Civility

I have recently been in discussions with atheist philosopher Dan Fincke about his famous “civility pledge”. Although I sympathize with the intent behind the pledge, and I agree with much of it, I find myself unable to endorse it as a whole. The pledge itself is a lengthy document, and I do not intend to address it line-by-line, especially as I find myself in agreement with much of it. Instead, I shall outline my own view of when civility is and is not appropriate in political discourse, and shall focus upon my areas of disagreement with Dan’s ideas.

Of course I agree unequivocally with Dan that we should not use words which are stigmatizing to members of marginalized groups, such as racist, homophobic or transphobic slurs. Such words are wrong not merely because they hurt their intended target, but because they hurt the members of the group to which they refer, and reinforce the systemic oppressions from which they derive.

I also find myself in agreement with Dan that we should generally avoid labelling our opponents “stupid”, “insane”, and the like. In my view, these words are problematic in two distinct ways. Firstly, they are very often simply wrong: people are capable of holding profoundly mistaken ideas without being either unintelligent or mentally ill, and we should not automatically leap to pathologize those who hold foolish opinions, even about the matters we think most obvious. Secondly, those words are also ableist: by using insults which reference intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses, we stigmatize people with those conditions, and imply that the opinions of people with those conditions cannot be worthwhile or worth listening to. As a person with mental illness myself, I will be the first to agree that this kind of stigmatizing language should not be used.

I find myself in partial disagreement, however, with points 3 and 4 of the civility pledge:

3. I commit that I will always focus first on the merits of other people’s arguments and not disparage them personally for asking unpleasant questions, taking unpleasant positions, or simply disagreeing with me…

4. When I feel it necessary to call out what I perceive to be the immoral behaviors or harmful attitudes of my interlocutors, I commit that I will do so only using specific charges, capable of substantiation, which they can contest with evidence and argumentation, at least in principle. I will not resort to merely abusive epithets and insult words (like “asshole” or “douchebag”) that hatefully convey fundamental disrespect, rather than criticize with moral precision.

I should say that I have absolutely no objection to Dan’s decision to adopt these principles in his own activism, nor with his decision to enforce these principles as rules of conduct on his own blog. He is obviously entitled to do so, and he is far from the only blogger who prefers civil discourse to a rhetorical free-for-all. And I agree that civil discourse can, for some people in some situations, be the most effective and least destructive approach. But I have to disagree with the notion that this strict conception of civility is morally obligatory, or that all activists ought to adopt these as prescriptive rules of conduct. I have two principal objections to this idea.

My first objection is simply that it is not always reasonable to expect people who are fighting oppression to be endlessly kind and patient towards those who are defending oppression. Many of us find it extremely angering and frustrating when, for example, the same old long-debunked racist anti-immigration talking points are trotted out again and again. It should be remembered that debates about immigration – and I have chosen immigration because it is my own field of interest, but the same could be said of any social justice issue – are not academic debates, shorn of real-world context, in which friends can “agree to disagree” and happily go out for a beer afterwards. Rather, they are debates about the systematic oppression of millions of people, people who are living with the daily fear of arrest, imprisonment and deportation just because of their nationality, due to an institutionally racist and morally indefensible system of immigration controls. When we are talking about things that hurt people and ruin lives in the real world, it is not unreasonable to feel anger at people who are defending those things. When powerful xenophobes like Kris Kobach sneer at undocumented people, call them “illegal aliens”, and actively campaign to deny them basic human rights, I do not think that it is reasonable to demand that the likes of Kobach be treated with civility or respect. To say that people should not be attacked personally for “taking unpleasant positions” or “asking unpleasant questions” seems to underestimate the harm caused by those positions and questions; racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic ideas are not merely “unpleasant”, they actively reinforce systems of violence and oppression which are harming people on a large scale. Anger is a legitimate response.

I have focused on anti-immigrationists here, but the same points could be made about people who defend any other kind of institutionalized bigotry, from rape culture to transphobia. This objection is particularly salient when the person accused of “incivility” is someone who is themselves living with oppression, and the person chiding them for being “uncivil” is speaking from a position of privilege and relative detachment. Those who are privileged – in which I include myself – should not demand that the oppressed should be polite to their oppressors.

My second, closely related, objection is that polite and respectful discourse is not always the most effective approach from a practical perspective. The danger of demanding that we be polite and respectful towards the proponents of repugnant ideas, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, is that those ideas may thereby gain a false air of legitimacy. I would argue that some ideas are so bad that their proponents should be stigmatized. Most people agree with this as regards the most extreme ideas: few of us would disagree that those who openly express support for fascism should be stigmatized, for example. And there is a reason why anti-racist activists generally refuse to debate, or share a platform with, fascists. If we welcome the proponents of bigotry and defenders of oppression into our spaces and seek to engage them in a mutually “respectful” dialogue, then we run the risk of creating the wrong impression that we think their views are more reasonable than they in fact are – and we inevitably create an unsafe space for people who have been victimized by bigotry and oppression.

