In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part II: The Barbarians at the Gates

Note: This is a part of a series on public discourse. View part one here.

How exactly do dialogical illiberals view themselves during a heated discussion without epistemic norms? Dialogical illiberals of all political stripes–from populist conservative culture warriors to sanctimoniously censorious progressives, from screeching parents at public school board meetings to ostensibly liberal democrats, from nationalistic xenophobes to anti-fascist anarchists—view themselves as soldiers under siege in a war using their ideas as the only defensive tool to keep the barbarians at the gates. They view every conversation, every intellectual exchange as a zero-sum game, and their interlocutor is either on their side or the side of the putative barbarians–no in-between. I admit I have fallen into this habit of thinking in years past, but it is an extremely unproductive mindset and contributes to dialogical illiberalism for three main reasons.

First, it is just a way of viewing discourse that, for one, is usually simply untrue. Sometimes, the barbarians literally do not exist. This is usually true when conservatives fear-monger on, say, a liberal pedophile cabal, or progressive elitists trying to turn their kids LGBT, or evil conspiracy of immigrants trying to replace them. It is not just right-wingers who conspiratorially invent barbarians: leftists often imagine there is some deep-money libertarian conspiracy to undermine democracy, or some cabal of rich corporate fat cats to raise prices and oppress the poor. Even if there might be some sophisticated steel-manned sociological story that might make some version of these more than mere conspiracy theories, the problem comes when these imagined “barbarians” are used as an excuse to write off someone they might have fruitful disagreements with as a member of “them.”

Sometimes, in the case of progressives fighting racists or anti-populist liberals and anti-fascist anarchists fighting actual fascist terrorists, the barbarians are a very real, significant threat. However, for one, they often radically overestimate the magnitude of the threat or engage in dangerous forms of concept creep about who counts as a barbarian. Whoever they are talking with is not often part of the barbarians, but they get so in the habit of outgrouping anyone who doesn’t agree with them,they start seeing barbarians everywhere. They then are viciously uncivil towards potential allies or people with whom they have fruitful disagreements that truly are not the sort of “dangerous” disagreements that are helpful to barbarians.

Second, this “activist vs. barbarians” mentality just poisons the well and makes it difficult for these activist gatekeepers to rationally engage with basically anyone who has normative or empirical disagreements with them in good faith. They view themselves as a warrior fighting barbarians rather than more humbly as a curious person trying to find wisdom to cope with this world from wherever they can. It makes them engage in motivated reasoning for why your disagreement makes you on the barbarians’ side or why their view is the true “American” or “liberal” or “radical” view rather than engaging with the substance of the disagreement rationally. It makes them embrace subrational forms of communication that are just toxic, and more interested in signaling their ingroup bona fides to other members of their ingroup than trying to persuade people who might not be in the “outgroup” exactly, but that they irresponsibly paint as being in the outgroup.

It is a very similar toxic social and psychological dynamic to what drives so many sources of illiberal intolerance both large and small–from McCarthyism, to the religious banning of “heresy,” to book bannings, to horrible screeching on social media that makes everyone dumber and unhappier. As Arnold Kling would put it, this “civilization vs. barbarism” language game is a deeply conservative one. But in recent years, few have noticed how even progressives and radical leftists fall into this small-c conservative mode of thinking indefensibly when they consider themselves as activists first and foremost. It is no coincidence that many leftists trapped in the contra barbarian mindset start rationalizing illiberal attitudes more generally.

Third, it makes them rather arrogantly over-estimate their own activist powers in implausible ways. Chances are, the argument you are making, the candidate you are trying to convince me to vote for, or the direct action you are defending isn’t going to be the thing that stops the barbarians. The social world is complicated, and you humbly should be willing to be open to the possibility that your political action might actually backfire and help them. It might help, or it might not, depending on the circumstances. Better to humbly admit your epistemic and practical limitations in changing the world and be open to other perspectives from good-faith interlocutors than just thinking that someone who has a substantive disagreement with you about political action or an idea is either a contemptuous barbarian or a “useful idiot” for the barbarians simply in virtue of your disagreement.

Be realistic, you and I are not heroic activists trying to save our beatific political visions from evil barbarians. Better to think of ourselves as curious individuals trying to learn what we can to cope with the perplexing quandaries of modernity.