Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Digging my heels in on the left... 

Jason's post on the politics-changing experiences of university and the wider world makes for interesting reading. He talks of how his left-wing opinions have become less firmly entrenched since entering university and how he no longer thinks of human nature in the same, perhaps idealistic, light:

"My simplistic beliefs that everyone would strive to achieve their best if they were enabled to do so, that nobody committed crime or remained unemployed of their own calculated free will but rather they were constrained by social forces, have been destroyed a long time ago. Partly this comes of a realisation that, inside the heads of every mugger or person collecting unemployment benefit, there isn't in fact some socialist-idealist thought process going on. People aren't walking around hoping for socialist utopia, and often the poorest strata of society can hold some of the most offensive views on racial or sexual equality, say."

Putting aside the juxtaposition of muggers and those on benefit, I guess what I take issue with is his description of the former beliefs as 'simplistic', since they might as well be a bastardised version of my own. In the form presented above they may be simplistic, but I really do believe in the essential malleability of human nature, whatever core features we may observe, and I believe in the substantial contribution of societal and cultural factors to the shaping of our attitudes and our actions. This doesn't mean that I believe the will to socialism exists in every mugger's head, or would in any way deny that members of the working class often have the most reactionary values - indeed, I think it almost follows from a belief in the importance of culture, and an at least partial acceptance of socialist rhetoric, that those on society's bottom rungs will be the ones who most firmly uphold its codes and values.

For it's entirely in the interests of the ruling class to play the lower classes off against one another - in Britain this can been seen in everything from the labour clubs' barring of women to the way whites and blacks in factories joined together in their hatred of the Irish, or the way in which today you can sometimes see established immigrant groups vocally protesting against further immigration and a watering down of our nationhood. None of this has been in these people's interests - it has all worked entirely to the good of those already in power, and they have worked to perpetuate it, with talk of being tough on immigration and the like. This isn't simply a piece of socialist rhetoric, for it can be seen in the thinking of the rulers themselves, and way back in the calculations of those thinkers who would form us an ideal rule - everywhere we can see discussions of what will best foster harmony, what will prevent the ruled from rising up in rebellion against us and seeing the true nature of their position. The tactics are everything from bribery (citizenship, as some would say) to force, but a familiar theme is always the rallying cry 'divide and rule' - this is what we use to gain our strength.

I think the simple fact that the most vilified group is always changing is enough to show that the offensive views Jason mentions aren't natural, aren't firmly embedded in people's beliefs. Perhaps there is a genuine human need to feel another individual or group inferior to oneself, and perhaps there are natural muggers and layabouts out there, but given the right set of forces at play, I think people can rise up and effect a change and that even the most firmly embedded aspects of human nature can be tempered towards the ideal. Why, otherwise, would rich people, rulers, have devoted so much effort to preventing the union of the lower classes? It can't just be from a persuasive piece of rhetoric; but must have something to do with what they know they would do themselves, with full knowledge, were they to find themselves now cast down into the lower classes - Aristotle points out that it is often those who have had money and lost it that prove the most rebellious and revolutionary.

What I will never believe is that even the most naturally wicked thief, taken from the lower classes, is any worse than a single upright young man in an Oxford college with the right opportunities. There are simply too many factors at play, factors which could have turned any one of us into the same. Even if everyone were wicked, I should want to give the same chances to the thief as to the boy, to let each display their wickedness on an equal footing, not forced into displaying it from sheer hard luck.

Earlier, Jasons talks of Oxford university as a place "where blind acceptance of radical left wing rhetoric just doesn't stand up to the scrutiny of spirited debate". He's absolutely right that we need to question our ideas, that none of us have the answers and that empty rhetoric should be knocked down for what it is - there are many people officially 'on my side' whose self-righteous sound bites I'd happily tear apart, and whose teeth I often wish I could knock in. But I think we should also recognise the social construct of Oxford's 'spirited debate' for what it is, and that's something which is often tailored simply to hammering away at every loose brick we find, until the entire edifice crashes down. It has much more to do with the techniques of argument than with its substance, for any substance may be attacked in this way and will eventually crumble. It may be simply the style of our arguments at fault and not their content, for all that such debate will show us.

My own experience of Oxford debate has led me to believe that most of the fundamental differences between people are often based on different views of human nature, which have implications for everything else, and that these views could never be proved or disproved, non-empirically. I believe that whatever we may say about human nature now it (1) doesn't hold true for a great many people; and (2) could be changed. Others may doubt this, and any of their arguments which they base on this doubt will in turn be subject to my doubt. I don't see much that can be done about that, and I tend to feel that changes in beliefs about human nature tend to be the result not so much of debate as of gut feeling and of one's own lifestyle. So, as Jason suggests, I would readily think that living among the "elite" in a '15th century Oxford college' could have quite an impact on one's outlook, without that having anything to do with the reasoned debates - the battles - in which one participates.

What we need to do is step away from the battle, listen to the debate from one side, and draw our lines in the sand according to what we see then and what we feel, and accept that our view can be affected by anything from a well-argued point to someone's facial expressions (both of which are equally valid to my mind, as my attack on stylish arguments above may suggest). It's a troubling thought, but it may be that as we do step back to listen to others and reason out our own arguments to the full, we find that the differences between ourselves really aren't reducible to anything other than our backgrounds and current circumstances, even when our beliefs are at their most refined. What I do think is that we can't gain this sort of insight while showboating our arguments to a crowd, or picking at the weak points in anothers' for sport - our scrutiny must always be first and foremost directed inwards.

We gain very little from keeping our views back, of course, but I'm not saying that we should. I'm only advocating a step away from the battlefield, not from the war - there's no reason not to express one's views in private and subject them to scrutiny from others. The forum needn't be a private one, either, but what's necessary is that it be one where there is no motive for discussion other than refining one's own views - not attacking the views of others, and not seeking praise for a good 'argument'. This is as difficult to achieve in a room of three as it is in a seminar of thirty or a meeting of three hundred. But creating the conditions for such discussion should always be our first priority, for it really is easier to view one's faults objectively among friends than it is to admit them to oneself, where the tendency is always to excuse or to blame, but never to change.

Until I find these conditions, my position is staked out somewhere on the left. I invite the discussion which might change it...

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