While many people on the left still pretend that “free speech” and “political correctness” are fake right-wing concepts, a number of us are beginning to realize the profound mistake of dismissive moral posturing. Get your popcorn ready now, because it’s going to be a fascinating mess as more and more people on the left begin to realize that the cultural politics of policing moral symbols has been fully exhausted and defeated.
The collective-emancipatory gains of genuine truth-seeking are now so massive compared to the rapidly diminishing marginal returns to the moral model, that there is no reason to spend much effort trying to convince the remaining moralists. First, If I am right that the truth-seeking model is better, then it will win because it is better, whether I convince anyone in a blog post or not. Second, I am practicing it, so if I am right then by simply thinking and doing what I am thinking and doing, you’ll see how it works in practice. If I’m wrong, my ideas will fizzle out and I’ll go away. In any event, what I would like to do here is simply unpack some of the notions I have been referring to in not-fully-explained shorthand. To begin, what do I mean when I refer to the “moral model” and the “truth-seeking” model?
The moral model vs. the truth-seeking model of radical politics
By “left moralism” or any of the other cognate phrases I sometimes use to this effect, I am referring to the model of political activism that seeks to change society by enforcing moral prohibitions. I think this is far and away the most widely held mental model of how progressive social change can and should be achieved, in moderate as well as radical circles. Make a list of words and ideas and types of behavior that are good, and try to get people to identify with them, talk about them, and go to meetings around them. Sometimes these words seem very concrete and action-oriented (such as “strike”) but nonetheless, if you observe like an anthropologist would, you find that an overwhelming portion of the energy is organized around identification with certain words and ideas believed to be in some sense normatively good or desirable. Always curiously lacking is impartial assessment of effects. Also, make a list of words and ideas and types of behavior that are bad and politics means discouraging these by whatever means necessary. Radical politics means really strongly discouraging these things. An important feature of this model is that what, exactly, should be on the list of bad things is a question that is not in principle open to question or debate. It is a characteristic of the moralist model that questioning its basic premises is itself one of the bad things to be discouraged; “good politics” means granting the goodness of the list and it’s enforcement, simply because that’s the moral thing to do. In practice, today, what’s actually on the list of bad things is generally determined through reverse dominance hierarchy in which deference is given to the most institutionally dominated individuals and groups you happen to be around. To be clear, I don’t think this is a totally unreasonable model. It kind of makes sense: society oppresses people unequally so give some priority to oppressed people in defining what is bad and everyone try to stop the occurrence of those bad things from happening. Not necessarily perfect but fair enough.
I use the phrase “truth-seeking” as an informal and intuitive name for what I could just as well call “scientific method.” The problem with “scientific method” is that for a lot of people this will sound too grandiose for thinking and acting around everyday cultural questions. Not to mention a lot of people think “scientific method” applied to social questions is impossible or harmful to begin with (it’s not, it’s just harder to apply to social questions than to something like physical objects). But most people agree that our ideas about the world around us can be more or less accurate, more or less consistent with how things actually work outside of us, and most people can admit they have an inner sense of when their ideas are proven true by reality (something works as you expect it to), and when their ideas are proven false by reality (something you are doing produces unexpected, undesirable outcomes).
So when I talk about “truth-seeking,” all I mean is informally but seriously subjecting all of one’s beliefs, opinions, and mental models of the world to the basic guidelines of scientific method in an everday, intuitive fashion. Basically: everything you think is just a theory, and everything you observe at all times is data you compare to what your theory would have predicted; you need to actively consider all plausible alternative theories and you update your mental models of the world accordingly. You can, and should, have unique background experiences and feelings and creative quirks; scientific method in no way discourages or disqualifies any of that, as it is popular for naïve humanists to suggest. Indeed, truth-seeking is actually the only way to remain loyal to your unique experiences and quirks: the scientific method provides the key for translating your unique data into power over your unique environment, by subjecting your thoughts to objective rules that are guaranteed to give you the best possible command of your unique situation. So this isn’t just an academic protocol; it’s the only way to live a basically honest and mature life, and I would argue it’s a basic pre-requisite for anyone who would hope to contribute to the elimination of oppression by complex social structures.
So the “truth-seeking” model of radical politics is fundamentally opposed to the moral model. The moral model says to begin with what is currently defined as morally bad (typically through reverse dominance hierarchies), and devote yourself to discouraging and generally reducing the prevalence of those things. The moral model requires specifically that nobody question the fundamental goodness of that model, or the wisdom of certain items being placed on the list of prohibitions, because the whole strategy is based precisely on forcing conformity to Goodness. The truth-seeking model’s only rule is that you must be honest about your data and how you’re making inferences from that data, but otherwise everyone should just do their best trying to understand how oppressive structures function and how to think/speak/act with others in the precise ways that will predictably overthrow those structures in favor of equality and liberation. The moral model’s final endgame is a world in which all badness goes away through mass conformity with moral criteria. The truth-seeking model’s final endgame is, through diverse and totally free experimentation, we collectively unlock our true functional relationships to oppressive social machinery while immanently rewiring them into correctly-functioning liberation machines.
