The Sophist Working Class
This essay is the first in a series of essays I am writing on the importance of sophism to politics, especially American working class politics. The essays will not be coming out any order or on any set date. Each essay will be numbered, allowing you to know which one it is in the series.
On some nights you can catch me with my motley group of friends. We all grew-up in the same working class area of southwest Houston, “The Bend”. Originally a suburb in the early 80’s before I was born, the city grew around it and made it part of the semi-periphery zone before the suburbs. You know, urban sprawl and all that jazz, with its subsequent segregation based on income and race. My friends are an eclectic bunch; a boisterous, rambling crew; drunken potheads with foul mouths and a taste for fine foods.
They are proud, loyal, honest, and kind of crazy in a way the educated classes could never be. They are crude, yet comport themselves with the utmost etiquette and respect. Also, they are the most a-political bunch of people you could probably meet, because for them formal politics is taboo or seen as something snotty. But, what does it mean to be a-political, when even though you may not care about politics, politics will always care about you?
Most of my life-long friends in the motley crew of misfits have little to no college education, and were absolutely short changed by the public education system’s descent into standardized testing hell. The administrators of the high school we all attended (myself for one year) were caught cheating on standardized tests to make the school look better. People we know were told to stay home so they didn’t push the scoring down. Faith in student ability, as you can tell, was very low. And this is actually a trend across the United States. Implementation of standardized testing increased cheating, most of the time by administrators and teachers.
The environment we were taught in did not push forward a love of learning, but instead stifled everything down to the most inane, boring rote memorization. Of course, this is when we were actually taught, and not just handed a worksheet, while the teacher sat fiddling their thumbs at the desk. Or my personal favorite (at a better funded high school in the burbs) was when the football coach would throw an outline on the overheard, which we would copy word for word. I do not want to attack teachers who are under a lot of undue stress and repressed by more and more standardization of everything in the curriculum. But, damn, way to make a horrendous situation worse.
My friends who are college educated seem to care even less about politics than the ones who aren’t. Or if they care, typically it is to bash on people for not having “personal responsibility”, a catch-all phrase of hate against the poor. One friend will answer every political question with one word, love. “Hey David, what do you think of cutting food stamps?” “Love.” Or, “Hey David, should we be at war in Afghanistan?” “Love, always love.” Yes, it is that ignorant. In some ways I believe the uneducated are better for it, being that they didn’t get stultified into believing they knew; they just always assumed it. Also, their love for learning, while not focused on the social, was not destroyed. They saved it by never associating learning with school. Learning was just what you did when you were interested in something. It is that populist edge which should be built upon.
For either of the groups, educated or un-educated, most of the time, when you mention something political, they will quickly state, “Not now.” Disenfranchised, demoralized, and down right down-trodden as they are cut-off from the avenues of power. And they are also just sick of all the bullshit that is politics, the theatrical show and its parade of lies. They would rather be powerless, than a prostitute for the powerful; they have their virtues. Nor am I saying they completely lack social power. In their own right, within their social networks they are powerful. But, these are not the formal avenues of power in society; they are the informal ways with which we navigate the social system.
They are political in the informal sense. This is an odd sophistic form of politics. It shows love of life, but it is infantile in its hatred of learning and critical thinking. It has a glee with which it tramples the niceties and formalities of the elite way of politicking, while at the same time never arising above carnival. It is irreverent in its amorous relationship with contradictions of every sort and has little time or care for dealing with them.
In many ways, attempting a Socratic line of questioning will get you punched in the face for wanting to ask too many questions, or unnecessarily probing another’s line of inquiry as if they are being interrogated. I often wonder if it is possible to not sound like a dick when trying to correct other people’s inaccuracies, if it is wrong to state something is counterfactual.
Over the past couple of weeks an ongoing debate has riled some in the crew. Richard has blamed me for this, stating, “You gave Larry the right to know.” I rebuffed him, “Everyone has the right to know.” At least, everyone should have the right to know and not be excluded due to their “place” in the order of things. In Jacques Ranciére’s deconstructive work, The Philosopher and His Poor, he demonstrates how philosophers continually create a division of labor between them, the thinkers, and the others, the laborers.
Instead, he calls for a radically egalitarian view of knowledge production, best laid out in his work, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. This would mean all people are equipped to handle the public use of reason and deliberate on the societal topics pertinent to their interests and desires. It also means that all people are capable of intellectual inquiry, which becomes a process of knowledge construction. How do we implement this program in an age of apathy and misinformation?
