What the Right Fears, the Left Desires

Let us throw out a simple observation with limited detail and analysis. This is a phenomenon that seems to define the reactionary mind. And so it is more often found on the American right-wing. But it can be observed in anyone who is pulled into reaction, including those reacting to reactionaries or otherwise immersed in the reactionary dynamic; a dynamic, by the way, that is inevitably authoritarian. Within the reactionary culture of American society, that can include much of the population to varying degrees. While this complicates matters, we will mostly ignore it for the time being, since we’ve already discussed it elsewhere.

We’ll briefly note the complication in the following and then move on. To put this in concrete terms, most Democratic elite and partisans tend towards the reactionary, if less strongly and blatantly than GOP elite and partisans. It’s nearly impossible to be involved in the polarization and propaganda of partisan politics without being at least somewhat reactionary — it’s almost a prerequisite. Still, there are vast differences of degree and it’s mainly those at the extreme end that we’re talking about. It is a specific category of person that falls into the full glory of the reactionary mind and embraces it as an identity (for details, see our writings on Corey Robin and the reactionary mind).

Here is the observation. Reactionaries only perceive the other side’s beliefs and views, values and principles as ideological, that only those other people’s ideologies are radical and extremist; that other’s politics are a religious faith, other’s political actions are nihilism and anarchism, other’s religions are cults and myths, other’s rhetoric is propaganda, other’s fears are moral panic, other’s behavior is mass formation, other’s governance is authoritarianism, on and on and on. Basically, those other people are bad or evil, whereas reactionaries are confident that they are on the side of Light and Righteousness. There is a lack of humility and introspection, mixed with projection and caricature.

This relates also to various ways that reactionaries can be dismissive of others. Another person’s information and evidence, experience and suffering is not fully real to them. The reactionary mind works by closing down and excluding. So, another group’s oppression and victimization is not only less real but less legitimate and important. This is why, among Americans, many white conservatives, white fundamentalists, and white males believe they are the most victimized people in the United States, maybe in the world; a view starkly disconnected from reality.

This is an old pattern. And, in Anglo-American culture, it really does usually divide according to Left and Right. It was the emergent conservatives, as reactionary counter-revolutionaries, who accused the political left of being nihilists following the American and French revolutions. Then shortly after that, it was the Southern aristocracy, in reacting to modernization, that accused Northerners of ideological ‘-isms’. And these reactionaries would repeat this rhetoric endlessly, as if it was the most damning of judgments. But the point is that kind of dismissive criticism has rarely been heard on the Anglo-American left.

Why is that? We originally didn’t plan to offer any analysis, but let’s point to some old themes of ours and share a cursory explanation. The fundamental reason for this difference involves moral imagination, symbolic conflation, social constructionism, and ideological realism (we have numerous posts on all of these). We could surely add to that list, if we gave it much more thought. Basically, the reactionary right requires their worldview to be conflated with reality, confused in the mind, buried in the unconscious, obscured from public gaze, and so placed above interrogation. There are many tools to achieve this end such as faux nostalgia, historical revisionism, and invented traditions; and so erasing the evidence of its origins in order to make something appear as if it was always that way.

On the other hand, the action of the political left has typically been the opposite, to explore origins and analyze the development, to place things in context; and hence the reason the political left has long been closely associated with intellectuality, science, academia, and education. Between the conservative and liberal minds, this is the push and pull between two forces, what Lewis Hyde called Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light, one that enchants and the other that disenchants. The liberal mind wants to bring things out into the open so that they can be analyzed, questioned, and doubted; or understood and appreciated. And this is precisely what conservatives fear, the grubby scrutiny of consciousness that Edmund Burke portrayed as a lecherous mob penetrating the palace and tearing away the queen’s clothing to reveal what should not be seen by prying eyes.

The ruling power of the reactionary mind and the conservative order can only operate by being hidden and protected. This is why the reactionary right fears the left as radical and extremist, nihilist and anarchist. There is a grain of truth to this. Consider that ‘radical’ means to get to the root of things and that is what the liberal-minded like to do, pull things up out of the dirt and into the sunlight. The conservative-minded rightly points out that this might kill the plant, but if it is a weed or invasive species we do want to kill it. And, if it turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant it into the safety of a garden where it will be tended and watered. Contrary to reactionary obfuscation, the liberal mind seeks open-eyed clarity and discernment.

Even the accusation of nihilism hints at something genuine. It originally was a dismissive label and a slur used against revolutionaries, reformers, and radicals. But some far leftists in late 19th century Russia took it as a proud and honorable title; in the way some blacks use the ‘N’ word to take ownership of it and neuter it as a weapon. The Russian Nihilists were not a highly organized movement, similar to the present ‘antifa’ in the US (supposedly everywhere and yet can never be found), but they shared a common philosophy or attitude. To their understanding, nihilism meant that, although future solutions are unknown in the present, they could seek to eliminate the problems that obstructed the ability to seek and enact those potential solutions — like tearing a structure down to its foundation in order to rebuild or plowing a field to plant crops; that is to say creative destruction.

Unlike the false claims of nihilism as mere anarchistic terrorism, these Nihilists didn’t lack beliefs and values. Rather, what they wanted was an open public debate about beliefs and values, that nothing should be off limits. Their actions were pro-active. They embodied Hermes the Light who disenchants, but always with the purpose of re-enchanting (i.e., inspiring and enthralling) the mind with a different and better ideological frame of narrative and understanding. This is nothing unusual, as every major change necessitates this process of undoing, prior to re-creating. It depends on one’s perspective. To British reactionaries like Edmund Burke, the American Revolution ended up seeming like the chaotic nihilism of violent mobs. But, ironically, the American reactionaries, once they co-opted the revolutionary nation-building, saw it as the most wonderful thing.

There is a real distinction to be made between right and left, reactionary and non-reactionary. The political right is correct to an extent. The two mentalities really do diverge, even if a mutual dynamic lashes them together in their movements. This is what many soft-hearted and well-intentioned liberals fail to understand, in their desire for equality and their vulnerability to false equivalency. The two mindsets are not only different in degree but in substance and motivation — they are two worldviews foreign to each other. As rightism attempts to enclose the whole world within its ideological grip, leftism at its best points beyond itself to what is presently unknown. This is fundamentally nihilistic, whichever definition of that term one prefers, but essentially a broad and curious-minded openness toward undiscovered and unproven possibility.

Here is an even more important distinction. The reactionary right is drawn into essentialism and determinism, as related to ideological realism. This is the naturalistic fallacy. Like races and gender, social mindsets and political identities can be taken as reality itself; and so abstractions as labels can become reified. These are among the many things the political left seeks to undo and dispel, to disenchant. Think of the difference between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. The former asserted an absolutist dogma, whereas the latter was more akin to the Russian nihilists in never having outlined any specific ideological system that would inevitably replace capitalist realism, as he also thought solutions couldn’t be determined beforehand. Leftism and liberalism, as such, are more markers of undetermined significance, pointing in a direction as yet unknown.

Those on the political left don’t need to dismiss the other side because leftism wants to weaken such boundaries of the mind and boundaries of social order, particularly boundaries of pseudo-tribalism, so as to imagine something else. In reality, none of us is actually left-wing or right-wing, conservative or liberal. These are social constructions, not reality; whether or not we deem them useful fictions. We are free to create something else and the suggestion that seeking not yet known possibilities is nihilistic is meaningless and irrelevant, an empty fear lashing out in the darkness. The leftist has less difficulty in admitting that their own politics are also an ideological worldview because it is only in admitting this that we can bring our biases and failures out into the open to be aired. What the right fears, the left desires.

The political left has less to defend, both in a practical sense and as an ideological project. This is why, in our own writings, we regularly take shots at all sides. In fact, we are often most critical of those who are most similar and most in agreement with us, and we regularly piss off people who might be perceived as being on ‘our side’. An example of this is our complaint against the corporate takeover of environmentalist arguments, in co-opting veganism as a political tool (e.g., EAT-Lancet). It’s precisely because we have been strident environmentalists for as long as we can remember that we take such offense at this movement being misused as propagandistic social control. The value of environmentalism, in our own liberal mind, is not as a social identifier of group identity. This is how we’ve ended up such a disloyal liberal in refusing to bow down to the DNC elite, AFSCME union leadership, or anyone else.

Group loyalty is not a defining trait of the liberal mind. It’s because of this resistant attitude toward group-mindedness that some describe trying to organize the political left as herding cats. It’s the strength and weakness of liberal-mindedness. Left-liberalism, rather than falling into strongly and strictly contained boundaries of us versus them, tends to expand and sometimes, sadly, splinter apart. But there is something impressive and worthy about the liberal mind. We’ve previously noted that white liberals are the first ‘group’ seen in American research to express a pro-outgroup bias, as opposed to identifying with those supposedly like themselves (i.e., other white liberals).

The reason is that most of those white liberals don’t take white liberalism as their group identity, in the way that do white conservatives, for they’ve opened and expanded the circle of concern. There is less sense of an other to project upon because the liberal potentially invites everyone, even those on the reactionary right, into belonging as members of a liberal society. Terms such as reactionary and progressive, left and right are relative, not absolute, labels and context-dependent, not essentialist identities; and so one day those terms will disappear while the human race will remain. Liberalism aspires to unity through diversity. The political right sees this pro-outgroup bias as leftist self-hatred that seeks to destroy all that is good about the white race, the Christian religion, and Western civilization. But, in the liberal mind, there is enough kindness and compassion to go around, along with enough resources if shared equally and fairly.

It’s a split between an attitude of scarcity and an attitude of abundance, between fear and love. To the left-liberal persuasion, we are all humans on a shared earth, we are all citizens of the world — the ancient dream of the Axial Age prophets. Those on the reactionary right, obviously, disagree in that they define themselves by what they oppose and exclude. As conservative Ronald Reagan pointed out, we might only be unified as a common human species when earth is attacked by a common enemy of space aliens; although simply the existence of space aliens, even if entirely peaceful, would be enough to elicit a reaction of fear from reactionaries. If and when that happens, the reactionary right will accuse those space aliens of everything that, in the past, they accused liberals and leftists (or Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc). Meanwhile, the political left will seriously consider and openly debate about whether space aliens should have the same freedom and rights, should be welcomed as fellow beings as part of a single shared galaxy or universe.

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Notes on terminology:

We don’t make an absolute differentiation in how we use the labels of left-wing, leftism, liberalism, and left-liberalism. Even ‘progressivism’, at this point, has mostly been subsumed within this political left matrix, although earlier last century there were conservative and right-wing progressives of the old school Whiggish strain (many of them imperialists, nativists, antisemites, eugenicists, xenophobes, racists, white supremacists, and fundies). But there is separate historical development of the ‘left’ and the ‘liberal. We’ve covered this information before, but we’ll rehash it here.

Since the French Revolution, the political left has been primarily associated with egalitarianism and similar concepts of fraternity, solidarity, camaraderie, and such. This is about what mutually unites and holds together an economic class or group of people (typically a large group), either formally organized (e.g., labor union), informally associated (e.g., a poor community), or otherwise allied through common vision, interests, and benefit. The desired goal is to escape false consciousness by developing class consciousness or group consciousness, the knowledge and awareness of the conditions that create the social world one was born into. For this reason, the idea of a leftist way of thinking has also become implicated in theories or understandings about what is interdependent, systemic, environmental, ecological, holistic, integral, intersectional, complex, etc.

