An Inconsistency on the Political Left

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky had some strong disagreements a while back, about religion in its relation to extremism and terrorism. It was a dialogue that didn’t really go anywhere. Their ideological worldviews were too different. But it occurred to me what exactly is odd about the conflict.

Harris believes there is something inherent to certain religions and to the religious mindset in general. Chomsky takes the opposite tack by emphasizing conditions and context. Islamic terrorists are the result of a half century of geopolitical machinations that involved Western governments eliminating secularism and promoting theocracy.

It’s a difference of whether one emphasizes civilizational war or common humanity. The divergence of these worldviews extends back to the Enlightenment and even further back to the Axial Age.

That isn’t exactly what I want to discuss, though. It came to my mind that these two thinkers switch positions when it comes to the human mind. Harris denies that there is an inherent self, whereas Chomsky has long argued that there are inherent modules within the mind.

Both seem inconsistent, but as mirror images of each other. Some have noted that Chomsky’s linguistic theory doesn’t fit his political ideology. There is a drastic mismatch. Chomsky dismisses this as two separate areas, as though the human mind and human society had nothing to do with each other. That is odd. Harris, as far as I know, has never even attempted to explain away his inner conflict.

Most on the political right would argue that nearly everything is inherent: human nature, language, culture, religion, genetics, biology, gender, etc. It is assumed that there is a fundamental, unchanging essence to things that determines their expression. I disagree with this viewpoint, but at least it is consistent. There are other areas of inconsistency on the political right, some real whoppers such as with economics. Yet for this set of issues, the greater inconsistency appears to be on the political left.

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Unprincipled Righteousness, Inconsistent Thought, & Double Standards

I’m really liking these comparisons.

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Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The one thing that always irks me is inconsistency. So many people don’t think how they set up double standards in their own thinking, thus causing dissociation between different parts of their experience. The only way to avoid self-serving and self-deluding rationalizations is with self-awareness.

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Our politics shouldn’t be about defending our small group interest, whether views of pro-gun-rights or prochoice (or whatever else), by attacking everyone else who disagrees or who is a member of a different political party, race, ethnicity, etc.

In a large nation like this, we all share the responsibility of governance, to ensure it is both good and just. Our government is supposed to be of the people, that is to say all the people, not just some of the people. What we apply to other Americans we need to apply to ourselves. And what we apply to ourselves we need to apply to other Americans.

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This last one is about anti-government types, the radical right-libertarians and their allies. It points to the problem of any ideology (left or right) being brought to its radical extreme, as can often be seen in political rhetoric.

It is one thing to be critical of government as one criticizes anything (corporations, churches, etc) when they deserve criticism. But it is a whole other matter to dismiss government or dismiss any other social institution. There are real world consequences to nice sounding rhetoric. It isn’t or shouldn’t be just about winning elections. What matters is making a better society where easily avoidable catastrophes don’t happen, catastrophes such as the poisoned water in West Virginia.

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Combined together, the messages above make a greater point.

Maybe we should base our opinions on principles, not partisanship (or any other form of groupthink). Maybe we should feel the same moral outrage when a principle is ignored or betrayed in one situation as we feel in another. Moral outrage without principle is blind. Principle without moral outrage is impotent. Both can be dangerous.

These are directed at the right, but the same applies to us all. Certainly, Democrats have no lack of inconsistency as well.

It is human to occasionally fall into inconsistency, but it is also in our nature to care about bettering ourselves and also bettering our communities. Each of us eventually comes to a point where we are forced to chose between maintaining our self-serving rationalizations or taking our principles seriously.