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Ideological Anti-Racism and the Problem of Communication in Democracy: A Voegelinian Reflection

“What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?”

-Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

Pluralism and the Challenge of Communication

No doubt, American history has always had its fair share of political infighting, dysfunction, and raw instability. Those living through the traumas of the 1960s and early 1970s probably felt the world was crashing down, and democracy itself was on its last leg. In the Civil War, of course, American democracy truly was in peril, leaving in its wake hundreds of thousands of untold American deaths. But somehow, miraculously, one might say, it has always managed to resurrect itself phoenix-like from the ashes of its historical dustbin.[i]

The possibility of communication between individuals and groups who disagree on fundamental issues remains the basis for this renewal. The conflicting interests and visions of reality held by these groups certainly make communication difficult and time-consuming. Rarely are they able to compromise, and rarer still form a consensus. Yet, while communication has always been a challenge in American democracy, never has the inability to communicate become a fundamental principle of a powerful coalition within either political party. Nevertheless, precisely this has happened in recent decades. Certain factions of what has come to be known as the Anti-Racist movement hold this impossibility of communication to be axiomatic.[ii] According to some, by virtue of the fact that one is white, black, or Latino, a member of the LGBTQ+ community or a particular religious organization, one cannot help but participate in a culture with its own specific logic and worldview.[iii] The transmission of ideas and evidence beyond the horizon of this worldview is futile. And so politics becomes a matter of speaking one’s “own truth,” a unique reality in the vein of Rousseauian self-expression.

Of course, speaking out against overt racism or advocating for multiculturalism and diversity does not necessitate holding this extreme view. Eric Voegelin himself was a passionate advocate for some elements of the multiculturalist and anti-racist positions.[iv] His corpus demonstrates that we have a lot to learn from the various texts, traditions, and world peoples. It also reveals confidence in every human persons’ fundamental dignity, insofar as he or she is a possible locus of the divine “Parousia” in reality. In fact, Voegelin can offer us a much clearer vision of what a healthy, vibrant, and non-ideological anti-racism might look like and could help us to avoid its often too readily accepted derailments.[v]

Political communication, according to Voegelin, is of two primary sorts: substantive and pragmatic.[vi] Substantive communication entails an effort to build the individual’s personality and thus create the conditions for the possibility of substantive order in the community. It focuses on authentic dialogue, spiritual edification, virtue, and moderate forms of civic responsibility. Much of what takes place in a healthy education system would fit into this category of communication. As a place where the youth can dialogue with differing perspectives, learn about their identities, what it means to be a human being, the virtues of moderation, temperance, compromise, and courage, as well as how they can individually be a source of order in the larger world, an educational institution that focuses on substantive communication would have no ulterior motive other than the growth and health (physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional) of its students.

On the other hand, pragmatic communication aims to induce people to behave in such a manner that their behavior will agree with the communicator’s purpose, whether ideological or commercial. The plethora of political campaign advertisements we recently witnessed in the build-up to the 2020 presidential election is a case in point. Playing on the viewer’s emotions like levers, these advertisements’ goal was no less than to excite individuals to go through the effort of voting, even if the particular candidate for whom they voted did not truly represent their real interests. Psychological manipulation thus abounds in pragmatic communication and is its fundamental driving force.

Voegelin suggests that, in democracy, both substantial and pragmatic communication are essential, but their respective roles and the coordination between them is somewhat problematic. For instance, the extreme right has shown that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish rhetoric meant for encouraging civic virtue from an ideological manipulation that tries to incorporate people into a societal war-machine. On the other end of the spectrum, some left-wing movements have shown us that encouraging political activism and social justice, while purporting to build the budding activists’ character, in reality aims to overthrow the perceived “oppressors” in a vengeful struggle for power. Both extremes of the political spectrum use pragmatic communication to advance ideological causes, resulting ultimately in the inevitable breakdown of substantial order. Few doubt this reality. Yet, pragmatic communication does have a role to play in promoting political health. Commercial advertisements can and do open up consumers to products and solutions that deal with real needs. Likewise, though walking a fine line between jingoism and civic virtue, patriotic propaganda can inspire individuals to serve a country in ways necessary for its healthy functioning.