The metaphorical ‘left’ has an ancient pedigree, such as the left-hand path; as opposed to a right-hand man, being in the right, and having rights. Liberty and hence libertarianism is about the individual rights that can be given or taken away by official and legal power; specifically and originally in terms of the right to not be enslaved, whether or not others are enslaved. Freedom, on the other hand, is more cultural and communal, such as belonging of a free people and being among friends. See: Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty. The word ‘right’ might be etymologically related to Greek ‘arete’ as virtue, righteousness, pride, power, ability, etc; and maybe also related to words like regent, royalty, and rajah. One can sense why the right-wing became naturally identified with authoritarianism, social dominance, and rigid hierarchy. Whereas the connection to conservatism is more of a sociopolitical observation, since every authoritarian regime that has ever existed has been socially conservative, including Stalinism and Maoism.

Liberalism stands out as unique among these terms. Unlike conservatism, it’s earliest definition had nothing to do with governance, politics, political parties, social order, power structure, legal systems, social movements, and such. To this day, it maintains more of its basic meaning as a psychological predisposition, a behavioral mentality or attitude, a way of relating to or treating others, and how one inhabits or acts in the world; particularly, as measured in FFM openness, MBTI intuition and perceiving, and Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type. Most simply, liberalism always has carried the meaning of generosity of spirit, although conservatives argue that liberals are being generous with other people’s money. This spiritual generosity, of course, never was inherently and primarily about money; as it mainly suggests an attitude of loving-kindness, sympathetic understanding, compassionate action, moral concern, helpfulness, and forgiveness which may or may not be expressed through material resources, private or public.

This relates to how liberalism became described according to the religious notion of a bleeding heart, which means a good Christian who sacrifices for others; but as an accusation it implies one who cares too much or who wants to be (or wants to be perceived as being) a martyr. And that brings us to the crime of sympathizing with the enemy, foreigners, and other unwanted or dangerous outsiders; along with sympathizing with undesirables in general (e.g., the conservative perception of the dirty, lazy, criminal, poor, and all around inferior permanent underclass who are supposedly undeserving of sympathy) — anyone who is deemed ‘other’. This is why, during the Cold War, liberals were sometimes called fellow travelers, to judge them as guilty by perceived association with communists. There are endless associations along these lines, as the word ‘liberal’ has been around so along to accumulate a mixed history of meanings.

There is one other thing that is a new thought. In studying Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, the use of language comes up. Everyone uses metaphors and metonymies and they have immense power over the mind (see the literature on linguistic relativity). But the left-liberal tends to use such language openly and consciously; while the right-conservative does so obscurely or unconsciously. It’s partly a difference of whether our use of language is held lightly or tightly. That even applies to the language of left and right, a metonymical metaphor of the body politic. That is the point we made above about the left pointing beyond itself. Left-liberalism wants to disenchant the mind and there is no greater power of enchantment than word magic, particularly as memetic mind virus.

That is why those who complain the most about the left-right metaphor are typically those on the left, not those on the right. It’s amusing because in complaining they are demonstrating their leftist style of thinking, in not perceiving these words as representing essentialist and deterministic qualities that literally divide up humanity. Metaphors are either useful or not, but when useful they help clarify patterns that are otherwise difficult to perceive and talk about. At present, there is not yet an equally potent and effective metaphor to replace this one. And no such metaphor disappears without being replaced. That is why, despite our own criticisms of all of these terms, we go on using them. There apparently are no other good alternatives, not so far as we can tell. We could simply speak of egalitarianism in place of leftism and liberalism, but that word doesn’t have the readymade sense of meaning that most people easily grasp.

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2/5/22 – Note on left vs right, liberal vs conservative:

As often repeated in this blog, reactionaries can co-opt anything. That is a complicating factor. Take the Nazis, as right-wing authoritarian (RWA) as they come, and combined with social dominance orientation (SDO) — they used any and all rhetoric as it was convenient, in typical realpolitik fashion. This included also using the rhetoric of leftism and progressivism, but they also used the rhetoric of conservatism, religion, and much else. One observer who visited Nazi Germany stated that Nazi rhetoric was incoherent, as they simply would say anything. But there is actually a coherent motivation within the reactionary mind, if one scrutinizes it closely enough and digs down into its underlying psychological structure. The reactionary mind is essentially a Dark Personality, defined by the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) or Dark Tetrad (plus sadism).

Rhetoric is largely irrelevant, at least at this level. You have to first determine someone is honest in their use of rhetoric before you can take their rhetoric at face value. One of the pillars of the Dark Personality is Machiavellianism, having to do with a lack of humility and a willingness to do anything to get ahead. This is closely associated with SDO, which is distinct from but often overlapping with RWA. How they are differentiated is, for example, their motivation for prejudice. RWAs will fear and hate those who are unable or unwilling to assimilate to the group identity and subordinate themselves to conventional authority, which is why RWAs are actually more flexible in simply wanting to be good followers, even in a liberal social democracy or a leftist state. SDOs, instead, fear and hate those who will attempt to assimilate because, in doing so, they threaten to undo the social order of hierarchy and inequality.

That said, later research does differentiate between two elements of SDO that must be measured separately (The Nature of Social Dominance Orientation, Arnold K. Ho et al). There are the full-on dominators who express old school bigotry like racism. That is SDO-Dominance (SDO-D). But that aspect is on the decline in the West since it is no longer politically correct in mainstream society and no longer allowed to be enforced in law. That is where SDO-Egalitarianism (SDO-E) comes in. Many SDOs are prejudiced in more subtle ways and with more subtle means. They simply want to enforce anti-egalitarianism itself. That kind of SDO might be find if a few black people become rich, just as long as most black people remain poor, and just as long as the plutocrats remain in power. The same would apply to other groups as well, such as a harsh attitude toward poor whites (e.g., DNC elites and DNC-aligned corporate media scapegoating poor whites for Donald Trump’s rise to power, despite the fact that his main supporters were middle class whites). The fear is that the repressed will rise up, but SDO-Es are less concerned about the exact demographics of the repressed.

Obviously, one can sense how the reactionary can be complicated and why it comes in degrees. But the full reactionary mind will be high in both SDO-D and SDO-E, will be high in both SDO and RWA, what are referred to as Double Highs — these are the worse of the worst, the most prejudiced and the most likely to become leaders of far right groups. But what about left-wing authoritarianism and dominance? That is one of the further complications, as indeed reactionaries can and will use any rhetoric. Josef Stalin is the greatest example of how a Double High will use Machiavellianism to gain power and rule. He didn’t actually care about communism, other than how it helped him rebuild the Russian Empire with a neo-feudal peasantry as forced labor. What stands out is that Stalinism was socially conservative, not socially liberal. That is the main point. Reactionaries can co-opt any rhetoric, but this is superficial. What they can’t ever fully co-opt is social liberalism itself as behavior and policy because that would undermine RWA and SDO.

This is shown in research where “dark personalities seem to have a particularly important impact on political extremism and election of politicians and political parties who are considered right- or left-wing” and yet simultaneously “narcissism and psychopathy were associated with political conservatism, whereas Machiavellianism was associated with low rates of liberalism (Jonason, 2014). The Dark Triad traits also correlate with conservative judgments such as capital punishment, gay marriage, and gun control (Arvan, 2013). […] Finally, dark personality traits have been shown to be associated with moral foundations that in turn are linked to conservatism. For example, Međedović and Petrović (2016) showed that Machiavellianism predicted both ingroup/loyalty and authority/respect, whereas psychopathy was positively associated with ingroup/loyalty” (Boris Duspara and Tobias Greitemeyer, The impact of dark tetrad traits on political orientation and extremism).

So, even when some left-wingers or rather some using left-wing rhetoric measure high in dark personality traits related to RWA and SDO, they also measure high in conservative traits. You will never find a dark personality with liberal traits because, by definition and by essence, liberal traits are the complete opposite of the Dark Triad/Tetrad, RWA, and SDO. This is why, in seeking to clarify, we speak of left-liberals as a distinct category because one could also argue that left-conservatives exist along with right-conservatives, but what one will never meaningfully find are right-liberals as the right-wing is defined to the degree it is not liberal, whereas the left is a bit less clear in its relationship to liberalism (there is a long conflict between leftists and liberals that has formed a legacy of confusion, although it is as much or more a conflict between old liberalism and new liberalism).

When we use the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ in this blog, we are always referring to motivations and not rhetoric. The strange phenomenon of left-conservatives doesn’t make sense beyond superficial rhetoric because conservatism inherently opposes the very substance and meaning of left-wing ideology. So, to refer to left-conservatives is simply another way of saying reactionaries co-opting left-wing rhetoric for right-wing purposes of RWA and SDO. This is useful knowledge, though, for intellectual discernment and intellectual self-defense. We are always using the past as a touchstone because, despite all of the confusion, there is a consistency of ideological distinction that goes back centuries. That is why it is helpful to put this in the earliest historical context. Right and left originally referred to the seating arrangement in the French Assembly. Supporters for the king sat on the right side of the king; whereas detractors, critics, reformers, and malcontents sat on his left. This basic kind of distinction remains true, no matter what is the power in question.

The French king was a Double High figure and so to support him meant to support a system that was based on high RWA and high SDO. There is only one way to be loyal to a strongman ruler who demands total obedience, only one position to be in when on the right. To be a right-winger means submission to some institutional system of authority and domination, be it political, social, economic, or religious. To be the king’s right-hand man is to do as one is told, to be a yes-man, to be a good follower and a good enforcer of submission. But there is potentially an infinite number of ways to be on the king’s left. That basic distinction remains true to this day, at least in a Western context (as left and right categorization may or may not apply to other cultures). In the United States, there is no established left-wing system, institution, or organization of respected authority that wields any significant power and influence. Even academia in universities is structured according to authoritarian bureaucracy and dependent on authoritarian corporate funding, which is the reason why egalitarian far leftists like anarchists are rarely employed as college professors and researchers. American leftists inevitably are forced outside of power because that is the nature of being a Double Low and Light Personality within any society dominated by Double Highs and Dark Personalities.

But even in the most liberal society and most well-functioning social democracy, there will always be left-wing critics who are forever pushing toward new and greater possibilities, just as conservatives and authoritarians will come to defend the established order, even defending a liberal and egalitarian order — another way in which leftism is partly distinct from a broad sense of liberalism. To be a leftist is to be forever dissatisfied with what is in imagining what might be. This is why the political left is an endless spur toward progress as there is no ultimate end to possibility, such that enacting one possibility simply opens up to further possibilities. That goes to the point that left-wing ideology is never limited to any single political system but, rather, opens up to diverse possibilities that includes what has not yet been fully understood, articulated, and envisioned. Leftism simply stands for possibility itself, which ironically is how leftists get identified as nihilists with a bad attitude because leftism first requires pointing out what is wrong, what is hobbling, crippling, and stunting potential. Possibility, to be sought and made manifest, must be freed from what seeks to limit and eliminate possibility. More than anything else, this is possibility-mindedness as openness, curiosity, exploration, wonder, hope, and optimism.

This possibility-mindedness, though, is not a blank slate for it is inherently motivated by a love of ever increasing egalitarian freedom — it represents the possibility and the potential that is seen as equally residing within everyone; the opposite of and opposing to ideological realism that constrains possibility by shutting down the radical imagination. Leftism shakes loose the calcified mind and identity. Liberalism is just one component of this, but an important component. It is the victory of leftism that liberalism has become the dominant paradigm that frames and defines everything, even the reactionary right; where each and every generation of conservatives is more liberal than the last, such that the average conservative today is to the left of the average liberal from a century ago. This has created a strange situation where the majority of Americans are left-liberals, even as the reactionary right continues to not only rule the government, economy, and media but also rule the public mind, public identity, and public imagination — rule by oppression.

