Comments on “Completing the countercultures”

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Jain Logic

Coincidentally, just the email announcing this post arrived, I was reading an article on Jain logic. It sounds a lot like the Complete Stance:

“Anekāntavāda is not simply about syncretisation or compromise between competing ideas, as it is cooperatively about finding the hidden elements of shared truth between such ideas… Anekāntavāda also does not mean compromising or diluting one’s own values and principles. On the contrary, it allows us to understand and be tolerant of conflicting and opposing views, while respectfully maintaining the validity of one’s own view-point: ‘epistemological respect for view of others’, Anekāntavāda, thus, did not prevent the Jain thinkers from defending the truth and validity of their own doctrine while simultaneously respecting and understanding the rival doctrines.”

“Our experience of the world presents a profound paradox which we can ignore existentially, but not philosophically. This paradox is the paradox of change. Something changes and therefore it cannot be permanent. On the other hand, if it is not permanent, then what changes? In this debate between ‘permanence’ and ‘change’, Hinduism seems more inclined to grasp the first horn of the dilemma and Buddhism the second. It is Jainism that has the philosophical courage to grasp both horns fearlessly and simultaneously, and the philosophical skill not to be gored by either.”

Wikipedia

"Such rhetoric appeals to

Abel Molina's picture

“Such rhetoric appeals to monist and dualist sensibilities, but is unrealistic, unhelpful, and nearly meaningless”

I’d agree that is not helpful rhetoric for a listener trying to get an understanding of the fine details of policy, but popular political talk is definitely a place where that listener is not going to find such talk about any topic. Conversations at say the think-tank level would perhaps be the appropriate place for someone interested in learning or getting involved in an issue at such a deep level^.

However, I think such talk about “open”/”closed” borders could be helpful and meaningful for a large part of the audience. To take an example that’s particularly clear, one can consider the context of the current US presidential election. I’d say that the vast majority (say at least 80%) of people that have a strong personal concern related to a process that happens at the border would align with the D candidate in the case where they want that situation to be less restrictive, and with the R candidate in the case where they want it to be more restrictive. I claim as well that it is rare for people to have strong concerns about more than one or two of the things that happen at the border. Then, simple talk of “open/closed” borders is generally useful at clarifying for an uniformed audience which party stands for their interest as far as their border-related concerns are involved.

^One could wish for a future where popular political talk goes into more detail, takes more nuanced views, and predict this would result in better outcomes of political processes. I think there is definitely room for improvement in that direction, but also that the number of issues is large enough to limit by itself how much time can be spent discussing details.

Can there be peace in the war of metaphysics?

Not to pick on one small point out of a generally great post, but:

It would help if we could agree that gender is a private matter, thereby restoring part of the public/private boundary that the countercultures destroyed.

I don՚t think it is, or at least, this is a naive-liberal position, which is to say, it՚s not a bad rule of thumb for the practical conduct of life, but it isn՚t very analytically deep.

In fact gender is a social performance and there is something irreducibly public about it, which is why it is such a field of contention. If it was really private, nobody would care, but in fact the battle is all about the social sphere. Trans people are demanding to have their gender of choice publicly acknowledged. Gay marriage is definitionally about achieving a formal legal recognition of a relationship. Some proponents like to say “if you don՚t like gay marriage, don՚t have one”, but I find this argument disingenuous – in fact, gay marriage proponents want to have their relationship acknowledged, which does in fact require changes in behavior from everyone, not just the participants. (This is one of those weird points where the radical tinge to my way of thinking gives me more sympathies for the reactionaries՚ arguments, if not their position).

More deeply, I think it՚s a mischaracterization of the 60s/70s social movement to say that it “destroyed” the public/private boundary. At least in its own framing, the goal was exposing the already-existing fact that the political is a pervasive aspect of all social relationships, even ostensibly private ones. This viewpoint seems to mesh very well with your own point about how gender and other aspects of social standing are renegotiated in micro-interactions – to me, this is essentially the same as saying that the personal and the political are deeply intertwined, that we participate it in ordinary life whether we like it or not. The current hoo-hah about “microagressions” is stupid in many ways but I think it is grounded in this fact and an attempt to grapple with it.

I feel like I am getting tedious on this point (but am nevertheless right).

