the Web

Widening your influences

March 18, 2012

One thing the Internet is great for is helping you find stuff that you’ll like. You can get recommendations from the likes of Amazon based on what else you’ve bought, and there are countless tools out there for curating your own little drip-feed of information from the Web.

Unfortunately, this reduces the likelihood of you stumbling upon something unexpected, such as a new-found taste for jazz fusion when you’ve previously been a connoisseur of thrash metal. Related to this, the days when we were exposed to a wide variety of different viewpoints are over. We can now safely defend our information borders from any views we find distasteful, nonsensical or even offensive.

That may sound fine, but you can to forget that these views exist at all, or perhaps that they’re as widespread as they are. An essential part of any democracy is exposure to a variety of viewpoints, helping you make up your own mind and knowing what others feel (and why). Influence from a wider circle of people is much more healthy, democratically, than simply accepting the views handed down from your closest acquaintances (or am I getting into one of my own biases here already…?).

The Web, famed for its democratisation of communications, also threatens democracy when its users are only ever exposed to views which reinforce their existing views.

Rekindling Serendipity

There are those who are trying to bring home this point, and attempting to rekindle the serendipity of discovery that the Internet removes from your intellectual life. Inspired by the book and the writing of Aleks Krotoski on a ‘Serendipity Engine’, I’ve been looking to actively search out some writing that wouldn’t merely be preaching to the choir.

The exercise might also help me see why views other than my own exist. Hell – I may even find that I agree with something I read which I didn’t expect. Any any case it would force me to examine my own beliefs and justify them if I was to find myself arguing about another’s views.

Roger Scruton, conservative

The chance finally came, serendipitously of course, when I picked up Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism. Now, I’m as pessimistic as they come, so I thought this might be something for me. But then I read Simon Heffer’s soundbyte on the back cover: “Scruton’s thoughtful codification of the stupidity of the Left is an important book that should provide a rallying point for those unwilling to accept further brainwashing”. Now, I must really try hard not to go bounding straight in with all the things I find wrong with that statement (especially on a book which is a defence of Heffer’s world view). This isn’t a book review after all; it’s a look at what I found when I tried reading some ‘conservative philosophy’.

Reading the book

The Uses of Pessimism is a very readable, well written book, and took me just a few days to shoot through. The views on display are very easy to pick up on, and so I believe I have a good idea about why Scruton comes to his conclusions. However, I found myself thinking that all the arguments were unjustified, often backed up with statements of ‘common sense’ which in themselves seemed wrong to me. The footnotes referenced other writers who’s philosophical statements said the same thing as Scruton, and yet the mentions of ‘a recent study’ never backed up this claim with a title or author.

I found there to be circular arguments along the lines of “If Jack is from a richer class than Jill, then the Left assume this to be unfair, never thinking for a moment that Jack is hardworking and Jill is lazy”. So is this a class issue or a work-ethic issue? It’s a bit like claiming (to paraphrase the old chestnut) that because Hitler was a vegetarian, so vegetarians must be anti-Semitic.

The book also covers lots of other predictable ground (though I must be careful not to let my anti-Right preconceptions lead me on here): stuff against the EU; an explicit love of tradition and institutions, the need for (Christian) morals instead of legislation – to counter the Left’s tendency to over-legislate to the level of minutiae.

But I must also mention the points that I found myself agreeing with: utopias are useless because they can never be achieved (though I’m not sure to what extent utopias are ever a practical aim of a political party); philosophical text is almost completely unintelligible (though Scruton states that this means that it contains zero meaning, which I disagree with); modernist architecture forgot that humans like little alleyways, higgledy piggledy cottages and organically formed communities which it sought to demolish wholesale.

The biggest disagreement between me and Scruton is his assertion time and time again that those who rally against something (especially, these days, the US) are just jealous. I’ve never heard that put so bluntly since I was in primary school, and I don’t believe it any more now than I did then. There’s no room in his philosophy for variety in people’s tastes, and if you’re fighting against it you’re really fighting to take it for yourself. He goes as far as to suggest this is really behind al-Qaeda’s war on America – what Islamists really want is porn, McDonald’s and tonnes of gold, just not someone else’s porn, burgers and cash.

Finally, the fallacy of the moving spirit is Scruton’s rally against the Left’s ‘insistence’ that times change. To use a conservative opinion (the superiority of tradition) to argue against a progressive one seems, well, completely lacking in sense and logic (and, let’s be fair, Scruton’s no idiot).

Each chapter in the book describes a liberal ‘fallacy’ such as the Fallacy of the Moving Spirit just described, and the Fallacy of the Zero-Sum Game (where the Left are wrong to suggest that one person’s victory is another’s loss). Every set of arguments, however, seemed based on conservative opinion rather than any independent examination of the situation (in complete contrast, for example, to The Spirit Level, which overflowed with statistics, whether you interpret them the same or believe their origin or not).

I went into this book trying to keep an open mind, and to write this post honestly, pointing out where my mind was changed, or new points raised to me. I hope I’ve managed this a little here, but what struck me over and over again was that I didn’t read any coherent argument against my current views. They were repeatedly dismissed (starting with Heffer’s cover blurb) and insulted, but never logically dismissed, nor counter-arguments coherently built up from first principles. So I should think that any left-leaning reader would be left unconvinced, and any right-leaning reader unchanged and unmoved.

What is point?

It was enlightening to read what amounts to one man’s entire world view. Having read this, plus an interview with Scruton in the Guardian, I got a feel for where the author’s conservative origins lay, and they seem to lay in a fear of breaking down existing traditions and institutions, and of violence in general (being present in Paris in 1968 was a seminal event for him). His standpoint seems to have been taken before the philosophy came, however, whereas I’d like to think that developing your approach to the world should happen before you start labelling yourself. Perhaps, again, this is my bias.

I learned from this experience. When confronted with an opposing view, to me the baseless arguments and flawed thinking jump out. Does this mean that when I read something like The Spirit Level I just miss these flaws? Am I less critical during the reading process? Perhaps, and this is my usual explanation to myself as to why much organised religion will never appeal – there’s by definition no first principles, it’s all laid out for you to take or leave, nothing for your mind to mould itself to.

I’d recommend picking up something like The Uses of Pessimism if you’re normally a lefty reader, in preference to the more idiotic right wingery of the Daily Mail for instance, which would be much easier to dismiss. If nothing else it should make you question your own view of the world, and remind you that any values you hold dear should be examined just as closely as those you find repellent.