I have been thinking about the philosophical, emotional, and historical underpinnings of the culture wars in recent months. I have been try to come up with a way to categorize it in such a way that will make sense to people who don’t understand that it is a matter of different values, and I have not been particularly successful at it. I did write this post last month, but it felt like an incomplete attempt to articulate my thoughts.
In the last few days, Ian Cromwell, over at The Crommunist (one of my favorite FtB blogs) has been writing a series of posts utilizing the concept of myth (which he defines here) in a quite interesting, and I think useful, way. He continues with his next post to define, for this conversation, the concept of fairness and justice–but in a way I have a subtle, but perhaps important disagreement with. Briefly, I think that fairness is a concept which is objectively (or inter-subjectively) definable, but we don’t have access to all the relevant information at any given time, so what appears to be fair may not actually be fair. Because we don’t have sufficient information, or we are under a delusion about the facts, we will not recognize the unfairness of the circumstance until we understand more. I’ll leave that aside for now.
I also appreciated the disclaimer that Ian gave to who his intended audience is. I have come to write for a similar audience recently, realizing that I don’t really care what the others think most of the time. There does come a time when you simply have to ignore some potential readers as being irrelevant to what you are saying, although the irony here is that we are writing about how to think and talk about fundamental mythological and value differences.
On his fourth post in the series, he comes to the meat of his thought, which he calls The dueling myth postulate. here is the gist:
I wish to postulate that it is useful to think of many disagreements as the collision of two opposing myths. The first myth, what I call the ‘fairness myth’ (and will heretofore refer to as f-myth) is very simply stated: the world is a fair place. You will undoubtedly have heard this described as the ‘just world theory’, ‘just world hypothesis’, or ‘just world fallacy’. I prefer the term ‘myth’ for the reasons I spelled out in yesterday’s post – it is a story that we tell about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Those things we have were obtained fairly, and our position is justified according to our understanding of moral axioms.
The countervailing myth is, of course, the ‘unfairness myth’ (u-myth) – that our position in the world is not in accordance with moral axioms, and that we (or others – more on that later) are being arbitrarily deprived of access to a state of harmonious existence.
In the past, I have described this as a clash of values, and while I still think that is true, I think that this approach has merit, and I will gladly steal it in the future, where I find it useful. I don’t think he’ll mind, especially since I will credit him for the idea.
He then goes onto flesh out the idea some more, and comes up with the Ethical dimensions of the dueling myth postulate, which looks like this:
Morality within the Fair Myth framework
If one starts from a position that the world is fair, then any attempt to change the world would bring it into a state of unfairness. It is morally reprehensible, for example, to arbitrarily deprive someone of something that ze deserves. Indeed, it is highly morally reprehensible to take goods or status from one who has earned them and give those goods to someone who has not.
We saw an example of this when people believed that tax money was being used to bail out large banks and give bonuses to wealthy executives whose risky practices had caused a financial collapse. The taxpaying public (largely blameless for the economic troubles) were having their goods and services curtailed in order to reward a class of people who a) didn’t need the bonuses to live, and b) did not face any criminal charges for their malfeasance. It was monstrously unfair to redistribute wealth in a way that rewards irresponsibility and excess.
Indeed, in many cases it is morally laudable to fight to protect a fair system. In the last American election, when new laws were brought in that would disenfranchise voters, a public outcry went up to preserve the existing system (whatever its flaws might have been). The belief that the current system was fair, insofar as it allowed people to vote regardless of their skin colour or age (with the caveat that there is a legal voting age), motivated a strong resistance to change, fueled by a general agreement among proponents that people deserved to vote, and were threatened with having that status taken away from them for reasons that were seen as arbitrary.
Morality within the Unfair Myth framework
Conversely, there is a similar moral dimension to the u-myth. If one has the ability to intervene, it is morally reprehensible to allow an unfair system to persist. The u-myth invokes the image of the ‘Good Samaritan’ parable, where it is morally laudable to take action to either prevent an unfair thing from occurring, or to stop an unfair thing while it is happening.
For example, there are a number of people who believe that the state has a moral obligation to provide health care to its citizens. A state, with its wealth and power, is in a ready position to construct, administrate, and fund a system wherein all citizens receive at least some rudimentary level of care. Most industrialized nations, and many with different economic circumstances, recognize the duty of the state to ensure a level of basic health, and consider it a moral failing when a state does not. The fact that it also makes financial sense for the state is worthwhile including in a discussion of policy, but I wish to focus solely on the moral dimension.
