Sometimes things happen. Often they can be cast as examples of a type of thing. At the same time, many narratives and whole ideologies are based on certain types of thing being common and important. Together it means that sometimes things happen in the world that support particular narratives and ideologies.
Let’s back up. There are three ways to interpret single events. Say, to pick a typical example, that a video starts to circulate that shows animals in some factory farming operation somewhere being mistreated. This can be quite upsetting and virtually nobody supports it.
The first way to react is dismissal. You might think these violations are so rare as to be negligible, or that animals don’t have rights the way people do, or that they don’t really suffer — whatever renders it not a thing to worry about.
The next way is acknowledgement. Yeah it’s disturbing and upsetting, and the relevant authorities need to clamp down on abuses like this. Animal protection laws should perhaps be strengthened.
Finally, you can generalize from it. While acknowledgement allows for moral outrage but keeps it locally contained, generalization lets it spread. In other words: this example shows just how morally bankrupt the meat industry is and how all of us who eat meat, dairy or eggs are complicit in a holocaust-level crime that goes on and on, day after day, and our only route to absolution is to give up animal products and take up the fight for animal liberation.
I’m simplifying, but I think there are meaningful distinctions between
1) dismissing some phenomenon or event as having no moral significance,
2) acknowledging the significance but keeping it contained to this particular case, and
3) making that significance generalize to a much larger narrative.
Now imagine that a jihadist just drove a bus into a crowd in the middle of a mid-sized European city. What do you do?
Do you dismiss it? “More people die from pencil sharpener accidents every year” or “the real terrorism is the US Middle East policy” or “it’s racist to be angry about this”.
Or do you acknowledge it? “It’s a tragedy and an unforgivable crime”, perhaps “we need to support counterterrorism efforts and fight against radicalization”.
Or do you generalize from it? “This is why mass immigration from the middle east has been a disaster and we need to shut the border immediately and begin deporting them.”
Now everybody and their stick insect is sharing and talking about a video in which a black man is violently abused by an American police officer. What responses are there?
D: “He probably attacked first and resisted arrest, the police don’t do that for no reason.”
A: “This is seriously upsetting, the US really has a problem with police brutality and need to set up system to ensure accountability and give victims a chance to get restitution.”
G: “This is a fundamentally racist society captured in a single image. For centuries white America has brutally oppressed and traumatized its black community, and the police is the instrument it uses to carry out this ongoing campaign of victimization on a daily basis. Abolish the police!”
In a different corner of the internet a story surfaces about a biology professor that was forced out of their job by a shouting mob for saying there are exactly two sexes:
“It’s just a few overzealous kids, and anyway they have their heart in the right place”.
“This is an affront to academic freedom and integrity. The university needs to stand up to activists and guarantee an open intellectual environment.”
“It just goes to show how universities have been completely overrun by cultural Marxists and turned into nothing more than ideological echo chambers. Burn it all down.”
To be clear, my point isn’t that any of the reactions are right or wrong, per se. I simply want to show how there are three basic classes of reaction to a single, morally salient event. I won’t bore you with any more examples. If you want some, you can fill in the blanks for these yourself:
prominent right-winger acts like a dick
prominent left-winger acts like a dick
credentialed expert is wrong about something
a crackpot crackpots
some minor irregularity regarding vote counting somewhere surfaces
any sexual harassment case
somebody suffers a side effect from a vaccination shot
American bombs kill the wrong people in faraway country
Twitter mob gets unreasonably angry
person with some demographic characteristic commits crime
controversial figure gets banned from social media platform
celebrity gets death threats
somebody says something racist on tv
famous study fails to replicate
…and so on.
Minting political capital
When there are issues a large majority of people agree on it represents raw material from which political capital can be minted. It’s like a natural resource you can harvest, and you do that by directing it towards a political narrative where the particular issue can be cast to play an important part. You want to be able to say “this thing just goes to show how we are right about everything — if you agree with us on this you agree with us on this other stuff too”.
Ideally you don’t want to even have to say it. You want it to be automatic (“oh, this single thing that happened shows that ideology X is right about everything”). You get there by making the generalization response the cultural norm, and then, whenever a suitable news event occurs, publicize it as much as you can and watch the currency flow into your coffers.
Once it’s safely there it can be spent on other issues. That’s the good part. The more abstract and general a narrative is the more freely accumulated capital can be used. For example, if you manage to make “a regulation regarding requisitioning of equipment in the iron ore mining industry caused a stupid, catastrophic problem” support a general “regulations are dumb and bad” story, you’ll be able to use that to fight other regulations in, say, the advertising, finance, or tobacco industries. I love abstraction, but it can also be a pretty dumb thing.
