Locke Part Zero

I promised myself I’d get the first of the Locke posts up tonight, so I suppose I should at least scratch the surface. I’m about a quarter of the way through the Second Treatise of Government, but my first comment has virtually nothing to do with Locke’s political philosophy. The preface to the Two Treatises, while it focuses mostly on outlining the purposes of the work (to justify the ascension of William of Orange after the Glorious Revolution, and to demolish Sir Robert Filmer’s arguments for the divine right of kings), has a nice little nugget on philosophical discourse that I think is worth reproducing here.

If any one, concerned really for truth, undertake the refutation of my Hypothesis, I promise him either to recant my mistake, upon fair conviction; or to answer his difficulties. But he must remember two things.

First, That cavilling here and there, at some expression, or little incident of my discourse, is not an answer to my book.

Secondly, That I shall not take railing for arguments, nor think either of these worth my notice, though I shall always look on myself as bound to give satisfaction to any one, who shall appear to be conscientiously scrupulous in the point, and shall shew any just grounds for his scruples.

It seems to me that we would do well to take this to heart as a disclaimer for modern political and philosophical discourse. It also occurs to me that this sense of philosophical essaying as being essentially a back-and-forth enterprise is largely absent in the present day, at least in a substantial sense. Where Locke specifically outlined his willingness to respond to criticism of his arguments, most discourse today (at least outside of academic philosophy circles, which I don’t know quite well enough to speak for) either ignores/marginalizes reasoned opposition or comes out swinging, combativeness for the sake of combativeness. Obviously modern Western society—and America above all—follows a highly adversarial paradigm, from capitalism to party politics to adversarial justice systems, but Locke’s suggested dialectic seems a hell of a lot more reasonable than what passes for debate these days.

Having studied 17th and 18th century satire fairly extensively, I do realize that there was as much flamethrowing and vitriol back then as there is now, if not more so, but the context is different; back then, it was primarily the literary/political elites doing the verbal sparring, but now it’s every Joe and Jane Schmoe with an opinion. “Partisan politics” is an easy target, but where this stuff really matters the most is in the public domain, in the culture and the media and the day-to-day conversations that make up people’s lives. Not to say that we wouldn’t benefit from more rational debate in the legislature, because of course we would, but now more than ever the idea of a civil but critical examination of people’s arguments is something we need. Much more than we need sophistry and vilification.

Locke would make a fairly decent poster boy for the Intelligent Party, I think.

Urizen

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11 Responses to Locke Part Zero

  1. Filthy Habit says:

    Having studied 17th and 18th century satire fairly extensively, I do realize that there was as much flamethrowing and vitriol back then as there is now, if not more so, but the context is different; back then, it was primarily the literary/political elites doing the verbal sparring, but now it’s every Joe and Jane Schmoe with an opinion. “Partisan politics” is an easy target, but where this stuff really matters the most is in the public domain, in the culture and the media and the day-to-day conversations that make up people’s lives. Not to say that we wouldn’t benefit from more rational debate in the legislature, because of course we would, but now more than ever the idea of a civil but critical examination of people’s arguments is something we need. Much more than we need sophistry and vilification.

    You’re right, of course, about the context being different. Indeed, it is different. Much different.

    The debate “culture” of today looks a lot like people shouting loud enough to keep the subversive shouting of the opposition from seeping into their own ears. It reminds me of when misbehaving children plug their ears and shout, “I can’t hear you!”

    Besides the lack of rules, though, I think that Joe and Jane Schmoe simply get their cues from what they see, namely, Bill O’Reilly and the World Wide Wrestling Federation.

    Shout it down! Put a lid on it! Shut up! I can’t heeeere you! Smack down! In your face! Can it!

    Indeed, many people in this country have simply never been exposed to civil discourse, either through the media or in school. And, once again, I’m railing against the educational system in this country.

    I recall in the sixth grade (way long ago!) our teacher forced us to use Parliamentary Procedure in the class! Imagine that! And it wasn’t just for a few weeks…No, it was for the whole year. An hour a day, nothing but Parliamentary Procedure. I hated it, I struggled against it and I rebelled against it. But, in the end, I benefited, and even came to enjoy the ritual of civilized discourse.

    I also believe that people who are skilled in the arts of thinking (critically) are also adept at the art of listening. A thinking person wants to hear what you have to say, whether you’re right or wrong. Curiosity about what you have to say serves the thinker in two ways: First, it may give him a new angle for a counter-argument he hadn’t considered before. Second, it may just change his mind! A thinker dares you to change his mind. How cool is that?

    Listening, thinking, talking. That’s what it’s all about, man…

  2. Urizen says:

    I also believe that people who are skilled in the arts of thinking (critically) are also adept at the art of listening. A thinking person wants to hear what you have to say, whether you’re right or wrong. Curiosity about what you have to say serves the thinker in two ways: First, it may give him a new angle for a counter-argument he hadn’t considered before. Second, it may just change his mind! A thinker dares you to change his mind. How cool is that?

