If I had a hammer: or Is change we can’t theorise, change we can believe in? Part Two

This post and its first part are condensed in this blog post at NESTA.

“What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.”

Charlie Munger


In my previous post I argued that there was a huge difference between social change seeking today and in the decades from the 1960s. One was theory heavy, focused on the public realm as a unitary entity, and deployed the tactics of activism to influence government policy and the wider culture. Today’s change seeking movements focus far more on the individual initiative of social entrepreneurs, activism focused on individuals – for instance urging boycotts by consumers and investors.

Two core themes/methodologies/technologies in this area include the power of IT including the internet, social media and data and human centred design. As I noted in the previous post, I’m a big fan of all this. In the previous post I argued firstly that what might look like great work might otherwise be undone in ways that were visible to relatively straightforward ‘theory’ but not visible if one just deployed the standard enthusiasms identified above. Often these problems arise where intervention occurs within some kind of market context where ‘the market’ or the wider context throws off effects which offset the benefits one has otherwise generated, or where it can be seen on reflection that the intervention has generated its beneficial effects indirectly and one could have more impact targeting the problem directly. There are also interventions which fall foul of our ignorance. An intervention to lower greenhouse emissions is likely to do a lot better if it targets emissions directly, rather than rely on some rule of thumb like Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Open data and information

There’s a further class of problem in which the activist needs to guard against being the person with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. I first noticed this in the area of information and open data. As I put it here:

We have long known and for commonsensical reasons that good information is critical to economic efficiency. Friedrich Hayek argued this within the ‘Austrian tradition’ of economics in prosecuting his case in the ‘socialist calculation debates’ of the 1930s. ‘Asymmetric information’ arrived as a substantial issue within the neoclassical tradition around thirty-five years later with the work of theorists such as Kenneth Arrow, George Stigler, George Akerlof and Joseph Stiglitz.

Yet beyond the simple and effective – as far as it goes – outlawing of clearly misleading conduct – much of the rest of information policy has been left to mandatory disclosure. A little ‘theory’ helps us get a lot further.

  • Doing “due diligence” on what we purchase is a laborious and often difficult exercise often requiring expertise we don’t have. For that reason virtually all the Product Disclosure Statements mandated on investments are ignored by investors. Consumers and also investors take the shortcut of relying on market reputations. Thus improving the process by which reputations are formed offers a very promising avenue for improving information flows.
  • Further, a lot of the new information products of the internet are public goods privately provided. Following this logic leads to a range of promising possibilities for public private digital partnerships.

Lateral Economics produced a report which got quite a lot of coverage on the economic value of open data in the G20 particularly to argue the case for broadening our policy focus in these directions arguing that this might generate large economic and social benefits. Yet, as I discovered attending the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin, data activists weren’t particularly interested.

As Schumpeter observed (or as I have interpreted him) the ‘engine’ behind politics and activism is not ‘reason’ but affect – how we feel and what we want to express. I think the theoretical focus on information I’ve offered above offers the potential for a new birth of reform, diffusion of power and human betterment in the (liberationist) spirit of the Adam Smith, with much of its essence being about constraining the ability of the rich and the powerful to pass off their usual mediocrity as excellence and helping build the architecture of more open data ecologies of the future. I suspect there would be other agendas of similar ambition also.

But I discovered that somehow the activists are not excited by these ideas which are, after all fairly abstract. As far as I could see, the data activists were into two main things. They were doing what Facebook and any number of commercial social platforms were doing – building communities of shared value and were very focused on building cool apps, engaging their communities. And this then led them to look for more data to build apps for or run through existing apps. And those with more subversive intent were into things like ‘extractive transparency‘ which, with their cool apps and volunteer forensic work, enables groups of activists to trace the transactions of large multinationals like BP and expose hitherto unknown corporate linkages, not to mention questionable dealing and wrongdoing of many kinds.

Both of these activities are entirely worthy goals and I wish them well, but for me, they somehow miss some of the most important things about information and the new possibilities of the internet. So to revert to the title of this piece, a sketch of my ‘theory’ of information is above, and these initiatives are activism without theory about what would contribute the most from activism and public policy.

Democratic renewal

I was recently in London and at short notice Geoff Mulgan kindly invited me to an evening at NESTA showcasing D-Cent (Decentralised Citizens Engagement Technologies) a “Europe-wide project bringing together citizen-led organisations that have transformed democracy in the past years”.  At the end of the evening Geoff summed up by saying that there had been a little progress but not major progress and that the latter was now the challenge. In a few year’s time we’d know if that had been achieved. Without wishing to criticise any of these projects, many of which seem very worthwhile,* much of this seemed to fit the same pattern I’ve outlined above.

The architects of these projects struck me as applying the mindset set out above – human centred design, transparency, user experience, and engagement – to politics. That might be a good thing to do, but then again it might be a mixed blessing. It might even make things worse. For instance in making digital products, lowering transactions costs is usually very worthwhile. But in democracy it raises the ‘vox pop’ quotient. A huge problem of politics as it’s practiced today is salience bias – as politics is swept along on the tides of the 24/7 infotainment cycle. If so, then lowering transactions costs could easily make things worse, amping up all the things you can get people wound up about instantly, and further suppressing those aspects of democratic governance that require a little more deliberation.

Other than some very brief comments from Geoff Mulgan opening the showcase which outlined the dimensions of the quadrant diagram below and further observing that things that might function in small online communities often won’t scale straightforwardly (which is one of the major if not the preeminent benefit of online platforms), none of the presenters gave me much idea of what they thought the major problems of democracy were and what the obstacles to tackling them might be. (However, by implication the projects’ focus on transparency and engagement tell us what problems they’re trying to address).

Diagram: Belief and Knowledge spaces

My own ‘theory’ about what’s wrong with democracy is not comprehensive or elaborate. (I set it out here only as an illustration of what I mean by ‘theory’ and where I’m ‘coming from’ – not because I expected these people to have the same theory as me.)  From the time Ian Marsh suggested I re-read Schumpeter on democracy (pdf), two observations of his have always struck me as fundamental.

  • I’ve already mentioned the first – that the engine of democratic engagement is affect and expression, not reason.
  • The second is that all organisation of any sophistication – which obviously includes political life – requires a division of labour (as one sees in something as simple as your local football club – even off the field – with its president, secretary and treasurer). And a division of labour calls for people to exercise authority delegated from the sovereign people. And this raises principal-agent problems. The way these are solved in representative democracy is via politicians’ ‘accountability’ to the people (which, I note by way of aside, has become progressively transformed towards a consumer/producer model. But this accountability is mediated through the mass and social media which amplifies the affective nature of political engagement at the expense of careful deliberation (the latter being a very boutique taste in the traditional or social media.)  And this opens up huge opportunities for power to manipulate the process.

These ideas suggest to me two fronts on which we might seek to address the democratic decline that’s all around us.  First one role that it seems to me digital tools might help lead the way is in providing what I’ve called the middleware of democracy. Such ‘middleware’ would help discussion converge to less reactive, more reflective equilibria than currently occurs with the Alan Jones’s of the world revving up their audiences and passing it off as civic engagement. (As an aside, digital tools might really offer a new horizon for the teaching of collaboration.)