Liberalism has been so normalized that classical conservatism is almost entirely buried and forgotten. One is hard put to find many contemporary American conservatives who openly and blatantly, fully and proudly defend the misogynistic, racist, eugenicist, genocidal, plutocratic, and imperialist conservatism from past centuries (e.g., a rigid caste system of aristocrats and peasants, of slaveholders and slaves, of colonizers and colonized, of the civilized and the primitive, of WASPs and ethnics, of native-borns and immigrants). Classical conservatism is now politically incorrect, even on the mainstream political right, so politically correct that it can’t even be acknowledged. This is why, among the educated and respectable classes, conservatives will often claim to be classical liberals (i.e., early modern liberalism). But, of course, the reactionary right’s understanding of past liberalism is extremely narrow and nostalgic, i.e., mostly false and misleading — they certainly don’t mean radical Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers: Baruch Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Marquis de Condorcet, Pierre Bayle, Giambattista Vico, Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc. Mostly, reactionary right classical liberals are looking to John Locke and Adam Smith; but Lockean land rights were earlier, not to mention more strongly and radically, defended by Roger Williams; and modern conservatives overlook the fact that Adam Smith, the leading light of capitalist thought, stated a free society wasn’t possible with high inequality, i.e., a Double High society.

So, amusingly, the reactionary right in selectively co-opting yesteryear’s liberalism and filtering it through nostalgic historical revisionism ends up having no inherent substance of its own, while the egalitarian left in abandoning or transforming old liberal positions is the creative force that again and again establishes the very substance that can be later co-opted. The right uses moral imagination to appear to have substance in hiding its lack of substance, in that the reactionary is forever defined not by what it is for but by what it is reacting against. And the left constantly leaves behind its own substance once it has been established, which can leave the impression of the left lacking substance, of being merely critical and antagonistic, destructive and nihilistic. Like the French left, the Anglo-American left came into being in opposition to a king and the entire authoritarian system of monarchy and aristocracy. The French were following the example of Anglo-American revolt, not only the American Revolution but also the earlier regicidal English Civil War that itself was influenced by the earlier radical class war of the Peasants’ Revolts, along with the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Anabaptist hereticism. All of this formed into a larger Western tradition of leftist politics that continues to oppose whatever powers that be, but not knee-jerk opposition for it is seeking to reform and re-create. What the left is seeking freedom from and hence freedom toward is always a moving target.

20 thoughts on “What the Right Fears, the Left Desires

  1. Dear Benjamin,

    I would like to commend you highly on publishing another post detailing the fractious nature of the reactionary.

    By the way, as your avid reader, or rather, proofreader, I would like to point out some typos as follows:

    (1) The definite article “the” has been repeated in “And so it is more often found on the the American right-wing.”

    (2) You probably meant “tend towards” rather than “tend to toward” in “… most Democratic elite and partisans tend to toward the reactionary”

    (3) I think that you meant “as if theirs was…” in “as if they it was the most damning of judgments”.

    (4) The pronoun “it” has been omitted but is actually needed twice in “And, if [it] turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant [it] into the safety…”

    I particularly like these ten paragraphs of yours:

    The fundamental reason for this difference [between the progressive left and the conservative right] involves moral imagination, symbolic conflation, social constructionism, and ideological realism (we have numerous posts on all of these). We could surely add to that list, if we gave it much more thought. Basically, the reactionary right requires their worldview to be conflated with reality, confused in the mind, buried in the unconscious, obscured from public gaze, and so placed above interrogation. There are many tools to achieve this end such as faux nostalgia, historical revisionism, and invented traditions; and so erasing the evidence of its origins in order to make something appear as if it was always that way.

    On the other hand, the action of the political left has typically been the opposite, to explore origins and analyze the development, to place things in context; and hence the reason the political left has long been closely associated with intellectuality, science, academia, and education. Between the conservative and liberal minds, this is the push and pull between two forces, what Lewis Hyde called Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light, one that enchants and the other that disenchants. The liberal mind wants to bring things out into the open so that they can be analyzed, questioned, and doubted; or understood and appreciated. And this is precisely what conservatives fear, the grubby scrutiny of consciousness that Edmund Burke portrayed as a lecherous mob penetrating the palace and tearing away the queen’s clothing to reveal what should not be seen by prying eyes.

    The ruling power of the reactionary mind and the conservative order can only operate by being hidden and protected. This is why the reactionary right fears the left as radical and extremist, nihilist and anarchist. There is a grain of truth to this. Consider that ‘radical’ means to get to the root of things and that is what the liberal-minded like to do, pull things up out of the dirt and into the sunlight. The conservative-minded rightly points out that this might kill the plant, but if it is a weed or invasive species we do want to kill it. And, if turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant into the safety of a garden where it will be tended and watered. Contrary to reactionary obfuscation, the liberal mind seeks open-eyed clarity and discernment.

    There is a real distinction to be made between right and left, reactionary and non-reactionary. The political right is correct to an extent. The two mentalities really do diverge, even if a mutual dynamic lashes them together in their movements. This is what many soft-hearted and well-intentioned liberals fail to understand, in their desire for equality and their vulnerability to false equivalency. The two mindsets are not only different in degree but in substance and motivation — they are two worldviews foreign to each other. As rightism attempts to enclose the whole world within its ideological grip, leftism at its best points beyond itself to what is presently unknown. This is fundamentally nihilistic, whichever definition of that term one prefers, but essentially a broad and curious-minded openness toward undiscovered and unproven possibility.

    Here is an even more important distinction. The reactionary right is drawn into essentialism and determinism, as related to ideological realism. This is the naturalistic fallacy. Like races and gender, social mindsets and political identities can be taken as reality itself; and so abstractions as labels can become reified. These are among the many things the political left seeks to undo and dispel, to disenchant. Think of the difference between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. The former asserted an absolutist dogma, whereas the latter was more akin to the Russian nihilists in never having outlined any specific ideological system that would inevitably replace capitalist realism, as he also thought solutions couldn’t be determined beforehand. Leftism and liberalism, as such, are more markers of undetermined significance, pointing in a direction as yet unknown.

    Those on the political left don’t need to dismiss the other side because leftism wants to weaken such boundaries of the mind and boundaries of social order, particularly boundaries of pseudo-tribalism, so as to imagine something else. In reality, none of us is actually left-wing or right-wing, conservative or liberal. These are social constructions, not reality; whether or not we deem them useful fictions. We are free to create something else and the suggestion that seeking not yet known possibilities is nihilistic is meaningless and irrelevant, and empty fear lashing out in the darkness. The leftist has less difficulty in admitting that their own politics are also an ideological worldview because it is only in admitting this that we can bring our biases and failures out into the open to be aired. What the right fears, the left desires.

    The political left has less to defend, both in a practical sense and as an ideological project. This is why, in our own writings, we regularly take shots at all sides. In fact, we are often most critical of those who are most similar and most in agreement with us, and we regularly piss off people who might be perceived as being on ‘our side’. An example of this is our complaint against the corporate takeover of environmentalist arguments, in co-opting veganism as a political tool (e.g., EAT-Lancet). It’s precisely because we have been strident environmentalists for as long as we can remember that we take such offense at this movement being misused as propagandistic social control. The value of environmentalism, in our own liberal mind, is not as a social identifier of group identity. This is how we’ve ended up such a disloyal liberal in refusing to bow down to the DNC elite, AFSCME union leadership, or anyone else.

    Group loyalty is not a defining trait of the liberal mind. It’s because of this resistant attitude toward group-mindedness that some describe trying to organize the political left as herding cats. It’s the strength and weakness of liberal-mindedness. Left-liberalism, rather than falling into strongly and strictly contained boundaries of us versus them, tends to expand and sometimes, sadly, splinter apart. But there is something impressive and worthy about the liberal mind. We’ve previously noted that white liberals are the first ‘group’ seen in American research to express a pro-outgroup bias, as opposed to identifying with those supposedly like themselves (i.e., other white liberals).

    The reason is that most of those white liberals don’t take white liberalism as their group identity, in the way that do white conservatives, for they’ve opened and expanded the circle of concern. There is less sense of an other to project upon because the liberal potentially invites everyone, even those on the reactionary right, into belonging as members of a liberal society. Terms such as reactionary and progressive, left and right are relative, not absolute, labels and context-dependent, not essentialist, identities; and so one day those terms will disappear while the human race will remain. Liberalism aspires to unity through diversity. The political right sees this pro-outgroup bias as leftist self-hatred that seeks to destroy all that is good about the white race, the Christian religion, and Western civilization. But, in the liberal mind, there is enough kindness and compassion to go around, along with enough resources if shared equally and fairly.

    It’s a split between an attitude of scarcity and an attitude of abundance, between fear and love. To the left-liberal persuasion, we are all humans on a shared earth, we are all citizens of the world — the ancient dream of the Axial Age prophets. Those on the reactionary right, obviously, disagree in that they define themselves by what they oppose and exclude. As conservative Ronald Reagan pointed out, we might only be unified as a common human species when earth is attacked by a common enemy of space aliens; although simply the existence of space aliens, even if entirely peaceful, would be enough to elicit a reaction of fear. If and when that happens, conservatives will accuse those space aliens of everything that, in the past, they accused liberals and leftists. Meanwhile, the political left will seriously consider and openly debate about whether space aliens should have the same freedom and rights, should be welcomed as fellow beings as part of a single shared galaxy or universe.

    Wishing for all and sundry a much improved Global Cooperation, Diversity, Teamwork, Unity, World Peace, Earth Day and Environmental Awareness in this New Earth Year of 2022!

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

    • Thanks for the editing assistance. We were writing this while at work today. It’s been a slow day because the students aren’t back in town. But focus wasn’t as great as it could be. As is our habit, we likely would have read it again this weekend and fixed those errors. Sometimes editing happens after posting. Our editing process can extend over many days, as we keep going back to a post until it finally feels right. If you read a post on this blog right when it’s posted, you’ll often find much to proofread. Others might think one should do corrections before posting, but our brain doesn’t work that way.

      Anyway, we’re glad you appreciated it enough to offer your suggestions. For whatever reason, some things were on our mind. Actually, we sort of know some of our reasons. Our conservative father was going on about the ‘mass formation’ of ‘cancel culture’. Ya know, the typical stuff one hears on right-wing media. In response to him, we suggested that mass formation is simply humanity’s social nature writ large and that there is nothing unusual about it. The entire Cold War was mass formation, something we pointed out. But that set him off because, if that were true, then he too was guilty of mass formation and couldn’t sit up high in judgment.

      This has repeated many times over the years. We’ll offer sympathy to our father about his right-wing concerns and fears. But he doesn’t seem capable of returning the favor, in admitting those on the left are human just like him. He thinks there is something uniquely evil about the political left. Our leftist worldview differs in thinking about such things. We don’t see the reactionary mind as being anything unique, much less uniquely evil. It’s simply what happens to any humans under stress, fear, and exhaustion. Anyone can fall prey to it and that is particularly true in a high inequality society. The reactionary mind isn’t dangerous because it represents something other but because it is a weakness within our shared nature.

        • It is part of our linguistic experimentation in recent years. The motivation largely comes from having studied linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. There are some posts around here about that. Speaking of ‘we’ also is a nod to the bundled mind (animism, bicameralism, etc) and 4E cognition (embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended). The purpose is to shift mentality and identity.

          We’ve used other pronouns as well, most often in self-talk. There is interesting research about pronouns. Research shows that children who use second person in talking about themselves are able to do better on tests. We have used second person and even third person. Famous people, like Donald Trump, often speak in second person singular. In Buddhism, monks will use second person singular as a practice of weakening ego identification.

          One of our favorites is second person plural, but we don’t talk that way in public much because it really sounds weird. It’s taken a while to get over feeling self-conscious about speaking in first person plural. But it’s easier to get by doing since it’s more common to use the royal ‘we’ in writing. We’ve noticed our mother uses the royal ‘we’ when she wants to communicate that ‘we’ should or should not do something.

