10 Things To Consider When Reading That Progressive Listicle

As much as I’d like it to be otherwise, the reality is that listicles are going to be around for some time yet, and would-be progressives are going to use them in trying to get their message across. Rather than just condemn them outright, I’ll swallow my pride and raise some issues concerning the way they’re read, for the benefit of fans/addicts of the format – i.e. in listicle form.

1. Rote content isn’t geared for maximal moral comprehension because it can’t be. Listicles of the morally persuasive kind don’t have the space for complex moral calculus, counter-factual analysis, meta-ethics, interpreting statistical outliers or handling large arrays of case studies. Either a listicle is confining itself to simple issues people may have overlooked, or giving a limited glimpse at something more convoluted – it’ll never be the last word on serious ethical inquiry.

2. Gospel is for kids. Specifically, I’m referring to the “pre-conventional” to early “conventional” stages of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.  Rote rules are more or less great for avoiding punishment… if you’re in kindy or a cult.

Kohlberg’s stages are contentious – more so than you’d want to go into in a listicle, so I won’t – but one of Kohlberg’s points that isn’t that controversial is that literal obedience to commandments, in thought, is not indicative of fully-developed moral reasoning. You may have not have a choice in the matter, but if the limiting factor in getting beyond gospel is the way you think about right and wrong, then developing the way you read a given progressive listicle may be more important than the content of that listicle.

“BUT [THOUGHT LEADER] SAID! *Inserts link to unoriginal electronic pamphlet*” – Derpy McInternet demonstrating poor moral reasoning.

3. Discussion is important, and not everyone is as good (or bad, or mediocre) as you. At no level of ability is it going to help ethical discussion for a person to consider themselves the pinnacle of correctness. Even at the top end of ability, doing so models poor mental strategy, and it’s not as if the very best will ever be right about everything ever published on lists of right and wrong anyway.

4. “But Hitler!” It’s not hard for everyone in a group to be right about the Nazis. A lot of propositions concerning the Nazis are pretty easy. I’m not going out on a limb by saying that “don’t kill all the Jews” is pretty fucking good advice.  But if you think you need to share a listicle to trot off things that obvious, for your friends and family on Facebook, then you may have bigger problems to deal with.

Are your friends and family on Facebook really that bad, or do you just like stating the obvious?

5. Progress doesn’t magically equate with the future, or with youth. I’ve been seeing a few millennials taking it for granted that prior to the last few years, with Trump and all, things had been getting more progressive year after year. This is not to condemn millennials, it’s just that left-wing Gen-Xers have been bemoaning the shift to the right for decades now. Homelessness and poverty, among other terrible regressions, have been increasing across the board in English speaking countries, and in spite of increases in economic productivity. For years now, politicians have been treading on egg-shells around proto and neo-fascist elements, yet if you put the same fascist wankers in proximity to a 1980s Australian Prime Minister, there’d be fireworks. Some thing have become more progressive, others not.

“We are the future!”

Everyone fucking is up until the point they die. Please spare us this bullshit.

6. Progress is a work in progress. How arrogant do you have to be to think that a few abbreviated principles on a clickbait article positions you as the end-point of a discourse? Unless it’s something obvious like “don’t kill all the Muslims”, the odds are that people will have more to say on the matter, and that there are people other than you working on it; possibly even people who don’t learn their politics from clickbait listicles (they exist!) People socially adjacent to you will likely be at different levels of understanding at least on a few topics. Some, as smart as they are, will be years behind you, while others may very well see your sharing of “10 Wokey-Woke Things To Make You Uberwoke” as representative of where they were years ago.

This works at all scales – entire countries on average lag, and advance, accelerate and regress, changing in terms of progress on any given issue, relative to other nations (e.g. Australia used to be a world leader in environmentalism, and now we’re shit at it). And the discussions between and within are similarly stressed. Unless you are the most progressive person that can ever live, at some stage something’s likely to come at you from a place of relatively greater enlightenment, and it could come at you from any angle. A listicle won’t prepare you for these circumstances. Progress is messier than that.

