Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Extremist Common Sensism

Rudy Giuliani is afraid that you are not scared
By Finbarr Curtis

If you see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, then you are feeling pretty affirmed right now by this week's Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Various and sundry sitcom, soap opera, and reality television stars have taken turns warning us of a dualistic battle between "common sense" and "political correctness." The nominee's son, Donald Trump, Jr., extolled the wisdom of those who avoided fancypants schools like Harvard and Wharton (from which his father graduated in 1968) in favor of an education culminating in a "Doctorate in Common Sense."

One advocate for this linguistic theory was former New York mayor and current world-record-holder-for-breaking-blood-vessels-in-his-face-while-he-yells Rudolph Giuliani, who denounced anyone who refused to name the "enemy" of the United States as "Islamic extremist terrorism." According to Rudy, shirking this label denies the obvious violent threat that lurks everywhere. It is this assertion of obviousness, of simplicity in the face of apparent chaos, that gives common sense its force. Rather than accept self-evident reality, those imprisoned by political correctness cannot speak the truth because of their paralyzing fear of hurting people's feelings.

That the truth is apparent to everyone is what makes it common. This idea has its roots in eighteenth-century Scottish Common Sense Realism. In response to idealists and skeptics who offered complicated explanations for how people came to know and talk about things, thinkers like Thomas Reid argued that people's ordinary sense of the world was trustworthy. If you had a table right in front you, then you knew it was a table because you touched it and saw it, not because you had some idea of a table in your head. If intricate philosophical arguments seemed to contradict people’s ordinary sense of reality, it was overthinking that was at fault. As Reid asserted in his 1764 An Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense:

Poor untaught mortals believe undoubtedly that there is a sun, moon, and stars; an earth, which we inhabit; country, friends, and relations, which we enjoy; land, houses, and moveables, which we possess. But philosophers, pitying the credulity of the vulgar, resolve to have no faith but what is founded upon reason.
Idealistic philosophers offered unnecessary confusion and doubt. For Reid, it was absurd to throw out one’s ordinary sense of the world because theories could not explain it:
But if indeed thous hast not power to dispel those clouds and phantoms which thou hast discovered or created, withdraw this penurious and malignant ray; I despise Philosophy, and renounce its guidance: let my soul dwell with Common Sense.
Reid did not despise philosophy as such, but only philosophy that required a choice between abstract thought and everyday experience. Rather than disproving what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch, philosophy should take this sensory data as the foundation for further inquiry.

When convention speakers appeal to common sense, they reassure you that Islamic extremist terrorism is an easily recognizable thing like a table sitting in front of you. This feels good if the world seems to be a confusing and scary place. But this raises a question of what "sense" allows you to see social identities like religion or extremism, or what allows for common sense pronouncements about ethnicity or gender or race. These are not things you can ordinarily see unless what you mean by "seeing" is confirming whatever your initial intuitive impressions are. In other words, what Rudy means by common sense is a visceral, precritical response to new information, what we often call a gut reaction. He relies on immediate, intuitive reactions as a necessary preparation for sudden threats. Refusals to act on common sense leave people vulnerable in an insecure world. 

Overthinkers who challenge common sense, especially those who Rudy calls politically correct, suggest that these immediate reactions are not reliable sources of information but are instead shaped by prejudices and assumptions produced by social forces. Or to say this in a less fancy way: Trump is the candidate of common sense because common sense is where racism comes from. Common sense offers a visceral feeling of satisfaction that comes from learning that your intuitions, prejudices, and assumptions were right all along. Assuring people that political violence is an inevitable outgrowth of a scary thing called Islam affirms a view of security that cautions against waiting around to analyze complex social problems. Making generalizations about people you don't know is one way of feeling safe in a world that you don't understand. Political correctness, therefore, poses an existential threat to those hoping to "Make America Safe Again."

I have written before about how Trump's rhetoric is liberating to those who feel oppressed by having to consider the sensibilities of other people. In a recent essay on Trump supporters, George Saunders offers this appraisal of why this feels frustrating: 
Above all, Trump supporters are "not politically correct," which, as far as I can tell, means that they have a particular aversion to that psychological moment when, having thought something, you decide that it is not a good thought, and might pointlessly hurt someone's feelings, and therefore decline to say it. 
Trump has mastered common sense because he does not advance arguments that cannot be stated in more than three or four sentences. Every Trump speech is instead a montage of visceral impressions. His lack of conservative ideology has frustrated political commentators who do not know what to make of his apparently eccentric politics. But Trump's populism lines up pretty neatly if you place racism at the center of every policy consideration. His economic protectionism is not a critique of the free market as much as an attempt to protect white labor from foreign competition. His willingness to cede Syria to Bashar al-Assad isn't driven by a rejection of US intervention abroad as much as a lack of concern for Middle Eastern lives. And so on.

Of course, Giuliani and Trump reject charges of racism or Islamophobia. In his convention speech, Giuliani reminded the crowd that he was not talking about all Muslims. A critic might object that this would make the qualifier "Islamic" little more than an imprecise label. But the point of naming Islam is not to provide an accurate description; it is to affirm common sense. That is, Rudy is willing to tolerate some Muslims as long as they allay his suspicions, but it would be dangerous and foolish for him to abandon his prejudices. This is a logic common to the proliferation of "Not all..." exceptions in popular debate, as in the magnanimous concession that "not all Muslims are terrorists." When Trump says, for example, that Mexicans are "bringing drugs, They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," he makes a double move that affirms the reasonableness of prejudice while allowing that some people might be exceptions to his own rules. For his part, Giuliani will happily agree that not everyone he fears are threats, as long he can stop and frisk them first. Trumpism celebrates the charity and generosity of its willingness to override its own prejudices.

The "Not all..." qualifier has become so familiar that it is employed as a defense against criticism labelled as politically correct. Defensive assertions that "Not all men" or "Not all white people" should be subject to critiques of sexism and racism are characterized by their confusion of political critiques of structural inequality with prejudicial assumptions about the essential character of groups. This confusion is a reaction by those accustomed to the privilege of having their prejudices used as the baseline for reasonable fear. The flip side of warnings against the danger of political correctness is the assertion that political correctness is a form of excessive safety invoked by those who cannot handle criticism. In both cases, white feelings are the measure of common sense. Political correctness is too dangerous when it undercuts the scrutiny of threatening others, and too safe when it challenges white scrutiny.

Common sense does not respond well to criticism. As Mike Altman points out, attempts to address Islamophobia in an age of Trumpism by fixing inaccurate representations of Islam might have limited effectiveness. While knowing more about Islam cannot hurt, the sources of Islamophobia have less to do with Islam than with phobia. Giving people nuanced information about Islam might not dispel common sense fears as long as these lessons are harnessed to a "Not all Muslims..." discourse. Education might be most valuable not when it replaces bad common sense with good common sense, but when it teaches people to think about their own precritical assumptions, to examine what is so obvious and taken-for-granted that it needs no argument. Fortunately, such habits of critical reflection require no doctorate.

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