Radical Pathology: Trivialization

I think the most interesting radical pathologies, broadly defined as misfeatures of political activists common to both the radical left and the radical right, are the less obvious ones (the more obvious ones are on Zompist).

For example, Stentor’s post about a Marxist geographer’s claim that not using dialectics in research will lead to bias editoralizes,

So what is Harvey’s (and Marx’s) big conclusion as to why the Limits to Growth thesis is wrong? He says that population pressure on resources could be solved not only by reducing population, but also by changing the per capita consumption level, or developing new technologies and social systems that expand our resource base and allow us to use it more efficiently. This is quite true — but it’s hardly a radical reframing of the issue. And we didn’t need a Marxist to point it out. “Consume less” is the standard environmentalist line (indeed, today Malthusian scenarios are usually invoked to prove the need for lower consumption rather than lower birthrates). And “find new technologies” is the standard moderate and anti-environmentalist line. Either dialectical thinking is unnecessary for reaching Harvey’s conclusions, or dialectics is far more commonplace than any of the radical academics extolling its subversive virtues would be willing to admit.

I think that this is symptomatic of a lot of “radical” research. Conclusions that are really fairly straightforward are dressed up in language implying the need for a radical philosophical change in order to be able to see the issue. But if even I can understand — and agree with — your conclusions, then they don’t depend on “dialetics” or a “relational ontology.”

It is indeed symptomatic of a lot of radical statements, even those outside social scientific research. I left a comment illustrating this with a socialist example from government size. Libertarians commonly call things like social security, public health care, and the minimum wage socialism, even though they’re embraced by many people who care little for Marx; the idea is to tar these basic programs by associating them with a hated philosophy.

But at the same time, socialists call these programs socialism. For them, it’s a bait-and-switch tactic: first you tell people they really are socialists because they support a social safety net, and then you tell them that socialism also mandates nationalization of industry, punitive taxes, etc.

Similarly, Christian zealots engage in that whenever they pull the “Christianity is necessary for morality” card. Secularists and even moderate Christians – including even people I loathe like Jim Wallis – realize that one can come to the conclusion that murder, rape, and theft are wrong without ever invoking God. But conservative Christians, who despite the name “conservative” are reactionary, insist that anyone who believes murder is wrong must really secretly be religious and therefore has to accept less palatable parts of Christianity, like special creation and Christian beliefs about gender and homosexuality.

Like many other radical pathologies, this one is present in less radical people in the form of the bait-and-switch. But it takes a radical to, say, on the one hand define feminism as “the belief that women are human” and then say that it requires one to believe in Brownmiller’s theory of rape.

I think part of it is due to the fact that radicals are often so marginalized that they have to prove their relevance to society by showing that their line of thinking is necessary to produce what people consider common sensical. Unfortunately for them, it backfires because like Harvey, they only end up showing that their line of thinking produces what the mainstream can produce on its own. Instead of looking relevant, radicalism then looks redundant.

As usual, the most ready source of converts for the radical, the relatively apathetic moderate whose ideology is strongly coupled to the radical’s, will be the only one that this trivialization technique will convince. Talking about Christian morality can convince Christians who don’t go to church; it won’t convince a single secular humanist, who has no trouble forming a purely secular morality, to say nothing of Muslims or Hindus or Confucians or Buddhists. Saying that social security is socialism might persuade some social democrats, but by and large this association has caused many more people to come to oppose social security than to support socialism.

8 Responses to Radical Pathology: Trivialization

  1. KH says:

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say “it takes a radical” to (falsely) infer, e.g., Brownmiller’s thesis from “women are human.” I take it you agree that non- or anti-radicals also sometimes associate themselves with unobjectionable claims & then say that they warrant whatever version of centrism they endorse. Is it that centrists err less egregiously?

  2. Alon Levy says:

    As a rule, yes – at least, when they don’t talk about patriotism (which, while thoroughly mainstream, tends to exhibit the same pattern of behavior as religion, socialism, feminism, etc., and has a sizable fascist fringe).

    The main difference between trivialization and classic bait-and-switching is how politicized the process is. The classic bait-and-switch involves a political party doing something like winning an election on a platform of reducing unemployment and combating communism and proceeding to destroy democracy. That particular example comes from a radical group, the Nazis, but everyone in politics does it.

    Trivialization tends to be more academic, and more related – for example, you assert that totalitarianism is bad and dragoon your audience to accept total deregulation of the economy as a direct consequence. It’s also something I don’t ever see moderates do, except when making obligatory “we’re the best nation in the world” statements. For example, I know of no secular equivalent to the religious morality bait-and-switch, of no libfem equivalent of the radfem “women are human” and MRA “men are not always on top” arguments, and of no moderate capitalist equivalent of the libertarian “totalitarianism is bad” and the socialist “people shouldn’t starve” arguments.

  3. KH says:

    How do you distinguish trivialization from bait-&-switch? How far are you just talking about equivocation?

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Well, trivialization tends to be ideological, again. When Rush Limbaugh says “Obviously, if the tax rate were 100% then nobody would work so the government would get no tax revenues” and then goes on to advocate supply-side economics, he conflates an entirely trivial proposition with a non-trivial one. People closer to the center don’t generally do that; when they use bait-and-switch tactics, it’s less ideological, and more a way to get people to vote for policies they disagree with. That, I suppose, connects to one of the distinctions between totalitarianism (which is a radical form of government) and authoritarianism (which is conservative): authoritarians don’t really care if you agree with them, as long as your activities don’t pose a threat.

  5. KH says:

    OK, thanks. My current favorite example: it’s wrong to treat women as sex objects, so the subject-object distinction should be rejected.

  6. […] (Read my previous posts about trivialization and personal purity if you haven’t) […]

  7. […] Trivialization: radicals often consider their own views trivial, and argue from first principles. For libertarians, it’s freedom; for Marxists, it’s equality; for religious fundamentalists, it’s morality; for radical feminists, it’s gender equality. This turns into a political tactic, wherein the radical will invite the recruit by appealing to some trivial principle, and then tell him he must support the entire agenda as a member of the movement in good standing. […]

  8. Mike Barrett says:

    Wow. I am a conservative Christian and yet had no idea I was pathological and predominantly focused on morality. You are clearly very intelligent and a very good writer. But you may have done to socialists, Christians, and feminists what you accuse them of doing to the mainstream. Seriously, unless you can convince me otherwise, I am concluding you just did the bait and switch on us.

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