Whose Human Nature?

Kenan Malik made a defense of unrestricted free speech. I agreed with his basic argument. But that wasn’t what got me thinking.

In the comments section, I noticed that a couple of people didn’t understand what Malik was trying to communicate. They were conflating the issue of free speech with all the issues related to free speech, as if the only way to enforce control over all of society is by strictly controlling what people are allowed to say, and I assume harshly punishing anyone who disobeys by speaking freely. One of these conflated issues was human nature (see this comment and my responses).

The one commenter I had in mind seemed to be basing his views on some basic beliefs. There is a belief that there is a singular human nature that can be known and upon which laws should be based. Also there is the belief that human nature is unchanging, uncontrollable, and unimproving… all that one can do is constrain its expression.

This kind of thinking always seems bizarre to me. It’s a more typical conservative worldview. It’s the belief that human nature is just what it is and can be nothing else. So, liberals and left-wingers are perceived as being utopian perfection-seekers because they point out that human psychology is diverse, plastic, and full of potential.

I was thinking about this more in my own experience, though, and not just as a liberal. I’ve long realized I’m not normal and I’ve never thought that my own psychology should be considered normative for the human race. If all humans were like me, society would have some serious problems. I don’t presume most people are like me or should be like me.

Here is what I see in others who have strong beliefs about human nature, both descriptively and prescriptively. I often suspect they are projecting, taking what they know in their own experience and assuming others are like them. My self-perceived abnormality has safeguarded me from projecting onto others, at least in my understanding of human nature.

3 thoughts on “Whose Human Nature?

  1. I agree with you. There also seems to be a desire for there to be all sorts of stable essences (not just of human nature) but of things like religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism) as well as the US Constitution. Essences that are stable provide psychological security to many people. The fact that there may not be essences of human nature or religion or the US Constitution can be threatening to many.

    • Thanks for that comment! You helped to clarify my thoughts.

      You are absolutely correct that it is greater than just human nature. I focused on human nature because, from my perspective, that is the crux of the matter. But it obviously extends in many directions.

      The free speech angle is interesting. As you know, rights and freedoms are closely associated with disagreements over human nature. I’ve been long fascinated by the early modern debates about human nature. Even the concept of a human nature, in the psychological sense, was challenging. The idea that everyone had a human nature was even downright revolutionary. But saying everyone universally has a human nature is far from saying that everyone universally has the same human nature.

      Certainly, our understanding of psychology has immensely progressed since the rudimentary insights of the Enlightenment, not to devalue how important those insights were at the time and the impact they continue to have. It would have been hard for people centuries ago to imagine how complex our understanding would become in this area. Social science research has repeatedly challenged quite a few of the most fundamental assumptions of our society.

      In this context, I support free speech partly because I recognize that not everyone is like me and thinks like me, that not everyone holds and would express opinions like me. It isn’t just personal differences, but also different visions of society and different ways of relating. To shut down those differences seems like the worst thing to do, a dangerous slippery slope, although of course some differences are problematic and should be dealt with as humanely as possible (e.g., the criminally insane).

      There is a connection between psychological absolutism, ideological dogmatism, and a certain kind of unacknowledged moral relativism. People who think they know who and what is right are often more than willing to support freedom for me, but not for thee. It is freedom to do what is allowed, the right to do what someone else tells you is right.

      There is always a paternalistic edge to this attitude. The person advocating it always sees themselves as part of the privileged group who would have the power to decide. It never occurs to them that once authoritarian power structures are put into place, even in milder forms, that it is hard to limit the control of them to only those one deems morally worthy ‘good’ people, the enlightened elite.

      As I explained, I don’t see a reason to privilege my view over all others. I realize that many of my positions are idiosyncratic, even for a liberal. I use terms like liberal, conservative, and even human nature in loose and amorphous ways. They aren’t neat and tidy categories. They are general concepts, which is to say generalizations, rules with many exceptions. I try to be clear and careful in my qualifications (it does get tiresome restating them all the time, though).

      The idiosyncratic part is that, for example, I tend to mean psychologies (temperaments, predispositions, personality types, personality traits, etc) when speaking of broad ideological labels, specifically conservative and liberal. So, I acknowledge that there are relatively conservative-minded liberals (and relatively liberal-minded conservatives). As far as I know, everyone in Malik’s comment thread may self-identify as a liberal, but labels in and of themselves are of no grand signicance to me.

      Now, in my longwinded way, this gets to your point.

      Someone like me sees psychologies and identities as being rather fluid and malleable. That is what I see as being ‘liberal’ in my worldview. It is a psychological liberal-mindedness (FFM openness, MBTI intuition and perception, Hartmann’s thin boundary type). I interpret even opposing views through my liberal-minded lense, but oddly this is precisely what allows me to take opposing views on their own terms. My liberal-mindedness allows me to recognize diversity, that not everyone is like me, something that goes against the grain of conservative-mindedness.

      The conservative mindset, including the liberal in reactionary fear/anxiety mode, is an entirely different worldview. You nailed it by connecting the desire for stable essences with the need for psychological security. Freedom itself challenges this mindset and worldview. This is why a person holding this position has to say “freedom, but” which is to say not really freedom at all. They want to apply stable essence and psychological security even to freedom, and so they offer the strange notion of a constrained freedom or to put it more bluntly an unfree freedom.

      There is nothing wrong with having balance. The problem, at least in our present society, is that I have my doubts that balance is possible as long as right-wingers dominate (and by this I mean the entire power structure we presently have, not just one particular group, not just one particular ideological movement or party). I’ve theorized that only liberal-mindedness could offer the needed balance, for only liberal-mindedness can fully and genuinely acknowledge diversity.

      The issue with stable essences is deeply problematic. Conservatives may be more prone to it, but anyone can fall into that trap. To phrase it another way, stable essences are reification of concepts and this is most dangerous when dealing with social constructs. The dangers are clear when dealing with the belief in races and also with xenophobic nationallism, both dealing with dark histories of slavery, genocide, immigration, assimilation, etc.

      Asserting stable eessences is never an innocent act. It is about controlling what words mean and controlling the pollitical narrative. Ultimately, such seeking of control is about social control, the control of individuals and of society itself. It is not wise to base one’s understanding of freedom on the belief in human nature as a stable essence. This means that those who don’t fit the normative identity are to be excluded from basic rights or else severely curtailed.

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