Hannah Arendt on lying

A bunch of people are sharing something about Hannah Arendt and lying in totalitarian systems. I have a couple of reactions–first, we aren’t in a totalitarian system, as she meant the term. What’s more relevant is what she said about propaganda (in any system), which is that it degrades truth by making people completely cynical. Second, I have a lot of trouble believing that she said fact-checking is just playing their game (for one thing, that isn’t a metaphor she’d use). I can’t think of any place she makes that argument, and it directly contradicts what she says in the essay she published about lying in politics.

Her “Lying in Politics,” originally a review of The Pentagon Papers, published in TNYRB, became a chapter in her wonderful (and underread) Crises of the Republic. Here are some quotes:

“Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling places in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.” (6)

“Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audiences wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.” (7)

“Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute: no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality. The lair, who may get away with any number of single falsehood, will find it impossible to get away with lying on principle.” (7)

In a totalitarian system, the distinguish between truth and falsehood collapses, “truth that can be relied on disappears entirely from public life, and with it the chief stabilizing factor in the ever-changing affairs of men.” (7)

About the political advisers who lied for years about Vietnam: “In spite of their undoubted intelligence–it is manifest in many memos from their pens–they also believed that politics is but a variety of public relations, and they were taken in by all the bizarre psychological premises underlying this belief.” (11)

“What these problem-solvers have in common with down-to-earth liars is the attempt to get rid of facts and the confidence that this should be possible because of the inherent contingency of facts.” (11)

“In order to eliminate Trotsky’s role from the history of the Russian Revolution, it is not enough to kill him and eliminate his name from all Russian records so long as one cannot kill all his contemporaries and wield power over the libraries and archives of all countries of the earth.” (13)

Classical uses of the term demagogue/ry

[I cut this from the book about demagoguery, but other academics might find it interesting.]

  1. Classical uses of the term demagogue

The term “demagogue” is originally Greek, and it’s conventional to rely on Greek sources in order to ground a definition, often with the assertion that there is a binary between demagogues and statesmen (the distinction made by Plutarch). The treatment of “demagogues” and “demagogy” (a closer translation of the Greek term) in texts prior to Plutarch is more complicated than is often granted, and in ways that point to difficulties with the project of criticizing public discourse—whether the criticism is on rhetorical grounds (that is, about the means), the content (that is, the truth, falsehood, or political agenda), or the intent, character, and/or identity of the speaker (such as whether the rhetors mean well, are good people). Since my own work emphasizes the rhetorical criteria, I should explain what’s troubling about the others, and justify my own use of a classical term.

Initially, demagogue meant a political leader of the demes (or sometimes demos); that is, the smaller landowners. Just how economically bifurcated Athens actually was is still in dispute,[1] but it was certainly seen that way by many at the time. As Ober says, “Athenians viewed their society as divided into two major classes and that the key division was between those who had to work for their living and those who did not” (Mass and Elite 195).  The history of the Athenian constitution, according to Aristotle, was one of political figures increasingly empowering the non-leisured class (demes), sometimes through what has been called income redistribution (such as increasing state pay for jury duty). Figures who argued for policies that benefited that class were often seen as leaders of the demes–that is, demagogues.

Hence, at least partially, the term “demagogue” was a political label, much like our term “populist.”[2] People for whom populism is necessarily bad use the term disparagingly (such as H.L. Mencken) . But, people for whom populism can be good condemn some kinds of populism by attaching a negative adjective; Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyon, for instance, refer to “toxic populism,” not because all kinds of populism are toxic, but because some are. It seems to me that many classical writers have been read as condemning all kinds of populists and populism, and hence as using demagogue as an inherently negative term, when a careful reading suggests they are closer to Berlet and Lyon than they are to Mencken.

Andocides, in Against Alcibiades, condemns Alcibiades not for being a demagogue, but for acting like one (4.27)–that is, pretending to be a champion of the demos, when he really is not. Hyperides, in his attack on Demosthenes, says a demagogue “worthy of the name should be the savior of his country, not a deserter” (Against Demosthenes Fragment 4, column 16b, line 26), suggesting that the term might be used as a term of praise.[3] And, indeed, it was. Isocrates, for instance, praises Theseus and calls him a demagogue (Helen 37); he regularly refers to Pericles as a demagogue (see, for instance, Antidosis 234), and even uses the term in praise (To Nicocles 16, On the Peace 122, Antidosis 234). Like many other writers, Isocrates compares current demagogues to previous ones, criticizing the current ones as worse than those before (see, for example, On the Peace 126). At one point in Aristophanes’ The Knights, one of the slaves explains, “Demagoguery is no longer a job for a man of education and good character, but for the ignorant and disgusting” (The Knights 190). Aristophanes’ “no longer” implies that demagoguery was once a job for a man of education and good character.[4]

Aristophanes may have been joking, and he may always have thought that populists were always low-born and dishonest, but that’s unlikely. Pericles was, in fact, a demagogue, as were Cleisthenes, and Alcibiades—they were leaders of the demes, and they promoted policies, such as extending the franchise and increasing jury pay, that directly benefited the demes at the expense of the wealthy.  So, to say that all classical authors univocally condemned “demagogues” is either to say that the meaning of the word changed over time (from being the term for a political orientation to a rhetorical posture) or that classical authors condemned Pericles, Cleisthenes, Themistocles, and Alcibiades, an implausible claim.

The more plausible explanation is that the term was in flux at the time that Aristophanes was writing. In The Knights, when the two demagogues argue about which is more powerful, the controversy hinges largely on the question of which one is the most passionate lover (erastes) of Demos (a pun on “demos”—the people), a relationship that depends on flattery (735) and bribery; they each boast about robbing the most people and taking the most bribes. They don’t care about what is best for Athens as a whole, nor even what is actually best for Demos, but simply what Demos finds most pleasing in the moment. The chorus says to Demos: “You’re easily led astray: you enjoy being flattered and thoroughly deceived, and every speechmaker (legont) has you gaping. You’ve a mind, but it’s out to lunch” (115-120).  “The fog of war” is particularly useful for keeping Demos “blind” to Paphlagon’s self-aggrandizing policies (800), although Demos can be persuaded even to conduct war badly: “if two politicians were making proposals, one to build long ships and the other to spend the same sum on state pay, the pay man would walk all over the trireme man” (1350).[5]

Aristotle’s discussion of demagogues, and their role in the destruction of democracy, is justifiably famous, but it too is not necessarily an uncomplicated condemnation of populist rhetors. Aristotle argues that unjust policies—ones that put too much power in the hands of the rich—are likely to make a particular kind of demagogue (ones lacking in self-control) let themselves get hired to rouse the demes (Politics 5.9.6, 1304b 35, and 5.8). Out of fear of having their property confiscated, the oligarchs will organize themselves into a revolution, and install a tyranny. The problem, Aristotle says, is that if there are not laws that constrain “the multitude,” then demagogues “always divide the state into two by fighting with the well-to-do” (1310a). If the rich oppress the poor, then the poor will start talking about taking the money of the rich, and the rich will install a tyrant—this narrative doesn’t entirely blame demagogues (nor the poor); as Alan Ryan says, it is a “schematic” understanding of the failure of a democracy.

And, for Aristotle, demagoguery is not restricted to the masses; Aristotle has a brief discussion of “oligarchic demagogues” who might be someone pandering to the oligarchs, or might be an oligarch pandering to the masses (Politics VI).[6] The term often associated with Aristotle’s criticism of demagogues is kalox, or flattery, so one might infer that the problem is not that a bad demagogue gets his power from the demos, but that he flatters them in order to get the power. It may be, then, that Aristotle’s criticism of bad demagogues is both political (they destabilize democracy through spending so much money on state pay) and rhetorical (they rely on flattery rather than deliberation).

There are other times in classical texts when it isn’t at all clear what the term demagogue means. For instance, scholars don’t agree just what Callicles’ accusation that Socrates is engaged in demagoguery, in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, is supposed to convey. Callicles objects to Socrates’ style (which he calls “boisterous” or “hot-headed” [neanieneothai] 482c), so perhaps it’s that Socrates has been using the sort of low-brow style for which the more populist politicians were notorious (Worman’s argument, see 194-5). The problem with this interpretation is that Callicles and Socrates are talking in a relatively small, and very elite, group, and Socrates’ rhetoric—despite Callicles’ claims—is not particularly low-brow. Or, perhaps it’s that Socrates has been “manipulating his audience (in this case young Polus) through the powerful emotion of shame” (Balot 359), except the accusation happens after the exchange with Polus has ended, and Callicles has no apparent problem with emotional appeals.  Since this exchange with Callicles is the point when the dialogue collapses into some fairly heated exchanges—in which various scurrilous accusations are made or implied—it seems to me reasonable that the accusation of demagogue is in the same category of the comparisons to catamites or shitbirds, intended to insult[7]. When Callicles accuses Socrates of being a demagogue, This is perhaps the most common way that the term demagogue is used in contemporary political debate. When Charles Krauthammer or Thomas Sowell called Barack Obama a demagogue, or Ronald Reagan used the term for Tip O’Neill, or Joan Dowlin used it for Reagan, they seem to mean nothing any more precise than a distaste for the rhetor’s political agenda coupled with irritation at the opponent’s rhetorical effectiveness; like Callicles, they’re engaged in making a vague insult.

My point in this discussion of classical uses of the terms “demagogue” and “demagoguery” is partially to show that usage was more varied than sometimes granted, but, more importantly, to note that there have always been tensions in its meaning. One can certainly say that classical authors complain of rhetors who persuaded groups into disastrous courses of action, but it isn’t simple to say just what their complaint was. Was it that the political figure swayed the masses? Or that he did so through bad appeals? That is, is populist rhetoric inherently bad, or just some kinds of rhetorical strategies? Or is the figure himself? Was the distinction between Pericles (conventionally presented as the ideal statesman) and Cleon (conventionally presented as the ur-demagogue) that they argued in different ways, or that Pericles was simply a better person than Cleon? Or, perhaps, was it that Pericles argued for better policies than Cleon?

That is, a definition of demagogue/ry might emphasize one of three points: the moral character of the rhetor (especially intent), the political agenda of the rhetor, or the rhetorical strategies. And, if the determining criterion concerns rhetorical strategies, what, exactly, makes some strategies demagogic—that they are appeals to populism, flattery, appeals to emotion, and/or appeals to greed? Or, as implied in Plato’s Gorgias, that they are untrue?

