About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, January 02, 2016

A last reflection on 2015

My previous post focused on my own experience of 2015, mainly from the viewpoint of how my work agenda panned out (though I did also mention family issues).

I keep private matters fairly private, but I'll just say that I appreciate the support that I've had from so many loved ones, friends, and colleagues through 2015. It's much appreciated, and I couldn't be doing any of this without you.

I suffered a mild but persistent illness through several weeks over the winter, which didn't make my efforts during that period, when I was under work pressure, any easier. For a while, I had an annoying dose of conjunctivitis on top of it. I've also been dealing with a couple of other minor health issues in the past month or two. Hopefully, those will soon be behind me. Generally speaking, I'm in good health despite not exactly getting any younger these days, so I'm looking forward to a few productive decades yet.

Much has been written about Australian and international politics as it unfolded through 2015. Now and then, I've commented on particular issues, especially the Charlie Hebdo murders. I wrote an unusually long op-ed for Free Inquiry - behind a paywall, alas - and I followed up some months later with the Cogito piece mentioned in my previous post. I was especially dismayed, though not especially surprised, at the barrage of commentators who went close to saying the Charlie Hebdo contributors had it coming, and in any event that the publication is a racist one that does not deserve solidarity. Those commentators deserve a hall of shame of their own. (I wasn't especially surprised because so much of this resembled a replay of what happened to Salman Rushdie in 1989, sparked by the fatwa that followed publication of The Satanic Verses.)

This raises larger questions about cultural critique. All too often, we see shallow criticism of cultural products (books, movies, magazines, video games, songs, etc.) based on cheaply learned ideology rather than genuine understanding or even basic fairness. As I concluded in my Cogito piece on Charlie Hebdo, we must try to do better than this:
Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

More generally, there is at least a broad sense in which I belong to the political Left. If I were in charge of a nation's economy, I would seek workable but effective means to redistribute income and assets, try to compress the current huge inequalities of wealth, provide a strong socio-economic safety net, and generally advance the opportunities of those classes who are financially least advantaged. In philosophical theory, I'd not even rule out (plainly, genuinely) socialist approaches; but in real-world politics, I'm very much a pragmatic social democrat. You could vote for me without worrying that I'd scare the horses! My model would be Australia's (generally) successful Hawke-Keating ALP governments of the 1980s and early 1990s.

And meanwhile, no one should doubt where I stand on such hot-button social issues as gay rights and women's reproductive rights - both of which I've supported strongly over the years, privately and publicly.

But while I am of the Left in a broad sense, I'm not prepared to accept every bizarre ideological outgrowth of identity politics, every propagandist catchphrase that becomes popular ("check your privilege", "Islamophobia", "safe space"), or every attempt to "call out", shame, and otherwise harm some poor individual of whom the self-righteous make a public example (usually for some minor, dubious, or imaginary transgression, or for some moderate dissent from a local party line).

It's clear that there are regressive tendencies within the Left, especially within its academic and cultural manifestations. They include the kind of anti-science nonsense famously satirised by Alan Sokal in the 1990s. Though wounded, this form of weirdness has not completely gone away. Among other regressive tendencies, there's too much solicitude on the Left toward religion: the kind of solicitude that leads to perfectly rational criticism of religious faith being labelled as "strident" (however mild it might actually be in tone), and that has made criticism of Islam and Islamism almost taboo in many left-wing circles. Often, too, there's a distasteful paternalism and authoritarianism within the contemporary Left.

Such concerns led me to republish (in slightly abbreviated form) my 1999 essay, "The Left's Defection from Progress", which deals with at least some aspects of the academic and cultural Left's tendency to abandon Enlightenment ideals. Seventeen years later, I would probably write this essay in a slightly different way, partly because my own thinking has developed in that time - how could it not? - and partly because the issues have evolved. Still, I think I was seeing something important and troubling in early 1999.

I saw an escalation of problems in about 2011 - particularly a sudden acceleration in what came to be termed call-out culture, as left-wing rage bloggers and Twitter mobs became aggressively unfair, intolerant, and savage in going after their own philosophical and social allies. This trend has only grown worse, but in 2015 it was finally acknowledged as a problem by mainstream progressive journalists.

I expect that I'll be spending much of 2016 writing about these sorts of issues. The Left's ongoing regressive tendencies have the effect of silencing many decent, progressive people: men and women who are justifiably afraid to offer commonsense views on a wide range of topics, from the role of religion to bioethical decisions and policies. In recent years, many individuals have confided in me about aspects of this, and why they keep a low profile on various topics. They fear being "called out", ostracised, damaged in their careers, etc., by others whom they regard as their own people. As a result, sensible liberal views from more-or-less left-leaning thinkers are often not receiving their due weight in public discussion, creating something of a vacuum.

But the other effect is that this sort of nonsense tends to bring the Left as a whole into disrepute with ordinary citizens and electors who are not academics, journalists, etc., making it all the more difficult to oppose genuinely irresponsible and dangerous figures on the political Right. It would be hyperbole to blame the Left for the extreme turn that we've seen of late, with near-fascist opinions and policies being espoused by many current Republican candidates for the US presidency. Doubtless, many factors are involved. It surely can't help the cultural mood, though, when the range of intelligent voices on the Left is restricted by the ideology, propaganda, and sheer cruelty that characterises so much of the Left these days - especially as manifested in the social media and on many university campuses in the US and UK - and when so much left-wing thought appears illiberal, nitpicking, or simply incredible.

Let's hope that we get through 2016 with some success in pushing back against these unfortunate tendencies. I'll continue to criticise ideologues and propagandists. I'll oppose rage bloggers, college crybullies, and virtue-signalling Twitter mobs.

Above all, though, given what's at stake globally, I also hope that the US manages - at election time later in 2016 - to choose a president who is not one or another kind of dangerous clown or loose cannon.

Happy New Year!

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