There’s an old joke that goes, a psychotic thinks 2+2=5. A neurotic knows 2+2=4 but he hates it. My various brain scientist friends can, no doubt, explain what is wrong with the joke, but it does make a certain point: 2+2=4 whether we like it or not.
The first time this sort of thing came up was on another blog, years ago, during a discussion about the religious right, politics, and stuff like that. I am fascinated by the way people’s ideas change in response to broad, social, real-world events, and made a controversial statement that provoked heated discussion. You know, like it does. Many people took issue with me, and some of them made strong arguments. What knocked me down, however, was one comment that said, in essence, your position offends me, therefore it is wrong, full stop. I believe my mouth literally dropped open.
Then a month or two ago on my Facebook page, there was a discussion about an issue that, in my opinion, is nothing short of vital: in considering police murder of unarmed workers, poor people, and minorities, do we address it as a human right being denied those who are at risk from the police, or as a privilege granted those who are not? The different answers reflect different views of the nature of society, of the role of the police, of the mechanisms under the surface, and lead to vastly different methods of struggle. If we care about police violence, we must consider it. The discussion, quite properly, expanded to the more general approach of human rights verses privilege discourse. And then someone said, with the exact air of playing a trump card, “When you tell me that I am being denied basic human rights, you make me feel I am not human.” Just…wow.
It’s happened since then, more than once, especially when I’ve exercised my sense of irony. That question—irony—ought to come down to, “Are you imposing irony as a means of sneering, or are you exposing the actual irony that exists within the conditions you’re discussing?” That is the key question. The former cannot advance our understanding, whereas in the latter case, well, sometimes, to refrain from being ironic would be to distort the circumstances—the irony is right there. For example, one guy on Facebook is justly outraged by those who respond to police murders by saying, “what about black on black crime?” and yet this same guy cannot hear about Israel’s attacks on Palestinians without saying, “What about those other people who attack Palestinians? Why don’t you talk about them?” The irony is there, all I’m doing is pointing it out. And, more and more lately, the response to this sort of irony (for the record, not from this individual) is: You must be wrong because your opinion makes me feel bad.
There have been occasions on this blog where it was painfully obvious that the responses were generated by hurt feelings. For example, my opinion is that ideology has a class basis, and I feel the most important thing we can do when attempting to understand an ideology is to determine what social class it serves. So, am I surprised when when people are offended by my discussion of petit-bourgeois ideology? I am not. Nor am I pleased that they are offended. But their offense (and my feeling about giving it) is neither here nor there in terms of whether I’m right. I mean, none of us, I think, set out to hurt anyone’s feelings, and rudeness is usually an indicator of political bankruptcy; but we have to ask: in discussions that are aimed at coming to a better understanding of society with the aim of improving it, just how important, in a given case, are someone’s feelings? I imagine many scientists felt some level of offense and even outrage when Einstein introduced the General Theory of Relativity, thus calling into question a great deal of what they believed. They did not, however, spend much time telling Einstein his ideas were offensive, the burning question was: Was he right? What can be called a scientific approach in the most general sense, ie, an effort to determine the objective laws that explain social activity, must, in my opinion, be the foundation of any effort to make things better. Thus I am baffled by statements that boil down to, “I reject your analysis of the social role of the police in capitalist society because it makes me feel bad.”
To be clear, I am not saying, “You are wrong to be offended.” On the contrary, there are beliefs and opinions that ought to offend us; we’re dealing with politics, which means with human lives, with people being hurt. But our offense, whether ideological or personal, whether objectively valid or only subjectively, is not an answer to whether something is true or false. Recently, a politician opined in so many words that there were no significant contributions to technology or culture by anyone except white people. If that doesn’t offend you, something is wrong with you. But the offense doesn’t get us very far; when someone collected a list (a long, long list) of the contributions to culture and technology by various Asian, African, Indian, and Middle-Eastern societies, that was a far better answer than the outrage and indignation we felt.
The only explanation I can come up with, is that underneath such attitudes is the idea that we cannot understand; that time spent striving to learn the objective causes of racial oppression, of imperialist war, of police violence, are wasted. We can’t know, we can’t understand, so let’s instead concentrate on what we can understand: our feelings. To put it another way, if there is no objective reality, just a collection of subjective opinions, than it is reasonable to conclude that feelings take precedent over other considerations. I reject the notion that there is no objective reality, and, indeed, nearly all of my opinions flow from this rejection.
Or else, maybe, it is simply a massive sense of entitlement that says, “I get to say whatever I want, but no one has the right to make me feel bad.”
I will say this as succinctly as I can: If I or someone else makes an ironic remark that hurts your feelings, then the next question is: is the irony being used to cover up the lack of a thought-out position, or is it exposing irony that truly exists in that situation? If the former, yes, by all means, call me on it—I’m far from perfect in this regard. If the latter, then it may be time to reconsider your stand. If it is not irony, but a political position, and the only reason you don’t agree is because it makes you feel bad, I cannot help but wonder how much you’re involved in social issues in order to improve the world, and how much your agenda stops at feeling good. And if the latter is really all you care about, well, that makes me feel bad.
“The petty-bourgeois intellectuals are introspective by nature. They mistake their own emotions, their uncertainties, their fears and their own egoistic concern about their personal fate for the sentiments and movements of the great masses. They measure the world’s agony by their own inconsequential aches and pains.” — James P. Cannon