I think that Dan has opened an important conversation in the atheist and social justice communities, and I find much in his civility pledge with which I agree. But I cannot endorse it as a set of prescriptive moral rules, nor am I willing to commit to adopting Dan’s strict conception of civility in all circumstances in my own writing and speaking.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Civility

  1. johnvmarsch says:

    I would argue that some ideas are so bad that their proponents should be stigmatized. Most people agree with this as regards the most extreme ideas: few of us would disagree that those who openly express support for fascism should be stigmatized, for example.

    Can you give any examples other than fascism of “the most extreme ideas” which deserve stigmatisation? Revolutionary communism (which, when all is said and done, has been responsible for many more murders than fascism)? Militant Islam? This fellow?? I ask because up till now you’ve seemed happy enough to engage in a number of polite disputations with me, yet I would hope my views are at least as “extreme” as any of those ideologies. Perhaps you feel my beliefs are so eccentric and marginal as to pose no significant real-world threat.

    Anyway, by “extreme” you surely can’t mean “far outside the mainstream of political discourse” because then you would be classifying yourself as an extremist. I’m guessing you mean ideologies you regard as “oppressive”.

    In that case, would you accept a distinction between ideologies which might unwittingly contribute to oppression and those which actually advocate oppression? Would you accept a further distinction between ideologies which merely advocate “extreme” positions (eg in theoretical musings published on a website) and those which advocate (or even employ) extreme measures (ie violence) to achieve those oppressive goals?

    Where do you stand on political violence? Are you OK with “direct action” by far-left street fighters to disrupt far-right meetings and rallies?

    More generally, do you consider assassination, terrorism and violent revolution to be acceptable methods of achieving your stated goal of “ending injustice and tearing down oppressive power-structures”? I ask because the full title of the “grassroots activist organization” Movement For Justice, which you approvingly linked to in an earlier post, appears to be Movement For Justice By Any Means Necessary. After all, you’ve described your new radical left ideology as ”the only hope for the future of humanity” — if the stakes are that high, surely no measure can be ruled out?

    (As one of the original radical leftists eloquently put it: “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”)

    • Perhaps you feel my beliefs are so eccentric and marginal as to pose no significant real-world threat.

      Well, yes. If reactionary Catholic neo-feudal monarchists had much in the way of institutional political power as a movement, I imagine I’d be more likely to take a stronger stance. Besides, the comments on my blog are read by so few people, and are so marginal to the political discourse, that it doesn’t really matter what I do or don’t put up with here.

      And for what it’s worth, my own personal approach to debate tends, although not without exception, to be similar to Dan’s. But I don’t claim that everyone is obliged to adopt that approach or that it is appropriate in all circumstances. To be clear, I am not claiming and have never claimed that it is morally obligatory to be uncivil; my claim is a weaker one, that it is not always morally obligatory to be civil. There is room for a diversity of approaches.

      Anyway, by “extreme” you surely can’t mean “far outside the mainstream of political discourse” because then you would be classifying yourself as an extremist. I’m guessing you mean ideologies you regard as “oppressive”.

      You’re right here that the word “extreme” is generally unhelpful – indeed, I have often argued that labelling views as “extremism” is largely meaningless, since the definition of “extremism” is entirely dependent upon political context, and changes with the winds of time. Many ideas which were once regarded as “extremist” are now decidedly mainstream, and vice versa. And I could well describe myself as an extremist, with reference to today’s political norms. What matters is whether an idea is justified, not whether it lies within the narrow range of views currently espoused by the political establishment.

      Rather, the point I was trying to make – which perhaps I made badly – is that, at the moment, most people accept that it is right in some circumstances to stigmatize someone for the opinions they express. Few of us would “agree to disagree” with an openly fascist neighbour, or invite them to our homes for a dinner party. The point I was trying to make is that even the most ardent Finckean’s commitment to civil and mutually respectful dialogue has limits; the debate is about where those limits should be, and different people legitimately draw the line in different places. And I don’t think people should be criticized for not being unfailingly civil to those who are defending oppression.

      In that case, would you accept a distinction between ideologies which might unwittingly contribute to oppression and those which actually advocate oppression?

      Yes, up to a point. But the former don’t get to be treated with kid-gloves either: intent is not magic. For instance, I don’t think that Richard Dawkins actually intends to reinforce racial hatred with his rhetoric about Muslims – I think he sincerely believes that he is not doing anything of the kind – but that hasn’t stopped me criticizing him in very strong terms for saying things which do in fact reinforce racial hatred.