This same tension—whether the accusation of demagoguery is a claim about form, content, impact, character, or intent—continues in later discussions of demagoguery. Thomas Hobbes’ condemnation of demagoguery is openly anti-populist and anti-emotional; the masses are inherently emotional (and feminine), and democracies fall to demagogues because the masses are incapable of self-control. In 1838, James Fenimore Cooper identified the “peculiar office” of the demagogue as “advanc[ing] his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people” (99). The demagogue, according to Cooper, not only has bad motives, but bad arguments and strategies, relying on flattery, “appeals to passions and prejudices rather than reason, and is in all respects, a man of intrigue and deception, of sly cunning and management” (100), looking out for a small number of people while claiming to be concerned about the whole. The flatter/chide binary, so important to Socrates’ discussion of ethical versus unethical discourse in Gorgias is echoed in Cooper, who says that the good rhetor “is frank and fearless” and “oftener chides than commends” (100).  Cooper especially emphasizes that the demagogue appeals to prejudice rather than the truth.

Reinhard Luthin, in his 1954 American Demagogues, Twentieth Century, argues that a demagogue is

a politician skilled in oratory, flattery, and invective, evasive in discussing vital issues; promising everything to everybody; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices–a man whose lust for power without recourse to principle leads him to seek to become a master of the masses. (3)[8]

Charles Lomas’ discussion of demagoguery seems to shift the weight slightly more toward the kind of rhetoric in which a demagogue engages, but the determining characteristics are still in the demagogue: demagoguery is

the process by which skillful speakers and writers seek to influence public opinion by employing the traditional tools of rhetoric with complete indifference to truth. In addition, although demagoguery does not necessarily seek ends contrary to the public interest, its primary motivation is personal gain (165).

Ultimately, then, the most important axis is still the person of the demagogue: to determine if something is demagoguery, one looks to the demagogue, to see if s/he is indifferent to truth, and primarily motivated by personal gain.

  1. Justin Gustainis’ summary of scholarship on demagoguery includes rhetor, content, and strategies. He says

The work of those who have studied what is normally called demagoguery leads to the conclusion that the demagogue is a person who possess at least three characteristics: he is motivated by self-interest, he evinces little concern for the truth, and he is an opportunist. (156).

He also discusses the axis of rhetorical strategy; the demagogue, in order to develop “his own power, influence, and popular acclaim,” (157) uses recurrent rhetorical strategies: inflation of racial hatred (157), identification (especially as a “common man” 158), representation of himself as the savior willing to take “drastic action” (158), personalized appeal, oversimplification, emotional appeals, specious argumentation, ad hominem attacks, anti-intellectualism, and political pageantry (158-160).

More recently, Michael Signer’s Demagogue relies on the demagogue/statesman distinction, using Cooper’s definition in order to emphasize four characteristics:

(1) They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, as opposed to the elites; (2) their politics depends on a powerful, visceral connection with the people that dramatically transcends ordinary political popularity; (3) they manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit and ambition; and (4) they threaten or outright break the established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law. (35)

Signer’s definition, like Luthin’s, mixes consideration of motive (the third criterion), rhetoric (the first and second), and political agenda (the fourth), and explicitly makes demagoguery a populist discourse.

P.M. Carpenter’s definition, on the other hand, is almost exclusively rhetorical, arguing that the demagogue is identified by “extensive use of unidimensionality” (“simplistic solutions offered in answer to complex sociopolitical questions, one-sided expositions intended to exclude rather than expand democratic public debate “) and scapegoating. Whereas many scholars of demagoguery emphasize the person (so the determination is made largely by the motives, psychology, and strategies of the person, whose discourse is then named demagoguery), Carpenter reverses the emphasis. Instead of demagoguery being what demagogues do, demagogues are people who engage in demagoguery. The “intended to exclude” suggests, however, at least some speculation as to the motives of the rhetor; presumably, a rhetor who significantly, but sincerely, simplified a situation would not be engaged in demagoguery.

And another set of scholars don’t use the term “demagoguery,” but are clearly talking about a similar phenomenon. Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyon’s discussion of “right-wing populism” identifies many of the rhetors and movements often associated with demagoguery in America—Father Charles Coughlin, pro-segregationists, white nationalism. They identify several characteristics that mix rhetorical and political criteria: producerism, demonization and scapegoating, conspiracism, apocalyptic narratives, and a right-wing political agenda (see especially 6-15). Kenneth Burke’s “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” similarly discusses Hitler’s psychology to speculate on the sources of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but otherwise uses psychological concepts to explain why Hitler’s rhetorical strategies would have been so effective with the German people; Burke also has some astute points about how the Nazis strategically used violence in their meetings (which might be more the policy axis than rhetoric), but he is mostly concerned with rhetorical tactics, such as shifting materialization/spiritualization, projection, scapegoating, narratives of symbolic rebirth, unification through division, and the non-economic explanations of economic phenomena.

David Neiwert uses the term “eliminationist” rather than demagogue, and he too connects the rhetoric and the politics—the trend he studies is “the positing of elimination as the solution to political disagreement” (7). Neiwert argues that this rhetoric has policy consequences, and tends toward fascism (what he calls “para-fascist”); hence, Neiwert’s primary emphasis is on the rhetoric and policy. Like Burke, Neiwert discusses psychology, but it isn’t part of the criteria for determining whether the rhetoric is eliminationist.

My argument is that this last strategy is the most useful. Trying to distinguish demagogues from statesmen on the basis of good v. bad intent is almost certainly wrong. While some rhetors notorious for demagoguery do seem to have adopted a racist and hate-mongering discourse out of a cunning estimation of the most effective route to power—Michael Mann says that “Milosevic was only opportunistically a nationalist” (Mann, Dark Side 369; see also 424)—it’s also clear that many of them were quite sincere. Cleon, for instance—one of the earlier examples of demagogues—may well have believed that the policy of genocide would genuinely benefit Athens; there’s no good reason to think he didn’t. Theodore Bilbo was sincerely committed to segregation, quite likely did believe that lynching was a useful form of social control, and was so committed to his hateful policy of repatriation that he continued to advocate it when a savvier politician would have recognized the political costs and toned it down, relied more on dog whistles, or kept the racist rhetoric for non-recorded performances.[9] Hitler was sincerely anti-Semitic, as were many of the architects and even foot-soldiers in the Holocaust; Hitler’s sincerity is most powerfully demonstrated in his actions toward the end of the war when he sacrificed military outcomes to keep the genocide as effective as possible; it’s plausible that some of his otherwise inexplicable decisions in regard to Stalingrad make sense in the context of someone who believed that Aryan forces would necessarily triumph over “inferior” races, regardless of the practical challenges. That Hitler would take time out of strategy meetings to lecture his generals on the racial makeup of troops suggests he was sincere (see, for instance, his meetings with his generals regarding Stalingrad, Hitler and His Generals). Roger Griffin says that Hitler “thus seem seriously to have seen himself as heralding a new phase of human civilization based on the racial-nationalist rebirth of the German people” (101).

It is wishful thinking to believe that people advocated repressive and eliminationist policies are only looking out for themselves. This belief suggests that people who do bad things are aware that the things they are doing are bad; we want to believe that Hitler knew that the Holocaust was cruel, and that he knew he was hurting Germany; we want to believe that McCarthy knew he was lying about the number of communists and the degree of infiltration; we’d like to think that Bilbo secretly knew that segregation and lynching were wrong.[10] However, despite what we might wish, they almost certainly believed that they were doing the right thing. Thus, if we try to identify “demagogues” as people who are motivated by self-interest rather than public interest, we are in the murky area of determining what people really believe, and we end up with a list that doesn’t include major advocates of genocide.

Saying that demagogues are people who engage in certain kinds of policies also limits the definition to the point that it is useless. While it’s hard to imagine an argument for genocide that isn’t demagoguery, some arguments for war involve scapegoating, and some don’t. Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party rhetoric, while almost always populist and vehement, do not always rely on scapegoating, nor on evasion of policy arguments (in other words, there is demagoguery in both, but also much discourse that doesn’t fit most definitions); Charles Coughlin’s arguments for New Deal policies were demagoguery, but I haven’t found any of FDR’s arguments that fit the definitions provided by Burke, Neiwert, or my own. There isn’t a necessary connection between policy and rhetoric (with the possible exception of genocide—I can’t imagine a non-demagogic argument for genocide).

[1] Scholars continue to debate just how poor everyone else was; see especially Chapter Five as well as 127-131 in Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. J.K. Davies explains, the material conditions (especially poor soil) meant that a “middle” class was nowhere a power force (24; see also Aristotle Politics 1295b 23); instead, there was a leisured class (plousioi or ploutos) and everyone else, and there was considerable pressure to abolish or to render more widely accessible formal political or cultic privileges and to extend downwards, to the rest of the descent-group, the applicability and appropriateness of aristocratic life-styles and values. The form of government which such pressure created when successful was  being called ‘democracy’ by the 440s if not earlier, while its converse, the preservation or re-establishment of control of the state by an aristocratic or wealthy minority, came to be called ‘rule by the few’, ‘oligarchy’.” (Democracy and Classical Greece 25)

[2] Demosthenes uses it simply to mean a leader of the people (see, for instance, Against Aristogeiton II 4).

[3] Lane’s claim that “None of the historians, playwrights, and orators of classical Athens relied upon a perjorative term for demagogue in developing their analyses of bad political leadership” (180) seems to me slightly overstated—they seem aware that there is a perjorative connotation possible. It seems to me similar to how writers might currently use words like feminist, liberal, or progressive. But, certainly, I agree with Lane that they do not use the term in an exclusively perjorative way. Lane credits Plutarch with the demagogue/statesman distinction as we have inherited it—that is, thinking it was present in earlier writers (192).

[4] Although several scholars share this reading (Dover 69, note 1; Lane 185) it’s possible, of course, that Aristophanes is making fun of the tendency that demagogues have to accuse one another of demagoguery, and we’re not to take this comment seriously at all. Still, his criticism of demagogues is their tendency to rely on flattery—that is, not who they are, but their rhetorical strategies.

