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Please Don't Call Me "Heterodox"
The language of dissidence as the mirror image of reading the room
Sometimes people tell me I have “heterodox” or “dissident” views. The first term is favored by classical liberal and centrist types, while the latter is often used by right-wingers, who are also prone to calling themselves “heretics.” These words have always made me cringe, and it’s probably useful to explore why. My general feeling is that there is usually no legitimate justification for using them, as they encourage a kind of unreflective tribalism, lead to alienation and self-pity, and distract from what could be more productive debates.
A healthy marketplace of ideas should keep the focus mainly on which ideas are correct and which are wrong, not on social desirability bias and what the mob is thinking. To approach a conversation from the starting point of thinking about which ideas are “standard” and which are “heterodox” strikes me as the mirror image of “read the room.” The “read the room” crowd is telling you to shut up because what you’re saying is unpopular. But people who always talk about their ideas being oppressed are generally trying to guilt you into taking minority positions. Neither approach is healthy. Sometimes the establishment is right and kooks on the internet are wrong! In fact, that’s the right assumption when it comes to most things.
When people call me “heterodox,” my mind always goes to the things that I agree with the establishment on. I think covid vaccines work and free trade is good, and don’t believe that federal law enforcement conspires against Republicans. I also believe in statistical differences between races and men and women. While the heterodox label makes it sound like I’m just trying to be as disagreeable as possible, I like to think that I consider individual issues on their own merits. That’s what everyone should be striving to do, and labeling yourself as a dissident or heretic simply constructs a new tribe. Sometimes labels for political factions are useful, and I don’t think we can do without them. But ideally they should be based in some intellectual principle, not simple defiance of an outgroup. I therefore don’t mind being called a conservative or libertarian, even though neither label fits perfectly, but recoil at “heterodox thinker.” Maybe I’m sometimes led astray by ideology, but that strikes me as not nearly as small-minded or pathetic as simply wanting to oppose whatever liberals happen to be doing.
The term “free thinker” is fine, as it has the opposite connotation. I wonder why the phrase seems to have fallen out of favor, and I suspect that it’s because we’ve grown so cynical that we don’t even believe free thinking is possible. Our options are only to be “current thing” obsessives or reflexively opposed to it.
On the right, too many people seem to make being a “dissident” central to their identity. When covid vaccines were developed, I was disappointed to see that some of those who were most sensible in rejecting PC nonsense surrounding race and gender became anti-vaxx. Many of them also believe that the 2020 election was stolen. I suspect that in some cases they started out by realizing how crazy academia and the media were on matters of race and sex, and then overlearned from that and developed a heuristic of “always trust right-leaning people on the internet over whatever CNN and The New York Times are saying.” That sometimes works, but it’s not the best way to go through life.
Moreover, talking about dissidence and heresy strikes me as melodramatic. One of the things I’ve always hated about the identity left is the way that it encourages self-pity and a sense of victimization. But the more I listen to right-wingers, the more I realize that they make Al Sharpton look like Ayn Rand. The word “dissident” appears to have taken off with the establishment of the Soviet Union, as it referred to those exiled, imprisoned, or killed for their beliefs.
The word “heretic” is of course meant to invoke religious persecution and witches being burned at the stake. I don’t doubt that conservatives are often treated unfairly, but them putting themselves in the same category as Soviet dissidents is as unappealing to me as liberals asserting that words are violence. This sense of victimization is particularly grotesque coming from the side that supposedly believes in the virtues of masculinity. Few things are as unappealingly feminine as exaggerating your personal problems. At worst, you might be “debanked,” but even that is extremely rare, and appears to almost always happen at the level of a single institution rather than individuals being cut off from the entire financial system. Again, maybe annoying and unfair, and maybe laws to do something about this are justified, but you’re no Solzhenitsyn.
The left has triumphed not because it created a police state, but because it has for generations been able to convince more idealistic individuals of the moral righteousness of its vision. Normal people who just want to grill and prioritize other areas of life over politics seem to believe that they have a God-given right to have just as much influence over how society functions as those who become full-time activists, but that’s not how the world works. Sometimes after a football game, an announcer will conclude that the winning team “just wanted it more,” and we can say the same thing about many political conflicts.
The left has had some unfair built-in advantages, and I think the most important of these comes in the form of civil rights law. But over the decades Republicans have occasionally had power, and they could have used it to change the legal regime we live under, which they’ve done only to a very limited extent. Yes, liberals control the media, but nothing has stopped conservatives from starting their own websites, newspapers, and TV channels. And of course they have, but what they produce is mostly ad-infested clickbait trash of low quality, which is not the fault of liberals.
The language of dissidence on the right seeks to deflect attention from all of this. The conservative movement exaggerates the oppressiveness of the left in order to mask its own inadequacies and failures.
Members of groups like Heterodox Academy, in contrast, generally avoid these kinds of theatrics. They also seem discerning enough to be able to tell the difference between establishment positions that are correct (covid vaccines are good) and those that are wrong (systemic racism). Nonetheless, by focusing on their own supposed heterodoxy, they turn the discussion away from the substance of where they differ with the academic mainstream, and ultimately trivialize the pursuit of knowledge. A researcher who discredits half of sociology through behavioral genetics is not simply benefiting the marketplace of ideas by adding a heterodox voice. He is a scientist making fundamental discoveries about the human condition. Some level of discourse about the discourse is fine, but my feeling is that we have too much of it, and not enough of a focus on what is actually true.