Friday, December 01, 2023

25: Answers To Readers Questions

1: Fascist

Kind of the whole point of this sequence of articles was that words mean different things depending on who you are, where you are, and when you last had lunch with Zaphod Beeblebrox. We are now debating the definition of fascist. I wonder if everyone missed the point; or if in fact they exactly got it.

I agreed with Orwell that "fascist" is frequently nothing more than a term of abuse; but that we generally have a pretty good idea what kind of things the cuss-word could be applied to. I do slightly think that Gavin is more inclined than I would be to use it as a synonym for "bigotry" or "hatefulness". I would prefer definitions around populism, nostalgia, and the back-stab myth.

Some time ago a clip was circulating on the interwebs, possibly from the West Wing, in which three nice American politicians were asked why America was the greatest country in the world, and a liberal sounding chap said, more in sorrow than in anger, that America used to be the greatest country in the world, but due to things which unspecified people had done, it no longer was. The people who were forwarding it to me were largely liberals types, but it felt fascist-adjacent to me.

In practice, it means "Right wing person, and by the way, I think right wing things are generally bad."

Which brings us back to: 

2: Woke

Woke (1) A set of beliefs about how white, male, heterosexual 'Christians' structured language and social structures to make sure that white, male 'Christians" were always in charge.

Woke (2) The theory that wokeness (sense 1) is propagated by a malign entity with a malicious intent -- the Frankfurt Group, the Alien Space Lizards, the SJWs, the Jews etc.

Woke (3) i: Any text or action which shows black, female, gay, non-Christians in a good light 

ii: Any text or action which doesn't treat black, female, gay, non-Christians as a deviation from the norm 

iii: Any text or action which depicts or acknowledges the existence of black, female, gay, non-Christians unnecessarily 

iv: Any movie or comic book with black, gay, non-Christian people in it.

Some people sincerely believe that all instances of woke (sense 3) are caused by woke (sense 1): "The reason Disney made The Marvels is that they wanted to dismantle the white, straight, male, Christian hegemony".

Some people sincerely believe that all instances of woke (sense 3) are caused by woke (sense 2): "Russell T Davies cast Ncuti Gawa as Doctor Who because the BBC is communist and therefore wants to bring down western civilisation."

But very many people use the word in sense 3 without any clear ideas about senses 1 or 2: "woke" is simply the word they use to describe a TV show with a black actor in it or a book written by a gay author. "Apparently there was a gay character in the new Doctor Who. Sounds woke to me."

Andrew's "translation" exercise largely assumed that "woke" was being used in sense (3) ("anything which has a trans person in it or suggests that being trans is okay"). G's translation effectively stone-manned Musk by showing how a sophisticated reading of woke in sense (1) could plausibly lead to some of his conclusions (you could conceivably think that a belief in structural inequality will result in the extermination of the human species.)

Andrew acknowledges that he focussed entirely on the anti-trans element. It would have been better if he had focussed on the racial definition ("If we do not prevent people from thinking that white people have advantages over black people, we will never travel to Mars") or on inequality in general ("Unless people stop looking at the various ways in which society is set up to give certain groups advantages over others, humans will become extinct.") or even economically ("The only important thing is to prevent people believing that resources should be shared out fairly.") He may in fact re-write the passage to reflect this. But G's extensive mini-essays went rather beyond what Andrew's "translations" were intended to be doing.

3: Translation

G correctly spots that Andrew was riffing on the end of Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet in which the Christian philologist has to translate Wellsian philosophy into the language of the angels, so "Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute" comes out as "Living creatures are stronger than the question of whether an act is bent or is better to be alive and bent than dead..." Translation was a thing Lewis was interested in, of course. He saw his job as a Christian writer as translating difficult theological ideas into the language of ordinary people, and has some interesting things to say about how ordinary language differs from that of the academic. ("I do not say that this woman is immoral but I do say that she is a thief" means "She is chaste but dishonest.")

Let's consider a couple of examples.

"He had a strict Calvinist upbringing."

Literal gloss: "His parents were disciples of the sixteenth century Swiss theologian, John Calvin."

Idiomatic gloss: "His parents were devout Christians who believed that God rewards hard work and punishes laziness (and by the way, they were probably Scottish.)"