The critical problem in the United States is that the fundamental difficulty of distinguishing between these two forms of communication risks being transformed into the postulate that there is no distinction at all. There is a widespread tendency to view all substantive communication as merely veiled attempts at pragmatic communication. In this view, the fundamental political and philosophic questions about which people disagree—how should I live my life? What are my obligations to country and individual? What are my rights in regards to this same country and these same individuals?—are off-limits to discussion, and, what is more, should not even be posed in the first place. This rejection of the question is precisely the temptation to which certain factions of the anti-racist movement have fully succumbed.

Anti-Racism and the Anatomy of Ideology

One of the best-selling books on racism in the last few years is entitled White Fragility: Why White People Find It So Hard to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. The basic thesis is that white people—even those who would consider themselves extremely progressive and “WOKE”—cannot help being racist since they are the products and unwitting perpetuators of “white privilege” or the “white collective.” If a white person tries to defend himself or herself against the charge of racism—say, by pointing out the fact that they have black friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and that race is not a factor in how they treat these individuals—they thereby engage in what DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” Some of the most common behaviors associated with white fragility are physically leaving the room when confronted about one’s racism, emotional withdrawal, arguing, denying, focusing on intentions rather than impact, and avoiding racially uncomfortable situations. Most important of all for the possibility of cross-racial communication, she claims that the appeal to contrary evidence, or criticizing of her own argument, is itself proof that one is racist and is perhaps the most significant manifestation of white fragility.

In cross-racial dynamics, race is always a factor, according to DiAngelo, if not for the white person, then certainly for the black person. In relating a personal anecdote, she illustrates this logic:

“I was co-leading a workshop with an African American man. A white participant said to him, “I don’t see race; I don’t see you as black.” My co-trainer’s response was, “Then how will you see racism?” He then explained to her that he was black, he was confident that she could see this, and that his race meant that he had a very different experience in life than she did. If she were ever going to understand or challenge racism, she would need to acknowledge this difference. Pretending that she did not notice that he was black was not helpful to him in any way, as it denied his reality – indeed, it refused his reality – and kept hers insular and unchallenged. This pretense that she did not notice his race assumed that he was “just like her,” and in so doing, she projected her reality onto him. For example, I feel welcome at work so you must too; I have never felt that my race mattered, so you must feel that yours doesn’t either. But of course, we do see the race of other people, and race holds deep social meaning for us.”[vii]

Because the white participant in this passage has never had to face discrimination, she has the “privilege” not to see color when interacting with other human beings. In a twist of irony, her indifference to the color of someone’s skin is in fact the greatest proof of her white privilege, which reinforces racial boundaries. As a white person herself, DiAngelo concludes that the best a white person can do is to acknowledge one’s privilege and subconscious racism and, painstakingly throughout one’s life, try to remedy it, though with the full awareness that it can never be fully overcome.

Notwithstanding their overwhelming popularity in American society today, DiAngelo’s theories of “white privilege” and “white racism” have several dangerous consequences. First, one cannot help recalling Hannah Arendt’s rejection of the declarations of collective guilt during the Holocaust war-crime tribunals: “When all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits…”[viii] If the terms “racist” and “white supremacist” apply equally to white progressives and Ku Klux Klan members; if one, despite overt acts of kindness, respect, and good-will is lumped into the same groups of people who have performed lynchings, mob violence, and owned slaves, then we lose the ability as a society to make the moral and legal distinctions necessary to hold the latter groups of people truly accountable. Judgments become impossible, as all whites and all blacks dissolve into their respective “realities.” Since “universalism” is an integral part of white culture and merely serves to perpetuate white privilege, alleges DiAngelo, no race can communicate with any other race on topics of right and wrong, accountability and responsibility. This attempt at communication would itself fall into the all-consuming vortex of racism and white privilege. “Guilt” would therefore not exist, as the entire concept requires a shared understanding of standards of behavior and crime.