[5] Aristotle mentions a specific instance of this kind of situation in Rhodes: “the demagogues used to provide pay for public services, and also to hinder the payment of money owed to the naval captains” (Politics 1304b 30).

[6] That Aristotle could refer to “oligarchic demagogues” suggests that the term had shifted meanings between the time of Isocrates and Aristotle, and it no longer signified a leader of the demes.

[7] Lane argues that Plato invented the statesman/demagogue dichotomy, and, in Thaetetus, coined the term demagogue as an entirely perjorative one (190). “The Origins of the Statesman/Demagogue Distinction in and after Ancient Athens.” Journal of the History of Ideas, 73(2), April 2012: 179-200.

[8] Luthin comes up with his set of characteristics through a series of case studies of famous demagogues (James M. Curley, Theodore Bilbo, William Hale Thompson, William Murray, Frank Hague, Mr. and Mrs. James Ferguson, Vito Marcantonio, Huey Long), inferring their shared characteristics or, as he says, “marks.” Luthin, like Gustainis, emphasizes the motives of the demagogue, but also the political agenda (the demagogue often tries to control media, interferes with education), and rhetorical strategies (anti-intellectualism, emotional appeals, race- or religion-baiting). So, while more toward the rhetor (demagogue) axis, there is also considerable discussion of policy, and rhetorical strategy.

Cal Logue and Howard Dorgan’s 1981 collection of essays on southern demagogues doesn’t rely on a single definition of “demagogue,” although the editors infer a set of characteristics emphasized in the various chapters: personal arrogance, reliance on vague promises, use of a “domineering discourse” that “tended to stifle any constructive exchange of ideas, often clogging communicative channels with emotional platitudes and dictatorial directives, and frequently intimidating persons who possessed alternative views” (10-11).

There are, of course, other ways of using the term “demagogue,” to mean simply, “a political figure whose popularity upsets me.” This is perhaps the most common way that the term demagogue is used in contemporary political debate. When Charles Krauthammer or Thomas Sowell called Barack Obama a demagogue, or Ronald Reagan used the term for Tip O’Neill, or Joan Dowlin used it for Reagan, they seem to mean nothing any more precise than a distaste for the rhetor’s political agenda coupled with irritation at their rhetorical effectiveness. While scholars of rhetoric rarely use the term this way, scholars in other fields sometimes do.

[9] In fact, his biographer Chester Morgan argues that Bilbo did not engage in deliberate race-baiting until the very end of his life and career, and was therefore not a demagogue, because his racism was perfectly sincere (234-6).

[10] Ultimately, I’m not sure what any of the people traditionally identified as demagogues did or did not believe–they tend to be fairly adept at speaking to a particular audience, and have a highly malleable sense of reality. There is reasonably good evidence to suggest that some of the most famous ones had personality disorders and/or health conditions closely connected to delusional thinking; it’s distinctly possible, if they had narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, that they were perfectly capable of sincerely believing contradictory propositions.

“Charisma Isn’t Leadership, and Other Lessons We Can Learn from Trump the Businessman”

“One can only hold the masses by habit or force” (Hitler, Hitler’s Table Talks, 335, 24th-25th February 1942).

What I want to suggest in this talk is that charismatic leadership is a tempting way to solve the problem of institutional compliance in a culture of outcomes-based ethics—that is, if the dominant mantra is survival of the fittest, might makes right, or some other system that says a process/action was ethical if it led to success (such as any version of what is generally inaccurately called “Darwinism”).  I argue that charismatic leadership, especially as imagined in current popular management discourse, is an attempt to ground compliance to institutional norms in normative agreement rather than legitimacy, tradition, or coercion (none of which are possible in an outcomes-based ethical system, such as is assumed in social Darwinism, the magic of the market, or the just world model). Because institutions grounded in such a system don’t have access to compliance arguments grounded in fairness, and coercion is expensive, charismatic leadership (which its emphasis on agency by proxy) appears a sensible rhetoric. Further, as imagined in current popular management discourse, charismatic leadership when coupled with the current dominant lay political theory, can easily create the conditions under which fascism seems the most sensible governmental system. Basically, my argument is: the combination of management rhetoric’s promotion of charismatic leadership as the ideal model, lay political theory about disagreement and deliberation being unnecessary, and the fantasy that all we need in government is a good businessman means that fascism will appeal to a lot of Americans.

I’ll begin with something not particularly controversial among political scientists/theorists: for an institution to be stable, people within that institution need to obey the laws. Why shouldn’t all of us in this room take all these chairs home and sell them on e-bay?

It’s conventional to characterize the various mobilizing ideas (that is, the ideas that mobilize you not to steal chairs) as:

What matters for these purposes is that the top three are often characterized as systems grounded in legitimacy, and the bottom three are grounded in authoritarianism (of various degrees).[1]

My first claim is that a culture of outcome-based ethics makes grounding any institution in legitimacy virtually impossible, leaving such institutions or cultures reliant on some version of authoritarianism, perhaps even fascism. I’ll argue that charismatic leadership is an attempt to square the circle, and get the kind of compliance that comes from ideal normative agreement by reframing blind obedience.

By outcome-based ethics, I mean any ethical system that says that triumph is the measure—that is, success is sufficient proof that success was merited (what social psychologists call the just world model). A culture or institution in which triumph is the measure of merit (the ends justify the means, might makes right, the proof is in the pudding, survival of the fittest) will not value setting ethical standards that apply across groups.  Fairness across groups is explicitly rejected in those moral systems as giving aid to people who don’t deserve it, as makers carrying the takers, or, at best, as unnecessary. Outcome-based ethics are generally profoundly individualistic—at most, they advise fairness within one’s in-group, but even that is shaky.

Corporations have yet another rhetorical/motivational problem. Increasingly, employees are expected to behave with more than mere compliance—to work more than 40 hours a week, to sacrifice health and homelife, more than they will be compensated. The ideal employee gives more to the corporation than she gets back in monetary compensation—the ideal employee values loyalty more than is fiscally rational. But this is not a symmetric relationship—the corporation is not expected to value loyalty to employees more than its fiscal bottom line. Business pundits generally justify businesses cracking open pension funds, closing down, firing people, minimizing benefits, and other practices on the grounds that a business should make decisions on purely economic grounds; but businesses don’t want employees reasoning the same way.

Look at it this way. Imagine a corporation that says that the best employee is the one who bills the most hours or sells the most units, regardless of whether the job really required that many hours or the customer needed that many units. If the incentives are such that anything short of breaking the law and getting caught is allowed, then on what grounds can the corporation say “When it comes to clients, all you should worry about is maximizing your profit, but don’t treat the organization that way”?

Were the “it’s okay to see everyone else as an opportunity to maximize your profit” a consistently applied ethic, the question wouldn’t be whether it’s right or wrong for us to steal the chairs and sell them on e-bay (whether we would want our possessions to be treated that way—an issue of fairness), but the possible profits, the likelihood of getting caught, the relative costs and benefits. If it’s okay to falsify your timesheet in order to get more money out of customers, on what grounds is it not okay to falsify your expenses in order to get more money out of your corporation?

It’s the same problem with a culture—if maximizing your share of goods is the major ethical dictum, then on what grounds should you obey the law? Only if you’re likely to get caught, if obeying the law directly benefits you, or if the costs of disobeying are higher than the benefits of law-breaking. Needless to say, that ends up being a chaotic culture.

There are two closely-related ways that cultures of outcome-based ethics can try to restrain the damage inherent to that ethical system: first, appeal to in-group/out-group ethics, mobilizing in-group identification to create loyalty to the in-group (so we won’t steal the chairs because A&M is our in-group, and we feel that stealing would be disloyal to that group—in other words, and this is the important part, replace the cultural strength provided by fairness with the power of in-group loyalty); second, get that in-group loyalty attached to a particular person (in other words, charismatic leadership).

For in-group loyalty to trump the message to maximize self-interest it has to be really powerful. The ideology has to promote

  • “the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;”

That is, the ideology has to say that looking out for yourself is really looking out for your group and vice versa. So, instead of it being an individualistic social Darwinism (if you succeed it’s proof that you deserved the success) but group-based. Instead of it being your right as an individual to dominate others, it has to be:

  • “the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”

It’s possible sometimes to get that level of commitment to a group—that’s what both political parties try to do at their conventions, with mixed success—but it’s unlikely for a corporation to be able to get people to identify with the corporation (especially in a world in which a dominant message is that employers don’t have to be loyal to employees past the point of profitability). Thus, the strategy more likely to work is to get identification with the leader of the corporation or with individual managers.

And so we’re extremely likely to have that strategy promoted through two other mobilizing passions:

  • “the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;”

This structure isn’t an invitation for everyone in the corporation to contribute to decision-making; it isn’t one in which all employees are asked to do whatever they think is the right thing to do—it’s hoping for a system in which people believe so much in the leader that they do whatever s/he says, and that they try to please the leader at all times by doing more than is required.

As such, it’s a kind of distortion of Kant’s ideal normative agreement—since all deliberation is handed over to the natural chiefs, then all the “perfect information” an individual needs for making their decisions is what the chieftain has decided is the correct course of action.

There are many disturbing moments in Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation and trial, and one that rattled one of the judges which is especially relevant to this argument is when, having boasted (and bemoaned) that he had the obedience of a corpse, he also claimed that he had also always lived by the Kantian notion that, as Eichmann said, “the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws” (Arendt 136). Carsten Lausten and Rasmus Ugilt explain Eichmann’s argument. For Eichmann,

“there existed no difference between the Fuhrer’s will and the moral law or, in more general terms, between legality and morality. He could thus recognize his subjection to Hitler’s will as an unproblematic act. He had personally sworn him the oath of allegiance, and this included an obligation toward his word of command (Arendt 1992, 149). The Fuhrer’s word was given immediately and imperatively. It had the power of the law (Gesetzkraft) and hence was not to be doubted (Arendt 1992, 148).” 
(167)

This is often discussed as Eichmann’s distortion of the Kantian principle but Arendt notes that it wasn’t his alone. Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal attorney, had defined “the categorical imperative in the Third Reich” as “Act in such a way that the Fuhrer, if he knew your action, would approve it” (qtd. in Arendt 136). And, in fact, during the Nuremberg trials, other Nazis invoked Kant to defend the ethics of their action (or, more accurately, the ethics of their refusal to accept responsibility); but it was the “Kant” of Hans Frank, one in which the will of the chieftain is entirely integrated into the deliberations of individuals. It’s the “leadership principle” (or “Fuhrer principle”). It’s fascism.