Explanatory gloss: "Until the 1500s, most Christians believed that you went to heaven by regularly saying sorry for your bad deeds and paying for them with charitable giving or self-imposed punishments, but a Swiss priest started to teach that God knew in advance who was going to heaven. When these ideas spread to Scotland, they gave rise to a culture which was often perceived as joyless, austere and unkind to children..."

"Jeremy Corbyn supports free wi-fi because he is a Trot."

Literal Gloss: "Jeremy Corbyn believes the state should supply free internet access because he is a supporter of the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky."

Idiomatic Gloss: "Jeremy Corbyn believes that the world should consist of single state in which the government owns all the wealth and shares it among the people: this explains why he thinks internet access should be free." 

This would lead to absurd conclusions: "Support for free wi-fi is evidence of support for world-wide communist revolution", "Worldwide communist revolution is undesirable; therefore there must always be a charge for internet use." But in fact, it is clear that "Trot" is being used, not to refer to Trotsky or Trotskyitism, but as a swearword meaning "left-wing", so the accurate translation would be: 

"Jeremy Corbyn's belief in free wi fi is left wing, and therefore bad."

or, if we have to gloss "left wing"

"Excessive sharing of resources is bad; providing citizens with free wi fi would involve the excessive sharing of resources; therefore providing citizens with free wi-fi would be bad."

An explanatory gloss would go on for pages, and go far beyond what I was aiming at in the translation exercise. I'll have a go if you like:

"Trotsky believed in world communist revolution; Lenin and his successors that it could be achieved in the Soviet Union alone. The British Labour Party was an alliance between Trades Unionists, Marxists and Social Democrats. British Marxists who supported Russian and Marxist-Leninism tended to join the British Communist Party; the ones who resigned from Party in 1956 and joined Labour were largely Trotskyites. They were far to the left politically of the Trades Unions and the Social Democrats, so members of the Labour party who were not Marxists tended to use Trotskyite descriptively, and then as a term of abuse. By 2020, "Trot" was simply a word used to denote a left wing party member who the speaker disapproved of. Moderates in the Labour Party felt that Jeremy Corbyn was too left wing, and therefore denoted him as a Trot: the free internet access plan was one example of his supposedly excessive left-wing thinking." 

4: Virus

If someone says that "The drugs trade is Satanic" they might mean different things --

A: "Drugs are very, very, very, very bad"

B: "Drugs are very bad and I believe that bad things are ultimately caused by a malign spiritual power"

C: "Drugs are very bad, and I believe that the perpetrators of this particular bad thing are under the direct control of a malign spiritual force, and that prayer and exorcism could form part of their rehabilitation"

D: "I believe that the big boss of the cartel selling weed in Brixton literally has cloven hooves, a tail and smells of sulphur."

(I understand that when members of the Republican Party say that Hillary Clinton is Satanic, some of them at least are using the term in sense D!)

If your local vicar says the drug trade is Satanic, there is very little point in pretending that you think he is talking in sense D ("No, I've met one of the local dealers and he is definitely a normal human, albeit not a very nice one") when he was obviously using the word in sense A (that he disapproves of drugs very strongly indeed.) 

We have accepted, I think, that Political Correctness sometimes means "A Jewish (cultural Marxist) conspiracy to destroy the West" but very frequently only means "the prevailing orthodoxy". Woke sometimes means "A Jewish (cultural Marxist) conspiracy to destroy the West" but very frequently only means "liberal beliefs" or "beliefs the speaker thinks are too left wing."

Another Christian writer once told C.S Lewis that it was the job of Christian literary critics to reveal the false values underlying much contemporary literature. Lewis asked if that meant "to reveal what the values underlying contemporary literature in fact are (and, by the way, as a Christian, I personally believe those values are false)" or if it meant "to reveal the falsity of the values." Lewis approved the first and disapproved the second, because he felt that critics were experts in showing underlying assumptions in literature, but only amateurs in talking about which values were good and which values were bad.

I have said that Political Correctness may mean nothing more than "prevailing orthodoxy". Similarly, Mind Virus might mean no more than "widespread and prevalent idea". And Woke may mean no more than "liberal ideas {which incidentally I think are bad}". But this creates a problem for the translator. Does "the woke mind virus will destroy civilisation" mean "liberal ideas {which, by the way, are very prevalent} will destroy civilisation". Or does it mean "the widespreadness and prevalence of liberal ideas will destroy civilisation". Or even "any widespread and prevalent idea will destroy civilisation, and at present, liberal ideas happen to be the widespread ones."


