I’ve spent much of last year or so feeling baffled at the unpleasant depths to which debate in education has sunk. The approach to which I’ve always tried to aspire is to advance an argument based on the quality of an idea, and to discuss my (inevitably partial) view of the evidence supporting the that idea. I can often descend to dogmatism but never, I hope, do I completely insulate myself against reality. When someone engages with my argument and advances a convincing counter-argument, I try hard to suppress the negative effects of cognitive dissonance and think about their views. Sometime I see that their argument is better than mine, and I accept this with the best grace I can muster. This is how rational debate is supposed to work.
Increasingly though, counter-argument is based on what has been described as “cryptonormativism”. Say what? In this article Joseph Heath reveals the antecedents of this tortured neologism:
A long time ago, Habermas wrote a critical essay on Foucault, in which he accused him of “cryptonormativism.” The accusation was that, although Foucault’s work was clearly animated by a set of moral concerns, he refused to state clearly what his moral commitments were, and instead just used normatively loaded vocabulary, like “power,” or “regime,” as rhetorical devices, to induce the reader to share his normative assessments, while officially denying that he was doing any such thing. The problem, in other words, is that Foucault was smuggling in his values, while pretending he didn’t have any. A genuinely critical theory, Habermas argued, has no need for this subterfuge, it should introduce its normative principles explicitly, and provide a rational defence of them.
Heath identifies a trend for labelling anything perceived as being “a bad thing” as neoliberal. The trouble with this, he argues, is that no one actually admits to being a neoliberal. In case you’re unsure, neoliberalism is generally defined as being a modified form of liberalism tending to favour free-market capitalism, but this would be, I’m sure, contested by some. I’m no economist, but when I read the descriptions of neoliberalism offered by Wikipedia, I can’t help but want to distance myself. Instinctively, I want to agree that increasing the role of the private sector in public projects like education sounds like it could be “a bad thing”. But what does it really mean?
This definition is more problematic:
[Neoliberalism is] …an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient.
Who would want “unrestricted flows of capital”? This is how CEOs of Multi Academy Trusts end up being paid untold millions. No one wants “deep reductions in the cost of labor,” do they? Surely it can’t be in anyone’s long-term interest to pay teachers less? And the idea that social goods are transferred in private hands, and that governments should not provide for our social welfare is horrifying. I’m certainly against all that! I’m all for striving mightily to keep tech giants like Apple, Goole and Microsoft out of the classroom, and look at the creeping power of edu-providers like Pearson and GEMS with mounting concern. But does that also mean we should crowd out the little guy? There are some excellent edu-start ups out there (Bedrock Learning, Hegarty Maths, No More Marking and Thinking Reading to name a few) who are deeply motivated by concerns for social justice and doing what they can to help the most disadvantaged of students. Are they all really part of a neoliberal conspiracy? It seems unlikely.
And hang on! I make money out of education. Schools get in touch to ask me to provide training for their staff, and ask me to consult on their policies. Am I one of the baddies? Is everyone who sells goods or services to schools part of the problem? Are you? You might be a secret neoliberal! It’s no good saying you’re not: literally no one confesses to being a neoliberal.
But, concerns about neoliberalism might be aside, this tendency is just the thin end of a particularly nasty wedge. More and more, ordinary folk are calling anyone who disagrees with them ‘far right’, ‘racist’, ‘Nazi’, or any other label to which no right-thinking person would want to be associated. This is the same convoluted logic that allows people to argue that practising yoga contributes to white supremacy. There may, perhaps, be good reason to object to the cultural appropriation of yoga. If so, make your case. But simply calling those who disagree with you white supremacists is lazy, cowardly and unfair. Instead of picking on people who just want to be healthier and more mindful, why not find some actual white supremacists and call them out on what they say and do?
Or what about the sorry case of Claire Kober. The Labour leader of Haringey Council was forced to resign after a campaign of intimidation. She was accused by activists of “social cleansing”, and “pursuing a policy of Lebensraum”. Maybe her policy to involve a private company in the redevelopment and regeneration the borough’s estates and to build 6,500 new homes was wrong, but if so argue against the policy. Instead Kober was branded a Nazi and – apparently – her opponents sang the lyrics to The Police’s I’ll Be Watching You after every council meeting.
