Who is Rational? Public Reason and it’s Discontents

“Common sense,” Einstein was purported to say, “is actually nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of eighteen.” As both products and agents of society, there is so much information that we absorb from birth to adulthood, which calcifies, becoming the basis for how we end up contributing to and reproducing the world. A lot of this information is nonverbal, and is gleamed from observed behavior and relationships. The rhetoric of society, of teachers, parents, peers, media figures, and the like, constructs a narrative that both explains and reinforces the social dynamics that we find ourselves in.

This situation would seem to favor the conservative-minded—those who like the way things are, or are generally inclined to accept normative values. In my estimation, conservatives tend to see “truth” as a property that is located in a consensus of the “right” kind of people—generally, the strong or serious people—as opposed to, say, something that is discovered (or approximated) through dialectics or debate, in the Socratic style, or through the weighing of every opinion, as believers in democracy would have it. Leftists, and particularly “politically correct” social-justice types, are thus perceived by conservatives as at base irrational, engaged in some sort of childish rebellion against common sense. This is true even of religious fundamentalists, who have no commitments to rationality—even though they may assume that their point-of-view must ultimately be valid on scientific, secular grounds—but it is also true of many secularist, “ultra-rational” types who claim rationalism as an identity as well as a practice. As Anarcho-Feminist blogger Francois Tremblay put it:

The ultra-rational is characterized by the belief that one is more rational than most people, while exhibiting irrational traits brought about by overconfidence. Because they adopt one position on a consciously rational basis, they take it for granted that their positions are based on reason, when this is generally not the case, or at least not noticeably more than non-atheists or non-skeptics.

Often, when such a person asserts that someone they disagree with “needs to accept reality” or is “using emotion instead of facts,” their position seems to be based more on tautological assertions than a careful analysis of data. They will demonstrate the weak basis of their viewpoint by conflating something that is with something that ought to be (“marriage has always been between a man and a woman”) or using a consequentialist argument to prove a categorical assertion (“raising the minimum wage will harm some small businesses, which is why the minimum wage is wrong”). They will use the first ad hoc argument they can find if it helps them defend the superficial “truths” that their sector of society takes for granted.

Arguably, the lack of a need to persuasively defend your point-of-view is a feature of privilege, or of identifying with privilege. There’s no pressing need to be persuasive when your position is generally assumed to be true by a popular consensus. This is often demonstrated when someone is asked to justify a “just-so” story that generalizes large groups of people. I once asked someone on Facebook to back-up his assertion that most women are liars and the majority of convicted rapists were innocent; he basically shrugged and said it was his personal conviction. In many cases, the less information someone has about another group of people, the more they think they intuitively know the “truth” about them.

The response to this from the social left is, in contrast, much more deliberately, rigidly concerted. Where the “white/male/hetero/cis-privilaged” types are often glib or smarmy in regards to race or gender issues, the self-described representatives of the oppressed are often rigorously absolutist. In the academic left’s deconstructions of the categories of society, new forms and constructs emerged: an expanding list of rules about the correct use of syntax and nomenclature, a constellation of possible “genders,” and an understanding of race that simultaneously deconstructs and re-essentializes it. Since these new forms were borne as a reaction against a largely spontaneous—and irrational—order, their content isn’t fundamentally rational, either. As James Agre, a professor of information studies wrote, “conservatives are not alone in rejecting public reason. the rejection of public reason is central to identity politics, whose starting-point is not the rational overthrow of prejudice in the public sphere but rather the creation of alternative spheres in which silenced ‘voices’ can be revived.” I should stress that Agre doesn’t intend this as a dismissal of identity politics but merely as a description. He argues that this retreat from public reason is a necessary response to “a particular kind of oppression: the infliction of irrationalist nonsense,” or what these days is often called trolling. While most everyone experiences shitty comments or gets lured into pointless arguments these days due to the ubiquitousness of communication, it is hard to argue that there aren’t certain segments of society that are more impacted by it than others. Those of us that can pass as “normal” most of the time aren’t going to lose much sleep if some random person calls us “fugly” or “gaytarded.” But an accumulation of insults or abuse from a plurality of people—especially starting in childhood, from school or from family members—is a whole other experience entirely. As Agre says:

The first step in overcoming the emotional violence of the jargon is not the hard labor of fashioning brief rational comebacks to the immense repertoire of nonsense lines of the jerks…The finer dictates of logic have to wait, for the simple reason that an emotionally brutalized person cannot yet distinguish between rebuttals that arise from reason and rebuttals that arise from nonreason.

“The problem arises,” he continues, “when the communities created through identity politics fail to move past this condition by recommitting themselves to public reason,” which, at it’s worst, “can lead to the worst sorts of irrationalism,” providing fodder for the trolls to portray the entire notion of social justice as laughable or deranged. If this sounds like blaming the victim, well, I don’t entirely disagree. Ideally, the mainstream of society should be more understanding towards oppressed groups if they at times seem implacable, or if their narratives don’t always hold up. On the other hand, treating certain groups like they are permanently incapable of withstanding any kind of disagreement would seem to reinforce the problem it is addressing—namely, their exclusion from meaningful participation in society.

In the period following the September 11 attacks in the US, the experience of collective trauma created a social climate where public opinion became intensely concerted; those who disagreed with the Neoconservative government were made to feel that their opinion didn’t belong in the public sphere. I was working at a record store, and recall a woman telling me, while acting overly discreet, that she agreed with the Dixie Chicks about the president. There was no legal censorship; it was just mutually accepted that the country’s suffering was so great that it couldn’t handle any criticism, of either the government or “our way of life.”

One way to define what it means to be rational is the ability to accept information in an undistorted way. Almost certainly, no one is entirely capable of this; we all have confirmation biases and filters. And there are some perspectives that are so fundamentally at odds that they preclude the possibility of civil debate—for instance, someone who believes that God wants them to obstruct your rights probably isn’t worth trying to reason with. Neither a society where opinions are too consolidated, nor a culture that is too fragmented into distinct and precious identities and beliefs, is a healthy framework for an engaged public discourse.

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