“The woke mind virus has thoroughly penetrated entertainment and is pushing civilization towards suicide.”

Many people who make movies have liberal ideas -- which are very widespread and prevalent at present -- and because of this, everyone in the world is likely to kill themselves."


Many people who make movies follow the most widespread and prevalent ideas (which, at the moment, are liberal ones) and as a result, everyone in the world is likely to kill themselves.

“That the mind virus is pushing humanity towards extinction is not hyperbole.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that liberal ideas (which are, at the moment, widespread and prevalent) are likely to result in everyone in the whole world dying.


It would be no exaggeration to say that the widespread prevalence of a particular idea (in this case, liberal ones) are likely to result in everyone in the whole world dying.

“The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters”

The only thing of importance is that liberal ideas are shown to be wrong, even though they are prevalent and widespread at present.


The only thing of importance is that liberal ideas cease to be prevalent and widespread.

“Unless the woke mind virus, which is fundamentally anti-science, anti-merit, and anti-human in general, is stopped, civilization will never become multi-planetary.”

If you have liberal ideas, then you probably believe that humans can't learn about the world through objective and systematic study, or that even if they can, they shouldn't. If you have liberal ideas, you probably don't think that the cleverest and most talented people should have the most money; you may even think that it's bad to be talented and clever. If you have liberal ideas, you probably don't like people at all and would rather they become extinct. As long as liberal ideas are widespread and prevalent, no-one will ever send a spaceship to Mars.


When a particular idea becomes widespread and prevalent, it becomes impossible to learn about the world through systematic and objective study. When a particular idea becomes widespread and prevalent, the cleverest and most talented people are not given the most money, and perhaps there will be no clever or talented people at all. When a particular idea becomes widespread and prevalent, ??human beings start dying ??there is a risk of human extinction ??it is bad for people in general. If this happens we will never send spaceships to Mars. At the moment, the idea which is widespread and prevalent is liberalism, so we need to talk about conservative ideas instead.

5: Other Things I Learned From This Exercise

Abstract terms like "the human race"; "humanity" and "civilisation" are almost impossible to turn into meaningful concrete ones: once you replace them with "everybody" or "people" you turn out to to be talking nonsense.

"Society" has a meaning in terms of "what sociologists study": the way-that-people-behave-in-groups. You might, of course, think that human beings don't behave in any particular way in groups, and sociology is therefore snake-oil. 

C.S Lewis said he didn't like the term "society", but noted that it mostly just meant "all of us". But when Mrs Thatcher famously said "there is no such thing as society" she didn't, presumably, mean that groups of people didn't exist or that groups of people didn't behave in particular ways and she certainly didn't think that "there is no such thing as all of us." What she was reacting against was the idea of Society as a thing with agency.

"Society is to blame for crime" can easily be translated into statements which are not actually nonsensical although Mrs Thatcher presumably disagreed with them. ("Everyone is to blame for crime, not just the people who actually commit it." "If everyone behaved differently, there would be less crime".) I can't come up with sensible glosses for words like "humanity" and "civilisation" which don't lead to absurd conclusions. 

I think it was Simon Hoggart who said that you should test an advertising or political slogan by asking what the opposite would be. ("It's a pedestrians car: so push it" was a memorable example.)

Woke and Virus equivocate around concepts of agency and intention. Does "the woke mind virus is anti-science" mean "one of the beliefs of people who identify as woke is that science is a bad thing" or "as a matter of fact the belief in woke ideas will have negative consequences for scientific research" or even "people who identify as woke believe in things which cannot be scientifically proven." Does "eradicating the woke mind virus" mean "eradicating all liberal ideas"; or "making liberal ideas less widespread"; or, indeed "killing all the liberals."

I think that when an evangelical clergyman says that the drug trade is satanic, he does in fact have a picture in his head of a fiery, fallen angel directly manipulating criminals to do bad things; but that if challenged, he would readily admit that that picture is a metaphor or a myth, and he really means that crime is sinful and sin is in the long run the result of Satan's power. But the fact that he thinks in terms of that metaphor probably influences the ways in which he thinks the problem might be solved (e.g that exploitation is an inevitable result of fallen human nature and therefore insoluble, as opposed to the result of temporary and alterable social conditions.) Unless, of course, "Satanic" turns out merely to be his word for poor housing, inadequate mental health provision, under-resource education etc etc etc in which case the metaphor is completely empty and the clergyman can probably get a column in the Guardian.