    Listening, thinking, talking. That’s what it’s all about, man…

    Amen, brother. Problem #1 is that critical thinking is not particularly encouraged, or really even taught in most places. It’s a nice educational buzzword, but I don’t think it’s much more than that in most schools. Critical thinking, critical reading, critical listening . . people don’t have any real idea of how to absorb and analyze the information and opinions they get from other people, so they tend to either blindly accept or blindly reject. Either way, a key process is being left out, and the end result is that decisions get made based on unexamined and often irrational beliefs, simply because no one understands how to challenge those beliefs, or that it is necessary to challenge those beliefs. Frustrating.

  3. 3edgedsword says:

    It is certainly frustrating, but one wonders how good things can be expected to get. Besides the self-perpetuating animosity and competitiveness that creates inertia preventing elevation of the public discourse, not everyone may have the education to really examine an issue rationally. The ideal conditions for a democracy are where all participants are involved and rational, and that may not ever come close to being the case. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try, just that there’s a ceiling to these things.

  4. Filthy Habit says:

    Also…Quoting Locke himself:

    …I shall not take railing for arguments, nor think either of these worth my notice, though I shall always look on myself as bound to give satisfaction to any one, who shall appear to be conscientiously scrupulous in the point, and shall shew any just grounds for his scruples.

    I did forget to discuss, briefly, this aspect of the quote. Paying no mind to “railers” is a good approach, and I agree with it. It is a big reason why I read so little of the right-wing bloggery. I can’t ever recall getting deeper than two paragraphs into an Ann Coulter article because of this.

    But, counter to that, I think it is also a big reason why the democratic party went flat. After eight-years of non-substantive anti-Clinton bloviation from the right wing, and they not even being the least bit “conscientiously scrupulous” about what they were bloviating about, the left-wing opposition simply threw their hands up in the air and gave up the fight, thinking, probably, that there really wasn’t any substantive claims to challenge and trusting that one day people would understand that. Sure, they believed they were being noble, rising above such baseless challenges, but in the end, their refusal to confront these unscrupulous claims hurt them. And, again, this culminated in the last election where Kerry blew Bush away in the debates and in oratory, but his refusal to fight the battle Karl Rove’s way wound up sending him to the showers. And the sad thing is, had he done exactly that, I think it may have been a landslide.

    Admittedly, it’s an ugly notion of having to counter an opposition that is willing to stoop so low, but ignoring them, and holding out hope that people will recognize the shallowness on their own, doesn’t make them go away.

  5. Urizen says:

    Besides the self-perpetuating animosity and competitiveness that creates inertia preventing elevation of the public discourse, not everyone may have the education to really examine an issue rationally.

    This is why I’m so adamant about the need to teach critical thinking/reading/listening skills in schools a hell of a lot more than we do right now. If I had to pick the single most essential thing that schools should be teaching their students, I think that would be it, though communication skills and foundational knowledge in a variety of areas are also very much necessary. At the very least, people should understand how to form opinions that are rational and self-consistent, and they should be able to deal with such opinions from other people without, y’know, throwing punches. Maybe the current generations are beyond saving with this, but it would certainly go a long way towards preparing future generations for their roles as informed and participating citizens. We have compulsory education already; we should make critical thinking skills more a part of that, so that looking at issues rationally won’t be a matter of how much education one has had, unless one dropped out of school very early.

  6. Urizen says:

    But, counter to that, I think it is also a big reason why the democratic party went flat. After eight-years of non-substantive anti-Clinton bloviation from the right wing, and they not even being the least bit “conscientiously scrupulous” about what they were bloviating about, the left-wing opposition simply threw their hands up in the air and gave up the fight, thinking, probably, that there really wasn’t any substantive claims to challenge and trusting that one day people would understand that. Sure, they believed they were being noble, rising above such baseless challenges, but in the end, their refusal to confront these unscrupulous claims hurt them.

    It seems to me that this has pretty much been the central debate in Democratic politics for the last ten years or so. During that time, Dems have, much more often than not, been on the right side of the issues—and even often on the popular side, once the polling questions were framed so as not to be blatantly misleading. But, as you say, the general unwillingness to play politics Rove-style has in part resulted in the party becoming a punchline to a bad joke. Dirty politics as a counter strategy has pretty much been discarded in favor of the desperate exodus to the center of the aisle, where the Dems have tried to move closer to the GOP on issues so as not to be losers by default in every race.

    Both of these strategies, I think, miss the point. As much as the general Democratic unwillingness to enlist Karl Rove’s doppelganger may have resulted in a more lopsided political landscape, I think progressive politicians (which seem to be few and far between these days, in any party) should continue to choose the right thing over the expedient thing. The solution here is not to play dirty or to adopt a centrist dogma wherein the Dems apologize for their views and soften them for mass consumption—these are both bandaid solutions at best, and I don’t think Dems have the populist background anymore to make them convincing or effective. The solution as I see it is one that is both more difficult and more rewarding: reframing the issues. This has been by far the biggest success of the neoconservative movement. The Orwellian re-terming of things (domestic wiretapping becomes terrorist surveillance program), the construction of misleading dichotomies, the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mantra—these things have quite literally changed the way people think about the issues, though they haven’t necessarily changed people’s beliefs. Who wants to be thought of as anti-life? Unpatriotic? Against family values? As ridiculous and misleading as this reframing has been, it’s been wildly successful. Most people disagree with the GOP’s stances on things, but a lot of them don’t realize they disagree, because the issues have been cast in such heinously misleading terms.