      By this, I don’t mean to suggest that intent is irrelevant. In practical terms, someone who causes harm unintentionally, as opposed to doing so out of personal hatred or malice, is perhaps more likely to be amenable to persuasion that they’re getting it wrong. (Though not invariably so, as we have seen with Dawkins.) But someone who does not intend to perpetuate oppression can still do so – and I’m sure I’ve done so inadvertently myself.

      Would you accept a further distinction between ideologies which merely advocate “extreme” positions (eg in theoretical musings published on a website) and those which advocate (or even employ) extreme measures (ie violence) to achieve those oppressive goals?

      To some extent, I think this is often a distinction without a difference. If someone advocates the closing of the borders and the ending of immigration, they are by definition advocating violence: to be specific, they’re advocating violence by the state, because immigration controls, like many other laws and norms, are enforced through violence by agents of the state. Detention and deportation are by definition acts of violence. As such, I don’t see that kind of advocacy as categorically different in kind from advocating acts of violence by non-state actors. (Although it may be different in degree, and I’m not saying there are never any morally relevant differences between state and non-state violence.)

      As for radical rightists who employ political violence themselves – the “Minutemen” on the US-Mexico border, for example, or anti-Muslim fanatics who bomb mosques – they obviously pose a different danger from those who merely advocate violence without practising it.

      Where do you stand on political violence?

      Here, again, I have to point out that law enforcement by agents of the state is itself a form of political violence, by any reasonable definition of the words “political” and “violence”. As such, almost no one (perhaps excepting Tolstoy) is actually opposed to all political violence. They disagree only as to why, by whom, and against whom it should be inflicted. Our society and its institutions are rooted in violence as a means of social control. This is an objective fact; what you make of it from a moral perspective is up to you.

      But no, for the record, I do not generally think that physical violence is a particularly effective or desirable means of solving social problems. And I’ve stood against it in a number of contexts.

      More generally, do you consider assassination, terrorism and violent revolution to be acceptable methods of achieving your stated goal of “ending injustice and tearing down oppressive power-structures”?

      No, absolutely not. Because those methods wouldn’t actually achieve that goal, and would simply cause more suffering and bloodshed in the short term. This is a conclusion based upon history and observation, rather than an a priori moral claim.

      • johnvmarsch says:

        Well, yes. If reactionary Catholic neo-feudal monarchists had much in the way of institutional political power as a movement, I imagine I’d be more likely to take a stronger stance. Besides, the comments on my blog are read by so few people, and are so marginal to the political discourse, that it doesn’t really matter what I do or don’t put up with here.

        It seems we have something in common — abject impotence!

        In practical terms, someone who causes harm unintentionally, as opposed to doing so out of personal hatred or malice, is perhaps more likely to be amenable to persuasion that they’re getting it wrong. … But someone who does not intend to perpetuate oppression can still do so …

        Would you consider the possibility that someone intentionally advocating something which is by your lights oppression might do so out of something other than “personal hatred or malice”?

        If someone advocates the closing of the borders and the ending of immigration, they are by definition advocating violence: to be specific, they’re advocating violence by the state, because immigration controls, like many other laws and norms, are enforced through violence by agents of the state. Detention and deportation are by definition acts of violence. … I have to point out that law enforcement by agents of the state is itself a form of political violence, by any reasonable definition of the words “political” and “violence”. … Our society and its institutions are rooted in violence as a means of social control. This is an objective fact; what you make of it from a moral perspective is up to you.

        Would you take the next deliciously Hobbesian step and acknowledge that all societies and institutions (not just “ours”) are rooted in violence as a means of social control? That Mao’s dictum about political power growing out of the barrel of a gun would be applicable to the most ultra-progressive, uber-liberal polity you could wish for, insofar as any functional polity must be able to maintain itself in existence against the efforts of those who would undermine and destroy it, whether from within or without? Your open-borders ‘nonation’, for example, would be in the same position vis-a-vis radical nativist movements as official 1950s America was towards communism. It would have to be.

        (“…before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power …”)

        those methods wouldn’t actually achieve that goal, and would simply cause more suffering and bloodshed in the short term. This is a conclusion based upon history and observation, rather than an a priori moral claim.

        Benjamin Franklin, Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela might draw a different lesson from history.

        Few of us would “agree to disagree” with an openly fascist neighbour, or invite them to our homes for a dinner party. … As for radical rightists who employ political violence themselves – the “Minutemen” on the US-Mexico border, for example, or anti-Muslim fanatics who bomb mosques – they obviously pose a different danger from those who merely advocate violence without practising it.

