Ethics, Politics

Against Character

Friday, 28th September 2018

A truism of political morality is that we should take character seriously. This is, perhaps, more of a truism on the right than the left, but it would be rare to find someone who would say that a person’s character doesn’t matter. This is, after all, the point of hearings for prospective Supreme Court members and the point of listening to politicians as they try to convince us to vote for them.

At one level, it makes sense. We are trying to predict someone’s future actions in a role. The future is not predictable, and yet we desperately want to predict it, and more than that, control it. But to what end? To the end of putting in place what we think is right. So, we read people in order to gain some level of assurance that they will vote as we want or behave as we want.

But there’s a version of character behind this desire to predict the future. After all, we also think about character in those we are not evaluating for office. We talk about character in our friends and family. We encourage people to develop good character. By that, we might mean something more like good habits, or maybe good ways of reading and understanding the world and the people in it. If I continually see the worst in people, assume that they are up to no good, that might be an element of my character that people would take note of. My assessment of other peoples’ characters is a statement of my own character. Of course, so are my actions, and purchases, and blog posts, and jokes, and lots of other things.

That’s all what we might call the manifest content of character, the stuff that’s available to everyone that we read. But there’s also latent content that many claim to be able to read. Why is it that someone like Trump enjoys the votes of a large group of radical right-wing voters? Not because of his manifest content, but because many think that there’s latent content that outweighs the manifest content. He’s “our guy”. He’s good deep down. (This does not supplant the other major theory about his support, which is that he’s a useful idiot – it can exist alongside that more calculating and cynical theory).

The idea that there’s a latent content to character is something that the religious right has trained generations of people to believe. It is understood as “seeing as God sees.” It allows a fundamental tribal division in society, which makes possible the idea that despite manifest evidence to the contrary, Trump is a good guy, and despite manifest evidence to the contrary, Obama isn’t. Character is the state of your soul, and it is the evangelical and radical Christian conceit that they and only they can truly know that. All others have their reason as unredeemed, that is, clouded by sin, and so their reading of character cannot be trusted, nor can anything they do or say be trusted.

This belief about character has profound implications for politics and public life. Why would one care about democracy? That would be to put those who have a clouded view of character at the same level as those who don’t. Why would one support someone like Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court? Because his character is good, despite whatever he might have done as a youth. Why would one disbelieve Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s account, no matter how many details she has or how many corroborating witnesses there are? Because she does not have good character in this sense, not because of anything she said or did but because she is “liberal” and therefore tainted. This is the basis of tribalism – a decision about latent character for vast numbers of people.

It’s worth noting that, while some version of character matters no matter where one is on the political spectrum, this idea of latent character is overwhelmingly a tool of the radical right. That’s not how it is presented – I once had someone on the right say to me “well, we all have opinions”, which I knew meant that there was a superficial or manifest level of diversity of opinion, but also that the person was claiming access to the truth for herself, and that it was a test of my latent character as to whether I saw it her way or not. It was the shibboleth, the thing that showed my true nature, and I had failed that test. Despite knowing the test and having grown up with it, I was worse than unsaved, I was apostate – the worst kind of latent character defect.

This version of character has its roots in American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, but it is not primarily theological or religious. It is epistemological. In other words, it is about how knowledge is understood, verified, and scaffolded. The epistemology comes before the theology, even as it is derived from a particular version of the theology. In other words, evangelical and radical Christianity is one epistemological approach among many within Christendom to the text and the world. There have been many others over time (although, radical epistemology requires that those other ways of being Christian must be rejected). When the epistemology is actually supported among evangelicals (which is rare), it is supported through inferences and implications in religious text. The epistemology lends itself to a particular reading of text, as well as culture.

And the epistemology is a kind ersatz or perverted precursor of standpoint epistemology before feminists coined the term. Standpoint epistemology holds that there are some people (generally the marginalized, including most women) who have a better vantage point on issues of truth and falsity because they are not in false consciousness. They do not have the project of justifying a system of thinking that maintains marginalization and inequality. They have to both understand the workings of that system, in order to operate in society, and also understand its critique and other ways that society might be organized. In other words, the standpoint is not just one opinion among many, but a better epistemology because it understands the structures of knowledge and the positions of people within those structures better.

So, what is used by feminists for social justice was previously used by religious conservatives to lay claim to special knowledge. Their claim, though, does not come from having thought through the structures of marginalization and oppression in the world, but rather from a tribal epistemology which places evangelicals at the center of world history, the chosen of God, and which means that their insight is superior to that of anyone else.

There are implications to this position. It means that facts will not convince anyone to change their mind. We already knew that. It means that the emotion we saw at the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings is real – there is a sense of entitlement with this epistemology, a sense that those who hold it understand how the world really works and what’s really going on, and the forces of evil are thwarting the march toward bringing this order into reality. Youthful indiscretions are regarded as insignificant in comparison to bringing the right and good world into being. Kavanaugh’s supporters know his character, who he really is. He’s not a rapist, he’s a good man. He’s “one of us”, just as Trump is. The other tribe is just using the law and public opinion to focus on insignificant things in order to block goodness and reality coming into the world. That’s why the slogan “Make America Great Again” was so potent – we are currently in the American “Middle Ages”, between the great formation of the union and its future reconstitution in this tribal image by men of character, who are being unfairly maligned.