Secondly, DiAngelo’s analysis of race relations irresponsibly overlooks a wide range of historical phenomena that disprove her thesis that the black experience of repression and discrimination is unique and that whites are the only oppressive group.[ix] In her analysis, she equates predicting this counterargument with actually refuting it. This obfuscation, for Eric Voegelin, is a sure sign of an ideological thinker.[x] There exists to this day non-black ethnicities that have been and still are targets of discrimination, intolerance, and even genocide. The black community, consequently, does not have a monopoly on victimhood. Her overly simplistic and one-dimensional lens on history misses this fundamental fact. White Ukrainians, Poles, Kulaks, and Jews could educate her on what it means to be discriminated against for the particularities of personal appearance and culture. Whites are also not exclusively the perpetrators of this oppression. Black Africans enslaved other black Africans for centuries, from Ancient times, through the colonial era, and up to this day.[xi] Historical obfuscation is a hallmark of ideological thinking and is due to a deliberate intellectual laziness among individuals and societies. As Voegelin’s analyses point out, ideologists themselves engage in several psychological defense mechanisms, one of which includes the biased selective use of historical data to construct a one-dimensional and uni-linear historical narrative extending from a remote past into the ideologue’s present.[xii] DiAngelo has fetishized the black/white dichotomy to such an extent that it is all she sees when observing social interactions, American culture, and world history. As a result, the vast complexity of historical phenomena is lost on her. She quite literally sees the world in “black and white.”

What is more, Voegelin suggests a third avenue for commenting on DiAngelo’s analysis of racism. One common trait of ideologies—from Bakunin and Marx to National Socialism and Fascism—is a logical trick which from the very start of an analysis of social, cultural, or political phenomena, makes any and all critiques, questions, and contrary evidence which doesn’t fully align with the ideological system further confirmation of the ideological analysis itself. In DiAngelo’s case, her assertion that argumentation and “defensiveness” on the part of whites when she tells them they unwittingly perpetrate white privilege, fits squarely into this ideological mold. Her assertion makes a refutation of her thesis, or even attempts at refining it through an appeal to logic and evidence, merely an example of “white defensiveness” and “white fragility,” and therefore proof that her thesis is correct. DiAngelo’s brand of the Anti-racist movement mendaciously conceals its true objective: not diversity but conformity, homogeneity cloaked as heterogeneity.[xiii]

Other internal incoherencies exist within DiAngelo’s brand of the Anti-Racist movement that undermine its just aspirations. In what might be the most famous lines of the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King famously declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”[xiv] One of the essential points here is that the fight against racism entails an effort to assert the importance of individual identity over group identity. It is the content of character that matters—that is, the unique personality—not the group-concept of “whiteness” or “blackness.” Reifying these groups without perceiving the diversity within them perpetuates the same mode of thought responsible for racism in the first place.[xv] Discrimination occurs because people assume that a person’s race necessitates certain beliefs, actions, and behaviors. It engulfs the individual within the mass of group-identity, forgetting that the individual is unique and not necessarily defined by any particular determination of his/her physical appearance or background. As King and Voegelin remind us, the individual person is essential, not some nebulous group-concept that likely blurs or eclipses the actual diversity of characters within that group. The form that the Anti-racist movement has taken today, as expressed in DiAngelo’s work, is hard to distinguish from the mode of thought characteristic of what it was initially fighting against.

