Sunday, September 20, 2009

Clarification Writ Large: On symbolic jackets and social justice

"But you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, for what is now happening shows that they can do the greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion."

"I only wish it were so, Crito; and that the many could do the greatest evil; for then they would also be able to do the greatest good - and what a fine thing this would be! But in reality they can do neither; for they cannot make a man either wise or foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance."
When I say that symbols are important, I do not mean in any objective or necessary sense. I simply mean that, as a contingent matter of our psychology, they affect our brain states in ways well beyond their effects upon the "external" world. Yes, this is a false distinction when you get right down to it, but "the differential effects of symbols upon brains vs. rocks" are obviously and significantly different than "the differential effects of hammers upon brains vs. rocks." And anyway, I'm not interested in arguing the illusion of the ego here, since "the phenomenology of brain-having as a private experience" is itself the source and relevant context of this issue. Please be assured that I fully understand I am using a language of convenience here. My goal is to paint a picture that shows the responsible and intelligent harnessing of symbolic emotional content as a noble act, worth every penny of the price paid in harrassment from the opposition and misunderstanding from the Great Many - a price, I shall argue, that we pay no matter what we do.

What makes a symbol be a symbol is that it represents more than it actually is - symbols are cognitive shorthand. In this way, all language, all art, all representative thought, is symbolic: the ideas in our heads of "things out in the world" are mere symbols of those things themselves, and are meant to represent the thing in itself, the inaccessible ding an sich which we cannot "truly understand in its entirety" for the trivially obvious reason that part of this entirety includes things like its exact real-time atomic composition or its true and complete memetic pedigree (depending on whether we're talking about physical or mental "objects" here), and any of a number of relatively useless facts that we unproblematically ignore when crafting our symbols. This gap is recursively inescapable: not only do I have to symbolize a duck for lack of complete understanding, I don't even completely understand the symbol itself as "my idea of a duck," and so I must also have a symbol for the symbol when I try to think of "my idea of a duck, as an idea itself." We do not fully understand our own brains, and so at least as a matter of present contingency, even our symbols can only be conceived of as symbols themselves.

What's more, all our symbols have a sense and a referent, a denotation and a connotation, the thing to which we wish the label to stick and the content of that label as we ourselves have made it. Though the referents can be the same from one person to another in a "good enough" sense for any day-to-day application we'd care to dream up, the sense is always a private thing, and though we may try to communicate this private thing to others (and achieve a great deal of success at times, as I hope to do here), there will always be a gap here, too. Always. This is the very same gap that causes us to need symbols in the first place. Telepathy is the only cure - double-promise.

As a final point of background before I get to the meat of my argument, these connotations are, to varying degrees, packed with emotional content. Symbols don't just have intellectual meaning, they have emotional meaning, too. All of them. "2+2=4," as a representation of a simple mathematical truth, satisfies and reassures me a little bit, but I also find it boring to contemplate for any significant length of time. Our brains keep a sloppy, informal tally of the emotions that have been experienced along with these symbols in the past, and when we are reminded of them (by thought, sight, sound, etc.), our brains dredge up these emotions to remind us of how the symbol has historically made us feel. Though we may deliberately quiet or ignore our emotions, they are always there, and the only sense in which they ever "turn off" is the sense in which our hearts "turn off" between beats - for all intents and purposes, our emotions are a constant running commentary on every aware moment of our lives, however subdued they may be at a given moment.

OK, so we're talking about this culture war that's going on between civilized persons on the one side, who say that unbelievers should enjoy the same freedoms & protections enjoyed by believers, and uncivilized persons on the other side, who say that unbelievers in some way or another are just doin it rong and need to fall in line or accept their place. Balls to that, says I! Insofar as this battle is not fought with literal swords/guns/etc., it is entirely a symbolic one, and we are casting our very best symbols out upon the battlefield like Pokemon and seeing which symbols have the biggest dicks (y'know, to wax symbolic). Wade's caution to avoid attaching our emotions to these symbols and eschew those symbols which hold our very specialest attachments strikes me as an empty one because he seems to be ignoring the context of the entire issue: we're not calmly and methodically arranging Platonic memetic constructs on Platonic cultural substrate here, we're pitting our values against one another in a tooth-and-nail battle for cultural dominance and hoping we come out on top.

I happen to think that we're right, that our methods of arriving at our conclusions are eminently more defensible, that our values are just plain better for any who live under them, and that we can win if only we keep at it. People being the rationalizing sort that they are, the opposition thinks the exact same thing - everyone does - but we take very different approaches to getting there. Point is, at some level, we're saying the same thing: "We are right; y'all are wrong; give us what we ask for and we can all get on with our lives." Being in the minority as we are, our voices can get drowned out at times; we need encouragement to stay in the fight, and this is frelling hard to come by in the public sphere. And so, to remind us of why we fight, of the values behind our efforts, of the bright and shiny future we'd like to see made reality, we create symbols to give us some of that positive reinforcement and encourage us to fight another day. Symbolically speaking, of course. This is a normal and healthy thing to do even when not in conflict, for the general purposes of maximizing utility (if we're feeling formal) and living a joyous life (if we're not) - and maintaining our emotional health is all the more important when it is threatened by derision, distrust, and oppression.