Another implication: this epistemology justifies all the voter suppression efforts, all the laws that take away the vote from felons in many states, all the anti-democratic moves on the right. With this epistemology, they aren’t anti-democratic, they are giving votes to only those who have the rational capacity to use them. Furthermore, this epistemology justifies a version of diversity which can leave out everyone who isn’t already in the tribe, while at the same time accusing those outside of being a monolith of thought. The diversity internal to this epistemology is not that of differences of opinion on fundamental issues, but differences of presentation and aesthetic within those issues. Meanwhile, the vast differences between various groups of feminists, or cultural differences, or other kinds of political difference can all be lumped into a single category and seen as an undifferentiated orthodoxy, because it is all outside of what this epistemology regards as the truth.

There is, though, an Achilles heel, which is that character is read at an individual level. So, it’s easy to paint groups with a broad brush as evil, but there is at least the possibility that someone might know someone who is gay, who is black, who is something other than what the definition of good character is supposed to be, and sees that they are not, after all, bad people. There is an answer to this within radical Christianity, of course – even those who seem good can really be bad – but that answer shifts character from being a form of reading individuals to being a general ideology. And at least some of those who hold this epistemology would deny that they are ideological. That’s a term for the other tribe, not their own. Many gay children have suffered grievously at the hands of hurt and angry parents, but at least some parents have been forced to re-evaluate how they think about their tribal lines because of someone close to them. Some have realized that the friend they actually like, who comes out as gay, is not a bad person at all. Sometimes the dependence of this epistemology on individualism can be answered by that very individualism. This is a bloody battle, and the most vulnerable in society pay the price, but this epistemology can be susceptible to personal connection, in ways that it is not susceptible to argument or evidence.

I am fully aware that the categories of “manifest” and “latent” character draw on Freud, and I use them deliberately to signal a connection. Freud uses these terms when he talks about dreams (among other times) to distinguish between the literal meaning of a dream and its representations which draw on the unconscious. And the version of character sketched here does the same thing. Manifest character makes narrative connections, allowing predictions of future behaviour. I judge my friends, not in the sense of negatively appraising them but in the sense of assessing what I can expect out of their action in the future based on the past. Everyone does that. That version of character is a kind of shorthand that no one could avoid.

The latent version of character, though, is another matter. It draws on an almost unassailable epistemology that tells someone who’s friend and who’s foe, who’s in and who’s out. It assumes an inner light of revelation that is easily mistaken for one’s one prejudices and desires. Jesus ends up looking exactly like the right-wing id, and is thus neutered, unable to challenge anyone’s thinking on anything. This latent version of character allows people to see that the president is in the group despite his behaviour, beliefs, and history, and it allows the president to say that there are “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis, despite their behaviour, beliefs, and history. It allows the right to tar all immigrants as rapists and criminals, while letting people who have actual raped and committed crimes off because their latent character is deemed good. Latent character is the id, the desire for domination and control, the need for anyone not in the tribe to shut up and stay in place, be meek and mild, not demand anything but produce or entertain or dance on cue. It is the affectual and emotional. It is what makes it ok for senators and the candidate at Kavanaugh’s hearing to get emotional, to cry, to rage and rail, whereas if the demeanor of Dr. Ford had cracked for a second it would have been used against her. She had to be better, stronger, and more logical than any of the white men in front of her. This is the epistemology at work – she must defend everything, even though she brings the accusation, while they get a pass from everyone with power.

This is the version of character I’m against. The kind defended by the religious radical right, the kind mediated by the inner light, which just tells us who’s in and who’s out. The kind with no accountability at all. The kind that defends frat boys for the Supreme court, or New York bullies for the presidency, because they have good hearts, while women continue to get raped and non-whites continue to be shot for anything and nothing. I’m against using character as a shorthand for all that stuff, as a way of giving some a pass but holding others to an impossible standard. This is baked into the epistemology of the evangelical and radical right and has permeated the logic of the right-wing in general. Someone might want to say that not all evangelicals are like this, and that might be true, but in order to be not like that, these rare people have some strong head-winds to deal with. And I would want to see actual resistance to the epistemology within evangelical circles on the part of the person claiming this. Don’t tell me about what you’ve done, you evangelicals, tell those of your tribe who hold this anti-Christian, evangelical epistemology. My guess is, that person won’t be evangelical for long. That person will find that others will regard them as suspect, as part of the other tribe, and push them out. That’s how the epistemology works.

This will sound like a rejection of theology or faith, but it isn’t. Evangelicalism is not equipped to tell the difference between epistemology and these things. It has shielded itself from critical thought (in most Bible colleges the closest anyone will get to critical reasoning will be an apologetics course, which is far from the same thing), just as it has carefully shielded itself from any ability to think about history (just check any evangelical book store if you don’t believe me, or for that matter the curriculum of any evangelical Bible college). I have not sketched out the epistemology fully here, but it drives the logic of the right, not just inside religious circles but outside as well, and renders it immune from critique, except for the already noted Achilles heel.

So, I give up on character as an idea useful for very much of anything. It is too tainted. I am apt to think that there’s lazy thinking, covering up privilege, or worse, when someone advocates that character is important. I’d rather do the harder work of listening and looking, and I’d rather people did that to me as well.

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