Deep Disagreements and the Rhetoric of Red Pills

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Redpills1. Deep Disagreement

It is a common enough occurrence. In arguing with someone, as a controversial view is supported, even more controversial reasons are given, to be followed by more and more controversial commitments. A regular strategy in what might be called normal argument is that arguing parties trace their reasons to a shared ground of agreed-upon premises and rules of support, and then they test which of their sides is favored by these reasons. But disagreements one might call deep are those wherein shared reasons are not easily found. And consequently, it seems that under these conditions, argumentative exchange is doomed to failure. Robert Fogelin famously argued that “the possibility of a genuine argumentative exchange depends … on the fact that together we accept many things.” Deep disagreements, consequently, “cannot be resolved through the use of argument, for they undercut the conditions essential to arguing.”

Of late, our interest in deep disagreement has not been purely academic. With Donald J. Trump winning the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the rise of the alt-right movement in American politics, we found that we faced very real cases of what had seemed a sheer theoretical posit. In particular, the intellectual movement of the self-styled “neo-reactionary right” and the “Dark Enlightenment” seemed to be exemplary. We have been on record as what we've called Argumentative Optimists in the face of deep disagreement, so our theory now has a test case.

2. The Dark Enlightenment and the Cathedral Cathedral

When we started reading around in the neo-reactionary corpus, we found ourselves in what felt like an upside-down world – all the dialectical elements of the argument were familiar, but none of the premises presented as truisms seemed remotely plausible. The journalist James Duesterberg captures his experience first reading the literature of the Dark Enlightenment:

Wading in, one finds oneself quickly immersed, and soon unmoored. All the values that have guided center-left, post-war consensus … are inverted. The moral landmarks by which we were accustomed to get are bearings aren't gone: they're on fire.

This Alice through the looking glass experience is something that those in the literature expect. But the writers in this genre have no plans on showing their readers the way back to the world they'd left behind. In fact, this break with the world of liberal norms is one of the core commitments of the neo-reactionary program. Importantly, we, all those who have not stepped out of it, have been brainwashed by a quasi-religious political superstructural institution ruling the Western world – what those in the neoreactionary movement call The Cathedral.

To start, the Cathedral is more a roughly ideologically confederated set of institutions: civil service, the university system, the media, and many religious movements. There are no legally binding or formal connections between these entities, but rather, they are all blind allies in a great, but unconscious, collaboration in illusion. Bryce Laliberte analogizes the Cathedral to religious commitment seen through naturalistic eyes. Religions aren't invented as lies, despite their being false. Rather, they arise as shorthands for why some norms are binding. Originally, this was simply religion simpliciter, but according to Mencius Moldbug, the Dark Enlightenment's prime mover on the blogosphere, the religious movement has morphed into a kind of secular religion of political idealism.

You can go from religion to idealism and back simply by adding and subtracting gods, angels, demons, saints, ghosts, etc.

The upshot is that contemporary progressivism, in the eyes of the neo-reactionaries, is a “nontheistic Christian sect“. The worship of diversity and intersectionality, the insistence on political correctness, are all religious rites, ones where the meanings of the words do not really matter, but whether one chants them at the right times and at the proper cadence.

Consider the Cathedral, then, on analogy with some of the great philosophical set-pieces about grand-but-undetectable illusions. Plato's Analogy of the Cave has the prisoners participating in games of shadow-image identification, and since they've never seen the real things the images are of, they cannot even fathom the idea of illusion. Of these sorry folks, Socrates has a dark aside, “They are like us” (515a). The movie trilogy The Matrix is premised on our lives taking place in a large-scale computer simulation, one about which one may have but only suspicions. And so, too, is the Cathedral – as Nick Land, the author of The Dark Enlightenment Manifesto notes, “the Cathedral has substituted its gospel for all we know.”

3. The Rhetoric of Red Pills Redpillbluepill

A further trope from the literature of grand illusions is necessary. In Plato's Republic, one of the prisoners is released and is dragged out of the cave, to a blinding, painful light. In The Matrix, Neo is given a choice between a red pill and a blue pill. He chooses the red pill, which shows him what the Matrix is; the blue pill would have put him back deeper in the illusion. The neo-reactionaries, too, need a symbol for those who have foregone the comforting and tempting illusion of the Cathedral. They use term from The Matrix, that of the red pill. Mencius Moldbug makes a contrast in selling his version of the red pill, because it turns out that there are many out there selling red pills.

We've all seen The Matrix. We know about red pills. Many claim to sell them. You can go, for example, to any bookstore, and ask the guy behind the counter for some Noam Chomsky. What you'll get is blue pills soaked in Red #3. . . . [W]e provide the genuine article. . .

