3/30/2006

The Force of Argument

I've been thinking about Richard Posner's claim to the effect that deliberative democracy is argued for in bad faith.

The model that is implicit for DD, he contends, is the academic seminar; the academic theorists who advocate DD know that in such a context they have more power, since arguing is pretty much what we academics do best.

Really, we're sick of all the ignorance and manipulation in politics, and think that we could do things better, that we could show people how things really ought to be, if only they'd just listen! These supposedly democratic theorists are just would-be philosopher kings.

I think there's some truth to this--quite a bit, actually. Is it at all strange that the best reasoners among us (and philosophers have been shown to be pretty much the only group of people who reason well) should want a society governed by reason? The force of argument is the strongest weapon we possess. On the right political terrain, we'd be as the English longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt, grimly outnumbered but triumphant at the end of the day because of our piercing intellects.

(That may just be the best metaphor I've ever devised. If nothing else, it's certainly the most pretentious. Yay, me!)

There was this episode of South Park on last night about people who drive hybrid cars and citizens of San Francisco, in particular, who go around thinking they're so much more progressive than everyone. As a result, they end up polluting the atmosphere with "smug," eventually leading to a storm which wipes San Francisco off the map as it "completely disappears up its own asshole."

As someone who has been known to don a T-shirt that reads "I assume my reputation for arrogant presumption precedes me," I feel qualified to speak as an expert on the subject of smugness and self-absorption. And it's endemic among intellectuals. Many of us won't admit it, but in our behavior we clearly evince it.

We're smart people, so we've always been told, and we think that we know other people better than they know themselves--just look at all the manifestations of the whole "hermeneutics of suspicion."

"Oh yes, what you said, that's not what you mean. As a (trained psychoanalyst/member of the Marxist vanguard/Ueœbermensch), I can say with authority that you're under the spell of (the Oedipal complex/false consciousness/bourgeois ideology/ressentiment). Let me tell you what's really going down..."

And we hold the unwashed masses in contempt. Maybe we're more sympathetic to the plight of African Americans and other racial minorities, but look at the way we stereotype the South or white working class men who vote Republican. "They're voting against their interests!" we say with confidence.

Maybe the world would be better if smart people ran things. But not necessarily. I find that often I care more about ideas than I do about people. And I wonder whether many of the failed political experiments of the 20th Century, with all their suffering, desolation, and death, weren't the results of this kind of attitude.

And yet, I still have faith that we can do things better. That reason and inquiry do actually make the world a better place. That democracy and science and technology and education make us better, stronger people.

But we must act with caution and prudence. When our ideologies matter more to us than our fellows, we must take pause. Admit our own ignorance and limited perspective.

And yet, this seems to me one of the aspirations of deliberative democracy. Reasoning may be our particular strength, but it does have the potential to overcome prejudice and provincialism. By thinking critically, we do recognize our own limitations, but also begin to arrive at solutions for overcoming them through cooperation. Let's not lose sight of that.

So, at the end of this post, I feel like Posner's cynicism is not completely justified. The fact of the matter is that we're not calling for elitist forms of governance. We want to enable people to develop themselves and exercise their own powers of self-determination. We are educators, not propagandizers or advertisers.

Even though there's often a fine line between instruction and indoctrination, there is nonetheless a substantial difference. We do perform the world a service. Now let's not be snooty about it.

2 comments:

Steven said...

I actually try to to save my contempt for arguments by smart people like Posner, and not for the many. Posner's argument runs into a serious impediment with Fishkin's research: the masses can make sound decisions when they have information.

If there is anything that is arrogant and unsettling, it is the claim, as Posner himself makes that he can say, "that's just reality" without even remotely attempting to show that his arguments reflect the ways of the world in any meaningful way whatsoever.

Of course Posner will try to put academics on their back-heels. Posner assumes that our motives are to be the "wolves" of the world just like he wants to be, and so he cannot conceive of having abilities and different motives than his feeble concept of "will to power". But why should Posner want to listen to anyone who demands their work be subject to rules of data collection and peer review?

If we subject Posner's arguments to deliberation, he won't be able to leverage his fame and power against everyone and get away with such absolutely TERRIBLE arguments as "If deliberation day is such a great idea, why do we have to pay people for it?" and "People will object tht I'm a cynic, but I'm just being realistic about the world." I have paraphrased because I am in a hurry, but these are the type of arguments I would have made about things in fifth grade. The law students seem to like the guy, but his political theory arguments could be ravaged by gophers of below average intelligence.

I'll give him this, if he can convince academics that they shouldn't be for a political project by which they are uniquely useful becase they are educators and there is a problem with the public lacking information, then he has conned said academics rather well.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Oh, I absolutely agree.

I was very annoyed by his "realism" which seemed totally groundless and, c'mon, can a 2 page article really be serious in its arguments, anyway? At best, it could be dismissive.

People are content to be "realistic" when they happen to be coming out on top. Posner is someone who benefits from the political status quo, quite directly, so he of course wants it to seem inflexible.

I perhaps overstate my concerns a bit, but I do agree that his arguments, while pointing to a potentially troubling area, are weak.