Finally, it must be pointed out that one of the problematic aspects of the various definitions of “institutional racism” voiced today is the statement that efforts to uphold standards of behavior on an individual, family, and societal level are in reality oppressive to those groups and individuals not sharing those same standards. The question “Who’s to judge?” has become nauseatingly cliché, and it is the groups most passionate about racial justice who are most likely to ask it.[xvi] However, this line of reasoning only succeeds in undermining all basis for criticizing a racist viewpoint, since if all opinions and patterns of behavior are legitimized and in need of recognition, then the racist would also be entitled to his opinion and racist behavior, however much the anti-racists abhor it. Taking the extreme view that Black and White “realities” are so incompatible as to preclude all communication between them suggests that the groups will forever be locked in a struggle to the death, with only one victor possible. White supremacists have their “reality,” and the black community has theirs. The latter perceives the former as oppressive and in need of deconstruction; yet, by their own admission, the “reality” that would replace it would be just as repressive to non-black groups. In the memorable lines of Herman Melville, we are left with a “Loose-Fish” in the violent abyss of the open ocean.

Communication and a Common Reality?

Laying out this critique of the dynamics involved in ideological systems like DiAngelo’s in no way means opposition to all forms of anti-racism. As Voegelin’s lifelong work demonstrates, racism is a great evil, and we must strive as individuals and societies to eradicate it to the extent that it is possible. However, DiAngelo—and others like Ibram Kendi—take a unique approach. Instead of acknowledging that there might be room for debate about how to address this evil, they engage in a transmuted form of tribalism—in essence, declaring that if one does not address this evil in the specific way they themselves imagine it should be, one is no better than the racists themselves. In the words of Kendi, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.”[xvii] For these ideological anti-racists, there exists on principle no compromise and no middle ground. If one suggests that addressing racial inequities is an extraordinarily complex and multi-dimensional problem, and that perhaps policies as simple as redistributing wealth or overthrowing essential institutions that have existed for centuries might not completely solve them, one becomes an ally of the enemy and a guardian of “white supremacy.” This type of “my way or the highway” approach to addressing racial inequality makes genuine dialogue about real issues impossible from the outset.

Yet, wherein lies the basis for communication then? How does one talk to, never mind convince, someone who believes substantive communication about real problems is nothing but pragmatic communication in disguise—or worse, white supremacy in disguise? Eric Voegelin’s corpus makes this clear: we must appeal not to a common “experience,” but to a common “reality” in which we all participate. Language—the Logos—is the key here, as it reflects this common reality and aims to express it. On a macro-level, all cultures and societies have at least one thing in common: the attempt to endow the fact of their existence with meaning in terms of ends human and divine. Each in their own way, these societies establish relationships between Man, God, World, and Society.[xviii] On an individual level, we all seek answers to the mysteries of the “Beginning” and “Beyond” of our personal lives and struggle to come up with the language symbols that make these mysteries communicable. We live in complex societies, alongside other individuals with their unique struggles, interests, and purpose. But our seeking to express, describe, and transmit these elements is what roots us in common reality. For Voegelin, a common trait of all ideological systems is a denial of this shared reality of seeking in which all human beings “participate” to some degree. This denial cuts off one “reality” from another. It creates the conditions for the furtherance of racial, class, or gender separation, resulting inevitably in the mutual hatred of the respective parties. From each group’s standpoint in this divide, the inability to communicate across its horizon is axiomatic.

Yet, as Voegelin shows, this common reality allows communication to exist in the first place.[xix] As a white man, I, of course, cannot “experience” the same thing a person of color experiences, in the same way I cannot share the experiences of any other human being on earth. However, for one to articulate this experience and another to be able to listen sympathetically to it, there must be some shared “something” in which we all participate. Otherwise, progress on racial justice issues in a predominantly white society would be hopeless. DiAngelo herself attests to this common reality when she describes how white people are supposed to react to the charge of racism. According to her, we are supposed to listen humbly when confronted with a racial misstep, acknowledge it, apologize for it, and seek to remedy it. None of these steps would be possible without communication across racial divides. The self-correction of our conscious and subconscious racial prejudices depends entirely on this common reality that Voegelin emphasizes.