Second, pondering the problem of delegation has led me to believe that we should lean far more on deliberative democracy and I’m hoping to write something on this in the new year. Indeed, just as the architects of modern democracy in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century saw democracy as constituted by some balance of power between arms of government (executive, judiciary, legislature) and social classes (the commons, aristocracies of some kind, and in monarchical states, royalty), I’d argue for a model which balances the powers of representative and deliberative democracy (in which deliberative groups are chosen a la the Council of 500 in Athens – by lot). But I digress – that’s just my theory.

And as far as the use of digital tools to enhance democracy is concerned, pretty obviously something with the power of digital tools can play an important beneficial role. Digital tools can very likely play a useful role in enhancing transparency and accountability – and thus making corruption a little more difficult.** But it seems to me that any general consideration regarding digital tools for democracy should begin with some consideration of the extent to which they could exacerbate the worst features of what I’ve called vox pop democracy. Other than what might have been read into Geoff Mulgan’s opening comments about the difficulties in scaling digital democracy, this subject wasn’t raised and the two issues I’ve raised – the idea of digital ‘middleware’ and deliberative democracy were never raised.

* I liked a lot of the projects and am not criticising those embarked on them. And I may not understand them sufficiently, or perhaps there are other projects not represented at the showcase that I would have fancied more.

** I can’t recall if he said much on the night on this score, but the interesting Indigo Trust that William Perrin represented does run an interesting line in transparency and anti-corruption.

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43 Responses to If I had a hammer: or Is change we can’t theorise, change we can believe in? Part Two

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    Recommend you take a look at promise theory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9nOqoPDYcw

    Burgess gives a way to build software where complexity evolves in an orderly fashion. Complexity arises from the interaction of autonomous agents. Autonomous agents cooperate through the use of promises. Promises are not the same as obligations. We build resilient systems by building systems to handle broken promises. The systems are still able to achieve the purposes even with broken promises.

    We can change promises. The emergent properties from the interactions of agents may still give us the desired outcomes.

    Burgess says that theories are stories we make up to explain emergent behaviour. The theoretical approach is to tell the story first then build the system. The evolutionary approach is build the system then tell the story.

    Telling the story first is the way traditional economics works because we need to tell stories for the politics of persuasion.

    Another way is to change the stories we tell to concentrate on the outcomes not the way we achieve outcomes.

    We have, unknowingly, used promise theory in our development of identity systems.

    The latest identity story is at http://www.welcomer.me/welcomer/blog/2015/12/12/a-personal-internet-identity-with-block-chains.

    Here autonomous agents make promises about their own identity to other autonomous identities. This contrasts to the idea of an identity as being a separate thing. Identity is an emergent property from the interactions between things. We can say – I communicate hence I have an identity. We have changed the story from proof of identity to the story of – I am here and it is me.

    Another idea in Identic is to change the way we transfer value. Money is an emergent property that comes from the transfer of value over time between autonomous agents. If we tinker with the promises in peer to peer exchanges of value we will get different outcomes. A change in Identic is to get rid of the promise to increase the money exchanged over time. We replace it with a promise to increase the value in services exchanged over time. This gives a return on investment without increasing the amount of money.

    The story has changed from you invest and you will get more money, to, you invest and you will get more services.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Kevin,

    And the relevance of this to what I’ve written is?

    • Kevin Cox says:

      Nicholas I thought you were discussing decentralised technologies for citizen engagement. If I am wrong then don’t read any further:)

      Promise Theory and the ideas from Complex Adaptive Systems are ideas that help us implement decentralised technologies.

      Here are examples of models of decentralisation and some examples of “democratic” decentralised technologies that work and some ideas on what could be done using the technologies.

      There are models for decentralisation that have been around for some time. They appear in many guises. The best known is the work from the Santa Fe Institute on Complex Adaptive Systems. The book by Miller and Page describes it. A recent book “Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier” by Axelrod and Cohen is another explanation.

      The internal workings of Google and FaceBook and Twitter and LinkedIn apply these ideas. Google does not have a monolithic centralised system. It divides its data into autonomous parts. For example a single search creates a “swarm” of searches and each gives back results. The starting search collates the results for the searcher. As well as swarms of searches the successful searches of others feeds back into new searches. This is an example of how cooperative decentralisation can work. We could even call it a democratic search:)

      This happens because the internal data structures are loosely coupled.
      Mark Burgess explains loose and tight coupling in his “In Search of Certainty: The Science of Our Information Infrastructure”. Burgess has developed his ideas into Promise Theory. The ideas came from his implementation of administrative systems for large data centres. These centres have hundreds of thousands of computers all needing coordination. They do it through decentralised control and by ” computer neighbours” voting to turn off bad ones.

      His ideas are now the default approach to keeping these massive systems operating.

      Here are some application of the ideas with economic systems.

      Here is a video showing a way to fund and democratise community infrastructure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFCyRWR1z_A . In this system we each can act as an autonomous agent by choosing whether or not to invest in infrastructure. With many possible infrastructure projects taxpayers can decide which ones they want.

      Here is another showing funding innovation. https://youtu.be/7pACn1_TfW4. Again individuals decide for themselves whether to invest.

      and another showing funding housing. https://youtu.be/pI–p4dc4vQ

      Again individuals decide whether to invest in other people’s houses.
      The approach uncouples an investment from other investments and the rest of the economy. Inflation and changing interest rates have minimal impact on the functioning of each investment. If enough use the approach the economic systems of which they are a part will stabilise and adapt. Each separate investment becomes a swarm of investments. Each increases (or decreases) in value with little impact on other investments.

      The whole can work together with the largest investor (government) leading the swarm by example.

      The system adapts by some investments doing things in a different way. If the adaptations increase value then others will copy. If everyone copying starts to reduce value then someone will adapt to increase value and so on.

      The same ideas can be applied to democratic participation in other activities.
      Here is a simple one that lets us control who can easily contact us. Note the individual takes control of how and who can contact them.

      Here is a health system where we democratise its operation by giving individuals control over who is their health provider, who does our scripts, who takes our blood samples, and whether we participate in research projects.

      We can democratise most things in society by building these cooperative decentralised systems.

  3. conrad says:

    Another possibility as to why the digital age hasn’t improved democracy is that people are strongly biased towards self-confirmation and social group formation, and reality often only plays second fiddle to this. If, for example, you think vaccines cause autism, you can now easily find someone who will agree with you, whereas before, you would really have had to seek them out. This also allows issues to snowball, especially complex ones where the average person really has no hope of understanding and evaluating them well (e.g., the physics behind climate change), since you can get powerful groups with vested interests simply propagating dishonest information and this is now very easy to do. Once these independent ideas become correlated, it seems many people will then simply take on sets of loony beliefs like those most of the Republican candidates are espousing, and this is presumably a social-in and social-out group thing which the digital age simply allows to occur more easily.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    This is quite a good though wildly tendentious piece by Monbiot.

