This is a follow-up post to ‘Why Conservatives Look Hypocritical’, though I actually started thinking about the issues with closed systems of thought before writing the previous article.
Authoritarian ideologies tend to be closed systems; that is, the totality of the universe can be explained within a self-contained framework. There is also a preference for fixed ontological viewpoints; if a phenomenon does not match the predefined category, then it either does not exist or is an aberration to be reclassified or shunned. The cosmological views of authoritarians exemplifies a tendency towards preferring closed systems as explanatory frameworks for the creation and behaviour of the known universe, even in situations in which mainstream science has reflected the existence of open systems. Most gallingly, people who adhere to these ideologies claim that they, and only they, have access to objective truth.
There is no single objectivity. Rather, truth exists at the centre of several overlapping objectivities and the subjectivities through which those objectivities are observed. I think there is, or can be, broad consensus in many areas, but this is not universal. Philosophically, I lie somewhere between deconstructionist postmodernism and modernist reductionism. This is not a rejection of the concept of objective reality or the scientific method; rather, it is a rejection of ultimately subjective views that merely pose as objective. I am loath to oppose the concept of objective truth entirely; to do so is dangerous in this era of fake news and alternative facts. I am hesitant to call myself a hard relativist, since I do think there are some universal moral principles that can be shared across space, time and history. I do not think, however, that those moral principles should require the denial or suppression of people’s self-determined identities or consensual relationships. Prohibiting murder makes sense, since depriving someone of their life causes them obvious material harm. Being in a same-gender relationship, however, causes no material harm on its own if the participants have voluntarily entered said relationship.
In traditionalist Christianity, there is a transcendental platonic ideal of reality that God has instantiated, and the disconnection between that ideal and the current state of the world is reflected through the theological concept of sin.
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23, King James Version).
Humanity’s unwillingness to comply with God’s commands vitiated this perfect order, leading to entropy. The ideal state of God’s perfect creation is also used to define objective truth. It is Plato’s transcendental world of forms transmuted into Christian orthodoxy. (I discussed this concept in more detail in ‘Why Conservatives Look Hypocritical’.) For example, same-gender couples deviate from ‘God’s plan’, and the only reason why such relationships exist is that humans are still suffering from the consequences of Adam and Eve’s original sin, and either choose to be LGBTQ or are deceived into queer personal or relational self-concepts by Satan. There is no room for the legitimacy of queer relationships or identities. Views that are discordant with the precepts of conservative or evangelical Christianity are treated as false because the Bible says they are. The Bible is routinely used to prove itself. This is circular reasoning. This circularity makes it difficult or impossible to accept scientific discoveries that more accurately explain the world. The conservative evangelical worldview is a closed system. Adopting a viewpoint that is sealed off from contradiction actually indicates that the viewpoint in question is less objective than it is claimed to be. It is also questionable whether the view of any conscious, intelligent being on its own can be truly objective. You can’t determine whether something is objective or not if you can’t even falsify it.
Religious belief is not necessary to hold these kinds of views, though it can certainly help. Ayn Rand’s Objectivism presents itself as an ostensibly libertarian ideology, but like other conservative and authoritarian philosophies, it draws from absolutist definitions of human experience to form its most deeply held tenets. For Objectivists, truth is defined outside human experience and cannot be legitimately contradicted by people’s own observations. Objectivism seems as though it is compatible with a scientific, logical worldview with its insistence on understanding the truth and avoiding subjective bias; however, the idea that objective truth can exist outside human experience is in and of itself a biased viewpoint that brings in a number of a priori assumptions. Like fundamentalist Christianity and other dogmatic religions and philosophies, Objectivism considers only philosophies permissible within its framework to be true; everything else can be discarded. Under strict Objectivist interpretations, for example, transgender identity cannot be valid under their strict definitions of what biological sex and gender are. The late Thomas Szasz, a libertarian psychiatrist, believed that transgender identities were blatantly delusional rejections of biological reality1. In the notoriously transphobic missive The Transsexual Empire, Janice Raymond quotes Szasz to help bolster her position:
Thomas Szasz has asked whether an old person who desires to be young suffers from the “disease” of being a “transchronological” or does the poor person who wants to be rich suffer from the “disease” of being a “transeconomical?” (Szasz 1979). (Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire, in Cristan Williams, ‘Tumblr TERFs Fire Back’)
Though Objectivists claim to stand for free and open societies, adopting ideologies that disallow people’s self-determination is an intrinsically illiberal act that bears a greater resemblance to authoritarian extremists than it does other philosophies rooted in classic liberalism or progressivism. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a right-libertarian philosopher, holds similar attitudes towards the nature of knowledge and objectivity. His epistemological beliefs are a secular analogue to the closed system of conservative Christianity; he believes that knowledge occurs within a defined space, that a priori conjectures can explain phenomena just as well as, or better than, empirical methods, and that falsifiability is not a valid way to disprove a given phenomenon. Again, ideology is used to seal people from competing viewpoints. It’s rank hypocrisy for people from this political school of thought to claim that liberals are the ones advocating for censorship. Authoritarian extremists, whether right or left, are the ones who cordon themselves off from opposing viewpoints. Conservatives’ and authoritarians’ claims that liberals and leftists are the ones solely responsible for ignoring inconvenient facts are a form of projection. Creationism, ‘intelligent design’, global warming denial, Lysenkoism and other erroneous ideas stem from the a priori assumptions of those who think that authority trumps reality.
