On How To be Dogmatic

This week, for the first time in, let’s say, a “long” time, I attended a mid-week bible study. I’m now an official Reader/Lector at the church I’ve been attending, so I thought I might actually reflect on the stuff I’m supposed to read. The study itself was fine enough. We talked about the parable of the tax collector’s prayer, which is, if you recall, compared to that of the Pharisee. Humility vs. pride. The error of hypocrisy. Obligatory liberal note that we shouldn’t conflate the Pharisees with all Jews, and that the Gospel ware written during a particularly ticklish period, so emotions were a little heightened. Etc. My favorite part of the conversation was when the group began comparing the hypocritical Pharisee to conservative talking-heads on tv. I did not find this so much as curious as silly, and ended up confessing that I’d never watched Bill O’Reilly, and continued with the suggestion that perhaps their moral indignation might be better directed if they stopped watching 24/7 news channels.

Now, I have not done any solid research to substantiate the claim that the following is any more true now than anytime before, but it seems to me that Americans are far more eager these days to rush headlong into the living embodiment of a caricature. You have these people on tv–Rachel Maddow as the representative caricature of a do-good liberal, and Bill O’Reilly as the representative caricature of a dog-eat-dog-world conservative–and for all our so-called cultural sophistication w/ respect to media, the political discourse of the masses (such as it is) seems modeled on these personalities/caricatures. This is not a novel observation, I know. But what’s interesting to me is that this kind of behavior is supposed to be the very thing a super media-savvy culture has moved beyond, what with our much-ballyhooed sophistication and post-ironic investment in what happens behind the camera, in the editing room, in the marketing meeting, etc. (I observed a similar thing when my niece visited me last summer: it felt like I was watching the tv-version of what a teenager is supposed to do & say, as though she wasn’t even there. Just a slightly less sexed-up Glee cast-member.) We are today, we’ve been told repeatedly, the smartest consumers of culture ever.  On some level, I’ve no doubt this is probably true; and yet, perhaps we’re damned all the more for it being so. I say this because media infiltrates nearly every facet of contemporary culture–including even our reflections about how media infiltrates contemporary culture. Waxing theoretical about irony on this point seems profoundly unhelpful. To my mind, it’s not that everything today (particularly as it relates to our political discourse) is fake: it’s that sincerity itself has been distorted by the untold layers of glass piled all around it. (Note A: No, this doesn’t speak to an inherent problem with “progress” that can be resisted by picking up Milton every now and then.) (Note B: You’ll just have to trust me when I say that I don’t necessarily believe there is a Zero-Ground of “Sincere Human” that has been sullied. This point of perfection, and indeed the entire conversation about it, i.e., whether there is one or not, is a nuisance of ontological proportion. On this point, I diverge mightily from my many of my most philosophical friends, including myself not too long ago.)

What’s interesting to me now is how at the very moment in American history in which the middle class stakes its place(s) (as a strident caricature) in the political landscape, they in fact have the least amount of power to rule. Fitting their chosen  nature of discourse, theirs is only have the illusion of power, whereupon, as William Gass has noted in a fantastic definition of fascism, lower middle-class values are given placating places of ideological prominence, while their interests and well-being  never quite enter into the equation. The upshot, then, of a political body replaced by caricature  is merely the sentimental notion that one’s country looks (or does not look) like you, whoever that is, and is (or is not) well-run.

Is there a solution? Well, probably not, since I’ve only very opaquely even described a problem. As I see it, the fundamental issue with this caricaturization isn’t dogmatism; rather, it’s the dickishness of one’s caricaturized dogmatism. There are different modes of political dickishness, and identifying these differences is crucial if we’re not satisfied with contemporary political discourse.

I will use myself as an example: I’m definitely a leftist, and indeed am probably even horribly dogmatic about my leftism. I would, I think, impose my will and vision on the world in a second if I could. Be that as it may, I am not in a position to do so, and likely never will be, so there’s little sense compounding my impotent tyranny by also being overly tedious prick about it (my dogmatism, that is)? Such is the problem: how can we maintain our dogmatism without succumbing to distorting pressure of simply being a caricature?

