Saturday, June 18, 2016

Playing with Political Fire

In Britain today some people are anguished over the assassination of a member of Parliament, Jo Cox. The argument is being put out that this was the inevitable result of the tone of the "Brexit" campaign, which its opponents find to be dangerously full of anger and loathing:
The motive of Ms. Cox’s killer will become clearer in the weeks to come. But it shouldn’t take the death of a politician to alert us to the dangers of the politics of hate.
They have in mind statements like this one this one from Nigel Farage of the anti-imigrant party UKIP:
If people feel they’ve lost control completely — and we have lost control of our borders completely, as members of the European Union — if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.
Which causes moderate establishmentarians to recoil in horror. They point at Cox's assassination and say, "See?"

Over this looms fear of humanity's dark side. There are certain emotions, some people feel, so dangerous that the first duty of political leadership is to never invoke them. Contemplating Trump's angry response to the Orlando shooting, Timothy Egan fretted over "how the civil ties that bind a nation of people from all nations could be shredded."

I have been thinking about this over the past few months, trying to sort out what separates anarchists and followers of Trump from the rest of America. When people call Trump a dangerous demagogue, are they just recoiling from ideas they disagree with? Or is there a deeper division here that cuts across the conventional boundaries of politics, between people who care and worry about social peace and people who see the status quo as an oppressive monolith to be smashed?

Are there people who genuinely fear any idea that might foment anger and hatred, whether they agree with it or not? There must be something of this, since many people dread conflict of any sort, but how important is this sense in political terms? Trump, alas, is not a good test case. Some of the Republicans who refuse to support him may be put off by his angry demagogy, but maybe others worry about putting such an incurious egomaniac in charge of the government, or just find him a tasteless boor.

So I wonder. I have always thought of a strong desire for social peace and order, along with worry that they might be destroyed, as a key part of the conservative mindset. This is what I mean when I say that I find many contemporary Republicans to be anything but conservative. To me, a desire to smash the system, to "burn it to ashes," is the opposite of conservatism. But is it perhaps inevitable that some conservatives would respond that way to too much change coming too fast?

Could it be that the most important thing making for a successful state is a majority that thinks the status quo, whatever its flaws, is worth protecting from radicals? That a democracy can tolerate any opinion except the opinion that some issues are more important than the democracy itself? Is moderate horror at people like Trump and Farage justified defense of a system that is both worth defending and vulnerable to destruction through hateful rage? Or is it just bourgeois fuddy-duddyness, the political equivalent of panicking over swine flu? Or, in a more sinister vein, a way to keep certain ideas (like opposition to immigration) from being discussed at all?

I am myself an establishmentarian fan of order, dubious that any revolutionary change would improve things enough to justify the price in turmoil and chaos. But even I find some of the things people have said about Trump and UKIP to be over-the-top ridiculous. If the survival of European civilization is threatened by Brexit, then European civilization is in a pathetic state. The boy who cried wolf comes to mind.

Our civilization is robust; Hitler and Stalin between them failed to bring it down, and Trump and Farage are not likely to manage it. But our public discourse can certainly be better or worse, our politics more productive or less so. I think our leaders have a duty to work for comity rather than ratchet up the rancor, so I will never myself support angry crusaders. I am not, though, ready to say that political anger is always wrong, or to try to silence the voices of rage.

7 comments:

G. Verloren said...

"I think our leaders have a duty to work for comity rather than ratchet up the rancor, so I will never myself support angry crusaders. I am not, though, ready to say that political anger is always wrong, or to try to silence the voices of rage."

Political anger is often justified, but political violence very rarely is.

Aside from the obvious moral problems, violence in the name of a political cause is often simply counter productive. Look to instances such as the fighting between the IRA and the British Army, killing many, breeding further hatred and animosity, but achieving nothing of value, ultimately being rendered moot by the simple passage of time and by societal changes which had nothing to do with the violence.

If you want to preach revolution, I can respect that. Sometimes a revolution is needed. There are fantastic examples such as the abolition of slavery, the universal suffrage movement, the independence of India and other colonial powers, and of course the push for civil rights, where entire social orders were overturned in drastic reversals, and it was for the good of the whole world.

But if your call for revolution is paired with a call for revolt or rebellion - if you seek to overturn the established order not by the strength of your reason, or the justness of your cause, or the humbling selflessness of your bravery, but through taking up arms and maiming and murdering those who don't share your views - I will (with only very rare exception) denounce and resist you and your cause with every fibre of my being.

John said...

I suppose the question is, how angry can you get (in public) without promoting violence among those so inclined?

G. Verloren said...

I'm not sure there's an upper limit, so long as you always insist on tempering your anger with an open, stated rejection of violence. And if there is an upper limit, I would imagine it must be highly variable and differ greatly from situation to situation.

Probably the realistic limit to anger is the point at which you start becoming incoherent. It's one thing to combine seething anger with sound logic to give a fiery, damning condemnation of something, and to demand action or change - it's quite another to simply go on a disjointed, abusive rant and simply spew vitriol.

But I absolutely feel that always, always, extreme anger must be accompanied by a conscious, spoken rejection of violence - a grim reminder to oneself and to one's audience that despite their potential power, the fires of rage are a dangerous impetus, and if not properly and carefully harnessed they will grow beyond all control and reduce all that is good in your cause to ash.

Shadow Flutter said...

There is no good answer to this question because people come in different forms with different triggers. How many freedoms should the majority have to surrender to the endless few who abuse one freedom or another? I guess it all comes down to an idea versus how much you are willing to tolerate to protect the idea.

Shadow Flutter said...

"But I absolutely feel that always, always, extreme anger must be accompanied by a conscious, spoken rejection of violence..."

How compatible is extreme anger with conscious, measured thought? Can you do both at the same time?

A diverse society with 330 million+ inhabitants probably comes with a higher level of anger than one with a heterogeneous and smaller population. I believe diversity is a net positive, but all we talk about is the advantages, and almost never the disadvantages. Adapting, co-existing, tolerating, and the like are effected by both. This is why I care little about comparisons (like violence) to countries like Finland or Japan or Sweden or Norway. What's to compare?

Shadow Flutter said...

Whoops -- Homogeneous.

szopen said...

" is it perhaps inevitable that some conservatives would respond that way to too much change coming too fast?"

Maybe. I was always thinking about myself as conservative (in Poland). I alwasy expected laws to be fair and upholding social order and peace. When I see that laws treat me as a sucker and promote destruction of social order, I no longer feel obligated to have any obligation towards state and laws.