Should we debate bad ideas?

 by Mike Ely

The following was a comment posted on an open thread called Zizek is wrong: Previous socialism was not just failure.

The discussion on that thread quickly evolved into a debate about whether we should ever post bad analysis. The following is Mike Ely's argument for posting and engaging wrong analysis.

"I want to express again frustration that we have rarely opened a complex topic on Kasama, without someone running in, angry or offended, to announce that we have no right to have this discussion. It is amazing to me. 

"Taking angry offense at the ideas of others is (as we all know) very often a default mode of entering discussion in many parts of today's U.S. left. It is a terrible practice. Everyone is constantly told to shut up. And such drama often obstructs productive discussions."

"My view is that we need to engage views that are influential or interesting. Not just the ones that are most interesting and sophisticated... but also sometimes bad theories that are influential."

Oathboard wrote:

"If the critique of Zizek is too poor to be engaged with, why not find a stronger critique of Zizek and engage with that?"

ok, good question.... let me respond to that:

First, it is unfortunately true that bad critiques are often influential. There are quite a number of decent people (in the U.S. and quite often around the world) who don't understand the value and contribution of theory produced by people like Zizek and Badiou. This is particularly true in the global communist movement -- where a defacto view of "closed system" has taken hold (i.e. the assumption that our philosophy is fixed and known, and that other philosophical work is judged against that closed system.)

There is great value in answering (repeatedly and convincingly) why we can't approach communist theory as a closed system.

And the argument by Karlo above is quite typical and quite influential: I.e. Lenin explained imperialism in 1916. He described the global capitalism of his time as "the highest stage of capitalism." He polemicized against Kautsky's ultra-imperialism. So we can (supposedly) judge the views of people today (including here Zizek) against a checklist of Lenin's points and verdicts.

Now, on one level, it is rather startling that such "closed system" thinking has such influence. First, because there were forces within the international communist movement (most notably the Comintern increasingly over its life) fighting to "codify" and fix Marxism, and then promote it as a definitive and closed system. But second (and important for our purposes), new people coming to communism are often (understandably and correctly) impressed by the coherence and power of previous communist synthesis. The first time you read the "classics" of Marxism-Leninism there is often the breathless excitement of discovering a coherent answer to the many infuriating philosophical and political "standard" thinking of capitalism. And it takes a while for many people to see communist theory as a contradictory and moving thing -- more like a bush than a layer cake (as we have put it).

So for example Lenin's "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism" is often seen as the final word on many questions -- even though you can see (if you look at Lenin's methodology in that work) how he himself used and synthesized many creative analysts of his day, including many who were (obviously) not communists. In other words, the lesson of the best communists we study is precisely that they drew from many contemporary sources and treated their own theory as an open system. (And Lenin's Imperialism was a major rupture with the inherited marxism of his day -- a rupture with Marx and Engels, and with those who, in an orthodox way, clung to Marx's verdicts in a new time.)

My view is that we need to engage views that are influential or interesting. Not just the ones that are most interesting and sophisticated... but also sometimes bad theories that are influential.

Like you, I think we should post and share high level engagements with key questions (including, in this case, people who engage Zizek in a sophisticated way). And we ourselves should engage (in these threads) in such a sophisticated way (when we can).

But I also think we should engage influential views, even when they are not particularly sophisticated -- for reasons that should be obvious. And my hope, in posting Karlo's essay was to make that possible.

Unfortiunately, that has not been possible so far, largely because we have had (instead) a debate over whether we (here on Kasama) have a right to even post such a work (!) because its misunderstandings of Zizek veer so far.

Oathboard wrote:

"Sure, you can engage with bad critique, but this discussion makes it rather obvious that engaging with a bad critique will lead you to debate about its poor quality rather than engage in a critical discussion about Zizek."

Is it necessary that wrong ideas WILL lead to sterile debate about why we are engaging them? I don't believe that. "Poor quality" is often subjective -- one person sees that it is an awful analysis, but others sometimes think it is astute. That's the point of debating such things.

We've often have very fruitful discussions of wrong ideas and terrible analysis (and the archives of Kasama are full of them).

I am frustrated that our thread here is not about Zizek, but about whether Kasama can even debate bad ideas. But we can get to a culture where that doesn't happen -- and where we have a substantive refutation of bad ideas, not another tailchasing debate about what ideas mau be heard. 

Perhaps we can (out of this current conversation) get some common ground on the importance of engaging both influential and interesting views.

Now, some people may not believe that orthodox Marxisms are influential -- sometimes arguing "No one I know cares about those people." Or "anyone who believes such things should not be respected in our plans." Or "If we engage old dogmatism, no one will take us seriously." 

That is largely (in my opinion) a problem of "frog in a well" localism. If you were with Liam and Natalio in Nepal right now, you would suddenly become aware (talking to even the best communists there, and from around the world) how powerful the influence of some theories of orthodoxy still are. 