And here I want to point out how charismatic leadership is described in much management discourse. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management (Ed. Nigel Nicholson, Pino G. Audia, and Madan M. Pillutla. Vol. 11: Organizational Behavior. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. p40-41) says there are three stages in charismatic leadership.

“The first stage concerns the leader’s sensitivity to the environment. Charismatic leaders can be distinguished from non-charismatic leaders in this stage by their heightened sensitivity to deficiencies and poorly exploited opportunities in the status quo.”

“Stage two of the leadership process concerns the act of formulating future goals or directions. Charismatic leaders are distinguished by a sense of strategic vision versus rational or purely tactical goals. Here the word vision refers to an idealized, highly aspirational goal that the leader wants the organization to achieve in the future. In articulating the vision, the charismatic leader’s verbal messages construct reality such that only the positive features of the future vision and the negative features of the status quo are emphasized. The status quo is usually presented as intolerable, and the vision is presented in clear specific terms as the most attractive and attainable alternative. Charismatic leaders’ use of rhetoric, high energy, persistence, unconventional and risky behavior, heroic deeds, and personal sacrifices all serve to articulate their own high motivation and enthusiasm, which then become contagious among their followers.”

“In the third and final stage of the leadership process – aligning followers’ actions to realize goals – leaders in general build in followers a sense of trust in their abilities and clearly demonstrate the tactics and behaviors required to achieve the organization’s goals. Charismatic leaders accomplish this by building TRUST through personal example and RISK TAKING and through unconventional expertise. They also engage in exemplary acts that are perceived by followers as involving great personal risk, cost, and energy.”

I want to emphasize that a leader who is charismatic is not necessarily someone engaged in charismatic leadership—charismatic leadership is a very specific kind of relationship between leader and follower. It is a method of policy determination that allows agency by proxy for the followers (they are agents only insofar as they identify with the leader).

Whether it’s good for businesses is much more up for argument than one might think from airport bookstores, but that isn’t really my point. My argument is that the shift to charismatic leadership is necessitated by the problem of how to motivate people when fairness across groups is precluded by the dominance of outcomes-based ethics, especially in a context of deliberately asymmetric ethical responsibilities (that is, the corporation wants loyalty from employees, but is neither promising nor delivering loyalty to them). And the result is a kind of leadership that crosses over into several of the characteristics of fascism.

Again, whether that’s good, bad, or even necessary for business isn’t my point. The problem for democracy arises when the dominance of this semi-authoritarian soft fascism gets entangled with the dominant lay political theory.

Unhappily, at least for theorists of democratic deliberation, a large number of Americans (perhaps most):

“want to distance themselves from government not because of a system defect but because many people are simply averse to political conflict and many others believe political conflict is unnecessary and an indication that something is wrong with government procedures. People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals, and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than with cacophonous special interests.” (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 7)

At the base of this belief is that there is no such thing as legitimate political disagreement—the true course of action is obvious, and there is a kind of “normal American” whose interests politicians should be protecting. They don’t because they are influenced by “special interests”—“special interests” being “any interests other than mine.”

So, for instance, descendants of immigrants, who believe that America benefitted by immigration policies that allowed their ancestors in don’t want those same policies now—immigration policies that helped them were the right choice then; the same immigration policies, helping people exactly like their ancestors, are special interest.

This view delegitimates the interests of any group proposing alternate policies; it thereby delegitimates democracy itself. This view—that the interests of one group (my group) are the only legitimate ones—is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) advocating a one-party state. It is also implicitly eliminationist—the people who are claiming to have different interests don’t count, shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and should probably be expelled. Any system of government (or political thought) that relies on the sense that there is one kind of citizen whose desires are the only legitimate basis of public policy has at least one foot on the ladder of extermination.

In short, a large number of people believe that they are living in Kant’s ideal normative agreement, in which the only view that matters is theirs and the people like them, and they imagine that “people like them” all agree on the best government policies. It isn’t that they are motivated by hate for others, but simply that their common sense suggests to them that they are normal, they know what they want, and that the government should be organized to give normal people what they want most—if not all—of the time.”

And, of course, it doesn’t because that isn’t really how big institutions of any kind work (for one thing, “normal” people actually want very different things). The problem is that when it doesn’t, when policies are compromises, constrained, or have benefits that aren’t immediately obvious, instead of concluding that it’s actually complicated to come up with a good policy, people feel betrayed by their government because their narrative is that the obvious course has been ignored in favor of special interests—Real Americans aren’t getting what we deserve because not-Real Americans have corrupted the government. Real Americans are getting screwed over by non-American influences. Or, in other words, such people’s reaction to politics is based in

  • “the belief that one’s group is a victim,”
  • “dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of class conflict, and alien influences;”

Whether the implicit authoritarianism and proto-fascism of charismatic leadership is good, bad, necessary, or just a fad in business management isn’t my point. My point is that that model of leadership is, as Weber famously said, fraught and dangerous, and it is profoundly anti-democratic. Businesses don’t have to be democratic, so this model isn’t necessarily a problem in business.

But, it’s when the model is moved over to government that we have serious problems. And the fantasy that we should hand our government over to someone who has good decision-making capabilities, and that such a capability is demonstrated by being rich (as long as he’s in-group)[1]

There are four sets of ideologies at play here: 1) outcome-based ethics, but a group-based version (if the in-group succeeds, that’s proof that the in-group was entitled to success, and anything that enables that success is ethical); 2) management rhetoric about charismatic leadership; and 3) lay political theory that says we should empower someone who gets what “normal Americans” want; 4) the assumption that government needs a successful (in-group) businessman to lead it.

At that point, we can add up what political passions we have ready to be mobilized, and it’s (in bold)

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  • the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  • the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success; the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.

So, the combination of management rhetoric’s promotion of charismatic leadership as the ideal model, lay political theory about disagreement and deliberation being unnecessary, and the fantasy that all we need in government is a good businessman means that fascism will appeal to a lot of Americans.

As  you can see, though, there are a lot of things missing. While there is a lot of media promoting these bolded notions, and major politicians running on the basis of those passions, we’re okay as long as there isn’t media claiming that the in-group is in danger of extermination, that exclusionary violence on the in-group is legitimate, that we are facing an overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions. In February of 1942, Hitler boasted to his tablemates:

“It’s enough for me to send for Lorenz and inform him of my point of view, and I know that next day all the German newspapers will broadcast my ideas. [….] With such collaborators at my side, I can make a sheer about-turn, as I did on 22nd June last, without anyone’s moving a muscle. And that’s a thing that’s possible in no country but ours.”(Hitler’s Table Talk, 22nd-23rd February 1942 (p 332).

Ruh roh.

[1] I have to point out that, if you look at that list, you see Aristotle’s three kinds of persuasion—deliberative, epideictic, and judicial—but let’s set that aside. Ideal normative agreement is unlikely under most conditions, since it assumes that disagreement is an illusion, and that everyone always already actually agrees, but it does get the deepest and most powerful levels of commitment. I’ll come back to this point, though.

 

It isn’t about a person being racist; it’s about doing something racist

When I was wandering around pro-Trump pages and groups prior to the election, I found a large number of people who said, “I don’t like being called racist, and so I’m voting for Trump.”

While I do believe that all racists voted for Trump, I don’t think all Trump voters were racist. And, really, whether they are racist or not doesn’t matter as much as whether we can talk about racism rather than racists. What’s interesting about that argument is that it isn’t just a pro-Trump argument–not all the people who object to being called racist voted for Trump after all–but why people would vote for someone with an obvious record of very racist statements and actions because they themselves feel unjustly accused of racism.

And, so, really, this is about how to talk about racist statements and actions.

Sure, some of the people who come out regularly to support Trump’s racists statements, are avowedly racist—the neo-Nazis who support Trump wholeheartedly [1].  But I want to talk about supporters who aren’t Nazis, don’t like Nazis, and don’t like being called Nazi (or racist).

Being a racist person in our culture (especially media) is associated with all sorts of horrible things—with being vicious, immoral, evil. If you think in terms of good and evil being absolute binaries—something is either good, or it is entirely evil–and you think of racism as evil, then saying that someone is racist is telling them they are entirely evil. And their response is, quite reasonably, they aren’t entirely evil. In fact, they’re good people because they think racism is evil.

This whole situation is complicated because of how racism is a natural out-growth of three conventional ways of thinking—what sociologists call in-group favoritism, what social psychologists call “faith in group entativity,” and what cognitive psychologists call “confirmation bias.”

In-group favoritism

We tend to think in terms of “people like us” and “people not like us.” And, completely unconsciously, we tend to think that “people like us” (the in-group) is better. So, if an in-group member does the same thing as an out-group member, we’ll explain them differently. The in-group member did it because of being a good person (if it’s a good thing), and an out-group member did it for bad reasons.

If I steal a parking place from you, and I appear to be in-group, you’ll either explain my behavior (she was in a rush, she didn’t see me) or make me not in-group (she looks like an LSU fan). There are all sorts of things that factor into your decision as to whether I’m in- or out-group—what bumper stickers do I have on my car, what kind of car am I driving, how am I dressed, what race/ethnicity am I. Racism is simply the tendency to make race, completely unconsciously, one of those factors. Being racist doesn’t make you evil; it makes you human. [2]

If you’re twitchy about people who appear to you to be transgender, and I am otherwise entirely in-group, you might be slightly more hostile in your interpretation of why I took the place than if I were in-group in terms of your ideas about gender, but still less hostile than if I were out-group in every way (a liberal transgender LSU fan). But you would never think, “Oh, I liked that person till I thought gender was not an issue, and now I don’t.” Biases happen in moments of perception—it’s not easy to see when we’re being biased.

People think of racism as a self-aware pure hostility to every member of every other “race.” If that’s what racism is, then you couldn’t do it without knowing, and you couldn’t be friends with anyone of other races, and you would never do anything kind to any member of any other race. The kind of people who support Trump think that’s what it means to be racist—to hate every member of every other race, and so they think they’re being accused of being like that. And so they’re mad. And, if someone in their in-group (especially a person they see as representing their in-group publicly) says something that might be racist, they’ll find ways of excusing it, largely on the grounds that “He isn’t racist, so he can’t have said something racist.”