        Would you disown the above statements if they were rephrased thus:

        Few of us would “agree to disagree” with an openly communist neighbour, or invite them to our homes for a dinner party. … As for radical groups who employ political violence themselves – armed Mexican gangs smuggling illegal immigrants across the US-Mexico border, for example, or Muslim fanatics who decapitate people on British streets – they obviously pose a different danger from those who merely advocate violence without practising it.

  2. I fought in the old revolution
    on the side of the ghost and the King.
    Of course I was very young
    and I thought that we were winning;
    I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
    as they carry the bodies away.

  3. I agree with you completely. It’s not easy to be calm when you hear bigotry or are told to calm down when you are the receiving end of it. I wrote recently about a time when my blood was bubbling with anger and was told to calm down. http://injusticebydesign.wordpress.com/2013/08/21/calm-down/

  4. David Neale says:

    Would you consider the possibility that someone intentionally advocating something which is by your lights oppression might do so out of something other than “personal hatred or malice”?

    Yes. I don’t say that everyone who disagrees with me, or even everyone who advocates oppression of some kind or another, is malicious! Plenty of people advocate oppressive ideas without a hint of malice. Which is precisely why discourse is useful.

    Would you take the next deliciously Hobbesian step and acknowledge that all societies and institutions (not just “ours”) are rooted in violence as a means of social control?

    This is true of all existing societies to some extent, yes. But some far more than others. It may well be true that violence as a means of social control cannot be eliminated, but it can demonstrably be reduced. The amount of violence in British society, while still considerable, is much less than it once was: the state doesn’t hang people any more, for a start. And although reliable statistics are difficult, I doubt there are as many stabbings per capita in modern London as there were in Elizabethan London! Steven Pinker has argued that even with the devastating wars of the twentieth century, the modern world is, per capita, much less violent than at any other time in human history. There are reasons to be optimistic about our capacity to build a freer and less violent world.

    Your open-borders ‘nonation’, for example, would be in the same position vis-a-vis radical nativist movements as official 1950s America was towards communism. It would have to be.

    Why? Why would we need to engage in any kind of violent repression of anti-immigrationists? I have always been opposed to such repression. I loathe everything the EDL stands for, but I have spoken out against police efforts to stop their marches. We can’t fight authoritarians by sinking to their level.

    Would you disown the above statements if they were rephrased thus:

    Few of us would “agree to disagree” with an openly communist neighbour, or invite them to our homes for a dinner party. … As for radical groups who employ political violence themselves – armed Mexican gangs smuggling illegal immigrants across the US-Mexico border, for example, or Muslim fanatics who decapitate people on British streets – they obviously pose a different danger from those who merely advocate violence without practising it.

    “Communism” is not a homogeneous concept or a single movement, and there are several versions of communism (usually those prefixed with “anarcho-“) towards which I am largely favourably disposed. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to identify as communist in this sense, but I have friends who do, and I think it’s a sensible point of view.

    But if we replace “communist” in your statement of principle with the much narrower label “Stalinist” (which is usually what people have in mind when they attack communists), then yes, I’d happily endorse that statement. I am not in favour of any kind of violent authoritarianism.

    As for the violent criminal gangs you mention, their niche exists only because of restrictive immigration laws: if immigration were legalized and it were possible to cross the border safely, the gangs would be put out of business. And I’ll readily condemn Muslim fanatics who engage in violence – while also pointing out that they represent a tiny minority of Muslims, and that the repressive backlash against “suspect” minorities which often occurs in the wake of such terrorist acts is often no less destructive than the terrorist acts themselves.

    • johnvmarsch says:

      I don’t say that everyone who disagrees with me, or even everyone who advocates oppression of some kind or another, is malicious! Plenty of people advocate oppressive ideas without a hint of malice. Which is precisely why discourse is useful.

      Yes. And discourse remains useful even when (perhaps especially when) there’s little chance of converting the other to your point of view. A true believer should never be afraid to temper his opinions in the fire of vehement disagreement.

      It may well be true that violence as a means of social control cannot be eliminated, but it can demonstrably be reduced. The amount of violence in British society, while still considerable, is much less than it once was: the state doesn’t hang people any more, for a start. And although reliable statistics are difficult, I doubt there are as many stabbings per capita in modern London as there were in Elizabethan London! Steven Pinker has argued that even with the devastating wars of the twentieth century, the modern world is, per capita, much less violent than at any other time in human history. There are reasons to be optimistic about our capacity to build a freer and less violent world.