    The money quote apropos in this context is this one – and I agree with it strongly.

    there is something admirable about the neoliberal project, at least in its early stages. It was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. The Road to Serfdom became the path to power.

    Then he says this:

    Neoliberalism’s triumph also reflects the failure of the left. When laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929, Keynes devised a comprehensive economic theory to replace it. When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 70s, there was an alternative ready. But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was … nothing. This is why the zombie walks. The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.

    Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 70s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.

    What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.

    Well yes and no. Invoking Keynes and the broad Keynesian tradition (not so much New Keynesian as we’re finding out) might be close to the best we can do to understand the complex adaptive system that is a mixed economy. We don’t have to come up with a new theory every generation. The stuff about the environment is a pretty cheap shot too. Neoliberalism (in its serious rather than vulgar form) has plenty to say about climate change – price emissions!

    But the fact that those on the left of centre haven’t developed the political economy of the mixed economy – when the digital artefacts that burgeon around us are all either actual or potential public goods, when there are new global public goods and bads – think ebola. That they’ve shown so little interest in connecting the people to politics – via mechanisms like citizen’s juries.

    Then again one of the best explanations for why the left hasn’t done so is a neoliberal explanation – or a classical liberal one a la Adam Smith. The left are all in positions of power – in unions, in the media in public sector management, in political parties and their staff. What purpose would it serve to involve the people? Certainly not that of the careerists.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    A good illustration of change without theory


  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note to self for future reference: Note how most other comments on this bit of democratic activism get a response from the author, but not mine :)

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I just ran into a classic example of the kind of lack of theory I’m talking about. I just read here that “A meta-analysis of over 100 experiments found that face-to-face communication in social dilemma games raises cooperation by 40 to 45 percentage points”.

    You’d think a conference about new approaches to deepening democracy including online tools etc lasting (from memory) half a day or so might have raised this point for its audience. I don’t recall it, or anything much like it being mentioned.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Here’s a nice illustration of the priorities (values?) of first world do-gooders.

    “Using ethnography to tackle Cambodia’s plastic bag waste” Now there’s an urgent problem.

    (Anyway, perhaps I’m being unfair, perhaps it’s a big problem with important implications for Cambodians.)

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      A quick thwack at the googles gave me this link: http://excessbaggage-cambodia.org/

      The problem is more significant than the Australia problems where they just clog sewers and kill wildlife, in Cambodia they’re often used directly to contain food which is eaten directly. So any contamination on the bags goes directly into the people. From experience, those factories are not clean, and definitely not to food prep standards. The good news is that the extrusion process gets hot enough to kill most pathogens, so you’re mostly looking at chemicals from the BPA/BPS that we get through to random contaminants.

      Here we do the civilised thing and wash all those contaminants into our waterways instead. Much better {/sarcasm}

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Moz,

    But it’s not clear that removing plastic bags – in reality reducing their use – will improve the situation. Mightn’t the same problem arise in some other way, only worse? Perhaps they’re trying to cover for that possibility.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      I suspect it is more a case of here’s a tool that works to mitigate a specific problem. It’s cheap and easy. The problem is serious. On a list of cost-benefit analysis this one is close to the top because while the benefit is comparatively small, so is the cost.

      It is likely also that if you don’t start down the path in the first place you can avoid a fucton of problems later. We see this in developing countries when they short-cut whole chunks of the industrial revolution. Like the shift from physically going to talk to someone straight to SMS’s with barely a pause to promote widespread literacy.

      That, however, is a wilfully naive view because I know that Cambodia already has a big problem with waste plastics in the environment. So it is likely more a case of they have to start somewhere. Plastic bags are nice and obvious, they blow about the place and blatantly say “I AM POLLUTION”. Microplastics in the ocean are not like that, and even when a fish is caught with a stomach full of plastic the fisherman might not even notice that when they gut it, and the consumer will never know. Then a few decades later when the Bay of Bengal goes anoxic and Bangladesh goes into famine everyone looks surprised and says “oh my gosh whoever knew”.

  10. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    At a kind of meta-level, one goal might be to establish a pathway from foreign scientific expertise to local change. A lot of the issues we have now are not local cause-local effect, and frequently it’s more a case of local benefit for everyone, total system collapse later. Plastic bags in this case are a vanguard or more politely, a foot in the door or a precursor.

    Most of the paths to change for reasons like that are currently expert to regulator, and that doesn’t work when civil society is weak. Even the Chinese and other civilised-authoritarians struggle. But if you can pull a Mao and get the peasantry to accept the need to change and push for it, the dictators will follow.

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    OK, thanks for the explanations.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another take on old/new progressive reform.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      Obama’s implacable optimism inspired the country. Bernie Sanders’s economic populism resonated with far more people than anyone supposed a year or two ago. This is a winning combination for the left. It’s also the formula that Rorty endorses in Achieving our Country. Perhaps the left would do well to embrace it.

      This is what confuses me. First, it’s not a winning combination, you can tell by the way we don’t have President Saunders with a majority in both houses. Bit of a give-away, that.

      Second, “the left” has embraced it, but they’re in the uncomfortable position of not having a political party that represents them, so they have to try to capture the least-right party from time to time. That’s hard, as we saw with Obama, who achieved a great deal despite the active opposition of many elected members of the party he nominally represented.

      Looking for a concrete strategy to deal with either the recent US election, or the current US situation, I’m lost. What should “the left” (realistically: the coalition of everyone not hard right) have done differently? Once Saunders was out, what strategy could have been used? Now we have Trump, what strategies should be used? The article, and Rorty, appear to lack ideas, they’re left saying “you tried, you failed, but you did the right thing”.

      Is the article aimed at the clowns in the Democratic Party or the wider population?

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    The article does indeed seem to be aimed at the Dems and their fellow travellers. It has a number of nervous ticks in it, apologising where the hero – Rorty – goes off script.

    The left are currently grafted onto identity politics which many working class and less educated people think is inauthentic. (I largely agree with them.) Until you solve that, if you reflect that the left’s top three issues are gay marriage, refugees and removing some junk DNA on indigenous people from our constitution, you won’t be speaking to the lived experience of that group of people.

    Indeed those people could be an anchor to some basic authenticity and commonsense for the left enabling it (perhaps) to escape the vortex of brand management. But they’d have to engage them with genuine respect. They’d have to think of them as their roots. Which they are.

    Nothing in what we can see now renders that a likely scenario.

  14. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    The problem with dropping “identity politics” in order to regain the “white working class” vote is the same one the USA political classes have been crying about for years – there aren’t enough of them. Look at Labour in NZ, they’ve been very clear that they’re after “Waitakere Man” and that the identity politics losers aren’t welcome. Leaving them with a whopping 30% of the vote… that’s better than One Nation, for what that’s worth. You don’t get all of those votes back through preferences either, not least because by rejecting identity politics you’ve endorsed One Nation so at best you’re going to filter a lot of preferences through that party and its fellow travellers.

