June 21, 2006

Lipstick and the Euston Manifesto

I can't say that I think highly of the Euston Manifesto. When I first read it, the thing that came to mind was the infamous 1914 Reichstag vote on war credits. The tone of the Euston Manifesto suggests that its signers are the kind of people who would have issued a manifesto in 1914 condemning German leftists opposed to WWI. Real leftists should oppose French aggression and defend the fatherland despite its failure to meet leftist ideals.

The War Credits vote turned out badly for moderate leftists. By supporting the war, the German Socialists broke definitively with internationalism and discredited themselves enough that after the war, the disaffected (who were legion) had only hard line communism or fascism to turn to as viable alternatives.

This post is motivated by Daniel Davies' critique over on Crooked Timber. If I might be so bold as to offer a Shorter Daniel Davies: "It's dishonest to talk about the universal imposition of 'Enlightenment Values' and not point out that you mean 'shoot them until they see the error of their ways.'" The historical lack of success of beating on people until they acknowledge the error of their ways is certainly a strong argument against such an outlook.

D-squared's piece is, in turn, motived by Eve Garrard's commentary on John Grey's piece in the latest New Statesman. Full disclosure: Grey is one of my favorite skeptics of "Enlightenment values".

Garrard's piece is, from a linguistics standpoint, incoherent. Using lipstick color as an analogy, she asserts that words mean what she thinks they mean right now, and not what they meant in the past, what other people think they mean, and that their meaning is wholly independent of any acts they might actually entail in practice.

There are people who would advocate such a conception of linguistics. It's very popular right now to uphold that idea is that language is a property of individual speakers, that we each speak an idiolect whose referential semantics is entirely contained in our individual minds. Communication, therefore, is a coincidence of similarity between users' idiolects, and identifying meaning means first identifying whose meaning we mean.

Personally, I think it's a daft way to go about linguistics. But that's just me.

But the lipstick analogy isn't really very good even granting all that. She makes claims about what the words "rose-pink" mean when referring to lipstick. Years of linguistics research have shown that it's hard to assert that color words actually mean any distinct chunk of the spectrum, including when they are applied to lipstick. The dominant thesis is that color words refer to a degree of resemblance to a prototype color that is a fixed locus in the spectrum of visible colors. The prototype color corresponding to some word may not be identical, or even objectively close, to any particular object that one labels with that word.

It's hard not to deconstruct to her text to suggest that that's what she means by "Enlightenment values": not some specific or well-defined set of values but a resemblance to some imagined prototype society, perhaps some ideal western Europe or an America without any - quoting the manifesto itself - "departure from universal principles" like Guantanamo, rendition, or the Republican Party. The idea that other people's judgments of those societies might be motivated by their all too frequent "departures" rather that the universal values they proclaim never seems to enter into it.

When people start arguing about the meanings of words in order to make their case, it's a good sign that their case is rubbish. That's from Karl Popper's Conjectures and Refutations, it's not from some cultural relativist or other favorite bug-a-boo of the "decent" left.

Garrard further complains that:

Pointing out, as Gray does, that some other values endorsed by 18th century Enlightenment figures were extremely dodgy and may have led to later racism and oppression doesn't constitute a criticism of what we now call Enlightenment values, unless it can be shown that these latter inevitably go along with, or lead to, a commitment to racism and terrorism and oppression.

This is to miss the whole point. It was not generally the values those 18th century Enlightenment figures held that led to "racism and terrorism and oppression." It was the certainty that the pursuit of those values justified terrible actions that led to exactly those outcomes.

Grey makes the telling claim that:

What is needed today is not the return to faith beloved of Enlightenment believers and born-again Christians alike. It is realism and doubt - especially regarding the myth of progress in ethics and politics.

This similarity between religious conviction and the uncritical narrative of western intellectual and moral superiority is a major theme of Grey's book. Henry Morton Stanley spoke eloquently and at great length about the importance of bringing Christianity to Africa's "unsaved", using what for him, and most of his audience, was the obvious superiority of European Christian values to justify the occupation of central Africa. This was for him every bit as much a humanitarian venture and defense of universal values as the international defense of "Enlightenment values" proposed by the Euston signers. The outcome was the enslavement and slaughter of millions and the creation of humanitarian nightmare that persists today, well over a century later. The quality of the values being advanced was not the cause of all that misery, it was the acts performed in their name that were so destructive.

What the Euston people need to show is not the superiority of their values but the superiority of the actions they advocate. If they are advocating no acts, then they are of no consequence. If they have some way to advance their values other than an open-ended commitment to violence in support of those whose only sin is a failure to agree with them, they need to enlighten us about what they propose. Otherwise, they need to explain how they will avoid the horrors that wars for ideology have so easily produced in the past.

Posted 2006/06/21 16:08 (Wed)