Discover more from Rob Henderson's Newsletter
The Point is to Steadily Advance Toward Power While Appearing Not to Move at All
“What’s the big deal?”
There’s a language game people play in which they implement a new rule or attempt to sustain a new norm.
And when they are challenged on it they will reply with some variation of “It’s always been this way” or “These things happen in cycles” or “What’s the big deal?” or “That’s not happening.” These responses carry the same message: Stop resisting. Remain inert. Nothing is occurring.
A very simple example is the self-censorship trend on college campuses. As of 2019, only (only!) 60 percent of college students reported that they withheld their views. By 2021, this figure jumped to 82%.
When you point this out, people in favor of the trend will respond “Is this really a new trend? I mean, haven’t people always self-censored?”
Actually, no. Three years ago, forty percent of students report they didn’t self-censor. As of last year, one in five students still say they speak their minds.
The response betrays a hidden desire: That 82 percent is not enough. They want 100 percent of students to keep their mouths shut.
After all, isn’t that what people have always done?
But of course, self-censorship advocates are only in favor of this trend because it favors them and their coalitions. Suppose campus speech norms were primarily dominated by, say, military R.O.T.C. programs or student religious organizations, and 82 percent of students reported withholding their views. In that case, it is a certainty that the current self-censorship advocates would suddenly be calling for more free expression.
If their adversaries dictated the conversational culture on campus, current self-censorship advocates would not be saying “Haven’t people always self-censored?”
Imagine someone surveyed churches and religious houses of worship across the U.S. and found a sharp uptick in recent years in the percentage of attendees who report self-censoring.
Suppose in 2019, 60 percent of church attendees reported self-censoring, and then two years later the number jumped to 82%.
The current self-censorship advocates would likely have some questions about what is happening in those communities that is stifling people.
Their response would not be “Well, don’t people everywhere always self-censor?”
When you are in power and get to dictate the norms (e.g., self-censorship), they don’t feel like norms at all.
Norms only feel like norms when your adversaries are in power.
Recently, the psychologist and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt resigned from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), a professional organization for academic psychologists to present their research.
Haidt’s reason is that SPSP has announced a new requirement for applicants who wish to present their research at their conference: They must now submit a statement explaining “whether and how this submission advances the equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals of SPSP.”
The most frequent response from many academics in favor of this new statement are variations of “Why would you object to the goals of anti-racism?” “Are you opposed to anti-racism?” Or “Completing the statement is such a low barrier to cross, why do you care so much?” These ultimately boil down to “What’s the big deal?”
Razib Khan posited a question on Twitter:
Imagine if a scientific society declared that all research presented at their conference had to issue a statement about how the research advances “family values.”
Why would you oppose the goals of advancing family values? Are you against families? It’s such a low barrier to cross, why do you care so much?
The people currently in favor of issuing anti-racism statements would respond very differently if they had to issue family values statements. Or statements about how their research would promote the goals of tradition, or liberty, or order. What’s the big deal?
When you are in power, the rules don’t feel like rules. At most, they are minor inconveniences. They are the water you swim in. And everyone else should stop defying their submersion.
Aren’t we just in a transitional period?
These things always happen, and progress always feels uncomfortable at first. Sure, sometimes things go too far, but eventually, the pendulum swings away from extremes and back toward normalcy.
People who adopt this stance are, often unknowingly, invoking a concept from the German idealist philosopher G.W F. Hegel (1770-1831). And Karl Marx.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hegel is “perhaps most well-known for his teleological account of history, an account that was later taken over by Marx and ‘inverted’ into a materialist theory of a historical development culminating in communism.”
Hegel thought there was a world spirit moving toward something, a teleological endpoint. All of us are a part of it, everything that happens in the world is advancing toward a final destination. There is a path history is moving along, and people are among the limbs of a spirit, operating to move to the next phase.
Maybe you’ve heard about the Hegelian dialectic — thesis/antithesis/synthesis. The main idea is that history moves in a weaving, zigzagging line. It’s not linear. Something happens, some change occurs. This gives rise to a resistance against the change. Then there is another pushback against that resistance, but it doesn’t get you back to where you started from. You’re now in a new position different from where you began. The thesis is a change. You go from one kind of society to another. Then there’s resistance, or an antithesis. It moves you to another kind of society, but it’s not the same as the one you started with. This is the synthesis. The cycle continues on in this manner.
History is like this, according to Hegel. It doesn’t go in a straight line, but it does move forward toward something.
Moreover, we can’t know whether things are good or bad until we’ve reached the final destination; until we can examine the entire journey in context.
An analogy: throwing a baseball, in itself, has no real significance. But in the context of a stadium, during a game, with another team, and so on, then the throw takes on a larger meaning.
For Hegel any act is meaningless until we reach some kind of historical end to examine it in the context of the whole thing. He actually believed that history was evolving toward the supreme Prussian state of his day. Today, in 2022, things don’t seem to be moving in that direction.
But Hegel would say we don’t know yet.
Some sixty years later, Marx took Hegel’s idea and made it into something physical. He instantiated the Hegel’s idea of the spirit into concrete material conditions. This is the materialist conception of history. For Marx, the material conditions—means of production, raw materials, labor, class relations—determine the direction of the dialectic.
