Tuesday, May 30, 2006

How Intelligent Design May Have Saved the Left

Ferdinand Toennies, one of the founding fathers of sociology, argued that every group has a communal part that is based on commonality and cohesion and a social part that is based upon diversity and heterogeneity. While there are many, many schisms in the left, one that is important in understanding what influence the progressive movement has had on the broader society is the intellectual divide between the scientific left and the humanistic left. Over the last couple of decades, it was the humanists who were the face of the movement, but the last few years has seen the reascendance of the scientific side, and I argue that this is a good thing.

The war on the left has deep roots. The influx of Europeans around the time of the Second World War imported into the American intellectual scene the remnants of a fight over responsibility for World War I. The horrors, death, and futility of WWI is unfortunately eclipsed in our cultural memory because of the death camps and nuclear weapons of WWII, but the effects of the Great War cannot be underestimated. It brought down the old monarchic order and introduced the world to the brutality that was capable through technology. With the Continent in ruins, the humanists blamed science for providing the tools of destruction, arguing that science had become divorced from its social context and therefore capable of the worst evils. The scientific left on the other hand saw science as a truly international enterprise, rational and democratic to its core which stood in stark opposition to the religious, dictatorial nationalism responsible for the horrors of the War. The scientific worldview would eliminate the preconditions of this sort of tragedy. Science knows no country, the brotherhood of science was beyond politics as the world needed to be.

When the main participants in this battle came to this country, an interesting thing happened. Whether it was the rise of McCarthyism or a sense of displacement in their adopted home, the European scientific left stopped being overtly political. But with the arrival of folks like Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, this was not true of the humanistic side who continued their battle with the other side largely unrepresented.

The line that we got was one that challenged the objectivity of science. Coming from Nietzsche, the central idea was that truth is a social construction. All speech is politically pregnant with the agenda of the powerful. Consider, for example, the insult "cocksucker." Most people with cocks would not condemn those who would suck it. Gratitude seems much more appropriate. But the term is an insult because it clearly indicates a power imbalance and not having the power makes one less of a man and therefore a valuable human in a society where there is a structural bias in favor of men. "Cocksucker" means that you are a woman or, worse, gay. The insult does two things at the same time. On the one hand, it conveys to the target of the insult a clear disrespect. But on the other, it expresses this disrespect by making clear that the speaker is buying into unfair power distributions in the culture. The vulgarities are not only expressing the sentiment that the person insulted is an inferior human being, but doing it in a way that grants cultural capital to unfair social structures that are already in place. "Cocksucker" is only an insult if it is universally recognized that people who provide oral pleasure to those with penises are deemed to be social inferior.

One of the perks of political power is the right to determine the meanings of the normative terms in the language and this shapes what can be said and thought. It makes the notion of truth a matter of what the powerful say it is. It allows for language -- and thereby thought -- to be an instrument of oppression. Truth becomes a way ossify the control of the powerful over society. Science which claims to give objectiapoliticalical truththereforefore just a charade that plays into the hands of the oppressor, a leftover of the Enlightenment which seeks to dehumanize.

It was at this time that we started to see the successes of the liberation movements, groups of disenfranchised Americans were finally granted not only the right to vote, the right to sit anywhere they wanted on uncomfortable, un-air-conditioned busses, and the right to use the same disgusting gas station restrooms as white people; the liberated groups also gained the privilege of having their stories incorporated into our national narrative. Being oppressed means being invisible. To address the injustices done to these groups meant society as a whole having to admit the injustices and to account for the experiences of those who suffered them. Our history, in fundamental ways, had to be rewritten. Who "we" are had changed, so "our" story also had to change.

This project of social and historical integration was -- and still remains -- an extremely difficult task. Any society's self-image and central mythology is designed in part to justify its core beliefs and values and shows its emergence in the best possible light. Giving a voice to those who had been excluded from the conversation required not only accounting, in some more or less honest way, for the inhumane treatment those people suffered at the hands of the society, but it also meant incorporating their righteous and legitimate anger for having been excluded, mistreated, and dehumanized. Further, and trickier still, this meant somehow reconciling the long standing usual story of our history with their competing accounts of what happened, when, to whom, by whom, and why. Facing these uncomfortable questions inevitably leaves a sense of collective culpability, especially on the part of those who benefited from the oppressive structure. This white guilt was, and continues to be, felt acutely on the left.