Furthermore, authoritarians tend towards conflating current political realities with ideal states. This leads to the framing of such retrograde views as patriarchy, ‘scientific racism’ and homophobia as iconoclastic positions that are being suppressed by the anti-free-speech Marxist elite. Since institutional sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination have been a reality for centuries, then they must be part of the natural order and should be upheld. Neoreactionaries, one of the intellectual precursors of the alt-right, are an extreme example of this phenomenon. Many of them, like the aforementioned Hans-Hermann Hoppe, have espoused anti-democratic views that are predicated on a given social order, like modern forms of monarchism and feudalism, with corporate CEOs serving in place of hereditary monarchs. In Democracy: The God That Failed, Hoppe offers his ideal method of abolishing democracy in the United States:
Thus, rather than by means of a top-down reform, under the current conditions one’s strategy must be one of a bottom-up revolution. At first, the realization of this insight would seem to make the task of a liberal-libertarian social revolution impossible. For does this not imply that one would have to persuade a majority of the public to vote for the abolition of democracy and an end to all taxes and legislation? And is this not sheer fantasy, given that the masses are always dull and indolent, and even more so given that democracy, as explained above, promotes moral and intellectual degeneration? How in the world can anyone expect that a majority of an increasingly degenerate people accustomed to the “right” to vote should ever voluntarily renounce the opportunity of looting other people’s property? Put this way, one must admit that the prospect of a social revolution must indeed be regarded as virtually nil. Rather, it is only on second thought, upon regarding secession as an integral part of any bottom-up strategy, that the task of a liberal-libertarian revolution appears less than impossible, even if it still remains a daunting one (Hoppe, Democracy: The God That Failed, p. 288).
Peter Thiel, the Trump-supporting co-founder of PayPal, is also well-known for his dislike of democracy, preferring a modernised version of feudalism or oligarchy. (In fact, Thiel presented at a conference run by Hoppe back in 2016. Past presenters at this conference include Richard Spencer, the notorious Brooks Brothers-clad neo-Nazi who was punched on camera, and Jared Taylor, a white nationalist ‘academic’.)
Accepting the the world’s messiness is a difficult task. As pattern-seekers, humans crave order. We want explanations for how the world works, and the closed epistemological and cosmological systems that authoritarians propose are extraordinarily tempting. Unfortunately, the answers that authoritarians provide aren’t real answers. ‘Because I said so’ is the answer of an incompetent parent who thinks that might is synonymous with right; it should not be the guiding principle of a cosmological, epistemological or moral viewpoint. There are other methods we can use for understanding the world around us that combine the data from our senses, intuition and reason.
- This is actually untrue; numerous brain studies have shown potential differences in the organisation of trans people’s brains versus those of cis people, including this 2016 study. I will note that some of the language used to refer to the trans subjects in this study is outdated. Moreover, even if there were no physically identifiable differences between trans people’s and cis people’s brains, it does not necessarily follow that trans people’s self-perceptions are invalid. ↩