Thursday, May 05, 2005

Hey Progressives: Why not work towards eliminating mind-numbing cant?

A UC-Berkely psych/sociology prof examines the failures of the progressive movement in a Dissent magazine article "Why Don't They Listen to Us? Speaking to the Working Class." It provokes a lot of ire, not so much for its content as for its lack thereof. Here's one selection:
"True, they[the political right] see black and white, while we see a world shaded in grays, which is a much harder sell, especially when people feel a need for certainty in what has become a very uncertain world."

This sentence should be taken out and shot, and ought to have its eyes gouged out and its elbows broken, kneecaps split, and body burned away. Two utter cliches in one sentence. News flash: the world is in color, not some Black and White or, to be more accurate, gray-shaded Pleasantville ignorant of the joys of physical and intellectual self-abuse.

And in case it is overly nitpicky to seize upon such an obvious fact, I'm reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where there were indeed no "shades of gray." Calvin was wandering around in a stark black and white world, somewhat like the cinematography in Sin City. The last panel, reverting to the standard Sunday color format, shows Calvin in conversation with his father, who tells him the tired phrase about seeing the world in "black and white" being a problem. Calvin responds: "But sometimes that's just the way things are!" (I have read this cartoon stemmed from Bill Watterson's clash with his corporate partners over his absolute ban on merchandising, but that's not germane to my whingeing.)

That nonsense on stilts about a need for certainty in an uncertain world deserves an essay of its own, but suffice to say that the proverbiage of crappy pop psychology in the mouth of a UC-Berkely psych prof, like in every mouth, hangs limp like crippled legs. Donning yet again the Captain Obvious hat: Everybody has certainties. There is always an orthodoxy at work in one's thoughts; an explicit orthodoxy is to be preferred to a concealed one.

Good old Doctor Johnson laid the smackdown on empty filler, as recorded by Boswell:
"My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant.' You are not his most humble servant. You may say, 'These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times." You don't mind the times. You tell a man, "I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet." You don't care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don't think foolishly."

Perhaps Dissent magazine is a society mag and not entirely an academic journal, which might excuse the insubstantial writing on display. But hilariously enough, the author then goes on not to undermine the false truisms she presents, but rather assays a minor deconstruction of the pronoun "we":

But, one might ask, who is the "we" of whom I speak? It's a legitimate question, one I've asked myself as well, since there is no easily identifiable left, no progressive group that can claim to speak for the variety of people and positions that lay title to the left side of the political spectrum, no "we" that speaks with the kind of authoritative and unified voice we hear from the conservative right.

In my eyes, this is a confession that the author needed easy essay filler to introduce herself as a freethinker of no small wisdom. Instead, it resembles somebody playing solitary volleyball who passes the ball to herself, sets up a spike, then spikes the ball over the net, giving out a loud cheer and dancing a celebratory jig after acing her opponent--which is to say, herself--and all on a tennis court no less.

At least the essayist is aware of what drives much conservative ranting and counter-productive progressive politics:

I want to talk about us, about how we promulgated and enforced a politically correct line on a series of key social-cultural issues that played into right-wing charges that we were out of touch and helped to consolidate our virtual isolation from America's lower-middle and working class.


But if there were no pressure to remain silent, how do we explain the many times we sat at meetings wanting to dissent but didn't for fear of being politically incorrect? Or the times we wished for a fuller, more nuanced discussion of the subject at hand but stilled our thoughts because we knew they would be unacceptable, that our commitment to the cause would be questioned?

Ow. I feel like I have just called somebody the ugliest person I've ever seen, then complimented them on the beautiful color of their hair. Consistency, meet hobgoblins. ("Pleased to meetcha!")

I made a note of this article during my mindhaze of late winter, 2005, and I'm only getting to it now. There was something about abortion in this same issue of Dissent, which I don't care to dig up now though as I remember it made some verbal gestures in the direction of maybe loosening up the strict pro-choice orthodoxy, maybe.

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