Damn Liberals and their Relentless Abstraction

Often, neoconservatives declare that ‘we’ needs to have the confidence to assert our own values, and not display an exaggerated deferrence to rival values.

And often, anti-abortion activists say that it’s necessary and appropriate to go outside the law and use aggressive or harassing methods to advance their cause, because of the ongoing large-scale murder of the innocent.

Frequently, fascists say that the sphere of genteel liberal debate and discussion has its limits, and that less pretty forces operate outside it and need to be confronted outside it.

Almost constantly, militarists and war criminals say that sometimes regrettable things happen in conflict, and we need to accept that.

And almost everyday, senior members of the British conservative party drink tea.

The thing is, all of these things can be true. And someone can say all four them, while drinking tea, without either being a neocon, anti-abortionist, fascist, war criminal or tory, or even being their moral equivalent.

I say this in response to this thread at Feministe, on a post whose essential point was that animal rights activists used some of the same tactics as anti-abortionists (not, obviously, the one of murdering people, but various forms of harassment and intimidation). Or rather, the essential point was that because they used the same tactics, they were in some sense ‘just as bad’. It ended with the telling line “liberals can do better than this”. I do like liberals most of the time, but sometimes I get a bit irritated.

Because I knew this was going to happen. I could tell from the discussions around George Tiller’s murder that one response would be stringent tactics policing: you can’t do anything that looks at all threatening, because then you’re just like them. That was at the back of my mind when I wrote several recent posts, all themed around this issue of means and ends.

It’s an interesting procedure, how people decide that means are the most important thing. As I read it, it starts from the perfectly reasonable observation that people are fallible and may turn out to be wrong in their political beliefs – which, as discussed in the third post linked above, is a major reason to care about the means used, because they’re more definite than the ends promoted.

But that observation can prompt a one-sided and extreme reaction in which someone attempts to get away from and evade the fact that they have strong beliefs that might be wrong. How do you do that? Whenever you look at a difficult political question, you abstract away from, uh, the truth. You abstract away from whether the muslims really are plotting to out-breed us, whether meat really is murder, whether abolishing capitalism really will cause famine.

And then, in this abstracted world, where everyone holds simply ‘a belief’, you can distinguish them by the tactics they use.Those who use ‘moderate’ or ‘civilised’ tactics are the good guys (or at least, the not-so-bad bad guys), while those who use ‘extreme’ tactics are, well, ‘extremists’. Also ‘terrorists’. Of course, usually both those terms are strictly accurate, in their official meaning which makes them neutral terms applying to, well, most of politics across the world, but their real meaning is ‘bad bad scary person’.

This produces, among other mild oddities, people saying that all rioters, and all militant anti-fascists, are in fact…fascists. Because ‘fascism’ is to be opposed simply as ‘violent thuggery’, simply as the willingness to use force. The actual content of the beliefs and the programs and the goals and the targets is set aside: everyone who throws a punch is ‘fascist’.

What’s most irritating is that this way of looking can always be maintained – as long as you always perform the switch, always say ‘how would I react if I were them and they were me?’, it will always make sense to prioritise adhering to strict rules of engagement over getting stuff done. It’s like talking to someone who can re-interpret any piece of evidence to fit their preconceived views. A lot of issues are like this in philosophy.

Of course, the abstracted space where all views are just ‘views’ is always established by law and its hidden violence – it’s rare to see people say “I totally oppose violent methods of protest, but I also don’t think the police should stop people who are using them”. And of course it easily becomes contradictory, because belief in non-violence and respecting alternative views is itself a view, and tbh most people disagree with it in some form, for some people.

Anyway, the point is this: you don’t get to abstract away from what you think is true. Obviously you need perspective and you need to be aware of your own fallibility, but it is just not an option to completely escape the unfortunate situation of believing things.

So with anti-abortion and anti-vivisection campaigns, you don’t get to put your actual opinions about abortion and vivisection on one side, which I think is what people (the feministe thread is a good example) try to do. They try to construct a worldview in which both anti-abortionists and pro-abortionists can condemn anti-abortion terrorism purely for its tactics, and where both anti-vivisectionists and pro-vivisectionists can condemn animal rights terrorism purely for its tactics.

But guess what? It won’t work. Your attitude to these group’s actions is going to depend on what you believe about animals and foetuses and bodily autonomy. If, like many of the people at feministe, you support abortion and vivisection, then guess what – anti-vivisection harassment campaigns will look quite similar to anti-abortion harassment campaigns, since they’re promoting a wicked cause. If, like me, you support abortion and oppose vivisection, then one will be very different to the other. And I won’t necessarily be able to convince the former person that they’re different without convincing them that animals have rights.

And that’s ok. The world is a scary chaotic dangerous confusing place. We have to accept that either way, so why invest in some hypothetical agreement that’s never going to come anyway. Of course social peace is valuable, of course it shouldn’t be thrown away needlessly. But it’s only ever a partial peace – many many people don’t live in that world, and we should be focused on them.

You believe things to be true, and others disagree, and you may be wrong. It sucks, but we have to live with it.

