Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Suffocating Significance

Hilzoy is, as usual, spot on:
This is an instance of something that generally bothers me about many discussions of politics: the assumption that political figures are not doing things for normal human reasons, but should instead be seen as communicating in a sort of code. Everything they do has a symbolic meaning: it's a symbol of disrespect for this, or craven obedience to that, or whatever; and if we want to understand them, we should not try to figure out why some comprehensible human being might have done what they did, but try to crack this code.

This is, in my view, silly. It's what leads to things like outrage over Obama's shaking hands with Hugo Chavez: if you view that handshake as the normal civil response to someone's extending his hand to you, it seems completely innocuous; but if you see it as a Fraught With Meaning, it looks like a sign that Obama thinks that Chavez is a wonderful guy.

I'm reminded of Nagel on Cultural Liberalism (original here):
Forty years ago the public pieties were patriotic and anticommunist; now they are multicultural and feminist. What concerns me is not the content but the character of this kind of control: Its effect is to make it difficult to breathe, because the atmosphere is so thick with significance and falsity...

Liberalism should favor the avoidance of forced choices and tests of purity, and the substitution of a certain reticence behind which potentially disruptive disagreements can persist without breaking into the open, and without requiring anyone to lie. The disagreements needn't be a secret -- they can just remain quiescent.

Back to Hilzoy:
If we wish to construe anything other than clear expressions of disdain or horror as "legitimizing" Chavez, we deprive politicians of the option of being basically civil and non-committal. Is there any earthly reason to suppose that narrowing their options in this fashion would be a good thing? That it would advance America's interests, or those of anyone other than people who thrive on perpetual outrage? I can't see how.


  1. People see politics as 'fraught with meaning' because politics is a religious mythology. Practically none of the rituals are meaningful or effective, practically none of the concepts of how it works are even coherent, and practically none of its 'commandments' make any sense.

    The reason people look at politics in such a grandiose and metaphorical way is because there is no other way to look at it except as a thrashing, purposeless bureaucracy ran by the same sort of inept twits who live down the street.

    Human beings are highly resistant to admitting their cherished cultural institutions are idiocy and nonsense.

  2. I agree that this is often absurd for the reason given in the last quotation, but I think the problem is exactly the reverse of what hilzoy suggests: these are in fact "normal human reasons" and are ways we often handle figuring out "hy some comprehensible human being might have done what they did", albeit on a smaller scale. The problem is not that normal human standards aren't being applied to politics, but that they are in fact being applied without regard for the peculiarities of politics. When people see two people shaking hands they do see it as Fraught with Meaning; it symbolizes benevolence, goodwill, friendship, respect, and any number of other things, and people will often withhold a handshake to express their disapproval. If someone were to see their spouse kissing someone else, it would indeed be taken as Fraught with Meaning; and if someone cuts them off in traffic, it is not the possible practical reasons for doing it but the symbolic contempt that immediately leaps to mind. People express their distaste for a speaker by walking out on them. The list could be lengthened considerably; while symbolic 'code' isn't the only set of interpretive tools we have, it is one we regularly use in everyday life. The real problem is that this only applies to politics so far; but it supplies the easiest standards to use, since actual political reasons run the gamut from 'normal human reasons' to extremely complicated diplomatic reasons that are not anywhere near being normal human reasons. So people massively overuse it.

  3. It seems like Hilzoy gets the right conclusion--"the people who are criticizing Obama are crazy"--for the wrong reason--"symbolic or coded meanings are pretty rare."

    Truth is, symbolic meaning is omnipresent, and the two acts in question (shaking someone's hand, holding a ceremony) serve no purpose except symbolic communication. There's literally no other reason to do them (can you think of one?).

    The funniest part is that Hilzoy's complaint about limiting politicians' options only makes sense if you think it's important for politicians to have options in terms of what kind of symbolic messages they can send leaders of other countries. If that's what she had said, she would have been right, we do want our leaders to be able to finesse their symbolic interactions with other people's leaders, but as it stands, her position is just confused.

  4. Hallq - "only makes sense if you think it's important for politicians to have options in terms of what kind of symbolic messages they can send leaders of other countries. If that's what she had said, she would have been right"

    You seem to have missed the bit where Hilzoy says just this: that it's important for politicians to have "the option of being basically civil and non-committal" among their symbolic repertoire. (Which we might just as well say is the option of refraining from making any kind of grand symbolic gestures either way. But it doesn't matter how we describe it. The point is to prevent unnecessary "forced choice" in presenting oneself as 'for' or 'against'.)

    "There's literally no other reason to do them (can you think of one?)."

    You shake someone's hand because it would be rude not to. Again, you can call such neutral moves as maintaining basic civility "symbolic" if you insist, but that seems obfuscatory. What matters here is that it isn't "Fraught With Meaning" in the sense of indicating any kind of valenced (e.g. positive) sentiment. Nobody takes such superficial polite niceties to indicate anything about one's true feelings. As Nagel explains so well, it's simply a public screen of reticence to enable social interactions to proceed more smoothly.

  5. I don't think calling ordinary behavior "symbolic" obfuscates anything. It highlights the fact that "normal" behavior is something fairly complicated, only "default" because it's common as opposed to default in some abstractly logical sense. Comments like Hilzoy's are annoying because they suggest that only what is out of the ordinary can be significant and the ordinary is to be taken for granted. It's a way of thinking that leads to lots of weird confusions about the world in other contexts (though here, I agree with her on the main question).


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