          Many languages have pronouns that English entirely lacks. Then there are other languages like that of the Piraha that originally had no pronouns at all, along with no recursion and no numbers. The Piraha language is extremely concrete and so they don’t tend to get lost in reified abstractions. This might suggest that pronouns are also reified abstractions. With that in mind, we’ve practiced self-talk that eliminates pronouns and it does create a different feel.

          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/tag/linguistic-relativity/

          Voice and Perspective

          • Dear Benjamin,

            I would like to refer you to the following source:

            Nevins, Andrew; Pesetsky, David; Rodrigues, Cilene (2009). “Evidence and argumentation: A reply to Everett (2009)” (PDF). Language. 85 (3): 671–681. doi:10.1353/lan.0.0140.

            In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

            Evidence and argumentation:A reply to Everett (2009)
            Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky, and Cilene Rodrigues
            

            This discussion note is a brief response to Everett (2009, E09), which was a reply to our assessment (Nevins, Pesetsky, & Rodrigues 2009, NP&R) of Everett’s (2005, CA) earlier claims about the Amazonian language Pirahã. An important (and somewhat hidden) feature of E09 is a set of new empirical assertions presented in defense of CA’s hypothesis that Pirahã lacks embedding. We argue that these new claims have not been supported by appropriate evidence; but if they are correct nonetheless, they WEAKEN rather than strengthen the case against embedding. We conclude with a discussion of comparable questions of argumentation and evidence that arise elsewhere in E09, and the relevance of these issues to the public discussion of CA’s claims.
            1. Goals Of This Reply

            One of our reasons for undertaking the project reported in NP&R was the extraordinary attention that Everett’s claims about Pirahã have received in the popular press—and the equally extraordinary significance that has been attributed to them. The New Scientist (March 18, 2006) suggested, for example, that Pirahã might constitute ‘the final nail in the coffin for Noam Chomsky’s hugely influential theory of universal grammar’; and the Chicago Tribune (June 10, 2007), under the headline ‘Shaking language to the core’, reported that Everett had ‘fired a volley straight at the theory when he reported that the Brazilian tribe he was studying didn’t use recursives [sic]’. More recently, the Times of London (October 24, 2008) has characterized Everett’s claim that ‘Pirahã lack the grammatical principle of recursion’ as an ‘astonishing find’.

            If the conclusions in NP&R are correct, of course, Pirahã presents us with no nail, no coffin, no volley, and no astonishing find. Much of NP&R was devoted to an examination of the claims and conclusions about Pirahã language and culture that were put forward in CA, the article that triggered the publicity.1 We argued that many of CA’s claims were not coherent as stated; that the logic by which factual evidence was said to support them was flawed; and also that CA failed to discuss a wealth of published counterevidence (indeed, failed to acknowledge even the existence of this counter evidence). Finally, we argued, the linguistic evidence presented in CA not only fails to support claims of Pirahã exceptionality, but actually suggests THE OPPOSITE: that Pirahã fits straightforwardly into the known typology of human languages. In the field of linguistics, as in other fields, evidence does matter—as does the logic of the argumentation that links evidence to hypothesis. It is precisely in this domain that linguists can contribute to the Pirahã discussion in ways that reporters cannot. Since very few of the press reports on Pirahã had even raised the key questions of evidence and argumentation, [End Page 671] we considered it important to try to put these issues on the agenda at large, a task rendered particularly timely by the continuing public interest.

            Similar considerations prompt us to offer this brief response to Everett’s reply (E09) that accompanied the publication of NP&R. At the same time, we do not believe that Language readers would welcome a point-by-point discussion of all the claims and counterclaims taken up in E09. For example, although E09 mischaracterizes many arguments and claims from NP&R, these errors can be easily found by simply comparing E09’s citations of NP&R with what we actually wrote, so we see little reason to correct them here.2 We also believe that the most effective replies to E09’s comments on such issues as the proper meaning of ‘universal grammar’ can already be found in the sections of NP&R to which E09’s comments respond—so once again, we do not rehearse these issues a second time.

            Instead, we focus in this commentary on one aspect of E09 that is less obvious, but of some significance nonetheless, precisely because of its direct bearing on questions of evidence and argumentation. Everett represents E09 as demonstrating that CA ‘is essentially correct in its description of the facts and that it corrects errors…

            Yours sincerely,
            SoundEagle

          • Everett has already responded to those criticisms. The Piraha simply don’t make convoluted sentence structures in the way that is particularly common in literary languages. Instead they make simple statements: “It’s raining. I sought shelter. I stayed dry.” Here is what they don’t say: “Because it was raining, I sought shelter and stayed dry.” Each statement stands alone without being linguistically embedded.

            Critics argue that the Piraha are still able to embed thoughts by other means. But Everett points out that he never argued that Piraha are incapable of some broad universal capacity of cognitive recursion. His argument is that their language lacks recursion in its syntactic structure. This has immense effect on how they think. Without the linguistic recursion, the cognitive recursion becomes decreased.

          • As we recall, on a previous occasion, you had posted that exact same source. And we probably had given a similar response as we did above. But it appears that we didn’t communicate well enough to make an effective and compelling argument. Or that there is some other failure at communication of what we perceive as being at stake. We’ll try to give a fuller account of what is involved. Even then, there surely is room for disagreement on interpretation and its larger implications about human nature and culture. But let us clarify what is and is not being debated.

            As Daniel Everett has explained, the scholarly side of this particular debate appears to be mostly a misunderstanding. He is arguing about linguistic recursion in actual use (i.e., spoken language), whereas the Chomskyites are arguing about cognitive recursion as a potential ability that may or may not be expressed through language. Those are two separate issues, at least for the narrow purposes of determining what language means in a specific linguistic culture.

            The Piraha, like all humans are born with a capacity of cognitive recursion and Everett has never denied that. Yes, there is evidence they use cognitive recursion; but they do so limitedly and simply, without the immense complexity and abstractedness of linguistic recursion in literary languages. That is the crux of the matter. Nonetheless, our mind always remains open to evidence we have not seen. If anyone ever is able to make a convincing argument that human language has never existed and is not possible without linguistic recursion, then we’ll pay attention and look into the evidence for that position; but that seems highly improbable at this point, assuming the evidence is correct.

            The thing is Everett didn’t really say anything new. Linguistic scholars already knew that languages existed without linguistic recursion. Decades earlier, a number of other tribes had already come up in the literature. Everett wasn’t trying to break new ground and challenge linguistic orthodoxy. In fact, Everett began as a Chomskyan himself and had an office across the hall from Chomsky. He simply made a firsthand professional observation, while working in the field (something Chomsky has never done), and it happened to be at a moment when the Chomskyans were more fully in power and felt a need to swat down any contradictory views. Everett suddenly found himself in the middle of an academic power struggle. Some of Everett’s critics alleged that he is a racist. One suspects that is disingenuous, as Everett has never said or done anything to suggest that would be true.

            The Chomskyan view of linguistic essentialism has been dominant in academia and in the Western mind, and so many of the proponents of it have been fierce defenders in attacking anyone who dares offer an alternative view. Rather than honestly and fairly debating him, some of these proponents attempted to destroy Everett’s credibility and career. Because of this, they temporarily caused trouble with the Brazilian government such that Everett couldn’t visit the Piraha. It reminds one of the dirty politics of Ancel Keys in silencing his opponents (and related to EAT-Lancet by way of Walter Willet who worked with Keys). Sadly, that is too often how science works in practice, which contributes to why so many people have mistrust in scientific authorities. As you know, we’re adamantly opposed to academic bullying.

            Everett certainly isn’t arguing for race realism, such as asserting that the Piraha are genetically and biologically different. If anything, his view is the complete opposite of that (consider his observations about how culture shapes even the physical body). The reason the Piraha language lacks linguistic recursion is not racial inferiority, but maybe just that it’s unnecessary in an oral culture that is closer to the conditions of millennia of human evolution. There might even be advantages to non-recursive language such as not getting trapped in the false consciousness of reified abstractions, which likely relates to their egalitarianism, peacefulness, happiness, and general health. The most reified of abstractions, arguably, is the rigid structure of the egoic mind and all the stresses and exhaustion it seems to entail.

            It’s simply a different kind of society, but making an observation is not necessarily a value judgment. It’s possible that, in all of the hundreds of thousands of linguistic cultures that have existed, some developed highly complex social structures without linguistic recursion, reified abstractions, and Jaynesian consciousness. We might argue that suggesting otherwise is cultural narcissism or even cultural bigotry, but if nothing else certainly narrow-minded ideological realism that implies some kind of essentialism and determinism. That is what the anthropologists who trained under Franz Boas were on about, in challenging race realism and in its place exploring the evidence that culture and language holds immense power over human thought, perception, identity, and behavior.

            There is much confusion around language. Edward Sapir was one of the many influential anthropologists that studied under Franz Boas. Along with Benjamin Lee Whorf, he popularized linguistic relativity that often is caricatured and misportrayed as linguistic determinism. Even though Sapir and Whorf were not linguistic determinists, it’s interesting that linguistic research since then has proven some cases of linguistic determinism, that is where an aspect of language necessitates or precludes an observable behavior. For example, the Piraha lack numeracy and without numerical terms even the simplest of mathematical calculations are impossible. Because of their concrete language, the Piraha have little interest in such abstractions and, even when Everett tried to teach them numeracy, he had little success.

            Linguistic determinism aside, most of what is being debated is merely linguistic relativity, which is impressive on its own. Consider directional terms. In English, we use egotistic coordinates, that is to say relative to the egocentric perception of the individual. But, in some tribal cultures, they instead use cardinal points, such that whenever speaking they always reference their relationship to the cardinal directions. People who grow up cardinal language have amazing capacity at dead reckoning, as a lifetime of linguistic practice has structured an identity that is built into the larger environment.

            This probably relates to the non-egoic sense of an extended self where many hunter-gatherers identify their immediate sensory environment as part of their personal space. Their identity is tied up with the external world, not an internalized Jaynesian consciousness built on the literary culture of complexly layered linguistic recursion. Linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism aren’t about superficial differences, but neither is it about race realism and genetic determinism. It’s an argument for how environment, in this case socio-cultural environment of language, shapes the very experience of identity and reality.

            This is closely linked to the issue of cognitive structure as being metaphorically modeled on infrastructure that operates as part of superstructure. You might recall our post on the enclosure of land as a tool of social construction and social control in enclosing the mind, as it further shapes Jaynesian consciousness into WEIRD-style egoic identity. But it’s interesting that the social reformers that sought to enforce enclosure and individuality saw as central important the role of education, which is to say literacy. This is a specific way of inhabiting the world that rigidly demarcates boundaries not only between this piece of property and another, but between one propertied self and another, along with between the propertied owner and the owned property — everything safely kept in its separate place.

            Think about how different that is from oral societies. This has fascinated me in terms of Lynne Kelly’s work on traditional mnemonic systems. They weren’t merely about memorizing vast amounts of info, a nifty trick that even the Piraha can do with their language, although it would be prejudiced to call their language ‘simple’ just because it lacks recursion. In fact, the Piraha have three languages: spoken, whistled, and hummed. We don’t know if anyone has ever studied the possible mnemonic systems of the Piraha, but Kelly looked into other tribal societies like the Aborigine’s and their songlines. Those oral practices don’t only store info but enact entire worldviews or realities and ancestral spirits.

            There is actually much complexity to mnemonic systems, if we Westerners don’t appreciate it. In that area, it is our modern Western languages that are simplistic and deficient. Some traditional ways of communicating involve singing, dancing, and movement that embodies vast amounts of cultural and natural knowledge. It’s funny that we obsess over arguing about what some tribal languages lack while ignoring what is lacking in our own languages. Consider that English contains among the least pronoun diversity of any other modern language. Does that mean we are somehow more primitive and backward than more pronoun abundant languages? Or is it simply a cultural difference that can’t be judged as good or bad?