The reason the left is especially vulnerable to this is because since at least the 19th century, progressives have been fascinated by the effect that the social environment has on people's behavior. Going back to the founding fathers of sociology, the interest was not only in describing how society functions, but also in how to improve it. Poverty, crime, hunger, and illiteracy were clearly related to the structure of society's fabric and not merely to be understood as failings of individual character. If one were to place a person in a completely different environment, that person would conform his or her behavior to the new surroundings; he or she would act differently, speak differently, achieve differently, contribute to society differently. Wealth and education are obvious factors in there being lower crime in some areas of town and higher crime rates in certain others. As such, when someone from the wrong side of the track holds up the convenience store, sociological factors are part of the reason why he made that choice. Thus, the complete explanation of social ills must account for the roles of the social structures and institutions. If we want to understand why things happened the way they did, we need to understand them structurally, not just in terms of individuals. And so, when confronting the oppression of subgroups within society, the members of left tended to be quite aware of the ways in which they had benefited from the injustice simply by being born when, when and who they were and this gave rise to a deep sense of white guilt.

And from the humanists, we saw a focus on the role that language played in maintaining this social structure. It became the "post-modernist movement" and leaked out of the philosophy departments and oozed into every corner of the humanities -- literary studies, cultural studies, history -- and then on into the social sciences -- especially sociology and political science. When these folks started to assume positions of power in the academy, we saw theory turned into practice.

It was exactly this power of language to reinforce social structures that was the guiding insight behind the political correctness movement of the 1980s and 90s. The idea that what we say not only expresses our thoughts, but also carries with it, often unconsciously and in ways unnoticed by the speaker or the listener, cultural baggage that can be helpful or harmful to larger social goals seemed incredibly powerful. Language is a product of culture and as such is pregnant with cultural presuppositions. These presuppositions are sometimes wrong and harmful. They create and sustain unjust power arrangements and the subtext to the meanings of words that come from oppressive societies play a part in ossifying these structures. It was an act of resistance to "deconstruct" these terms and expose all of their malicious political baggage for all to see. Sunlight would disinfect them.

But if words could be weapons against the innocent, then there seemed to be no reason they couldn't also be used as weapons to fight against injustice. If we could replace the old tainted words with new terms that have not been infected by the unequal distribution of power, then we could use the new words to refer to groups or individuals in a way that empowers instead of oppresses them. If we take back the language, we can change the system: make it fairer, more just, more moral.

To understand this move fully, you need to see it in its complete context. This was the 80s. Overt bigotry had been successfully vilified. Jim Crow was not coming back and even the racists were taking great pains to explain that their racist views weren't really racist. But it was the time of Reagan and his incredible ability to conduct dog whistle politics. He never explicitly said we should hate "black people" when he spoke. No, it was the "welfare queens" that deserved our scorn. Now, we all knew what he meant, there was never a question in anyone's mind what color these "welfare queens" were supposed to be. But he couldn't be pinned down for saying something he didn't say even if he was really saying it. The political power to oppress derived from setting the language was obvious for all to see.

And so we were introduced to African-Americans. Not that the society didn't know them, it is just that society knew them as Blacks, and Negroes before that. The PC idea was to find new terms that did not carry old the negative connotations and implicit references to negative stereotypes. By finding a neutral linguistic playing field, social hurdles could be more easily overcome or torn down altogether.

The idea that the old language was politically infected with injustice seemed to necessitate the mandating of a new language or at least the outlawing of the most egregious aspects of the old one. And this was instituted through speech codes on college campuses to constrain how people could acceptably speak. The argument that this was a violation of free speech was smartly countered with the claim that, no, there was no proposition that could not be spoken in the new language. Anything you wanted to say could still be said, but it had to be said in a language that did not give an automatic advantage to the entrenched power. The proposition to be stated was separated from the act of speaking. Using the old language was an act of repression. It was that act and not what was being said that was being stopped.

Smart and well intentioned, but political correctness was ultimately a dismal failure. What was wrong? Three things. First, while it is certainly true that words often do carry with them shades of their lexicographic past, the effects are simply not that strong. Calling it a "manhole" really does not do that much to bolster entrenched patriarchy in the field of public works, especially when compared to real offenses out there in the culture. All the fuss over some comparatively trivial aspects of language was like trying to reverse global warming by cutting back on the greenhouse gasses emitted from the eating of Mexican food. In a world of actual problems, this probably isn't where the effort belonged. The focus on language made the approach seem silly because at best, the results would be so trifling.