For example of how misinformation works, Trevor had been telling us black history is suppressed. We fully agreed on this general point. The racist caste system of America has a cultural hierarchy that definitively oppresses minorities of all stripes. However, Trevor and I diverged when he stated that a group of Africans had rowed across the Atlantic and landed in South America before the indigenous we consider originally in America got there. Firstly, if this was true, archaeologists as competitive as they are and understanding of critical race theory would have staked a career on it long ago. Secondly, the black history that is real and suppressed is so much more forceful and powerful than this wrong-headed idea he got from a “documentary”. So, instead of Trevor fighting to get the real suppressed history not only heard, but acted upon, it is ruined by his propagation of a “theory” that even if true, would not change one iota of institutionalized racism in this society. When we lack actual knowledge, we invent knowledge, which can be beautiful, but also harmful.
After this debate, a few nights later Mike said my problem was with, “expecting Trevor to understand the details.” He said I should only try to give information, “in a nutshell.” Mike point is two-fold. The first part is that Trevor does not even care nor want to hear the details. Details are clutter effacing the need to make decisions without all the information. Details point to our lack of knowledge, and can be disempowering. Sometimes it is necessary to act as if we know, just to go on. The other part is that Trevor would be unable to comprehend the details even if he did care. I find this atrocious.
There is nothing special about social knowledge, nor history. If anything, Trevor would only need his own set of moral principles to comprehend what course of action should be taken based on the details. Even if it is correct to believe there is inequality of intellect through human variation, it will always be better to act as if everyone is equal. Humans can disregard science, especially if science comes into conflict with morality and ethics (which, I do not think it does, nor will do, except when it is pseudo-scientific garbage). Trevor obviously wants to know, and obviously he recognizes there is oppression. He may have the facts wrong, but he obviously gets something fucked up is going on.
And this is where sophistic politics comes into play. Many times people operate ideologically without a basis in fact. When they are political, it is typically opinionated statements with no relation to fact. Nor do they much care for the facts, as details cloud over what they typically consider to be a black and white world with little room for the grey complexities of life. In this though, one can discern an idea of universal ethics of sophistic politics and why it mounts so many contradictions.
The sophistic form of the universal ethic can be based on the principle of the “the right to know”. This right to know was a base from which the populous could relinquish itself from superstition and oppression, for as Kant says, “[it] is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable.” This does not mean automatically the public enlightens itself through facts, but that the public has the ability, and therefore the right, to debate on their own terms in order to arrive at enlightenment. Knowledge is power as Bacon says, and the people have a right to that power.
The very belief in the right to know is disconnected from the need to know about the world in order to wield the right to know. It operates through doxa or what is known as right opinion. What they feel or think without any relation to what is actually going on. Most of the time, this doxa is just regurgitation of what the culture industry hands them on a daily basis. It ideologically organizes knowledge and how knowledge is put into action. You know, we are all plugged into the matrix to a degree, already existing in 1984 with the television turned on all the time. Or maybe it is A Brave New World where we are so hooked on partying that we no longer see the oppression as long we enjoy, an activity continuously forced upon us. The people utilize this matrix to express themselves.
Sometimes this is done in quite inventive ways, other times it is mind numbing in its banal acceptance of what those with power tell them. Many times the repeated expression of doxa is meant to guard against harm to the ego, a fear of being wrong built on the forced need to always be right in this society. Success seems to be built upon the “fake till you make it” axiom of capitalist life.
We have to make a change that both builds on the sophism, but also destroys the barriers of misinformation clouding the debate. Returning to Kant, it would follow the maxim of, “Dare to know! (Sapere aude).” The public use of reason is a practice, hence the word “use”. It is something you do and must continually do. We must learn to be more democratic and to reason with each other to arrive at a consensus. Think of it as a radical civics education. We must begin to reason clearly and extricate ourselves from the ideological systems that block our ability to see the brutal objective reality of our system. We must recognize that to dare to know is a radical act and the demand for a radically egalitarian system is connected to our right to know. We must account for empirical evidence and proven rational propositions in order to commit to reason.
It is, in my opinion, one of the most fundamental aspects of our struggle for radical social change. It is also, and lastly, a radical call for freedom. And this freedom was clearly understood by Kant as within us; “Nature, then, has carefully cultivated the seed within the hard core–namely the urge for and the vocation of free thought. And this free thought gradually reacts back on the modes of thought of the people, and men become more and more capable of acting in freedom. At last free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government and the state finds it agreeable to treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.”
Andrew Smolski is an anarchist sociologist based in Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org