Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Liberalism, "false consciousness" and deception

As people who pay attention to the sidebar will notice, I've been slowly working my way through Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate. "Slowly", because I keep getting distracted (current distraction: Constitutional and Administrative Law in New Zealand, by Philip A. Joseph). Yesterday, I got up to a part which I thought was worthy of comment.

As part of his preamble to discussing cognition and perception, Pinker slags off relativists (a catch-all term covering "proponents of social constructivism, science studies, cultural studies, critical theory, postmodernism, and deconstructionism") as having

a penny-pinching theory of psychology in which the mind has no mechanisms designed to grasp reality; all it can do is passively download words, images, and stereotypes from the surrounding culture

He then continues:

Skepticism about the soundness of people's mental faculties also determines whether one should respect ordinary people's tastes and opinions (even those we don't much like) or treat people as dupes of an insidious commercial culture. According to relativist doctrines like "false consciousness," "inauthentic preferences," and "interiorized authority," people may be mistaken about their own desires. If so, it would undermine the assumptions behind democracy, which gives ultimate authority to the preferences of the majority of a population, and the assumptions behind market economies, which treat people as the best judges of how they should allocate their own resources. Perhaps not coincidentally, it elevates the scholars and artists who analyze the use of language and images in society, because only they can unmask the ways in which such media mislead and corrupt.

Why is this worthy of comment? Because its used by bloggers - in particular by our own local "[critic] of Left/Liberal thought from a Darwinian perspective" - to underpin statements such as "liberals believe that anyone with a different opinion is stupid". Or, to put it another way, "liberals are undemocratic because, rather than respecting other people's views, they see them as dupes suffering from 'false consciousness' or a similar ailment"1.

The obvious counter is to point out that political issues are - almost by definition - issues that people can reasonably disagree over. People have different interests, and politics is what we use to reconcile them (or not, as the case may be). So ACT aren't stupid, they're just wankers, with extremely egocentric interests.

However, this still leaves us with a problem, in that there are cases where people clearly are stupid or dupes. Propaganda works. Advertising works. People buy things because they see them on TV, and believe things if they hear them often enough. This sometimes causes them to act contrary to their own expressed desires. One example of this is the support of Americans for policies that favour the rich (on the grounds that some 40% of them believe they are in the top 5% of income earners, and a far greater percentage believe they will be rich one day - a belief which is unsupported by any analysis of US social mobility). A second is the 70% of Americans who believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved with the events of September 11th, and the 44% who believed that most of the hijackers were Iraqi2 (in fact he had nothing to do with it, and none of the hijackers were Iraqi; most came from Saudi Arabia - a US ally).

So how can we reconcile these awkward facts with a liberal respect for autonomy? I think that rather than focusing on "false consciousness" (people not knowing their own desires or interests), the answer has to focus on deceit and manipulation. The problem is not that we are not the best judges of their own interests - the problem is that politicians and advertisers lie to us. They lie to convince us that a particular course of action serves our interests when really it does not ("invading iraq will make us safer from terrorism"; "tax cuts for the rich will benefit you"), and they lie to convince us to adjust the priorities of our competing interests ("we must sacrifice freedom for security", "you need a new holiday"). And of course they exploit authority to lend their lies more weight ("the president said it, so it must be true").

To the extent that the media/cultural studies crowd that Pinker criticises and Sock Thief rails against expose these lies, they are doing us all a service.

But hasn't this simply recast the problem of "false consciousness" as one of stupidity? I don't think so. Plenty of otherwise smart people get fooled too. It's a matter of the sophistication of manipulation techniques and the flaws in our nature they exploit, not of individual stupidity (though that may help). You don't have to be stupid to be fooled - just human3.

What does all of this mean for liberals? I don't see any conflict between accepting our nature and respecting autonomy. Serious liberals respect the right of people to make stupid decisions, and a stupid decision based on someone else's lie is no different from one based on endogenous delusion. Hell, we respect the decisions of people who believe in god, and that's no different from people who believe Bush.

As for lies undermining democracy, the liberal solution is clear: make it more difficult for the liars. Universal public education focused on building better bullshit detectors, combined with a strong, independent and free press4 are two ways of doing this. And I think they're solutions that most of those who denouce liberals would agree with.

1 I'll leave aside the obvious equivocation of liberals with the particular clade of the left infected by Rousseau.

2 The different numbers are because the polls were taken at different times.

3 You can deny this, of course - but that either ignores the facts or gets you dangerously close to a Libertarian theory of Free Will, in which agency is absolutely unconstrained by past choice or environmental factors (or even by who you are and what you want). Readers of Pinker won't want to do either.

4 Or maybe simply suspicious. I think that there's an interesting link to be made between the relative support for the war in the US and UK with their respective levels of press credulity and submission...