    You can hark back to the good old days when women were property, the queers stayed in the closet and the lesser races knew their place all you like, but they’re not going away. That genie is out of the bottle, and trying to push it back doesn’t work. Can you imagine the ALP after they told Penny Wong to get back in the kitchen where she belongs? I struggle to imagine Blob Snaffles trying it, let alone surviving the attempt.

    And the trouble with economics is that the left have convincingly lost that argument already. They decided in a bout of fracticide to push neoliberal economics, leaving us with a very solid institutional bloc devoutly proclaiming that any deviation from hard neoliberalism is evidence of economic illiteracy – and it’s an article of faith that “the left” are worse economic managers than “the right” even when as in the US every measure of economic success indicates the opposite.

    A much better question is how the left should move forward. I’d very much like to see a strong party of the left in Australia, because they’d be a natural partner for my preferred green party. Instead I see too much of the NZ-style conviction that the only way a labour party can win is by first focussing exclusively on crushing any green-ish party out of existence, then worrying about the other, less important parties on the right. I mean, I agree with the ranking of parties by importance, but it seems frankly bonkers to me that a green-brown compromise party like the ALP should focus on getting rid of the green and leave the right til later. Suicidal seems an apt description, in more ways than one. One day I’d like to hear why the ALP even has a right wing, let alone allows it any significant influence. I would have thought that a more natural arrangement was green and brown wings within a left oriented labour party (as in NZ). Maybe that’s just what I grew up with, but it does seem more intuitive to me than having hard right members of a left wing party. I presume it’s from the days when the ALP was a class-based party so represented the left and right wing elements of the working class?

  15. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Moz,

    I agree with your last paragraph, and also think it’s supremely self-indulgent of the ALP – and the Greens for that matter – not to be able to collaborate better.

    As for saying that my hostility to the excesses of identity politics means that I want Penny Wong back in the kitchen, well that makes me angry for reasons I hope you appreciate.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      I don’t think you’ve defined “the excesses of identity politics” sufficiently (or at all), so distinguishing those excesses from the core of the politics isn’t possible. Where do you draw the line… Same-Sex Marriage? Decriminalising abortion? Marriage Equality? Gonski? Compulsory disabled facilities? Paid maternity leave? Implementing the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody? Taxing multinationals? Trans bathrooms? Equal pay for women? Equal representation for women? Stopping the latest stolen generation? All of those are current issues that are being hotly contested. Which ones should be thrown under the bus?

      That cuts to the core of the matter: can we actually have a party that focuses primarily on the economic fortunes of the white working class without simultaneously saying to Penny Wong “your concerns come a distant second”.

      Dumping diversity doesn’t work for progressives, it has never worked, and there’s no reason to expect it to work better in the future. There’s a huge problem any time you start with “we’ll accept less”, but that is what bringing the bigots back into the fold requires. Look at the stupidity Labour in NZ have just committed in Ohariu. Labour have to hope that the green and progressive vote switches to them rather than the “someone, anyone but him” vote as Idiot/Savant suggests. It is almost a perfect test for the theory above, though. A former union leader who will without question stand up for what’s best for those of his supporters who are straight, white and male. Will that get the bigot vote without alienating the votes of people he hates but presumably have nowhere else to go? We shall see.

      I’m more interested in moving forward from where we are. Australia doesn’t have the US problems of a racist reaction any time the blacks get a benefit, so it is actually possible to have universal benefits here. If we moved towards the UBI stuff that Quiggen is pushing we could conceivably get a green-left alliance that works.

      My impression from outside The Greens is that they are open to alliance with the ALP and regularly say as much. But they have learned that they can’t ever afford to be the first to carry through with concessions, because the ALP will burn them every time (we see this regularly with preference deals). If the ALP was genuine they’d have no problem passing Green-friendly bills first. In practice, however, it’s almost as though they have no intention of ever doing so. Hmm.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Thanks Moz,

        We’re obviously thinking of what identity politics is. A good subject for another post which I’ll try to do sometime soon.

        I feel quite misunderstood by you – which is not a criticism of you, just an observation. Perhaps if I’m successful at defining what I think identity politics is that might change. In the meantime, I think every one of the issues you raise are legitimate issues (with the probable exception of trans dunnies). I’d like to see what all of them look like outside the lens of identity politics – and indeed, except where I indicate otherwise, can’t see what identity politics brings to the issues – other than its convenience for ‘memefying’ the issue to maximise its media coverage.

        So here are some comments on the issues.

        Same-Sex Marriage?
        Doesn’t float my boat as a major issue, and if I were gay I doubt I’d want to join the heterosexuals – this is (or was) roughly the position of people like Dennis Altman and Michael Kirby. But, Eddie Perfect’s advice notwithstanding, I’m not gay and if gay people want to get married that’s fine with me.

        Decriminalising abortion?

        What this has to do with identity I’m not too sure. People have views about whether it’s ethical to abort foetuses which are pretty difficult to argue out (especially since a lot of the reasoning of a lot of the zealots seems to be motivated by other things with this issue becoming symbolic of them). I’m in favour of abortion on demand but don’t want it to be dealt with as a ‘women’s’ issue.

        Marriage Equality?

        This is that part of the questionnaire where I have to avoid contradicting myself to retain my credibility.

        Not sure what this has to do with identity politics. Deal with as an issue of educational equity and excellence.

        Compulsory disabled facilities?
        Deal with as an issue of equity, fairness, social solidarity. There’s also a strong utilitarian case for it.

        Paid maternity leave?
        OK with me. There might be much better things you could do with the money, like more maternal support and childcare, but if one wasn’t toting up costs and benefits it’s a Nice Idea. As is paid paternity leave. But trying to see what you’re getting at, I guess I can see why this plays as identity politics and how that’s not such an unhelpful or illegitimate thing – that the activists pushing it are arguing that women’s’ needs are being marginalised by our discourse.

        Implementing the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody?
        I suspect a classic case where identity politics heads us down the wrong path. I’m informed by people who I respect and generally trust (but haven’t checked for myself) that the rate of deaths in custody isn’t higher for aboriginal people than non-aboriginal people and that this was the case at the time of the Commission. Even if it wasn’t, I’d much rather tackle the problem by thinking about the prison system, what can and can’t be done to improve it in every important respect. Obviously because of their heavy over-representation in prisons and because of the prospect of cultural difference which needs to be taken on board on its merits, there’s an inevitable aboriginal element to this. But then it’s a nice abstraction from our point of view to say ‘aboriginal’. There are lots of aboriginal cultures. We should be bringing in these cultures, communities and families and working on problems together. To the extent that a bit of identity politics can help galvanise this at the political level, it is perhaps that’s a good thing. But I expect that it also diverts attention to the wrong things – always so much easier to graft on some special package to a system that simply doesn’t work. That’s where the identity politics typically leads.

        Taxing multinationals?
        Does not compute as identity politics, at least not for me.

