Reason and Civility

There seems to have emerged a new mini-genre of books dealing with the difficulty of having difficult conversations. There is Alan Jacobs’ How to Think and Mick Hume’s Trigger Warning and more recently Peter Bhogossian’s How to Have Impossible Conversations and Dave Rubin’s Don’t Burn This Book. You might include Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and, I suppose, Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds.

What’s it all about? I would say it’s about the re-assertion of classical liberal values in a post-liberal world. Liberalism is in something of a crisis at the moment (if you hadn’t noticed). In a way it is a victim of its own success, as the “negative” liberalism of John Stuart Mill has somehow morphed into the “positive” liberalism of progressivism. By “negative” I simply mean the principle of “negative liberty”, whereby everyone is deemed free to pursue their own version of the good life, so long as it doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others to pursue theirs. “Positive liberalism” on the other hand imposes a specific liberal vision onto everyone else through active coercion. This kind of liberalism was the subject of Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism.

Classical liberalism is minimalist. The aim is to give people as much freedom as possible to live their lives as they see fit within the minimum requirements of public order established by the rule of law. That’s basically it. As long as you don’t break the law, your morals, your beliefs and your actions are your own business. Moral censure and social sanctions are naturally provided by the communities in which you live, but the state has nothing to say about the private lives of its citizens.

I have the right to follow my own version of the good life, but I also have the right to communicate my vision and even to attempt to persuade people to come round to my way of seeing things. I can write books, give talks and hold meetings. I can proselytize and cajole with all the rhetorical skills I can muster, and use everything in my power to convince people of my position. What I cannot do is force people to adopt my beliefs against their will. I cannot use violence or blackmail or any form of manipulation that exceeds the reasonable bounds of ordinary acceptable social intercourse.

What those reasonable bounds are will necessarily be blurred. Excessive force in one culture or context may be judged perfectly acceptable in another. These ambiguities and controversies should also be subject to open debate in a properly functioning liberal civil society. However, as soon as one section of society decides to take matters into their own hands and begins to silence another, through noisy or even violent protest and “no-platforming”, as soon as we have “politically correct” vigilantes, we have a problem. Freedom of speech is the core principle of liberalism, which cannot be violated without putting the very fabric of liberal democracy at risk.

Evelyn Hall put the principle most forcibly with the famous words, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is the essence of classical liberalism, in contrast to certain modern strains of liberal fascism, which will defend to the death my right not to hear it or let anyone else hear it.

What unites podcasters and youtubers such as Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan and public intellectuals such as Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker (and our beloved Jordan Peterson) is their liberal Enlightenment values, which promote freedom of speech and negative liberty over virtue signalling and positive “liberal” bullying. This is really what ultimately defines the ragtag bunch of thinkers and talking heads known as the IDW (“Intellectual Dark Web”). They stand for open and free inquiry about any and every topic where anything goes, as long as it is done in a spirit of reason and civility.

The so-called “Culture War” is not really a battle of Left vs Right or Young vs Old or what-have-you. It is a battle for the soul of liberalism. Which is why the IDW includes people all over the political and religious spectrum. They are united by a belief in classical liberalism and a determination to defend it in the face of any and all ideologies, including liberal ones, like “Identity Politics”.

The problem with Identity Politics is that personal conviction based on identification with a particular set of doctrines trumps reason and civility. Indeed, reason itself is deemed by many self-styled progressives as an instrument of intellectual oppression. This view of reason as the “handmaiden of power” is only really plausible for people brought up on a postmodern diet of deconstruction and critical theory. But somehow this academic backwater has now taken centre stage in Western cultural discourse. The result is that “applied postmodernism” has relativised and therefore de-legitimised reason itself.

I have some sympathy with the postmodern turn in Continental philosophy. Of course the monolithic universal Reason with a capital ‘R’ worshiped by the Enlightenment philosophes is a myth. There are different ways to legitimately reason about things, and there is no Pure Reason beyond our emotions and intuitions. However, good reasoning is as recognisable to those well versed in rational deliberation as good writing is to seasoned writers or even good painting to good painters.

The fact that reason, like meaning, is inter-subjective, doesn’t mean it cannot express objective truths. It’s just that they are objective inter-subjective truths (they are obviously not the same kind of truths as scientific or mathematical truths). We might say that reason is an emergent social phenomenon that we all participate in to one extent or another. In a qualified sense we can even say that reason has evolved. This being so, we must not be naive enough to treat reason as a given characteristic of what it means to be human, like the fact that we have two legs. Our capacity for reason is hard-won, both historically and individually. And it can be lost.

The underlying liberal motivation for the flattening out of reason, either with the claim that it is an innate human capacity, equally shared by all members of the race, or that it is arbitrary and culturally relative, and therefore equally valid even when widely divergent, stems from the conviction that everyone should have an equal voice, regardless of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc. This is, of course, basic to classical liberalism. Prejudice is obviously bad. However, prejudice is not seen to extend to making judgments concerning the quality of somebody’s rational argument. That would be absurd.

But this is precisely where the de-legitimisation of “universal reason” leads. If hegemonic reason is in fact nothing more than the expression of Western Imperialism, or Colonial Patriarchy, then the logical thing to do is to undermine it. And the people best suited and most entitled to undermine it are precisely those groups who are traditionally considered the victims of Western culture. These are the ones we should listen to, not because they have anything interesting to say, or because they make any sense, but because they represent the alternative “marginal” voices overlooked or even suppressed by the Establishment.

So the theory of “Intersectionality” advocates for the empowerment of the dis-empowered by giving the biggest exposure to the most invisible, and the biggest platform to those with the smallest voice. The fact that black lesbian women tend to have quite loud voices already doesn’t seem to dampen the Intersectionalists’ zeal for social justice. In fact it works perfectly, because a shy Pakistani Muslim girl isn’t such a crowd-puller and she probably wouldn’t want everyone to listen to what she has to say anyway.

Where the logic really falls apart is in the insistence that those who, for whatever reason (educational disadvantage primarily), cannot construct a coherent sentence, let alone argument, should be on an equal footing with those who can. Nodding sagely and smiling politely does not make up for the fact that the emperor has no clothes.

Lack of reason goes hand in hand with incivility, partly as a consequence of frustration at not being able to make a rational case in the first place. Then emotion takes over, and the victim narrative quickly rises to the surface. As the old BDP (Boogie Down Productions) sample goes: “You’re quite hostile…” “I got a right to be hostile! My people been persecuted!”

Then reason and civility fly out the window. The old liberal idea is that reason and civility are the minimum requirement for participation in civil discourse and civil society. In classical liberal circles, if you can’t be reasonable and civil, then you have no place in the conversation, whatever your background. Furthermore, if you can’t reason well, then you should really defer to those who can.

Not any more. With reason and civility demoted to the status of middle class, male, white, bourgeois prejudice, there is no longer any compunction to be either “reasonable” or “civilised”. We don’t inhabit a rational universe any more. We have crossed over into a parallel “meme” universe. We are in “Muppet World”.

Unless we recover our faith in reason and civility, the whole edifice of liberal democracy will crumble and eventually fall. Then heaven help the hindmost!