Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ve belive in NOTHING, Olberman! Nothing!

Here's something interesting I've noticed about left-liberal political rhetoric of the past year or so: The increasing use of the word "nihilist" to describe opponents. Keith Olberman is the example I've seen most recently, but it's been popping up more and more lately, in reference to people who oppose the Democrats and especially people who oppose the currently debated health care "reforms."

I'm accustomed to liberals bombarding anyone who opposes them with accusations of racism, misogyny, greed, religious fanaticism, heartless indifference to human suffering, sadistic hatred of the disadvantaged, and a general sort of Saturday morning cartoon villainish love of wickedness. (This is why I've always found most of the liberal complaints about the increasingly ferocious turn right-wing rhetoric took after 9/11 to be laughably hypocritical, like a man who goes around attacking people with an ax becoming indignant when someone violates the Queensbury rules by kicking him in the shin.) This use of "nihilist is new to me, though.

It may seem like overanalyzing to look at this as anything other than a case of political hacks tossing around smart-sounding terms to create the illusion that they have more to say than "You suck," but I think the way people choose to say "You suck" can be revealing about people's attitudes.

This use of "nihilist" seems less weird if you consider the implicit assumptions of many people. Liberals often take the attitude that only things done by the government really "count," so that they consistently conflate "Nothing should be done" with "Nothing should be done
by the government." From that perspective, someone who persistently says "The government should not be used to address this problem" is indistinguishable from someone who says "This problem should not be addressed." Since most liberals are so heavily invested in the myth that Republicans are die-hard free market advocates who don't want the government doing much of anything, it would follow naturally that they don't really think anything matters.

Further, as I've said before, liberals are often in the habit of taking all their assumptions for granted to such an extent that they have trouble remembering that other possible sets of assumptions even exist. Liberal responses to opposition often have a bewildered, hysterical edge absent in their conservative counterparts; conservatives usually just get mad at you for opposing them, but liberals often seem shocked and panicked to discover that something so alien and unnatural as someone who disagrees with them is

From within a worldview influenced by these assumptions, accusations of "nihilism" make sense. Liberal ideas about what's right and wrong are the only possible ideas about what's right and wrong; if you reject them, it follows that you have no moral beliefs at all. Hence the endless claims that opponents of the Left must be motivated by greed, or hatred, or mindless fear of change, or whatever; people who claim to be motivated by a set of moral beliefs opposed to those of liberals must be lying (or perhaps crazy), because they're claiming an impossibility.

This is not an exclusively leftist phenomenon. Consider some common traits of conservative rhetoric.

Liberals aren't the only people prone to thinking that only government action really "counts." Among conservatives, one of the more common arguments in favor of government prohibition of things like drug use, prostitution, pornography, and so on is that it would "send the wrong message" to make them legal, even if prohibition is ineffectual for actually preventing them. It's through the government that meaningful moral disapproval is expressed, not through society. Conservatives do frequently have more appreciation for voluntary social institutions than liberals, but they still often treat them as secondary: It's great if parent's and churches and the innumerable unspoken norms of society chip in by telling people that using drugs is bad, but unless we punish drug use by government force we don't really mean it.

Similarly, though I think that conservatives are much less prone than liberals to forgetting that their belief system is not universally agreed upon, many of them do fall into the trap of speaking as if it is the only set of beliefs possible, especially on matters of personal freedom.

For instance, I've often seen it used by social conservatives to describe people who reject conservative beliefs about sexuality. But most such people are no more "relativists" than conservatives. For instance, most advocates of equality for gays, if asked various moral questions relating to homosexuality, would say that statements like "It is not immoral to be gay" and "It is wrong to persecute someone because of their sexual orientation" are true, and that they are true beyond his particular time and place. They certainly wouldn't say that "Is shouting homophobic insults at a gay couple wrong?" is a question with no objective answer, or that "Hating gays is wrong for me, but right for Fred Phelps."

Some conservatives don't seem to get this, and treat rejecting their views as if it were the same thing as denying the legitimacy of any moral judgment at all. Hence, I think, the frequency with which people argue that acceptance of homosexuality will lead us inevitably to acceptance of sex with children or animals. The idea that people who reject their moral beliefs have their own sincerely held set of beliefs about right and wrong (e.g., "Voluntary sex between two adults is acceptable, sex with someone unable to give meaningful consent is wrong") just doesn't compute with some people.

From my perspective, ideas like "If it's OK for a grown man to have sex with another grown man, then it must also be OK for a grown man to have sex with a little boy" and "If you don't want to seize someone's money at gunpoint and spend it on medicine for poor people, you must hate poor people"are so bizarre as to seem almost literally insane, but if you start with the premise that a particular set of beliefs are the only beliefs possible it makes perfect sense.

Even people who are generally understanding of the fact that people can sincerely have beliefs significantly different from theirs often fall into this if the difference grows sufficiently extreme. Think of how often people will insist that people with outrageously repugnant moral beliefs, like the Nazis, simply must have been either crazy or insincere. Often, however, people don't get as far as that. Indeed, as the venom between the major parties in the US often demonstrates, the difference doesn't have to be very wide before the "How could anyone believe that?" response kicks in, especially when those differences are tied to tribal groups like political parties.

This is one of the upsides of growing up as a weirdo, by the way- you have it drilled into your being, from an early age, that "How would I feel in his place?" and "How does he feel in his place?" are not the same question. Understanding someone who's beliefs, feelings, or desires are significantly different from your own is far harder, and far rarer,than most people realize, and the problems caused by that deficiency are greatly magnified by the fact that most people are ignorant of it.

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Mike Gogulski said...

For a lot of the people you're referring to here, I think you're dead on the money.

The doctor prescribes heavy doses of Robert Anton Wilson.

cherylcline said...

Thank you for writing this, I hope to write a more substantial response soon. But along with "nihilist," I've found that liberals also like to lob the charge of "snarkiness." The development scholar William Easterley has recently confronted this:, If you oppose liberal policies, you must either be a nihilist or a peddler of snark, and therefore you are just a cynic and your objections are not to be taken seriously.