        Trans bathrooms?
        Deal with on its merits. Talk to trans people – not trans activists but trans people – and see what, if anything should be done.

        Equal pay for women?
        Good idea. And for introverts, and Aspergers and people who are short and people who are disabled and disfigured, or who just don’t look that good, people with lower IQs and education (those being very different things), with those last two objectives to be weighed against some desire to encourage productivity growth in the labour market. Don’t worry that Serena doesn’t get as much as Roger. Try to get more of the economic rent both enjoy off them and back to the community that supports them. As we did so successfully in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.

        Equal representation for women?
        Ditto my last answer.

        Stopping the latest stolen generation?
        I’d need more detail about what you mean. But those who are really poor and weak rarely figure in identity politics and little kids haven’t had a look in for a long time.

        • Nicholas
          Today’s daily meditation feed might be of interest :

          “The gospel brought a message of hope in its affirmation of a God who does not punish, its assurance of grace and its message of the transcendence of all karmic forces by love. But it had – and has still – to confront an idolatry that keeps the human soul in a state of division and fragmentation dependent on the whims of many gods. As religion, however, tries to move beyond idolatry it risks pushing people to the extremes of a spectrum running from magical ritualism to cold ideology. The bitter conflict between so-called conservative and progressive reflects this in our time. The gods are still around, brand names and celebrities, as are the fears and collective paranoia we seem addicted to. The teaching of the mystical tradition to adults and the teaching of contemplative prayer to children become all the more indispensable at times of religious upheaval like our own. The religion that does not respond to this need for spiritual depth risks collapsing into forms that promote the very forces it is meant to overcome.
          Laurence Freeman OSB

        • Moz of Yarramulla says:

          I agree that I’m certainly misunderstanding you, because your arguments don’t seem very coherent and I think you’re better than that. I suspect you’re arguing some sort of realpolitic where “we need to get rid of some of the undesirables so we can get the deplorables to vote for us” (and don’t call them that!).

          I think you’re trying to argue that “identity politics” can be separated from equality as a goal. Kinda like all the women who “I’m not a feminist but…” which is why I wonder whether you’re doing the same thing of trying to build on the huge gains from identity politics by denying that you’re interested in identity politics. Especially with abortion, which you’re apparently confident is not a women/feminist issue… it’s just one that people think of as a women’s issue. Which argues against a realpolitic view.

          Likewise disproportionate policing of aboriginal Australians, which you’d subsume into generic prison reform. Presumably if prisons are nicer the over-imprisonment of black people will not matter as much? If cops kill fewer people, fewer of them will be aboriginal? I mean, I get where you’re coming from in the generic #AllLivesMatter senses. But when we have governments at both levels suspending racial discrimination laws so they can act specifically against the interests of black people, saying #AllTheChildren is an attempt to whitewash what is being done. Or the problems with putting kids into state care (we know the outcome is almost always terrible), when less than 0.8% of white kids are in care at any time vs 5% of ATSI kids. Which is going to be more of a problem for ATSI communities than the rest, and that is why campaigns against it call it a new stolen generation (http://stopstolengenerations.com.au/).

          Source: “As of 30 June 2015, there were 15,455 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in Australia—a placement rate of 52.5 per 1,000 children” from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/children-care

          The larger context is really important. As with the “all lives matter” people, by signing up you’re aligning yourself with the status quo and its defenders. The likes of Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hanson will paint anything that doesn’t focus primarily on the interests of the rich, white, male minority as identity politics. I can’t believe you’re on that side but I think you have to be really, really careful when making your argument about identity politics being something negative.

          A focus on solidarity is good and necessary, but it’s not compatible with emphasising the special nature of the relatively privileged and giving them extra attention because of it. There is *already* solidarity. Coming in and explaining to the solidarity movement that they’ve misunderstood solidarity and that it’s really about making white people feel special… Hmm. Sure, add “working class”, but that’s not going do help a rich white man make his point :P

      • Moz :
        “…can we actually have a party that focuses primarily on the economic fortunes of the white working class without simultaneously saying to Penny Wong “your concerns come a distant second”.”

        The inverse of that statement sort of troubles me , particularily if the word “white” is struck out .

        • Moz of Yarramulla says:

          But the *white* is a really important part of that statement. Nick’s argument centres on the idea that as soon as you bring race into it you lose the white racist vote, and we need to stop doing that because the white racist vote is important.

          Also, inverting the statement is ambiguous as heck, so can you maybe indicate which inversion you’re concerned about? I mean, I doubt you mean “a party that ignores the economic fortunes of the white working class while saying to Penny Wong your concerns come a distant second” because yes, yes we can, it’s called the Liberal Party. You could likewise have a party that prioritises identity politics while ignoring the concerns that are specific to the white working class, that’s The Greens. And looking for a party that literally prioritises Penny Wong over the generic working class is as close to a one-sentence condemnation of the ALP as I can think of.

        • Moz

          The inversion :
          ‘ can a party focus primarily on the concerns of ‘penny Wong etc’ without simultaneously saying to the working class ( white or otherwise) : “your economic concerns come a distant second “

        • Moz of Yarramulla says:

          Yes, you could, and I think One Nation and Jacquie Lambie are trying to do that. They both use identity politics in their political actions (both trivially by being women in parliament and decisively by using the language and structures of identity politics to promote their goals). They also believe that that white working class is specifically discriminated against and want to fix that. Using identity politics, even, which is what lets them even identify the WWG as a discriminated-against group and argue that that is a bad thing that should be fixed by state action. It’s most definitely not a neoliberal position, and insofar as it’s rational it’s not liberal (but by virtue of that it’s most definitely Liberal). They’re more Agrarian Socialism for the Urban Masses… the Country Party updated to match the population shifts :)

          Them being wrong IMO doesn’t mean that’s not what they are trying to do.

  16. Thanks for your reply Moz,

    We’re seeing polarisation in action here.

    I feel even more misunderstood. I’m not sure what can be done, but I can really only appeal to you to imagine that you don’t’ understand where I’m coming from. Part of the problem I think is that you seem to interpret my arguments as political strategising: That I’m being tolerant of Pauline Hanson because I’m saying you need what you call the “white racist” vote.

    If you’re trying to figure out where I’m coming from, assume that I’m trying to figure stuff out on the merits. There are enough people running round trying to figure out how to use political language to manipulate others. Of course I might occasionally make a comment about political efficacy. (I do think that identity politics in the ways I dislike it always comes with a cost, but I’ll agree that that cost might well be worth paying for some political efficacy for a cause I agree with, but I also argue that often the excesses of identity politics are often counterproductive. But their being counterproductive is not an argument on the merits, it’s political strategising.)

    You’re reading a whole world of associations from the Andrew Bolts of the world into what I’m saying. I can’t really help that. But if you read what you’ve written and ask yourself how you think I’d feel to have my arguments characterised in that way, that might help you understand where I’m coming from.

