‘The argument between Left and Right now consists only of debates about which groups we should hate’ – RAW, TSOG
(I received a couple of nice emails about the article included in my previous post. One suggested the issues seemed too important to be buried in an obscurely titled post, and that I should be more up-front in labelling, to provide a searchable reference for a debate around RAW that would resurface. This sounded like good thinking, so… a repackaging, with added note on PC & Whorf at the end).
Some of RAW’s takes on “political correctness” might give the idea he detested PC “as just another form of fascism”, as one of his interviewers put it.1 If you add to this his critique of “Radical Feminism” (for example), then perhaps it seems that these aspects of his work might appeal to reactionaries and “play into” what The Guardian characterises2 as weaponisation by the “right” of labels such as “woke” and “PC”?
Maybe part of the problem comes from confusion between two separate-but-related issues. On the one hand, RAW’s “logic/semantics of groups” argument, which remains consistent and (to me) valid and important regardless of trends and shifts in the balance of power; on the other hand, the context-dependent social “sensitivities” – their shifting forms and functions (“good” and “bad”), including the balance of power.
First, though, here’s a little of what the man himself wrote about political correctness, from Cosmic Trigger III:
‘I happen to agree with the P.C. cult about many things. (In fact, I only differ with them in not liking their intolerance, their fascist tactics, their introduction of Maoist brainwashing to our groves of Academe, their utter lack of humor, their continuous violations of ordinary common sense, their evident desire to destroy our Constitution and their lack of simple human decency. Aside from those minor issues, I almost approve the P.C. agenda.)’– RAW, Cosmic Trigger III, chapter 15
So, aside from those trifling, insignificant, virtually negligible matters, what did Bob agree with and “almost approve” of? Well, the original broad premise of so-called “political correctness” reflects the Whorfian (also Korzybskian) hypothesis that language structure affects our perceptions in non-trivial, unobvious ways.3 In that sense it should seem fairly obvious where RAW approved of “PC”. To quote Cosmic Trigger III again (chapter 33):
‘if you have tried to abandon sexist terminology and have seen some changes in your perceptions and human relations thereafter, why not try getting rid of “is” and “all” and see what happens. As Benjamin Lee Whorf stated, “A change in language can transform our appreciation of the cosmos.”‘
The same theme – effectively the same underlying premise of “PC” – occurs throughout RAW’s writings, in many different guises. For example, in his essay, ‘Synchronicity and Isomorphism in Finnegans Wake’:
‘Like Joyce, Vico believed that poetry arose out of creative etymology (“incorrect etymology,” in Academese). Like Joyce—and also like Whorf and Korzybski—Vico believed a radical change in language could alter our perceived reality-tunnels.’
‘Oh, but #NotAllMen – the misogynist equivalent of #AllLivesMatter. Yes actually, yes all men. Yes, all men are part of the problem. Yes, all men need to own it, and take action. Yes, all men are complicit in rape culture unless they are actively calling out rape culture.’ – Suzanne Harrington, Irish Examiner, 24 March 20214
The above quote, from an article in The Irish Examiner, captures some of the flavour of the fairly recent “Not All Men” hashtag-debate. As you may know, RAW wrote several articles in the 1990s making precisely the point that “not all” men rape or murder or commit violent assault, etc. On recent social media the #NotAllMen hashtag seemed widely derided and parodied, in a context of annoyance over the “derailing” and “trolling” of conversations about violence and online abuse by men.
