Bravo Yascha!

What I like to call "polarized morality"--the belief that the world is divided into Pure Good and Pure Evil, and all we have to do is utterly destroy the Evil side and the Good side will live happily ever after--is deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldview. It takes a LOT of effort to unlearn it. One of the things I've always loved about Barack Obama is that his life forced him to unlearn it better than most. Which is no doubt why so many of his policies were too complicated (i. e. not polarized enough) to be popular, why he left so many liberals feeling like the most successful liberal Presidency in at least half a century (and even to say that LBJ was better, you have to set aside that little Vietnam thing) was accomplishing nothing--and why in the wake of that "failure", polarized morality is back with such a vengeance.

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Jun 25, 2021Liked by Brendan Ruberry

I agree with all of this, but there is a faction of the left, small but growing, that doesn’t succumb to the 180ism you’re describing, and I’d love to see center-left people like yourself and others engage with them! I’d recommend checking out some old episodes of The Michael Brooks Show (RIP), he pushed back against this 180ism in thoughtful and articulate ways. Most of his guests, too, are dedicated to the intellectually consistency and free-thinking that you’re trying to cultivate on the left. Cornel West is good on this as well - he was interviewed on Brie Joy’s podcast a few weeks ago and they touched upon these issues. I don’t watch Kyle Kulinski regularly, but from what I’ve seen he’s intellectually consistent. Some smaller voices to look at would be Matt Lech and David Griscom (alums from the Michael Brooks Show),m and their podcast Left Reckoning, and The Woke Bros podcast with Wosney Lambre and Nando Orvila (the title is sarcastic). I’m sure all of these people are further left than yourself, but there is a lot of common ground there and I think both factions would benefit from exploring it.

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I truly appreciate the handful of independent voices on the left, and I make a point of supporting them. However, Jonathan Haidt’s assessment of the deep polarization between the left and right still seems to apply to even the somewhat more thoughtful writers that I find in this forum. The right understands the left, but the left cannot understand the right. My sense is that you understand little of conservative positions, which are often addressed as little more than a caricature. You pat yourself on the back for being open minded. I am sure that you mean to be, and I give you credit for that. But your understanding or at least it’s presentation, is inch deep and somewhat patronizing. Most on the right are, unavoidably, constantly, immersed in the world view of the left. I see that most of those on the left are genuinely good people, just terribly blind, arrogant, and utterly unable to grasp that this is the case. Each side judges themselves by their highest ideals and objectives, and judges the other side by the worst of what they see among a relative handful who claim their banner. However, it is the left who are the worse hypocrites, because they are rarely challenged, and so easily remain blind. They live in an echo chamber where they are rarely confronted with either the flaws in their arguments, or the negative consequences. And every effort to silence those who disagree only worsens this blindness.

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A rejection of 180ism is a big reason why I find this Persuasion community so valuable, so thank you Yascha, though I do wonder if the furious agreement contibutors and subscribers here so often share has created (to bastardise your term) a "90ism" of moderateness. Like you, I consider myself broadly a member of the left tribe, but that used to feel more vital than it does now. I'd love to have my comfortable, sensible-centre-left sensibilities shaken up every now and again by some erudite but somewhat more radical contributors from both the left and right.

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Most of my friends are liberal and most of my siblings and their families are conservative, some former liberals 'born again' into conservatism - the most strident I can't stand knee-jerkiness from either side, so I find myself arguing against it on the Left almost as much as I do with it on the Right These days, independent thinking is not valued and I believe that drives both sides to argue against what they 'think' their opponent believes or their concepts about what all 'Democrats' or all "Republicans' believe This is insulting as much as it's infuriating i'm generally left-of-center but argue against the anti-religion and race-reductionism on the Left I have fought for years against conservative family members who assume I oppose all restrictions on abortion or the Green New Deal So I know how to make my case while respecting the sensibilities of both sides If more partisans went deeper and asked why that friend thinks NATO should be expanded or why the economy needs trillions in new stimulus, maybe we'd all be better off You can even make a game of it by switching sides for argument's sake once in awhile

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I like the new term Yascha has coined. 180ism encapsulates the new reductionist zero-sum perspective held by a society now divided into diametrically opposed camps, each side bent on eliminating each other over the soul of America…or at least over the control of the soul of America.

You can plot all of the glib and pithy labels each camp employs along that binary axis. Here’s a few of them:










Labels like these are as attention-getting as they are repeatable and easily digestible. They’re quick and easy by design, and what’s more they carry a great deal of cachet. They’re the pocket change in today’s influence economy. ‘Time is money’ as the saying goes, and the quicker you are at getting your currency into circulation and encouraging consumers to spend it, the greater your chances at dominating the win-at-all-costs competitive arena that is daily living.

“Common Sense” is another one of those handy labels. It’s being adopted in support of a mindset that prioritizes gut instinct and sensory intuition, advocates retribution justice, and defines humanity according to its lowest hand-to-mouth level of existence. It’s a mindset where not only all the answers are simple but also all the problems. If the club had a motto then it would be “C’mon, it’s plainly obvious!” This is why I’ve been referring to 180ism in my own circles as “C’mon Sense.”

