A map of contradictions in our political conversations

Pointing out a contradiction in someone’s argument is a very popular rhetorical device. You can find this type of technique in the majority of social media debates.

I have never really liked this device, mostly because of its laziness: it doesn’t force you to state your own position (which is the whole point of a debate), and still for some reason it is perceived as a knock-out argument (which of course it is not, otherwise Trump would have exactly zero supporters by now).

But I still think there is value in pointing out contradictions. At least when the objective is auto-analysis and a honest scrutiny of ideas rather than scoring points. A crucial contradiction at the heart of many people’s beliefs can indicate either bad faith or a lack of in-depth thought: either way, it’s a great place to start if we want to make any progress in our conversations.

Below is a list of what I consider the most striking contradictions in today’s political discourse.

A contradiction across the board: free markets, restrained morality (and vice-versa)

There is a bizarre pattern in most people’s political ideas, a pattern so common that we no longer notice it. Most liberals promote a stronger regulation for markets but at the same time a less regulated morality (civil rights, sexual liberation), while most conservatives support market deregulation but at the same time more structured and normative moral customs.

Where does this come from? There is no obvious reason why believing in free markets should make you more likely to believe that gay marriage is a bad idea, and yet these kinds of correlation are everywhere. This widespread pattern simply betrays the tribal nature of our political ideas: we tend to accept the full package at face value because that’s what our group believes in. A widespread inquisitive attitude would necessarily translate into a much broader mosaic of beliefs (e.g. more people believing that both unregulated markets and unregulated moral customs are a good idea).

Far-right: the looming good Samaritan

Far-righters don’t seem to follow this general pattern (they usually support heavy government intervention in both the market process and morality). However they have their own, macroscopic contradiction. The revealing contradiction of the far-right is Christianity. For right-wing nationalists, traditions are a crucial part of a nation’s identity and must be preserved and revitalised. Crucially, this sacred rule encompasses all traditions, irrespective of their content.

This ambitious commitment causes a big problem to western right-wingers when it turns out that one of the traditions to preserve is Christianity. It doesn’t matter how you want to define Christian morality, there is little doubt that it is at odds with almost every single principle (explicit or not) of the far-right ideology: militarism, xenophobia, cult of personality, authoritarianism. The most recent example is immigration, where the far-right politics of closed border is simply irreconcilable with the evangelic message.

The far-right’s answer to this contradiction is to simply ignore it as far as I know, but it’s huge. It is so macroscopic that I can’t stop wondering why it doesn’t undermine more their credibility. It’s truly one of the most unsettling examples of cognitive dissonance.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note how this wouldn’t be necessarily a contradiction if it wasn’t for the peculiarity of Christianity. Until 380 AD, ancient Romans (and most of the ancient civilisations) could easily embrace their militaristic traditions including their religion, because their gods wouldn’t demand them to turn the other cheek.

Anti-abortion activism: pro-life, unless you need a condom

Anti-abortion activists claim that abortion is equivalent to murder. I don’t doubt they genuinely believe that, unless they are also against contraception. Contraception and sex education are by far the most effective ways to prevent abortions, historically way more effective than anti-abortion laws. If you believe that abortion means killing a baby, you should be out there in the streets distributing condoms.

And yet, the vast majority of pro-life activists oppose birth control and sex education. So, it’s either one of two things: they are genuinely unaware of this big contradiction (again, passive receivers of a ready-made conservative package of beliefs) or they’re operating in bad faith (their real priority being the state control of women’s bodies rather than babies’s lives).

Liberals: Kant’s bastards

In a way, the question of truth is at the heart of the Left’s contradiction.

On one hand, liberals are heirs of the Enlightenment and its ideas of rationality — rather than tradition — being humanity’s supreme guide. Rationality is seen as a fundamental tool for emancipation, which frees not only from the constraints of Nature, but also from the false ideologies of the dominant class (e.g. religion, bigotry, racism, sexism). I will call this the “positivist” component of the Left.

On the other hand (and this is mostly a more recent development) liberals see respect of cultures as a paramount value. This is seen as particularly urgent in an era where colonialism and institutional racism have only recently been overcome or are still an issue, and their wounds and memories are still alive. The idea that no person should be discriminated based on their religion and culture is obviously in no contradiction with the positivist component of the Left (it’s actually a logical consequence of it), but many liberals are now saying something different: we shouldn’t just respect every person in the same way regardless of their culture — we shouldn’t criticise any culture, regardless of the ideas they promote. From this lens, the Enlightenment’s values aren’t intrinsically better than any others. I will call this the “postmodernist” component of the Left.

The contradiction between the positivist and the postmodernist components of the Left is quite clear. If you claim that women should have the same rights as men, then cultures that promote this principle are necessarily better (everything else being equal) than cultures that do not¹. In the impossible attempt of keeping both positions, many liberals come up with relativistic world views like “the emancipation of women is a valuable objective in the cultural frame of the West, but other cultures see it differently and we cannot object to it from the perspective of our culture”. Paradoxically these kinds of view are the most patronising and racist you could come up with.

As the author Ali A. Rizvi summarised in a tweet, “When white people challenged their religious orthodoxies it was called the Enlightenment. When brown people challenge them, it’s called Islamophobia?”

[1] Which obviously doesn’t imply we should “force” any change in the second group of cultures. But that a change would be desirable is a logical consequence, and more desirable than preserving the diversity of cultures for its own sake.

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