            “First came the temple, then the city.”

            There Is No Useless Knowledge

            Enclosure of the Mind

            Cultural Body-Mind

            What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?

            Blue on Blue

            Straw Men in the Linguistic Imaginary

            Jaynesian Linguistic Relativity

            The Power of Language Learning

            Bicameralism and Bilingualism

            Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral

            The Chomsky Problem

          • Let us consider a different approach that lifts us out of intellectualizing and abstraction. Sure, academic scholarship and field study is great stuff, and we are all for scientific research and debate. That is why, even if a basic point has already been resolved, that some languages actually do exist without linguistic recursion, there is still plenty of room for disagreement on interpretation and significance. That goes to the point of whether one does or does not make a distinction between linguistic recursion and cognitive recursion. The two overlap, but that does not prove the two are identical and hence always simultaneously present, and certainly it doesn’t prove that making a distinction is irrelevant and unimportant.

            Humans can do lots of things without language. What language does is magnify some of those capacities to extreme degrees and redirect them toward entirely new expressions and results. Linguistic recursion of the highly complex literary mind of reified abstractions is to cognitive recursion of an oral culture as a sling shot is to a rocket ship, although both are projectile technologies; or as circus elephants are to a wild elephant herd. Sure, a wild elephant, without any contact with humans, could possibly learn to stand on its back legs while performing numerous tricks; but it’s unlikely to actually happen in the wild, so unlikely that it probably has never been observed.

            As such, finding examples of simple cognitive recursion in oral cultures lacking linguistic recursion is not surprising, in the way one likely would occasionally see a wild elephant rear up on its back legs to reach for some tasty leaves high up in a tree. Two points could be made, though. Such oral-based cognitive recursion would not have the convoluted structure of the literate mind nor would it be so consistently used in everyday communication; and it wouldn’t result in the modern extremes of reified abstractions entangled in complex ideological worldviews and sociocultural system. Look at this comment produced in literate language, for example, that has already used linguistic recursion repeatedly.

            Put aside the academic debate. Bring your full observational awareness to bear upon how you and other WEIRD individuals use language. As with our pronoun experiments, maybe experiment on yourself by restricting all use of linguistic recursion. Heck, if your going to fully test out some major aspects of the Piraha language, also eliminate all pronouns as the Piraha originally lacked them. Furthermore, make no statement that you or someone you know has not personally experienced, and when doing so directly state the source of your info, as do the Piraha.

            So, this would require you to make simple statements of observable fact. You wouldn’t say that, “I sought shelter, because it was raining, and so I stayed dry.” Instead you’d say, “It was raining, said Joe. Shelter was sought. The clothing remained dry.” Speak that way as self-talk for several months and see how it begins to alter your sense of perception, identity, and reality; maybe even your cognitive and relational behavior. You’ll quickly realize you can’t communicate certain things you are used to communicating with your highly WEIRD egoic identity. But you also might discover you’re able to access a different kind of experience and capacity that previously was unknown to you or constrained within your experience.

            One thing you might find is that you’ll feel less ego-oriented defensiveness, along with less clinging to the past and anxiety about the future. Without being able to embed phrases to imply causation, you’ll be forced into a more immediacy of experience. As in one Buddhist practice, you’ll be able to state that, “anger is being experienced” or “anger is arising”. But you could not assert that, “When my wife yelled at me, I got mad and she ruined my day.” That relates to the Piraha having no storytelling tradition, origin myths, afterlife speculation, and no ancestral worship. And, on a practical level, it is likely a causal factor for why the Piraha don’t appear to get depressed, become suicidal, hold grudges, etc.

            If you really wanted to take this experiment to the next level, you’d also include health. During that several month linguistic experimentation, simplify your life as much as possible in reducing stress and distractions. Eliminate nearly all media, especially corporate media but also written text, particularly storytelling entertainment (movies, tv, novels, short stories, etc) but also intellectual reading. Take up or further emphasize mindfulness practice that directs your attention to immediate experience, drawing your attention back to the present any time it wanders to the past or future. Do activities to get yourself out of the isolated ego-body-mind, and try to sense how the experiential identity is fluid and is inseparable from the sensory environment.

            And to make it more comprehensive and immersive bring in other aspects of the Piraha culture. Like most hunter-gatherers, they have a generally healthy lifestyle with plenty of sleep, physical activity, and natural exposure (sunlight, fresh air, forest breathing, grounding or earthing, barefoot walking and jogging, etc); obviously, not a sedentary lifestyle involving a lot of mental work and intellectual activity, much less absorptive media consumption. Also, they eat a diet, communally eaten, that is low-carb, healthy fat, nutrient-dense, animal-based, and nose-to-tail. That is combined with regular fasting, intermittent and extended.

            A linguistic culture is an entire holistic social order, lifestyle, and worldview. The whole, of course, is greater than the sum of its parts. So, the lack of linguistic recursion would reinforce and be reinforced by many of the abovementioned aspects, along with others not mentioned. For example, it’s not only that their language has a linguistically relative or deterministic support of immediacy in concrete and communal, environmental and immersive experience but likewise does much else in their life-world, mazeway, and habitus.

            The diet might seem unrelated, but we’ve previously argued that a high-carb diet (and other factors of a standard American diet) alters neurocognitive functioning and identity. We’ve written much about the powerful neurocognitive effect of ketosis that is caused and contributed to by low-carb diet, fasting, calorie restriction, and exercise. All of these practices also promote anti-inflammation, anti-oxidative stress, AMPK upregulation, mTOR downregulation, autophagy, adult stem cell release, neurogenesis, resetting of epigenetics, etc. Like regular reading, ketosis alters not only the functioning but also the structure of the brain; which is why it’s been proven as an effective prevention and/or treatment of mood disorders, epileptic seizures, Alzheimer’s, cognitive decline, and brain shrinkage; along with autoimmune disorders, cancer, and much else.

            This also involves mind-altering substances. We aren’t familiar with what kind of herbal substances the Piraha use or how they use them, but it’s likely they are familiar with many potent plant medicines and drugs, including psychedelics. What they probably don’t imbibe much of are strong stimulants, specifically not caffeine, cocaine, meth, ritalin, energy drinks, and all the rest. Also, they had no access to alcohol until contact with Western traders, and even now their alcohol intake is only occasional, but it probably already has had a major impact on their culture. Anyway, to mimic the sociocultural lifestyle of the Piraha, you’d want to exclude or reduce as many stimulants as possible, but also the downers like alcohol, marijuana, opiates, sleeping pills, etc that are popular among modern Westerners. This will help force a jumpstart to a different neurocognitive pattern and so support the linguistic experiment.

            The Agricultural Mind

            Diets and Systems

            “Yes, tea banished the fairies.”

            Autism and the Upper Crust

            The Drugged Up Birth of Modernity

          • If you’d like to get a small taste, here is an interesting quote from the first popular book that Everett published on the Piraha: “The immediacy of experience principle means that if you haven’t experienced something directly, your stories about it are largely irrelevant. This renders them relatively impermeable to missionary efforts based on stories of the long-ago past that no one alive has witnessed. And this explains why they have resisted missionaries for so long. Creation myths are no match for this demand of evidence” (Daniel L. Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Vintage, 2008, p.270). The lack of linguistic recursion might be a contributing factor in the centuries of resistance the Piraha have had toward Christian apologetics.

            As we pointed out, their language and culture lacks many other things, although in recent history they’ve begun to incorporate some elements from other cultures. For example, although they have no native storytelling tradition, they’ll sometimes repeat a story they heard an outsider tell. The same has happened with their now including pronouns from other languages. Still, much of their language remains unchanged, such as still lacking numerical terms and temporal terms. Their experience of time and space is fascinating, in that they perceive change more akin to a flickering flame, related to their not speculation outside of direct experience, to such a degree that they don’t even speculate about what happens to a person when they disappear around the bend in a trail.

            But, beyond the possible implications, the larger issue is about biases in science. It just occurred to us that this is a great example of the WEIRD bias. Academics like Chomsky have spent their whole life in Western academia, not in the field studying non-WEIRD populations. Based on their biased experience of modern literary languages, they came to biased conclusions about all language. But that relates to why so many fields are in the middle of a replication crisis. It turns out WEIRD subjects of study are not representative of most humans in the world. So, it would be shocking if WEIRD languages were representative of all languages in the world.

            By the way, if you want to understand the recursion debate, look at some of the below links, including the comments sections. It does seem there is debate about whether the Piraha are an isolated example of languages lacking linguistic recursion, as distinct from some broader category of cognitive recursion as part of Chomskyan Merge. The debate, as such, seems to be over what is being referred to as recursion and, as yet, there is no consensus between the Chomskyites and the non-Chomskyans. It’s not really a debate about recursion but about Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar (UG).

            It just that, in the endless revisions of UG, the last pillar upon which it stands or falls has come down to recursion. This is why they have to defend this issue as if it is everything depends on it. It’s absolutely central to the Chomskyans, but is not absolutely central to the non-Chomskyans. Anyway, the nub of the issue is that UG has become harder and harder to defend over time, not to mention harder to debate because it’s not clear what is actually being defended. There have been so many versions of UG at this point that a lack of clarity has created a mess. See our post “The Chomsky Problem” that discusses two books, Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky and Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech.

            The Chomsky Problem

            We really do hope you look at some of the info we shared. This is one of the most important challenges we face. If we get such insights about human nature so wrong, it puts us in a bad situation and that is precisely the problem of so much modern thought, particularly in how WEIRD bias disconnects us WEIRD individuals from the non-WEIRD norm of most of humanity. That isn’t to prove one side entirely right and there are issues to further discuss. Consider the critique on the earlier claims of non-recursive languages that preceded Everett’s work. Be that as it may, the main debate remains unresolved because the Chomskyans seem to refuse to acknowledge what Everett is talking about (i.e., not some general capacity of recursive thinking that is evident even in animals that lack language entirely). So, far less substantive discussion happens than would be desirable

            To Everett’s mind, it’s already been resolved and he has moved onto other topics, as it never was central to his research as a field linguist. But, to my mind, there is something powerful about what linguistic recursion makes possible and, even if no language existed without it, the more fundamental point would remain that it is literacy that creates recursive complexity. Some languages for example only have one layer of embedded clauses, as opposed literary languages that have potentially infinite levels of embededness within embeddedness. This is particularly seen in the convoluted writing of more literary and academic texts with sentences that include multiple clauses.

            https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/language-in-the-mind/201504/the-structure-scientific-revolutions
            https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3857
            https://languagehat.com/everett-v-chomsky/

            https://aeon.co/essays/why-language-is-not-everything-that-noam-chomsky-said-it-is

            From the last link, following are some responses from the comments section, as linking this issue to the larger debate of genetic determinism and biological essentialism; as it applies to numerous conflicts, from race realism to epigenetics. In his comment, Diego Mansano Fernandes writes:

            “I believe Chomsky – despite all the genuine and important work for the development (save this word for later) of science and politics he keeps doing – made a career out of making dubious claims about important people’s works. I do believe that the most damaging feature of this habit of him was the suppose demise of Skinner’s radical behaviorism work, symbolized by the (in)famous review of Verbal Behavior published on Language. All the formal responses by other people were denied by journal publishers and we grow up around the myths of cognitive revolution and the death of radical behaviorism. This black-and-white interpretation of history is one of the features of our scientific and political cultures that, in my opinion, are linked with all the first person criticism you’ve experienced developing (again, save the word) your work and your rebutal of the universal grammar stuff.

