Sacred beliefs and political vaporware

Johnathan Last wonders if the campus Left is beginning to implode, cites 3 examples, including an excellent essay written by a McGill University student.

I used to endorse a particular brand of politics that is prevalent at McGill and in Montreal more widely. It is a fusion of a certain kind of anti-oppressive politics and a certain kind of radical leftist politics. This particular brand of politics begins with good intentions and noble causes, but metastasizes into a nightmare. . . .

There is something dark and vaguely cultish about this particular brand of politics. I’ve thought a lot about what exactly that is. I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. I’ll go into detail about each one of these. The following is as much a confession as it is an admonishment. I will not mention a single sin that I have not been fully and damnably guilty of in my time.

First, dogmatism. One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people

Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup – believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. … showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views.

High on their own supply, activists in these organizing circles end up developing a crusader mentality: an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work. It isn’t about ego or elevating oneself. In fact, the activists I knew and I tended to denigrate ourselves more than anything. It wasn’t about us, it was about the desperately needed work we were doing, it was about the people we were trying to help. The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil. Actions that would otherwise seem extreme and crazy become natural and expected. I didn’t think twice about doing a lot of things I would never do today…

Specifically on the radical leftist side of things, one problem created by this anti-theoretical bent is a lot of rhetoric and bluster, a lot of passionate railing against the world or some aspect of it, without a clear, detailed, concrete alternative. There was a common excuse for this. As an activist friend wrote in an email, “The present organization of society fatally impairs our ability to imagine meaningful alternatives. As such, constructive proposals will simply end up reproducing present relations.” This claim is couched in theoretical language, but it is a rationale for not theorizing about political alternatives. For a long time I accepted this rationale. Then I realized that mere opposition to the status quo wasn’t enough to distinguish us from nihilists. In the software industry, a hyped-up piece of software that never actually gets released is called “vapourware.” We should be wary of political vapourware. If somebody’s alternative to the status quo is nothing, or at least nothing very specific, then what are they even talking about? They are hawking political vapourware, giving a “sales pitch” for something that doesn’t even exist.

The author recommends things like embrace humility and take a systems approach to the political spectrum:

Treat the pursuit of the best kind of society as an engineering problem. Think about specific, concrete proposals. Would they actually work? Deconflate desirability and feasibility. Refine your categories beyond simple dichotomies like capitalism/socialism or statism/anarchism.”


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