      It seems to me you’re eliding a couple of orthogonal (albeit intersecting) issues, all bristling with difficulties. Regarding the question raised in my previous comment — of how far a state can abrogate the exercise of violence before it renders itself dysfunctional — there is an obvious difficulty in comparing very different social situations. The extent and intensity of capital and corporal punishment in medieval England was far more fearsome than that prevailing in 1950s England; that doesn’t mean medieval rulers could have safely scaled back their punishments to 1950s levels. Medieval society was a painful groping towards equilibrium in the wake of gigantic traumas — the collapse of the Western Roman imperium and the concomitant barbarian invasions. The process by which a number of extremely warlike Germanic tribes were refined in the civilising crucible of Latin Christianity was the work of centuries. By contrast, 1950s England had been civilised and and at least isomorphically Christian for a long time.

      Whether the relatively mild exercise of capital and corporal punishment in the ‘50s could ever have been safely dispensed with is a moot point. As it happened, its abrogation in the 1960s — as part of a wider loosening of manners and morals — had calamitous results exacerbated by the parallel general delegitimisation of established institutions and ongoing ethnic diversification of society. IMO.

      Regarding Pinker’s book (which I haven’t read), a number of questions come to mind. For example, does a fall in the number of violent deaths mean society has really become less violent or merely that lifesaving medical techniques have improved? Can a meaningful distinction be made between the legitimate exercise of violence on the part of the authorities and criminal violence? (I think it can.) More important and interesting, though, is the question of whether a decrease in the quantum of violence in a given society (assuming such a decrease has occurred) is a sure sign of progress towards greater civilisational equilibrium. From a reactionary perspective this is highly questionable, since the reactionary’s primary desideratum is not so much the elimination of violence as the preservation of order and he is less perturbed by the presence of generic ‘violence’ than by the absence of order. A society where criminals are routinely hanged and flogged might by one reckoning be more ‘violent’ than one where these sanctions are no longer enforced. It might conceivably be the case that the abolition of capital and corporal punishment actually results in fewer humans ending up violently killed or hurt; but if such a society is one where people are simply afraid to venture out of doors, then that is not progress worthy of the name.

      [Incidentally, it’s interesting that Pinker, along with Dawkins, is rather fondly regarded by the neoreactionary crowd — Dawkins presumably because he’s flirted with eugenics, Pinker because he seems to be edging towards human biodiversity (HBD) aka race realism aka racism: “Nowadays it is popular to say that races do not exist but are purely social constructions. Though that is certainly true of bureaucratic pigeonholes such as ‘colored,’ ‘Hispanic,’ ‘Asian/Pacific Islander,’ and the one-drop rule for being ‘black,’ it is an overstatement when it comes to human differences in general. The biological anthropologist Vincent Sarich points out that a race is just a very large and partly inbred family. Some racial distinctions thus may have a degree of biological reality, even though they are not exact boundaries between fixed categories. Humans, having recently evolved from a single founder population, are all related, but Europeans, having mostly bred with other Europeans for millennia, are on average more closely related to other Europeans than they are to Africans or Asians, and vice versa. Because oceans, deserts, and mountain ranges have prevented people from choosing mates at random in the past, the large inbred families we call races are still discernible, each with a somewhat different distribution of gene frequencies. In theory, some of the varying genes could affect personality or intelligence (though any such differences would at most apply to averages, with vast overlap between the group members).” — The Blank Slate.

      Perhaps it’s not surprising that Pinker appears to be on quite friendly terms with (gulp) Steve Sailer.]

      Why would we need to engage in any kind of violent repression of anti-immigrationists? I have always been opposed to such repression. I loathe everything the EDL stands for, but I have spoken out against police efforts to stop their marches. We can’t fight authoritarians by sinking to their level.

      You may have to if they start fomenting revolution and working for the overthrow of the free-immigration state.

      “Communism” is not a homogeneous concept or a single movement, and there are several versions of communism (usually those prefixed with “anarcho-”) towards which I am largely favourably disposed. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to identify as communist in this sense, but I have friends who do, and I think it’s a sensible point of view.
      But if we replace “communist” in your statement of principle with the much narrower label “Stalinist” (which is usually what people have in mind when they attack communists), then yes, I’d happily endorse that statement. I am not in favour of any kind of violent authoritarianism.

      That polished pebble could be tossed into the placid waters of many a dinner party with nary a ripple of dissension. Imagine the splash were I to heave in this jagged rock:

      “Fascism” is not a homogeneous concept or a single movement, and there are several versions of fascism (usually those prefixed with “clerico-”) towards which I am largely favourably disposed. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to identify as fascist in this sense, but I have friends who do, and I think it’s a sensible point of view.
      But if we replace “fascist” in your statement of principle with the much narrower label “National Socialist” (which is usually what people have in mind when they attack fascists), then yes, I’d happily endorse that statement. I am not in favour of any kind of aggressive militarism, fanatical antisemitism or totalitarian statism.