Seeing the Cathedral from the outside, neo-reactionaries feel they are shaken from an impossible but too comfortable dream. A similar vocabulary is necessary internal to the Cathedral – there are “woke” progressives, but this is more testament to the perverse incentives internal to the institution. That is, the best way to hide the illusion of the Cathedral is to acknowledge that there are illusions, but hold that they are in not being aware of and committed to the core theses of Cathedralism.

4. Optimism about Argument

Despite the depth of these disagreements, there are prospects for argument here. One source of hope is the fact that so many neo-reactionaries take themselves to engage in argument with the liberal progressive movement. As noted by Foseti:

It's important to remember this fact. The past year has seen an explosion of “reactionary” writing. And I'm left feeling . . . unsettled. The explosion of high-quality Rightist thought is fantastic and should be enthusiastically applauded by anyone outside of the Cathedral (or anyone that enjoys a good argument – is that redundant?).

The thought that it is redundant to think that those outside the Cathedral enjoy good argument should be reason to hope that there are lines of argument that can be open between progressives and neo-reactionaries.

The main challenge at this stage is a form of leveling skepticism. Recall that Moldbug had acknowledged other competing red pill narratives, which he'd said were really “blue pills soaked in Red #3.” But doesn't the progressive left say the same of the reactionary right? Moreover, if we really are under such circumstances of deep and internally undetectable illusion, how can they themselves know they really are out of the purported illusion? Thousands of students every year are taught about Plato's allegory of the cave, and The Matrix is a piece of pop critique culture – hasn't the it's all an illusion narrative been coopted by the illusion? Moldbug observes the skeptical scenario, but only looking at his competition:

[Y]ou have no rational reason to trust anything coming out of the Cathedral – that is, the universities and the press. You have no reason to trust these institutions than you have to trust, say, the Vatican (2009; emphasis in original)

But under these conditions, we have no rational reason to trust Moldbug, either. The problem with high-grade skeptical tropes in red pill rhetoric is that once they are in place, they do not discriminate. Neo-reactionary narrative gets the same treatment as that of the most lefty SJW – namely, that of the jaded eye of one suspicious that it's all overblown rationalization. The leveling skeptical consequence is that we are all returned to argumentative status quo ante. No one gets to claim to have genuine red pills any more than anyone else.

Some further evidence for argumentative optimism arises from how we have outlined the dialectical state of play. Deep disagreement, from the theoretically optimistic perspective, is a mere theoretical posit, an antinomy of reason taken too far. Insofar as depth of disagreement is gradable and comparative, the theoretical worry about what one might call Absolutely Deep Disagreement, as disagreement with no in principle overlap of premises to reason from and no disagreements possibly deeper, is purely a matter of conceptual possibility. Actual disagreements never reach this state, if only because in order for us to recognize disagreements as disagreements (where we share enough semantic overhead to contradict each other) we must share enough commitments in common to start to arbitrate the disagreements. In fact, the advent of the rhetoric of red pills is testament to this. For the rhetoric to work, we need notions like the appearance/reality distinction, the idea of being duped, and the idea of there being someone who sees it all for what it is and arrives to perform some consciousness raising. All those elements of what might be called the dialectic of false consciousness and its correction must be in place for any of those narratives to exist or to make sense to their audiences. But we do share those concepts, and those shared concepts bespeak yet more in common, such as a love of truth, a desire to know what one's position in reality and society is, and a desire to have some measure of control over it.

With this broad class of background concepts in place, we can see that the disagreement between liberals and neo-reactionaries is perhaps deep, but it is not one that approaches absolute depth. The theoretical program with deep disagreement optimism is that many disagreements are deeper than others, in the sense that there are disagreements with more contested argumentative moves than others. In a word, they become philosophical. This, of course, should come as no surprise, since philosophy arguably began and thrives in the spaces where we attempt to wrestle with the big questions that separate us.

Our optimistic response here to deep disagreement does not guarantee that arguments will eventually resolve the disagreements, and given the leveling skeptical argument earlier, it may be that there are no solutions coming. But this does not imply that argument is impossible under these conditions. In fact, the skeptical argument itself should show that argument is possible.

We are aware that making a case for intellectual optimism during these politically dark days is out of tune for many. In fact, we expect that some will see this line of thought as complicit with the objectionable politics of the powerful. But the moral situation should make this point clearer, since if we find those who propose totalitarian policies morally blameworthy, we must think them rationally responsible for the policies they endorse and the thoughts and reasons they act on. But if we hold them rationally responsible, we must think that if they had different reasons manifest to them, they could and should act otherwise. If we, ourselves, have those reasons and the voice to get them out in argument, then we are obligated to do so. And so optimism about argumentative possibilities and prospects in deep disagreement is not pie-eyed Pollyanna-ism in the face of argumentative tragedy, but rather it is the view that well-run argument matters and is important to value, especially in the dark days.

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