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Who's Responsible? / Trauma and Unreason on the Left

by Phil Agre Friday, Oct. 13, 2000 at 1:45 PM

Two closely-related pieces, one about a classic example of an irrational Conservative claim, the other a look at the role of trauma in generating irrationality on the left. By UCLA professor Phil Agre, reprinted from his online newsletter, the Red Rock Eater News Service.

Who's Responsible? / Trauma and Unreason on the Left Who's Responsible?

Conservatives call themselves the party of personal responsibility, but this has always struck me as odd. Liberals feel responsible for everything. Poverty, pollution, violence: you name it, liberals take personal responsibility for it. The point of conservatism is precisely the refusal of personal responsibility. Why are people poor? It's their own fault (and not mine). Why are crime rates high? It's the criminals' fault (and not mine), and besides criminality is in their genes so it's not even their fault. Why do men leave their families? It's the feminists' fault. Why is the earth's temperature rising? It's, um, er, they're just making that up.

And listen to a "senior Bush aide" (LA Times, 8/4/00): "We are getting past this whole era, both the Clintons and the atmosphere they created among Republicans." Now that's a refusal to take personal responsibility. When liberals go around taking personal responsibility for everything, conservatives mock them for "liberal guilt". They have a whole rhetoric for making fun of personal responsibility. And then they use the words in empty ways to cover up. It's true, of course, that liberals can go overboard with the personal responsibility. But at least they believe in it, and act on it, as opposed to simply using it as a stick to hit people.

Trauma and Unreason on the Left.

Having said that, let's also talk about the left for a moment. As you might imagine, I received all sorts of commentary on my piece about the assault on reason in American political culture. I have focused on this topic because of the tidal wave of professionalized irrationality that is dominating the proceedings in the presidential election campaign. But some of the messages that I received from people on the left brought back memories, and fairness requires that I describe one major way in which leftists -- not all of them, but many -- reject reason.

For leftists, the starting point is oppression -- the various ways in which groups of people are kept down through a combination of violence, stereotyping, propaganda, discrimination, and so on. Oppression is real, and traumatic. The problem with trauma is that it renders its victim irrational. Not completely irrational, necessarily, but locked unconsciously into the oppressive pattern of interaction. Oppressors enjoy painting their victims as irrational, and so a whole world of mind-games get started that twist the norms of rationality for oppressive ends.

Oppression as a Box

For a lot of leftists, this pattern takes the following dysfunctional form: "there's no use engaging in rational argument, because you'll never convince them anyway", or (exasperatedly) "we've tried rational argument, but the only language they speak is the language of power". You've heard these lines. They are the lines of someone who, at a basic unconscious level, is trapped in a small box that contains just themselves and their oppressor. Living in that small box, it is hard to comprehend, much act upon, the political imperative of talking in a way that 51% of eligible voters can understand. The box has no third parties in it, no undecideds, no way to imagine the perspective of people who have not been traumatized in that particular way, and who consequently retain their capacity to reason somewhat rationally about the situation.

This explains the perplexing failure of liberals to articulate in a systematic way the plain-language, common-sense, concise-and-catchy responses to the great outpouring of jargon that has rained down upon us for the last ten years. When you're living in the box, everything is always as bad as it can possibly be, and everything, no matter how dreadful, is just more of the same. This is powerlessness, and the demon of powerlessness wants nothing except for other people to become powerless too.

Power and Reason

That's why the most interesting and useful people on the left have focused so much attention on power in the positive sense of the term: not the ability to do things to people, but the opposite of an entrenched sense of passivity and futility -- the deep-down belief that it is possible to rise up and do positive work in the world. This is one reason why I wrote my treatise on professional networking for graduate students: not just to instruct them in the steps of a procedure, but to communicate a fundamental set of positive beliefs that they were born with, but may have lost.

Power in this existential sense is closely related to reason. Reason does not imply its many stereotypes: lack of emotion, fancy language, exclusionary rituals, throwing oneself on the mercy of the powerful, the scientific method applied to everything in sight whether it fits or not. It is notoriously hard to define reason in a positive way, in terms of the exact criteria or procedures that make something rational. It is better explained in a negative way: don't say things that don't make sense.

The professionally twisted language that I have described here is the opposite of reason: if you read it in a careful way then you can see, and clearly and calmly explain, that it does not make sense. Although we are all born with power (in the positive sense of the world), we are not born rational. That comes through dialogue, and by internalizing our interactions with rational people. We all say dumb things and we all make mistakes. We are all imprecise sometimes, and we all definitely make assumptions that we've never thought about. We inherit a lot of this stuff from the culture, of course, but the main problem is that it's just a big job to think straight.

If we can have sane conversations, or honest arguments, or even if we can read good books, then we have a chance to sort out our thinking and become rational. The traumas of oppression have the opposite effect, and the damage to our rationality that oppression causes is much of its point. People who cultivate the currently fashionable political jargon make a point of going around traumatizing people with nonsense that pretends to be rational but is actually crazy. It is dangerous, and to preventing it from hurting people we must persistently place it under a microscope and show people how it works.

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