            “I’m saying all that because, in fact, we are watching a significant return to the very relationst views of language, culture and behavior that characterizes your cultural hypothesis and are spoused and defended by radical behaviorism. Developmental Systems Theory (or perspective, as David S. Moore prefers) is on of the fields that have been doing the hard work of reviewing the theorethical systems of evolutionary biology (e.g. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s Evolution in four dimensions beautiful work, for instance), anthropology (e.g. Tim Ingold’s The perception of the environment and Biosocial becomings), psychology (e.g. Susan Schneider’s The science of consequences and Anthony Biglan’s The nurture effect), linguistics (Julie Tetel Andresen Linguistics and evolution: a developmental systems perspective), and so on.

            “I think that the very notion of development as an ongoing and never ending process put the whole neo-darwinist gene-innate-centered view of evolution against a very strong, big and resilient wall. This is not the place to further elaborate the argument, but the very idea of a innate dispositive for some “capacity” sounds weird and out of date to me in the light of the recent advances and the “relationist turn” I mentioned. These capacities are better understood as behavioral repertoires developed and sustained by the evergrowing relationship between organisms and their historical, cultural, economical and social contexts.

            “In the spirit of Edge’s question some years ago: unniversal grammar are prepared to retire along with the neo’darwinist gene-centered perspective that sustains it.”

            Then jasper a writes:

            “In studying cognitive science at an undergraduate level I took a god deal of linguistics courses – a frustrating number of which were entirely in the theoretical framework of Generative Grammar. It has always seemed absurd to me that neuroscientists who performed groundbreaking research in neuroanatomy still maintain the literal, physical existence of a Language Acquisition Device without being able to delineate where it exists or what exactly it does, or even how something as complex as human grammar can possibly be composed of purely biological parts (genes, etc.)

            “It has always seemed much more likely that language is a highly developed social learning mechanism, one very important piece of a mostly domain general learning mechanism – what’s more, Bayesian Statisticians have done a pretty good job of demonstrating that the “poverty” of the stimulus is not a problem for a Bayesian learning algorithm, or a similar instantiation in the brain. Furthermore, it seems absurdly deterministic and prescriptive to suggest that there is a “correct” grammar that everyone learns, when actual, non-academic language is much more fluid. This idea breaks down immediately with any examination under anything like post-structural analysis, which is obvious from Chomsky’s debate with Foucault.

            “At any rate, Chomsky’s work has been incredibly important if not for the mere fact that it allowed many more folks to study cognitive processes, and for this he should be remembered and commended. However, replacing the Behaviorism of the early 20th century with a strictly biologically deterministic Cognitivism is not a perfect trade, and the work of folks like you, Dr. Everett, is helping to move the disciplines of Cognitive Science and Linguistic forward. Thank you for your work and I hope you continue to ruffle feathers!”

            And Bjorn Merker writes:

            “Chomsky’s retreat to “recursion” as the final, sole, bastion of his theory of innate, universal grammar (in his paper with Hauser and Fitch of 2002) is curious, because the infinite generativity of language by no means depends upon it, although Chomsky seems to think it does. As von Humboldt pointed out in 1836, the infinite pattern richness of human language is based upon is compositionality, the fact that it combines, and recombines, a finite (typically small) set of elements (phonemes) into words, and words (morphemes) into sentences, without limit. As William Abler pointed out in his paper “The particulate principle of self-diversifying systems” of 1989, this is also true of chemistry (atoms into molecules), and genetics (nucleotides into organisms), the trick being that the combining elements must be discrete, non-blending, i.e. “particulate”, to result in infinite generativity. To the three “Humboldt systems” of chemistry, genetics, and human language one can add music, which accomplishes infinte pattern generativity with its discrete pitches and durations (see Merker, “Music, the missing Humboldt system”, 2002). Thus, when Chomsky in “Linguistics and cognitive Science: Problems and mysteries” of 1991 (p. 50) states that “Language is, at its core, a system that is both digital [Chomsky’s term for discrete] and infinite. To my knowledge, there is no other biological system with these properties” he was only revealing his limited knowledge of biology (and of human culture).”

          • We were thinking about what is recursion beyond language. A simple example is thinking about someone else thinking about you. Another one is imagining what someone else is imagining while they read a novel. Or how about wondering about how your future self will judge the actions you’re about to take. But recursion would also apply outside of cognition. There is recursion in music, dance, tool-making, etc. It’s a natural ability shared with many other species. The thing is, without language, recursion tends to be rather simple and direct.

            As an experiment, try to think with multiple levels of recursive embedding without using any recursive language whatsoever. If it helps, look at some old literary text in order to find an example of highly complex sentence structure with clauses within clauses within clauses. Break down one of those run-on recursive sentences and try to capture the same meaning while eliminating all of the clauses that created the structure of meaning that indicates causal relationship and narrative. Try to communicate the same complex meaning but only using the most simple non-compound statements.

          • We just had a thought about another thing that makes linguistic recursion different. As we explained, general recursion such as in thinking is not difficult or uncommon. Even animals can do it. The example of thinking about someone thinking about you happens so naturally that it is almost thoughtless. That is to say most cognitive recursion happens implicitly. This is the key point. Linguistic recursion forces it to become explicit and hence potentially conscious, specifically in terms of literate Jaynesian consciousness (and all Jaynesian consciousness is based on or influenced by literary culture).

            The greater the recursion and the more explicit it’s expression then the more likely is to result the egoic extremes of interiorized and narratized consciousness. So, it’s not only linguistic recursion but also how many layers of embeddedness. That is why literary recursion is a step above general cognitive recursion or even basic linguistic recursion, as it makes ever more complex recursion possible. Even in oral languages with no literacy rate at all often still will have some linguistic recursion. But what they won’t have is the literary style of convoluted, layered, and overlapping recursion. And possibly that is the determining factor of WEIRD-like hyper-individuality. It’s not merely about the presence or lack of linguistic recursion but, more importantly, the presence or lack of complex recursion.

            There is another thing we briefly mentioned. Recursion can apply to almost anything. Different kinds of recursion could have vastly different consequences in terms of mentality and behavior, culture and social order. We might call this recursive relativity or recursive determinism, similar to linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. A lack of complex linguistic recursion of the literary variety might not indicate a lack of other forms of recursion. Prior to mass literacy and literate cultures, there were impressively complex societies. Take for example the Australian Aborigines with their intricate and immense systems of songlines, rituals, and mnemonics. They were a highly organized society, including large-scale farming with granaries, that amassed tremendous knowledge without any written texts. We’re willing to bet they were using complex recursion.

            Their songline practices did involve language but also included much that was non-linguistic. Other ways of complex thought surely could be achieved through highly advanced ritualistic recursion of dance, gesture, music, and symbolism. Basically, we’re talking about what likely was a bicameral or bicameral-like society. The Aborigines were probably not only hearing voices through the externalized structures of songlines for, as observers have noted, their personalities changed with specific songlines. Each songline seems to have contained a separate mental structure that was experienced as the expression of an ancestral spirit (what moderns would perceive as possession). In our cultural narcissism and bigotry, most of us don’t recognize the divergent complexity of non-WEIRD societies, which is why some could ignorantly call Daniel Everett racist for his having dared to point out that a culture could exist without linguistic recursion.

            Those mnemonic systems allowed the extreme development of cognition, such that they could memorize the equivalent amount of info as kept in an entire set of encyclopedias, an achievement that is impossible within the WEIRD mind. In those advanced oral societies, they had a name and often highly involved description for everything in their environment — for every lifeform, geographical location and formation, type of dirt and rock, weather pattern, astrological cycles, etc; not to mention a vast array of knowledge on history, ancestry, and cultural practices. The other example of pre-literate complexity, most likely to be bicameral, is that of the earliest Egyptian kingdoms that built the Great Pyramids without any advanced technology, infrastructure, governance, or even slavery. Heck, neither did they have maintained roads and bridges; and yet they could move blocks of stones that weighed hundreds of tons over hundreds of miles.

            Then they precisely cut and aligned these stones according to complex mathematical and astrological calculations. The same kind of thing was seen with the Mayan astrological calendars that could predict astrological events for millennia into the future. But the Mayans did have knotted string language that allowed for non-linear and multi-linked recording of information. It wasn’t exactly written text and operated entirely differently, but it probably allowed for complex linguistic recursion. So, even within complex linguistic recursion, we in WEIRD society might not be able to discern the complexity of linguistic recursion in non-textual languages. That knotted language was more similar to the hyperlinks of the internet than to a linear text. The varieties of non-linguistic, non-literary, and non-textual forms of recursion, simple or complex, could be far beyond our comprehension at present and probably will remain unknown because most of those alternative systems were destroyed through contact-related disease, genocide, assimilation, etc.

            The Chomskyans made the wrong bet that all human language absolutely required linguistic recursion since, according to Chomsky, language was inherently (genetically and biologically) built into a specific brain structure that had the main purpose of linguistic recursion. It turns out they were entirely wrong about that assumption of a linguistically recursive brain module and so their theory based on that assumption falls apart accordingly, but Chomsky might have intuited correctly that recursion is centrally important and Everett agrees that recursion in general is a universal human trait. What the Chomskyans may have misunderstood is that linguistic recursion really is just one example of an immense variety of recursive practices. This mistake happened because Chomsky never did fieldwork and actively advocated against doing fieldwork because he fell into the sadly common WEIRD trap of extreme reified abstraction with essentialism, nativism, and realism. If the Chomskyans had been more familiar with the anthropological literature, they’d been less likely to have gotten stuck in an intellectual dead-end.

          • If you looked at our post on the Chomsky problem, It’s about an apparent splintering and dissociation in Chomsky’s psyche. Chomsky as academic and Chomsky as activist lead entirely separate lives, a WEIRD capacity of rigid boundaries he consciously prides himself in. The downside to this mentality is that what he knows in one area does not necessarily apply and sometimes contradicts what he is doing elsewhere. This doesn’t make Chomsky strangely unusual, since such a divided self is all too common (particularly in WEIRD society), which is a point we made recently in another post about the WEIRDing of Jaynesian consciousness. Anyway, for our purposes here, this is more than relevant.

            On one side, Chomsky declares belief in a language module built into the brain that is not only inherently and essentially linguistically recursive but also genetically-determined and biologically-structured. This is an expression of the modern tendency to see things in the absolute and totalizing terms of essentialism, nativism, determinism, and ideological realism. This involves the ever greater abstractions of the WEIRD mind as first given form among the literary elite of the Axial Age and later manifested in a further extremes with the increased literacy rates and availability of written texts during the Enlightenment Age.

            The other side of the Chomskyan divide is that of the activist and political commentator. As an anarcho-socialist and left-libertarian, Chomsky strongly eschews essentialist and deterministic thinking about human nature and potential, human behavior and social relations. This contradicts his scholarly work on language where he argues that all humans are universally the same and could not be otherwise. While the latter closes down the mind in Burkean fashion, dressed up in the robes of ideological realism, the other opens up imagination to radical visions following the American tradition of Thomas Paine, offering the possibility of something else entirely.

            The basic debate in its most basic form originates in the ancient world, such as between Plato and Aristotle. The Platonic ideals, like the Chomskyan universal grammar underlying a linguistic brain module, posits that a certain kind of unmanifest reality precedes and predetermines manifest reality, no matter any other factors or later conditions within the cultural or physical environment. This is not only a potential or structure for, more fundamentally, it portrays a base level of knowledge as innate. As such, in Chomskyan linguistics, language is innate and so is linguistic recursion. Other theories, instead, posit language and recursion as more general potentials, among immense other potentials, that are only shaped and influenced by environment (or else indirectly by the environment of parents, grandparents, etc through epigenetics).

