A few days ago I joked on Facebook that life isn’t about the score up on the board, but standing with your team. By this, I have come to the position that when it comes to arguments and debates the details of the models and facts, and who even wins in each round, is irrelevant (barring extinction) when set against the value and gains to group cohesion. In the middle 2000s a friend advised that I should be more explicitly partisan and ideological, because that is how I could gain friends and allies in my hour of need.
In my short jaunt through Theory writ large I have finally come that conclusion as well. I am a naive realist and a positivist. I work under the assumption that there is a world out there, that that world out there manifests itself in the order we see when we decompose it with analysis and empirical methods. As long as I kept my eyes on prize, the “score,” I felt at peace.
This was dangerously naive. Whereas before I had worked under the hypothesis that my interlocutors were falling prey to cognitive biases when they engaged in ad hominem or logical fallacy, I am now coming to suspect that one some level they are aware that they are engaging in the dialectics of ultimate victory. Every battle they lose is simply another opportunity to shore up their forces in future battles. Just like Rome against Hannibal, their contention that the structure of human society, rather than the world “out there,” is determinative, may very well be true in relation to all that matters.
Years ago I laughed at D. Jason Slone’s satirical tongue-in-cheek take on “discourse” and “Theory” in Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. Slone was working in a positivist and analytic tradition which attempted to understand religious phenomena on a rational level, to turn it into another phenomenon among phenomena. But with all due respect, Slone works in relative obscurity more than a decade later, while some of the people he mocked for being wrong walk hallowed halls. Who was truly right in all that matters in this world?
Slone knew the score. His side easily runs up the points. But while his side, my side, focuses on the banality of reality, their side, the other side, works to secure victory in the hearts of men. When you have gained master over human sentiment, you gain mastery over human action.
As an illustration of this, consider this piece in Vox, A new school year. A new fight against affirmative action. This time at Harvard. People make fun of Vox, but I believe that the people running it actually do think empirics matters. They attempt analysis. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to who and whom.
The Vox piece interviews a professor OiYan A. Poon, who expresses views typical of a certain segment of the professional Asian American intelligentsia. I say professional Asian American in the sense that these individuals are professionals at being Asian American, at being the Asian American voice among progressive cultural elites. Their Asianness is almost incidental to their identity, which steeped in what might be the termed the discourse of white supremacy, predicated on cross-identity alliances against Oppression.
At this point I might “fisk” Poon’s assertions, many of which don’t bear even superficial scrutiny, or her assertion that Asians who oppose her politics are basically stooges of white people without any independent agency. But that’s not the point of this piece at Vox. It’s not to explore facts, it’s to reinforce narratives. The author of the piece engages in no critical rationalism, no attempt to actually probe the assertions Poon makes, because Poon is on the right side, the right team. The interview is an exercise in team building, not an attempt to describe the real world that would hold up to any deep scrutiny. The people at Vox probably don’t see it this way, because the shape of reality has already been determined, the terms of have been set.