But that has never been what racism is—it’s never been pure hostility to every other race. Let’s start with the premise that genocide is racist—all advocates of genocide, or race-based slavery, could think of members of other races for whom they had affection. Adolf Eichmann, who relentlessly pursued the eradication of European Jews, emphasized that he had Jewish friends (and he did). Slaveholders talked about their affection for some slaves, advocates of segregation claimed that their stance came from concern for non-whites (see Bilbo’s introduction to his racist book arguing for getting all African Americans out of America, or David Duke, an actual Nazi, talking about his affection for his African-American maid).

So, simply having kind feelings toward people of other races doesn’t make us not-racist. Racism isn’t about feelings that individuals have for others.

In our culture racism is bad, and we have a hard time thinking of acts as bad without immediately jumping to the actor being equally bad. That was a complicated sentence. Here’s what I mean: I spend a lot of time in the courses where racism comes up (courses on racism, free speech, demagoguery, going to war, Hitler) and I say that “being racist doesn’t mean a person is evil.” And some students hear me saying that racism is okay, and they’re shocked. And that isn’t what I’m saying. Not-evil people say and do racist things. We all do racist things, and we aren’t all evil.

Racism is very bad, but not every act of racism is equally bad, and the worst kinds of racism are the consequence of institutional practices, that don’t necessarily involve anyone being deliberately hostile to someone else.

Think about this in terms of disability. My campus is really bad for anyone with even mild mobility issues—lots of the larger classroom have stairs such that you can’t get to the stage if you are on a scooter or in a wheelchair (and it would be really difficult on crutches), there aren’t enough ramps or curb cuts around campus, elevators are wonky and small (and there aren’t enough), there are buildings with stairs in the middle of hallways and at most entrances, and some ramps are too steep. The people who designed those buildings didn’t do so because they were trying to make it hard for anyone with disabilities to navigate campus—they didn’t say to themselves, “Wow, I sure hate people with disabilities—I’m going to put a stairway here.” Instead, they were designing at a time when the style was to have entrances have a few steps—the idea is that they look more elegant that way. The architects didn’t think of what it would be like to navigate the building or campus with a mobility disability (or any other kinds, really) because that concern was invisible to them. They didn’t think. So, what they did was bad and discriminatory, but it didn’t come from evil intentions; it came from a lack of thought.

So, culturally, we need to talk about the harms caused by actions, policies, and institutions, and not whether the individuals involved are good or evil. The next time Trump says something racist, we need to stop shifting the stasis to whether he’s racist—what matters is that thing was a racist thing to say. As long as we allow the stasis to shift to whether he is racist, then his PR people can point out a single non-racist thing he did, or some relationship he has with a non-white, or condemn the people who quote him, or some non-white says he’s okay, or point out that he didn’t do something even more racist.  What he says matters more than who he is. If someone comes back with a “Well, it was an unfortunate comment,” then we can point out he’s got a lot of comments like that. He says a lot of racist things, and that matters, not because of what it means about his soul, but because what he says matters.

People want to believe that our group is basically good, and we are drawn to someone who tells us that. When people are told that someone they believe represents the in-group (when they identify with that person) then they feel that they have been accused of being racist, and that means they feel accused of being evil.

I think it would help if we imagined people as more like those architects—not evil, but thoughtless.

And yet there is a moment when you can stop calling the architect unintentionally thoughtless. If an architect has a history of designing buildings that are inaccessible, and it’s pointed out, and they keep doing it, then we can condemn their architecture as being discriminatory—it doesn’t matter if they have a friend in a wheelchair, or don’t make jokes about disabled people. We can say they shouldn’t design any more buildings.

We can say that a person with a long history of racist statements shouldn’t be in a position of decision-making in which race might matter. That isn’t attacking a group, and it isn’t attacking the person who likes Trump; it’s criticizing Trump. (Of course, charismatic leadership makes this complicated.)

Group entitativity

Social psychologists talk about “group entativity”—that is, the degree to which someone thinks about groups as Real Things. For some people, groups are just ways of grouping things that could be grouped in other ways—you might take a group of college students and group them by year, astrological sign, writing skills, major, paper topic. The value of that way of grouping would depend on what you were trying to do. If you were trying to put students together for group writing projects and wanted to make sure that each group was balanced in terms of skill, then grouping them by astrological sign wouldn’t make any sense. It would make more sense to group for diversity of writing skill. If you were going to have student groups work with a research librarian, then grouping by paper topic would probably make the most sense. That way of seeing groups is as functional and pragmatic.

That pragmatic way of thinking about groups makes some people nervous, since they want to see social groups as Real—they want to believe that people in this group are Really Different from people in that group. They believe that all you need to know about someone you can know by inferring their group memberships, and they reason deductively from that—if you’re a woman, you must be bad at sports. (If you’re a woman, and good at sports, they’ll often invoke the No True Scotsman rule.)

Some people, in other words, strongly believe in group entativity. Sometimes they’ll work to make the groups absolutely perfectly distinct—such as prohibiting African Americans from learning to read, so that they could maintain their belief that African Americans aren’t intellectual, or prohibiting Japanese or Jews from owning land, and then condemn them for not being grounded.

People who believe in Real groups often believe that the fundamental Real distinction is between Good and Bad people. So, when you say that someone in their group is racist, they hear you saying that their group is made up of Bad People. And they know that isn’t true, because they know they do good things.

It’s the same problem with hearing someone say that white people have an advantage—some (white) people hear that as saying that they didn’t work at all, or work for anything. They hear that as a claim that white people are lazy. And that means their group is bad.

They hear it that way because, if groups are Really totally different from one another, then either a group earned what it has achieved through good things or it didn’t.

The notion of white privilege also threatens the Just World Hypothesis, which is central to the Prosperity Gospel. So, saying that the playing field isn’t even, and not everyone who succeeds worked harder than anyone who didn’t, threatens some people’s sense of their group, themselves, and their sense of the very world. That’s why they get so mad.

Confirmation Bias

I’ve written about this a lot, but it’s central. People who believe that groups are Real, and that only Bad People are racist are also likely to believe that you can just look and see if someone is good or not. In other words, they don’t recognize that we are all subject to confirmation bias.

But, if they think in black or white terms, then the notion of confirmation bias is really threatening. If things are either completely good or entirely bad, and research suggests that our perception is flawed, that must be saying that we can never tell whether someone or something is good or bad. It must mean we have no judgment at all, and they can point to lots of times they had good judgment, so their judgment is good, so confirmation bias is wrong.

A sweet case of confirmation bias.

Demagoguery and the “That thing you said was racist” problem

When you have people who reason from identity (people in this group are good, and people in that group are bad), it’s really hard to get them to see that their in-group information sources are giving them bad information. They will believe things that come to them from the in-group because the in-group is good.

If you’re in an echo chamber, as it’s called, it doesn’t look that way because you’re very aware of all sorts of in-group disagreements. You can see disagreement, so you think you’re in a world of dissent. And, if you equate in-group membership and reliability, then you also believe what your in-group information sources tell you that the out-group is saying about you.

Right now, our media world reminds me of the world described by Queen Bees and Wannabes, in which manipulative people create solidarity by repeating nasty things other people (are supposed to have) said about you.

The most damaging aspect of demagogic media, and this is just as true of Fox as it is of OccupyDemocrats, is that it normalizes demagoguery—that is, making every issue an us vs. them issue.

Whether someone said something racist isn’t an us vs. them issue. It’s a what did they say issue.

So, telling someone that they said something racist, or that someone they like said something racist, involves keeping a clear eye on the stasis—it isn’t about which group is better. It’s about what they said. Keep the stasis there.

 

[1] It doesn’t bother Trump supporters that neo-Nazis like Trump; they think revolutionary Marxists liked Obama, and they think that evens things out. Of course, revolutionary Marxists hated Obama, as they hate all third-way neoliberals.

[2] I’m not saying that all forms of in-group favoritism or out-group aversion are the same, equally bad, or anything along those lines. They are wildly different in impact depending on things like social structures, history, power.

[3] It’s important to be careful about how class is factoring in to this—so, if it’s a poor Lithuanian family, don’t ask whether you would judge a rich Moravian (because you’re Moravian) family the same way. Ask whether you would tell the same story about a poor Moravian family.

Demagoguery and scapegoating

I want to start with an interesting puzzle:

Republicans control Congress, the Supreme Court, now the Presidency; Republicans have a trifecta in 26 states, and the most popular cable news show is a tried-and-true propaganda outfit for Republican candidates and agenda.  Fifty-six percent of America’s richest families are GOP donors. By any reasonable measure, the GOP is the establishment.

The puzzle is that the rhetoric surrounding voting Republican is one of resistance to the establishment—the GOP has successfully framed itself as the anti-establishment party.  And they have managed to blame all problems on Democrats (even in absurd cases and in the face of all reasonable evidence). —the out-of-power party.[1] Now that they have complete control of the Federal government, and still can’t come through on their promises, they have a new narrative, the Deep State conspiracy  —so that it’s still liberals who are the source of all of our problems. That’s interesting. How are they managing that rhetorical sleight of hand?

There are various reasons, with three I want to mention here. The first is the one I won’t talk about at any length now, and it’s lay political theory. The dominant lay political theory is that the solutions to all political problems are obvious to any reasonable person—no political disagreement involves two or more people of intelligence and good faith.  The government doesn’t pursue those obvious solutions for various nefarious reasons—they know what they should do, but they don’t follow that course of action because of “special interests” (special interests being “anyone other than my in-group”).

The second is informational enclaves—that large swaths of Americans inhabit worlds impervious to accurate representations of out-group arguments (not just people on the right, and not just restricted to “political” issues). It isn’t just that these worlds involve the chanting of various assertions; it’s also that these enclaves engage in inoculation (a concept that really should be more prominent in rhetoric and comp). Inoculation works by giving people a weak form of an out-group ideology or political agenda—people sincerely believe they don’t need to listen to people who disagree because they think they already know the argument. Inoculation works because so many people believe that the first goal in listening to someone (or reading) is finding cues of identity group membership—if the rhetor can be identified as out-group, then everything they say can be rejected as “biased.” (I think this is worsened by how we teach “bias” in fyc classes, since we teach it as social group membership.)