            Daniel Everett discusses this — as we wrote elsewhere: “He describes linguistic theoreticians like Chomsky as being in the Platonic school of thought. Chomsky surely would agree, as he has already made that connection in his own writings, what he discusses as Plato’s problem and Plato’s answer. Chomsky’s universal grammar are Platonic in nature, for as he has written such “knowledge is ‘remembered’” (“Linguistics, a personal view” from The Chomskyan Turn). This is Plato’s ananmesis and alethia, an unforgetting of what is true, based on the belief that humans are born with certain kinds of innate knowledge.” Everett criticizes this position and, instead, aligns with that of Aristotle.

            This has to do with the debate and often confusion over the theory of the blank slate of the mind. It is not about the mind being empty but open in that it’s permeable and plastic, fluid and flexible (i.e., the software code can be altered or rewritten); and also that it’s boundaries are thinner and broader, less constrained and more inclusive, not to mention experiential and environmental immersion, in terms of 4E cognition ‘(embodied, embedded, enactive, extended). Everett traces this lineage from Aristotle to John Locke, David Hume, and George Berkley. That brings us into a larger context, as it was Hume who was among the first modern Westerners to argue for the bundled theory of mind-self, maybe as inspired by Buddhist thought that was introduced by Christian missionaries who returned from the East.

            The problem isn’t merely that those like Chomsky have split psyches. In his case, he even recognizes his own split psyche and sees it as a strength of his intellect to detach his scholarship from is personal life and political activism. He has put his academic work and identity into an experiential silo. This is not unlike how some people can be good Christians while they are at church, but elsewhere in their life be an abusive parent and support politicians who harm the least among us. In psychological terms and at the extremes, this is what is called schizoid and psychotic. It has practical consequences. Chomsky’s psyche is not divided in just a single manner, but more importantly in the message and advice he gives to the public. This is demonstrated in the way his political analyses are also split off from his political behavior.

            This wasn’t only how he could take Pentagon funding for his own academic work while being one of the loudest critics of the Pentagon. One can see the same thing in how he’ll criticize the stranglehold of bipartisan authoritarianism within corporatocracy and capitalist realism, but then act as a sheepdog to herd voters back to voting for the DNC elite who are the friendly faces of soft fascism, the military-industrial complex, and the American empire that he is supposedly fighting against. He has acted as a sheepdog in every presidential election in our memory. He claims to be silenced and/or constrained by the corporate media by way of the propaganda model, and yet the corporate media regularly invite him back on to repeat the lesser evil message of cynical self-betrayal and fatalistic self-defeat. On mass media, he models for the public how to maintain a splintered self in a splintered society, and so ends up a lapdog of power.

            Similarly, his academic work about a nativist linguistic brain module reinforces this worldview of their being no real alternative choice. As the political party system beholden to big biz is portrayed as the only game in town, linguistically recursive cultures are portrayed as the only form of social order by default of ideological realism. This sweeps the legs of radical imagination, in disallowing the recognition of how linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism operate through social constructionism and social constructivism. The powerful foundation of ideological realism is pathway dependency but one so ingrained that it cannot be seen. It’s a buried foundation that determines what is possible to build upon it, and where each addition of structure determines ever more narrowly what is possible.

            This is why Whiggish history persists in the modern mind, a tendency challenged in the fairly new book The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and the now deceased David Graeber; related to our own critique of linear Spiral Dynamics. Sadly, even those on the political left can be drawn into essentialist thinking, such as homosexuals who came to embrace the idea of a gay gene because they thought it would help to normalize and defend their choice of identity. What these people don’t understand, as Chomsky doesn’t grasp, is that this mentality will continue to undermine any hope for the entire leftist project. It strikes at the heart of how we understand human nature and what we perceive as possible.

    • Maybe of interest is a section added to the post. It’s some thoughts on terminology. We’d be curious to hear what are your opinions about such things as the metaphor of ‘left’ and ‘right’. Some people strongly dislike such metaphors, while others take them too literally. We are somewhere in the middle, although wishing we had a better metaphor that was as or more compelling. The thing is left vs right is a very old metaphor and so holds a lot of psychic cache in deeply resonating. One could argue that it is archetypal because of how it is embedded in our biology. Few metaphors have such potency.

      Posts like this touch upon this issue, the reason we saw the need to throw in some additional notes. We always feel a bit dissatisfied in talking about dualistic categorization. The left and right could almost be replaced with egalitarianism and authoritarianism, but even that doesn’t seem to quite capture what the metaphor expresses. The thing is radical egalitarians like the Piraha, though they lack all formal hierarchy and authority, do allow for it in temporary ways such as an individual taking on a leadership role during a specific activity; and immediately afterward they return to their preferred leaderless way of living.

      That balance of egalitarianism and temporary hierarchical authority is seen in many other tribal societies, but also is somewhat incorporated into democracy. Such examples get one thinking. Egalitarianism isn’t anti-authority, even as it is non-authoritarian. What authoritarianism represents is a rigidly inflexible enforcement of permanent authority (aristocracy, oligarchy, theocracy, etc). In the way flexible authority is to rigid authoritarianism, flexible egalitarianism is to rigid uniformity, conformity, and purity. Authoritarians demand a crude equalizing force by enforcing everyone to be the same within a particular in-group (Christian, heterosexual, German, etc) and then eliminating anyone who doesn’t fit.

      So, maybe that could be a possible alternative metaphor, that of flexibility versus rigidity. It fits a lot of Taoist imagery. The rigid easily becomes stressed and broken, as in the tree that doesn’t bend with the wind. This is also a useful metaphor in that it gets at a core distinction as studied in the social sciences: FFM high vs low openness, MBTI intuition and perceiving vs sensation and judging, and Ernest Hartmann’s thin vs thick boundaries. These psychological constructs are partly referring to a more fluid vs frozen experience of self and reality — another clarifying metaphor.

      Balance of Egalitarianism and Hierarchy

      • Dear Benjamin,

        The succinct answer to your question is that we should be recursively flexible even with respect to terminology, insofar as what best terms to use will depend on, or should be determined by, the contexts pertaining to or involved in a discussion, situation or investigation.

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

        • That fits our own views on the matter. We have no hard and fast rules about such things. Metaphors like ‘left’ and ‘right’ are used when they seem useful and not used when they don’t seem useful. Still, we can’t help but wondering about more effective ways of communicating, not to mention the linguistic effect that our language has over our mind, perception, and behavior. We do feel quite cautious in knowing the memetic power of metaphors as they so easily slip past consciousness.

      • Related to that, we’ve had developing thoughts on the reactionary mind. Like authoritarianism, we see it as a sign and a result of disease, not just a general dis-ease but actual physical degeneration, weakness, immunocompromise, etc. We don’t think it’s accidental that the reactionary and authoritarian have increased as have the rates of serious diseases. We’ve mentioned this theory a number of times before. The reactionary mind is the body-mind under extreme or chronic stress that, in never being allowed to heal, scars over into trauma. So, the reactionary mind is simply another way of speaking of the traumatized mind and authoritarianism is a defense mechanism against overwhelming threat.

        But the most important point is that this condition is highly abnormal and unnatural. In human evolution, severe chronic stress was extremely rare. Typically in nature, stress comes and goes, and so there are periods of respite when healing can occur. If our theory is correct, something like reactionary conservatism would never exist under normal conditions. But to add to this, the stress we are discussing is not only external. Julian Jaynes argues there is something about the rigid boundaries of the egoic mind that are highly exhausting. All of this is complex and it’s hard to prove it, but there is definitely something about modern stress and hyper-individualism that grates against human nature.

        • Below is a quote from Julian Jaynes related to abuse and hypnotic susceptibility. This is all about stress, trauma, the reactionary mind, and authoritarianism. It’s no mere coincidence that, according to the data, conservatives are more likely to hit their children. It’s not merely to punish in order to enforce strict rules and norms. And not merely to assert hierarchical authority and dominance. More importantly, the purpose is to create a mindset incapable of autonomous agency.

          “If we can regard punishment in childhood as a way of instilling an enhanced relationship to authority, hence training some of those neurological relationships that were once the bicameral mind, we might expect this to increase hypnotic susceptibility. And this is true. Careful studies show that those who have experienced severe punishment in childhood and come from a disciplined home are more easily hypnotized, while those who were rarely punished or not punished at all tend to be less susceptible to hypnosis.”

          We quoted that in the post where we went into great detail about Jaynes’ theories. In that discussion of hypnosis and Mesmerism, he details how it is precisely linguistic metaphors that allow this kind of mental and behavioral control. As far as we know, he only mentioned Whorf one time, but all of his language arguments are obviously linguistic relativism and determinism. In the one reference he made to Whorf, he argued that Whorf didn’t go far enough, and that is in the context that most conventional thinkers dismissed him as having gone too far. We agree with Jaynes.

          The understanding from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is going to transform our society. It’s part of the move away from essentialism and atomism toward a more systemic and synthetic view of human nature. This reminds us of one of the comments we responded to in your blog. The commenter was still trying to defend race realism and genetic determinism, while dismissing epigenetics and science as a system of values. That is amazing because the evidence has been shifting away from that position for decades now. But it is built on such deep cultural biases that the paradigm change will be resisted every inch of the way.

          It probably doesn’t matter in the end. The evidence is simply too overwhelming. Even on a basic level, from explaining obesity to treating cancer, the genetic research that once was held up as a great hope has turned out to be a massive and expensive failure. One researcher said he gave up on genetic research because, after finding hundreds of genes linked to obesity, they still could only genetically explain something 2% of obesity. Chomsky fell into that same trap of assuming human nature is deterministic, rather than highly malleable.

          The problem isn’t that this is merely a scientific failure but that it has kept us ignorant of actually understanding our own humanity. And this is what has made us vulnerable. The sad part is how Chomsky could never see the connection in how his scientific failure directly related to the failure of the American left. He thought the two could and should be kept separate. Maybe this failure came about because Chomsky never worked in the field and so never was forced to observe how language actually operates in a foreign culture. Working in an ivory tower of academia, maybe he got lost in reified abstractions.

          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/beyond-that-there-is-only-awe/
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/09/06/essentialism-on-the-decline/

        • This has been constantly on our mind these past years. It’s particularly when we more carefully looked into the early 20th century work of Weston A. Price that we realized the powerful connection between physical health and what he called moral health (i.e., pro-social behavior: friendliness, kindness, helpfulness, etc). This modern sickly society is not normal. But it’s become so normalized that we don’t realize how sickly we are or else we’ve grown cynical and apathetic, resigned and fatalistic with a sense of moral fatigue that dulls the anxious desperation of our learned helplessness since chronic stress eventually overloads the system and we psychologically shut down (e.g., trauma). Once you’ve seen photographs of healthy people, like those Price took of traditional people, you’ll spend the rest of your life noticing how nearly everyone in the modern world has stunted, malformed, and/or crooked bone development. That is an indicator of unhealthiness in general, as it’s a result of deficiencies in the hormone-like fat-soluble vitamins. But it’s lots of other things as well.

          Consider how we’ve literally become ungrounded. This is caused by synthetic flooring and footwear. This means our bodies are disconnected from the electromagnetic cycles of the living earth and it’s relationship to the atmosphere and sun. Linguistic recursion and reified abstractions disconnect us psychologically as well. And all of this combined creates a totalizing and crippling body-mind alienation from the world and from our own nature. Yet we are one of the first to admit there has been great advantages to Jaynesian consciousness in its more extreme forms of WEIRD egoic identity. The modern alienated mind is highly dynamic and creative, but it’s also highly destructive because the creative capacity is out of balance with reality and so unsustainable in the long-term. We are blind to what we do and the consequences of what we do because our sensory perception of natural reality has become numb and dumb. As we repeat endlessly, we are all affected by this and so we are all vulnerable to the reactionary and the authoritarian. The Democratic Party is simply a more moderate dysfunction than the GOP, but voting for moderate dysfunction is not exactly inspiring nor will it save us. If we don’t do better, we are heading for mass catastrophe.