So far, this should all be uncontroversial: I am simply arguing for the intelligent and responsible use of symbols, despite the fact that they may be weaponized against us, and because they can do such a great good to us. Even Silver Garou agreed with me face-to-face that the intelligent and responsible use of symbols is not itself problematic, but his opinion at the time of our discussion was that the problem arises when the Great Many get a hold of these symbols and, well, they fuck 'em up a little - so we need to keep a wether eye to the future even when creating these symbols, on the grounds that the costs are somewhat foreseeable and we should try to minimize the bad consequences while maximizing the good ones. Even shorter: we should be choosy and try to gamble well on our memetic progeny. Fair enough at that! Everything cuts both ways: there is no such thing as an incorruptible good, and there is no such thing as an irredeemable evil (barring, of course, whatever it is that one may stipulate as the standard of good or evil - but that's merely defining your way to victory and not of argumentative interest here).

Symbols have a rather special role in human cultural interactions, though. As banners that may be rallied behind, they can be subverted, split in two, dissolved, forgotten, rediscovered, and perhaps most sinister of all, wielded as emotional cudgels to pressure otherwise normal folk into behaving against their own best interestes and most deeply held values. In a very important sense, symbols are the atoms of the qualia of mind-having: tapping into their power can do both great good, and great harm.

The historical record shows over and over and over again, in excruciating detail and with depressing regularity, how symbols have been weaponized and abused to all manner of evil ends. This is perhaps most obvious in the damn-near-begging-to-be-called-mitotic schisms that have plagued religious traditions: whenever a believing population gets too big to be ruled by a central authority, doctrinal disagreements over the proper use and interpretation of symbols have split the mass of believers in two. Some have led these splits for principled reasons, more have followed for considerably less mindful impulses, but the point is that this sort of zany hijinks is exactly what we want to avoid for our own movement as civilized unbelievers.

But it happens just the same.

To delve for a moment into cynicism, the unwashed masses are a capricious and unruly lot, and we intellectuals cannot ever hope to completely safeguard against their corrupting influence. As Greta Christina wrote in On the Amazingness of Atheists... And Why it's Doomed, our movement is doomed as a movement to descend into the plebeian masses where all other such movements have gone. We infidels, more than any other minority, owe our strength of conviction to the reason, curiosity, intellectual honesty, and willingness to go boldly where we are told even angels ought fear to tread. I'll not belabor the point, as Greta said it better than I can hope to, and if you won't take my word for it then you should see if you feel like taking hers.

The point, as applies to the current discussion, is that we intellectual unbelievers must remain, as philosophers, the conscience of our own movement while it lasts. The key, the sticking point, is knowing how long it lasts. When your average Joe on the street, when a high school dropout from Georgia, when an airheaded model in Perth, when a cowardly radio announcer in London, when a shrill racist in Oslo, when the unprincipled and incurious among us, when the ignorant masses we wish to rise above, when all these people with whom we disagree feel comfortable identifying themselves as the thing we have had to fight so hard to make OK in the public mind, that's when we know we've won. We don't need to eradicate the discrimination completely, we just have to make it OK to be a godless fucking heathen. The discrimination won't disappear overnight, but by the time the teeming hordes have diluted our "intellectual purity," we shall have gotten to the point where our tactics will be outdated and unnecessary to secure the future and social equality of non-theists. From that point, the rest is denouement. And while we're in the lead, it is enough to make sure that we ourselves take care to steward our symbols well; after our part is played, it well and truly does not matter what is done with them, for the rest is gravy and we can't control it anyhow.

There is, of course, always the possibility of a backslide, and we must remain on watch against this just as much as blacks, gays, women, etc. That's really all there is to it - we can't control the Great Many, as Plato knew when he wrote those words above. We can only react correctively to whatever hardships come our way - the rest we should calmly accept as the smoothest sailing we can get.