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Ironically, I doubt you'd find such uniform leftist resistance today to conservative attempts to "deplatform" either Lolita or the Harry Potter books-- though leftist reasons for going along, especially in the latter case, would be quite different from conservative motivations.

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A few thoughts:

"My friends’ reluctance to admit that al-Qaida really was, well, evil struck me as morally obtuse."

By your retelling, they made no comment whatever on al-Qaeda. They made a comment on viewing reality within a g-vs-e framing not being useful.

It seems a bit odd to react to that with an insistence on framing al-Qaeda that way in the next breath. One reason is that it is a statement that cannot be shown to be true. As such, its utility indeed seems challenged. This perhaps is what they were getting at.

One reason it cannot be shown to be true is that lack of any objective moral standard. If one cannot point to an objective moral standard, how can one then assign the labels of a subjective moral standard? One cannot. Not usefully.

As to the question of why so many "have embraced a reductionist world view that is now taking over public discourse", I would advance the following notions:

1) Your characterization of 'so many' invites the question: how are you counting? Upon what basis do you draw the conclusion of 'many'? One might hope the answer to be an empirical one, but that isn't obvious.

2) I wonder if what is happening, to the degree it is happening at all, is that there is what appears to be an increasing tendency to rely upon received wisdom rather than to engage in thought. The degree to which a person is distanced or distances themselves from primary sources, which with their gaps require more work to synthesize knowledge from, may be the degree to which they are vulnerable to the deficits of received wisdom. In this sense, I suggest that received wisdom is a proxy for thought. Once one outsources thought -- all bets are off.

As to the question of Dr. Seuss:

I agree that it is undesirable to seek to eliminate offense. It is intrinsic to liberal democracy, if not thought itself.

As to private companies:

This comes up a lot at Persuasion. I wonder if the desire to keep intruding upon private domains stems from a under-examined surrender of the public sphere. It came up in the conversation about Twitter censorship, and the amount of resistance to the observation that a private company is not the public square was alarming.

This was particularly true given the person I was going back and forth with on the question was a lawyer!

I don't know that the seizing of the private sphere is the answer. Why not cultivate the public sphere? Why is it not even considered? That a retail store controls a large part of the market is an anti-trust question. That is the answer. Enforce the law.

Do not, do not, do not, try to solve the problem by slowly or quickly trying to seize the private sphere.

As to letting books disappear:

Given that I believe that the moral panic being conducted in the service of a power grab, I think that part of these stabs are performative. In other words, part of the exercise of a power-grab is to grab power. If one is unsure of the outcome of an outright revolution, one incrementally revolts. These little plays seem as much of a test of the boundaries as they are of an expansion of the boundaries. A boil-the-frog-slowly strategy?

As to state legislatures:

Are state legislatures telling teachers what to say, or are they telling teachers what they cannot say? The former seems illiberal, whereas the latter has sat neatly within liberal democracy almost since its inception.

As to racial identity:

It is a big topic, but the concern I detect is the compulsive prescriptive framing of a child's racial identity along ideological lines. This is pretty hard to accept as anything less than antithetical to the charter of a liberal democracy.

This is true in at least two ways: the replacement of the concept of individualism with collective identitarianism, and the notion that an individual is free to choose how to live their life with the idea of making prescriptive racial identity the context from within which an individual must live their life.

On the question of enormous pressure:

This is not a bug -- it is a feature. As an intellectually honest individual, this is a significant measure of the utility of public discourse. You have ideas to advance. When you do they will be tested. Having your ideas tested hurts. It hurts because some of the time, if not most, you will be wrong.

This is non-trivial, but it is not a bad thing, it is a good thing. On the other side, you are a better thinker and a better participant in public discourse.

On the question of moral equivalence:

Of what utility is the quest for moral equivalence absent a uniform conception of morality?

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Reason. That's the operative word here. Defend reason. As Rauch points out, it's only held sway for a brief sliver of human history. That era may be ending. If reasonable people leave the field, it will.

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The phenomenon of this 180˚ thinking is just as little new as the conviction of people that they are 200% in possession of the truth. However, it becomes threatening when this mindset becomes socially dominant and, eventually capable of gaining a majority, comes into possession of the instruments of political power. In retrospect, it is easy to see that fascism was able to assert itself democratically as the will of the majority. And the question of how this could happen cannot be answered if one disregards which social forces expected to benefit from it.

As correct as Yasha's call is to think as self-determinedly as differentiatedly and to swim courageously against the tide, it seems to me essential to find an answer to the question of which forces are driving the development so powerfully. Some will blame the inadequacies of human nature, others will discover the causes in the nature of monotheistic religions, still others will blame the driving forces of capital. Perhaps there is no either-or here. Perhaps it is a dangerous mixture of all these ingredients. Dangerous because this mixtum compositum has what it takes to really unfold its explosive effect only when we have all come to the conclusion that we must unite against a common enemy.

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