      As for the violent criminal gangs you mention, their niche exists only because of restrictive immigration laws: if immigration were legalized and it were possible to cross the border safely, the gangs would be put out of business.

      That’s easily flipped in favour of the ‘Minutemen’ — their niche exists only because of lax immigration laws: if it wasn’t worth people’s while to attempt to cross the border illegally, the Minutemen would be out of business.

      And I’ll readily condemn Muslim fanatics who engage in violence – while also pointing out that they represent a tiny minority of Muslims, and that the repressive backlash against “suspect” minorities which often occurs in the wake of such terrorist acts is often no less destructive than the terrorist acts themselves.

      And hotheads who attack mosques doubtless represent a tiny minority of those fearful of Islam’s presence in Western nations …

  5. David Neale says:

    Regarding the question raised in my previous comment — of how far a state can abrogate the exercise of violence before it renders itself dysfunctional — there is an obvious difficulty in comparing very different social situations. The extent and intensity of capital and corporal punishment in medieval England was far more fearsome than that prevailing in 1950s England; that doesn’t mean medieval rulers could have safely scaled back their punishments to 1950s levels. Medieval society was a painful groping towards equilibrium in the wake of gigantic traumas — the collapse of the Western Roman imperium and the concomitant barbarian invasions. The process by which a number of extremely warlike Germanic tribes were refined in the civilising crucible of Latin Christianity was the work of centuries. By contrast, 1950s England had been civilised and and at least isomorphically Christian for a long time.

    This narrative is full of holes. It seems strange and ahistorical to justify the brutal repression that medieval strongmen inflicted on their defeated political enemies as some kind of benevolent effort to “civilise” those they ruled, rather than simply a means of holding on to power and crushing those who challenged them.

    Recently I was at Smithfield market – where in past centuries people were publicly hanged, and where a plaque commemorates William Wallace who, following defeat in war, was publicly strangled, castrated, disembowelled and cut into pieces at the order of a vengeful English king. (And Wallace himself had undoubtedly committed similar atrocities against his enemies.) I have no hesitation in saying that today’s British society, profoundly unjust and oppressive though it be, is less bad than that.

    As it happened, its abrogation in the 1960s — as part of a wider loosening of manners and morals — had calamitous results exacerbated by the parallel general delegitimisation of established institutions and ongoing ethnic diversification of society. IMO.

    You keep repeating this kind of bizarre and racist nostalgia for a romanticised pre-Sixties past, but repetition has not made it any more convincing.

    It might conceivably be the case that the abolition of capital and corporal punishment actually results in fewer humans ending up violently killed or hurt; but if such a society is one where people are simply afraid to venture out of doors, then that is not progress worthy of the name.

    But worldwide, there’s never been any convincing statistical evidence that capital or corporal punishment reduce the incidence of violent crime. (Although I would still oppose them as a matter of moral principle even if they did.)

    That’s easily flipped in favour of the ‘Minutemen’ — their niche exists only because of lax immigration laws: if it wasn’t worth people’s while to attempt to cross the border illegally, the Minutemen would be out of business.

    In other words, you’re saying that the state could put violent racist vigilantes out of business by being even more violent and racist itself. Which hardly sounds like a desirable end-goal. (And for that matter, the US federal government has already gone to horrifying lengths to stop people crossing the border, causing a humanitarian crisis with many deaths every year.)

  6. johnvmarsch says:

    This narrative is full of holes. It seems strange and ahistorical to justify the brutal repression that medieval strongmen inflicted on their defeated political enemies as some kind of benevolent effort to “civilise” those they ruled, rather than simply a means of holding on to power and crushing those who challenged them.

    I don’t see an opposition between ‘civilising’ on the one hand and ‘holding on to power & crushing your enemies’ on the other. In fact I would say the latter is a precondition of the former. How can you civilise anyone — do anything — without power?

    Recently I was at Smithfield market – where in past centuries people were publicly hanged, and where a plaque commemorates William Wallace who, following defeat in war, was publicly strangled, castrated, disembowelled and cut into pieces at the order of a vengeful English king. (And Wallace himself had undoubtedly committed similar atrocities against his enemies.) I have no hesitation in saying that today’s British society, profoundly unjust and oppressive though it be, is less bad than that.

    The rationale behind the hang-draw-and-quarter approach would be this. Incorrigible optimist that I am, I believe that once you’ve achieved a more refined culture, you can get away with using the teeth less often and less severely; sometimes even just a show of teeth might suffice. I like to regard that as genuine progress. The problem with British society today is that all the teeth have been pulled or allowed to rot away because someone decided that biting is wrong… Once upon a time some rebellious sheep deluded themselves into believing that wolves were a fairy tale concocted by the authoritarian shepherds of the past as an excuse to oppress the flock with his sheepdogs. They bullied their current weak shepherd into having all the sheepdogs put down so they could graze freely — and now the wolves are starting to appear on the hilltops, ready to swoop down on the defenceless sheep.