7 Responses to “Damn Liberals and their Relentless Abstraction”

  1. ARPhilo Says:

    Nice entry. I really expected much more from a place called “feministe” but I guess I was wrong. This is just one writer though so hopefully they have more people writing on that site- otherwise it’s giving us feminists a bad name.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I like the site in general, but I’ve got used to the fact that, as I say, I’m going to disagree strongly with most people about something.

  3. Pasha Says:

    Interesting that the FBI considers Right Wing threats to be more likely to result in violence to people and bystanders, and Left Wing threat to be more likely to result in property damage. There are more left wing attacks over the years, but few if any lives lost. Fewer Right Wing attacks, but those result in violent loss of life.

    So there are differences, but to some direct action must be taken as their expression of belief.

    If you do get arrested, their are going to treat you like a terrorist no matter what flag youre wearing.


  4. anarchafemme Says:

    I also think it’s fairly typical for Feministe that there’s a confusion of law with morality going on, and people are saying things like vigilantes are universally wrong, violence is universally wrong, even “terrorism is violence intended to intimidate” and then no one even considers the point that the police function on violently targeting people and intimidating the rest of us.

    It’s why I should really know better that when any similar conversation occurs in a space that is mainly liberals rather than radicals, I’m not going to agree with the majority of things said.

  5. rumblegumption Says:

    I wonder if the reference to liberalism might be a red herring here and your attack on abstraction misplaced. This is how I’m seeing it, through leftish-liberalish eyes of course.

    That X involves the use of violence, seems, in the absence of countervailing considerations, to be a reason not-to-X. In comparing, say, anti-abortion and anti-vivisection campaigns, the concept that’s doing the real work is that of countervailing considerations — facts that count *in favour of* X-ing. In both cases, these considerations come from a belief in the moral worth of foetuses/non-human animals, a belief strong enough (in moral worth that counts for enough) to override the prima facie not-to-X.

    Now you point out that this means we can’t possibly leave our own beliefs about moral worth at the door — because it’s key to the position we’re going to take on what methods might be justified by accepting what this belief implies in the way of countervailing considerations in favour of violence, and of course you’re right.

    My move would be to accept this, just to point out to other beliefs we already have, or might be persuaded on reflection to accept, more basic beliefs or more general ones, that would sever the link between (or at least further qualify the relation of implication between) our beliefs about the moral worth of foetuses/animals and what sorts of tactics this might justify.

    At this point, I’m probably departing from the letter of the Feministe post, but not I think from its spirit. You hint at it yourself in your last paragraphs in talking about social peace. We might not all be fans of social order, standards of agreement, appropriate channels — but insofar as these things are elements of a shared culture of discussion that the history of the world shows us to be preferable to ‘the war of all against all’ (I don’t want to use the word State because I think this view is compatible with anarchism), I think there can be rational

    Basically, the argument goes — I know you think foetuses have moral worth. So much so that it might justify the killing of abortionist doctors. But surely you also think that legislative reform is more likely to bring about your aims of securing less abortions (the efficacy argument). Perhaps abandoning your stance against contraception might do this even better (the tension-in-your-thought argument). And surely engaging in acts of violence just turns people away from your cause who would otherwise support you (the PR argument). And don’t you think discussion is better than arson in general (the value argument). And wouldn’t you dislike it were pro-abortionists to use similar tactics against doctors who refused for moral reasons to perform abortions (the Golden Rule argument). Et cetera, and mutatis mutandis for the anti-vivisectionist.

    In any of these cases, the anti-abortionist/anti-vivisectionist can perfectly well bit the bullet, but my view of this sort of persuasion is that there are cases when the best you can do is not to *refute* an opposing view, but to raise the costs of holding it by exposing what other unhappy commitments it entails — which might, just might, result in an acceptance of other countervailing considerations than you had at first considered. A faith in the efficacy of this sort of persuasion, with all its limits, is at base what makes me a (modest, humble) liberal in the first place…

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    See, I don’t disagree with any of this. Like, I’m not even particularly fond of the particular sort of tactics that are at issue here, because I’m undecided about the efficacy and PR points. Also the tension argument is a relevant one, since it’s always struck me as bizarre to prioritise vivisection-related campaigns, where the arguments are most difficult, over meat-related ones.

    BUT, firstly, I think that a strategic dispute of that sort is quite different in tone and style to a moral one, and secondly I don’t think that these considerations ‘sever’ the link between ends and means, they merely ‘contest’ it. After all, the ‘social peace’ point is itself impaired by the very fact that for billions of organisms, including many humans, ‘social peace’ means violent death.

    But ultimately, it’s not you, the thoughtful liberal with the varied collection of defeasible considerations that I was arguing against, it was those who say things like “vigilianteism is wrong, why do I even have to say this in the 21st century?” or “as soon as you accept that harassment is justified by your cause, it becomes easy to justify mass murder”.

    And yes. Yes, I am shouting at the crudest and not the most thoughtful of my opponents and perhaps that’s not charitable but sometimes you have to be uncharitable for the sake of your mental health.

  7. rumblegumption Says:

    Hmmm, guess I was responding to ‘some hypothetical agreement that’s never going to come anyway’. I’m a tiny (tiny) bit more optimistic, is all.

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