In defense of nuanced understanding of the enemy in a networked age (feat Zizek vs Peterson)

John Ohno on 2019-04-19

One can construct a bingo sheet to group together anybody. A bingo sheet constructed to group together people who don’t act or think similarly will not reliably predict those people’s thoughts or actions. I think the Peterson/Zizek debate will be instructive because so many people have adopted a filter that highlights the similarities & elides the differences between them, & the differences are very important.

Folks with very different values & bodies of theory can accidentally agree on some aspects of praxis, but such agreement is very fragile in situations where praxis actually derives from theory. It’s a little more than a bingo sheet but less than an alliance of convenience.

Compounding this bingo-sheet problem is a tendency to conceive of outgroups as a block. But, terrible people are terrible in diverse ways. The outgroup is always just as schismatic as the ingroup. Understanding those schisms is tactically advantageous.

Thinking of the outgroup as a block made sense when geography coincided very strongly with group boundaries. Communications tech has increasingly disconnected culture and ideology from geography. As a result, the world we live in is one where people can and do change their minds all the time. (They don’t do so in a rational way: value in the marketplace of ideas isn’t any better predictor of quality than value in any other market, & so good ideas do not win out — loud ones do.) If people can be radicalized by youtube into becoming flat-earther neo-nazis, then they can be radicalized into becoming literally anything else too. People are open to intellectual change in a way that they really haven’t been before.

This means that ideological schisms in the outgroup actually can be pointed out, and pointing them out can cause people to leave. At the very least, pointing them out can cause fragile alliances to crumble, in ways that weren’t possible before the time delay to reach a specific person on the other side of the earth was collapsed to seconds.

We owe our current political moment to the fact that bad ideas that cannot stand a few minutes of critical dissection can gain widespread adoption & form an alliance of convenience with similarly bad ideas. These alliances are fragile, but breaking them requires us to recognize the flawed internal logic of the outgroup on its own terms, rather than dismissing it without thought.