Thursday, November 26, 2020

It's Bulverism Gone Mad, I Tell You

The Intellectual Take Out website used Bulverism as a synonym for privilege theory. It claimed that the idea that black people and white people, or gay people and straight people experience oppression (or “oppression”) differently is Bulveristic and therefore false. Ezekiel Bulver has ruled “You don’t think American is racist because you are white and have never experienced racism” out of court. 

The same conservatives who decry privilege theory as Bulveristic are very willing to accuse liberals of being “politically correct”. They also use terms like “virtue signalling” and, repulsively, “woke”. All these terms are equally Bulveristic. My belief that we should use inclusive language is "PC"; my belief that we should not celebrate slave traders as heroes is "virtue signalling"; my belief that transgender people should be allowed to go to the toilet when they need to is "woke". You don't need to show that my beliefs are wrong: you only need to show that I hold them insincerely. I say "person who can't speak" rather than "dumb" because I want to toe the party line. I support Black Rights Matter because I want you to think I am a good person. I believe that transgender people exist because I want to patronise you. 

You might be right. Fashionable causes and bandwagons do exist. But equally, you may believe that we should celebrate the slave trade because that is the party line in your party. You may want to ban transgender people from public lavatories because you want the bigots in your own party to see how bigoted you are. You may say "retard" rather than "person with learning difficulties" because you look down on me. The whole point of Bulverism is that it cuts both ways. 

No-one ever says that saying "paramedic" rather than "ambulance dude" is sometimes "woke" and sometimes "not woke" depending on how sincerely the speaker means it and whether he says it in a patronising voice or not. And no-one ever says that supporting the Queen, or wearing a poppy or upholding the Second Amendment is politically correct, even though it is clearly the correct thing to say in some political parties. And no-one ever says that those people who form mobs outside courtrooms holding "string him up" placards and mock-nooses are virtue signalling. Political Correctness means nothing more than "the kind of thing that liberals believe". Virtue Signalling means nothing more than "the kind of thing that liberals do." Woke means nothing more than "the way liberals talk".

It is the absolute consummation of Bulverism. You do not have to explain, or find out, why it would be a bad thing if schools were wheelchair accessible. You only have to say that my belief that we should put ramps in school buildings is the kind of thing that liberals like me believe. You don't have to find out whether breath masks do, or do not, impede the spread of Covid. You have only to say that wearing breath masks is the kind of thing which liberals like me do. You do not have to make out a case for continuing to celebrate the slave trade. You only have to say that it is the kind of thing which liberals like me are against. 

Those PC wheelchair ramps! Those woke breath masks! Those virtue signalling BLM protestors! They only believe those things because they are the kinds of things that people like them believe. And the things people like them believe are wrong because people like them believe them.

My Patreon supporters have already read the whole of this essay (in a smart E-book format!) Why not join them? 

Alternatively please drop a few pence in the tithe jar.


  1. So something orthogonal to this discussion: I wonder if you've thought about maybe doing a general essay on why evangelical "guides to apologetics" are, in general, so... bad. Like, stuffed with American right-wing talking points, copy-of-a-copy versions of CSL's weakest arguments, and, in general, supremely unhelpful for anything but shoring up the faith of someone who already believes pretty strongly.

  2. The answer if that if you pointed me at some of the books or articles you had in mind, I might very well write a piece on how they struck me.

    I think a lot of evangelism and apologetics is really about reinforcing the faith of the faithful. (True story: Someone from the Christian Union once said to me "The evangelistic meeting was a big success, but unfortunately there weren't any non-Christians there.")

    Someone said that C.S Lewis apologetic appeals to the half-believer, the person who wants to believe but doesn't. This is sometimes quote on dust jackets as a recommendation, but I think it was intended as a criticism: Lewis kind of apologetic doesn't really appeal to out and out skeptics, but to intelligently doubting Christians. (I would guess without evidence that more out-and-out atheists and hostiles are converted by Billy Graham style "Come to Jesus!" testifying, although some people would say that if you can be converted by that you weren't really very hostile to begin with.)

    Friend of the blog Francis Spufford makes out a very good case for CSL's apologetics being "of its time" -- that it was an appeal for former Christians and people raised in the faith to come back to, and doesn't work for an era when most people have no religious grounding.

  3. Tolkien never had to deal with trolls on the internet, but he did observe that 'Trolls are but counterfeits, bred by the Enemy during the Great Darkness in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves'.As Christians, Tolkien and Lewis could take a view that as Christianity was True, their detractors were Wrong on a level the arguing over raising VAT by 0.3% is not Wrong. I don't know what either of them would have made of Phillip Pullman's 'Magisterium', though they might think of it as the Christian Church run by Saruman and the White Witch: about as palatable as a Labour Party run by Tony Blair. I think that the charge of Bulverism is strongest on a rhetorical level, where calling someone 'Woke' or 'PC" is labelling them as the Bad Guys, a mockery of what the Silent Majority believe rather than a belief system in itself. For many years, calling someone a 'Tory' (suitably larded with vulgar abuse) carried a similar weight: a member of a privileged minority using force and fraud to keep ordinary working folks In Their Place. People who used 'Tory' in that way remained puzzled that the Conservative Party magically remained in power for decades, without acknowledging that Capitalism, Libertarianism and Social Conservatism were complex and vital belief systems in their own right. I am not active an apologist for any of those systems, but I accept that some people have strong feelings on them, like Lady Lavernham in 'Cranford' who disapproved of educating servants because she lost family and friends during the French Revolution, or the kind of mid-century American libertarian (Ann Rand?) who had to escape from the Soviets and the Nazis, or the kind of Dr Who fan who thinks that Chris Chinball is not as good a show-runner as Stephen Moffat. Arguments about what 'Woke' or 'politically correct' might mean only get us so far, like arguments over a particular statue in Bristol doesn't engage with the (as far as I can tell) genuine questions about statues of Churchill, Nelson or Ghandi. The idea that civid-masks are 'woke' only tells us so much about how civil liberties work in a national emergency. The idea that the National Trust is taking a 'PC' approach to slavery only says so much about how the interests of minorities plays into ideas of national identity. I am not sure that conservative commentators have done the best they could in articulating the issues, rather than just playing to the gallery, but I feel that the deeper issues are there.