    The other thing you could do is to imagine that the thing I care about in politics is human dignity way ahead of anything else. If you think that’s some tricky code for being middle of the road about equality, it’s not. Greater material equality and agency of those without it is the single most important way to enhance human dignity. I also agree with Aristotle that political life is a collective search for human flourishing and that the route to that is a collective and individual striving for virtue.

    At the same time I find myself hostile to the tactics the left have taken on. Taking offence as a peremptory tactic, outrage at others, the policing of speech – all of which implies social positioning as morally above their opponents. I was shocked to discover that the expression “moral vanity” isn’t some invention of the new right since the 60s – which would have been my guess. It’s in Burke!

    Though I can hardly claim to be immune from it myself – I’m smiling as I write this – it would also be best not to interpret my words as being moralistic about anyone in particular. I don’t want to be too moralistic towards the left for being moralistic, because that’s the price of memeification. That’s the price of admission of their cause to the degraded values of our media.

    I don’t want to be too moralistic about the 48% of the American population who voted for Donald Trump. It’s true that I think being so is politically counterproductive, but my position is also an ethical position. Not only in some formal sense that if I’m a democrat I should respect the views of such a large group of voters, but because I know I’d like and respect a lot of those people if I knew them personally over any period of time.

    To tell you a secret my ultimate test of a person is what they’d do if I knocked on the door and the Nazis were after me – an old race memory ;) And, with the possible exception of the few percent of real ‘deplorables’ of the 48% (and possibly note even with that exception as people are hard to predict!) I have no expectation that the results would be better from the 52% than from the 48%

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      There’s a long, sordid history at both the macro-political level and the personal level of powerful people saying “if you don’t queue politely and wait your turn we will refuse to help you”, while simultaneously making damn sure there is no queue. It is hard to see past that to any argument of significance. Much as you can’t beat respect for others into a child, you can’t expect to persuade powerless people that if they just give up what they’re asking for and work for things the powerful want, they’ll be rewarded in the end (sounds like a certain “church of the common people” when I put it that way).

      the tactics the left have taken on. Taking offence as a peremptory tactic, outrage at others, the policing of speech

      Those are core political behaviours from all sides, from the deliberate conflation of “anti-semitic” and “critical of Israel” (to intentionally point that finger), “socialism is a fraud, a comedy, a phantom, a blackmail” (Benito Mussolini), to lese majesty being almost the definitive example of policing speech.

      the thing I care about in politics is human dignity way ahead of anything else. If you think that’s some tricky code for being middle of the road about equality, it’s not. Greater material equality and agency of those without it is the single most important way to enhance human dignity.

      I struggle with “human dignity” as a term, but I suspect I agree with you entirely on the sentiment. Too often “human dignity” has been code for “the noble savage” or “the dignity of labour”, but I’m guessing you are using it partly as a circumlocution to avoid terms linked to identity politics. So I’m laughing at you, in an “I don’t know what words to use either” sort of way.

      Also, I know you’re an economist :) As long as you agree that there is more than material equality to the human condition I’m fine. Shona Laing “Money is the Measure”, Marilyn WaringCounting for Nothing” and so on.

      I think where the likes of Bernie Saunders win is by building on, and working within, identity politics by using economic commonality to extend the “in group” to cover everyone outside the 1%. Synthesis or syncretion, rather than negation. But I’m also aware that The Greens are the most successful example of that, and they struggle to build past 10% of the vote. In many ways Obama won by being vague, but he also won by being an explicit symbol of identity politics.

      The flip side is the regular bus-under-throwing we see from the dominant parties, where they will turn up to Mardi Gras and be all happy-clappy about same-sex marriage, then once they have those votes claim it’s all too hard. Meanwhile I’m left saying “you think *that* is too hard? Wait until you see the marriage equality debate” (viz, marriage restricted to consenting adults). It’s also hard not to accept identity politics when those are the explicit techniques being used against us, from political message segmentation to the blatant ‘ban halal’ stuff. Arguing against “torture the boat people” without bringing up human rights and equality is hard.

  17. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Here’s Bernie Sanders on identity politics.

    Let me respond to the question in a way that you may not be happy with. It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans — all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.

    But it’s not good enough to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on big money interests.

    One of the struggles that we’re going to have right now, we lay on the table of the Democratic Party, is it’s not good enough to me to say, “Okay, well we’ve got X number of African Americans over here, we’ve got Y number of Latinos, we have Z number of women. We are a diverse party, a diverse nation.” Not good enough. We need that diversity, that goes without saying. That is accepted. Right now, we’ve made some progress in getting women into politics — I think we got 20 women in the Senate now. We need 50 women in the Senate. We need more African Americans.

    But, but, here is my point, and this is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone to say, “I’m a woman! Vote for me!” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry. In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American head or CEO of some major corporation.

    But you know what? If that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot if he’s black or white or Latino. And some people may not agree with me, but that is the fight we’re going to have right now in the Democratic Party. The working class of this country is being decimated. That’s why Donald Trump won. …

    We need candidates — black and white and Latino and gay and male — we need all of that. But we need all of those candidates and public officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy. That is the fight of today.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      To me, that’s building on identity politics rather than pushing it aside. I don’t think he’s saying “identity politics has gone too far, we need to roll that stuff back”, he’s saying “we can’t compromise the economics for identity politics”. I don’t think you can talk about “the excesses of identity politics” without identifying what those excesses are and at least suggesting the degree to which they should be rolled back. That’s why I brought up gay marriage, because it’s something that the ALP and Liberals have identified as “too far”.

      In the context of an old white man running against a woman, the above is necessary regardless of the merits. He needs some way to say “she’s a woman, but…”

      I think it’s worth noting that he’s not saying “elect an old white man because we’re clearly better suited to running things” or some other message about moving on from (the excesses of) identity politics. I think he’s doing exactly the opposite – he’s saying that identity politics got us this far but never forget economics. In the post-Occupy context it’s a bit ‘well duh’, but it identifies a clear strategy for bringing the “white working class” on board.

      Or at least insofar as they’re willing to accept that being white doesn’t make them automatically entitled to more. In the US that’s a big step for a lot of white people, because they’ve been hammered since birth that “you might be poor, you might be dumb, you might be ugly, but at least you’re white”.

  18. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I don’t distinguish ‘identity politics’ from ‘economics’. Indeed, in an earlier comment you commented on me being an ‘economist’. I don’t really get why that would make me biased towards ‘economic’ issues. I know lots of economists are. And they’ll start sentences with expressions like “speaking as an economist”. Well, I confidently predict you won’t find me saying that except in irony.

    I don’t see him making ‘economic’ points. He’s making points about democracy, about the fact that a democracy is a singular political entity. Oligarchy is principally objectionable because it’s an outrage to democracy. It has economic impacts which are simply a manifestation of that outrage.

