Chavismo’s Mirror Image

Quico says:

Dear Katy,

Actually, I’m not sure if we really agree, or, to say it more precisely, I’m not sure if we’re talking about the same thing. Your post deals mostly with what we think, but the problem, for my money, is all about how we think.

The question isn’t whether one side or the other in this “debate” is failing to learn the right lessons…that much seems plain obvious. What I’m trying to get at is not the “whether” but the “why”. Why does the opposition keep learning the wrong lessons? Why do we fail again and again to converge on a single, coherent position? Why does deliberation lead to vitriol, mistrust and successive schisms rather than to convergence and mutual understanding? What is it about this debate that makes it so dysfunctional?

To answer those question, I think we have to think through the preconditions for successful deliberation. Under what circumstances does open debate lead to mutual understanding, to convergence, to coordination? Until we’re clear on that, we can’t figure out why the debate we’ve been having fails to measure up.

So what are those pre-conditions? Under what circumstances can reasonable people talk through their differences with a view to reaching a common understanding?

In very broad terms, I think there are basically two:

-A common understanding of the facts of the matter
-A common commitment to talk through our differences rationally

My last post focused on the first of those conditions, but the two are pretty much irreducibly linked. The opposition can’t coordinate because it can’t come to an agreement on how we got into the mess we’re in. But a big part of the reason we build that common understanding that is that our commitment to talk through our differences rationally has been badly eroded.

Too many of the rules of rational deliberation have become collateral damage to the infernal dynamic of hyperpolarization the Chavez era has brought. Basic rules of logic, fundamental axioms like “A and not-A cannot both be true at the same time” have been discarded, supplanted with irrational, politically opportunistic that amount to “A and not-A cannot both be true at the same time unless, in a given situation, it is politically convenient for me to act as though they are.”

Probably the most basic axiom of rational deliberation, and probably also the one that has fared the worst in the Chávez era, is the simple understanding that the truth of an argument does not depend on the identity of the person making it.

A statement like “the sun rises from the east,” is true whether the Dalai Lama says it or Kim Jong Il says it. Rational debate cannot go forward unless all participants accept something as basic as that. The first prerequisite for fruitful deliberation is the ability of participants to separate arguments from identities, and the willingness to focus on the argument while ignoring (at least provisionally, for the purpose of the debate) the identity of the party who puts it forward.

We’re talking about a cornerstone value of the enlightenment project here, a kind of sine qua non requirement of modernity. Arguably, Venezuelans in the public sphere have never been very good at bracketing identities and focusing on arguments – which is just another way of saying that we’ve never been very good at modernity. But what we’ve seen over the last 8 years is really a catastrophic collapse in our society-wide commitment to this principle. The farther we depart from it, the deeper the country sinks into…well, why sugar coat it? Into barbarism.

Now, I think I know what you’re thinking: “but Chávez started it!” I agree! That’s right, Chávez did start it. From the word go, chavismo’s Standard Operating Procedure when faced with any and every criticism has always been to ignore the substance of the argument and attack the person (or institution) making it. I’ve written about that, in outraged tones, a million times on this blog, I’ve examined it from every possible angle.

But, in this context, that’s not the point. The relevant fact is that the opposition’s reaction to this tendency has been to mirror chavismo: doing exactly the same, but backwards!

Think back to Roberto Giusti’s “principled” statement, in 2002, that he could not be impartial between authoritarianism and democracy, that the circumstances forced him – as a journalist – to take sides. In practice, what this meant was that he would stop considering news stories on the basis of their intrinsic newsworthiness, but instead would judge them according to which side was likely to benefit from their publication. In other words, truth would play a second fiddle to identity. And much of the oppo journalistic elite publicly endorsed that view.

This subordination of argument to identity amounted to a retreat from the enlightenment project as such. And abandoning the axiomatic bases of rational deliberation undermined our ability, later on, to agree on the facts of the matter, to come to a collective understanding about what’s going on.

What’s upsetting is realizing that we reacted to Chávez’s rejection of rational deliberation by, in turn, rejecting rational deliberation. Giusti’s position – the position of most of the oppo media for most of the last 8 years – constituted a surrender. We gradually started to become just like them, but backwards. Chávez nos tiene locos…but only because Chávez es loco and, without realizing, we’ve started to think the way he does.

We’ve surrendered to Chavez’s barbarism. Thinking we were “fighting fire with fire”, we started treating rationality as a kind of luxury that we just couldn’t afford in the heat of battle. We’ve become chavismo’s mirror image.

Over the last three years, in the era of the Chávez consolidation, the implications of our surrender to this kind of barbarism have corroded our political discourse more and more deeply. As the government achieved its goal of splitting us between abstentionists and participationists, we’ve found ourselves shorn of the tools we would need to come to agreement through rational deliberation.

Well trained in the arts of dismissing anything “the other side” said as self-evidently wrong, ill-intentioned, even evil (hey, we’d been doing it to chavismo for years!), we started training those habits of mind on one another. So phrases like “oposición oficialista” entered the debate, slurs meant to not to criticize the arguments of the other camp but to disqualify them on the basis of their their identity. In fact, the internal opposition debate has come to resemble nothing so much as the debate we used to have between the government and the opposition, with deeply entrenched positions and a growing sense that the other side is more than just wrong, it’s evil.

So it’s more than just a failure to learn, Katy. It’s that the structural preconditions for collective learning aren’t in place. It’s that the norms of public discourse within the opposition itself have been chavesized, have devolved into a dysfunctional, primitive form where debate is always about people, never about ideas, and therefore yields enmity and resentment far more often than mutual understanding and convergence.

You know, Briceño Guerrero wrote beautifully about Latin America’s always embattled but nonetheless genuine identification with the values of the enlightenment. He didn’t think enlightenment values would ever be incorporated widely enough into our way of behaving to organize our public life quite successfully, but neither did he foresee that our identification with those values could wither away completely.

I guess the reason behind my recent bout of acute pessimism, Katy, is this sense that the old man was wrong: the impasse he reported 25 years ago is being broken. We’re no longer confronted with discourses in permanent stalemate, we’re confronted with the gradual but decisive retreat of European Rationalist values from the public sphere. And that’s some serious shit, Katy.