As should be clear, it will likely come down to changing one’s discursive practice more than one’s ontological self. Just as one can be a vulgarly rude person in the relative privacy of one’s own consciousness, they needn’t be vulgarly rude to others. In my experience, certainly in terms of politics most people are simply not persuaded from an opposing position primarily by rationality (this includes a) good arguments, b) bad arguments, and even c) patently irrational arguments that pretend to be otherwise)–in a world that has owned up to, knowingly or not, the complex nature of causality and of the relationship between [x] and [non-x], the work-in-progress nature of rationality is more a frustration than anything else, even if we profess an abiding hope that it more or less works but in ways unseen and/or partially. Of course, some people (probably even you lot) find reason compelling, or at least some people some of the time; but even then, I would argue it is most compelling, as an argument, when deployed amongst those who more or less agree with you already, rather than convincing those who believe the opposite. (You may say this use of “the opposite” is simplistic and simply not true, but I posit that it very true in this world of caricatured politics. That’s precisely how the caricature works: x vs. not-x.) The Habermasian “public space” is already so littered and loud as to be useless, appealing to reasonable dialogue is like looking for something of value at the mall. Sticking with the shopping  metaphor: is it not better to go to a neighborhood that embodies your “look,” your values, etc., and shop there? Which is to say, instead of trying to dialogue with somebody opposed to you, “preach to the choir,” as it were, and put into not-strictly-rational practice what you hold to rationally (for me, odd as it may sound, this is the rationale for my recent church attendance, which I may or may not get around to explaining some day).

Of course, this doesn’t mean you stop interacting with people whose dogmatism stands opposed to yours: indeed, you may occasionally (or, should you choose, even constantly) inconvenience somebody who disagrees, by way of protests or simply stating your position, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, i.e., not subject to argument. (E.g., I’m not going to argue that climate change is real. But I will instead state repeatedly, and live my life accordingly, its reality. There is no “dialogue” on this point: be dogmatic.) This, I think, seems perfectly fine, and is very different from asserting one’s caricatured dogmatism in argumentative, dialogical form. Yes, at the end of the day, people may still call you a dick/jerk/etc., but at least now you’re actually doing something conceived by others to be dickish/jerk, and as a result provoking real reactions & repercussions. Agency is, to put it crassly, a bitch–and we would want it no other way. (Note C: Would that the incoming Republican majority keep this in mind and do us at least one favor by killing the filibuster when they retake both chambers of Congress.)

11 thoughts on “On How To be Dogmatic

  1. For what its worth I think this is a very “non dickish” summation of political culture in the US today. I would only add that Obama’s victory has made things far worse than they were before. By this I mean two things – 1) He has crushed many of his supporters (myself included) for largely governing as a neoliberal and 2) He has allowed the extreme right caricature narrative to go largely unanswered. In fact, to the degree that he accepts neoliberalism he merely offers a more humane caricaturization of free market fundamentalism. Not only has this been disasterous economically but it has handed the Republicans a premature victory.

  2. I think I understand you; and if I do, then I wholeheartedly agree. I was talking to a prof of mine recently about the idea of laying claim to the name derisively given to one by an ideological opponent — accept the name, then demonstrate the disparity between what it means to the namer and what it means in the practice of your own life. I was surprised when he loved the idea — taking it as justification for his own continued inaction with regard to the problems in his institution. In other words, I wanted to talk about dogmatism as the displacement of inactive argument by unargumentative action, but he wanted to talk about dogmatism as an ironic form of persuasion.

    So, maybe, the point is that (ominous as it sounds) to work a good is better than to convince someone of a good: results, above all, being the way out of a mire of ideological disagreement. That’s the positive way to be dogmatic.

    (Oh, and I really hope you do get around to explaining your church-going!)

