Pathologizing Dissent — A while

Pathologizing Dissent — A while back I gave a little analysis of the PoMo/AntiGlobo left. The upshot was that left chose to reject reason and progress, rather than socialism, when reason showed that socialism is hopeless and capitalism leads to progress. However, I was stumped by the way in which this arm of the left justifies itself. Having given up reason and logic, what can one do? Shout? Well, yes, shout. But upon reading Paul Gottfried’s cranky but learned After Liberalism, I think I’ve filled the gap.

The old left, the one that believed in reason and progress, felt it was the role of state institutions to preserve the democracy, which requires a democratic citizenry. However, now and again the hoi polloi don’t know what’s good for them, and they go and vote in the National Socialists, or the Republicans. So, as a bulwark against tyranny, the state must implement a program of mental hygiene to stave off authoritarian tendencies and preserve democratic virtue. As each flicker of “antiliberal” sentiment was stamped out, a new inferno — of sexism, racism, of homophobia, xenophobia, or tax cuts — would be seen to rage, naturally necessitating an ever expanding bureaucracy, a greater reach for the public schools, and so forth, in order to keep the ‘liberal’ in liberal democracy.

In short, the rational, progressive ideology of the left came to be perceived by its adherents not so much as an ideology, but as a definition of social “health.” And as the case for socialism shattered, the conviction that the state must benevolently tend to the pathologies of its citizenry remained quite intact. Indeed, it was only too easy to substitute the rhetoric of health for arguments of reason. If you disagree with the left, you are not so much wrong as you are sick. Bring evidence against affirmative action; find yourself assigned to sensitivity training. In a brilliantly Foucauldian turn of phrase, Gottfried argues that the left undercuts disagreement by “pathologizing dissent.”

Thus, the PoMo left sleeps at night by means of a blithe faith that their conception of the political good is a sign of their true and balanced souls. Yet faith it is. The hard question is only pushed back a step. What are the reasons for believing that these political arrangements characterize social “health”? Where’s the evidence? Well, to merely ask such questions is, of course, a symptom of sickness, say, of one’s denial of one’s own oppression or one’s complicity in the structure of systematized exploitation. Thus we’re caught in the impregnable self-justifying circle. If it comes to that, you can do any number of things. Pelt your interlocutors with spare volumes of Popper. Argue louder. Tell them they’re the sick ones. Or just call bullshit and walk away.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center