  4. Tory has only ever been a nickname for the Conservative and Unionist Party, in the way that GOP is a nickname for the Republican Party. If you are Labour, then calling someone a Tory is an insult, and if you are a Conservative, then calling someone a Socialist is an insult.

    You could call someone a Trotskyite to distinguish them from the Leninists and the Maoists: a description of the their ideology. Or you could call them a Trot as an insult.

    Of course, people of different political persuasions will sometimes insult each other. But to say "I don't like him because he is a Trot" very frequently means "I don't like him because I don't like him."

    There is an intelligent ethical discussion to be had, of course, about (say) the importance of widespread vaccination vs not conceding the principle of compulsory medication. And certainly, we can have it. But if you say "The Woke SJWs want to drug us because virtue signalling is PC" you aren't having the argument: you are making it clear that you don't want to have the argument.

    If -- as I am sometimes told -- that to call something "woke" is to criticise its tone, rather than its content, then by all means, criticise the tone. "When you said X, you implied, by your language, that people who didn't agree with you were Y. You could have expressed the same thing better by saying Z".

    I am also sometimes told that "woke" is a mental illness suffered by a delusional minority. If you really thought that you would bring in medical professionals. It is possible that certain political views are symptoms of mental illness -- I might say that about the kinds of people who honestly thing that Joe Biden is part of a conspiracy of blood drinking devil worshipping pedophiles. But bring in a psychiatrist to explain how "thinking that it is a bad thing for American policeman to murder black people" is a symptom of mental illness.

    I have read, and I assume you have not, some of the screeds by the American alt-right, in the Sad Puppies and Gamergate modes. They literally and explicitly state that all liberal beliefs (where liberal includes "women can have jobs" and "black people are sentient") are logically incoherent, literally meaningless, and must not be engaged with or debated under any circumstances. They literally state that liberals always lie about everything as a matter of principle. They literally believe that liberals (of the mentally deranged, always lying, wanting to bring down civilisation kind) control all schools, all colleges, and the media, and refer to people who went to state schools as "mindless zombies". "moorlocks" and "NPCs. The same thought process lies behind terms like "cultural marxist" and therefore"political correctness". Every person who writes a stupid essay in the Daily Mail about the scourge of wokeness is not a Q-Anon conspiracy theories or a Gamergater: but we must be very careful of allowing their rhetoric to infect mainstream discourse.

    I'm done.

  5. I recall that some little time ago, you wrote a satirical essay on the Government's approach to 'extremism', where you speculated on what the word might mean, independently of what the Government said they actually meant. If you were looking for a word to describe Sad Puppies or Gamergate, assuming you can't pass a law to make them 'criminal', you might settle on a synonym for 'extreme'. They are the kind of people that even Ken Livingstone would not have offered a GLC grant to, and certainly wouldn't get a slot on 'Thought for the Day'. However, they also feed off other extremists. While the Cardinal and the General Moderator are having tea together in a Very Real Sense, the fanatic preachers are stirring up the Orc mob to shout 'Hang the Pope' or 'Hang the Prots' until the chamber echoes like Albert Pierpoint's nightmares. However, they may also call upon moderates to listen to how wicked the other side are, by pointing out what the most drunken hooligan is shouting, and taking that as the benchmark for what the wider group as a whole are like. Add in a few extremists who tip into serious violence, and you can tar the whole lot of them with a big brush. If you look at how right-wing newspapers talk about Muslims, you can see something of this approach. I kind-of-agree that we shouldn't let extremist language become mainstream, but I also feel it may dilute it: kids these days seem to talk about things being 'a bit woke' as a mild criticism as our forebears would have said 'a bit worthy'. However, I think that some people may adopt extremist language because they struggle to articulate their views more clearly, or as a means of expressing anger or frustration, or because mainstream discourse is already infected, or because they are the online bloke-at-the-end-of-the-bar who likes to sound off after a couple of beers. I think there is a risk of taking the views of a handful of cranks and gutter-rabble as more mainstream than they really are, and then taking a hard line which places them on the wrong side of it, until they become a working majority.

  6. Re the poor quality of most apologetics. I think that kind of discourse might have had a context which it now lacks, just as Andrew points out. I was brought up a Catholic and find the whole thing as fascinating as it is bewildering - Catholicism more or less defines faith as an unquestioning belief in god (and by extension an unquestioning belief in the institution promulgating that faith). To debate whether God exists or not, his motives etc, is to kind of miss the point - you either believe in God (and accept his actions as being guided by some sort of higher moral imperative) or you don’t.

  7. Richard Worth wrote:

    "I think there is a risk of taking the views of a handful of cranks and gutter-rabble as more mainstream than they really are."

    I would have agreed with this note of caution up until the Brexit referendum. At this point I would have become shaky about it. On the subsequent election of Trump, I would have been forced to toss this optimistic perspective out of the winding. The views of a handful of cranks and gutter-rabble are mainstream now.


Comments from "SK" are automatically deleted without being read, so please don't waste your time.