Why the moral model will not go down without a fight
The reason the opening of a free-speech cleavage on the left is going to be really messy is that a large number of people have so long schooled themselves in the cultural politics of moralism, and have for so long avoided the very different protocols of truth-seeking (i.e. scientific method), that such a paradigm shift will understandably be experienced as a mortal threat to their identity. And we know that human beings will sooner go to war than reasonably reflect on anything that threatens fundamental dimensions of their identity. People have staked years of effort and many of their social relationships on a model that is suddenly obsolete, so it’s reasonable for such people to be confused and fearful about their place in the future of radical politics, let alone society. Fortunately, scientific method has an extraordinary egalitarian feature that goes woefully under-celebrated in radical circles: it’s equally demonstrable (ultimately) to anyone who is willing to work at understanding it.
The whole politics of left-moralism is actively anti-egalitarian because it’s logic is not readily and equally available to all interested parties. There are many social and economic factors that make access to scientific method unequally distributed, of course, but it has the uniquely egalitarian-emancipatory feature of at least being intelligible and employable by all who can find their way to it. The protocols of the left-moral model are not only beset by the same basic problems of unequal access (this is why educational privilege is curiously the single non-demonized privilege in left-moral culture), but the protocols of how to think and act politically on the left-moral model are not available to all in principle. They are unequally accessible by definition, so even if they start out noble and true, there is no way for large groups of humans to hold each other accountable to them in a fashion equally consistent with their truth. The magical techniques of being an ideal ally in the moral war—in which, one day certain words are declared good and the next day they are designated impermissible, according to a logic that does not exist out of the declarations of those groups and individuals who happen to be at the top of constantly shifting reverse dominance hierarchies—is therefore inegalitarian in principle. This is not to cry woe for the exclusion of white men from power (as will be the immediate rejoinder to my point here), it is to cry woe for anyone anywhere who might like to enter revolutionary movements for liberation from diverse starting points. The left-moral model is inherently illegible for anyone who is not able to go through narrow, fickle, local person-driven power dynamics to receive the day’s edicts on what is good and bad. Scientific method, while beset by problems of unequal access as with everything under capitalism, at least has the egalitarian virtue of being written down, basically unchanging, and citable to all.
The two models represent two different bio-chemical equilibria
I think a lot of smart and genuinely good people on the left operate on this model simply because, as a really-existing cultural structure, it can always inflict very real punishments they are not personally able to risk at the moment (ostracism) and it really delivers rewards they are not personally able to forego at the moment (social stability, standing and status in the in-group, efficacy, purity, etc.)
But the whole point of being a radical or revolutionary is to actively cultivate a higher tolerance for social punishment than bourgeois normies, and less reliance on the everyday psychological payoffs that bourgeois normies require to make their sad lives livable.
The revolutionary life, the life that genuinely risks itself in the name of what it believes, operates on a totally different equilibrium. Through cultivated attitude and iterating behavioral practice, we push our social punishment tolerance to the human maximum (but no more), our reliance on disingenous bourgeois psychological tricks to the human minimum (but no less), but we set our truth-seeking and truth-speaking/behaving high enough that it becomes a unique and inviolable source of two key resources. First, it provides motivation/energy replacing that which is lost by foregoing the convential bourgeois channels, because any genuine process of truth-seeking is by definition interesting, inspiring, and endless. Second, it provides actual power, for oneself and for whoever you wish to share it with, insofar as increasing your understanding over the social average unlocks concrete pathways to change the world around you despite that most people are content to leave the world as it is. Read the biography of any well-known revolutionary in history (anyone whose life itself participated in world-historical effects), whether it be a political revolutionary or creative/cultural revolutionary, and you will find they are not just different or more extreme than their contemporaries. You will find they organized their life on this fundamentally different equilibrium, a qualitatively different organization of energy inputs and ouputs, which provide the sustainable bio-chemical basis necessary for producing systemically transformative truths despite extreme social punishment and very little bourgeois subjectivity-maintenance.
The left-moralist model will protest the new school loudly and insistently until one day you just don’t hear from it anymore. This day is probably much sooner than most people think. Very soon the whole fashion of generalized moral condemnation will be so fully outed as an intellectually disingenuous and practically conservative tendency, that everyone will soon be pretending they never engaged in that embarrasing old fad. And the new cool kids on the block will be all those who are currently risking themselves on truth-seeking, those who were willing to take a little bit of heat from sad moralists in favor of seeking what really works for producing large-scale liberation dynamics. The reason I know this is not because I’m special; quite the contrary, it is because some version of this pattern characterizes all epochal transformations. A scientific outlook makes you larger by making you smaller, for it allows you to find a humble but real role in a set of infinitely larger objective processes.
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Murphy, Justin. 2017. "Two cultures of radical politics," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2017/04/17/two-cultures-of-radical-politics/ (November 19, 2018).