. But not as different from each other as these tribes would like to believe, nor are they all that different from the tribe of self-proclaimed “moderates” (who are not actually so much a tribe, like conservatives and liberals, but more a statistical abstraction).

The difference, I think, is how much cognitive dissonance they experience with regard to the political sphere. I think liberals experience more cognitive dissonance than conservatives because as bad as conservative ideology is, at least conservative (Republican) leadership tells its right-wing base what they want to hear. But Democratic party leadership speaks down to its progressive base, which for this analysis we can call “left-liberals.”

I agree a little more with left-liberal politics than with conservative politics, but only barely. Many left-liberals believe they are some kind of socialist. They might join organizations like Democratic Socialists of America (which for reasons I will get into is really more liberal in practice than anti-capitalist) but they generally stay Democratic Party voters because they have internalized certain tropes like “lesser of two evils,” and a lot of other familiar bullshit I don’t care to deconstruct piece by piece at the moment, as it would generate a distracting tangent. A lot of “progressives” think they are opposed to capitalism, and maybe some of them are, in theory, but they defend the capitalist system much as other liberals do, in practice. And because cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable, a lot of them don’t stick with more “actually leftist” (I.E. anti-capitalist) politics if they do get involved because participation in these communities demands more self-criticism than they are comfortable with. So, they become reactionaries. They moderate their views to reduce the pain of cognitive dissonance, so that they don’t have to feel like they are part of the problem.

But they are part of the problem.

Some people are willing to take on the hard work of deconstructing their own biases and assumptions. These people become anti-capitalists. They first become socialists, but when they see the exploitative and abusive practices they hate about capitalism and party politics being reproduced in more moderate, sectarian and authoritarian socialist organizations, they tend to find their way to “Libertarian Socialism” or “Anarchism,” because these tendencies practice, for the most part, what they preach, and they don’t have to shoulder the burden of using disingenuous and reactionary ideology to distance themselves from cognitive dissonance.

And people like this tend to agree with my skepticism of “social objectivity” the myth of the person who can somehow exist outside of their own social context.

My friends who have been told by Bourgeois Society that they are part of a “creative class” (what an awful concept- creativity is not a class phenomenon!) have internalized these myths in varying degrees. So do people in Academia, including on the “Academic Left.” And we shouldn’t be surprised by this because Academia, like the so-called “creative class,” is a Bourgeois institution that can’t fully critique itself. So, the “Academic Leftists” tend to argue with each other because in Academia, you either public or perish, and it’s easier to shit on someone else’s thesis than come up with a novel thesis that actually merits attention. I know how Academia works, I’ve been sucked in by it, and I don’t like the narcissistic intellectual I become in that social context. This means I’m particularly good at picking up when someone else is operating from that context. My job requires me to have good people skills, to be able to read a room and get at the truth behind what people say or do. I am good at what I do, but as with my life as an anti-capitalist Leftist, I never assume the work is done. I refuse to satisfy myself smugly like less critical people do that I have done the hard work and deprogrammed myself and can no longer enable or act out supremacist constructs. I very much can, and I probably do on a daily basis without realizing it. But at least I’m honest with myself, and my readership about that.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with science fiction.

The Science Fiction Literary Establishment is, like all Literary Establishments, a Bourgeois institution. It requires a certain level of comfort with participation in the system, specifically, with copyright law, Intellectual Property, marketing, and ideological compromise for money. I write science fiction that opposes these things. I, myself oppose these things. As I make inroads into the community that exists around the literary establishment, I am seeing all the familiar red flags: Patronizing Boomer condescension, internalized oppression, faux-woke “progressivism” that replicates the mechanisms of capitalism, and the myth of the person/space/time to whom social context does not apply. That last one is a specific hallmark of Bourgeois institutions, it’s inseparable from the technocratic/meritocratic mindset of “specialists” and sympathizers who insist that “some deserve more than others” is a reasonable social proposition.

There is absolutely nothing “logical” or “rational” about this because it is one group’s ideal of an objective approximation that necessarily, under the assumption of scarcity, leaves a lot of people out who are thought to be “less deserving.”

I don’t want to live on a planet where this is a considered a legitimate social policy question. If you’re looking for dystopia, look there. That’s my definition of dystopia. Sure, “some animals are more equal than others.” But if that’s your takeaway from “Animal Farm,” I question if you actually read the book. The Pigs were depicted as villainous in that novel not because they represented a communist ideal; Orwell himself was a somewhat moderate socialist. He was writing about how, under Stalinism, the worst traits of capitalists could also be found in the new Soviet leadership. Orwell wasn’t making an argument against anti-capitalism; he was warning anti-capitalists not to become like the ruling class we organize against.

And the most damning thing about it is, a lot of science fiction readers will be the first ones to assert their “ideal” of a post-scarcity society, but when asked to do the hard work of deconstructing their own biases and assumptions, they often dig themselves deeper into a reactionary stance because the cognitive dissonance hurts their egos. This relates to my previous post about trauma.

The thing is, their politics are not consistent, because they are operating with a wounded ego they are desperately trying to protect from more cognitive dissonance. Theirs is an emotional reaction, but they often refuse to acknowledge the emotional component and insist, often, that they are being “rational.” But these will always to my ears be tired old tropes that I’ve heard before and can’t take seriously. And it’s obvious because after they tell you what they supposedly believe, they always say “But” and explain why it’s not the right time, or we don’t have the right technology, or why we, or they, or some group or other, just needs to wait, or work harder, or moderate its criticism… it goes on, ad nauseum.

We must do the hard work yourselves. We can’t wait around for the world to change. We must change the way we relate to other people. Be less judgmental. Just, be less judgmental. Find ways to argue against our own most cherished beliefs in our private moments so we don’t hurt other people unintentionally when we meet them in the world.

If more people did that, we would have something closer to that ideal, and there wouldn’t be room for “buts.”

And if you don’t like hearing this, you are free to dismiss it as a “belief” and persist in the power-masking trend of insisting everything is “just a belief,” but there is still a huge difference between being critical power and being judgmental toward other people who for one reason or another you convince yourself are less deserving of the good things which you, yourself, deserve. And to ascribe equalizing terms between these trends is disingenuous. One belief is positive and affirming, and actionable; the other, while also actionable, is abusive and harmful. Both are equally “realistic,” from a practical perspective since some people act on the former belief and others on the latter.

As anarchists say, “Don’t be a dick.”