    The failure to combat this reframing has been, I think, the greatest failure of Democratic politics over the last decade. There are a lot of obstacles in the way of winning back the framing of the issues, but they’re not insurmountable—we just have to recognize the problem and face it head-on, instead of taking the easy way out. Shifting to the center has resulted in numerous betrayals of progressive principles, and I wholeheartedly believe that playing Rove’s game would be another such betrayal. People may be easily-manipulated, but they’re not stupid, and if we can break down the layers of manipulation and misinformation, things will get better.

  7. Filthy Habit says:

    I think progressive politicians (which seem to be few and far between these days, in any party) should continue to choose the right thing over the expedient thing.

    The solution here is not to play dirty or to adopt a centrist dogma wherein the Dems apologize for their views and soften them for mass consumption…The solution as I see it is one that is both more difficult and more rewarding: reframing the issues.

    Precisely.

    I didn’t mean to imply that adopting Rovian tactics, or fighting dirty, was the solution. I lean much more toward the notion of simply calling them out on their reframing fallacies. I don’t want my politicians to become needlessly pedantic, but some people in the constituency do require spoon-feeding with a snow-shovel.

    Probably the best example of this is the “flip-flop” thing that went on. No doubt, “voting for the 87-billion before voting against it” is a smoking gun sign of flip-floppery when properly reframed by the opposition. Kerry stood above that, and, by all accounts, simply ignored the charge or threw up a feeble defense of it. He even looked like he was flip-flopping while defending his position!

    In my mind, he should have jumped on it, exploited it as a part of his platform, and explained to the people that “the ability to think flexibly and change your mind about something based on new information is a good and desirable trait for a leader.” He could have provided hundreds of good, solid and patriotic examples to back that claim. At the same time, he could have crushed the “stay the course” mentality of the Bush administration on the same grounds, and he surely could have provided hundreds of other good, solid and patriotic examples to back that claim as well. None of this required that Kerry point out Bush’s own, more egregious record of flip-floppery, which would have been playing the game Rove’s way. Instead, by pointing out the fallacy, it would have put the charge of flip-flopping into its proper context, and the battle could have been won on those terms.

    If Kerry had simply acknowledged the nature of what was going on, he would have scored some points. He could have explained it and openly addressed it without using the tactic himself. Unfortunately, the decision was made to ignore the Rovian rhetoric, perhaps hoping that people would figure it out on their own by November 2, 2004. Obviously, the people did not figure it out, and the rest is history.

  8. Urizen says:

    In my mind, he should have jumped on it, exploited it as a part of his platform, and explained to the people that “the ability to think flexibly and change your mind about something based on new information is a good and desirable trait for a leader.” He could have provided hundreds of good, solid and patriotic examples to back that claim. At the same time, he could have crushed the “stay the course” mentality of the Bush administration on the same grounds, and he surely could have provided hundreds of other good, solid and patriotic examples to back that claim as well.

    I completely agree. Volumes could be written about how badly the DNC and Kerry’s people botched things in ’04, and that would certainly be the most central of the fuckups. I am certainly no fan of the cowardice that has taken hold of the Democratic party, and I would love to see them do a better job of stepping up to the plate and making people realize just how shamelessly manipulative and dishonest the GOP has been in recent years. Obviously it’s easier said than done, but you’d think that professional political operatives would be able to do a better job than has been done so far. Here’s hoping they get their act together, so we can get back to legitimate policy debate (rather than, say, arguing about torture and other things that are clearly illegal).

  9. […] This is all the more reason for us to embrace rationality and the teaching of critical thinking skills. It is also a reason for us to stand up to the politicization of science, the gutting and manipulation of education, and the dishonesty of media pundits. People need to have some basic ability to evaluate the credibility of information and opinion, especially these days, else democracy goes down the shitter. And we should, as a society, be doing everything in our power to weed out bad information and dishonest commentary. […]

  10. Alan says:

    This comment is about 2 months late, but here is another historical quote that speaks to the same sentiment as Locke’s. In Ethan Allen’s “Reason: The Only Oracle of Man” he states the following in the Preface:

    I therefore offer my composition to the candid judgment of the impartial world without it, taking it for granted that I have as good a natural right to expose myself to public censure, by endeavoring to subserve mankind, as any of the species who have published their productions since the creation; and I ask no favor at the hands of philosophers, divines or critics, but hope and expect they will severely chastise me for my errors and mistakes, least they may have a share in perverting the truth, which is very far from my intention.

    You don’t hear/read words like that in today’s public discourse at all.

  11. Urizen says:

    Mmm. Good quote indeed.

    I’m becoming increasingly convinced that there isn’t really anything that could rightly be called “public discourse” at all anymore, at least in any substantive sense. Though I do have to admit the blogosphere is making me somewhat more optimistic about the prospects of people actually talking about things, thinking about them, debating them. There’s value in it, I think, even for those of us who don’t get thousands and thousands of readers a day.

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