Conservatives speak a different language

datePosted on 21:47, September 29th, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

… and often I don’t understand it.

Pretty much every time I see the term ‘Social Engineering’ used I think the writer has got it backwards.

Mark Krikorian writes in a short post at NRO’s corner blog:

As John O’Sullivan wrote years ago in NR, if different groups of Americans had children at different rates, resulting in changes in the ethnic (or religious or whatever) composition of the nation, that’s nobody’s business one way or the other. But mass immigration, especially in the context of the low fertility levels that are inherent to modernity, represents social engineering in its purest form, the elite’s decision to dissolve the people and elect a new one. Instead, how about we leave social engineering to the ChiComs and just let today’s American moms and dads decide what tomorrow’s America will be like.

(emphasis mine).

Leaving aside the merits of the US immigration debate and other aspects of Krikorian’s post*, I find the use of ‘social engineering’ here to be fascinating. I understand his point well enough, (and I’d rather not dwell on it), but what grabs me is that social engineering here can only mean the actions of his opponents, it could never be applied to his own policy. It’s a code of some sort, it no longer means just what the words say.

Obviously much of what governments do is social engineering of one sort or another. The criminal justice system is in place largely to deter and punish behaviours. Taxes are used to encourage some activities over others and so on. These sorts of things are never termed social engineering though. SE is almost always a bad thing. This much I can understand and be quite comfortable with. Whatever ‘social engineering’ is, it’s something that goes against freedom, and we are all liberals now pretty much, with the arguments being about how best to maximise (and define) liberty.

What I don’t understand is that whenever the term is actually used nowadays, it seems to be aimed at policies that remove some aspect of State control over the shape of society. In the example above, Krikorian seems to be saying that open borders would be an extreme example of social engineering. To me that is precisely wrong. A strict immigration policy, aimed at keeping a nations demographics in some sort of racial or cultural stasis would be a far better fit for the label ‘social engineering’. Given what the words mean.

If the US government was forcibly dragging non-white immigrants to the US in order to deliberately alter the demograhic mix, or refusing white applicants entry, then he’d have a point. That would meet the natural definition for SE. But they aren’t doing anything like that.

The same applies to arguments around gay marriage and state recognition of de-facto relationships. Surely when the state is recognising the relationships that people have, and not discriminating between them, then that is the opposite of what the words ‘social engineering’ actually mean.

And on the contrary, when the state did discriminate on those grounds and deliberately favoured some relationships over others, (and even made some relationships illegal), in order to foster a particular style of domestic arrangement that was felt to be most beneficial for society, then that is, quite precisely, ‘social engineering’.

So is all this just projection on the part of conservatives, or are they adding (or subtracting) some meaning to the term that I’m not seeing?

* I’ll just say that his links are interesting, as are the uses he puts them to.

12 Responses to “Conservatives speak a different language”

  1. KINTO on September 29th, 2009 at 23:37

    Being relatively new to it all myself, I’ve always thought of “social engineering” (and “nanny state” for that matter) basically as tautologies. Not really designed to convey anything more than “social engineering is bad”, “this is bad, because it is social engineering” (or nanny state).

    I don’t see it as an analytical tool, just a dog whistle.

  2. BK Drinkwater on September 30th, 2009 at 02:07

    @PB: I tried writing a comment, but it became too long, so I’ve written it up as a post here.

    CliffNotes version: Yes, conservatives have packed extra meaning and assumptions into the phrase “social engineering”. To them, it means something more like “inorganic rearrangement of long-standing institutions” (once you’ve defined “institutions” in a certain way).

    The contradiction you note is resolved once you spot this. Conservatives are worried about engineering institutions, and, seeking (for respectable reasons) to preserve existing institutions in more or less their current form, will often favour policy that seems to affect culture and behaviour rather more directly than liberals are comfortable with.