People understand this dynamic intuitively, even if they can’t always articulate it. It explains a lot of how public discourse works. It’s a metaphorical war, where different political camps and ideologies build and keep narrative infrastructures, which they use to lay claim to certain categories of event, issue, fact or phenomenon as their own, and harvest from them whenever they “pay out”, so to speak.
We build such infrastructure by spinning (or regurgitating) narratives that influence people to think of what we want them to think of when they see or hear certain things in the world.
Sure, events and phenomena can potentially be considered members of more than one category and thus support more than one narrative. However, often a type of event is unambiguously “owned” by one camp and there’s no realistic chance for another to claim it. Then, instead of pursuing it for yourself, the best counterstrategy becomes disrupting the resource extraction process. The easiest way to do that is denying that there’s any value there at all — in other words, pushing the dismissal response (that’s if you have to respond at all, the most popular strategy is just shutting up to avoid drawing attention to the damn thing). That’s can be hard though, because you tend to (rightly) look like an ass or a crazy person when you flatly deny something most people agree with. This is precisely why ownership of high-consensus issues (see above) are valuable.
Acknowledgement means not denying that value but preventing it from being funneled off. It’s a more robust strategy in principle but also more difficult to pull off since it’s (minimally, but still) complicated and nuanced. It requires a “yes this, but not all that other implied stuff that your side has managed to package it together with” instead of just a “yes” or a “no”. That kind of subtlety needs a teeny bit of cooperation on the other end, which isn’t always forthcoming when it comes to hot-button issues. Which side are you on? *stares*
Yutting — cutting the flow
In my ideal world, the complexity of the “yes, but” sentiment would be boiled down into a simple concept (rather than a compound one) that you could use as a verb (or an ~interjection like “yes” and “no”). We could call it “yut”, a contraction of “yes, but”.
“I yut most of what that guy says.”
“I yut most environmental activism.”
“I yut the idea of a war on Christmas.“
“I yut many arguments for vegetarianism.”
My working definition of yutting would be to agree with a judgment on a single example, but reject the broader sentiment, narrative or ideology it’s brought up to support.
Not that I expect it to be a successful thing. People hate yutting. I think the clearest example of an attempt at a large scale yut was the response “All Lives Matter” to “Black Lives Matter” after the death of George Floyd in May 2020. It’s textbook acknowledgement response: to me it’s clearly meant to expresses something like:
“indeed Floyd’s death was a terrible crime and I’ll sign on the dotted line that police brutality is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but I don’t want to subscribe to a starkly racialized account of law enforcement as the violent arm of a white supremacist society, that transfers political capital from this incident towards generalized black identity politics, and I express this by phrasing my agreement in a way that excludes the particular narrative dimension that accomplishes that transfer.“
My impression is that the attempt failed completely. Because people understand these dynamics implicitly, the faction who wanted generalization immediately understood how the attempted yutting worked and why — and they were having none of it. The phrase was, as I understand it, pretty successfully cast as racist, despite its literal meaning. This makes perfect sense if you construe opposition to generalized black identity politics as racist per se — regardless of whether it stems from principled opposition to demographic identity politics or genuine racial animus — which many seem to do.
The cost of politicization
If we’re being literal it’s not quite right to call this “politicization”, because political issues are political even when they stay isolated and not incorporated into partisan narratives. Nonetheless, the word typically refers precisely to this process where an issue is claimed by one side, integrated into their narrative, and becomes their “property” and source of capital.
It’s of course a matter of opinion whether these capital flows from the specific to the general are good or bad. I’d wager most would say it’s good when it happens in a way they agree with and bad when it happens in a way they disagree with (they’re totally different things you guys!). I’m not immune to it myself. However, I do think there’s at least one generally negative effect: when you keep extracting, the source is going to run dry at some point.
In political terms: when you attach less popular narratives to a singular popular idea in order to exploit that popularity, the popular idea becomes less popular as a result.
There was some pretty strong agreement that the 2008 financial crisis necessitated some effort to fix the excesses of the financial industry and address rampant inequality. In that way Occupy Wall Street had a broad base of agreement to stand on, but as many fringe radicals tried to tap that resource of concentrated public agreement it got spread a lot thinner. I believe that if they had kept a narrow focus on corruption in the financial industry and on the social pathologies of extreme inequality instead of letting every radical cause under the sun attach itself to it for sustenance, it could have accomplished a lot more than it did.
