Not long ago, on Scalzi’s blog, I made a comment that was sharp, precise, well-worded, inarguable, and wrong. The point I addressed to the other fellow was: Who are you to tell other people how to feel? Now, who can argue with that? Since no one else can, I guess it’s up to me.
Under what circumstances is it all right to tell someone, “You ought not to be feeling what you’re feeling”? At first glance, it’s hard to come up with any answer but, “Never.” But let’s expand it a bit from the case of someone upset about not being invited to a party, to the case of someone who says, “It makes me feel bad that black people are permitted to vote.” Okay, I hope there is no one reading this blog who would not react with some form of, “Sucks to be you. Asshole.”
Are those fair comparisons? Since I’m asking the questions, I get to answer them. Enter our Socratic Stooge (thanks Jonathon Adams) from stage right, crossing to center.
Stooge: Not the same thing at all, and you know it. The point of the latter example is not how the person feels, but about equality before the law.
Me: But are we not also willing to say to that person, “You shouldn’t feel that; something is wrong if you feel that. Get it fixed”?
Stooge: Actually, we don’t have anything to say to that person at all.
Me: Cop-out! I cry foul.
Stooge: Seriously, I wouldn’t talk to that person. But if I were to talk about him, I’d say something like, “That this person feels this indicates a severe illness in our society.”
Me: Fair enough. So then, it’s all right to believe that at least some feelings, under some circumstances, fall into the category of, “That you have those feelings indicates there are social problems.” The difference between that and, “those feelings are wrong,” seems to lack substance. Would you agree?
Me: Sorry, what was that?
Stooge: Okay, you’ve made you’re point. But–
Stooge: Fuck off. Okay, you’ve made your point. But in a practical, day-to-day sense, in the way it comes up it is nearly always wrong to say it.
Me: For example?
Stooge: Glad you asked. Remember the kurfuffle around Rebecca Watson? Well, those who are upset with her (over, really, an off-hand, “by the way” remark), are, in essence saying, “You were wrong to feel threatened.” How can you tell someone that? You can say, “You were not actually being threatened,” and I doubt she’d disagree. But to tell her she shouldn’t have felt threatened is to be an asshat. That is exactly the sort of situation where this sort of thing comes up in practice. So your reductio ad absurdum is absurd.
Me: Oh, Latin. Now I’m really impressed. But here’s the thing: Are those objecting to her video (and, for the record, I’m not one), objecting to her feeling threatened, or to her talking about feeling threatened?
Stooge: Oh, that’s sweet. If you feel threatened–more, if you are in a situation where any reasonable woman would feel threatened–you should just shut up, instead of casually mentioning, “Hey, guys, here’s a thing you ought to know so you can not do that”?
Me: Maybe they don’t agree that any reasonable woman would feel threatened.
Stooge: Let’s just skip over the idea that any reasonable woman in an elevator at 4am alone with a guy coming on to her wouldn’t feel threatened. Instead let’s get to the general point: Those who are saying she shouldn’t have felt threatened are almost 100% men; and men have no right to talk about under what circumstances women should feel threatened. The whole idea is obnoxious.
Me: Is it? Is it really the case that the sex of the person making the argument is relevant to the validity of the argument?
Stooge: Sometimes. A straight guy talking about how gays should feel under certain circumstances; a white guy talking about how a black guy ought to feel–how can those things not matter?
Me: Now I feel bad about my arguments not being relevant.
Stooge: Don’t be a dick.
Me: Okay. So, let me try this, then: The actual issue is feelings. That is, it is irrelevant who is making the argument when we are talking about objective conditions; it gets muddy when we concern ourselves with subjective feelings.
Stooge: Sure. I’m fine with that. Only the line between them is what’s muddy.
Me: Is it?
Stooge: It really is. That’s why feminists, in dealing with broad social issues, talk about mansp–
Me: Stop. If the word-like grouping of letters “mansplaining” comes out of your mouth, I swear to God I’ll sic Paarfi on you. And this post is already too long.
Stooge: Okay, okay. Settle down. The point is, personal feelings are the result social interactions, and underneath all of those social interactions, are objective social conditions.