To be sure, asserting the existence of a “common reality” does not mean there are not differing perspectives or that one group has a monopoly of truth on it. Disagreement about complex issues is inevitable. Nonetheless, if progress can be made in addressing them, all sides need at least to assume that logic, evidence, and fact still hold sway, and believe in the power of language. Moreover, solutions must be specific, not abstract, and we must keep in mind the hard-won historical insight that “final solutions” are a fable.

 

Notes

[i] For an interesting account of how the U.S. Political System manages to renew itself repeatedly over the course of its history, see Freedman, George. The Storm Before the Calm: America’s Discord, the Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond. (New York: Random House, 2020).

[ii] I do not mean to minimize the nefarious impact of the “Alt-Right” in the American political system. Their version of white identity politics is just as detrimental to substantial order as the movements I highlight in this essay. However, I focus on the Anti-Racist movement because its danger to order is much more subtle, since it professes to be working for a righteous cause and easily misleads well-meaning people of all backgrounds.

[iii] Though I focus in this essay on Robin DiAngelo’s work, my critique applies equally to the work of Ibram Kendi. See DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018). Also, see Kendi, Ibram. How to Be An Anti-Racist. (New York: Random House, 2019).

[iv] Some of his earliest works were dedicated to this phenomenon. See Voegelin, Eric. Race and State. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997). Also, see Voegelin, Eric. The History of the Race Idea. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998).

[v] For clarification, DiAngelo uses the term “ideology” in a way outside its original meaning and purpose. By the term, she means an unjustified and unjustifiable “world-view.” For her, everyone has an “ideology.” It is important that Voegelin criticizes this use of the term. An “Ideology” is not just any “opinion” on matters cultural, political, and historical. It has a very specific historical connotation, stemming from the work of the German Idealist School of Fichte, Kant, and Hegel, as well as their intellectual progeny in all Marxist, Fascist, and Postmodernist thought. DiAngelo’s and Kendi’s work is heavily influenced by these Marxist/Postmodernist elements. Whether or not they are aware of this influence is another question.

[vi] Voegelin actually suggests a third form of communication: intoxicating. For the purposes of this article, though, I will focus on the first two. See Voegelin, Eric. “Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in Democracy.” In The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness. Eds. Embry, Charles and Hughes, Glenn. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2017) p. 67.

[vii] DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) pgs. 41-42.

[viii] Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. (New York: Random House, 2003) p. 147.

[ix] For an analysis of how this historical obfuscation works, see Voegelin, Eric. “Hegel: a Study in Sorcery.” In Published Essays 1966-1985. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] See Meotti, Giulio.Slavery Rampant in Africa, Middle East; The West Wrongly Accuses Itself.” The Gatestone Institute: International Policy Institute, July 5, 2020. https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/16195/slavery-africa-middle-east

[xii] Voegelin, Eric. “Hegel: a Study in Sorcery.” In Published Essays 1966-1985. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990).

[xiii] This is a perfect illustration of what Allen Bloom calls the “Closing of the American Mind.” Bloom, Allen. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).

[xiv] Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (speech, March on Washington, Washington D.C, August 28th, 1963). https://www.naacp.org/i-have-a-dream-speech-full-march-on-washington/

[xv] Thomas Sowell, an African American economist and cultural critic, has argued persuasively that color is not necessarily a determinative factor in which “culture” one participates. See Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. (New York: Encounter Books, 2006).

[xvi] A quick look at the “About” section on the Black Lives Matter website reveals this inconsistency.  https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/

[xvii] Kendi, Ibram. How to Be An Anti-Racist. (New York: Random House, 2019).

[xviii] Voegelin, Eric. Order and History: Israel and Revelation. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001) pgs. 39-50.

[xix] Voegelin highlights the participatory complex of Consciousness-Reality-Language. See Voegelin, Eric. Order and History: In Search of Order. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000). Pgs. 31-33.

Michael ColebrookMichael Colebrook

Michael Colebrook

Michael Colebrook completed his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. He has taught at the University of Dallas and Assumption University. He currently teaches at an independent school in Massachusetts and serves as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Army Reserves. The views in this essay are his own, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

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