Similarly, it may be that some people who talk about the Woke Mind Virus are perfectly aware that they are using a figure of speech. But the fact that they have chosen that figure of speech is significant; and it will affect how they act. 

There is also the question of how "my daughter believes that some people's gender identity is different from their physical sex at birth, and that she is one of those people" and "my daughter believes that we should share out money and resources more equally and not concentrate them in the hands of a super-rich minority" or even "my daughter believes that all rich people are evil" are in any way iterations of the same thing. You might as well say "Andrew is infected with the liking-folk-music-and-anchovies virus" or "Since he took up jogging, Trevor believes we should defund the police."

This post forms part of an extended essay. 
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Nick Mazonowicz said...

The clip wasn’t The West Wing but Newsroom - another Aaron Sorkin drama

Mike Taylor said...

I think your definition #1 contains the seeds of an important insight:

"Woke (1) A set of beliefs about how white, male, heterosexual 'Christians' structured language and social structures to make sure that white, male 'Christians" were always in charge."

I think when people come across such definitions, whether explicit or implicit, part of their gut response is "Wait a minute! White male heterosexual 'Christians' never set out to do any such thing. No doubt language and social structures did in fact evolve to perpetuate the existing power structures, as all languages and social structures always do — but no-one set out to do this deliberately.

And to be fair, it really is a classic left-wing manoeuvre to not just say that your opponents have done things you don't like, but that they are fundamentally bad people who deliberately chose to do bad things because they are bad.

My humble proposal:
1. We could try, when presenting such definitions, to limit them to descriptions of how things are rather than imputing motives and reasons.
2. We can all agree that, in fact, language and social structures are configured in a way that is to the advantage of white male heterosexual 'Christians'.

In other words, wouldn't it be nice if people could dicuss things, and even disagree about things, without assuming the other party is evil?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes: I absolutely miswrote here. I should absolutely have written:

Woke (1): A set of beliefs about how the language and society is structured in such a way that white, male, heterosexual, 'Christians' are always in charge

as opposed to

Woke (1) A set of beliefs about how white, male, heterosexual 'Christians' structured language and social structures to make sure that white, male 'Christians" were always in charge.

The point about agency and intention is actually pretty important.People say "Woke is about telling individual white people in 2023 that they should feel guilty about what other individual white people did in 1887" and "An eight year old from Louisiana is no more responsible for lynchings than an eight year old from Tokyo is responsible for Pearl Harbour." But that's really not what is being claimed.

g said...

I think it's 100% clear that the "woke mind virus" complaints are of the first type ("this type of liberalism is bad because ...") rather than the second ("any idea is bad if it becomes too dominant, and at the moment it happens to be this type of liberalism that's too dominant").

I think "human race" and "civilization" are more translatable -- hence, less meaningless -- than you suggest. For instance:

"Permitting men to have long hair threatens civilization itself" = "Human beings, collectively, have developed ideas and institutions and ways of behaving that make them more able to work together and achieve great things. If we allow men to have long hair, then that might lead to them not believing in those ideas, or losing trust in those institutions, or no longer behaving in those ways."

Of course to make this actually make sense you then need some sort of explanation for how A will cause B, which is going to be difficult if A is "men being allowed to have long hair" or "people born with willies being allowed to call themselves girls and be treated as such", but a bit more doable -- though, for the avoidance of doubt, still probably wrong -- if it's "people being strongly disapproved of if they do things that get them a very large amount of money" or "the set of practices we call 'science' no longer being thought of as uniquely suited for discovering truths about the physical world".

I'll say again something I said in response to the original translation exercise: Lewis's original translation thing in Out of the Silent Planet[1] is a pretty outrageous cheat: one can absolutely paraphrase Weston's Wellsian pronouncements in ways that don't make them sound so nonsensical. To take your first example, "Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute"[2]: "People have tried to make sets of rules for how to behave, but there is something more important than all the things those rules are trying to achieve, namely the gradual but inexorable development of living things from less capable and less organized to more capable and more organized. Nothing matters more than that. Anything is good if it contributes to that development; anything is bad if it gets in the way."

[1] I earlier claimed it was from Perelandra / Voyage to Venus. I misremembered.