    @KINTO: the general rule is that if you don’t see how some concept your opponents often use is useful as an analytical tool, chances are you don’t understand it. PB, not being certain he(?) understood, tackled the subject with humility, and that gets my respect automatically.

    CAPTCHA: captures income.

  3. Eddie Clark on September 30th, 2009 at 09:58

    @ BKD:

    But your analysis relies on two core premises that I think are erroneous.

    1) It assumes that the institutions have some organic life beyond that granted by Government. Citizenship is entirely a legal construct, defined in different ways at different times by differetnt governments. Its meaning cannot change without Government decree and, indeed, it has no meaning without the government’s authority. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for marriage, although that has some degree of religious and social identity outside its legal one. Even if there is “organic” change in social opinion on such institutions, they cannot be changed without direct government action.

    2) It equates an ‘organic’ shift in public opinion to a shift in conservative opinion. Lets use same-sex marriage as an example – its legal in Canada, the vast majority of the electorate likes that its legal, and the conservatives still see it as illegitimate social engineering. Public opinion was in favour of it when the law was changed a few years back, it is even more in favour now, but many conservatives still question its legitimacy. This surely can’t be on the basis that the development wasn’t organic and/or accepted by society.

    Basically, while I don’t quite agree with KINTO that “social engineering” is an out and out dog whistle, it is closer to a statement of “because I don’t like it” that reasoned discourse from conservatives.

  4. BK Drinkwater on September 30th, 2009 at 12:59

    @Eddie:

    I personally don’t agree with the analysis, mainly for the reason (2) you give. I was just trying to explain what bona fide conservatives mean by the term, not argue for its validity. (Remember, I’m not even particularly close to being a conservative, myself.)

    Point (1) is less obviously a fatal flaw. Some very serious, very smart people do regard institutions as having a sort of life of their own outside of direct governmental/legal construction. (This is is why I included the “adulthood” example.) It’s a Hayekian argument, and I imagine it’s possible to argue it back and forth till the cows come home.

    And I really should concede that many conservatives overuse and misuse the phrase: not deliberately as a dog whistle—that assumes malice and competence on the part of conservatives, two unrealistic premisses—, but more often because they might struggle to articulate the whole framework I just gave, or, more often still, because they just can’t be bothered going through it every time the “social engineering” concept crops up. It’s a shorthand.

  5. Eddie Clark on September 30th, 2009 at 13:21

    Point (1) is less obviously a fatal flaw. Some very serious, very smart people do regard institutions as having a sort of life of their own outside of direct governmental/legal construction. (This is is why I included the “adulthood” example.) It’s a Hayekian argument, and I imagine it’s possible to argue it back and forth till the cows come home.

    Fair enough, and I take your point about offering the argument rather than entirely subscribing to it as well.

  6. Lew on September 30th, 2009 at 15:56

    BK,

    And I really should concede that many conservatives overuse and misuse the phrase: not deliberately as a dog whistle—that assumes malice and competence on the part of conservatives, two unrealistic premisses—, but more often because they might struggle to articulate the whole framework I just gave, or, more often still, because they just can’t be bothered going through it every time the “social engineering” concept crops up. It’s a shorthand.

    I’m glad you’ve moderated the position you took to KITNO, because what you’ve described above is significantly different from your original.

    I’ve been meaning to post on this all day but haven’t had time. My argument essentially boils down to: ‘social engineering’ is one of a stable of propaganda terms which have become so freighted with ideologically polarised meaning that they’re nearly meaningless where not explicitly contextualised. Others in this category include ‘common sense’; ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’; a pair you might appreciate, BK, is ‘neoconservative’ and ‘neoliberal’; ‘elite’ has been so thoroughly compromised in the past decade of US political discourse that it now means something approximating ‘anyone who doesn’t say nucular’; and ‘socialism’ is rapidly becoming just as meaningless if it hasn’t already been lost in the miasma. There are more.