  3. Well Brad I disagree. I know there is a tendency on the part of leftists – and I am one – to feel disheartened by the public space (I think your Habermasion comments sums it up quite appropriately). But a. nothing will be gained by us forming a kind of intellectual sect that no longer talks to the rest, as it is all water under the bridge anyway b. it’s not because the bastards are loud that they are mainstream, in fact one has to assume that they are so loud mainly because that’s their only way of still being noticed and c. we’re not without need of learning however more learned we actually are – because society isn’t made up of the learned only so we’d do well to understand that whatever solutions also need to solve that what is at issue for those who are not like us.

    We’ve become far too rational, that’s the problem.

  4. Guido,

    I understand your reservations. I’ll confront them in order.

    a) I don’t see why what I’ve described here necessarily leads to intellectual sectarianism. One could very well disagree intellectually w/ somebody and still stand by side with them on the front lines of some collective activity. Indeed, I think this is probably already the case most of the time.

    b) I really hate to play this card, but alas . . . this may be the case in Belgium, but from my vantage point here in America it doesn’t seem to be so here. Besides, I’m less concerned with volume as I am ubiquity and uniformity.

    c) I’m glad you raised this point. It’s something I realized I likely did not make very clear in the post. I’m certainly not opposed to education. I simply think there is a crucial difference, though, between political discourse qua argument/dialogue and learning. More could be said here, but I will leave it at that for now. I do welcome you or anybody else batting down or propping up that distinction.

  5. Brad,

    Let me stick to the order.

    a. I don’t want to overstretch this but for the sake of having a friendly argument: I do feel that there is risk of intellectual sectarianism. I think the risk grows every time the vote is of a populist nature and every time – as is the case in Belgium now – the people’s jury decides to ignore key formal points of the defense. The intellectual opinion has been wrong on many points before and it would be intellectually honest to be more open to the fact of it being possibly wrong now. It is of the essence in the new decent populist European right to capitalize on some perceived disdain that learned people have for the masses; the perception is not without ground. Maybe that is Obama’s re-election strategy: being blasted enough by the intellectuals to regain streed cred with those that put in the critical votes last time?

    b. I think Belgium is not so different in this regard although it is certainly quantitatively more polite. But the question is: is the volume/uniformity/ubiquity of it a good proxy for what people are actually thinking? That would require more study then just taking the average as a conclusive sign because I would bet there’s more variation from the average now. But I’m an optimist, I know.

    c. as my wife once put it: it is much nicer to talk to average people than to (specifically left wing) intellectuals, because the latter sometimes seem to have unlearned the virtue of taking the other seriously. Sso I was not talking about more education but rather about not making a point of being well educated. Not that I don’t think we should invest more and more in education but because I’m sure there will always be a difference between more and less educated people – and that it should be a ley virtue of more educated people that they don’t feel ‘more’ just because they are more educated.

    (I’m sure you’ll understand none of this is meant personally, at all)

  6. I hate being the one who ultimately insists, “but see, we don’t disagree at all,” but I’m having a very hard time identifying solid disagreement in what you say. If there is a disagreement, I suppose it is that you think I was saying something different. (It was an opaque post, admittedly, so the fault rests w/ me on this one.)

    Quite simply, my point is not to extol the virtues of intellectualism — be it from the Right or the Left. It has plenty of virtues, but I don’t think we’re quite capable of thinking ourselves out of the present political impasse that grips most of the world. Perhaps the phrase “preaching to the choir” was ill-advised. This is what I meant by enacting one’s rational (i.e., “thought-out”) positions in not-strictly-rational ways.

    I did not mean it was advisable to simply talk to people who already agree with you. I talk to people who disagree with me (and I them) all the time. I was merely exploring the possibility that talking with these same people w/ the intent of “winning them over” (this is but one of the intentions in such dialogue — another is moral denigration; another is venting frustration; another is just to be a bag of hot air that needs to be expelled at random from time to time. There are surely others, too). Which is to say, being an intellectual really has very little to do with it.

  7. Yeah, sorry to get on my soap box but it is hard to have any decent conversation and this is one I felt compelled to have and I guess your post triggered that in me.

    I think this current political impasse is about intellectualism and anti-intellectualist populism; and the errors are not just on one side (although most of them are on that side).

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