Me: Now you sound like me. But we’re not talking about abstract, general, “social conditions.” We’re talking about a very specific set: we’re talking about capitalism in the US in 2012–
Stooge: Christ. I knew you’d bring up capitalism.
Me: Shut up. I’m witnessing. All sorts of ugliness is being stirred up as if from the bottom of a barrel of muddy water–we’re seeing attacks on the teaching of evolution–ie, science–in the schools, we’re seeing legalized rape of women by doctors, we’re seeing open defense of homophobia, we’re seeing barely concealed racism in a national election. More, we’re seeing the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the open use of military force to settle economic issues, the assault on habeas corpus expressed in the extra-judicial murder of US citizens, the utter prostration of the trade unions, attacks of the living standards of the working population.
Stooge: [Yawn] Sorry, did you say something?
Me: Asshole. The point I’m making is that these are spurred by capitalism in its death-agony.
Stooge: Even if that’s true, what’s your point?
Me: That by concentrating on subjective feelings, we are unable to scientifically evaluate objective conditions. And it is exactly by evaluating objective conditions that we can find the means to destroy capitalism, the root of all of the social ills under discussion. So the concentration by the pseudo-left on issues that are, in essence, subjective, does nothing but serve the cause of reaction.
Stooge: Your argument is specious. It comes down to: “the things you’re talking about have objective causes, so only talk about the objective, social side of it, because then I can argue with you.” But those things you dismiss as “subjective feelings” actually make a difference in people’s lives, and they have the right to talk about them, and to act upon them.
Me: Right? I didn’t say they don’t have the “right.” The guy in my first example has the “right” to be a racist prick. And I have the right to say that if we are going to actually solve these problems, then middle-class identity politics must go.
Stooge: Wait. Where did “middle-class identity politics” come into this?
Me: Just now. Weren’t you listening? No, in fact, that was there at the beginning, and is really what this is all about. Yes, there are class issues in all of this: the right of working-class women to reproductive freedom and equal pay; the right of workers to fair treatment regardless of affectional preference, and so on. But the very hallmark of middle-class politics is to conceal the class issues, or dismiss them as “another form of oppression.” What makes class issues so vital is not that the poor suffer more than other oppressed groups, it is that class society is at the heart of all of these problems, and that only the working class has the power to effect the revolutionary transformation of society. The essence of middle-class identity politics is to deny that. This is why those who concentrate on issues of feminism, racism, &c outside of their class content, are, in fact, harming the fight for equality.
Stooge: So Rebecca Watson should have just shut her mouth?
Me: Nope. She should have done just exactly what she did. She provided useful information to, well, among others, me. My point is not that there is no place in the world for discussions of subjective feelings, or of social ills that cause them. My point is simply this: If you actually wish to solve broad social problems, then what is necessary first is an understanding of the objective conditions that cause them; and understanding of objective conditions begins, not with a discussion of feelings, but with a scientific approach.
Stooge: You don’t think discussion of social conditions spurred by feelings can become a scientific discussion of objective social conditions?
Me: It can, I suppose. But what usually happens is that someone wants to talk about, say, racism from a middle-class, subjective viewpoint. When someone wants to move from there to a discussion of the broader, objective circumstances (eg, bringing up the class content of racism), what happens in practice is that he derails the conversation, pisses everyone off, and accomplishes exactly nothing.
Stooge: So what do you do when one of those discussions is going on? Ignore it? How does that change anyone’s understanding?
Me: It’s tough. I would say you pay very close attention, you see if it is possible to make some points in a way that will encourage a scientific approach, and you do your best to judge when it is time to shut up and go away.
Stooge: I’ll take that as a hint. But one thing: Admit that you were glad Obama won.
Me: Obama’s victory indicated that there’s some time before the ruling class has to pull out all of the stops and declare open class warfare, and we need more time, so, sure, I was glad Obama won.
Stooge: Bullshit. You were pleased he won. I was with you on election night, remember? Mr. Big Bad Hard-core Red was happy that the lesser of two evils–
Me: Go fuck yourself.