The new ideological fractures

Is it dangerous to engage seriously with radical right-wing thinkers?

If only it were.

First, I am generally skeptical that any intellectually radical thought or speech that takes place within the wealthy liberal democracies today has much effect on anyone, for better or worse. So it is hard to see how intellectual or even social engagement with polar ideological opposites (even if one thinks their positions are plainly wrong or violent) would itself cause unique negative consequences of any kind. The genuinely thinking members of the ultraleft and ultraright are so few and marginal that it strikes me that this fear of “dangerous associations” is a narcissistic delusion; it’s a way of pretending that anyone gives a shit about what we think or say. Nobody cares, and that’s an essential part of our predicament, that human beings today are quite fully pacified and neutralized in their capacity to be moved.

It stands to reason that, if there is any way out of our collective virtual jail cells of separation and alienation, it might have to involve finding those who are most alien and frightening, to see if perhaps they know something we don’t. To see if, possibly, one reason the revolution never comes is that it’s always been posited on this obsessive insistence that our evil enemies could not possibly know something we do not know. Even if you believe someone is evil, you can still wonder if they know something you don’t. Clearly, collective revolutionary liberation has not occurred yet, so almost by definition there must be a large number of things ultraleftists remain fundamentally incorrect about, right? I don’t think it’s such a crazy idea to suppose that the most intelligent people on the right could be a source of great insight, especially into the dumbest and most ineffectual aspects of ourselves, aspects which we are possibly unable to see as clearly as we need to. I understand this is a moral heresy on the left, but what if this very structure of paranoid-neurotic moral prohibitions is itself one of the most dangerous problems, and one we are uniquely ill-equipped to see in ourselves, by ourselves? This seems not only plausible but, in my view, increasingly likely to be true.

There is this fear that engaging with what one takes to be bad ideas will function as legitimation of those ideas, and that this will then spread them. There are two really hard problems with this view. First, I think we have to wake up to the empirical reality that left-wing culture has been collectively practicing this strategy of disengagement and disavowal for the past several years and the effect has been a flourishing of radical right-wing perspectives today. So the “distance and delegitimate” strategy of dealing with one’s ideological opposites is arguably the most dangerous way to relate to those one disagrees with (this is assuming one is correct and one’s opponents are wrong, that the others are in fact dangerous, which could itself be a pathological arrogance also symptomatic of what’s wrong with us). Hence the second problem with this attitude is that it assumes one knows for sure one is fully correct and one’s extreme ideological opposites are fully incorrect. I think this is a patently stupid presumption; most people use political ideas as blankets to keep them warm, and that’s fine, but the reality is that no matter how much one believes what one believes there is always the possibility that perhaps one has been wrong all along and one’s ideological opposites have been correct all along. This may be very unsettling, but it appears to be an unavoidable difficulty baked into reality itself, and no amount of militance can overwrite such difficulties by force.

Finally, even if it is “dangerous” to liaison with thinkers of seemingly evil thoughts, I would say the whole point of a radical or revolutionary political position is to actively cultivate a higher-than-average tolerance for danger. Is it not odd that people who claim to believe in radical critique and revolutionary social change speak of “dangerousness” as something to be avoided? Again, I see here a symptom of the mystified mechanisms of our own pacification. The truth is, I desire some danger. If only my thinking and communication behaviors were dangerous! If there is any danger to dialogue with the radical right, I think I would simply say that I am not afraid of it. I trust in the capacities of human beings to distinguish true from false in the long run, I trust that we will converge on the truth ultimately but only if we, perhaps somewhat dangerously, are willing to consider everything, especially that which we are most emotionally invested in (for that is almost certainly where our errors will be found). And I believe strongly that whatever the truth about human beings is, finding it out cannot hurt us any more than all of the prevailing falsities. The catch is that one has to at least entertain the possibility that what one fears and loathes the most could potentially turn out to contain some truth. If that’s dangerous, then I would think it is precisely the type of danger revolutionaries should be faulted for not seeking out more eagerly.

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Murphy, Justin. 2017. "Is it dangerous to engage seriously with radical right-wing thinkers?," (April 24, 2017).