We are internationalists (or at least we should be). We don't limit our discussion (on Kasama) simply to what is relevant in our own immediate or personal practice (with the few specific people right around us).

Finally, I just want to express again my frustration that we have rarely opened a complex topic on Kasama, without someone running in, angry or offended, to announced that we have no right to have this discussion. It is amazing to me. 

But taking angry offense at the ideas of others is (as we all know) very often a default mode of entering discussion in many parts of today's U.S. left. It is a terrible practice. The tangents caused by such drama is a repeated obstruction to productive discussions everywhere.

And there are several arguments raised in such protests here on Kasama:

Sometimes people believe that their own views are so obviously correct that it is offensive and stupid to engage the differing views of others. I.e. that Karlos is so obviously wrong that his arguments can't be worth dissecting.

Another argument raised is that if you post and discuss a "wrong idea" you are just advertising it, giving it more reach, and you must (in fact) be wanting to promote it. If you allow a bad idea to be discussed on Kasama, you must secretly agree with it. 

Let me be clear on this: This is essentially an argument against scientific inquiry and open discussion. It says that peopleallowing ideas to be dissected must agree with those ideas. 

If i post (for discussion) a wooden critique of Zizek, then I must (in the views of some people) want to promote woodenness (not critique of woodenness). 

The disturbing implication of this view is (after you have run into it for a while) to demand all kinds of discussion to simply be shouted down. 

For example: The views of backward among the people can't be engaged (racism, sexism, individualism, patriotism etc.) -- they must simply be denounced with great offense (in small "safe spaces" of subcultures). Or orthodox and conservative forms of communism can't be discussed because they are (supposedly) beneath contempt. And so on.

I don't agree. I will never agree.

I think we should engage wrong ideas, we should dissect them, we teach ourselves how to answer wrong ideas in deep ways, and we should even expect learn from ideas that we dont' agree with. (Mao says even shit serves as fertilizer....)

Just shouting down wrong ideas (or demanding that they be ignored) doesn't arm anyone to defeat wrong ideas (where they really must ultimately be defeated.... in the minds of humans).

I hope we can get to a political culture where the first impulse (at the sight of new controversy) is not for people to announce they are "offended" and to tell others to just shut up. I want us to fight for a different kind of culture among us.

People in this conversation

  • Actually, I think that another issue with that article -- and maybe the more central problem that was discussed -- was that the introduction seemed to ask us to both confront and dismantle poor/baseless arguments such as this and endorsed that same baseless arguments' main point. This seemed like a contradiction, and did in fact portray the article as if its main point was being endorsed. If you look at even the title of the original thread, that's pretty clear. But here is also the first half of that original introduction:

    "it is valuable to share this criticism of one of [Zizek's] biggest problems: His blanket dismissal of previous socialism as purely negative, as a failure. I won't list everything I think here... but I have a quote positive view of the revolutionary attempts of the twentieth century (what they achieved, what they teach, what we can build on) -- in ways that clashes intensely with the dismissal from Zizek (and even at times from Badiou). We Maoists have always made a distinction between "defeat" and "failure." And in the wave-like motion of history, we don't assume that setbacks and reversals negate the advances.

    The twentieth century included events that make us celebrate and that make us grieve. There were serious and protracted attempts to develop socialist societies -- and to find a road toward communism. Hundreds of millions of people threw their lot in with the red flag... they dreamed communist dreams, they sacrificed, and they deployed their best understandings.

    Just because the advance wasn't linear, just because that wave of world revolution receded -- that doesn't make it a failure. After all, whatever comes now is built on that experience (on the positive and negative). And the world today was transformed in profound ways by that wave of revolution and its repeated assaults on capitalism and oppression."

    The introduction says it's "valuable" to share "this criticism" of one of Zizek's "biggest problems" -- the "valuable" really making it seem like "this criticism" is making a reasonable point. I think we have to be clear here: IS this a poor article, baseless, etc. -- is it "wooden" in the above terminology? Because if it IS, then how is it helpful to endorse its main point as if the article has a valid argument?

    We can't say both that the article's argumentation is basically fallacious but we need to confront these sort of baseless critiques because they may be influential -- AND say that we need to talk about this major failure of Zizek which this same article (baselessly) presents.

    The fact is that the article's critique is (as most of the commenters seemed to agree) based on misquotation, misaprehension and all put forward with a tone and seeming intent of slandering-the-intellectual, which is a common approach to Zizek.

    This certainly means that we can talk about how to deal with these critiques, as is discussed above and elsewhere.

    But that's different than trying to debate the ideas brought out in an article -- which I really do not think is possible to do productively with an article like the original one, precisely because its arguments were baseless, so the discussion of its content pretty much ended when everyone pointed this out.

    This, however, is very different than saying we ought to "ban" bad ideas -- it's simply saying that we shouldn't present them as if we're endorsing their main points, which I think has been presumed practice on most things we post, it just was not very clear on this article because of its introduction -- which still seems to be endorsing the central argument of the original article, even if that intro also says "I don't agree with everything the author says here."

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