[2] Two notes about this: (a) Weston's next sentence makes it clear that he doesn't just mean "being alive rather than being dead"; he's envisaging a sort of teleological pseudo-Darwinian great-chain-of-being thing where Life is constantly striving for improvement ("amoeba to man"). (b) I think this teleological pseudo-Darwinian thing is bullshit; I merely don't think it's literally incomprehensible. (And I don't think the fact that it can't be translated concisely without explaining its presuppositions a bit is particularly damning.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

1: That's easy, then: if it's the content, not the alleged virus-like quality which is the issue, the "woke mind virus" simply means "liberal ideas". Hence:

"That the mind virus is pushing humanity towards extinction is not hyperbole”

="It would be no exaggeration to say that liberal ideas are likely to the result in the end of the human race"

"“The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters”
="The only thing which matters is that people stop having liberal ideas."

[I put it like that because the word "defeat" is another equivocation: does it mean "We must win the argument and show that liberal ideas are incorrect" or "We must band and censor liberal ideas" or even "We must kill all the liberals".]

2: If you define a civilised country as one where men have short hair, then it is trivially true that long-haired men represent a threat to civilisation. If you define a civilised country as one where everyone has a running water, enough to eat, and can read and write, then it might still be true that long-haired men threaten civilisation, for the kinds of reasons you list above. The trouble is, of course, that people aren't always clear what they mean, and sometimes consciously you use words ambiguously. Some entirely sensible school teachers can give you cogent reasons why they think schools work better when there is a dress-code. If they say "Uniform is part of a good school" they are saying that Thing A (ties and caps) is likely to result in Thing B (understanding of maths and history.) But very many people define "a good school" as "one where the kids look smart" or indeed "one where the kids look like extras from a Harry Potter movie" in which case "Good schools have uniforms" is a meaningless and circular.

3: If your city were being attacked by a giant lizard and you did not have any Chewitts handy, you might say "This is the end of civilisation as we know it." You wouldn't mean that the men will grow their hair long and stop opening the doors to women; you'd mean that everyone, or nearly everyone, was going to be wiped out. If you said "The giant lizard is pushing humanity to extinction" and "The giant lizard is pushing civilisation towards suicide" in consecutive sentence, I think I would reasonably assume you meant "The giant lizard is going to kill everyone, or nearly everyone."

4: People only say "I don't intend to be rude, but..." when they are about to be very rude indeed. If someone says "This is not hyperbole" I think we can assume that they are being very hyperbolical indeed.

5: So perhaps "The woke mind virus is pushing humanity towards suicide" simply means "Liberal ideas are very bad" or in fact "I personally happen not to be a liberal, although I know some people are and they have the right to their opinions as well."

Could I say at this point that I am finding this discussion quite stimulating and educational.

Achille Talon said...

I think glossing the "mind virus" as "widespread and prevalent" is slightly askew of the intended implication of the metaphor: the important quality of viruses which is being gestured at is that they are contagious. 'Wokeness’, in the right-winger's eye, is a mind-virus not just because it's currently popular, but because it's catching; because it's very persuasive. Because a (to them, alarming) percentage of society has been "radicalised" over to its way of seeing things. No doubt they would say that Andrew's own journey over the last few years is an example of him being felled by the "virus".

Of course, one might alternatively venture to point out that an idea might win people over in great droves, very quickly, simply because it appears, to the reasonable mind, to be true. That's the rub. But if one has decided from the start that woke people's beliefs are obviously crazy and destructive, and that no person examining them with unmarred reason could conceivably give them the time of day, then the only explanation left is that these ideas have some kind of virus-like quality that makes them much more *persuasive* than they are *convincing*.

This sense of "mind virus" can come in two forms: one purely metaphorical, where it's just being used as shorthand for "ideas that are much more emotionally persuasive than they are rationally convincing", and another that shoots for scientific and ends up as a cobbled-together hybrid of cognitive science, Dawkins's "memes", and evolutionary psychology — suggesting that woke ideas are a set of ideas that have been optimised, via a non-centralised natural-selection-like process, for short-circuiting people's better judgement and yielding great crops of devout fanatics.

(It would be very easy to turn back around and use the virus metaphor for the much-vaunted right-wing "radicalisation spirals", but one tries not to stoop. Sometimes people are just daft, without the particular set of daft beliefs they converge on needing to have some spooky extra-persuasive quality.)

Gavin Burrows said...

