Keeping partisanship out of Stoicism

Honest people may disagree on what is just.

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© Dave DuBay

Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.

But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.

Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.

I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.

But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law.  Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.

Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.

Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.

I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).

I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).

Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.

But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.

The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”

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Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.

Is Gamergate Conservative or Liberal?

Opponents say GamerGate has a conservative agenda. And though GamerGate supporters often deny that they are conservatives, the conservative media has mostly supported the movement.

Allum Bokhari, however, says his research shows that most GamerGate supporters are liberal.

In brief, GamerGate is the claim by video game enthusiasts that the gaming media is corrupt. But opponents of GamerGate accuse supporters of misogyny and online harassment.

I’m not interested in engaging that debate, and as a non-gamer I know little about it. I’m interested in the question: Might GamerGate be a symptom of a larger issue?

Bokhari’s research finds that GamerGate supporters overwhelmingly favor gay marriage and abortion rights. They endorse women’s rights as well, but disagree that America is a rape culture. But GamerGate supporters also oppose popular social justice activist tactics such as censorship, witch hunts, and “call-out culture.”

Here’s the twist: Although almost three-quarters of GamerGate supporters identify with the left or political center, almost half of those on the left identify as left-libertarian rather than liberal.

The divide, then, is between establishment liberals and libertarian liberals. Libertarianism is usually associated with conservatives, though this is only true with economic issues. Left libertarians are more concerned with social freedom, however, and often are fine with regulated rather than pure free market capitalism.

More importantly, left libertarianism has a different foundational philosophy than establishment liberalism.

Establishment liberalism focuses on oppression as the primary political issue (often called “Cultural Marxism” by critics). This viewpoint not only claims that capitalism is destructive, but it extends this narrative, interpreting most things in terms of this group oppressing that group. As such, the power of dominant groups must be diminished while oppressed groups must be lifted up to create a level playing field. Critics often describe specific measures as social engineering, and allege that it represents a soft, manipulative type of authoritarianism.

But the individual is primary for left libertarians. For example, left libertarians support gay marriage because of individual rights, but are less interested in the oppression narrative. Critics of the libertarian viewpoint say it ignores the suffering of social injustice, fails to acknowledge the moral duty to rectify oppression, and will lead to the atomization of society. For example, left libertarians often oppose affirmative action as coercive and discriminatory, while establishment liberals strongly support affirmative action as necessary to compensate for white, cis-male, heterosexual privilege.

While it’s clear that conservatives have lost the culture wars – Roe v Wade is not going to be overturned, and gay marriage will only gain more states – the war isn’t over because the two main camps on the left, which were united in defeating the common conservative enemy, have now turned on each other.

And those conservatives who accept their defeat are making the best of the situation by allying with liberal individualists and against the so-called “Cultural Marxists.”

Establishment liberals have enormous power on college campuses, and within the Democratic Party and the media. Meanwhile, Republicans are still holding on, but their failure to attract Millennials means their demographic clock is ticking.

Where will this lead? My guess is that this rift will continue, but control of the Democratic Party will remain with establishment liberals. Meanwhile, Republicans will suffer increasing defeats in the 2020s as their aging voter base shrinks. The few young Republicans remaining will be economically conservative but socially libertarian. To survive, Republicans will woo left libertarians who previously voted Democratic, thus making the GOP less socially conservative. The elders in the Republican Party won’t like this, but as 2030 approaches they’ll be too small in number to matter.