This unfortunately erodes our capacity for positive change by making it impossible for consensus to stay concentrated for long enough to actually accomplish things (here I’m defining “positive change” as something a large majority of the population wants).
Climate change is the big example. The evidence for its importance is strong and there’s similarly strong support for investing in technological improvements and using economic incentives to encourage cleaner energy production and greater efficiency. But this strong support represents a resource that can be exploited, by attaching your own pet ideas to it and insist they’re inextricably linked.
Consider these examples (it took me less than one minute to find them all):
Climate Change Is the Symptom. Consumer Culture Is the Disease
No, climate action can’t be separated from social justice
The fight against climate change is a fight against capitalism
Climate change: the fault of the patriarchy
4 Reasons Why Climate Change Is a Racial Justice Issue
Yeah, tap that source. Tap, tap, tappety-tap… Wait, what do you mean the right doesn’t want to acknowledge climate change? How dare they politicize the science!
For sure, right wing politicization of the science behind climate change does stand in the way of solving the problem and mitigating the risks, and it’s irresponsible and dangerous. Yut. But if you pretend the issue isn’t already heavily politicized from the other side you’re either lying or not paying attention. The left laying claim to the issue and using the urgency it represents to provide support to some of their less widely supported ideas — with the entirely predictable result that support for actions mitigating the risks weakens across the political spectrum — is also irresponsible and dangerous.
Of course this doesn’t just happen on the left. I’ve already touched upon terrorism and hostility to foreigners earlier, and there are other examples. I’ve discussed before that I tend to believe in biology as an important factor in understanding people and society. I.e. I believe in human nature, in significant heredity of important traits, and in a biological basis for many differences between the sexes. I’m far from alone in that but these ideas and their implications are conspicuously absent from most of public discourse, and the reason is the same kind of dynamic: people with far less popular ideas (often people that you frankly don’t want to associate yourself with) claim them and are allowed to claim them. Therefore, merely expressing them creates capital flows towards certain ideas whether you like it or not. Personally I rather desperately want much of that flow infrastructure destroyed, but I can’t do it myself. (Although I can do my part to try).
There was another example in the news here in Sweden this spring: a public protest against new coronavirus restrictions. This isn’t a huge consensus issue but at least it’s a somewhat popular and respectable viewpoint to oppose stricter rules. What happens? People latch onto it and use it to push more marginal and/or batshit-ish views, from garden variety vaccine skepticism to “5G-causes-covid” and “the virus doesn’t exist”. And there goes your legitimacy. Great work, guys.
The heat death of society
For climate change, like biology in human affairs and whatever else, I want there to be an effective acknowlegdement response — yutting — that allows capital accumulation but keeps it local.
I understand why people construct the pipelines, and I don’t necessarily think anybody is being exactly dishonest when they do it. In most cases I think they express true convictions (for some meaning of true). No, it’s just that the more efficiently singular events or issues are incorporated into ideologies and used as sources of capital to extract and deploy elsewhere, the harder it becomes to keep political capital concentrated on specific issues and use it to get genuinely popular things done, whether it’s on climate change, policing, terrorism, inequality, or animal welfare.
Very popular ideas often don’t stay popular for very long, because less popular ideas attach themselves and suck ’em dry. This was always an issue, but in the age of the internet and social media it has become much easier and cheaper to build the conceptual infrastructure that routes political resources from where they’re plentiful to where they’re scarce. Almost everyone can speak publicly at virtually no cost, and this is what public speech does. You might even think of consensus as analogous to heat and paraphrase the second law of thermodynamics: political capital flows from areas of high consensus towards areas of low consensus, and the more efficiently this happens the faster we move towards the “heat death of society” where no usable political energy is available and nothing can be accomplished.
• • •
“Support” is of course different from “accept”.
Media plays a massively important role in this since it’s they who mostly publicize events and thus make them possible to exploit as resources.
Then we get a situation where a few things are fought over, with narratives competing to make sense of them, and other things being brought up only by one side and ignored by the other. Therefore, the “what side are you one” question can be answered either by what you think of a certain issue, or what issues you bring up or not.
You might even define identity politics as the practice of amassing political capital simply on behalf of demographic groups rather than single issues.
There’s nothing illegitimate per se to want to transfer capital from one place to another. It’s just a way to describe a process. Simply using a fact as an argument for an idea can be construed as “transferring belief capital from one statement to another” and that’s obviously fine.