Dropping monism and dualism would still leave plenty of room for disagreements; but they would have to be argued on specific, practical grounds, instead of abstract, metaphysical ones. The complete stance itself answers no practical questions. It leaves open issues such as “what constitutes workplace equality” and “who uses which bathrooms.” However, it points out that these issues don’t have to be so goddamn serious, and that the big-picture ideologies are all quite childish and silly.

Again, this strikes me as completely right in a practical sense but also somewhat naive. These clashes of value systems are real conflicts and they can՚t be so easily wished away. Politics despite its ugliness and messiness and stupidity is how the battles are fought, (I speak as a reformed anarchist who also used to think that the world would be much better if people would just be reasonable and cooperative, that is, other than they really are).

Now, maybe it is possible to get people to relax from their rigid metaphysical commitments and take a more pragmatic attitude that would allow setting such disagreements – that sounds like an admirable and not inconceivable goal. I think that was part of the original American dream – to get free of the fruitless
religious and political struggles of Europe. But this is hard: there are often real material interests colliding; eg women and minorities have an interest in the promotion of universalist (monist?) values while certain white male ex-majority members may be for similar reasons rigidly dualist and nationalist. These two groups are not motivated to agree with each other, getting them to relax their ideologies and be pragmatic is hard and may not be in their short-term interests. That is to say, for people like that their ideology is not silly, it’s the flag under which they are fighting for something that is of seemingly vital importance.

Hm, so maybe the question is not, are understanding nebulosity and achieving a complete stance good – they clearly are. Rather, it is: how do you motivate people in that direction, how can they become as passionate about that as they do their less-evolved ideologies?

Yes, exactly

I agree with basically all of this :-)

So, the take is that Victorian dualism had hardened the public/private boundary to an unreasonable, unworkable extent. This persisted at least as a social convention, a little bit weakened, into the 1950s mainstream. Some in the monist counterculture explicitly sought to dismantle it altogether—which is actually infeasible as well as wrong. However, I do think they succeeded in taking it further than was optimal. (Putting this in quantitative terms for simplicity, which is misleading.) I covered that in some detail in “The personal is political.”

So, the public/private boundary is necessarily both nebulous and patterned, and the question is how it should best operate in detail. And that needs to be fought over in minute detail to get a good answer—because a quantitative approach is misleading and inadequate.

the personal and the political are deeply intertwined

Hence the Mandelbrot illustration :-)

But, to take the trans example, I’m inclined to think that (on the one hand) it’s wrong to hassle anyone for doing gender however they do, and it’s polite and decent to make some effort to keep track of pronouns; and (on the other) that it’s unreasonable to demand that everyone publicly say “oh, yes, we totally agree that you are really, truly male/female” or else they are Literally Hitler.

Maybe this is naively liberal in the old-fashioned sense. But part of the benefit of a public/private distinction—to borrow Kling’s framework—is that it gives everyone more freedom [libertarian concern] without causing anyone harm [progressive concern], and it promotes decency [conservative concern].

These clashes of value systems are real conflicts and they can՚t be so easily wished away. Politics despite its ugliness and messiness and stupidity is how the battles are fought

Absolutely! Except I want people to go straight to the underlying interests, instead of talking about “values,” which are not truly what is at issue, and confuse the discussion. So, for instance, I suggested that a major underlying practical issue may be family structure—as many social conservatives say explicitly, and many progressives refuse to believe. It would be better to fight about that explicitly instead of the “values” that are indirect proxies for it. Maybe sensible compromises could be found—whereas it is taboo to compromise “values.”

getting them to relax their ideologies and be pragmatic is hard and may not be in their short-term interests

Maybe… I’m suggesting that both sides ought to recognize that they have lost. Even in the short term, they’d do better to look for pragmatic solutions. (Getting to this might require a better quality of leadership than has recently been manifest…)

how do you motivate people in that direction, how can they become as passionate about that as they do their less-evolved ideologies?

Yes! So, I think this is the right question to ask. (The probably-next thing I post will be about that; it’s also the one where I discuss your anti-politics essay briefly.)

It’s a dumb and obvious and naive question. But everything in this book is dumb and obvious and naive. I’m just pointing out that people keep adopting stances that they know are wrong, that are obviously wrong, because they have short-term emotional payoffs. And suggesting that there are ways to learn to do that less.

The alternatives (“complete stances”) are also obvious, and obviously right. So a natural response is Is that all?? That’s obvious! To which I can only say: Yes; so maybe you should think about why you keep doing obviously wrong things instead?

