Friday, July 15, 2005

Internal Critic

On my commute to work today, I had an epiphany. I decided that in my natural state, I am an "internal critic." I then spent the rest of the trip trying to figure out what that term meant.

I know where I first heard the phrase "internal critic." It was in the context of my readings on Critical Race Theory--referring to scholars who work within the overall CRT framework but then criticize how the movement denigrates, disparages, or otherwise marginalizes certain people, often the very people it purports to be helping. But presumably, an internal critic would include any person who both a) identifies with and/or supports a given cause and b) regularly attacks perceived deficiencies within that movement.

In my mind, there are two types of internal critics--whom I'll label "purists" and "skeptics." Purists are characterized by a heavy reliance on abstract principles. For example, a purist defender of color blindness might criticize Affirmative Action as relying on race-based classifications--even if s/he is aware that some form of race conscious action is necessary to remedy racial discrimination. This is also heavily deontological--disagreeable results may be unfortunate, but they don't "matter" in a normative sense.

Many hardline Democrats and Republicans fall into this category. On the positive end, purism can often be a remedy to partisanship. Justice Scalia, for example, is quite clearly a purist--he abhors the use of pragmatic, results-based analysis to reach legal decisions. This sometimes yields "surprising" results, for example, his rulings in the Hamdi and Texas v. Johnson cases. Whereas a true partisan will freely sacrifice her principles to the altar of party loyalty, a purist would never do that. In theory, liberalism is purist--it is a narrative about constant human progress and an eventual utopian state where everyone is free to guide their own life, people are treated as individuals, and discrimination does not exist (among other attributes).

On the negative side, purism often leads to wholly absurd positions. They follow the principles they believe in up to and over the edge of their logical cliffs. To pick on Scalia again, his purist view of the 1st amendment lead him to explicitly state that the constitution allows discrimination in favor of monotheistic religions (Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County v. ACLU)--and he has argued in the past that it also let's laws that infringe on the free exercise rights of religion pass constitutional muster no matter how unimportant the government's interest in maintaining the law is.

In many ways, skeptical internal critics are the reverse of purists. Purists are so committed to their principles that they'll follow them even when they yield admittedly distasteful results. Skeptics are inherently distrustful of the principles because they see that so often they've led to bad results. I count myself amongst this group. For example, if you read my posts on democracy, e.g. here and here, you'd probably conclude that I hate democracy. Yet, as long time readers of this blog know, when presented with the choice of democracy and--well, virtually anything else, I'm a vociferous advocate for democracy. With regards to free markets, I feel the same way. I see very little other economic option besides capitalism--the history of socialism and communism makes them wholly unappealing and unrealistic alternatives. Yet, I am very disturbed by the way capitalism reifies pre-existing social inequalities, forcibly stratifies society into winners and losers, encourages actors to "go along get along" with dominant prejudiced attitudes, is destructive of the environment, and other problems.

One impact of this position is that I don't have many overarching principles I'd adhere to at any cost--because I believe that to do so is inherently destructive and potentially genocidal (fundamental opposition to genocide is perhaps the one exception I make). Every theory, it is said, breaks down at the margins--at some extreme it just stops making sense. Nazism resulted from a radical belief in human perfectibility--and the corresponding belief that anybody not "perfect" (or who didn't subscribe to the Nazis view of "perfection") was clearly inferior and worthy of extermination. This risk is not unique to the Nazis. As I have blogged before, any theory asserting perfectibility and universality carries within it the seeds of oppression. While Nazism explicitly valued this, it has manifested itself in theories more facially benign. A blind faith in capitalism requires one to ignore the starving homeless man, ignored by the system and individuals individually deciding that he "deserves" his wretched state. And certainly, the universalist element in religions has time and time again resulted in faiths with good messages engaging in the most horrific of atrocities. Simply put, there is no and never will be any "perfect faith." The trick, then, is balance--to place values to support and simultaneously undermine each other--rather than place one above all on the pantheon and then turn away as the babies begin to get sacrificed upon the altar.

As a result of this, instead of building theories up, I prefer to break them down--probing for weaknesses, potential improvements, and structural blindspots. Indeed, the skepticism I hold toward overarching metatheories helps root my support for democracy--a governmental system which definitionally is undecided about its end goals. Yet, this same deconstructive impulse leads me to critique the aspects of democracy which seem imperial or distorted--for example, politicians acting out of self-interest rather than national interest or coalitions forming with the explicit aim to subordinate a stigmatized minority. Indeed, I would argue that like all systems, democracy ultimately is not self-contained--what would happen if 51% of the people voted to deprive the other 49% of their right to vote? In democracy, like every other system, some outside influence that is "beyond" democracy is necessary to maintain democracy.

In a way, this perspective is liberating, because I can work both inside and outside dominant systems and schema to build a better world. But on the other hand, this philosophy is quite dizzying, because it cannot have an anchor. It is unstable and always in flux. There is no end to the critique, no safe harbor at which point I can say I've "succeeded." It's exhausting at times.

Anyway, that's where I'm at, and that's why you get my oft peculiar mix of political belief and rhetoric.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a smart real liberal, although when your personal viewpoint hits the conclusion that you're willing to screw your own idealogy to get results. Of course, purists would say that's the sort of thing that lead to use of the nuclear bomb, and other critics would claim that it's the only way society can progress.


Very insightful post.