Thursday, December 06, 2007

Eight Replies to the Argument for Political Nihilism

The argument about age and activism comes up quite frequently and I've responded to it before on this blog. I responded semantically before, but now I want to respond to it in a different way. The argument I'm responding to goes something like this. One should not be active in radical politics, or for that matter politics in general, during certain periods in their life because they might later change their views, or come to regret their views and hence any actions taken on that regard.

What makes this argument misguided? Here are eight non-semantic reasons.

  1. Linking the aging process to a narrative about the "progress" of one's political ideology and personal identity only collapses into unmitigated skepticism. Since we are always aging, and if age is somehow linked to political identity and progress, then political activism would be put off indefinitely.
  2. It undermines individual autonomy and responsibility. Why should anyone in society be taken seriously? If we think that at any given time their views are subject to change, it means that no one should be taken seriously, and no one would be thought of as responsible for political beliefs at any given time.
  3. This argument, originally contemplated as a case against radical politics, is itself a radical argument -- albeit, for the status quo.
  4. This leads to a dictatorship of the elderly. Since one would come to think that all young peoples' beliefs would eventually end up like the elderly peoples' beliefs, then whatever the elderly are believing at the time would be thought of as the most rational ideas to accept. Instead of taking a broad sample of society beliefs, one would take a sample from the elderly population to discover the most highly developed political ideologies. Revolutions in scientific knowledge defy this, however, and so do political revolutions. Paradigm shifts often combat institutional differences where the elderly hold to outdated practices and views.
  5. Those who hold this view about themselves as well as society are either extending their own political impotence to others or are politically agnostic. To think that others would also lack decision-making abilities only applies one's own impotence and ignorance to someone else. For the agnostic it would simply be their civic responsibility to develop their own political self-identities, since agnosticism is an epistemological problem that can only be solved by acquiring more knowledge. It does not advance any political beliefs, it only advances doubts.
  6. Political nihilism applies to speech as well as action. If acting on political beliefs could embarrass us later, there is no reason to think we should have the audacity to speak about them either. To illustrate, someone years later could remember what one had said and bring it up in an important business meeting. We might be embarrassed and quit our job. To avoid embarrassment, it would be better if our friends in college remembered us from--for example--dance parties, not by our politics, since politics is not a safe bet. We might become raging Straussians later in life and won't want to be remembered for hosting radical movie nights or engaging in military counter-recruitment. So this is an argument against speech just as much as it is an argument against action.
  7. It changes nothing and it invites us to do nothing, and that gives way to domination by individuals who are already acting on their convictions.
  8. The argument never gives any justification as to when action is possible or even psychologically coherent. If one accepts the argument, it would never make sense to be a political person, a political animal, since at any time in your life you might consider earlier views counter-productive. In short, this eliminates any story one could tell about "progress" in any political-historical sense, or in the sense of personal identity.

1 comment:

Muser said...

Absolutely: why should age itself be an indicator of wise politics? An older person can have lots of applicable experience and studied the right things--but he or she may do nothing with the experience and study. Bush is a good example. If someone has experience and can apply it well, that may be different, but it's not exclusively age-related. The age-related argument is basically ad homenim, and the homenim is old--McCain?