Not all instances of inoculation are demagoguery, but demagoguery always involves inoculation. And the dominant form of discourse in those worlds is demagoguery, and that’s the third factor I want to talk about.

My argument about demagoguery is fairly straightforward—demagoguery is most effectively thought of as a way of arguing, not a rhetoric produced by a kind of person. It isn’t necessarily a cancer on the body politic, or a political evil. Thinking about demagogues and not demagoguery and thinking about demagoguery as a growth to be excised unintentionally ends up endorsing the very view of public discourse that is so problematically at the center of demagoguery: that political issues can be reduced to identity, and that they are solved through elimination. And that’s demagoguery.

I’ve suggested we think of demagoguery as:

Demagoguery is a polarizing discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric through framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and means by which (not whether) the outgroup should be punished/scapegoated for the current problems of the ingroup. Public debate largely concerns three stases: group identity (who is in the ingroup, what signifies outgroup membership, and how loyal rhetors are to the ingroup); need (usually framed in terms of how evil the outgroup is); what level of punishment to enact against the outgroup (restriction of rights to extermination).     

Demagoguery depoliticizes political discourse by making all issues questions of identity (which amounts to in-group loyalty), it insists that all of our problems are caused by this group—the only failing of the in-group is insufficient will in pursuing a policy of purity.

I began with a description of something odd about Republican rhetoric—and I want to be clear, I’m not saying that the disingenuousness of Republican rhetoric (“we’re the victims here”) means Republicans are bad people, or the Republican political agenda should be dismissed on the grounds that they have disingenuous rhetoric. Republican policies should be debated on their merits and demerits as policies. I’m saying that advocates of the Republican political agenda need to defend that agenda with policy rhetoric. So should every other advocate of a political agenda. Political argument should be arguments about policies.

If we say the problem is that Republicans are demagogues, the implied solution is to purify our community of Republicans—and that’s demagoguery. If we say their rhetoric is demagogic, we are asking them to argue differently.

Saying that Republican policies are bad because Republican media engage in demagoguery is still not deliberating about policies; it’s arguing about who is the disease of the body politic. Jeremy Engels, who has identified a similar (but not identical) phenomenon with what he calls a “politics of resentment” points out that “Nixon argued that war protestors, and not the war itself, was the problem” (96) and that this “rhetoric was brilliant because [Nixon] subverted the democratic possibilities of resentment by redefining the conflict at the heart of democracy” (101).

As Kenneth Burke famously said in his prescient analysis of Hitler’s rhetoric, nothing unifies as much as a common enemy, and a common enemy is useful for enhancing nationalism. Anthony Marx’s recent book persuasively argues that nationalism—that is, a centralized allegiance—can’t be dictated top-down, but elites can employ “an indirect method for channeling popular loyalty, bringing religious passions and identities thus consolidated into the service of absolutism” (74). Marx says, “To consolidate their power and make governance possible and effective, elites embraced rising mass passions by encoding discriminatory laws enforcing those passions and cohering their supporters” (74). So, it’s Burke’s unification through division.

Marx’s narrative of the pre-Enlightenment founding of nationalism emphasizes the crucial role of religious passion in this foundation, which he argues fits the characteristics of what is now often inaccurately called “ethnic nationalism” (what the clash of cultures people present as an impaired and non-Western kind of nationalism). Thus, the “ethnic” versus “civic” nationalism operates by occluding Western nationalism’s reliance on religious/ethnic exclusion.

And I’d suggest that’s what we’re seeing now. I think it can be invisible to a lot of people the way that the policy arguments of the United States have been refit into an eschatological narrative. It is simply a given in some informational enclaves (including Fox News) that being Christian means being Republican, a sloppy and entirely false equation that enables the mobilizing of religious passion (and there are few passions stronger) in service of disenfranchising, excluding, or exterminating the scapegoated out-group. (And, as with the muddled way “Muslim” is troped as a race, in this enclave “Christian” is “white” thus non-Christians must not be white.)

Anthony Marx points out that groups that have relied on this process of cohesion through exclusion don’t recognize their reliance on exclusion because they renarrate their own history as one of inclusion (168). That ahistoric narrative of inclusion enables a useful amnesia about the violent and exclusive bases of nationalism. This narrative of inclusion is strengthened in several ways, including the faux diversity of seeing oneself as inclusive because one’s in-group doesn’t exclude as much as it could– having a Jew lawyer, a gay “friend,” a Catholic colleague. Because the initial violence is hidden, the current violence is framed as a new and necessary exception, and not a continuation of practice.

The violence is often legitimated through hyperbole, and there is a paradox in demagogic rhetoric created by its reliance on hyperbole. Demagoguery is about performing in-group loyalty—to persuade voters that I am the most passionate embodiment of our group, it’s useful if I’m impractical, irrational, and hyperbolic. My willingness to make absurd claims and commit myself to policies that probably won’t work shows just how loyal I am. Initially, when a rhetor does this, they want someone else to stand up and stop the community from enacting that impractical policy. But that isn’t generally what happens. If I say that the in-group needs to go to war with squirrels, then the people on whom I’ve dumped the rhetorical responsibility of actually deliberating pragmatically now have to argue that we aren’t capable of going to war with the squirrels (or of winning, or paying for the war, or something else that suggests we are flawed as a group). They look disloyal and less passionate about the in-group than I do. If Chester Burnette is running against me, he needs to match my hyperbole, so he’ll have to advocate either my policy or something even more impractical. In cultures of demagoguery, communities end up pursuing policies that were initially advocated just as performance of in-group loyalty.

There’s another paradox, and it’s a concerning one. The paradox of social control through demagoguery is that if it’s effective there is no longer a scapegoat to blame—proslavery scapegoating of abolitionists ensured that there was no antislavery discourse in slave state political deliberations. So, on whom could they blame slave resistance? They couldn’t acknowledge that it was the consequence of slavery, and then you get a rhetoric of conspiracy. [2] Conspiracy rhetoric, when it’s successful, leads to (or legitimates) policies of extraordinary surveillance—since the ability of the out-group to cause so many problems although they’ve been silenced and excluded shows a degree of nefariousness that requires extraordinary policies.

And that’s why this “deep state” rhetoric worries me. The ineffectiveness of an interventionist bullying foreign policy, neoliberal economic policies, and climate change denial should be up for argument—we should be having policy arguments about those policies. Their failure should be the moment for reconsideration. If their failures are instead blamed on a nonfalsifiable narrative about a deep conspiracy, then the next step will be debating the degree of surveillance and exclusion of the scapegoated group.

When a culture’s normal rhetorical practice is demagoguery, then there are demagogues in power—because there are demagogues everywhere, because demagoguery becomes the most profitable and cunning choice. When demagoguery is normalized, then demagogues arise.

So, instead of talking about who is or is not a demagogue, I think we should worry about when and how demagoguery gets normalized.

 

[1] I’m not puzzled or outraged that they blame all their problems on Democrats—all political parties do that. I’m intrigued that it’s effective.

[2] Another good example of this maneuver is what Stalin did when his agricultural policies were disastrous. Since the whole argument for the Soviet system was that central planning was more rational, he couldn’t admit that they had screwed up—so he invented (and probably sincerely believed) a conspiracy on the part of counter-revolutionaries.

Hitler and Rhetoric

As Nicholas O’Shaughnessy says, anyone looking at the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust is likely to wonder: “How was it possible for a nation as sophisticated as Germany to regress in the way that it did, for Hitler and the Nazis to enlist an entire people, willingly or otherwise, into a crusade of extermination that would kill anonymous millions?” (1) The conventional answer is to attribute tremendous rhetorical power to Adolf Hitler. Kenneth Burke calls Hitler “a man who swung a great deal of people into his wake” (“Rhetoric” 191). William Shirer, who was an American correspondent in Germany in the 30s, describes that, listening to a speech he knew was nonsense, “was again fascinated by [Hitler’s] oratory, and how by his use of it he was able to impose his outlandish ideas on his audience” (131). Shirer says Hitler “appeared able to swing his German hearers into any mood he wished” (128). Shirer is clear that Hitler owed his power to his rhetoric: “his eloquence, his astonishing ability to move a German audience by speech, that more than anything else had swept him from oblivion to power as dictator and seemed likely to keep him there” (127).

Scholars don’t necessarily agree, however. Ian Kershaw says, “Hitler alone, however important his role, is not enough to explain the extraordinary lurch of a society, relatively non-violent before 1914, into ever more radical brutality and such a frenzy of destruction” (Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution 347). While Hitler’s personal views were important, and neither the Holocaust nor war would have happened without his personal fanaticism and charisma, they weren’t all that was necessary: “Concentrating on Hitler’s personal worldview, no matter how fanatically he was inspired and motivated by it, cannot readily serve to explain why a society, which hardly shared the Arcanum of Hitler’s “philosophy,” gave him such growing support from 1929 on—in proportions that rose with astonishing rapidity. Nor can it explain why, from 1933 on, the non-Nationalist Socialist élites were prepared to play more and more into his hands in the process of “cumulative radicalization.”” (Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution 57)

In other words, Hitler’s followers were  not passive automatons controlled by Hitler’s rhetorical magic. So, how powerful was that rhetoric?

The answer to that question is more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests for several reasons. First, while Hitler was quick to use new technologies, including ones of travel, most of the Nazi rhetoric consumed by converts wasn’t by Hitler. People like Adolf Eichmann talk about being persuaded by other speakers, pamphlets, even books.

Second, no one claims that Hitler was a creative or inventive ideologue: “Hitler was not an originator but a serial plagiarist” (O’Shaughnessy 24). Joachim Fest said Hitler’s beliefs were the “sum of the clichés current in Vienna at the turn of the century” (qtd. in Gregor, 2), and Gregor says, “Neither can one claim that Hitler was an original thinker. There is little in his writings or speeches that we cannot find in the penny pamphlets of pre-1914 Vienna where he began to form his political views. His racial anti-Semitism rehearses the familiar slogans of many on the pre-war right. His visions of German expansion echo the ideas of the more extreme wing of the radical-nationalist Pan German movement [….] And, in essence, his anti-democratic, anti-Socialist sentiments similarly reproduce the conventional thinking of broad sectors of the German right from both before and after the First World War.” (2)

If Hitler wasn’t saying anything new, to what extent can we say he persuaded people? What did he persuade them of?