    I also learned something doing history which I’m only now realising the strength it has been as a kind of loadstar for everything I do. I always assume people are expressing what they think that they’re not just talking nothing but their book. Of course they might be, and it’s naïve to think otherwise, but it’s amazing how much information give off about the way they really think, even when they’re positively weighed down with ulterior motives. And I get a lot out of trying to suck that out of what they say. I think if you don’t go to that discipline it’s very easy to flatten what people say into one’s own way of thinking. I always try to go through the discipline of thinking that people are speaking to some truth of theirs. I do it with Bernie and I do it with Kellyanne and I get a lot out of it. Of course Bernie has political motives in the speaking he’s doing in that passage, but I think you cheapen what he’s saying and you seriously diminish what might be learned from what he’s saying if you just go in and assume it’s all instrumental.

    Also, I don’t really understand this distinction between ‘identity politics’ and other kinds of politics and this stuff about whether someone’s saying ‘identify politics has gone too far’. As I’ve intimated previously for me all the issues that are refracted through ‘identity politics’ are issues of human dignity. For me humans should be accorded that dignity to the best of the community’s ability. Their ‘identities’ as groups will be tied up in this. Let’s pick one group for illustration’s sake: gay people. There are various things about our culture that compromise their sense of agency, equality and dignity. It would be stupid to deal with them as if their identity as gay people, the particular characteristics of their own sensibilities and those of the wider culture weren’t of the essence to engaging with the matter. It will also often be of the essence for them to gain pride in their identity as being gay, or indigenous or whatever. But that’s a function of the deeper question of their own rights and dignity in the context of group identities within the culture. There’s nothing special or better or worse about them for being gay.

  19. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    I suppose I’m still trying to work out what you meant by this above:

    The left are currently grafted onto identity politics which many working class and less educated people think is inauthentic. (I largely agree with them.) Until you solve that, if you reflect that the left’s top three issues are gay marriage, refugees and removing some junk DNA on indigenous people from our constitution, you won’t be speaking to the lived experience of that group of people.

    You’re distinguishing identity politics from authentic politics there, and I’m still struggling to understand what you meant. If you say the left’s three main priorities are gay marriage, refugees and some indigenous trivia, fine, I’ll go along with that even though I can’t think of a group that fits that description. “the left”, to me, is groups that identify as left. The ALP doesn’t, it is a “broad church” with left, right and green wings (loosely speaking). You have to get into people like the Socialist Alliance to see left politics as a definite focus. If you mean “not hard right” or “not neoliberal” you have the opposite problem… Turnbull would probably claim One Nation are left of the Liberals on many issues.

    I always try to go through the discipline of thinking that people are speaking to some truth of theirs.

    Viz, even when someone is dumping bullshit it usually makes a certain kind of sense if you look at in the right way. Arguing back in their terms sometimes helps, other times just reinforces the problem.

    I think we may also be suffering from using terms in different ways, or about different things. That comes to some extent from me viewing Australian politics both as an outsider, and someone who sees ecology as the foundation of humanity and the rest is secondary. Human rights are a human social construct, break the society and you’re left asserting those “rights” against an ecology that treats you as food. Food doesn’t have dignity.

    In a similar vein, to this New Zealander indigenous rights seem naturally to start with a treaty and flow on from there. The idea that Australia is still stuck at “genocide: good or bad?” still boggles my mind after 15 years in this country. When the government makes laws against first nations people then sends in the army to enforce them… WTF? The closest context I have is the “anti terrorism” raids on Tuhoe that even the Police agree stopped short of war only because Tuhoe showed far more restraint than the Police did. Tuhoe are *pissed* in the “army of lawyers” sense that modern Maori are so good at (from experience). But if you read the white media, even in NZ, you could easily not even know that that (legal) fight is still going on. NZ: still racist, but differently.

    I struggle with the “understanding someone’s truth”, because to me that’s got a lot of baggage from the cultural relativist and anti-rationalist movements. I’m way too used to that being used as a hammer “but it’s my truth”… “yes, and it’s objectively false”… “that doesn’t matter, we should act on it anyway”. I can work with people like that but in a very conditional “we agree on these things, let us focus on those and not talk about the things that offend us about each other” sort of way. I’ve worked with everyone from Quakers to Greenpeace to Deep Ecologists on environmental issues, put it that way (and I disagree with all of them on some things that are important to me).

    That’s entirely different from my experiences cycle touring, which seems to involve the kind of “talking to people” where I find out a lot of stuff about them and they find out that I ride a bicycle long distances. It’s not that I don’t see their difference or understand their perspective, it’s that I think they’re wrong.

    I’m also convinced of the value of postmodernism, and find the notion that people can be defined in a single way as quaint. I’m more into intersectionality (to use the vernacular of last century). Gay marriage is a classic example, campaigners range from your cliche inner city gym bunny beautiful men to anarchist dykes via the more recent cliche of suburban middle aged lesbian mums. They’re there for their common interest, but you couldn’t reasonably define any of them by their desire to see same sex marriage in Australia except on that very narrow issue. I suspect we agree on that.

  20. Moz of Yarramulla says:


    And then I read that and realise that at least in Australia, rationality has no place in “our” politics. Too many voters are rusted onto a dead horse.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      Here’s an interesting counterpoint to the notion that “less identity politics”:

      People look at the last election and say that we failed to come together against Trump because we were all too caught up in our “individual” wants. If our failure in 2016 was anything other than massive amounts of white people deciding to vote for White Supremacy (and it’s really not much more than that), I’d say it was the insistence that people all pretend they were on the “left” for the same reason, and that we would all rally around a very narrow set of goals that would only meet a very narrow set of needs.

      So perhaps now that we can’t weaponize a looming presidential election against marginalized voices, we can take a little time and care with our movements. Start looking around the room and asking, “Who isn’t here who should be?” and “What DON’T we have covered?”

      Start addressing complex problems with appropriately complex solutions. It’s time to get in the business of social justice. It’s time to do it right.

  21. Nicholas Gruen says:

    This passage that I ran into today is quite good on Skeptic Lawyer.

    The PC principle, or what we might call the grading-by-opinion principle, has various implications. One is “gotcha!”. If a person’s moral standing is dependent on their opinions, then any error or mistake is likely to be interpreted as a moral or character failing. If said words transgresses against the current opinion-grading norms (and so is subject to point-and-shriek), then their lack of moral character, their lack of moral standing, is taken as demonstrated and so profoundly contaminates anything else they have to say.

    Another consequence is the downgrading of achievement. If moral standing is determined by conformity to opinion-grading norms, then past achievement is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if one was a pioneering voice in feminism, or of transgender film making, a prominent gay and civil rights activist, or was clever enough to land a spacecraft on a comet . . . or even if the original claims were false or misleading; all that counts for naught against (apparent) failure to keep up to current opinion status-grading norms.

    A third is pervasive moral arrogance: both from the belief that one is entitled to grade people in such a way and in the belief that one partakes in a moral and cognitive understanding so pervasive that such grading is unproblematic. There is no place for Millian humility about truth being discovered through dispute. On the contrary, the sense of moral grandeur and entitlement is part of the appeal of the grading-by-opinion principle to adherents (and, conversely, what makes their consequent antics so infuriating to others).