RAW wrote – in a somewhat different context – about the dangers of reducing individuals to stereotyped group units, regardless of group. And he sometimes singled out what he called “Radical Feminism” (as opposed to Feminism, per se) for criticism. By “Rad Fem” he denoted a strand of belief in male fungibility that manifested in so-called “androphobia” (fear and/or hatred of men):
‘Let me make this very clear. I do not oppose Feminism; on the contrary, I reject all forms of group stereotyping and dehumanization. Androphobia (or male-bashing) has no intrinsic or necessary link with Feminism, and many Feminists utterly reject androphobia. To use an analogy, Marx said that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” Similarly, I regard androphobia as the Feminism of imbeciles.’– RAW, Email to the Universe, ‘Shocking Hidden Facts About Male Non-Violence’
‘And again, what I’m rebelling against is not the whole feminist movement, only the crackpot fringe. And even the crackpot fringe doesn’t get much attention. It’s what happens when Hollywood gets ahold of these ideas… they turn it into some monstrosity.’ – RAW, Trajectories #11, Summer 1992
Some people might differ with RAW’s use of the term “Radical Feminism”. The word, “radical”, for instance, might be seen as not signifying the kind of feminist subgroup that necessarily seems characterised by “androphobia” or anything like it. But RAW indicated clearly enough what he meant by the term (the ALL-ness taint, explicit or implied, ie male fungibility), so this issue seems to boil down to preferred definitions. Incidentally, the writer of the above-quoted Irish Examiner piece, after asserting that “all men are complicit in rape culture”, adds that “Not all men are rapists, obviously, but most rapists are men.”
(“Complicit” here seems one of those words that “do a lot of heavy lifting”. I recall a small dissident UK media “watchdog” stating that all “mainstream” journalists were “complicit” in war crimes – by default. The only way to avoid this charge was for the journalists to actively denounce the entire media’s role in the invasion of Iraq – ie adopt the watchdog’s belief in a fungible “mainstream” media. Similarly – in logic at least – the above-quoted Irish Examiner piece states that all men are “complicit” in rape culture unless they are “actively calling out rape culture”.)
In Trajectories #14 (1995), RAW published a few of his letters that addressed sexism and bigotry. He sent them to the San Jose Mercury News, which for some reason, rejected them – he doesn’t conclude why. Here’s a quote from one that serves to illustrate my point about distinguishing Bob’s “logic/semantics of groups” from context-dependent sensitivities:
‘Like the Jews in early Nazi Germany, we feel it both intellectually corrupt and distinctly frightening that some lunatics refuse to judge each of us by our behavior, one at a time, but instead condemn us as a lump, as if their brains could perceive no differences between us… “They all look alike to me” remains the slogan of the bigot, whether aimed at Jews or Blacks or Hispanics or Orientals or men or women or chiropractors or plumbers or any other large and miscellaneous group of citizens.’– RAW, Trajectories #14 (1995) [Wilson’s bold emphasis]
This passage conveys, in non-technical terms, the same logic you see everywhere in RAW’s work – but explicitly extended beyond the usual “isms” to any large miscellaneous group of people (the emphasis on “miscellaneous” is RAW’s). Bob W. makes a similar point in an article titled ‘Shocking Hidden Facts About Male Non-Violence’ (1996), writing that the logic of bigotry remains the same regardless of the group persecuted. He describes this “logic” as “ascribing one essence to a miscellaneous group, which is only possible when all sensory space-time facts become replaced by fungible abstractions”.
In the decades since RAW wrote his letter, semantic-conceptual sensitivities have changed such that if we wrote something similar today we might not use the word “Orientals”. And in another, different kind of context-dependent sensitivity, we probably wouldn’t butt in on a conversation between distressed victims of abuse, tell them to read the above quoted passage, and “explain” to them that their group generalisations of their oppressors seem Nazi-like. (Unless we wanted to come across as insensitive arseholes!)
But such situational conventions, important though they seem, don’t – to my mind – negate Wilson’s reasoning. Far from it – an individual case-by-case approach of human sensitivity, compassion, and no rush to final moral judgement, seems precisely the point of deconstructing (with logic, parody, irony, etc) those once well-meaning approaches that became fashionable strictures before transforming into rigid abstract dogmas.
