Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Do Ideas Matter?

By Mike Dorf

Some years ago, Ronald Dworkin reported in the New York Review of Books that he was surprised when he was permitted, on a trip to China, to speak freely about such matters as human rights.  He was gently told by one of the students in attendance that the CCP did not expend resources controlling the speech of intellectuals, because the Party regarded it as essentially harmless.  Intellectuals do not foment mass movements that threaten the stability of the regime.  So long as Dworkin was speaking in a university lecture hall, he could speak freely.

A similar sentiment was expressed on behalf of the censors of the old South African apartheid regime, as reported in Sunday's New York Times.  According to a story on files kept on the writer J.M. Coetzee, a censor noted “although sex across the color line is described,” Coetzee’s 1977 In the Heart of the Country “will be read and enjoyed only by intellectuals.”  Thus, publication was permitted.

Were the authorities in these cases right?  Are intellectuals really harmless?  A version of that view has been espoused by no less an intellectual--indeed, a public intellectual--than Judge Richard Posner.  Posner does not think that all intellectual activity is pointless.  But in his 1999 book The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, Posner took particular aim at what he called "academic moralists"--moral philosophers who attempt to change behavior simply by making arguments that one course of action is morally superior to another.  It is clear that Posner would thus regard Dworkin as harmless.  Indeed, Problematics was based on Posner's Holmes Lecture, itself part of an extended colloquy with Dworkin, and Posner says in the book version (at page 118) that Dworkin's theory of legal interpretation is the application of academic moralism to law, thus sharing the former's flaws.

It is less clear to me that Posner, had he been an apartheid-era censor, would have regarded Coetzee as harmless.  Posner distinguishes academic moralists from "moral entrepeneurs," a category into which Coetzee arguably would have fit.  Although moral entrepeneurs often include arguments in their appeals, they succeed (when they do) principally through other means.  Here is what Posner says (at page 43) about Catherine MacKinnon, whom he regards as a successful moral entrepeneur:
Her influential version of radical feminism is not offered without supporting arguments.  But her influence is not due to the quality of those arguments.  It is due to her polemical skills, her singlemindedness, her passion, and what passes for martyrdom in the academy today: her inability, until well into her career, indeed until long after she had become one of the most influential legal thinkers in the nation, to obtain tenure . . . .
Posner's attitude towards MacKinnon here is mixed.  On one hand, as a pragmatist, Posner can't help admiring the fact that MacKinnon was not just a talker but a doer.  On the other hand, Posner can't stop himself from insulting MacKinnon.  How does he know to what extent the quality of her arguments accounts for her influence?  And for that matter, why should one assume that "polemical skills" are independent of the quality of the arguments one uses those skills to advance?

Perhaps more to the point, given what modern neuroscience teaches about the essentiality of the emotional centers of the brain to decision making (including moral decision making), Posner's entire exercise seems directed against a straw man.  An argument that appealed only to reason, conceived as completely separate from emotion, would indeed fail to persuade, but effective argumentation appeals to emotion; it must or the brain cannot process it.

Does that mean that the South African and Chinese censors were committing a tactical error by permitting Coetzee and Dworkin to speak their minds?  Not necessarily.  Part of the calculus could simply be that intellectuals in most societies are a small minority.  Moreover, they are not prone to revolutionary action; indeed, they are not prone to action at all.  Woody Allen captured the point well in this scene from Manhattan:

Funny, to be sure, and Allen certainly has a point about a certain style of intellectual, but at the end of the day, I've got to think that repressive regimes are making a tactical error in discounting intellectuals.  Ideas matter, especially in the long run.  Unfortunately, some of the last century's most brutal regimes--including China during the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge--acted upon this view, singling out intellectuals for special persecution.  The good news, such as it is, is that a repressive regime's persecution of intellectuals tends to undermine the regime itself, although that too may be only a long-run phenomenon.


Doron said...

Excellent title to an excellent post. So are (legal) academics engaged in a worthless cottage industry of no practical consequences? And was Posner's idea - that ideas have mostly no consequences -- a "consequential" idea?

