Won’t to power

Just say no to oppressive ideas

“the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions” — milton friedman

An interesting recent piece by Cecelia Kok warns of the danger of rejecting ideas solely because of where they originate.

It’s worth looking a little more closely at the claim, because of the way in which some people have taken it broadly to support their position.

For example, Helen Zille tweeted that it’s a “very important article for all the Fallists and Decolonisers out there to read”; presumably because supporters of FeesMustFall would have to drop their demands for ‘decolonised education’ or concede their unreason.

We should bear in mind two points:

- Reference to the people or person with whom an idea originated may not be sufficient reason to reject that idea, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a valid reason, the strength of which might vary depending on the particular claims and circumstances.

-There’s a risk that we beg the question of the value of open discourse as such and, more important, of what this openness consists in. It would be ironic if we foreclose inquiry into the character of open discourse by mistaking contingent claims about truthmaking for a priori boundary markers of reasonable discourse.

The piece opens with what, on an ordinary reading, is a peculiar claim: “Ideas know no physical location or time. They cannot be tied down to particular nations, people or eras.”

But we do think of ideas as originating and being disseminated in particular places or particular times. Sometimes the same ideas occur in different cultures and at different times, which is interesting and calls for an explanation. Sometimes ideas are lost from global culture and then revived; never, of course, in identical form, because no single idea can be removed from the web of belief in which it is situated. The mutability, variety and complexity of ideas is what makes intellectual history (and history more generally) worthwhile and interesting, and separating ideas from their context is what makes inquiry into our intellectual past susceptible to misleading ahistoricism.

It doesn’t follow that we need to place every idea we wish to put to contemporary political or philosophical use in historical context. John Locke’s investments in slave ships, for example, needn’t affect our understanding or use of his ideas about liberty or property rights. But unless we wish to claim that the best (the truest?) ideas simply do become dominant over time (a claim that would need to be justified and appears to be strongly contradicted by history), historical inquiry may help reveal some of the extralogical reasons for why we have inherited the ideas we have, a process which may or may not cause us to revisit whether our enthusiasm for those ideas is grounded in the pure detached reason we take it to be grounded in.

Taking seriously the genealogy of our political morality needn’t lead to nihilism, but can rather inform a more productive variety of political pluralism: liberalism. After all, liberalism is premised on equality of opportunity, including opportunity of expression and access to knowledge, and, especially, equal political participation. Where these opportunities are inhibited, we can arguably take this as evidence of distortions in the free exchange of ideas.

How can we attempt to identify these distortions? Among other practices, through the sociology and history of ideas and through philosophical practice that stands outside the dominant intellectual traditions.

How can we open the acceptable window of discourse when supposedly pure rational argument has to be performed according to the pre-specified terms that shore up the position of the dominant body of thought? Through the rhetoric of solidarity or resistance or boycott or poetry or by introducing new and challenging vocabularies.

Is there any validity to the apparent exposure of such distortions by the vast literatures across many disciplines? Do any of these modes of resistance attain their intended purpose?

These are questions that need themselves to be investigated and contested, but so doing demands close attention to those claims and achievements; these are not matters of fact that we have good reason to believe can be decided by a priori reflection alone.

One might suspects liberals have a built-in resistance to this line of inquiry, because if the the marketplace of ideas turned out to produce distortions, maybe the whole premise isn’t that great. (Though most serious people these days accept the need for some intervention in our free markets.) Alternatively, perhaps liberals are attached to the dominant modes of discourse because they provide the apparent support of pure detached reason to the positions the defenders of said reason happen to favour. We should perhaps pay more attention to the sociology of liberal ideas.

How ideas become dominant is not of academic interest alone. If, for example, we conclude that the economics Nobel Prize silently but systematically defined its own eligibility criteria in a way that led to disproportionate representation by neoliberal males, and that the prestige conferred by the prize helped underpin the official orthodoxy of neoliberal policy, which in turn legitimised the official prestige of theoreticians of neoliberal economic orthodoxy, then we may have good reason to pay more attention to, and offer greater opportunities to, economists excluded by those contingent criteria of acceptability.

Identifying legitimate institutional bias is no simple process. After all, homeopaths and anti-vaxxers make apparently similar claims about the institutional prejudices of scientific medicine. But what if we came to recognise that a body of thought that had previously been presented as the detached technocratic judgement of the economics profession is in fact the dominant sensibility of ideologues who were smart or lucky enough to acquire hegemonic institutional support? It would mean that there could be practical and ethical reasons to be suspicious of ideas that were so ideologically conditioned, particularly in light of the economic turbulence some would claim those ideas helped initiate.

Moreover, there are epistemic grounds on which to try reform distortions in the exchange of free thought, to break the destructive monopolies in the marketplace of ideas. It is every day the case that ideas are excluded simply because of where they originate, but that exclusion is an act of silent institutional power.

Kok cites Mill: “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it”.

That’s beautifully put, but we should not lose sight of the fact that silencing of expression needn’t be overt. The invisible exclusion of inconvenient opinion, the technocratic delegitimisation of the popular will, the hegemonies of the institutional elites. Our intellectual responsibility is to trace the distortions of thought and expression wrought by power. But we cannot argue power into submission.