Monday 24 October 2016

The Decline and Death of the Rational Man

The Enlightenment ideal of the Rational Man will not survive in its current form.

In its heyday, the Rational Man was seen as the basis for a universal conception of human rights, a beautiful image of human equality that brought an end to the divine right of kings. The concept of the Rational Man was predicated on the idea that Reason and Power were antithetical, with Power being the tyrant and Reason the hero. 

The ostensible goal of the Rational Man was to create a Platonic slot that any human could potentially occupy, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexuality, and any number of other factors. In this idyllic world, individuals would exchange and debate ideas in a calm and respectful manner, and the best ideas would ultimately prevail.

Yet history has taught us that the type of rationality envisioned by this model is a fantasy, since knowledge can never be separated from power. The public belief that court judges can be unbiased, that science is immune from political and commercial influence, or even that political fact checkers can provide us with objective insights is eroding, and this is because of one inescapable premise: that knowledge and power cannot be separated. To call for calm and rational dialogue in this epoch is to reveal one’s privilege, a fact that can be easily illustrated by the science of gambling.

The House Always Wins

Why do casinos know that they will always make a profit on their gaming? It’s simple math. Take a roulette wheel, for example. It has 38 pockets into which the ball can drop, with the numbers 0 and 00 in addition to 1 through 36. The odds of the ball landing on black or red are the same, yet to land on 0 or 00 entails an automatic win for the House. Without these two green pockets, the game would be fair—a 50/50 chance. Yet the addition of the two green slots means that the house has a 5.26% aggregate advantage over any player. A lucky player may enter the game at any time and walk away a winner. But in the aggregate, the casino is guaranteed to win.

Now imagine that I, a middle-class white male, have been asked to participate in a debate on the subject of sexual assault. My opponent is a woman with a personal history of sexual assault and who has developed PTSD as a consequence of her experiences.

The debate has one simple rule: each participant must remain calm, respectful, and rational when making their arguments.

Much like the roulette wheel, the very nature of the situation gives me an intrinsic advantage. Yes, the other participant may remain calm and defeat me on the basis of her rational ideas. But if you hold the same debate over and over with many individuals, the advantage of the person who has no personal experience of sexual assault will express itself.

This advantage is called privilege.

Take for example professional pundits who have made a living out of saying politically incorrect things. The very purpose of saying these things is to make their opponents uncomfortable, because doing so increases the likelihood of their opponent becoming emotional or irrational. The point of saying upsetting, politically incorrect things is to widen and exploit this gap already created by social privilege. Again, the pundits’ opponents might remain calm and still manage to win a debate with clear, rational thinking. But over time, the advantage of privilege will manifest itself, just as surely as the House always wins.

With the decline of the Rational Man, we will see the decline of calm, rational dialogue as the ideal standard for mediating disagreements. This is not to say that calm, rational dialogue will disappear and that we will replace it with vitriolic shouting matches. Rather, what rational dialogue will lose is the self-evident superiority accorded to it by the ideal of the Rational Man. It will become one form of debate among others, and “becoming emotional” will no longer discredit a person’s argument.

Many of the Privileged Have Already Given up on the Rational Man

In many cases, we find large groups of privileged individuals who have already conceded to the fall of the Rational Man, and they are now trying to make their arguments within the new terms of engagement. Those who recognize the connection between knowledge and power have begun arguing that they are in fact the oppressed.

Men’s rights groups claim that they have been emasculated; they point toward the fact that they die earlier than women and are more likely to commit suicide. What they often do not point out, and probably should, is the fact that many men will also experience sexual assault in their lifetime—with the caveat that it usually occurs in childhood. Regardless of what one thinks of these arguments, they mark a willingness on behalf of these men to frame the debate within the terms of marginalization, vulnerability, and power.

In the United States, supporters of Donald Trump have decided to do away with the Rational Man altogether. They have instead embraced the principles of might makes right, me first, and fear of the cultural and racial Other. 

Many of the lingering calls for the Rational Man come from people who identify as secular progressives. Bill Maher, for example, will often cite statistics from around the world that supposedly demonstrate a fundamental incompatibility between a Western conception of human rights and a religion like Islam. Slavoj Zizek has voiced a similar opinion. Many secular progressives in Quebec and France will not hesitate to ban Muslim clothing on the belief that such clothing is the token of a barbaric culture.

There is one respect in which I think people like Maher and Zizek are right, and that is this—it is utterly impossible for a white male to envision a world in which their historical privilege is gone, and this is terrifying.

On a similar note, there is one respect in which I agree with Donald Trump, and it is this: white men feel disempowered.

What I would add to this sentence is “… compared to the historical privilege they’ve become accustomed to.”

The Law

Our laws are built around the ideal of the Rational Man, for they do not treat people as historically bound entities caught up in a complex web of power relations. Rather, they treat us as sexless, raceless, genderless rational actors who are immutably responsible for our choices and actions. This conception of the law, however, has one crucial flaw—it is subject to the bias of whatever judge is interpreting and enforcing it, and even more so if that judge is blind to the influence of privilege.

We find a clear case of this inconsistency in the trial of Jian Ghomeshi. After Ghomeshi’s acquittal, his lawyer Marie Henein appeared on TV in an interview with Peter Mansbridge and received widespread praise for her performance. To put it quite frankly, her argument was airtight. Mansbridge asked her whether sexual assault cases should be treated differently than others in the courts, and she said no. When Mansbridge realized he didn’t have a way through this defense, he began reading out cruel Tweets that people had posted about Henein on the Internet.