A closely related problem is that large numbers of Germans supported Hitler politically but rejected the central aspects of his ideology—such as his eliminationist racism and his desire for another war. Although he’d long been absolutely clear that those were central to his views, when he began to downplay them (especially in 1932 and 33), many people believed those were trivial aspects that could be ignored. Many people supported him strategically, especially the Catholic and Lutheran churches, both of which were outraged by the Social Democrats’ (democratic socialists) liberal social policies (e.g., legalizing homosexuality, supporting feminism, and, especially, breaking the religious monopoly on primary schools). Since Hitler and the Nazis were socially conservative, and Hitler promised to allow the churches more power than the Social Democrats would allow, many Protestants voted for Nazis, and the official Catholic Party (the Centre Party) Reichstag members voted unanimously for Hitler taking on dictatorial power (for more on this background, see Evans; Spicer).

Some scholars refer to “the propaganda of success,” by which they mean that Hitler gained the support of people not because he put forward good arguments, or even because of anything he said, but because they liked his locking up Marxists and Socialists, industrialists liked his support of big business, people liked the increased amount of order, they liked the improved economy, they liked his conservative social policies, a lot of Germans liked his persecution of immigrants, and a lot of people either liked or didn’t mind the legitimating and legalizing of discrimination against Jews (even the churches only objected to discrimination against converted Jews). And large numbers of Germans didn’t particularly like the idea of democracy—the premise of democracy is that political situations are complicated, and that there aren’t obvious solutions. Or, more accurately, there are solutions that appear to be obviously right from one perspective, but are obviously wrong from another perspective. Democratic processes assume that the various perspectives need to be taken into consideration, and so the best policy for the community as a whole will not be perfect for anyone and will take a lot of time to determine—many people would rather that a powerful leader make all the decisions and leave them out of it. After Hitler had been in power a year, many people felt that their lives were better, and that’s all they really cared about—that they were headed down a road that would make their lives much worse didn’t concern them because they didn’t think about it.

Finally, many people came to support Nazis because they liked that Hitler made them feel proud of being German again. He didn’t make them feel proud of being German by changing their minds about anything, but by insisting publicly and endlessly that they were victims—that nothing about their situation was the consequence of bad decisions they had made. He wasn’t saying anything that was new, but it was new for a political leader—he was simply the first major German political figure in a long time to say, unequivocally, Germany was for Germans, and Germans were entitled to run Europe (if not the world).

All these characteristics of Hitler’s relationship with his supporters—his lack of originality, strategic acquiescence, hostility to democracy, narrow self-interest on the part of many Germans, and the propaganda of success—mean that it’s actually an open question as to whether Hitler’s rhetoric was unique, let alone how much power we should ascribe to it. And so this course will consider the questions: what were Hitler’s rhetorical strategies? how unique or unusual was (is) it? what kind of impact does it have? to what extent (and under what circumstances) does it work?

 

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.'” Philosophy of Literary Form. U of California P, 1974.

Evans, Richard. The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin, 2005.

Gregor, Neil. How to Read Hitler. Norton, 2005.

Kershaw, Ian.  Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Yale U P, 2009.

O’Shaughnessy, Nicholas. Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand. Oxford UP, 2016.

Shirer, William. The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984.

Spicer, Kevin, ed. Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust. Indiana UP, 2007.

Ethos, pathos, and logos

Since the reintroduction of Aristotle to rhetoric in the 60s, there has been a tendency to read him in a post-positivist light. That is, the logical positivists (building on Cartesian thought) insisted on a new way of thinking about thinking—on an absolute binary between “logic” and “emotion.” This was new—prior to that binary, the dominant models involved multiple faculties (including memory and will) and a distinction within the category we call “emotions.” While it was granted that some emotions inhibited reasoning (such as anger and vengeance) theorists of political and ethical deliberation insisted on the importance of sentiments. The logical positivists (and popular culture), however, created a zero-sum relationship between emotion (bad) and reasoning (logic–good). Thus, when we read Aristotle’s comment about the three “modes” of persuasion post-positivist world, we tend to assume that he meant “pathos” in the same way we mean “emotion” and “logos” in the same (sloppy) way we use the word “logic.” And we get ourselves into a mess.

For instance, for many people, “logic” is an evaluative term—a “logical” argument is one that follows rules of logic. Yet, textbooks will describe an “appeal to facts” as a logos (logical) argument. That’s incoherent. Appealing to “facts” (let’s ignore how muckled that word is) isn’t necessarily logical—the “facts” might be irrelevant, they might be incorporated into an argument with an inconsistent major premise, the argument might have too many terms. In rhetoric, we unintentionally equivocate on the term “logical,” using it both to mean any attempt to reason and only logically correct ways of reasoning. (It’s both descriptive and evaluative.)

The second problem with the binary of emotion and reason is that, as is often the case with binaries, we argue for one by showing the other often fails. Since relying entirely on emotion often leads to bad decisions, then it must be bad, and relying on logic must be good. That’s an illogical argument because it has an invalid major premise. Were it valid, then someone who made that argument would also agree that relying on emotion must be good because relying purely on logic sometimes misleads (it’s the same major premise—if x sometimes has a bad outcome, then not-x must be good).

So, even were we to assume that emotion and logic are binaries (they aren’t), then what we would have to conclude is that neither is sufficient for deliberating.

And, in any case, there’s no reason to take a 19th century western notion and try to trap Aristotle into it.

A better way to think about Aristotle’s division is that he is talking about: what the argument of a speech is, who is making the speech, and how they are making it. So, the logos (discourse) in a speech can be summarized in an enthymeme because, he said, that’s how people reason about public affairs. There are better and worse ways of reasoning, and he names a few ways we get misled, but he didn’t hold rhetoric to the same standards he held disputation—that is where he went into details about inference. An appeal to logos, in Aristotle’s terms, isn’t necessarily what we mean by a logical argument.

Aristotle pointed out that who makes the speech has tremendous impact on how persuasive it is (and also how we should judge it)—both the sort of person the rhetor is (young, old, experienced, choleric), and how the person appears in the speech (reasonable, angry). And, finally, how the person makes the speech has a strong impact on the audience, whether it’s highly styled, plain, loud, and so on.

And all of those play together. A vehement speech still has enthymemes, and it’s only credible if we believe the speaker to be angry—if we believe the speaker to be generally angry (or an angry sort of person) that will have a different impact from an angry speech on the part of someone we think of as normally calm. Ethos, pathos, and logos work together, and they don’t map onto our current binary about logic and emotion.

As long as I can think of someone more racist, I’m not racist at all

My *favorite* assignment in the Rhetoric of Racism course is having students look at a text (or practice) about which there is an argument (ideally a text they think is racist) and explain why there is a disagreement.

There are basically eight ways people argue that a text isn’t racist:

1) a text isn’t racist if it doesn’t make a big deal about race;

2) texts are either racist or not racist and so if there is any way in which this text criticizes racism, then it can’t be racist;

3) it’s just a “feel-good” text and you’re over-reading;

4) it isn’t racist because what it says is true (in other words, the person saying the text isn’t racist is racist);

5) racists are people who explicitly and self-consciously hate everyone of every other race, and only racist people say racist things, so if the person created the text isn’t someone who never ever associates with or who never says anything “nice” about any member of any other race, then the text can’t be racist (also known as the “some of my best friends are…” defense);

6) the author didn’t intend to be racist (so it’s only racist if the individual who created the text engaged in actions s/he knew to be racist);

7) it doesn’t have the marks of hostility toward another race (the tone isn’t over-the-top, it doesn’t use racial epithets);

8) it isn’t racist because there are other texts that are more racist, or it doesn’t endorse the most extreme versions of racism, or the person knows of people who are more racist (what I’ll call the “Eichmann defense”).

This is also a list of how racism is legitimated—these are the ways that people allow racist practices to continue. They’re all complicated to talk someone out of (although there are ways), and here I want to focus on two of them: 4) and 8), which often co-exist. These are the ones that really muckle my students, and they are really interesting.

I think the two of them share the assumption that calling a text racist is a personal attack on, not just the author(s) of the text in question, but anyone who likes it. The underlying logic is: racists are evil, evil people are entirely not-good, people who like something racist are racist, so calling someone racist, or saying something they like is racist, is saying they are entirely evil.

That logic is a good example of what Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca called “philosophical paired terms.” The logic maps out like a question on a standardized test “Dogs are to mammals as parakeets are to ____.”

And, therefore, since good and evil are binaries (something is entirely good or entirely evil), then, if you can imagine something more evil, you must have some good, and so can’t be entirely evil, and so you can’t be evil at all. Therefore, you must be on the “not racist” side of the equation.

Most of us (perhaps all) engage in judgments comparatively, so that, as long as we are more [whatever] than our peers, we feel good about ourselves. Clearly, 8) relies on that move—as long as you aren’t as racist as someone else, you can feel good about your attitudes.

Interestingly enough, Adolph Eichmann relied on that argument a lot. In the interrogations, he several times condemned people for a Streicher-kind of anti-Semitism—part of trying to persuade his Jewish interrogators that he wasn’t anti-Semitic. He also continually tried to represent his job as okay because it wasn’t as directly death-dealing as the people who actually pulled the triggers or applied the gas.

If someone else was more guilty, then he wasn’t guilty at all.

This move is sometimes characterized as “whataboutism” but it’s actually different. Whataboutism is sheer tu quoque—it’s an attempt to shift the stasis of the argument away from what I did to some competition as to which group or individual is better. It’s almost always an admission that the people making the argument are engaged in sheer factionalism (there are complicated exceptions). So, for instance, defenders of Trump said Clinton did it too (a fallacy). But, some critics of Bill Clinton pointed out that he claimed he was a feminist and supporter of women’s rights, so his sexually harassing women was a violation of feminist principles. That’s a legitimate and important argument.

People who claim that the GOP is morally superior to the DNC can’t logically use the “Clinton groped women” argument at all because it shows that they think both parties are just as bad—and they’re claiming theirs is better.

“Whataboutism” works by accusing the out-group of doing the same thing the in-group has recently been outed for doing. But this move doesn’t accuse the out-group of anything—it just points out that there is a worse version (perhaps even a worse in-group version) of this behavior.

