March 3, 2003

The problem of perception: how do you know what is a typical sentiment?

Not long after 9/11, I found myself locked in a frustrating argument on a social listserv with a long-time participant who I thought was remarkably intelligent and eloquent in general. I had spoken with some frustration about what I perceived to be the weaknesses in the response of many liberals and leftists in the United States to the trauma of that day. My acquaintance didn’t disagree that the responses I described were inadequate, but he contended that they didn’t really exist. There were no liberals or leftists making those arguments, he said.

I knew what I had heard and read. The problem, as I observed then, was that a significant proportion of what I was reacting to was more conversational and informal, what people around me were saying or what I was seeing in a number of academically-oriented listservs and bulletin boards.

I found some of the emails and bulletin board postings that I thought were good examples, and forwarded them with identifiers stripped off. These, commented my acquaintance, were just lunatics and fringe elements. I countered with a number of published pieces by intellectuals on the left, most notably Chomsky. He’s unrepresentative, shrugged my acquaintance.

This made me angry then and still irritates me somewhat as I think back on it. I felt this was an attack on my integrity. However, since that time, it’s become clear to me that there is a much, much deeper problem of perception involved.

My characterization of the reaction of the American left to September 11 was shared by Todd Gitlin, Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Rauch and many other observers who were not far-right ideologues. But I have also run into many progressives I admire who think that what I perceive to be a common, patterned response simply doesn’t exist or is the work of a highly marginalized fringe element, and that it is irresponsible and unfair to take this response as representative of liberal or left thinking.

That suggests to me that we need a discussion about how to make assessments of what is representative or typical of a particular political movement or worldview, about what the rules of the game are before we start to play. There are a lot of different, and sometimes contradictory, metrics available.

One way to judge what is typical is to take a highly limited range of writers and thinkers that we judge to be icons of particular political sentiments, and use them as a cross-section of representative opinion of a larger group. So if you want to know what libertarian-leaning conservatives think on a particular issue, you go and read Ayn Rand, Barry Goldwater, Virginia Postrel and Robert A. Heinlein. The problem here, however, is that such an approach necessarily requires a prior categorical sense of the movement or ideology that you’re trying to map. For example, you can’t know who might represent or stand in for the “cultural left” unless you already know what you think that term means—and it is a term which was invented as a negative label for the group it purportedly describes.

Another way to make claims about what is representative sentiment is to identify commonly reproduced arguments, broken down into discrete sentences or forms. This requires a comprehensive sense of a particular medium—say, all newsmagazines or all blogs—and is vulnerable to someone arguing that the arguments described are not the most important or central points. It is easy, after all, to caricature a particular perspective by pointing to highly formulaic or rhetorical statements that tend to be repeated and taking them to be the central persuasive point shared between many writers or speakers. It is also hard to figure out which medium is the most properly determinative. Blogs are important but they are also not nearly as widely disseminated and read as television news or op-ed columns in printed newspapers. Which is the standard by which claims about what is typical should be made?

You can make claims about what is typical in a sociological fashion, by using polling or voting data, or other systematic statements about the relationship between a particular piece of writing and some describable public. You can also look at what visible groups and organizations of people do in the world, using demonstrations or legislative policy as a way to measure what is a common thought.

Or you can make it impressionistically, by combining all of these metrics in a loose and unsystematic way. Which is, I think, what most of us are doing when we say, “The left thinks XYZ” or “The far right believes in this and that”. Our impressions are most powerfully determined by the fabric of our daily lives. I perceive academic leftists to be important because I spend a lot of time in academic circles.

I am perfectly willing to concede that there are both individuals and groups who identify themselves as liberals or leftists, or who can fairly be labeled as such, who substantially agree with me about the moral, ethical and political views I have of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, military action, American society and other 9/11 issues, where any disagreements I might have with them are about the details rather than the fundamentals.

I am still uncomfortable with arguments that Chomsky or ANSWER or postcolonial theory or any number of other constellations of political and social thought that do not share my root assumptions are marginal, unimportant, and easily exempted from a sense of what “the left”, broadly speaking is. They may not be your progressives, which is fine. But if so, then it’s your responsibility to describe what you regard as liberal, or left, or progressive and why your sense excludes intellectually and possibly even numerically significant groups of speakers and activists who can reasonably be represented as “left” (and who may self-represent as such). I don’t think you can just wave your hands and consign that all to some unimportant margin, unassociated with your own views.