As above, it is morally reprehensible to defend an unfair system. We have precious few people today who would jump to the defence of South Africa’s apartheid system (though there are many alive today who have defended it). We recognize the unfairness of a system that stratifies human beings by an arbitrary characteristic such as skin colour, and would roundly condemn anyone who argues that such a system was fair and/or necessary.
I think this is a pretty good set of frameworks to start with. I am not sure that any one person will fit cleanly into either, and I’m sure we use both of these to some extent depending on the issue, but I think this a is a fair categorization of how many of these issues are, in fact, rhetorically spun. In his four consecutive posts, Ian addresses this framework in terms of the issues of welfare, #IdleNoMore (a movement concerned with First Nation rights in Canada), religious persecution (or privilege), and then feminism. I’ll quote a snippet from the post about religious persecution.
So let’s see if we can break down Mr. French’s [of WND] argument within a competing myth framework. I would identify it as springing from a f-myth belief, and will analyze it thus:
The world is fundamentally fair when it comes to the place of religion in public life (or at least has been up until recently). Overt displays of religiosity are protected free speech under the Constitution. The use of religious invocations, symbols, and practices are part of American history – a tradition that stretches back for generations.
Because the world is fundamentally fair, the attempts to change such a system are morally reprehensible. Conversely, it is morally laudable to resist the changes that threaten to remove religion from public life. Religious people should not have their rights taken from them in order to appease the growing chorus of anti-religious voices.
By opposing these changes to tradition and to American identity, the FRC’s actions/positions are morally laudable. By fighting to change a fundamentally fair system by abridging religious freedom, the actions of the ACLU and the U.S. government are morally reprehensible. By opposing the core of the American identity and long-standing tradition, the beliefs of the ACLU and the U.S. government are morally reprehensible.
For fun, we can also parse Ms. Feinberg’s argument in a u-myth framework:
The world is fundamentally unfair when it comes to the place of religion in public life. Overt displays of religiosity on behalf of state actors is specifically precluded by the Constitution. The use of religious symbols, while popular, is a reflection of an unfair system of religious hegemony and preference – a tradition that stretches back for generations.
Because the world is fundamentally unfair, the state has a duty to intervene and increase the amount of fairness. Fairness, in this context, looks like no religious preference for any group. Public schools are state entities, and as a result they must not be used for religious promotion. Any history of such promotion does not abrogate the duty of the state to ensure that it lives up to its obligation to be fair to all groups.
By acting to ensure that the Constitution is upheld, the actions of the NYCDE are morally laudable. By attempting to uphold or restore a fundamentally unfair system of religious privilege, the actions of the FRC are morally reprehensible. By asserting a right to preferential treatment that would propagate an unfair system, the beliefs of the FRC are morally reprehensible.
So we can see from the above analysis of the example that the specific statements of ‘both sides’ of the argument can be expressed as a function of an underlying myth about the fairness of the system in which the dispute is happening.
I have seen this type of argument between people on one side or the other concerning church/state separation over the last decade, and I think that this, in conjunction with Jon Haidt’s recent work (which I am not in complete agreement with, but I find his Moral Foundations Theory extremely helpful) is a very good way to approach thinking about the culture wars, values, and the myths (or worldviews, as I might call them) we use to construct our concepts of the world.
So, in summary, I think this postulate of the dueling myth postulate, described in the recent series of posts by Ian Cromwell, is at least a useful, if not powerful, tool to use in talking about these types of issues.
In the future I will be thinking more about the relationship that this tool, this dueling myth postulate, has on the conversation about privilege. For example, is privilege the circumstance of being stuck within the perspective of a “air myth framework,” at least in most cases? Do people who argue against shifting our behavior and views about what normal is, what is expected, and what efforts we should make to fix such things a function of feeling like the world is fundamentally fair, and by pointing out the effects of privilege we are trying to upset the apple cart?
In any case, a nod and a thanks to Ian Cromwell for thinking about this and sharing.
I’ll add that Ian added, a few hours ago, a follow-up post entitled The usefulness of the dueling myth postulate, which I am about to read now.