Eichmann defended himself as not anti-Semitic because another Nazi was more extreme. During slavery, slaveholders defended their treatment of slaves on the grounds that there were other slaveholders who were worse (they also engaged in tu quoque, but that’s a different story); pro-segregationists posited the KKK and violent segregationists as worse than they; the people I know who drink the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News flavor-aid all name somein-group pundit too extreme for them.

That someone may be more racist doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. Both you and they might be racist.

Talking about racism means, I think, getting the argument away from whether people are racist, whether their intentions are deliberately racist, and whether racist/not racist is a binary.

[Image screenshot from here.]
 

 

On normalizing Nazis

 

I often find myself telling people that we demonize Hitler and his followers, and therefore we can’t learn from their example. But even I am unhappy about the NYTimes article about a neo-Nazi because it doesn’t make a Nazi more understandable—it actually makes him less understandable while making him more empathetic.

What’s clear from scholars of the Holocaust is that Nazism was normalized, largely through identification with Hitler (people saw him as the person they would be if the leader), and also through normalizing him and other Nazis. Hitler at Home does a thorough job of showing just how that normalizing worked—careful control of his public image, including the design of his private spaces. And Hitlerland shows how many people were suckered by Hitler and Nazis, to think that their concerns were legitimate (when outside of in audience spaces, Hitler didn’t talk much about Jews, and talked mostly about the Versailles Treaty and reparations), that Nazis were persuaded to become Nazis because of desperation about their economic situation, and that the antisemitism was just rhetoric, so to speak.

That isn’t how it actually worked then, nor is it how it works now. Nazis were anti-Semitic, and the antisemitism was central to their identity—more important, they were deeply committed to doing anything necessary to destroy democracy. Neo-Nazis and KKK and alt-righters aren’t people moved to that position because of some single action or a single book or concerns about their economic situation—they are racist, and they are deeply and violently committed to ending democracy. They were generally racist from the beginning (although they will often insist they aren’t racist, and then cite “science” that they say shows non-white races are inferior). They aren’t very bright, as is demonstrated by how often they respond to argumentation with violence or threats of violence—they can’t put forward a logically persuasive argument to save their lives.

And they don’t care about argument, just as they don’t like democracy. They want an authoritarian government.

I think it’s important to understand that people like that don’t necessarily walk around with swastikas on their foreheads, and they aren’t always screaming, and they can be the people next door, or someone at work. They can be very normal in appearance, but their politics are not normal. And emphasizing one and not the other raises the spectre of just what happened in the Weimar, when Hitler and Nazis persuaded people to support them on the grounds that, despite their politics, they seemed like good people.

The NYTimes article didn’t mention any of that. It didn’t ask the Nazi about democracy, or race.  It just made him seem like a normal person, which he sort of is.

And that’s dangerous in a world in which people believe that they can make all political decisions on the basis of whether advocates/critics seem to be in their in-group.

The underlying assumption is that good people support good policies and bad people support bad policies, and that bad and good are in a binary relationship—something/someone is either entirely good or entirely bad. Thus, if you show that, say, a Nazi is a good person in some way (someone with whom you identify) then some number of people are likely to conclude that Nazism isn’t all that bad.

For instance, notice that it’s common for someone accused of saying or doing something racist to be defended by other people saying “They aren’t a bad person.” As Kenneth Burke said (an author of probably the single most apt analysis of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in its era), Hitler’s rhetoric depended on readers identifying with him. If his readers accepted that there is an us/them dichotomy, then the more he looked like “us” the more they would accept his “us” as normal and his “them” as dangerous.

Nazis want to end democracy. They might be nice, they might claim to be worried about the same things we are, but they blame democracy on the Jews, and they want to exterminate the Jews (and lots of other groups). And any mention of Nazis should keep front and center that they respond to any criticism with violence, they want a violent response, and they want genocide.

And the NYTimes article didn’t do that.  It didn’t explain what a Nazi believed; it just made him seem like a nice guy.

 

 

Teaching about racism from a position of privilege

I’ve taught a course on rhetoric and racism multiple times (I think this is the third, but maybe fourth). It came out of a couple of other courses—one on the rhetoric of free speech, and the other on demagoguery, but also from my complete inability to get smart and well-intentioned people to engage in productive discussions about racism.

I never wanted to teach a class on racism because I thought that there wasn’t really a need for a person who almost always has all the privileges of whiteness to tell people about racism. But I had a few experiences that changed my mind. And so I decided to do it, but it is the most emotionally difficult class I teach, and it is really a set of minefields, and there is no way to teach it that doesn’t offend someone. And yet I think it’s important, and I think other white people should teach about racism, but with a few caveats.

Like many people, I was trained to create the seminar classroom, in which students are supposed to “learn to think for themselves” by arguing with other students. The teacher was supposed to act as referee if things got too out of hand, but, on the whole, to treat all opinions as equally valid. I was teaching a class on the rhetoric of free speech—with the chairs in a circle, like a good teacher–when a white student said, “Why can black people tell jokes about white people, but white people can’t tell jokes about black people?”

And all the African-American students in the class shoved their chairs out of the circle, and one of them looked directly at me.

That’s when I realized how outrageously the “good teaching” method—in which every opinion expressed by a student should be treated as just as valid as the opinion of every other student—was institutionalized privilege.

What I hadn’t realized till that moment was that the apparently “neutral” classroom I had been taught to create wasn’t neutral at all. I was trained at a university and a department at which nonwhites and women were in the minority, and so every discussion in which all values are treated as equal in the classroom necessarily meant that straight male whiteness dominated, just in terms of sheer numbers. Then I went to a university that was predominantly women, and white males still dominated. White males dominate discussion, while white fragility ensures that treating all views as though they’re equal is doing nothing of the kind. The “neutral” classroom treats the white students’ hurt feelings with being called racist as precisely the same as anything racist s/he might say. And they aren’t the same.

That “liberal” model of class discussion is so vexed, and so specifically vexed in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. Often being one of few women in a class, and not uncommonly being one of few who openly identified as feminist, I was not uncommonly asked to represent what “feminists” thought about an issue, and I’ve unhappily observed classes (or was in classes) where the teacher asked a student to speak for an entire group (“Chester, what do gay people think about this?”) It’s interesting that not all identities get that request to speak for their entire group. While I have seen teachers call on a veteran to ask what the entire class of “veterans” think, I have never been in a class where anyone said, “Chester, what do “working class people” think about this issue?” I’ve also never been in a class, even ones where het white Christian males were in the minority, where anyone asked a het white Christian male to speak for all het white males.

The most important privilege that het white Christian males have is the privilege of toggling between individualism and universalism on the basis of which position is most rhetorically useful in the moment. In situations in which het male whiteness is the dominant epistemology, someone with that identity can speak as an individual, about his experience. When he generalizes from his experience, it’s to position himself as the universal experience. Het white males are simultaneously entirely individual and perfectly universal.

The “liberal” classroom presumes people who are speaking to one another as equals, but what if they aren’t? The “liberal” classroom puts tremendous work on identities who walk into that room as not equal—they have to be the homophobic, racist, sexist whisperers. That isn’t their job. That’s my job. I realized I was making students do my work.

That faux neutrality also guarantees other unhappy classroom practices. For instance, students who disagree with that falsely neutral position do so from a position of particularity. The “normal” undergrad has asserted a position which seems to be from a position of universal vision, and so any student who refutes his experience is now not only identifying with a stigmatized identity, but self-identifying as a speaker who is simultaneously particular and a representative of an entire group. When your identity is normalized, you claim to speak for Americans; when your identity is marked as other, you speak for all the others in that category.

There’s a weird paradox here. Both the het white Christian male and the [other] are taken as speaking for a much larger group, but in the case of the het white male it’s that he is speaking for humanity at a whole. If he isn’t, if his identity as het white male isn’t taken as universal in a classroom, then some number of people in that category will be enraged and genuinely feel victimized and dismiss as “political correctness” that they have to honor the experience of others as much as they honor their own experience.

What the white panic media characterizes as “political correctness” is rarely about suppression of free speech (they’re actually the ones engaged in political correctness)—it’s about holding all identities to the same standards of expression. The strategic misnaming of trying to honor peoples’ understanding of themselves as “political correctness” ignores the actual history of the term, which was about pivoting on a dime in order to spin facts in a way that supported faction. In other words, the whole flinging poo of throwing the term “political correctness” at people asking for equality is strategic misnaming and projection.

The second experience was in a class that was about the history about conceptions of citizenship, I was trying to make the point that identification is often racial, and that the notion of “universal” is often racist. I gave the class the statistics about Congress—that it was about 90% male and also in the 90% (or more) white. I asked the white males in the class whether they would feel that they were represented if Congress were around 90% nonwhite nonmale. Normally, this set off light bulbs for students. But, this time, one student raised his hand and said, “Well, yes, because white males aren’t angry.”

Of course, that isn’t true, and I’d bet they’d be pretty angry about not being represented, but, even were it true, it would be irrelevant. That student was assuming that being angry makes people less capable of political deliberation—that anger has no place in political argument. That’s an assumption often made in the “liberal” classroom, in which people get very, very uncomfortable with feelings being expressed. And it naturally privileges the privileged because, if being emotional (especially angry) means that a person shouldn’t be participating (or their participation is somehow impaired) then we either can’t talk about things that bother any students (which would leave a small number of topics appropriate for discussion), or people who are angry about aspects of our world (likely to be the less privileged) are silenced before they speak—they’re silenced on the grounds of the feelings they might legitimately have.

So, if we’re going to have a class about racism, we’re going to have a class in which people get angry, and not everyone’s anger is the same. Racist discourse is (and long has been) much more complicated than a lot of people want it to be—we want to think that it’s easy to identify, that it’s marked by hostility, that it’s open in its attacks on another race. But there has always been what we now call “modern racism”—racism that pretends to be grounded in objective science, that says “nice” things about the denigrated group, that purports to be acting out of concern and even affection. That is the kind of reading that angers students the most, and I think it’s important we read it because it’s the most effective at promoting and legitimating racist practices. But it will offend students to read it.

And so the class is really hard to teach, and even risky. And that was the other point I realized. If we have institutions in which only people of color are teaching classes about racism, we’re making them take on the politically riskier courses. That’s racist.

I remain uncomfortable being a white person teaching about racism, and I think my privilege probably means I do it pretty badly. But I think it needs to be done.