Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Limits of Discussion

An interesting thing happened to me recently. In one of my classes (a philosophy class), as part of the curriculum, we were having a discussion on illegal immigration. This is an issue that I think I’m pretty moderate on; I basically support patrolling the border more effectively and giving some kind of visa to the illegal immigrants already here, as long they aren’t guilty of any serious crimes, then creating a pathway to having a green card and, in time, citizenship—essentially, the provisions of a bill the passed the Senate with bipartisan support last year.  But in this discussion, I quickly got myself deemed “extreme” by no less than the professor himself. My “extremism” was stating the well-established fact that policies the US has adopted have damaged Mexico and Latin America, and thus increased illegal immigration to the US. And my professor even seemed to agree that I had a point; but, somehow, my point of view was still “extreme.”

This is a good illustration of how narrow the parameters are when it comes to “acceptable” viewpoints within the United States. We have been trained as a society to immediately consider someone an extremist if they promote a certain idea—even if it’s an idea that has all the evidence in the world to back it up. Take the idea that Dick Cheney is a worse criminal than Osama bin Laden; it’s a view that shouldn’t even be controversial. Bin Laden never invaded a country needlessly and took the lives of perhaps hundreds of thousands of civilians; and yet, it’s just a fact that we’re expected not to acknowledge. If you do acknowledge it, you’re immediately considered to be a radical and an extremist.

Conveniently, we also embrace the idea, as a society, that radicalism and extremism are inherently bad. This, of course, makes absolutely no sense on a historical level, considering the people we venerate were frequently considered radicals in their time (we’re a nation founded by a bunch of guys who decided it was appropriate to commit treason against the government they lived under at the time, which is a pretty radical idea by any definition). The end result is that, by just stating facts, you can essentially discredit yourself and end up being completely marginalized by society. Take Noam Chomsky; has the average American even heard of him? He’s one of the most well-known left-wing figures across the world. Hugo Chavez recommended one of his books at the UN (of course, being recommended by the evil Chavez would discredit him in many Americans’ eyes), and yet the mainstream American media would rather have on people like Newt Gingrich and Ann Coulter, who have absolutely no interest in basing any of their arguments on facts, as opposed to Chomsky’s consistent reliance on well-established facts sources for his arguments.

How is it that America has gotten to point where acknowledging certain facts makes you an extremist, and yet you can hold up Ronald Reagan (apartheid-supporter, race-baiter, financial backer of terrorist groups) and still have mainstream credibility? A little thing called the corporate elite. Notice how a lot of the “extreme” views we shun would lead to positions inconvenient for big business, the military-industrial complex, and all their oligarch pals. The state-corporate establishment has succeeded in turning “socialist” into a dirty word, and vilifying anyone who challenges the idea that capitalism is at least a necessary evil, if not a positive good. Figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who hold views that would be considered center-left in a lot of European countries, are viewed as part of some hard-left fringe in the United States. Anyone more radical than them is pretty much insane, ipso facto, and not worth trusting about anything.

Corporations own the US media; they have enough money to exert enormous influence over who will and who won’t get elected. It only stands to reason that what we end up hearing from the media, and from many political figures, conveniently supports the agenda that is backed by these corporations. And, over the past decades, as corporations have become more powerful and more concentrated, the “acceptable” viewpoints to hold have shifted farther and farther to the right. Perhaps that’s not a coincidence.

We live in a society where viewpoints can generally not be punished by sheer violence, unlike, say North Korea, or the old Soviet Union. Subtler, more insidious ways have to be found to reinforce the parameters of acceptable thought. That means that, rather than refuting inconvenient views with facts—which they can’t do—the corporate elite just assassinates the character of anyone who holds them, and propagates the idea that anyone who thinks like that must be crazy.

In a Foucaultvian sort of effect, people internalize the parameters of acceptable viewpoints and discussion, and, naturally, avoid saying things or taking views that would be seen as extreme. After all, the people who have those views are crazy—you’re not crazy, are you? Surely, you can’t agree with them.

We may, however, be witnessing a serious challenge to that. Polls over the years have shown surprisingly high numbers of people in the 18-29 age group have a positive view of socialism. They also deviate strongly from the “acceptable” positions when it comes to issues like Israel, as when 18-29-year-olds viewed the recent attack on Gaza as unjustified by 2-1 margin. My “extreme” position in my class managed to get the support of maybe ten or so people, for that matter (out of a class of roughly thirty). This is a potentially hopeful sign. Let’s just hope we’re not at a point where it’s not too late to change course.

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