“The trouble is, of course, that people aren't always clear what they mean, and sometimes consciously you use words ambiguously.”

I’m a little surprised that this is consigned to the comments section, surely lower down in writing hierarchy than footnotes. It seems to me to be key.

Without it we’re talking as though we have only so many words to go round, so some of them have to double up on meanings - like cafe customers sharing tables. The slipperiness of language, where one definition slides into another, is surely the very point.

Everyone’s surely familiar with the ‘motte-and-bailey’ rhetorical trick, where you deliberately use different definitions of your terms at different times. Everyone surely remembers how what ‘Brexit’ meant got more and more extreme as time went on. Similarly, establish a softish definition of ‘woke’ in people’s minds and its then easier to slip into a harder one than if you suddenly gave people a new term.

Language works on the understanding that there are shared meanings, which a few short letters in combination can be a shortcut to - like a label on a box. This gets convenient, and you can’t stop and define everything precisely all the time, not if you also need to eat and sleep. But it also creates opportunities for linguistic smugglers. As ever, the ‘woke mind virus’ is a projection of what they’re up to themselves.

In an earlier comments section, I said something to the effect of “I don’t think the far right can necessarily be trusted”. This proved strangely controversial, though I’d stand by it. But I suppose at the same time we all do this to a degree. My lot also use a term like ‘Trot’, not necessarily just to mean Trotskyists but also as a general synonym for the authoritarian Left. There will always be an uneasy trade-off between language as something made for use and language as something tightly defined.

(For the record I don’t think that fascism is just bigotry in excess, but let’s not start all that up again.)

g said...

Yes, I think "the woke mind virus" just means "a certain class of liberal ideas, which I happen to dislike". I don't think it's quite "liberal ideas" as such; e.g., probably "governments should do at least a bit of redistributive taxation" is probably a liberal idea in the relevant sense but I don't think anyone would call it "woke". Maybe something like "liberal ideas about culture and society".

So someone complaining about "the woke mind virus" isn't exactly just saying "yay Right, boo Left", it's a particular sort of leftish idea that they have a problem with.

And yes, equivocation is a hell of a drug, which of course has been something of a theme in this whole discussion.

I like Achille Talon's analysis of the use of "virus".

g said...

Gavin, I think there's a certain irony in complaining (justly!) about the motte-and-bailey trick ... and then trying to make out that all you were saying in that earlier comments section was "I don't think the far right can necessarily be trusted". That wasn't the claim that "proved strangely controversial", and surely you know it.

Gavin Burrows said...

Uh, no. The thing I said which started all this: “"I'm against treating Elon Musk fairly, on the grounds that he's a fascist."

I have no trouble with calling Musk that, but wonder how much time and trouble would have been saved if I’d said “fascist-ish” or “far right” to start with. My point was that these people will not argue in good faith, in fact to a considerable degree they cannot argue in good faith, and this is foolish to ignore. To my way of thinking, a double act had developed. Andrew was showing a tendency to stray towards this in recent posts, then g would happen along to push things over the edge.

I also said that pedantic definitions of fascism were beside the point, and in retrospect should have stuck to that rather than then getting drawn into those pedantic definitions. Some say I am easily distracted, and anyway what about last week’s ‘Doctor Who’?

(For those who haven’t read this debate yet, honest mate you’re better that way. Instead imagine ‘The Daleks’ if it was seven episodes of the Thals saying “but that would mean the Daleks are deceitful and dangerous” and Ian replying insistently “that is precisely what I’m saying.” Rather than seven episodes of getting lost in tunnels like it actually was.)
I do not think this is the same thing as a motte-and-bailey. Which would mean jumping between two different definitions of fascism.
Interestingly, when out in the wild Andrew is wont to ask “what does woke mean?” - pushing the burden of definition back onto the anti-woke mob. And they of course avoid answering that, as it’s the term’s nebulousness which they find so useful. That’s more the approach I’d suggest. Andrew, you should listen to Andrew more.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I had not heard the term "mott and bailley" to refer to a rhetorical fallacy before -- where you assert an extreme position and then fall back to a very moderate position when attacked. ("I only said that there might possibly be a biological component of gender, and I am called transphobic!")

Is there a word for the reverse manoeuvre, where you gain assent to the mildest possible version of a position, and then assume agreement with a more extreme or specific version. ("You agree that we should should love one another / that women should be allowed to own property and vote / that people should share their possession? Good: then it follows that you believe that the Son is of one substance with the Father/ that trans women should not be allowed to go to the toilet in restaurants/ that we should storm the winter palace")

Andrew Rilstone said...

