Left, Right, and Belief Formation.

A recent article by Jeff Sparrow on the Australian writer Helen Dale/Darville/Demidenko has left me pondering the way that we form beliefs. Under the penname ‘Helen Demidenko’, Dale published a novel that told the story of a Ukrainian family, members of whom were perpetrators of crimes against Jews during the Holocaust. The novel was instantly successful, winning major awards, and equally controversial. It was described as anti-Semitic in its sympathetic depiction of ordinary Ukranians and its (alleged) caricatures of Jews. The book gained an aura of authenticity from the author’s claims that she based much of it on interviews with members of her own family, who had lived through the events depicted. Demidenko’s bubble burst when it was revealed she was born Helen Darville, and had no Ukrainian relatives to recount these tales.

What interests Sparrow is not whether the book is anti-Semitic or assessing Dale’s culpability for the deception. Rather, he is interested in the political reception of her book. As she now tells the story, she was the victim of a left-wing (and Jewish) witch-hunt. The left tried to associate her with the far right and to tear her down as she tried to speak an unpalatable truth. As Sparrow points out, however, the attack against her was led by right-wing culture war veterans like Gerald Henderson, while Demidenko was defended by left-wingers like David Marr. However, at some point the polarities shifted, and Demidenko came to be a right wing cause.

In the culture wars which have become increasingly important in Australian politics (following the US lead), people take sides on issues that are often seemingly far removed from those that animate the left/right divide. Obviously there are core economic and social disagreements which are (currently, at least) non-negotiable: the left wants more economic redistribution and therefore higher taxes; the right thinks that kind of redistribution is inefficient and perhaps immoral; the left wants to promote greater social diversity and the right wants to preserve what is distinctive about a culture, and so on. But many issues become political shibboleths despite having only the most tenuous connection to core right/left ideology. Because they are tenuously connected to the central questions, issues like these can flip sides: something that is strongly associated with one side may come to be reviled by it, and vice-versa.

Think of religion and creationism. William Jennings Bryant, the lawyer who prosecuted a biology teacher for teaching evolution in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, was also probably the most left-wing candidate ever endorsed by the Democratic party. H.L. Mencken, Bryan’s pro-evolution opponents, meanwhile, was a racist who opposed the idea of democracy. Now, of course, creationism and Christian fundamentalism is firmly identified with the right in the United States and elsewhere. More broadly and more recently, opposition to the deliverances of science has switched, from being more strongly associated with the left to being more strongly associated with the right.

How does this happen? In large part, I think, it’s due to the tribal nature of modern politics. A view that just happens to be held by a prominent politician or an apparently representative individual or group, on left or on right, can quickly spread across networks of other like-minded people, and become a badge of identity for the entire group. So, for instance, environmentalism, which once was non-partisan, might have come to be associated with hippies and therefore to be rejected by those who were on the right. It works in roughly the same way as the way in which particular styles of clothing or hairstyles come to be shibboleths of left and right.

Obviously, there are irrationalities generated in this way. I think most of us are somewhat vulnerable to this kind of group-think, and through it we find ourselves committed to positions for no good reason, and often without a great deal of independent evidence for our views. Nevertheless, I suspect the price may be worth paying. This kind of group-think is epistemically reasonable.

None of us is in a position to assess the evidence for anything more than a very small number of claims independently. This is particularly the case when a great deal depends on specialized expertise. How many of us are really in a position to make an assessment of the proposals for the Greek bail-out, for instance? Almost none of us can really understand the proposals, but many of us have (rational) views on them. We get those views from sources we trust, sources which themselves have the requisite expertise, or who get it from others who have that expertise.

Philosophers call this way of acquiring knowledge testimony, and it is widely accepted that under the right circumstances it is both indispensable and reliable. It makes sense to use one’s political convictions as a filter to select between claims to transmit knowledge by testimony, because (though the relations between a particular topic and politics may sometimes be quite distant) political convictions often do constrain what it is reasonable to think on a topic. Obviously, taking a different view on the redistribution question is relevant to what one should think of competing proposals for Greece. Less obviously, views about other left/right differences – on the importance of tradition, on the family unit, and so on – bear indirectly in multiple ways on other contested questions. Acquire your beliefs by testimony from people who share your political orientation and you are more likely to acquire beliefs consistent with your own values. Another way to put the same point: acquiring beliefs in this way allows you to come to the conclusions you would have, had you the time and expertise to assess the question for yourself.

Helen Demidenko/Dale shows one way in which this process throws up genuine irrationalities: you can come to have a belief with no intrinsic connection to your values and which is vulnerable to being rejigged as alliances change. But the epistemic costs are typically outweighed by epistemic benefits, at least if you choose your political views wisely.

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