Keeping it real
Why culture wars rely on abstraction
Below is a clip of Emma Barnett interviewing Stonewall CEO Nancy Kelley, who featured in a recent Ruffian (sorry for returning to this topic so soon - I’m doing so to make a broader point!). Barnett strikes a nice tonal balance, friendly but persistent, and pursues a specific question: does Kelley think J.K. Rowling is transphobic, and if so why?
Many of Kelley’s allies say Rowling is transphobic but are very poor at saying why; the charge is difficult to argue against, because no clear argument is made for it. Rowling has been - to use an over-used word - smeared. Kelley can’t, or won’t, give an answer. I think Barnett genuinely wants to understand her position but Kelley flannels away, insinuating disapproval without ever addressing the question head on.
The closest she gets is to suggest that just by raising the issue of male-bodied people in women’s refuges, Rowling, as a high-profile person, has inflamed prejudice against trans people. That just isn’t tenable - for one thing, it would imply that no high profile figure should speak up on behalf of the otherwise voiceless women affected, not even when the spokesperson has a personal stake in the issue, as Rowling does. But we barely get to even explore it as an argument because Kelley is so reluctant to articulate an argument.
Our most toxic debates exist as a kind of fog of imprecise terminology and unexamined assertions, in which one or both sides cannot even be said to be wrong, since it’s never clear what they’re arguing. Good interviewers, and good interlocutors generally, aim to dispel this fog. They don’t let vague claims or insinuations pass without trying to open them up, look inside, and hold their components up to the light.
I was reminded of the Barnett-Kelley exchange when reading this very good, if slightly bombastic, paean to the power of specificity. In arguments over contentious issues, we too often skim along the surface of an issue, following a series of rhetorical moves which can almost be mapped out in advance. To make the conversation more interesting and worthwhile, drill down into specifics, ask for evidence and examples, propose different scenarios to test claims. This needn’t be about demolishing the other’s position so much as getting clarity on it - although, as in the case of Barnett and Kelley, that can be the same thing.
I even - and I know I’ll lose some of you here - have sympathy with what Jordan Peterson said on Question Time last week, in response to a question over the Azeem Rafiq revelations about racism in cricket. He said that people should address the specifics of the case rather than making abstract points about institutional racism. In response, everyone went batshit:
Look, it’s clear Peterson knows nothing about the Rafiq story and hasn’t bothered to get briefed on it, and that is annoying. But it doesn’t mean what he says here is stupid or mad, as you’d assume from the reaction of the audience, panelists - even the presenter- and Twitter. He has at least half a point, half more than a lot of guests on QT.
Peterson is right when he says that as you move up the abstraction chain, your arguments become more “low resolution” - increasingly fuzzy to the point of meaninglessness. He is right that terms like ‘institutional/systemic racism’ get thrown around without people being clear about what they mean. And crucially, he is right to suggest that moving to a loftier level of abstraction can be a way of avoiding the difficult stuff of engaging with actual problems in actual places at actual times.
Of course, you have to use abstraction to make any political argument, and indeed to make sense of the world at all, which is why I say Peterson has half a point. But I do think he is pointing to a real tension. When you’re at ground level, you usually discover things are much more complex than they seem from 30,000 feet. I was struck, for instance, by how critics of the Sewell Report were bad on the detail and had little or nothing to say about its policy recommendations. They preferred to stay at a high level of abstraction. The air, and the moral distinctions, are so much cleaner up there.
There was consternation at Peterson putting quotes around ‘racism’ but I didn’t take that to mean he doesn’t believe widespread racial discrimination exists - I’m pretty sure he does - but that we too often use the word racism as a thought-terminating cliché rather than getting down to specifics. To take an example, simply because I came across it this week: the FT’s Simon Kuper (sorry Simon) says, “the woke are right to want to topple statues of racists. That isn’t ‘erasing history’. It’s about changing who we honour.”
OK, but now I want specifics! Like, all racists? Is it right to topple statues of Winston Churchill? Of Thomas Jefferson? Because they were definitely racist. Do we give any dispensation for their other achievements, or make any attempt to put their attitudes in historical context? Then there’s the question of who is a racist and who isn’t, since according to some definitions, all white people are racist, which would mean an awful lot of statues coming down if we follow through on a “no racists on plinths” rule.
Now, Simon fits a lot into that column, so he can’t unpack every claim. But that’s kind of my point. Using the word “racist” without elaboration or definition enables us to dodge all these tricky questions. The reader just nods - “racists bad” - and moves on. But “racist” and “racism” are big, baggy words that can hide a wealth of nuances.
Although it isn’t really practical, I sometimes think that to make fresh arguments about racism you need to impose the discipline of not using the word “racism” at all, as Isabel Wilkerson does in Caste. After all, we can’t even agree on what race is or whether it exists. That is bound to create conceptual confusion the more you move up the abstraction chain. This is close to what I take the political scientist Adolph Reed to be saying here:
Another area in which people are stupefyingly vague is big tech regulation. The fervour with which people call for more regulation of Facebook, Google and Amazon is in inverse proportion to the specificity of the case they make. Benedict Evans fights a vain one-man battle to anchor this discourse in reality, and the reality is that technology is complicated, regulation policy is complicated, and there are trade-offs everywhere you look. This recent attempt to argue for greater regulation is so confused that it includes, in its list of dangerous “powers” held by the tech companies, the delisting of people from Google searches - which is, of course, the result of regulation. People shout “surveillance capitalism” without any understanding of which personal data the tech companies collect, in what form, and how they use it. The reality is rather less scary than the abstraction.
Capitalism, fascism, neo-liberalism, structural racism, transphobia, wokeness: these giant, airborne nouns, which float around the discourse like zeppelins, are unavoidable in some ways. We probably have to use them. But we should be aware that there is a price to be paid, in clarity and intelligence, for doing so. I sometimes read passages of writing that consist of almost nothing else. I try and use them as sparingly and as precisely as possible, wincing a little inside as I do so. And sometimes when I search for a way to say what I’m saying without using the obvious word, I find a more powerful way of saying it.
On the other hand, keeping your language vague and abstract can be a smart rhetorical tactic. It minimises your exposure to counter-evidence and argument. It means you can send luridly coloured smoke signals about where you stand without having explain or defend your position in any depth (cough, Judith Butler). It allows you to pump out feelings of animosity and outrage without defining the offence, which is why culture wars thrive in this environment.
But if you’re interested in actual thinking or good writing, you should try and stay close to the ground as possible and get as specific as you can. I try not to conform to centrist dad type and cite Orwell - but at some point, it becomes inevitable.
Please share this post and tell everyone about The Ruffian! If you haven’t opened The Ruffian in a while and you’re wondering why you can’t go further, here’s why I’ve introduced a modest paywall.
Beyond the wall this week: why the Blair vs Brown bust-ups were actually productive, plus the usual miscellany of juicy links.
Full-fat subscribers: tell me in the comments if you think I’m being too lenient on Peterson or too hard on abstract nouns.
How to buy CONFLICTED - links to your favourite booksellers (UK and US).