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Doubling and Democracy

July 31st, 2006 · No Comments

A theme that keeps coming up in my research into toxic obedience and bad group behavior, albeit under different names and in different variants, is what Robert Jay Lifton, in his study of Nazi doctors calls “doubling,” a kind of psychic compartmentalization that allows people to commit brutal acts under the aegis of one role or identity while thinking of themselves as good and decent people at home, at church, or in the public square. A related notion is what Czeslaw Milosz calls Ketman (the same, as far as I can tell, as the Shi’a doctrine of Taqiyya), wherein one goes along superficially while preserving a kind of inner dissent, permitting the thought that one is not really complicit in the true sense. The most famous variant of this idea, of course, is Orwell’s idea of doublethink, which allowed adherents of Ingsoc to assert—and fervently believe—that “2 + 2 = 5” at a party rally, while simultaneously knowing, at another level, that “2 + 2 = 4” when it came time to do a calculation on the factory floor.

What struck me just recently, though, is that in many ways this is the sort of compartmentalization that a good citizen of a functioning liberal democracy is called upon to do constantly—and in that context, I think, we properly regard it as good and healthy. I mean, of course, that when we address each other as citizens, we are supposed to “bracket” the deep metaphysical or religious “comprehensive doctrines” (to use John Rawls’ terminology) that animate and shape our private lives, using instead only the neutral language of public reason—at least in theory, anyway. A CEO may devote her time and energy to maximizing her profits simply because her company is her company; if she wants public monies, on the other hand, nobody will count that as sufficient justification. And by the same token, religious believers are (ideally) supposed to refrain from attempting to impose policy whose only justification is to be found in their particular creed. And this more or less works: Opposition to gay marriage may be a viable political position only because of widespread atavistic (and often religious) attitudes about homosexuality per se, but the respectable public face of opposition to it at least makes a show of offering a public reason argument that asserts it will undermine ordinary heterosexual marriage, which is known to provide a variety of secular benefits for children. The argument, needless to say, is not very good, but it is at least the right sort of argument: It relies on the idea of avoiding harmful social consequences that a gay atheist could also recognize as undesirable, even if it does not seem terribly cogent when it comes to showing that those consequences are likely to follow.

This is, again, all to the good insofar as a particular society’s form of public reason is well designed (or well evolved) to make collective decisionmaking compatible with liberty and pluralism. But when that doesn’t hold, it does seem to open up the potential for the untethering of collective action from the diverse evolved ethics and ways of life that, whatever their other demerits, typically contain resources that check the worst kind of tendencies to interpersonal brutality. Consider, for instance, Olivier Roy’s thesis that modern jihadis emerged not so much as a reaction against globalization, but as its byproduct, when the linking of Muslims who had previously followed different local traditions became anxious to jettison these local “impurities” (which were likely part of the tempering and domestication of ideology to make it conducive to social cooperation) and reconstruct the “true” Islam of the pious ancestors. This is, obviously, not a case of compartmentalization emerging from liberal public reason—very much the opposite. But it does hint at the dangers of a sudden unrooting from entrenched mores. Hayek’s famous distinction between “constructivist” and “critical” rationalism may be instructive here: American public reason self consciously tied itself to the British common-law tradition and the “rights of Englishmen,” and has since unfolded in a way that places strong emphasis on impersonal and gradually evolving legal principles—in contrast to the form that arose during the French Revolution. The Weimar Republic, similarly, may have been so vulnerable precisely because so new.

Am I going anywhere with this? Well, there’s a piece in The Washigton Post today that echoes those desparate, tautological claims that Soviet despotism provided no argument against “true communism,” for “true communism” was defined as non-despotic. The current mess in Lebanon provides no argument against democracy promotion, argues Steven Cook, because:

participating in a free and fair election does not necessarily imply that an organization is democratic. While Hamas and Hezbollah may have embraced the procedures of democracy, there is no evidence that they have embraced the rule of law, the rights of women and minorities, political and religious tolerance, and alternation of power.

But of course, these are precisely the components of democracy—or, more properly, liberal democracy—that one cannot easily “promote.” If you want to set off rapid change abroad, it is possible, if difficult, to go about imposing relatively open elections within a short period. It is essentially impossible to impose the kind of deep mores that make democracy work. This is why, as folk like Jack Snyder have argued, transitions to democracy so often result in violence rather than “democratic peace,” because it leads to a period during which no stable form of public reason has had a chance to evolve. It creates, in other words, a collective identity which as yet has no content: Citizens are bound together before there can be any confidence they’re bound to something healthy. (Incidentally, I talked to Snyder for a piece expressing skepticism about democracy promotion as a security strategy a while back.)

Let me try to tie this together a bit. Public reason in a pluralist society is a way of trying to create a distinct, compartmentalized identity that allows otherwise very different people to deliberate together as citizens. Normally, this is good and necessary. The trouble is that this sort of compartmentalization can unmoor people, at least when they act in certain roles, from the restraints of their comprehensive conceptions, which will be a change for the worse if the new shared identity is not a benign one. Cook thinks we just need “more democracy” so that the voices of those who repudiate Hamas and Hezbollah can be given effect. This, I think, ignores the idea that how one feels about Hamas or Hezbollah may well be at least partly a function of whether they’re seen as representing a legitimate component of a shared Lebanese or Palestinian identity.

Tags: Obedience and Insubordination