          This is the problem with a political left that continually plays into the hands of the political right, largely because in essence we have two right-wing parties. Those of us on the American left are homeless. The political right understands this and has used extreme measures to maintain this imbalance and hence their dominance. Hitting children as a childrearing practice is basically the same as police abuse as part of militarized policing. To create the conditions in maintaining the reactionary mind and the authoritarian impulse, the reactionary right also uses the chronic and traumatizing stress of high inequality, social Darwinism, class war, permanent debt (personal and national), threat of poverty and homelessness, high disease rates (from malnutrition, unequal access to healthcare, toxic dumps located in poor communities, etc), and such. It’s not any single factor but all of them combined. It’s the total level of chronic stress that is toxic and traumatizing. If it was only a little bit of stress in one area of life and was only occasional (as was true for most of hominid evolution), the reactionary mind and hence authoritarianism might not exist at all; which might be to suggest modern conservatism as we know it would stop existing.

          So, politics itself is a public health issue, rather than public health merely being a political issue. All of these contributing factors are what create the conditions that make it possible. But it’s what Jaynes called the General Bicameral Paradigm (hypnotic susceptibility of memetic metaphors, voice authorization, collective cognitive imperative, etc) as created by literacy that allows this vulnerability to be mind-hacked with rhetoric and propaganda, along with the narratizing power of culture war, political spectacle, and corporate media. None of this, we argue, is inevitable. We could likely still have many of the advancements and benefits of modernity or even something greater without the demented and psychotic fucked-upness of the reactionary and authoritarian, maybe if all that we did was to make public health (both physical health and mental health) the single most important priority of society. The thing is the Machiavellians, social dominators, psychopaths, narcissists, and sadists in power realize their continued control and influence necessitates they maintain a sickly, stressed out, and traumatized population that can be easily manipulated. This even makes the political left easily manipulated, in our collective ignorance and indifference toward the very conditions that make us so stressed and traumatized, anxious and fearful.

          For those of us who take egalitarianism and democracy seriously, it will require us to take seriously not only public health but also the social science insights from fields like anthropology, WEIRD research, linguistic relativity, philology, consciousness studies, Jaynesian scholarship, and similar fields. This is what we have not yet done and this is why, in recent history, the political left has been so weak, compromised, disorganized, and almost always on defensive retreat. Politics is a result, not a cause. We will only have a left-liberal government when we have a society, culture, economy, and public health system that is built on left-liberal principles and practices. Strangely, this was better understood in the past. The Milwaukee sewer socialists governed for about a half century and, as their name implies, they did so by improving the conditions for most of the citizenry. They created sewer systems that gave clean water to everyone. They built bakeries to ensure the population had basic foodstuff. They also broke the back of organized crime that was so central to political corruption. They didn’t merely get elected but created the conditions for a healthy, happy, and protected population that incentivized the public to vote them back into power again and again and again.

        • We were thinking more about childrearing. There is certainly something odd, not to mention often constraining and oppressive, about WEIRD childrearing practices as related to identity formation. It’s not only about whether one spanks, beats, and yells at one’s child or otherwise directly causes stress, fear, anxiety, and trauma. It’s also about what people don’t do.

          There was a long period in many Western societies, from Germany to the United States, where it was thought children should not be coddled and instead should be ignored. This went with the attitude that children should be seen but not heard, but often not seen either. There was the theory that children would be more well-adapted and better at self-soothing by leaving them alone in a room and allowing them to cry themselves to sleep or at least to not quickly and regularly respond to cries of distress.

          It is true that, if one ignores a baby in this fashion, they will become quiet and learn to not rely on others, but one suspects this is simply the deadening of affect from trauma. These are the kinds of practices that have contributed to the right-wing dominance of the reactionary and authoritarian, even among those who don’t identity on the political right. We have so many generations of trauma that it could take many more generations to not only change the practices but to undo the damage at an epigenetic level.

          The liberal or pseudo-liberal reaction to the reactionary isn’t helpful, of course. So, we have liberal parents who, in reaction to their own traumatized childhoods, overprotect their children with authoritarian helicopter parenting that allows their child no freedom, autonomy, and agency. The fear and anxiety of the parents is passed onto the children who learn the world is a dangerous place, the very state of mind that brings on yet more of the reactionary and authoritarian. It’s going from the frying pan to the fire.

          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2020/09/08/mental-foot-binding-of-the-american-child/

          Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

          The Breast To Rule Them All

  2. Dear Benjamin,

    Hello! I would like to commend you highly on publishing another post detailing the fractious nature of the reactionary.

    By the way, as your avid reader, or rather, proofreader, I would like to point out some typos as follows:

    (1) The definite article “the” has been repeated in “And so it is more often found on the the American right-wing.”

    (2) You probably meant “tend towards” rather than “tend to toward” in “… most Democratic elite and partisans tend to toward the reactionary”

    (3) I think that you meant “as if theirs was…” in “as if they it was the most damning of judgments”.

    (4) The pronoun “it” has been omitted but is actually needed twice in “And, if [it] turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant [it] into the safety…”

    I particularly like these ten paragraphs of yours:

    The fundamental reason for this difference [between the progressive left and the conservative right] involves moral imagination, symbolic conflation, social constructionism, and ideological realism (we have numerous posts on all of these). We could surely add to that list, if we gave it much more thought. Basically, the reactionary right requires their worldview to be conflated with reality, confused in the mind, buried in the unconscious, obscured from public gaze, and so placed above interrogation. There are many tools to achieve this end such as faux nostalgia, historical revisionism, and invented traditions; and so erasing the evidence of its origins in order to make something appear as if it was always that way.

    On the other hand, the action of the political left has typically been the opposite, to explore origins and analyze the development, to place things in context; and hence the reason the political left has long been closely associated with intellectuality, science, academia, and education. Between the conservative and liberal minds, this is the push and pull between two forces, what Lewis Hyde called Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light, one that enchants and the other that disenchants. The liberal mind wants to bring things out into the open so that they can be analyzed, questioned, and doubted; or understood and appreciated. And this is precisely what conservatives fear, the grubby scrutiny of consciousness that Edmund Burke portrayed as a lecherous mob penetrating the palace and tearing away the queen’s clothing to reveal what should not be seen by prying eyes.

    The ruling power of the reactionary mind and the conservative order can only operate by being hidden and protected. This is why the reactionary right fears the left as radical and extremist, nihilist and anarchist. There is a grain of truth to this. Consider that ‘radical’ means to get to the root of things and that is what the liberal-minded like to do, pull things up out of the dirt and into the sunlight. The conservative-minded rightly points out that this might kill the plant, but if it is a weed or invasive species we do want to kill it. And, if turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant into the safety of a garden where it will be tended and watered. Contrary to reactionary obfuscation, the liberal mind seeks open-eyed clarity and discernment.

    There is a real distinction to be made between right and left, reactionary and non-reactionary. The political right is correct to an extent. The two mentalities really do diverge, even if a mutual dynamic lashes them together in their movements. This is what many soft-hearted and well-intentioned liberals fail to understand, in their desire for equality and their vulnerability to false equivalency. The two mindsets are not only different in degree but in substance and motivation — they are two worldviews foreign to each other. As rightism attempts to enclose the whole world within its ideological grip, leftism at its best points beyond itself to what is presently unknown. This is fundamentally nihilistic, whichever definition of that term one prefers, but essentially a broad and curious-minded openness toward undiscovered and unproven possibility.

    Here is an even more important distinction. The reactionary right is drawn into essentialism and determinism, as related to ideological realism. This is the naturalistic fallacy. Like races and gender, social mindsets and political identities can be taken as reality itself; and so abstractions as labels can become reified. These are among the many things the political left seeks to undo and dispel, to disenchant. Think of the difference between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. The former asserted an absolutist dogma, whereas the latter was more akin to the Russian nihilists in never having outlined any specific ideological system that would inevitably replace capitalist realism, as he also thought solutions couldn’t be determined beforehand. Leftism and liberalism, as such, are more markers of undetermined significance, pointing in a direction as yet unknown.

    Those on the political left don’t need to dismiss the other side because leftism wants to weaken such boundaries of the mind and boundaries of social order, particularly boundaries of pseudo-tribalism, so as to imagine something else. In reality, none of us is actually left-wing or right-wing, conservative or liberal. These are social constructions, not reality; whether or not we deem them useful fictions. We are free to create something else and the suggestion that seeking not yet known possibilities is nihilistic is meaningless and irrelevant, and empty fear lashing out in the darkness. The leftist has less difficulty in admitting that their own politics are also an ideological worldview because it is only in admitting this that we can bring our biases and failures out into the open to be aired. What the right fears, the left desires.

    The political left has less to defend, both in a practical sense and as an ideological project. This is why, in our own writings, we regularly take shots at all sides. In fact, we are often most critical of those who are most similar and most in agreement with us, and we regularly piss off people who might be perceived as being on ‘our side’. An example of this is our complaint against the corporate takeover of environmentalist arguments, in co-opting veganism as a political tool (e.g., EAT-Lancet). It’s precisely because we have been strident environmentalists for as long as we can remember that we take such offense at this movement being misused as propagandistic social control. The value of environmentalism, in our own liberal mind, is not as a social identifier of group identity. This is how we’ve ended up such a disloyal liberal in refusing to bow down to the DNC elite, AFSCME union leadership, or anyone else.

    Group loyalty is not a defining trait of the liberal mind. It’s because of this resistant attitude toward group-mindedness that some describe trying to organize the political left as herding cats. It’s the strength and weakness of liberal-mindedness. Left-liberalism, rather than falling into strongly and strictly contained boundaries of us versus them, tends to expand and sometimes, sadly, splinter apart. But there is something impressive and worthy about the liberal mind. We’ve previously noted that white liberals are the first ‘group’ seen in American research to express a pro-outgroup bias, as opposed to identifying with those supposedly like themselves (i.e., other white liberals).

    The reason is that most of those white liberals don’t take white liberalism as their group identity, in the way that do white conservatives, for they’ve opened and expanded the circle of concern. There is less sense of an other to project upon because the liberal potentially invites everyone, even those on the reactionary right, into belonging as members of a liberal society. Terms such as reactionary and progressive, left and right are relative, not absolute, labels and context-dependent, not essentialist, identities; and so one day those terms will disappear while the human race will remain. Liberalism aspires to unity through diversity. The political right sees this pro-outgroup bias as leftist self-hatred that seeks to destroy all that is good about the white race, the Christian religion, and Western civilization. But, in the liberal mind, there is enough kindness and compassion to go around, along with enough resources if shared equally and fairly.

    It’s a split between an attitude of scarcity and an attitude of abundance, between fear and love. To the left-liberal persuasion, we are all humans on a shared earth, we are all citizens of the world — the ancient dream of the Axial Age prophets. Those on the reactionary right, obviously, disagree in that they define themselves by what they oppose and exclude. As conservative Ronald Reagan pointed out, we might only be unified as a common human species when earth is attacked by a common enemy of space aliens; although simply the existence of space aliens, even if entirely peaceful, would be enough to elicit a reaction of fear. If and when that happens, conservatives will accuse those space aliens of everything that, in the past, they accused liberals and leftists. Meanwhile, the political left will seriously consider and openly debate about whether space aliens should have the same freedom and rights, should be welcomed as fellow beings as part of a single shared galaxy or universe.

    Wishing for all and sundry a much improved Global Cooperation, Diversity, Teamwork, Unity, World Peace, Earth Day and Environmental Awareness in this New Earth Year of 2022!

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

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