I think we basically agree on

I think we basically agree on almost all important points. Not sure why I am compelled to find the parts I have problems with and pick on them, but it՚s what I do I guess. Hopefully it is at least somewhat useful to you.

I don՚t have a much of a problem with the alleged obviousness of your ideas. Even old truths need repeating and translating into modern idioms. If I do have one general complaint, it՚s that sometime I feel you are taking complex cultural history and overschematizing it. And that might be because some of my own oxen are being gored.

Maybe this is naively liberal in the old-fashioned sense. But part of the benefit of a public/private distinction—to borrow Kling’s framework—is that it gives everyone more freedom…

Let me be clear, I agree with naive liberalism as a practical political philosophy. I like freedom and the idea that people ought to be able to do what they want in their private spheres and all of that. No question. Liberalism needs to be defended in the real practical world – that՚s why I bother spending time on Trump, who represents a genuine threat to the liberal order.

But as a theory it is weaksauce, and suffers from the similar structural flaws as other parts of the received culture that I think you՚ve fought against in the past. For one thing, it overprivileges individuals, and as part of that makes freedom and choice into these sacred untouchables. It requires people to be more reasonable than they really are. In your terms, it ultimately relies on a false metaphysics, and so can՚t be the cure for itself. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but I don՚t think it can be an unexamined primitive in a theory of behavior or politics; it՚s sort of like having god in a theory of physics.

I want people to go straight to the underlying interests, instead of talking about “values,” which are not truly what is at issue, and confuse the discussion.

That is an interesting idea. Although often the confusion seems to go the other way. Eg arguments about what bathrooms trans people are allowed to use is obviously not really about bathrooms and is avoiding the real issue, which is values, isn՚t it?

I mean there are no material interests at stake here, it՚s purely a fight over the nature of gender and boundaries and the corresponding metaphysics. The very existence and nature of God is somehow at stake, and weakening the gender boundary undermines the very foundations of reality. So it is, in that sense, a material interest, people feel their way of life is threatened, and to some extent they are right.

The other side also has metaphysical propositions at stake, but because I agree with them more it՚s harder to say what they are and why they are so powerful. This idea that people deserve to be what ever gender they say they are is almost a parody of the notion of the autonomous self (see above).

Anyway, I read you as saying people shouldn՚t do this; you want to relax the grip that these rigid and wrong metaphysical systems have on us. I can՚t disagree with that. Maybe where I differ is that I think these ideas are very tightly bound up with the fundamental structures of thinking and society, so they can՚t be easily dismissed just because they are wrong, the hold they have on people and vice versa is not so easily broken.

Here՚s a strong thesis that I just made up: Fundamental changes to metaphysics only happen in conjunction with social or political revolution (see the sixties, or the protestant reformation). Since political revolutions are rarely successful, replacement of metaphysical attachments is also pretty damn hard.

Further agreement

I am compelled to find the parts I have problems with and pick on them, but it՚s what I do I guess. Hopefully it is at least somewhat useful to you.

Yes, thank you very much!

If I do have one general complaint, it՚s that sometimes I feel you are taking complex cultural history and overschematizing it.

This is very probably right. If there is anything I can say in my defense it is that the schematization is somewhat unusual, so it may reveal some partial insights, at the cost of suppressing other partial truths.

For one thing, [classical liberalism] overprivileges individuals, and as part of that makes freedom and choice into these sacred untouchables.

I agree. I hope I’m not doing that here. This is why I find it useful to apply Kling’s framework of also respecting traditionalist and progressive worldviews (both of which downplay individual liberty in favor of collective interests). My personal tendency is tilted somewhat in the libertarian direction (because I’m a weirdo and would like to not get flak for that), so I’m working hard to acknowledge and incorporate the other two perspectives. Maybe I’m not going far enough with that.

Eg arguments about what bathrooms trans people are allowed to use is obviously not really about bathrooms and is avoiding the real issue, which is values, isn՚t it?

Well, I actually don’t know what it is about. I do strongly suspect it is not “values.” I don’t think it has anything to do with God. (Does the Bible say anything about trans people?) However, I think we ought to be empirical about this and admit we can’t derive an answer from first principles!

Social conservatives would say that it’s about “family values,” I expect, but what does that mean? What do trans people have to do with families? This is not a rhetorical question, it is a genuine one, for which I don’t know the answer. I don’t think social conservatives know the answer either. They’d say something about “traditional values” blah blah, and maybe mention God, but it wouldn’t add up to anything coherent or substantive.