What Mansbridge should have asked Henein about was the bias of judges, particularly in this case, where the judge clearly lacked a rudimentary understanding of how trauma and violence can affect the memories of sexual assault survivors. To be clear, this is not to argue that the judge should have found Ghomeshi guilty on the basis of the evidence provided. But his characterization of the women as a group of deceptive liars, combined with his clear lack of understanding about the psychology of sexual assault, revealed a significant gap in the legal system that cannot be addressed by changing the laws themselves. Then again, it is extremely unlikely that Henein would have commented on the potential bias of the judge.

The Slippery Slope

You would think that the Rational Man would be the last figure to resort to logical fallacy in order to make His case. Yet in his waning days, the Rational Man is doing just that by resorting time and time again to the slippery slope argument. It has become commonplace for educated thinkers to defend free speech against what they see as oversensitive whiners; to say that if we ban one type of Halloween costume because someone is offended by it, we’ll have to ban all of them; to say that the moment we allow our decisions to be influenced by the fact that different groups have different levels of exposure to threats, violence, poverty, incarceration, and any number of other social ills; we will essentially create an unequal system.

What all of these arguments miss is something the Rational Man should know as well as anyone—that the slippery slope is a fallacy, a form of argument that is by definition logically incoherent. We have known this for thousands of years, and the fact that the Rational Man would appeal to it so regularly in his waning days displays a level of hypocrisy and moral cowardice that is hard to fathom, much less tolerate.

Fighting for Space and Freedom of Speech 

One of the places we are most likely to find the Rational Man nowadays is on university campuses, wading into debates about the sanctity of free speech. Students and community members from marginalized groups are protesting, making loud noises, and disrupting events that feature controversial speakers. The Rational Man sees this and feels great fear, for these students are revealing something he wishes would stay hidden: that one cannot separate knowledge and power.

Desperate, the Rational Man appeals to the ideals of calm and respectful dialogue, implicitly shaming the marginalized groups for being too emotional, irrational, and unwieldy; for being incapable of seeing an issue from the other side’s point of view.

When the protestors continue to draw back the curtain on power, however, the Rational Man will once again resort to the slippery slope fallacy, saying that we are heading for a world in which no one will be able to say anything because someone will always be offended. The thought of having to judge students’ grievances on a case-by-case basis, taking power and context into account, is off the table. What the Rational Man wants in His law, in His speech, in His society is a universal standard by which everyone can be judged.

Why does He want this? Because if you have a universal standard, you don’t have to talk about race, gender, sexuality, and all of the other manifestations of power that the Rational Man wishes would stay hidden. 

Now for the Clowns

In the past several months, another phenomenon has spread across college campuses and public spaces—the seemingly inexplicable appearance of creepy-looking clowns. These clowns have been seen across much of the world, and the Western world in particular, and yet they have so far been met with a mixture of fear and confusion from commentators. Some people have felt so threatened that they have attacked and even killed the clowns.

So what can these clowns tell us?

To begin, we know that dressing up as a scary clown means going out into public space while invoking the potentially contradictory feelings of menace and humour. If you laugh at the clowns, that’s great. If you feel threatened by them and complain, you’re just somebody who doesn’t get the joke.

Last week, an individual on the campus of the University of Guelph dressed up as a scary clown and held up a sign bearing the message “#clownlivesmatter,” in addition to other signs that reportedly made light of language that is often used to advocate on behalf of sexual assault survivors. After clashing with students, the individual voluntarily left the campus when asked to do so by police. Yet a video of the event went viral and quickly created a significant debate regarding freedom of speech and campus safety. After all, it is not illegal to dress up as a scary clown and occupy public space, nor is it illegal to make light of Black Lives Matter.

Defendants of the individual said that he or she was simply making a joke, or that he/she was making a point about political correctness and free speech. What they didn’t highlight was that the individual specifically chose to do so by trivializing a social movement that is predicated upon African Americans occupying public space and highlighting their disproportionate levels of exposure to violence, threats, poverty, and a number of other social ills. The Rational Man sees this and says “All lives matter,” trying to invoke a universal concept of human equality that has never made it from theory into practice. 

In essence, the scary clown phenomenon is the physical manifestation of the Internet troll. The mask provides an opportunity to invoke a menacing anonymity without breaking any specific laws. The attempt to trivialize Black Lives Matter tells us one more important thing: that this phenomenon may in fact be an explicit reaction against the threat of black bodies occupying public spaces and pulling back the curtain on power.

With the decline of the Rational Man, we have the embrace of the scary clown, a menacing absurdity that can be found in Donald Trump just as easily as it can be found in those who now openly embrace this role on a more literal, if not any more subtle level.

The End

With power made visible, and attempts to conceal it failing, we face a new situation—one where governments will insist on values testing for new immigrants to see whether they embrace the universal human rights that are embodied in the figure of the Rational Man. As I’ve said above, we’ll do this for one obvious reason: because absolutely nobody can claim to know what the world will look like if the Rational Man disappears altogether, and along with Him the privilege historically enjoyed by white men.

The Rational Man appears again at this point, yet something has changed. He has come to resemble the wheezing tyrant king that He deposed hundreds of years ago. It is the Rational Man who is the tyrant now, telling us that all will fall into chaos without Him. That there will be blood in the streets. That the slippery slope is in fact real and that everything we have worked for since the Enlightenment will be lost.

But He doesn’t know, and neither do we.