Bigotry: the left, the right, and the paradox of “the good” that comes from modern political participation

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch (1503-1504)

If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease – Sent-ts’an c700 CE

Not too long ago Scotland voted in a referendum on whether or not it should remain in the United Kingdom. The issue was widely engaging: In the end, there was something like an 85% electoral turnout compared to closer to 65% in the 2010 general election. Ultimately progressives on the left had their dreams disappointed by the 55/45 result in favour of the Union. Unionists, and especially Westminster, relatively on the right, released a sigh of relief in the face of a YouGov poll claiming a 51/49 shift in favour of secession a week before the vote, the Better Together campaign having apparently lost a 20-point lead. Campaigning on both sides in the last 6 months was no less boisterous and intense as would be expected from any other sort of political movement, but something about the Scottish referendum enticed an overwhelming majority of citizens from all over the world to participate. Surely this level of engagement and participation must be a social “good?”

There is of course nothing wrong with taking part. Suggesting that people should not take part or not have opinions is akin to suggesting they should not have the right to vote. Problems arise usually not through the simple act of taking part, but more frequently through the way such participation is exercised. In this context participation was exercised significantly through social media, perhaps in ways rather different from how it may have been in the past, but perhaps not. My focus, to be clear, however, is not simply the medium through which opinions were expressed but also in their manner. Though these two are related, so it makes little sense to consider one without the other.

Good begets evil more often than most would care to consider. Political participation crosses a line the moment it attracts bigots, and it will always attract bigotry – that’s just the way it works, maybe even the way it has to work. Reasoned impartiality in examining jingoistic issues is derided as opposition because “having or revealing an obstinate belief in the superiority of one’s own opinions and a prejudiced intolerance of the opinion of others” inherently necessitates knee-jerk moralization. Isaac Asimov is spot on when he writes that “[t]he strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

Perhaps bigotry stems from a combination of insecurity and immaturity as much as it might from general ignorance. It would of course be absurd to say that people should not participate because of any of this – people are to be allowed their personal, deeply-guarded existential beliefs. Societies, nor their constituent individuals, would be much of anything without the beliefs that help form their identities. But when one calmly approaches another in good faith as a means to engage in what will hopefully become a constructive discussion on a particular problem, rather than the primitive mud-slinging people seem so desperate to cling to, one would hope that prejudice and intolerance would subside. In reality, the core of what it means to be bigoted reinforces itself.

Not everyone I approached (or who approached me) in an attempt to facilitate a ‘media-free’ discussion on the issues of the referendum reacted this way. Nevertheless, it is quite apparent that popular ‘thinking’ or ‘debating’ does work this way. Posts quickly descend into what are essentially the online equivalent of a shouting contest, the loudest voice, or the voice with the most ‘friends’ in their network (which will statistically be able to garner more ‘likes’) will be seen as the ‘victor’ by most people (in at least that network and possibly onwards). Form over substance. The same is true for those who – perhaps correctly, at least from a populist perspective – think winning the debate involves being the one who produces the most incensed and longest rebuttal, which, given the way emotions work and the way Facebook formats comment threads, is not difficult to achieve. One only needs to have a cursory read through many of the discussions that took place throughout social media to appreciate these normative attitudes.

Most comments also tend to have a general incoherence about them which only helps to draw attention to how little most people know about the policy issues they claim to understand so well. “I googled it so now I am instantly informed of it – here’s the link to prove it.” (And Wikipedia is always neutral, right?) Worse still were those with advanced degrees, clearly bright minds in their respective fields, acting as though the fact that an advanced degree in a subject is enough to instantly comprehend the complex ideas elaborated by intellectuals in “lesser” scientific subjects (the unfortunate phenomenon known as scientism). Actual knowledge and true comprehension develop over time, not through blind reasoning informed by professional or subject-matter stereotypes, or through a puerile philosophical outlook which ranks knowledge according to its scientific merit. This also does not mean time perusing any number of partisan media sources, whose journalists write specifically for a highly generalized perspective (and which frequently reappear as Wikipedia footnotes). They can only provide, at best, half of the picture because this is how they sell papers. It’s why they exist: bias is their business. Their aim is to reduce and simplify in order to make it easier to sway an already complacent audience by parroting back to its readers the opinions they already hold/understand. Over-complicate matters beyond knee-jerk moralization and all that results is participant alienation and a consequent loss of market share. Liberating oneself from the tides of social/political conformity as fueled by politicians and the media is, however, no easy feat – in fact it may not be completely practicable or even desirable.