My dude, what I intended to say, and devoutly believe that I said, at considerable length, is that language and definitions are slippery and ideologically contested, even when all sides are arguing in good faith, which can't always be assumed.

A summary, from memory, might go:

"Often, words are used as insults, or to identify a group that you don't like, to signify disapproval: although that doesn't necessarily mean they are meaningless. Fascist is a good example: it's often a swear word to chuck at people to the right of you; although it sometimes has a more specific meaning; and we usually know what kinds of people get the word "fascist" thrown at them. Woke is another example. So is fuck. But all words are like that to some extent, which makes me reluctant to talk directly about politics."

I think that the w-word is often (nearly always) used as code; people who would not be prepared to say "Same sex attraction is sinful and unnatural, and I refuse to watch any media which portrays it as normal, or refers to it at all" are prepared to say "Doctor Who is woke". Fascist doesn't seem to me to obfuscate in that way: if I ask "What do you mean when you say that the BNP are fascists" I can straightforwardly reply "I mean primarily that they hate black people and believe in a mono-cultural ethno-state; but also that they believe in authoritarian laws and policing". So why call them fascist? I suppose for the same reason I might call some a cunt or a wanker: because I need a word that means "very, very, very, very bad" and these words still carry considerable emotional force. But they are therefore of limited use in rigorous political discourse.

g said...

Gavin: yes, that's what you said. And the chain of reasoning there goes: (1) Elon Musk is a fascist. (2) Fascists cannot be trusted. (3) People who can't be trusted shouldn't be treated fairly. And the bits I objected to were 1 and 3, and what you're now saying was strangely controversial was 2.

The motte-and-bailey thing I think you're doing is switching between the motte of "the far right can't necessarily be trusted" (yup, everyone agrees with that) and "we should actively prefer not being fair to Elon Musk" (which is contentious because 1. it's not clear that Elon Musk is a fascist, especially if we don't take the meaning of "fascist" to be super-broad, and 2. the fact that a group is untrustworthy -- or unsavoury in some other way -- doesn't necessarily dispose of our obligations of fairness towards its members, and 3. there's a gap between "we needn't be fair to ..." and "we shouldn't be fair to ...").

I think there is in fact also some "jumping between two definitions of fascism" going on, except that rather than jumping between two definitions you simply decline to have any definition at all, and complain that it's pedantry when I try to bring some clarity there. For all I know, maybe there actually is some single notion of fascism that makes all the things you're saying about fascists make sense, but I don't think there is: you want something that's (1) broad enough that the rather slender evidence available suffices to make it clear that Musk is one, but also (2) narrow enough that it's reasonable to say things like "the risk in not fighting fascism is that you end up in a labour camp" and "we need to defeat fascism before it defeats us" and "I'm against treating fascists fairly". If "fascist" means "literally Hitler" then all those things are (at a minimum) very defensible. If it means "kinda bigoted person who thinks businesses are more important than individuals and rants against the government", then not so much.

g said...

One maybe amusing thing is that if instead of arguing "Musk is a fascist, so we should treat everything he says as mere words emitted for their effect on others, and not try to find what that 'mean' as if that makes any sense" you had made the exact same argument with "troll" in place of "fascist", it would (to my mind) have been a much, much stronger argument and we could have bypassed a lot of this.

On the other hand, the point of an argument is not always simply to resolve whatever thing originally started it. I probably wouldn't have kept on with this for seven episodes if it weren't for the fact that -- running with your metaphor, I hope you don't mind -- from my perspective you've been arguing "that guy is a Dalek and therefore we must blow him up to save the universe" when it looks to me like what he actually is a Kaled who, yes, is currently engaged in a war I have no sympathy with and doing bad things in the process, but is not in fact an obsessively genocidal maniac deliberately bred to have no conscience or pity. (For the avoidance of doubt, no I am not suggesting that Elon Musk is Davros. Ravon, perhaps.) Because the point here isn't merely whether Elon Musk is a Dalek, it's how willing we should be to call people Daleks, or more precisely how willing we should be to treat people like Daleks -- if you say "well, of course he isn't literally a Dalek but the difference doesn't matter" and go on to treat him as a Dalek then the problem is just the same.