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

At most times and places, intellectuals don't have much immediate or little more than trickle-down socio-political influence of a transformative or revolutionary sort (in either a violent or non-violent sense), hence the Sartrian "plea for intellectuals," or Chomsky's withering critique of morally irresponsible intellectuals, or Jacoby's lament for the professionalization of public intellectuals, and so forth and so on. On the other hand, periods of meaningful socio-economic change (i.e., something greater than mere rebellions) invariably rely in one way or another on the leadership of intellectuals. Consider, for instance, the following from Rudolf Bahro's The Alternative in Eastern Europe (1978 English trans.):

"Right from the beginning, the socialist parties had a double face, and by no means just in Russia: both parties of the proletariat and parties for the proletariat. Their founders and their pre-revolutionary leaders were understandably, with few exceptions, intellectuals from the intermediate strata. It was not the working class who gave itself them as its leadership, but they who gave themselves to the working class. And workers, if they were to take a place among them, had to become intellectuals themselves [Hence the ethical and political logic of the Sartrian 'Plea for Intellectuals' and the theoretical rationale for the Gramscian notion of 'organic intellectuals.' Likewise, as Bahro notes, we can better appreciate why Lenin (in his essay, 'Better Fewer, but Better'), 'instead of appealing to the working class as a whole,...appealed to the most enlightened elements in Russia, meaning the most advanced (most cultivated, most intellectualized) workers and to the minority of intellectuals and specialists inspired by the revolution.'].... [....] The workers--individual exceptions apart--were never Marxist in the strict sense. Marxism is a theory based on the existence of the working class, but it is not the theory of the working class.

Put differently, "[I]n no known historical case did the first creative impulse in ideas and organization proceed from the masses; the trade unions do not anticipate any new civilization. The political workers' movement was itself founded by declassed bourgeois intellectuals, which in no way means that the most active proletarian elements did not soon come to play a role of their own in the socialist parties and tend themselves to become intellectuals."

Intellectuals and their ideas do matter (think of the Velvet Revolution in East-Central Europe and the role of the likes of Havel, Kuron, Michnik, Konrad, et al., or the 'animal liberation' and 'green movements,' or the role of Communist and other intellectuals in South Africa's anti-apartheid revolution, or the genesis and leadership of recent social movements generally), so the question rightly revolves around "how"? and "when"? (i.e., under what circumstances?). With good reason, academics of late have good beyond "structuralist" explanations of radical social change and "called for greater attention to conscious agency in the form of ideology and culture in shaping revolutionary mobilization and objectives."

egarber said...


My first thought is to jump into the realm of science and mathematics. John Nash and an eccentric crew basically sat around at Princeton working through all manner of theoretical mathematics. At the time -- outside of a temporary push to leverage such knowledge for military purposes during WWII -- nobody had any clue as to how that might seep into the real world. But it certainly did, given how much game theory (for example) etc. informs economics, behavioral pyschology, etc.

Why would social theory be any different, notwithstanding that the "seeping" may occur in different ways (politics, lawmaking, populist thought)?

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

One book I would recommend on this topic for those leaning or on the Left is Carl Boggs' Intellectuals and the Crisis of Modernity (1993). And despite (or, because of?) its focus on intellectuals in the former Soviet Union, there's much one might learn from Boris Kagarlitsky's The Thinking Reed: Intellectuals and the Soviet State from 1917 to the Present (1988).

michael a. livingston said...

I think ideas plainly matter--the communist party was founded on them--but they have a very long gestation period. I think the CPC attitude is basically that we'll always have time to contain them if they get dangerous; also that permitting intellectuals to let off steam now and then isn't such a bad idea. But it doesn't go far. If you step out of the hotel, the foreign newspapers, etc. disappear pretty quickly. You get much better tea but much fewer ideas . . . not accidentally in either case.

Sam Rickless said...

Very interesting post. I concur largely with Patrick here. Another example is Iran, where many of those on the front lines of the reformist movement are intellectuals. In part this is because they tend to speak well and clearly and passionately. Ideas matter greatly, as the repressive state apparatus in Iran knows well. Here too, the powers-that-be allowed the public to let off steam, but when this resulted in too much steam being let off, they cracked down. On whom? On intellectuals, of course. Yet another example is today's Russia, where a certain amount of dissent is tolerated, but not too much. The NYTimes had an interesting video essay on its website about this not too long ago. Dissident journalists in particular are being targeted, sometimes beaten, sometimes killed, by plain-clothed security forces. Ideas matter, not just because of how they are purveyed, but because truth is powerful.

Behzad Mirhashem said...

I have some familiarity with censorship under the Shah in mid-70's Iran. The ideas most visciously suppressed where not necesssarily those that were the most "deviant" from the government's narrative, but those that were most likely to be understood by the public, and therefore to move the public to action. To generalize from my experience, it seems to me that ideas have been more likely to matter in times when and places where intellectuals have made an effort to make their ideas more easily understandable by the public, and the public conversely has found understanding the intellectuals worth the effort. I don't know what social conditions can give rise to such a mutual effort to be understood and to understand -- to a common belief that ideas matter -- but those conditions are apparently largely absent, for example, in present day United States, where many intellectuals choose to express their ideas in ways that make them difficult for the masses to understand, for example through the use of unnecessary jargon, and the public often turns, not to intellectuals, but demagogues whose emotional appeals are largely free of ideas of any sort.

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