    Same old story. (Shorter version.)

    You keep repeating this kind of bizarre and racist nostalgia for a romanticised pre-Sixties past, but repetition has not made it any more convincing.

    You may find it unconvincing but it’s unfair to wave it aside as if it were no more than a piece of nostalgic romantic poetry floating on a puffy pink cloud farted out of a unicorn’s backside. I’ve explained why I think a multicultural society is a contradiction in terms — because the citizenry would lack the shared cultural reference points that would make them feel ‘one nation’. In addition there is the manifest fact that different cultures have, throughout human history, shown themselves to be so different as to be incompatible without one violently dominating (or exercising some kind of hegemony over) the other. (If you want a bit of sociology, try this.)

    That’s the case for the prosecution, and it’s a case that needs answering. To date, the case for the defence has been:

    1.) To point out that the ‘nation state’ is a relatively recent development. Which is true but fails to acknowledge the fact that some kind of in-group/out-group identification has been a historical constant — whether tribe, city state, nation state, race, religion or whatever.
    2.) To state that you personally are indifferent to Britain’s continued survival as a recognisable ethnic entity. Which is fine but irrelevant, since the issue is not what you (or I) personally feel about it but what the mass of people who persist in identifying as white ethnic Britons feel about it.
    3.) To call me a racist. Which, since you have failed to explain why it’s apparently not racist for non-whites to wish to preserve their ethnic identity, carries about as much intellectual weight as calling me a great big poopy-head.

    But worldwide, there’s never been any convincing statistical evidence that capital or corporal punishment reduce the incidence of violent crime.

    Apart from the precipitous rise in crime-rates following their abolition in the UK.

    (Although I would still oppose them as a matter of moral principle even if they did.)

    (I would still support them as a matter of moral principle even if they didn’t.) But I wonder — does that mean you would support unrestricted immigration as a matter of moral principle even if it did in fact lead to a serious loss of social cohesion?

    In other words, you’re saying that the state could put violent racist vigilantes out of business by being even more violent and racist itself. Which hardly sounds like a desirable end-goal

    Well, you’re saying that the state could put violent criminal gangs out of business by forswearing the use of violence itself, ie surrendering. You see that as a desirable end-goal because you are against restrictive immigration laws and regard any who disagree as racist fanatics, a sincere but misguided stance in my view.

    • David Neale says:

      I don’t see an opposition between ‘civilising’ on the one hand and ‘holding on to power & crushing your enemies’ on the other. In fact I would say the latter is a precondition of the former. How can you civilise anyone — do anything — without power?

      But – leaving aside the inherent problems with the concept of “civilising” – even if the latter is a precondition of the former, that doesn’t mean the latter implies the former. It is perfectly possible – and indeed commonplace – to hold on to power and crush one’s enemies simply because one likes power and the material reward and social status it brings, rather than for any nobler motive.

      You may find it unconvincing but it’s unfair to wave it aside as if it were no more than a piece of nostalgic romantic poetry floating on a puffy pink cloud farted out of a unicorn’s backside. I’ve explained why I think a multicultural society is a contradiction in terms — because the citizenry would lack the shared cultural reference points that would make them feel ‘one nation’. In addition there is the manifest fact that different cultures have, throughout human history, shown themselves to be so different as to be incompatible without one violently dominating (or exercising some kind of hegemony over) the other. (If you want a bit of sociology, try this.)

      That’s the case for the prosecution, and it’s a case that needs answering. To date, the case for the defence has been:

      I don’t wish to get bogged down in arguments about the much-maligned term “multiculturalism”, which doesn’t exactly have an agreed definition. I would, however, strongly deny that it is impossible for people of different cultural backgrounds to live peacefully in the same geographical area. Such an assertion certainly isn’t borne out by my own experience of living in a number of different diverse communities. (Which is obviously not to suggest that there isn’t any such thing as conflict or tension between people of different cultural backgrounds.)

      Regardless, I don’t premise my case against immigration controls on abstract arguments about the inherent goodness of cultural diversity. Rather, the case that immigration controls are morally iniquitous is simply this. It’s a very concrete one based on the real lives of individual human beings.

      (1) There are gross inequalities between different countries, and some countries have far higher levels of poverty, deprivation and conflict than others. Very large numbers of people in the developing world live in destitution on the edge of starvation. Many have no access to clean water or basic medical care. Many people live under brutal authoritarian regimes or in active war zones, or live in fear of street gangs, or live with the daily threat of violence (by the state or by vigilantes) because of their political views or race or faith or sexuality. (These are all factual observations, and probably not very controversial ones.)