Second, it was incredibly naive to think that it was the syntax, the words themselves, that had the power. You don't really change the culture by simply changing a few words; you just have the same awful bigoted place, only with new words and, of course, those new words will easily become just as infected. Indeed, using the PC euphemisms itself became an act of attacking those who were trying to help empower those without power. By using the terms with the appropriate amount of sarcasm, they became loaded with the meaning that caring about others is absurd.

Finally, and most importantly, the theory is far too subtle and when it got translated into the public mind, political correctness was transformed into the idea that it is morally wrong to be offensive to anyone under any circumstances. When it reached the mainstream, suddenly to be politically correct had nothing to do with not bullying people with language, it was simply a matter of not offending anyone. Using racial slurs is wrong, on this new pop version of PC, not because is entrenches an unfair distribution of social power and capital, but now simply because it might upset some members of the group mentioned. It didnĂ‚’t matter whether what you were saying was true or not, if people might get their little feathers ruffled, it was deemed verboten. The morality of speech now had nothing to do with bullying, the question was no longer about power, it was simply a matter of walking on linguistic eggshells lest someone become hypersensitive about what we were saying.

It was this caricature of the more sophisticated attack of the humanistic left that became the face of the left. Instead of fighting real injustice, we were worried about sports mascots and other trivialities. All of the real work we were doing could be shunted aside for the buffoonish image that the excesses of PC allowed the other side to tag us with. And it was this image that stuck -- in part because we seemed more than happy to play into it and this is one of the reasons whvilifys so easy for the right tohumanistiche word "liberal." The humanisitc left, with its perspectivalist arguments against objective truth got translated (even by some of its own practitioners as well as its enemies) into a full out assault on rationality.

But then the worst possible thing happened to the right. They took power. Their own excesses from the religious flank have led them to disregard their anti-post-modern claim to be "keepers of rationality." By allowing their Dominionist flank to take the lead and push things like abstinence only sex ed and other faith-based social policies, they showed everyone that they were happy to put religious doctrine before rationality. They adoptedmodernistse language of the post-moderninsts and equaled, if not exceeded their distaste for the "reality-based" community. If the post-modernists were right.

And so they decided to fight the big battle: Darwin. The baldface attack on evolution was the right's big push. It was Waterloo. The religious right's political muscle was being flexed and the progressives had nowhere else to turn but to the scientists. And so we started to see the reassertion of the scientific left. When it became utterly clear to everyone that Intelligent Design was a political facade on the front of the creationist movement and when it went down in flames, an important thing may have happened. With its scientists as spokesmen, the leadership of the intellectual left may have shifted from the humanists to the scientists in order to fight the conservative war on science.

The moral of the story may end up being that social control depends upon keeping the "most rational" mantle. If this is true, we need to find a way to marry our humanists and scientists. Does the classical Enlightment picture really sit underneath modern sceince? Of course not. Of course there is some degree of truth to questions about the theory-dependence of observation and issues of power and reward structure influencing debate as worked out by the better minds in the sociology of science. But the naive antipathy towards science that we saw in the Social Text heyday of post-modernism needs to be exorcized from the left. Intelligent Design may have saved the left. It has given us the chance to rework our intellectual core and we need to make sure that we do so by intergrating both of the insights that began this debate back in the beginning of the 20th century in Germany. We the international, democratic scientific ethos, but we also need to make sure that science, in its abstraction, does not become dehumanized which will be hard in the current context of hyperspecialization, technological industrialization, and publish or perish tenure models which actively discourages scientists from being players in the world beyond their academic or corporate communities.

This will not mean that scientists need to do science differently, but it will mean that scientists will have to step up more, out of the lab and into the spotlight. We need more Brian Greenes who will make science interesting and cool to the broader culture. We need more Rush Holts who will step out of the labs and into the legislatures. We need more PZ Meyerses who will take the battle to them on the internet. We need more science teachers in the elementary school classrooms and on local school boards. The momentum seems to have shifted, but tides can be fickle. We need to reincorporate the scientific left and for that we need to step up.