    Your definition of ‘social engineering’ is probably a good one, in a clinical, theoretical sense, but in polemic and general ideological discourse, it means something much closer to ‘social change I don’t like’. You might consider it a shorthand, but I think that’s naïve and bordering on disingenuous, because it ignores the powerful role of malleable ideological terminology in modern symbolic discourse, on both sides of the aisle.

    L

  7. Lew on September 30th, 2009 at 16:07

    I should add that this view isn’t ‘dismissing’ it so much as accepting that the redefinition of terminology in such ways isn’t accidental; it’s purposive, and the purpose is to constrain political discourse to one’s own terms — discursive engineering, if you will. This is legitimate; after all, enforced stasis is a form of manipulation as well, but it mustn’t proceed unnoticed.

    While the post is about conservative discourse, the topic could just as easily be titled ‘Ideologues speak a different language’.

    L

  8. BK Drinkwater on September 30th, 2009 at 17:32

    Lew, I agree with you that analytical tools and labels can become degraded when used as propaganda terms. But I’m not content just to point out that this happens and then move on.

    I honestly believe that everyone can sharpen their thinking by trying to understand these otherwise-degraded tools and labels of their opponents. After all, if they’re effective propaganda, then they probably also have some analytical strength. If they didn’t, then they wouldn’t succeed in tapping into people’s intuitions, and would therefore be useless as propaganda.

    I bit at KINTO and praised PB because it was very late at night and I have a temper. Also, because PB demonstrated a real curiosity about the term, but KINTO did not. I repeat: just because a term is sometimes misused by opponents, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth understanding.

    At the very least, forming an understanding of opponents’ vocabulary leads to mutual comprehension, which is a prerequisite of mutual respect. Without mutual respect, political discourse certainly does quickly degenerate into demagogues tossing propaganda about and preaching to their choirs. (Apologies for metaphor-mixing.)

    I think I’ve hijacked this thread. Apologies.

  9. Pascal's bookie on September 30th, 2009 at 20:43

    Thanks all, and I certainly don’t think you’ve hijacked the thread bk.

    Your explanation of what conservatives mean by the term is about what I imagined it meant. I’m not at all sure though that recognising what they mean by the phrase removes the paradoxical nature of the term.

    It seems at least to me, that conservatives *like* social engineering (using term absent any loading), and do so quite explicitly. They seem to think that society needs to be engineered and that the superstructure needs to be maintained and adaptions to that superstructure should be only done after very careful consideration, and only when there is a pressing need. That’s a respectable position, but one that they seem to resile from in the way they use the term.

    I hate to use the overwrought Orwellian concept of double think, but that’s what it looks like.

    It might plausibly stem from a few things;

    i) A belief that their own view of how the institutions should look is a natural one. (This ties in to your comments re pluralism). That the institutions are not, in fact socially constructed at all, (let alone created by the state). I don’t think that that’s a reasonable position, nor one that older strands of conservatives would adhere to, (excepting some institutions for religious conservatives perhaps).

    ii) A response to political allegiances, for want of a better way of putting it. As conservatism became more focussed on limiting the size and scope of the state, any action taken by the state came to be seen as ipso facto bad. Therefore, the institutions that keep society together just can’t be ‘socially engineering’, because SE is a top down process that looks like big government. So it just can’t be what conservatives do.

    (Thanks again to all. I’m short on time, but appreciate the discussion even if I can’t join it as deeply as I’d like. )

    (The just turned three yr old, is a constant source of new delight and work. The questions. My god. So far this week we’ve had a crack at biological adaptation “Why do ouchies hurt?”, the second law of thermodynamics “Why does the bath get cold?” and about a gillion more mundane, though often still fascinating, data points. Toddlers notice and question *everything*. It’s awesome.)

  10. Lew on September 30th, 2009 at 22:15

    Lew, I agree with you that analytical tools and labels can become degraded when used as propaganda terms. But I’m not content just to point out that this happens and then move on.