The killing irony is this: if you're upset that the movement will be infiltrated by "the masses," then the movement as it stands now has become your precious icon. You're getting worked up over "The Atheist Movement," as a symbol, being subverted. And this attitude will prove inimical to progress, as you delay our acceptance by insisting that it's not "for" the foolish, the uneducated, the irrational, and so on. You have forgotten that their numbers secure our equality, and the threat of their shrill, brutish, unthinking retaliation is our deterrent against future injustice. You have become like a cultural Singularitarian, hoping against all reason that we'll reach a critical tipping point and usher in a new age of reason, a new Enlightenment. And maybe our movement will do that - I would informally agree that it stands at least a somewhat better chance of doing so, though I would argue whether that's a chance worth doubling-down on - but do not forget the historical record. Do not forget that collective bargaining has not yet ushered in a Utopia for workers; do not forget that women's suffrage has not yet ended the poison of patriarchy; do not forget that the death of Hitler and the dissolution of the Nazi party has not yet spelled the end for anti-Semitism (or even Nazism in general); do not forget that the desegregation movement has not yet seen the end of the KKK; do not forget that the gay pride movement has a long way to go before we as a species recognize that healthy, happy, sexual love is not limited to one penis and one vagina; and do not do yourself the disservice of expecting that our success as a movement will achieve all of our goals any faster than any of the foregoing, or you will be sorely disappointed.

Please do not misunderstand my intent here: I love the atheiskeptihumanist movement (thank you, Chariots of Iron, for that endearingly clunky and invigoratingly accurate term), and I wish so dearly that we could achieve all our goals and turn the Earth into Secular Heaven. I wholly love and deeply cherish those ideas, I hold them as personal goals, and I recognize that we don't stand a snowball's chance in Hell (mainly because snowballs can't go to Hell, in turn mainly because Hell doesn't exist) of realizing our dreams without doing the hardest goddamned work we can. I am simply saying that we should not let our enthusiasm outstrip our wisdom, and more than atheists, more than skeptics, more than humanists, we should try to see ourselves as representatives of social conscience. Why do you fight for social justice for yourself? Because it's you, or because it's social justice? So why would you stop once you're off the chopping block?

The atheiskeptihumanist agenda is in point of fact behind those of employees, women, Jews, blacks, and "gays et cetera" right now, and we should leverage our full might towards catching up - but once we do, we should then shift our attention to putting out the next biggest fire, whether it's another of ours, or something else, or working all together (I think that would be best, but judging by how trannies got thrown "ENDA" the bus - say it out loud - I don't know if we can really get that kind of solidarity among workers, women, Jews, blacks, the GLBTQQ crowd, and unbelievers). We wear our label with pride right now, and it is our symbol, it is our icon, whether public or private. Like a jacket, it fits right now, and the matter of which jacket we wear or how many we have is a matter of taste and fashion alone (so long as we're all pulling at least vaguely in the same direction). And when our jackets cease to be special or unique, when we see posers wearing them ironically, when we see crowds wearing them unthinkingly, when we see the masses multiplying and varying them unnecessarily and irresponsibly, then we shall know the weather has changed and it shall be time for new jackets.

We'll wear those with pride, too. And I expect each and every one of us to bring to bear the full force of our intellectual and rhetorical might, to the end of popularizing and normalizing them until the normalizing's done, and then it's on to the next social crisis, and the next, and so on and so forth. Social justice is a moving target, and even that is a jacket of sorts, for which I should hope we can one day outgrow our need as well. The important part is that our emotional attachment to our jackets, our pride in wearing them, is exactly the thing which gives us the power to make them popular; the positive things we ascribe to our symbols, whatever they be, are the very things that spur us on to do the good work we do. If you don't need as many symbols as your neighbor, that's OK - and it's OK both ways - and if you see your neighbor getting bent out of shape over one of his symbols, then help him get over his bad self, by all means!

But I hope I've made it clear by now that I think it's kind of silly to say that we should eschew our symbols and their emotional connections just because they have potentially disastrous drawbacks. I mean, so do cars, and we still use them.


Mr G Montag said...

This actually reminds me of Michael Sandel's recent Reith Lectures. The whole thing is a defence of an Aristotelian view of politics but the most arresting argument for me was I think in the second lecture. His broader argument if I remember right was that it's a mistake to try and defend gay marriage on social justice terms and instead quotes a supreme court ruling. The ruling in brief made what I thought was a genuinely electrifying assertion that gay marriage should be defended not to provide equal rights to gay people, but because it is right that society values the love two people have for each other. No more, no less and frankly spot on.

What this means for me then is that I will continue to wear my Atheism proudly, not because it's necessary for some downstream goal, but because it's right. The symbol is just me saying that and honestly, my conscience can allow nothing less.

D said...

Re: The simplicity and clarity of gay marriage.

My initial impression on that ruling, as you phrased it, is that the idea of equal rights entails that society value that love as much as any other love, with the added caveats about children being unable to comprehend just what's going on, etc. However, as a person who has formally studied logic at some length, I don't see language and social discourse in the same way that most do. With that in mind, I think that sort of ruling is helpful in the dialogue, as it bypasses all the pretty talk and fancy reasoning and cuts to the simple matter that it ought to be:

If you can't see that the love of any combination of consenting adults is just as valuable as any other combination, then your moral compass is broken. The End.

Those lectures sound really interesting, thanks for linking them!