If one wanted to get an answer to this, looking into meaning of homophobia would probably be the place to start. (I would guess gay and trans run together in the minds of social conservatives, although that’s another empirical question.)

I came up with a new theory of homophobia by reflecting on the Weeden et al. analysis of social conservatism (“reproductive strategies 1, 2, 3” in my terms). I might write about that sometime. It’s purely conjectural—but it explains homophobia in terms of pragmatic considerations of family structure, not what God spozedly said in an ancient book, or “tradition,” or “values.”

I basically just don’t believe in “values”; I think they are vague post-hoc justifications for whatever concrete social desires you have. I think people abandon them at the drop of a hat when their interests change.

“Family values” means “I want to have the sort of family I want, and I don’t want anyone getting in the way of that.” I find it helpful to try to put myself in that headspace, and then imagine how gay or trans people could be a threat to my having that sort of family. Then many of the previously-insane-sounding things social conservatives say suddenly make sense. (But this is not empirical—the hypotheses generated this way would need to be tested in order to have confidence in them.)

I think these ideas are very tightly bound up with the fundamental structures of thinking and society, so they can՚t be easily dismissed just because they are wrong, the hold they have on people and vice versa is not so easily broken…. replacement of metaphysical attachments is pretty damn hard.

Yes. So, the main part of the Meaningness book, when/if I actually write it, is supposed to be a practical manual for getting yourself out of confused stances. How effective that can be, I don’t know. There have been reports from the field that the tiny fraction I have completed has been helpful for some readers.

This is a comment addressed

J Anon's picture

This is a comment addressed at both “mtraven” and David Chapman, regarding several statements in the above article and the comment by mtraven. Most of it is aimed at mtraven. Parts of the beginninng and the end are aimed at Chapman.

Anyway, from mtraven: “This idea that people deserve to be what ever gender they say they are is almost a parody of the notion of the autonomous self”

I think the core of your perception of this is that you:
-perhaps do not understand what is actually going on with gender-nonconforming people.
-do not understand the distinction between “sex” and “gender”(which is chapman’s issue, and some of his confusion at feminists who say gender is fake)

First, a little clarity: Sex=common biological dimorphism associated with male or female. Naturally there’s gray areas as mentioned already by Chapman.

Gender=cultural/social baggage associated with sex. These range from things that have some vague relation to muscular development differences associated with sex, to things that have nothing to do with likely differences between sexes and just box people into certain personalities or ways of expression.

The two terms have become conflated heavily in the last.. 20? years, which is the source of much confusion. Obviously language cannot be pinned down, but for the sake of clarity and referring to concepts clearly that we don’t have other agreed-upon signals for, I’ll use sex/gender in this consistent manner.

1)There are people who have “gender dysphoria”, a medical/mental issue, which is often treated by “transitioning” their sex. So mostly female dimorphism->shifting to male. Their gender performance may or may not be completely irrelevant, there are “femme” FtM transgender people, “butch” MtF transgender people, etc.

From what I understand, a significant chunk of these people take on more “typical” gender behavior associated with their “desired” sex because it allows them to “pass”, that is, get by in society without people questioning them, harassing/bullying/attacking them, and making their life awful. So a trans woman who maybe doesnt really give a shit about makeup puts it on anyway because it makes her life easier.

2)There are people who don’t really care about their sex but just want to act in ways that are not considered befitting of their gender. Some of them are people who have dysphoria and instead solve it with behavior rather than with physical changes. Others just do not want anything to do with some number of aspects of “traditional” femininity or whatever.

Thus, let us look at your claim again:

“This idea that people deserve to be what ever gender they say they are is almost a parody of the notion of the autonomous self”

The central issue is that harmless behavior should not be restricted based on sex. The only reason it is is because of “gender” as an inconsistently enforced social construct. People would not have to “claim” anything if gender was not made to be an issue in the first place.

You changed your body? You behave in X irrelevant way and not Y irrelevant way? Ok, that’s irrelevant to my happiness.

But instead, we somehow have situations like:
-I’m a gender ambiguous person, whichever bathroom I go to I have a high % chance of facing harassment.
-I’m a transgender person who “transitioned” their body. If I go to the bathroom for my original sex, I won’t fit in visually and will be harassed. If I go to teh bathroom for the other sex, I may still be harassed based on ID indicating sex or signs that I have transitioned.
-General nonsense related to gender, double standards, etc thrown whichever way, hitting people who are nonconforming and conforming.