      (1A) These gross inequalities of wealth and wellbeing are to some degree ascribable to the history of colonialism – in which Western powers invaded, subjugated and economically exploited much of the world – as well as to the continuing global capitalist system which tends of itself to produce great economic inequality. (This is relevant to my argument but not essential to it.)

      (2) Given this situation, many people have, in practical terms, little choice but to leave their country of origin – whether to escape brutal violence, or to escape destitution and be able to feed their families.

      (3) At the moment, Britain’s and other developed countries’ systems of immigration control are in fact largely designed to keep out migrants from precisely those countries where there are the greatest amounts of poverty, instability and suffering. They do so by employing a great deal of coercive violence, in particular detention (often in very bad conditions) and forcible deportation. They do not spare such violence even against very vulnerable people, including children, trauma survivors, and those with serious physical and mental illnesses. This is all demonstrably true: indeed the Home Office has fought in the courts for its right to deport even people with very serious illnesses who will die within weeks in their home countries.

      (4) Although a small number of people are able to claim asylum, it is very difficult to do so. First, because most developed countries go to great lengths to stop asylum-seekers getting there in the first place, through visa requirements, carrier sanctions, the criminalization of illegal border crossing, and other measures. Second, because asylum-seekers on arrival are often detained and otherwise treated badly, again explicitly as a deterrent. Third, because the asylum adjudication process is profoundly unsatisfactory and arbitrary, and many asylum-seekers with apparently meritorious claims are simply assumed to be lying. Fourth, because the asylum system is intentionally designed not to assist people who are “economic migrants” rather than refugees from persecution – even if they face destitution and literal starvation on return.

      (5) The operation of immigration controls depends entirely on an individual’s nationality. For the most part, nationality is a legal status acquired by the accident of birth.

      (6) This system of immigration control is morally wrong. People should not be put in hellhole detention camps, treated worse than criminals, and forcibly (often violently) returned to places where they face violence, starvation, or a slow death from lack of medical care, merely because of the accident of birth. (This is the first moral claim I’ve made in the course of this argument, and I admit that, like any moral claim, it isn’t susceptible of objective proof. But I don’t see how any person with a sense of compassion and justice, taking into account the above facts, could disagree with it.)

      You’ve never really engaged with any of these points, despite my making them many times in a number of posts. Indeed I’ve never seen you talk seriously about the human consequences for migrants themselves of restrictive immigration laws and their enforcement. Which is like discussing poverty without talking about the experiences of actual poor people. This isn’t a new issue; there were British politicians advocating forbidding Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, using much the same arguments that anti-immigrationists make today.

      Notably, this is distinct from arguments about the racism of immigration controls. I do maintain that immigration controls are in practice racist, both because they disproportionately target people of colour from developing countries and because their enforcement is often based on racial profiling. But even if this were not so, my argument about the human suffering engendered by immigration controls would still stand.

      Which is fine but irrelevant, since the issue is not what you (or I) personally feel about it but what the mass of people who persist in identifying as white ethnic Britons feel about it.

      But people don’t, and shouldn’t, always get what they want. It’s not self-evident that people should have a veto power over who gets to move into their geographical area, any more than people should have a veto power over who gets to sit next to them on the train.

      There are two possible comprehensible reasons why “people who persist in identifying as white ethnic Britons” might support restrictive immigration laws. One (and I suspect the main one, in practice) is economic; they might believe that immigrants are taking their houses, their benefits and their jobs (after all, this is what the right-wing tabloid press tells them is the case). Aside from the fact that this isn’t actually objectively true, it wouldn’t be a morally convincing argument even if it were. Britain is a much wealthier country than many in the world, wealth that was built on the back of exploiting developing countries over a long period of time. And as a result British citizens, in general, enjoy economic privileges that most of the world simply doesn’t. There’s no justification for seeking to preserve that unearned privilege by forcibly (indeed violently) excluding much poorer non-British people from accessing it. Seeking to exclude non-British people from the labour market to protect jobs for British people is exactly analogous to seeking to exclude women from the labour market in order to protect jobs for men (something conservatives were indeed advocating not very long ago).

      The second is cultural; they might believe that immigrants are a threat to “our culture” or “our way of life”. But that kind of fearmongering ignores the fact that “British culture” (which isn’t at all a homogeneous concept to start with, and never was) is constantly changing, generation by generation, and constantly being influenced by other cultures and by social change. This has been the case for a very long time; even fish and chips was originally a foreign import. In any case, there’s no good reason to think that return to a mythical pre-immigration “British culture”, even if such a thing were possible, would actually be an improvement in any material respect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s