(I would point out that the one thing everyone remembers from that series is Tom Baker agonizing about whether it was just to treat actual literal Daleks like Daleks, but various not-obviously-terrible counterarguments occur to me so I won't. Or rather I will but I won't claim that anything much follows from it; it's just amusing.)

g said...

I think the reverse motte-and-bailey manoeuvre Andrew describes might also be classified as a motte-and-bailey, though I agree that it has a slightly different feel.

(In the particular cases where the thing turns on defining a single term either broadly or narrowly, the more specific term "equivocation" has been around for ages and serves pretty well, and there's also Daniel Dennett's term "deepity" which very specifically means a proposition that has one meaning for which it's obviously true and another for which it actually says something interesting.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

What might you fine fellows regard as a good victory condition for this argument.

"Very well, fascist doesn't mean anything at all, so I will stop using the term."

"Very well, I accept your definition of fascist, but Elon Musk certainly isn't one"

"All right, hunny"

"All right, haycorns."

g said...

Well, first off, I think the point of an argument is to arrive at agreement about the truth, and if you do that then everyone "wins" whoever's initial position the final position ends up closest to.

The nearest thing I'm willing to consider a valid goal to what-I-think-you-call-victory is something like "A's position changes to, or is clarified to always have been, one that's consistent with B's main opinions on the topic". So I would consider that I'd "won" the argument, or at least an important part of it, if Gavin said either of the following things:

"Fair enough, Musk probably isn't literally a fascist in a sense that requires us to think of him as an enemy to be defeated at all costs, and his politics don't make it wrong to try to find versions of his arguments that make sense. On the other hand, he is a troll and the value of trying to make sense of what he says seems low."

"I concede that it's dangerous to jump too quickly to putting labels on your political opponents that you then take to justify not trying to be fair to them, insisting that we abandon scruples in order to defeat them, etc. I agree that e.g. most mainstream politicians, most tech billionaires, etc., aren't actually fascists in that sense, even the ones whose opinions or values I detest."

And I think Gavin would consider that he'd "won" in some useful sense if I said something like this:

"Yes, I agree that having our countries taken over by bigoted authoritarian far-rightists is a real and imminent danger, and that an alarming number of people -- probably including Elon Musk -- are making real efforts to bring that about, and that we therefore can't afford to hold back when fighting those people. Offering more coherent translations of Musk's trollery was a bad move because it risks encouraging people to treat what he says as worthy of attention and thought."

Andrew Rilstone said...

I expressed that badly.

I meant "I wonder what the substantive point of disagreement is."

I also meant "I wonder what you are trying to achieve, here."

Andrew Rilstone said...

Gavin and G have posted a lot of messages to Andrew's blog.

Their messages are very long and very detailed.

When one of them uses a particular word or phrase, the other one sometimes writes lots and lots of words in response, explaining why that was the wrong word to use, or why the word doesn't mean what the other person thinks it means.

Each of them looks carefully at all the other messages which the other one has posted to Andrew's blog, and points out when one post does not completely agree with another post.

This makes the messages very long indeed.

When Andrew wrote quite a short message, G responded with one that was almost five times as long.

If Andrew joined the discussion, he feels that he would have to be very careful to use words in exactly the right way, and to say precisely what he means, and to make sure all his messages said exactly the same things. If he did not manage to do this, G and Gavin would certainly notice.

It would take a very long time indeed for Andrew to reply to all of G and Gavins posts. It would take a very long time indeed for Andrew to check and double check his replies to make sure he has used exactly the right word and never accidentally said one thing in one essay and something slightly different in another. It would actually take an awfully long time to even read everything which G and Gavin has posted. (The discussion has in fact spread to another forum, like a low fat olive based butter substitute.)

So Andrew doesn't really feel he can join in the conversation. He doesn't mind at all if Gavin and G want to carry on having it, though.

Gavin Burrows said...

No, I think you're right, the time to stop was probably some while ago. If I say that g is persistently not getting what I am saying, that is no reflection on g and should probably be filed under "just one of those things".

Hey, I could get on with something else now...

g said...

My opinion of this discussion is, I think, exactly the same as Gavin's with the obvious changes of sign. Let's drop it.

Chinhead said...

I wish I could communicate half as well as yourself. 'Woke' ideas are not 'liberal' ideas. Colour-blindness and free speech are bad things now, right?