Regarding pronouns: What purpose, really, does referring to someone as a particular pronoun serve? It is fairly useless as personality/employment/etc becomes less and less restricted by sex. The only time knowing someone’s sex is even relevant is if you are considering sex with that person for a relationship involving reproduction or simply sex for pleasure.(also, I hate homonyms, lol)

Aside from that, whether you call someone by whatever pronoun is completely irrelevant for your own use, so its only purpose is “What is polite to this person?”, which has never been only a trans issue anyway, unless you would like to ignore all the times men were called girly etc as insults, women were called manly, etc etc. If the person has dysphoria or associates with this vaguely-agreed-upon group of vaguely-similar-personalities(or whatever) we call “gender”, then whatever, there is no rational basis for not doing what they want, especially since you were already doing that for almost everyone anyway. People who you couldn’t tell the sex/gender of right away have always existed, recent social freedoms have just highlighted the issue of not having a gender-neutral single pronoun.

Obviously people can have issues figuring out if someone has X genitalia for aforementioned purposes, but that’s an issue with communication and not your aforementioned position “Why are people breaking out of irrational sex-based-restrictions and harmlessly behaving as they want?”, which is all “people being whatever gender they want” is. The communication issue regarding reproduction needs to be solved separately.

To bring this to Chapman:
“I think it is reasonable to balk at the idea that someone is of a particular sex simply because they say so”
The idea that gender cannot be “wished away” is kind of bizarre to me- while it is unlikely that people will stop pairing pronouns and other small things with genders, it is easy to conceive that the serious societal attachments to sex would only be things that are actually physically relevant(health treatment etc), and the rest is just people enjoying the personality of vague conceptions of being “manly” or whatever.
People aren’t asking to be a particular sex- they’re making themselves a different sex if they want to(and can afford to), what’s going on is they’re asking for different gender treatment. Because gender treatment is irrational/useless/arbitrary(Pink for girls, blue for boys- even though it has changed repeatedly historically, etc etc), this is entirely reasonable and requires no “balking” because nothing logical is being refuted.

Now, there are some earnest issues related to this- for example, does being a lesbian refer to sex or gender? Does it mean you are sexually attracted to female gender as in behavior, or female sex, or some degrees of both are required? I believe for most people it is sex, but apparently for some people it is gender, and basically questions like this have been confused because of sex/gender word issues, so they are not really being discussed accurately yet, so this mismatch of two+ versions of “lesbian” causes confusion/hurt.

In conclusion, words are incredibly obnoxious.

Sex and gender are complicated

Thanks for the comment! These issues are extremely complicated, as you point out.

It may (or may not) be relevant that I’ve studied gender theory in considerable depth (although mostly in the late 1980s, and theory has changed somewhat since then). It may (or may not) also be relevant that I’m personally gender dysphoric and non-conformist.

I can’t speak for mtraven, but I know him personally, and from his politics blog, and he is an anti-authoritarian leftist. So, I’m reasonably confident that he is supportive of trans people’s issues.

I don’t think either of us are ignorant, confused, or unsympathetic about any of the concepts or issues you discuss. We’re both probably in strong agreement with most or all of your positions.

Going beyond that statement would take us deep into the outer reaches of gender theory, which probably none of us wants to take the time for.

I see. Well, I'm sorry to

J Anon's picture

I see. Well, I’m sorry to have preached to the choir. I was having difficulty ascertaining how much you actually understood from your post, but I suppose that may be because of your attempt to have a narrative style that doesn’t step on toes of either “tribe” too much.

Yeah I'm basically a liberal

Yeah I’m basically a liberal who believes everybody should be able to do whatever the hell they want if they don’t frighten the horses or harm other people, including whatever gender stuff they like.

The comments above were trying to get at the limitations of that point of view. It’s a pretty good framework, but it’s based on a very individualistic model of humans work that is not really accurate. And you can see this pretty clearly in the various conflicts over trans issues. If being trans was a matter of individuals pursuing their own thing, that would be easy, but in practice it seems to be about ensuring that all the gendered machinery of society be adapted in new ways. Which is why it is such a political football.

My own preference would be that it was not, and people could just do whatever they liked, but that is not in fact how society seems to operate.

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