On Dogma, Nuance, and Commitment

It’s easy to be against the idea of dogma, when you confront the presence of dislikable dogmas—or dogmas held by people you dislike. Considering a dogma as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true”, there are (no doubt) many dogmas to complain about.

Leftists for instance have no problem railing against the racist dogmas perpetuated by the white working classes in the United States. In this instance, it’s quite easy to argue, “(Their/racist) dogma is bad”.

But I am almost equally perturbed by dogmas on the left: the dogma that the U.S. white working class is regressive, for example; or the dogma that “liberals” (whatever that means) must vote for the lesser of two evils in any presidential election where no truly progressive candidate exists (that is, all presidential elections in my lifetime); or the dogma amongst the even further left anarchist/autonomist-types that voting only validates “the system”.

These dogmas I also find problematic because they don’t allow that (respectively), (1) the U.S. white working class has been at times and could be again a part of a broad based leftist political movement, (2) the lesser of two evils strategy has failed repeatedly to advance any leftward policy change, or social change more broadly, and (3) at times election outcomes truly matter to specific constituent groups, and elections can form part of a larger “inside-outside” social movement strategy.

These are only some potential counterarguments to the dogmas I’ve presented; the point is that dogmas of many kinds miss out nuances, which—if given attention—can improve our understanding of the world and our strategies towards making social change.

That is, really, why I started this blog.

However, perhaps one can follow this antidogmatic path too far; an endless call to “nuance” our understandings of the (political) world might end up invalidating any political belief system. This is perhaps part of what this guy Kieran Healy is pointing to, in his critique of “actually existing nuance” in the field of American Sociology. His critique (entitled “Fuck Nuance”) is more about the academic world, but his point that nuance is not “practically successful” applies to the world of action as well.

Certainly, one need not nuance a commitment to racial justice, right? Should a commitment to environmentally regenerative principles of agriculture, supporting arguments against existing and destructive industrial farms, be required to withstand critique as dogmatic? Where is the line, then, between having political commitments, and believing in and perpetuating dogmas?

If you’ve spent a life studying the workings of states and capitalism, and come to the conclusion that they are antithetical to advancing social justice, should you have to accept that sometimes governments do not act according to political theory, or that capitalism isn’t a single thing? A friend argued on facebutt that arguing for nuance in these sorts of contexts is like saying, “Let’s not talk about dominant institutions, because really they are all made up of people”. I see his point: reducing all theory (aka generalizations) to nuance reduces the power of that theory to explain the world, and (maybe) with it, our own power to change that world.

Might antidogmatism be its own form of dogma, that if harped upon too much, makes for an impotent form of politics that always points to the exceptions, the particularities, the differences within the broad patterns of society we see? And in doing so, avoids making strong enough statements about the world that can motivate action and be rallied behind?

I do think this is a danger. Just not a very big one.

Why? Because we can be nuanced within our generalized commitments. We can defend beliefs and commitments from moral and empirical positions, while still subjecting those beliefs to critical scrutiny.

Sure, institutions are “real” insofar as the institution of policing, or the state, or capitalism (or whatever) has real structuring force on people who are touched by it and act within it. Police are pushed strongly by various institutional forces to be racist and anti-poor, no doubt in my mind about that—from both a theoretically informed and lived experience. State actors (in offices and agencies) are pushed to respond to capitalist state imperatives—which they have little to no way of directly shaping themselves. Capitalists must compete, grow, exploit, and so on, or risk business failure.

I can believe these things, yet still hold that in particular situations at particular times (and with particular other forces at play), the agency of the police officer, the state actor, or the capitalist might differ from the norm or the expected. This might be a small difference: the officer might choose not to arrest someone when they could. But it could be a pretty substantial difference, with a substantial (or as yet unknown) effect.

Because our knowledge is always limited, as is the predictive power of social “science” and studies of the past; because the current moment is always a unique conjuncture of events with new and emergent possibilities; and because the world changes in chaotic fashion, driven by the agency of many individuals and groups interacting with the structures that ground the historical moment; we should not hold onto hard dogmas about how to make change.

We can promote general theories based on our available understanding, and work based on this understanding, but we should always be ready to challenge and change our own thoughts about what is possible.

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