As most of us have suddenly and startlingly become aware, there are some people out there with some very nasty ideas about how the world should be run. If you’d asked me a few years ago whether the far-right agenda could every move over into mainstream political debate, I’d have said emphatically no. But I’d have been wrong. I recently read Angela Nagle’s very accessible book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right, and it was a real eye-opener!
I’d never even heard of 4chan before! And, if I thought about it at all, I assumed Tumblr was all about pictures of kittens. Nagle’s thesis is that the rise of the alt-right is, in part, attributable to a reaction against liberal, left-wing social norms, and that, for many of the young men involved in this murky world of trolling, hacking and the distribution of disturbing – often pornographic – memes, the purpose was to be transgressive. To say the unsayable and do the unthinkable. To laugh at what normal sensibilities would have us sympathise with, and to mercilessly mock any public exhibition of sentimentality or political correctness. It’s not too distant from the ways teenage boys mock and insult each other in school. Whenever, a well-intentioned teacher intervenes they’re told it’s “just the bants”. But is it?
This satirical, transgressive veneer provided cover for genuinely shocking and violent misogynist and racist fantasies to increasingly become acceptable, and, at least in the world of 4chan, such attitudes started be become the norm. Without us really noticing, this hidden word become the alt-light, then the alt-right, and then the political mainstream. The dizzying rise to power of a “groping, lecherous, godless presidential candidate” has, in Nagle’s view, nothing to do with traditional conservatism and everything to do with the “hegemony of the culture of non-conformism, self-expression, transgression and irreverence for its own sake.” Or, in other words, the adoption of the principle-free counterculture as the style of the new right.
At the same time, Nagle charts the rise of an equally toxic world view on Tumblr. Rather than directly engaging with, or attacking the murky world of alt-right, the agenda of the online left was, in Nagle’s view, “making increasingly anti-male, anti-white, anti-straight, anti-cis rhetoric normal on the cultural left” and that what were once extreme, fringe ideas have now entered the mainstream. In contrast to the transgressive world of the alt-right, it took an ultra-sensitive stance searching for new things to be offended by, new thought crimes to expose and greater stages from which to signal its virtue.
This particular brand of leftist ideology sets recognition of individuals’ diversity over the more traditional socialist preoccupation with economic inequality. As Nagle says, this trend
…reached its absurd apotheosis with a politics based on minutia and gradations of rapidly proliferating identities, and the emotional injuries of systemic cultural prejudices. Symbolic representative diversity and recognition became its goals, as it admonished transgressors for ‘erasing my identity’ and urged white/straight/male/cis people to ‘listen and believe’. (p. 70)
From there, it’s a mere hop, skip and jump to stop caring about actual politics in favour of a cult of suffering, weakness, vulnerability, and self-flagellation. Everyone’s identity matters except those of the ‘normies’. If you’re white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or cis then you must ritually ‘check your privilege’. The only way out is to identify as something, anything counter to the mainstream norm. This might all be relatively harmless were it not for the extraordinary viciousness and aggression of identity politics activists.
This is where the behaviour of the alt-right and alt-left become indistinguishable; dissenters need not be convinced, instead they should be destroyed. Anything and anyone is fair game in this cryptonormative war. You win by smearing your opponents as ‘snowflakes’, ‘transphobics’, ‘cry bullies’, ‘racists’, ‘manginas’, ‘Nazis’ and ‘Stalinists’ in an ever-escalating, ever descending war of words.
The result? Actual arguments no longer matter. Facts don’t matter. Truth doesn’t even exist. Instead we have ‘alternative facts’ and inhabit a ‘post-truth’ world in which scientific evidence is just a point of view, no more or less convincing or worthy of respect than any other perspective. Or worse, a world where personal testimonies bearing witness to suffering are afforded greater weight because science and logic are the white, male elite’s tools of oppression. In fact, your scientific evidence and reasoned argument – whatever it is – is wrong because scientific evidence and reasoned argument are neoliberal racism.
To be clear, if you find any of this argument illogical or unconvincing then that’s because you are a bad person. Become a better person and then you will see I’m right.