Critique is not dismissal

It happened to me (and I’m guessing something like this has happened to you, too): I was pointing out something wrong with a post on Facebutt that the poster had obviously supported. In this case, John Oliver’s debt relief stunt where he bought up and eliminated $15 million of medical debt. You can watch the 20-minute clip here:

Thing is, I wasn’t and am not ‘against’ John Oliver. I didn’t say anything about him being irrelevant, irredeemable, or speak about his work or person in generalities. I just shared information that complicates (and maybe implicates) his behavior in this instance. Yes, it’s a good thing he drew attention to the horrors of debt from his position of relative influence as a well-known comedian – good on him! – but maybe it’s not a good thing that in doing so he directly took from the work of radical activists, didn’t give them direct credit for it, left behind their structural critique, and profited from it personally (for further explanation see footnote [1]). Others may think differently, but I do think there is something worth questioning here.

For posting this article in response to the original FB post and an accompanying comment, I was attacked (luckily, not by the poster, who is a friend but one of their friends) in what I’m finding is becoming a usual fashion: I was accused of being “rude” with the implication that I was a purist for not accepting things that are good as good. Basically I was treated like an asshole for bringing in this critique.

In dealing with people who I’m close to, I feel justified in being able to critique behaviors without critiquing them as a person. “Hey, could you wash the dishes more promptly?” does not mean: “I think you’re a lazy inconsiderate asshole” (although maybe sometimes it does!). People and actions aren’t the same, and critiquing someone’s particular behavior is not the same as dismissing that person or their overall value.

Perhaps I feel defensive of the act of criticism because I’m now indoctrinated into the ways of the ‘academic’. Academics critique all the time. It doesn’t mean they are against or dismissive of the thing they are critiquing. In fact, almost all of the people I know who study social justice-oriented social movements academically are supportive of those movements (and often do movement work themselves) while they spend intellectually energy poking at these movements and asking tough questions about their functionality and issues.

In this sense, critical means questioning for purposes of improvement, it does not mean dismissing. But to so many social media commentators claiming “Left” concern, to critique is automatically to tear down.

Part of the response to my posting was to accuse me of ‘armchair politics’ – i.e. “what are YOU doing about this issue?” I totally relate to this critique of critics, because too often in critique there is the smacking of self-righteousness, of people seeming to claim a moral high ground compared with others. The fact that so much activism now is simply “virtue signaling” makes for fertile ground to get angry at critics of left(ish) action.

This is probably why they thought I was rude: my comment implied (to them) that I thought my friend the poster was an imbecile for thinking well of John Oliver. But I meant no such thing. As my comments indicated, my only concern was for how the propaganda effect of the piece was not as awesome as it might have been, if Oliver had truly gone out on a limb and pointed out the need to dismantle the entire edifice of debt, rather only than presenting a charity-focused solution that he could enact due to his well-resourced social position.

Someone might likely argue that my desire is unrealistic, that Oliver did what he could within his constraints and this was ‘better than nothing’. But if Oliver can buy this much debt and relieve it, why is it hard to let the Debt Collective – whose idea and work Oliver straight-up copied – have a say in the political message of the segment? (This is similar to an emerging ethic for engaged scholarship, where scientists doing studies with communities don’t simply ‘extract’ knowledge from informants, they partner with them to co-produce knowledge and keep promises of accountability from start to finish.)

My point is not to dwell on the specifics of this John Oliver case, but to point out how there seems to be a lack of imagination on the Left when it comes to contradictory beliefs. Can someone believe something (a movement, a book, a film, a comedy routine) is worthwhile, even if they question certain parts? Can someone contribute great art to society that has major positive social impacts, but be a flawed imperfect human being who has hurt others? Can electoral politics be seen as an inadequate or sham form of democracy, but still be worth participating in (that is, by voting)?

To me the answer to all of these questions is yes. I can think you are a good person but that you have room for improvement. I can critique culture without implying it is irredeemable. I can criticize without it being for purposes of virtue signaling. I can see the contradictory nature of certain people, things, actions, and philosophies, but still find value in them.

And so can you!

[1] Oliver starts off the segment stating “if you have debts you should pay them if you can”, which implies that the mass of debt is legitimate and stems from personal failings. Oliver only counterpoises this seconds later to the idea that some people are in debt for “no fault of their own” (in particular, medical debt), and this is the debt he’s tackling in the segment. This is quite a liberal/half-way critique of debt relations in modern society. At the end, he calls for “oversight” into the most inhumane forms of debt collection, and that’s it for proposed solutions. He never even mentions debt jubilee or debt resistance, though these are clearly deeper and more longterm solutions.

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.