Again, I do not want to sound like I am pointing the finger at others for what they do or do not know, or comprehend. On the contrary, I readily empathize with this as there is much, much more that I do not know when stacked up against that which I do. The difference, and the issue, is in the self-righteous attitude towards those who clearly do have relevant knowledge to contribute on a matter, especially when that information may draw into question the reasoning that has otherwise occurred within a tetchy bubble of bias. Listening to, attempting to understand, and ultimately learning from others is a good thing perhaps because it is so difficult to do when compared to just talking at them. Realizing that those with legal backgrounds do not argue or question merely for the sake of it (popular/media characterization) and have spent years studying what the law is comprised of (rules + policy with insights from across the social sciences) might be a sensible first step. Realizing that working through the intricacies of a policy is a rather complex process and goes much further than simply generalized agreement/opinion based on, and shaped by, what politicians, the media, and half-baked philosophies have asserted, might be a sensible second. But obstinately refusing to show any signs of wisdom by ignoring the realities of what we don’t know and complaining incessantly of the world’s injustices in a ‘blame or be blamed’ fashion won’t help anyone – even if it will help broadcast your intentions on where you plan to mark ‘x’ on a piece of paper.

Granted, admitting to a lack of understanding is challenging for us all, particularly when we are so prone to deluding ourselves into believing in our own expertise. Paradoxically this sort of faith is part of what drives humanity to accomplish both great and terrible things. It is perhaps this attitude that led Bertrand Russell to remark that “[t]he whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Either way, and regardless of a partial and partisan understanding at any given point in time, it is plain that the motivation behind someone’s political ideals is a moral one, which for this reason alone means it should be afforded some respect. But then so too should that of their opponents or even just their perceived opponents, especially if you’re touting the ‘progressive’ banner of equality. This is certainly a more preferable starting point than the blindly assertive attitude “If they’re not on our side, then they’re wrong.” Under the principle of equality there must be scope for a balancing act between independence of thought and being gently guided towards a more moderate, more cohesive (and less extreme) position.

Crowd or mob mentality may however render this level of compassionate cooperation next to impossible. Facilities like the internet might be making this worse, acting like an outgrowth of the conventional media with both only serving to fuel and reinforce popular attitudes. After all, it only takes one voice in a crowd to set off a chain reaction of impulsive agreement on a particular matter, whether online or off. Simply follow the chain of ‘shares’ or ‘likes,’ and you will quickly discover that those who spread/endorse certain ideas only do so because they agree with them at face value, particularly when bearing in mind the systemic lack of depth enforced by the way media work – a more polite way of saying that they see things through the same telescope pointed always at the same star, and, in mechanical knee-jerk fashion click buttons on Facebook. Or maybe this is just more of the same and not necessarily ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ like war but with new weapons – the modern way handing out pamphlets and badges. It certainly has a tendency to boil down to the same principles: Good v Evil, Us v Them, and KnowledgeIgnorance, all perpetuating a perhaps unavoidably bipolar battle for “the common good.”

Yet this is what politics, morality and law, their supposedly impartial relative, work in tandem for: herding (to put it crudely), and doing the best they can as shepherds seeking to satisfy as many as possible out of an infinite number of competing, practically mirror-image ideologies (to put it romantically). Not everyone is a bigot in the day-to-day, but something about political participation has a tendency to bring these sorts of attitudes to the fore. It makes sense for people to generalize and align themselves into political groups or teams, but we must remember that we are fundamentally the same, seeking rather similar ends, only through superficially or rhetorically different means. We only perceive ourselves superior because of how we choose to and because of how we are led to – Guardian and Telegraph readers, SNP and UKIP supporters alike. Progress, as well as the established order, are both equally vital, and, in the face of passive aggressive nationalistic rhetoric, the quietly steadfast voice of reason, in this case, ultimately prevailed. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about the intersection between law and politics, I can recommend the following books on justice, democracy and the rule of law:

Between Fear and Hope: Hybrid Thoughts on Public Values, by Martin Krygier; A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love and Truth and Justice, by Raimond Gaita (Guardian snippet here); and Law, Liberty and Morality, by H.L.A. Hart

For a more historical focus on the subject of legal theory above check out:

Minerva’s Owl: the Tradition of Western Political Thought, by Jeffrey Abrahamson and A Short History of Western Legal Theory, by J.M. Kelly. Both are exceptionally well written.

And for a splendidly accessible call for a more centrist approach to politics, consider Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind; New York Times review here.

For some reason the link under “media sources” doesn’t follow through. It’s a documentary on YouTube you can access from GB if you search ‘stupidity documentary’ in YouTube. The segment is 40min into the hour long video. It should be the first one that comes up.


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