Ouija politics

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The Devil’s Advocate


In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.

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I have called him a myth; and, in so far as there are few, if any, of his mind and temperament to be found in the ranks of living men, the title is well chosen. But it is a myth which rests upon solid and even, it may be, upon permanent foundations. The Reasonable Man is fed and kept alive by the most valued and enduring of our juridical institutions-the common jury. Hateful as he must necessarily be to any ordinary citizen who privately considers him, it is a curious paradox that where two or three are gathered together in one place they will with one accord pretend an admiration for him; and, when they are gathered together in the formidable surroundings of a British jury, they are easily persuaded that they themselves are, each and generally, reasonable men.

A. P. Herbert, Fardell v Potts

In which the JC plays amateur sociologist in the Christmas pantomime.

This I am making up from whole cloth: treat with due care.

Now every opinionated windbag knows the experience of trying in vain to dismantle a transparently fatuous “political” argument.

“Political” in the sense of being a generalised disposition attributable to a generalised class of people. These often are political dispositions, but need not be: “born-again Christians”, “conservatives” (with big or little “c”), socialists, bitcoin maximalists, Guardianistas, snowflakes, gammon, libertarians, football fans — any kind of group to whom one might attribute a membership by reference to generalised set of beliefs or values.

Of course, any such group label is a narrative — a convenient shorthand for describing a general thrust without getting stuck in the weeds of peripheral. It is the impulse to say “Yeah, but you know what I mean”.

The same is true for the putative group’s agenda and its catalogue of values: unless someone has published manifesto, members of the group will not share identical beliefs. It may be that no single individual holds exactly the set of core beliefs you ascribed to the group.

Given that most of us struggle to hold views that are internally consistent with our own values, let alone with those of other randoms in our in-group, this shouldn’t be a surprise. But it feels like a quibble: “yes, yes, I realise not all football fans are cultural Philistines, but you know what I mean”.

As with all narratives, we assign labels to help us filter out the noise so we can pick up a meaningful signal of germane commonality.

The sixty-four thousand-dollar question: is one person’s signal another person’s noise?

For the signal is often a phantom; the “average” a a spectre. A group of 1000 will necessarily have an average height, weight, hand-size, inside seam, waist and chest measurement — it is trivial to measure — but it is not necessarily try that any over will conform exactly to the average. The more dimensions you measure, the less likely that golden mean becomes.[1]

Hence your struggle to mount an intellectual assault: your argument deconstructs the general average of a group to which no single member necessarily subscribes. Worse, you will typically attribute auxiliary qualities to your received group than are actually possessed by any actual members of the group. Your intricate syllogisms resonate in the abstract; in the particular they snatch at thin air.

The converse is also true. What each of us thinks of our common labels — our respective articulations of the necessary and sufficient conditions for group membership — differ. We think each other know what we mean, but we don’t.

Hence, atheists and Christians shout themselves hoarse, rather enjoying the experience, making perfect sense to themselves and none at all to each other.

The curious thing is this: that phantom median view — albeit unheld in the particular — acquires an emergent influence of its own, untethered to a mortal mind. It is imputed, en masse. We can’t say who exactly believes it, but we suppose, by the law of averages, a multitude do, and this is enough to condition how we behave.

It is through this mechanic that we are vouchsafed middle management ouija where, privately, not a soul in personnel believes in, say, forced ranking, but every one of them holds the untested impression that everyone else does, it is somehow therefore canon law, nothing is to be done, and we should not waste our breath fighting against it.

See also

References

  1. Hence A. P. Herbert’s magical essay on the reasonable man in Fardell v Potts refers.