History goes in a zigzag manner.
It has an endpoint, which Marx believed was a communist utopia. But it’s driven not by ideas, but material interests. To be clear, Marx wasn't making recommendations or endorsements. He was making predictions: “Communism is what will happen next.” Marx thought workers and peasants would experience “class consciousness,” and realize that they encompassed a group with their own specific interests. There would be a worldwide worker’s revolution, an overthrow of the current system, and a transatlantic proletariat dictatorship.
Just as Hegel thought history was moving toward a powerful Prussian state, Marx thought history was unfolding toward a communist utopia. Self-important people often think history will wind up where they want it to. So for Marx, just as capitalism had followed feudalism, communism would then follow after capitalism.
The view of this form of historical determinism is that it is rational to side with power and irrational to be on “the wrong side of history.”
Summarizing these views in an essay titled “Historical Inevitability,” the great Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin writes:
“For Hegel, and for a good many others…history is a perpetual struggle…For Marx, the struggle is a fight between socially conditioned, organized groups—classes shaped by the struggle for subsistence and survival and consequently for the control of power…To be wise is to understand the direction in which the world is inexorably moving, to identify oneself with the rising power which ushers in a new world. Marx—and it is part of his attraction to those of a similar emotional cast…identifies himself…with the great force which in its very destructiveness is creative, and is greeted with bewilderment and horror only by those whose values are hopelessly subjective, who listen to their consciences, their feelings, or to what their nurses or teachers tell them, without realizing the glories of life in a world which moves from explosion to explosion to fulfill the great cosmic design.”
“What is just and unjust, good and bad, is determined by the goal towards which all creation is tending. Whatever is on the side of victorious reason is just and wise; whatever is on the other side, on the side of the world that is doomed to destruction by the working of the forces of reason, is rightly called foolish, ignorant, subjective, arbitrary, blind; and, if it goes so far as to try to resist the forces that are destined to supplant it, then it—that is to say, the fools and knaves and mediocrities who constitute it—is rightly called retrograde, wicked, obscurantist, perversely hostile to the deepest interests of mankind.”
Today, people invoke this way of thinking when history appears to be unfolding in their favored direction. They are on “the right side of history” (implying that history is an organic entity with a favored destination).
People typically say “what’s the big deal” only when the pendulum, or progress, or the Hegelian spirit, or the Marxian materialist dialectic, or the march of history, or the Mandate of Heaven, seem to be going in their favor.
No one was talking about the march of history when, e.g., Brexit happened.
When people say we are in a transitional period, often they mean that ridiculing the direction of the dialectic is senseless. And that critics stifle themselves. No one is actually changing anything, it’s just how history is going.
People don’t have agency, but the impersonal forces around you do.
What’s particularly interesting is when people believe that vast societal changes come from young people. If you ridicule ideas that are seemingly disproportionately held by the younger generation, people accuse you of being tone deaf, or old, or out of touch.
This is interesting because the ideas young people carry in their heads did not emerge spontaneously. They learned these ideas from somewhere.
In a fascinating essay, the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi describes how identity politics and emotional precarity came to dominate elite universities:
“Jonathan Haidt explained in Coddling of the American Mind and elsewhere, when he began his advocacy for viewpoint diversity, open inquiry and constructive disagreement, he thought it was the universities – faculty and administrators – who were proliferating the mindset he describes as ‘safetyism’ among students. However, as he continued to study the issue, he realized that he had the dynamics backward: students from more privileged backgrounds were coming into (elite) universities with these ideas and expectations already well-entrenched, and were often demanding conformity from university leadership and administration.”
The prevailing ideas on college campuses, in fact, came from elementary school, middle school, and high school teachers. And they originated from education departments at universities, who spread these ideas to the educators of children, who then inculcated these views into their students.
Many people blame the professors for the current state of affairs. But they’re blaming the wrong ones. The academics responsible aren’t the ones currently teaching college students. Rather, the ones responsible are those in education departments who taught primary school teachers.
“Perhaps the most genius aspect this approach (targeting ed schools) is the indirectness. This strategy was implemented in a very deliberate, systematic, forward-thinking way by a constellation of activists, scholars and practitioners (who were very explicit about the political goals of their pedagogical approach!). Nonetheless, when their efforts began to come to fruition, it appeared as though it was a spontaneous, organic, student-driven movement. Young people reached (elite) universities, and increasingly the workplace (in particular industries), attempting to mold these institutions in accordance with the logics that have been inculcated into them since primary school — by teachers executing the curricula designed by these activists, practitioners and scholars. Yet rather than taking up their disagreement with the people who had designed said curricula, who had laid out these modes of thought and engagement, critics were instead forced to contend with the students themselves — by then, true believers. The optics of this were not great (for the critics, that is, who came off as reactionary, out of touch, overly-judgmental, etc. for their apparent denigration of the students and their views).
In short, the move into ed schools was truly a masterstroke by people who understood the institutions of cultural (re)production and were playing the long game.”
The point is to advance steadily toward the goal while appearing not to move at all. To show the blade only in the instant before one strikes.