8-bit Invasion

They Have No Politics

Readers may remember Bidisha’s self-refuting article on sexism and bigotry in science fiction. In it, the Guardian’s most precious “non-white angry political female” managed to undermine her own premise, a mishap that made the following statement inadvertently comical: 

Outrage against such bigotry is met with bafflement by apolitical people who simply don’t get what the big issue is and are too lazy and complacent to fight the status quo.

Those who know something about the subject matter and its recent history - and who therefore arrived at conclusions other than the one pounced on by Bidisha - are apparently lazy, complacent and apolitical. The belief that those who disagree must be politically apathetic is just a tad conceited, implying as it does that the proponent is by contrast dynamic and insightful. It therefore crops up repeatedly, especially among those eager to display the lava of righteousness coursing through their veins. Bidisha’s most recent piece again spies systemic and intolerable sexism, this time at the BBC, not the most obvious breeding ground of “unconscious and generalised misogyny.” The assumptions that Bidisha airs regarding occupational gender parity have been dealt with at length in the comments here. What catches the eye is this:

It makes no difference whether the perpetrators are male or female. If they have no politics they will not do anything to challenge the status quo.

Note how divergent views are framed by default as apolitical. Which is to say, as having no legitimate intellectual or moral basis. Because a person “with politics” would - obviously - challenge the status quo in ways Bidisha finds congenial. If a person sees gender quotas or some other “corrective” measure as unnecessary, patronising or counter-productive, and therefore sees the status quo as by and large acceptable, then, according to Bidisha, they have no politics. (Readers may also be tickled by the notion that someone educated at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and employed to opine on television and radio by the nation’s state broadcaster should consider herself in some way outside the establishment and current status quo.)

I’m reminded of a recent piece by Jeff Goldstein on the failure of political empathy and a tendency to reduce one’s political opponents to caricature rubes, as though they were driven by little more than obstinacy or fear of the unfamiliar. In the comments I wrote,

If there is an asymmetry of empathy – and my own experience suggests there is to some extent – it may be worth bearing in mind that a person’s politics often shift away from the left with age and experience. In other words, quite a few non-leftists (whether classical liberals, conservatives, libertarians, etc) were at some point excited by, or surrounded by, leftish assumptions. Possibly as students and possibly in circumstances where, for some, a leftist outlook was the only recognised indicator of being political at all.

To which, Jeff replied:

From the perspective of the modern academy, the only legitimate politics... is the politics of “social justice,” that is, the politics of modern left-liberalism or “progressivism.” Being on the “right,” therefore, is not considered being “political” at all - except in the pragmatic sense that those on the right somehow, maddeningly, are still allowed to vote. [...] Instead, classical liberals, non-libertine libertarians, and conservatives - more often than not referred to simply as “right wingers” - are cast as a populist nuisance, a collection of rabble controlled by the basest of impulses, from racism to nativism to homophobia to xenophobia. They are, in effect, outside politics proper... To be on the left, then, is (by the rules of the modern academy) to be “political” - and being political carries with it the heady suggestion of being a serious thinker.

Serious thinkers such as Professor Jere Surber, whose “complex, nuanced” ponderings lead him to conclude that the only “intellectually respectable way to interpret the broad contours of history and culture” is one like his own, i.e. pointedly left of centre. And whose critics, of all persuasions, are apparently trying to “turn back the clock.” Some may find it odd that the professor’s self-declared worldliness and sophistication have steered him to an outlook that sounds, if anything, smug and parochial.

It’s perhaps worth noting that many people become politically engaged as students, which is to say, when adults are at their most impressionable and often preoccupied with appearances. In such an environment it’s easy to absorb political convictions by a kind of social osmosis and group identification, with a fairly caricatured view of rival positions, especially those that don’t lend themselves to ostentatious display. For some, these are the years of strutting and role-play, and in such cases, political empathy – the attempt to fathom the moral thinking of one’s opponents - may be carefully avoided, in case it should hinder the performance and its theatrical buzz.