Hating the “right” group
RAW’s insights on this matter appear in several different contexts – books, magazine articles, stand-up comedy, satire, surrealist samizdat, “serious” scientific philosophy, “shocking” guerilla ontology, etc – and this diversity of context and expression may itself give rise to confusion (as in: “is he serious this time, or just putting us on?”), even as Bob attempts to dispel the logical/semantic confusion that makes it seem fashionable, or “radical”, to hate certain groups (or at least give the impression of hating them).
One such confusion occurs between “fungible by definition” groupings and “fungible by assertion” groups. A grouping defined by its ideology (Nazis/Nazism, for instance) can logically and validly appear fungible in the hated sense – by definition (ie we may simply despise what we see as a hateful ideology). That clearly isn’t what RAW critiques.
On the other hand there’s “fungible by assertion” – in which history’s horrors often arose from the perception of people as mere units of group identity, with fungible “inferior” attributes or essences asserted (or spuriously implied). Wilson reminds us not to lose sight of the conceptual mechanisms involved here, even when we get carried away with outrage and anger at the abuses and injustices of the currently oppressive power “groups”.
‘Groups are grammatical fictions; only individuals exist, and each individual is different.’ – RAW, TSOG
Here, to conclude, is a passage from RAW’s book, TSOG, that concisely expresses much of what I’ve tried (probably unsuccessfully!) to convey above. Some may find this passage “provocative”. I find it lucid and brilliant, even though in my own personal space-time envelope (a somewhat different set of contexts from RAW’s) I’ve encountered few people who subscribe to the ideology he defines and critiques as “Radical Feminism”:
‘The revival of group hatreds in this country has dismayed and even frightened me ever since it began in the late 1960’s… Teachers taught us that Hitler was terrible, not because he hated the “wrong” group, but because hating any group is illogical, unscientific and leads ultimately to violence…– RAW, TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, ‘Logic and Other Male Perversions’
‘Sometime while I was busy and didn’t notice, Political Correctness took over Academia and they stopped teaching that. They started teaching that Hitler was terrible because he hated the wrong group, but it’s okay to hate other groups.
‘Logic has nothing to do with it; logic itself has become suspect (just as happened in Nazi Germany). This rebellion against rationality originally intended to make Radical Feminism and its doctrine of male fungibility respectable, and it succeeded, at least in the major media, but it also made fungible group hatred respectable in general…
‘The argument between Left and Right now consists only of debates about which groups we should hate.’
Addition on PC & Whorf
Bob W. once commented about political correctness, and how he was “for” it, in its basic undogmatic form. That quote stuck in my mind, and I searched everywhere, but, alas, couldn’t find it. I did find an alternative quote (from Cosmic Trigger III) that says something similar – and that’s what I included in the above piece.
If you’re wondering how I link “political correctness” (in its “positive” sense, a la RAW’s lost quote) with the Whorf-Korzybski hypothesis, then I’d direct you to Encyclopædia Britannica’s useful entry on “PC”. Here are a few lines from it:
‘Linguistically, the practice of what is called “political correctness” seems to be rooted in a desire to eliminate exclusion of various identity groups based on language usage. According to the Sapir-Whorf, or Whorfian, hypothesis, our perception of reality is determined by our thought processes, which are influenced by the language we use. In this way language shapes our reality…‘’ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA, ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’ ENTRY
The entry notes that the PC concept “has been discussed, disputed, criticized, and satirized by commentators from across the political spectrum”, and identifies three very different critiques of political correctness. Firstly, the derisive use of the term “PC” to ridicule the very notion that altering language usage can change public perceptions. Secondly, the view that PC represents a “curtailment of freedom of speech”. And, thirdly, that it creates a perception of offensive language where none exists (ie hypersensitivity – the “snowflake” insult).
RAW’s critique of “the P.C. cult” seems slightly different. He appears more concerned that dogmatic forms of PC generate their own group hatreds – as in Nietzsche’s “Those who do battle with monsters must take care that they do not thereby become a monster”. His “logic/semantics of groups” argument shows us – via Whorf and Korzybski – how this happens, and why we might not see it happening.