    BK, this is partly a matter of epistemology — usage can be easily nailed down, while I think the pretense of understanding is difficult and hazardous; little information exists, and what explanations emanate from within the system are unreliable and frequently self-serving. Not that it can’t or shouldn’t be done — just that I don’t consider myself able to do it and harbour substantial doubts as to the abilities of most others to get inside those heads. But the discursive and propaganda aspects of it I am qualified to talk about.

    And another couple of things:

    I honestly believe that everyone can sharpen their thinking by trying to understand these otherwise-degraded tools and labels of their opponents.

    I entirely agree here, but I would urge caution around the extent to which these things are knowable. Trying, certainly, is worthy.

    After all, if they’re effective propaganda, then they probably also have some analytical strength. If they didn’t, then they wouldn’t succeed in tapping into people’s intuitions, and would therefore be useless as propaganda.

    It’s easy to overstate this; I think you’ve overextended from ‘contains a grain of truth’ to ‘has some analytical strength’ and conflated affective resonance with logical or rational validity.

    The strength of propaganda concepts is in their covertness; they don’t hold up to dispassionate scrutiny, they wither in the cool light of day — this is part of what distinguishes them from more legitimate forms of social information. The holy grail for the propagandist is to make that transition, and that’s what the purposive redefinition of terms aims to do — to embed a term and its freighted ideological meaning in the mainstream consensus discourse of the day. At a day-to-day level I’m not saying all conservatives set out to use the term ‘social engineering’ with this end in mind; only that those who use and propagate the term and its redefined meaning naïvely, without consciousness or critique as to how it has been freighted, are complicit to a greater or lesser extent. Just so with other ideologues. Whether this is bad or good depends on your point of view. For instance, I view the propagandisation of terms such as ‘queer’, ‘nigger’ and ‘hori’ as part of a cultural reclamation project by groups for which the terms had formerly been referents of oppression as a good thing, while many self-described conservatives would not. Likewise, I object to my preferred (and historically accurate) meanings of terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘elite’ being perverted in ways which are ideologically incongruent to me by those same conservatives. This is why discourse matters: because at the micro level, ideological battles are won and lost in the dynamic tension of competing usage. The outcome of these tiny battles determine the weapons with which the larger battles are fought.

    I repeat: just because a term is sometimes misused by opponents, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth understanding.

    I agree with the sentiment, but it’s not that propaganda terms are sometimes misused; by definition they are systematically misused. From a position where discursive meaning is to a large extent defined by usage (I’ve written about this before), that’s a big difference.

    L

  11. Eddie Clark on October 1st, 2009 at 08:27

    I honestly believe that everyone can sharpen their thinking by trying to understand these otherwise-degraded tools and labels of their opponents.

    Absolutely, but how often do conservatives, at least the American breed (and PB’s quote is from Mark Krikorian, so that’s what we’re talking about), genuinely mean to use the term in the sense you’re talking about? David Frum, maybe (although he’s technically Canadian)? Andrew Sullivan (although he’s a socially liberal Tory)?

    I think one runs the risk of taking these people too seriously. I genuinely think there’s little driving people like Glenn Beck, the NRO crowd, most of the Fox News-ers than greed, intolerance, and protection of their own position. Note that I’m not talking about the Nats, ACT, British Tories, Canadian Tories or, hell, conservatives from Burkina Faso. American movement conservaties – like Krikorian.

    I can only echo Lew’s last paragraph – these people are propagandists for a borderline insane strain of political thought that isn’t even on the spectrum in New Zealand, and taking their use of “social engineering” as a phrase seriously risks missing the point they’re actually trying to make.

  12. Michael on October 1st, 2009 at 10:26

    a wise, wise friend of mine once said to me regarding the doctrine of the holy trinity, when I was struggling to understand how it worked, that “it’s not meant to be understood; it’s meant to be believed.” I think there’s probably a similar dynamic at work here, but of course Lew and Eddie Clark have articulated the point far better than I could have.

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