7. This also means there’s a backstory. How much do you know of the internecine disputes that lead to a contentious position being articulated, and why those internecine disputes happened in the first place? Did you even know, for example, that sections of the left have been criticizing “identity politics” for decade upon decade, or did you just assume that “identity politics” was something only grumpy, white, male, racist retirees up in Queensland complained about? Are the different groups invoking the words “identity politics” even talking about the same thing as each other? What happens when two or more lefties from the same disadvantaged social group come along with differing analyses? Are you going to just “shut up and listen”? What then? How do you decide when there’s contradiction? How do you tell which one’s right on a given point (or less wrong)?

Here’s something to ponder; how do you effect progressive change without making decisions? Even if you’re entirely obedient, you’ll still have to decide who to obey. Is your beloved listicle apt to help you with this kind of quandary?

8. The medium alters the message, especially when the medium is the market. Sometimes it’s not profitable to tell the whole truth. Sometimes that’s because things like long form are more informative, but disengaging, and at other times it’s because the whole truth is wildly unpopular with exactly the demographic who needs to hear it. How much less confronting is it to tell white people to just not think about race, than it is to point out that they’re probably to varying extents the beneficiaries of structural racism? There’s a profit motive in not pissing off your audience, and not infrequently media outlets will moderate the truth not as an educational strategy, but as a marketing one. Further, if a social group, even a disadvantaged one, has enough money in aggregate, there’ll be some marketing asshole contriving ways of influencing them to spend it on baubles and bullshit, and some of those marketing assholes will be apt to sell those baubles and bullshit as liberatory.

If your listicle is published from an outlet with a profit motive, you may want to pay closer notice to the lexicon they use and the language they erase. (E.g. Keep an eye on that dematerializing “i” in GLBTi, while it fades away out of marketability).

9. Class matters, as uncomfortable as that may feel. It’s very easy for presumptive progressives from the upper middle class to say “I support a progressive tax structure and increased spending on services, infrastructure, health, education and welfare”, even when there’s actually a chance of it happening. It’s so easy, that even conservatives argue for it on occasion; just tick that box. Actually staring the consequences of class in the face is not so easy, for anyone. That shit’s ugly.

It’s oft complained about; the spectacle of condescendingly telling a homeless or working poor white man that they have privilege. I don’t buy into the idea that it’s wrong, per se, for a middle class person to have a discussion with a poor person about privilege, where the middle class person may have the bulk of the theoretical content to impart. Rather, when it does goes wrong, I suspect the problem is that you have people who are usually middle class or better off, trying to curtail discussion of uncomfortable topics; functionally, valid concepts like white privilege and male privilege are being (mis)used as a bulwark against discussion of class – a diversion to protect middle class egos. Does your listicle do this?

10. It’s a heuristic approach. You’d possibly be helped realizing when you’re using a heuristic. A heuristic is a process, or rule, that while not able to be proven universally true, produces true results in enough cases to be usable. Anti-virus software uses heuristics – they attempt to locate viruses using a set of rules, rather than computationally intensive proofs, and when all is well and good, these rules will identify viruses correctly. Occasionally the virus checker won’t find a virus that is present, or it will wrongly identify desirable software as a virus, but as a rule, it’s still better to have a virus checker than not*.

The odds are, in dealing with things as complicated as social phenomena, and with the limited nature of listicles, the progressive rules you’ve adopted from listicles are heuristic in nature. Like the rules of anti-virus software, occasionally even well crafted listicle rules will turn out to be wrong. Like anti-virus software, progressive heuristics can date and be circumvented by malicious parties. Like anti-virus software, progressive heuristics can even occasionally be co-opted to become a part of the problem (again, the market is good at this).

These drawbacks make heuristics neither inherently good nor bad – it just means you have to be vigilant and know there are limits, and beyond those limits you need other, usually more demanding methods. Methods to spot tricky regressive ideas, and to fix the heuristics that fail to find them well enough.

If you’re busy, and you don’t have to time or resources to deploy such methods, then like a lot of other people, you’re in a pickle. You can either trust your heuristics or trust someone else who has the time to check them for you. The bind in this is that you’ll have to trust someone, or something, at some point, and it can be hard to know who or what to trust, such that’ll you’ll be bound to be disappointed at some point. Get used to it.

And it would probably help if you’ve learned your politics from listicles, to not pretend to be an infallible moral authority, above and beyond your fellow progressives. There’s a listicle heuristic for you.

~ Bruce

* This sentence is a heuristic as well; “it’s still better to have a virus checker than not” will likely be untrue in some cases, and possibly increasingly so as virus checkers fail to keep up with newer security threats.

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