    I think that people encounter the speech policing of identity politics as inauthentic. They don’t ‘feel’ right. Of course it’s always hard to be sure. Human speech is a complex business – what with the existence of irony and all. I know someone who started taking on vicious racist abuse in AFL games many years ago and good on him for doing it. It was absolutely disgusting, horrible in every way. But as I hope you agree, a great many such acts are nothing of the kind. An assistant coach at Adelaide made a comment saying that Adelaide shouldn’t take any aboriginal player if they didn’t have at least one white parent or words to that effect. I think he claims that he said what he said for effect – to make a point and that what he’d said was not intended to be taken literally, but even if that’s not true and I may have some of the facts slightly garbled, the fact is that the guy was hugely committed to helping aboriginal players and had been doing so for years. That counted for nothing and he was bundled out of the club in ignominy.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      I’m not entirely convinced that that type of language policing is actually bad. There’s a fine line between being the hundredth person, and this time it’s your coach, who tells a kid “you’re just an abo, you’re useless”, and being the coach who says something like that “as a joke” to a bunch of white parents. Like the current pewpewdie “death to all jews” thing, where he clearly did it for effect… and the effect was to get the neonazi jew-haters all excited and on side with his channel. Seriously, is it still funny when he’s saying it about you?

      The thing is, it’s quite possible to be a decent human being *and* make worthy contributions. Bell hooks made the shift to accepting transwomen, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer decided to die on the hill of biological determinism. That’s their choices, and it’s perecftly reasonable to judge them for doing it.

      If you don’t read it already, David Brin tries and often succeeds in providing a different perspective on things:

  22. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    This week’s Sift has some interesting points, as summaries of things he’s written in the past: https://weeklysift.com/2017/02/13/your-sift-archive-review-for-the-trump-era/

    But the more general piece I want to call attention to is the earlier “Religious Freedom Means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“.

    [C]onservative Christians need to divert attention from the people they are mistreating by portraying themselves as the victims. And that requires cultivating a hyper-sensitivity to any form of involvement in activities they disapprove of. So rather than sympathize with the lesbian couple who gets the bakery door slammed in their faces, the public should instead sympathize with the poor wedding-cake baker whose moral purity is besmirched when the labor of his hands is used in a celebration of immorality and perversion.

    There’s a name for this tactic: passive aggression.

    Obviously, if we all developed such hyper-sensitivity and got the law to cater to us in this way, society would grind to a halt. Why should a Hindu waitress be forced to choose between losing her job and enabling your barbaric cow-eating? Why are atheist cashiers required to distribute pieces of paper that say “In God We Trust”?

    To me, there’s a distinction between that kind of “we want something at most one group can have” type identity politics, and the more generalisable Section 18 type request that people not try to be arseholes.

    I’m also very cautious when I see news of a clear over-reaction, because often there’s more to it than you see. Jeremy Clarkson doesn’t get called a habitual racist because he once had an ambiguous number plate, he gets called that because he’s habitually racist. But if you pull out one incident, especially something weird, it looks odd. But the flip side is that if you have someone who often makes edgy comments and rides the line, you’re going to look for that one time they said something clearly over the line, and make a big fuss about it. And you’ll get support from the community of other people who are also sick of that person.

    Are there cases where someone completely innocently steps into a charged situation and says something bad? Definitely. And there are also people who actively look for opportunities to make a big fuss… but in my experience those are normally people with a certain amount of power. No-one cares if the least popular member of the group is offended *again*{eyeroll}. But when the missing stair makes a fuss, people listen. “oh I’m being victimised” is one of their most common techniques.

  23. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note to self: This article on kids of squillionaires

    If there’s one cause that knits these idealistic rich-listers together it’s the environment, reflecting their generation’s preoccupation with climate change. “We all know the greatest challenge we face is global warming,” Liberman says. Impact Investment Group has bought into wind turbines near Ballarat, combining a sustainable energy project with a money-making objective.


  24. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note to self: on a quick read of this article about “a loose coalition of young, idealistic ‘political technologists’ are trying to fix broken parts of our electoral system” much of what they’re doing is campaigning and small but worthy projects. I can’t see any attempt at considering what’s wrong systemically and working out what might be done about it.

  25. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Wonderful stuff from Dewey on this

    There is something almost sinister in the desire to label the doctrine that the end justifies the means with the name of some one obnoxious school. Politicians, especially if they have to do with the foreign affairs of a nation and are called statesmen, almost uniformly act upon the doctrine that the welfare of their own country justifies any measure irrespective of all the demoralization it works. Captains of industry, great executives in all lines, usually work upon this plan. But they are not the original offenders by any means. … Every man works upon this principle who becomes over-interested in any cause or project, and who uses its desirability in the abstract to justify himself in employing any means that will assist him in arriving, ignoring all the collateral “ends” of his behavior. It is frequently pointed out that there is a type of executive-man whose conduct seems to be as non-moral as the action of the forces of nature. We all tend to relapse into this non-moral condition whenever we want any one thing intensely. In general, the identification of the end prominent in conscious desire and effort with the end is part of the technique of avoiding a reasonable survey of consequences. The survey is avoided because of a subconscious recognition that it would reveal desire in its true worth and thus preclude action to satisfy it— or at all events give us an uneasy conscience in striving to realize it. Thus the doctrine of the isolated, complete or fixed end limits intelligent examination, encourages insincerity, and puts a pseudo-stamp of moral justification upon success at any price.

    Moralistic persons are given to escaping this evil by falling into another pit. … Not ends but motives they say justify or condemn acts. … In reality a consequence is set up at which to aim, only it is a subjective consequence. ” Meaning well ” is selected as the consequence or end to be cultivated at all hazards, an end which is all-justifying and to which everything else is offered up in sacrifice. The result is a sentimental futile complacency rather than the brutal efficiency of the executive. But the root of both evils is the same. One man selects some external consequence, the other man a state of internal feeling, to serve as the end. The doctrine of meaning well as the end is if anything the more contemptible of the two, for it shrinks from accepting any responsibility for actual results. It is negative, self-protective and sloppy. It lends itself to complete self-deception.

    Nothing is so easy to fool as impulse and no one is deceived so readily as a person under strong emotion. Hence the idealism of man is easily brought to naught. Generous impulses are aroused; there is a vague anticipation, a burning hope, of a marvelous future. Old things are to pass speedily away and a new heavens and earth are to come into existence. But impulse burns itself up. Emotion cannot be kept at its full tide. Obstacles are encountered upon which action dashes itself into ineffectual spray. Or if it achieves, by luck, a transitory success, it is intoxicated, and plumes itself on victory while it is on the road to sudden defeat. Meantime, other men, not carried away by impulse, use established habits and a shred cold intellect that manipulates them. The outcome is the victory of baser desire directed by insight and cunning over generous desire which does not know its way.

  26. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Good piece from Noah Smith on how much dematerialisation of growth there’s already been, though it’s not complacent about the task ahead. One thing it didn’t say which surprised me, is that if we go with the doomsayers who want to cripple economic growth itself, the evidence suggpiece from Noah Smith

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