‘The Weathermen went on chanting, and I realized, in a shock like a Joycean epiphany, that when opposition to violence becomes hatred of violence it immediately gestates its own violence.’RAW, THE SIXTIES: A FLASHBACK, MAGICAL BLEND, #32, OCT. 1991
This piece was originally titled ‘RAW provocations’ – I wrote it for New Trajectories #2 – Bobby Campbell’s 119-page zine for Maybe Day 2021. The above version has an extra note about Whorf and PC added at the end.
- Playing Kickball With Chaos: An Interview Robert Anton Wilson by Faustin Bray, Magical Blend #48, October 1995. https://rawilsonfans.org/playing-kickball-with-chaos/
- How the word ‘woke’ was weaponised by the right – The Guardian, 21 January 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/society/shortcuts/2020/jan/21/how-the-word-woke-was-weaponised-by-the-right
- See, for example, the Encyclopædia Britannica entry on “political correctness”, which references the Whorfian hypothesis. https://www.britannica.com/topic/political-correctness
- Not all men? Yes, actually, all men are part of the problem – Suzanne Harrington, Irish Examiner, 24 March 2021. https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/arid-40247828.html
Tom Jackson has kindly written a blog post linking to the above at RAWIllumination.net.
A comments thread has started there with what looks like the beginning of an interesting discussion. I’ve posted a comment, but owing to the time lag (Tom, based in the US, moderates comments because of a previous problem with spam) it hasn’t yet appeared. So I might as well duplicate it here (who knows, it might even start a discussion here too. Why should Facebook monopolise comment?):
(Note: at time of writing, only Bobby & Supergee’s comments are present to me). I agree with Bobby, at least in terms of RAW’s framing, some of which (eg 1995 CT3 era, on “rad fem”) appears to have “aged badly” almost by definition (to the extent of some of the most knowledgable and supportive of RAW’s fans’/readers’ evaluations, and to the extent of some wider, more general readings that have been expressed).
These issues will get debated, no doubt. And I prefer to see it in a context of knowledge/appreciation for RAW’s work (what we have here) than via context-free Facebook memes, etc. My own leaning towards accentuating what I find deeply and lastingly useful and important in RAW’s writings extends to these issues, because I find the underlying logic and arguments consistent with the rest of RAW’s work, even if his own use of group labels sometimes seems off the mark (by definition?) over the passage of time and shifting of contexts.
Beyond that, I don’t really see any flawed or objectionable reasoning in these writings. But I’m very willing to hear otherwise. As with the political specifics RAW sometimes discussed, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with various aspects (based on local context/labelling/allegiance etc) but recognising the shape/structure of his logic that remains valid and useful to me in a sort of “meta-” way.
What do you make of the “straight pride” joke RAW made (mentioned in the earlier comments)?
I first came across it on one of the early Trajectories tapes (pre-internet). I remember it being part of (or running into) a joke about Ross Perot, who had announced he wouldn’t be hiring “gays or adulterers” – RAW remarked that a lot people then phoned into a local SF radio station complaining about Perot’s homophobia, but that no adulterers complained! I think he mentioned necrophilia pride and adulterer pride as well as gay and straight pride. My reaction was to find the cosmic irony funny – the irony of the history of repression and shame over sexuality (the opposite of pride) leading up to this situation, which RAW jovially and benignly satirises like a cross between George Carlin, Zappa and Dali.
He revisits it in a chapter in Cosmic Trigger 3 (‘Pride and Prejudice’). There are a few lines in that chapter which I wouldn’t quote out of context (or even in context) as characteristic of Bob’s writings as a whole. It’s a very short chapter, but it covers a lot. I recommend reading it from beginning to end, and paying attention ALL the way along (at one point Bob calls it “this inflammatory little chapter”).