Politics and Politeness
by Mark English
I’m probably more contrarian than conservative, though I freely admit that my views on some issues might be seen as conservative. Whatever that means. Many views which would now be classed as conservative would have been seen as liberal not too long ago.
Moreover there is a big divide between those who see recent societal changes as a sign of moral or social progress and those who don’t. Not being a fan of identity politics, I don’t. But, then again, I don’t assume that others (apart from close friends or family) will be much interested in my personal views.
When anyone writes on political topics, opinions impinging on those topics will show. But the point of any worthwhile discursive writing is never primarily to display personal opinions or to engage in moral signaling but rather to present and analyse facts, discuss specific topics or events, make practical judgments and predictions, etc. The opinions are there in the background. They play at the very least a motivating role. Ideally they will not be explicitly pushed, but stay “between the lines” most of the time.
Then again, relevant opinions and motives should not be deliberately hidden. Doing so would amount to deception. And, if there is a moral value that is absolutely crucial to intellectual intercourse, it is honesty. A writer or a scholar or a scientist who is not completely honest in his or her work is worse than useless.
Writing in a more or less committed or subjective way about disputed social and political topics is very different from doing scholarly or scientific work, of course, and calls for a balance between self-expression and more objective modes (such as reportage and analysis). As in so many areas of life, judgment is required. You are walking – or trying to walk – a fairly narrow line.
So, while it would be dishonest – and a breach of faith with the reader – for an author to put conscious effort into hiding or obscuring her real opinions or motives, it just seems like bad manners to put the focus on one’s own opinions and (as it were) inflict them on the reader. The only case in which such writing may be acceptable – as I see it – is if it is very entertaining. The trouble is, humor is difficult to do. And, the way the world is moving, satire has become virtually impossible.
Just as the crass and stupid pronouncements of many right-wing activists make us all cringe, so the bad manners of liberals and progressives has, over the years, alienated me and many others from them. Self-righteous moralizing is bad form and very unattractive. In a similar way, violent protests alienate people from the cause in question. As Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out, the Antifa movement has been a gift to the right.
But I am thinking here more of workplace contexts and ordinary discourse. Recently a couple of Hollywood actors were talking publicly about the way their conservative colleagues have to keep their opinions to themselves if they want to continue working. Tell me about it! The same thing applies in other areas of the arts, academia and much of the media, as well as within government and some private sector bureaucracies.
I worked in academia for almost two decades, and I couldn’t believe how rude people were in talking about politics. Time and time again it was simply assumed that because you were in that line of work you had to have more or less the standard view on this or that issue. There was no chance that you might have reservations about certain progressive causes, because only stupid, ignorant people had such reservations. Undergraduate students were often seen in these terms and routinely ridiculed by some of my colleagues. Politicians on the “other” side were considered fair game, the butt of countless (unfunny) jokes. Boorish is the word that comes to mind to describe such behavior.
My response was usually not to engage or to try to change the subject. Occasionally I would speak up, even though I was fully aware that this was potentially a career-damaging thing to do.
I have previously referred to Megan McArdle’s depressing account of her experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and of her more recent interactions with academics who objected to her claims of general political bias in academia.
Every time I write about bias against conservatives in academia, I can count on a few professors writing me to politely suggest that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Sometimes they aren’t so polite, either. How would I know what goes on in their hiring meetings, their faculty gatherings, their tenure reviews? They’re right there, and they can attest firsthand that there ain’t no bias, no sir! But none of them can explain why, if that bias doesn’t exist, so many of their conservative and libertarian colleagues feel compelled to hide in the closet. Deep in the closet, behind that plastic zip bag of old winter coats in mothballs, and sealed, with many layers of packing tape, in a box marked “Betamax Tapes: Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon 1981-1987.”
Not all my colleagues were boorish, of course. Most of them were not. But the boorish ones were often the ones who dominated common-room discussions, poisoning the atmosphere for those who had different views.
Our tendency to apply (and think in terms of) simplistic labels continues to amaze me. We even tend to label ourselves. But the standard labels – like conservative, progressive, etc. – that we apply in relation to social and political views are inadequate in the same way that racial stereotypes are inadequate. The latter lump together particular sets of personal characteristics; the former, sets of views and attitudes on various issues. Do some people fit these ideological stereotypes? Sure. But such people – party liners – are probably not going to be very interesting to talk to. If you know what someone is going to say before they say it, why bother talking to them?
Actual views on specific topics are what counts, and intelligent people will deal with each topic on its merits. I am suggesting that we can only deal effectively with ideological and value-based questions in a piecemeal way, looking at specific issues in turn. (1)
There used to be rules about not talking about religion and politics in public. It was drilled into me as a small child that this was just not done. It was bad manners. Though I had a penchant for controversy from an early age, I tried to follow this advice.
I can only think of one case of my speaking out inappropriately in a social situation as a child, but it had nothing to do with politics or religion. I was talking to a friend of my father’s, a well-known former cricketer who chaired an important cricket selection panel, and I – an avid cricket follower at the time – was pleading the case for one of my favorites. I was shocked and embarrassed when my father (who had been present) told me off about it later. Obviously it had been the wrong thing to do, and I had displayed a lack of tact and implicitly, a lack of respect for the selector’s professional expertise. (2)
I don’t know why these old rules of courtesy and politeness loomed so large for my father. (3) Certainly his focus on such things was slightly unusual for the time. He was older than most of my contemporaries’ fathers, but even his contemporaries (old college friends and so on) used to make gentle fun of him. I don’t know which particular factors – parental influence, say, or schooling or personal experience – had been most significant in shaping his views and attitudes, but the fact that his father died young and he had to assume heavy responsibilities from an early age would obviously have had a big impact. He was (like me) a first-born, with two younger siblings.
We, all of us, are first and foremost individuals, with unique families and developmental histories. (4) Even such things as the birth order of siblings has a small but significant effect on personality and ideological orientation. But the family unit is not as significant as it was. Its defenses have been breached in unprecedented ways by social and technological change. The “haven in a heartless world” (to use Christopher Lasch’s phrase) is no longer the haven it once was. Nor does the family have the same significance as an educative force that it once did.
Rules of courtesy could be seen as socially-evolved mechanisms that allow us, as unique individuals (who may or may not strongly associate ourselves with particular ethno-cultural, social or ideological groups), to get along without unnecessary friction. But, of course, those old rules – which had been learned and promulgated within families for the most part – have fallen by the wayside.
Instead we find ourselves in a world in which various groupings of like-minded individuals have formed which are operating increasingly in isolation from other groupings. The end result is not only the social fragmentation and dysfunction which is so evident today in most Western countries, but also the decline of individuality. When individuals find their whole meaning and purpose in some group identity or other, they inevitably fail to do full justice to their individuality and uniqueness, to the complex contingencies which have created them.
Those ideological and group identity labels which we all too often apply to ourselves may be revealing – but they are not revealing in a straightforwardly descriptive way. They are, I would suggest, usually quite superficial and more akin to shibboleths – or fashion statements – than genuinely meaningful descriptions.
- We also need to “go meta” sometimes, but I see this in terms of trying to identify the framework of values which is implied by a particular set of specific views.
- He himself had not appeared to react in a negative way; I suspect that he had been more amused than offended by my earnest suggestions.
- Another big no-no for him was anonymous communication, a topic which has become a focus of some attention and controversy as modes of communication have changed.
- I am not talking about the atomistic individual – which is a nonsense. You need a cultural matrix to create an individual; and each such individual is unique.