From Nov. 12, 2016
Recently, I posted a FaceBook post (https://www.facebook.com/bbjanz/posts/10105762058979462?notif_t=like¬if_id=1478877406715622) which argued that those who elected Trump into office were saddled with his entire platform, including the racist, sexist, and xenophobic aspects of it. I asked the people who voted for him to actually demonstrate that they did not have those characteristics.
There was a lot of discussion about this idea, and as might be expected, people who were not thrilled about the position I took or the argument I made. It’s the question of what kinds of arguments one can or should make which interests me. What kind of argument (in the academic sense, which is an idea defended by evidence and reasoning) is legitimate, and what kind is effective, in the age of Trump?
We have to first dispense with the ways of thinking about this that will get us nowhere. Everyone in a political debate assumes that they are right and others are wrong. No problem so far, that’s the nature of politics. But further than that, in recent times (and this is not just in US politics), people also tend to think that they are rational and others are irrational in some way – they have a conflict of interest, or they aren’t using reason properly, or they are ignorant of facts, or they are just plain crazy. That move might feel good, but it lets us off the hook. If someone else is irrational, they have abdicated the “agon”, the field of battle (or perhaps intellectual exchange). They have left the marketplace of reason, and gone shopping at the mall of reason instead.
There has been a shift in the political landscape in the US in how reason has been used since the 1980s. I think Democrats have largely misunderstood what that shift is. Democrats remain committed to some version of an Enlightenment agon, the space in which reason can be played out in an evenhanded manner, and the best arguments win the day. Republicans gave up that space long ago. They once also existed in that space – William F. Buckley was a master of it. There are no Buckleys anymore on the right, and more than that, there couldn’t be. It is not because the right has become irrational in the sense I described above, but that it has largely given up on the agon. By the admission of many Republicans, their party is no longer the party of ideas.
I could be nostalgic and wish that we could all go back to those days, but that’s not my point here. My point is the opposite – Democrats should take their lead and give up on the agon as well. I know, this seems crazy. Am I saying that we should all be irrational? Of course not. In fact, I’m suggesting that reason works differently now, and the right recognized that first. While the left has continued to operate as if the best argument would win the day, the right has, for lack of a better term, weaponized reason in a new way.
Some of this has been described by George Lakoff in books like Don’t Think of an Elephant and Metaphors We Live By. His point is about cognitive framing. He argues that the battle for cognitive framing has been won by the right, and so any idea that we’re fighting on a level playing field is naïve. The metaphors are already established, specific phrases and concepts are in play that already privilege a right-wing view of the world. It doesn’t make them correct, but it does make them powerful.
What does this have to do with the post that I referred to earlier? Well, in the post I used reason like the right wing, not like the left wing. I deliberately committed one apparent fallacy of reasoning. It wasn’t an ad hominem (I did not call anyone racist, for instance, I said that those who voted for Trump bought the whole package, and now the onus was on them to show otherwise). Despite what it might look like, the fallacy is not one of generalization either – the point here was about a very clear, obvious, and huge set of statements by Trump, which people from across the political spectrum have recognized as racist, sexist, and all the rest, and the fact that voters voted for that package in voting for one person. Yes, there are a range of ways to vote, but the point here is that race, gender, etc. was subordinated to other concerns. In other words, as I said in that piece, it was ok to “throw others under the bus”.
The fallacy (and it is only a fallacy for some) is a problematic assumption. I assumed that people who voted for Trump bought the whole package. Many would object to that. But, that seeming fallacy was exactly the point of the article. By drawing attention to that, I highlighted a fundamental inequity in society, which is that if one is white in the US, you don’t have to prove anything. The onus is never on you to show that you are not deviant in some way, because you are the norm. If, however, you are black, or Muslim, or gay, or any number of other things, the onus is always on you to show that you aren’t a threat. It’s a fallacy with a longer view, that is, to bring to light a fundamental social inequity. In other words, if someone thinks it is a fallacy, that’s an indicator that they should ask why it is so hard to imagine that the onus is on them to demonstrate otherwise.
In other words, those on the right are good until proven otherwise, and everyone else is bad until proven otherwise. So in using the idea of “onus” I simply reversed that. And it was uncomfortable for some, precisely because they are rarely put in that position. They were not explicitly called racist and sexist, but the onus was on them to prove that they weren’t. If you’re black, though, the onus is always on you to show you aren’t a criminal, and you can be shot for the smallest thing or for nothing at all, just because someone thought you might be a threat. If you are Muslim, you are regularly taken aside in airports. If you are gay, you have to continually prove that just using a bathroom isn’t a threat to someone. The onus is always on you. To the extent that my argument made someone uncomfortable, it also uncovered white privilege. This is not a bad thing – knowledge is good. Everyone who is white has white privilege, me included. The question is what you do with it. If it’s just uncritically held, and forms the basis for thinking about others, then there’s a problem. If it is used to try to dismantle that privilege, that’s better.
The argument is especially pointed for Christians, because they should be the ones freely and willingly taking on the onus of demonstrating, to those who are most marginalized in society, that they work for their benefit. That’s pretty much Jesus’ whole message. So, for a Christian to have a problem with this argument calls into question the nature of their faith, as far as I’m concerned. No one should have to tell a Christian that the onus is on them to show love.
That’s the goal. But I’m interested in how reason is used here. In the classic agon, and in the manner the left has usually operated, we would try to normalize the equal space. We would try to say that no one should have the onus on them, that we should all be considered good until proven otherwise. But this election made very clear that we are a long way from that. And, we have seen time and time again in this country that those who do not look or sound or think like a “real American”, whatever that is, have the onus on them.
And so, we can use reason differently. This is more like the right uses it – for a specific purpose, not to reach some goal like agreement or toleration through dialogue. I wrote a paper last year that raised questions about dialogue as a space for reason to operate.
I don’t like using military metaphors, so “weaponizing reason” grates at me. I want to get at the idea that the marketplace of ideas, the traditional agon, is basically gone. Now political differences exist in something that looks more like guerilla warfare. That doesn’t mean that reason can’t work, just as in guerilla warfare weapons still work. But we’re not lining up the cavalry, blowing the trumpet, and charging in a straight line anymore.
So, my argument about where the onus should lie takes that tactic. If I took the classic route, I would start by assuming that everyone is on an equal playing field, and then present a classic argument. But by suggesting that those who voted for Trump bought the whole package and now the onus is on them to demonstrate otherwise, I moved the argument to a different register. What would be seen by some as a problematic assumption is exactly the point. It lays bare white privilege.