There is a deep paradox at the heart of the current liberal order.
We say we want a more just world.
We say that we want to speak truth to power, that we want to empower individuals.
There is this odd presumption that these two things go together. They don’t.
Empowering individuals—which is the full-court press that’s on in technology, in politics, and just about everywhere else—means just that. Giving more power. To individuals. Giving more power to every single person.
What is the nature of this power? The power, of course, to affect the world. The things in the world. The other people in the world.
How on earth do people imagine that to give each and every individual more power to affect the world and the other people in it… is a path to greater justice?
Individuals do bad things. Always have, always will. Hitler existed. Stalin existed. Jack the ripper existed. Rape, insurance fraud, armed robbery, harassment, racist violence—all of these things exist because individuals do them. To empower all individuals is also to empower these individuals.
Widening the sphere of influence that every individual has in the world means widening the sphere of influence that rapers, fraudsters, robbers, and harassers, and racists have. Over things. Over people. That is the meaning of “equalizing the playing field” and “truth to power” and so on.
It means that instead of just being able to reach, influence, and affect ten people, every person can potentially reach, influence, and affect thousands of people. Or millions of people. This is exactly the “promise” and the “goal” of much of what has been done over the last quarter-century in our society, in any number of life domains.
But in principle “equalizing the playing field” between individuals and other individuals means equalizing the relative influence of the white supremacist and the Barack Obama. And in principle “equalizing the playing field” between individuals and institutions means equalizing the relative influence of a single white supremacist and the ACLU. Enabling the speaking of “truth to power” means enabling the speaking of white supremacist screeds to the New York Times. And let’s be honest, the “truth to power” trope isn’t merely about speech. It’s about applauding the efficacy of that speech—its ability to overcome power. It’s about enabling the a single DACA child or a single Stoneman Douglas student to change the world by outflanking a deadlocked congress, sure, but it’s also therefore about enabling a lone white supremacist to outflank the FBI.
It’s hard to argue persuasively that the overall quotient of justice has been increased here; it’s much easier to argue that we’re just including more and more extreme cases to arrive at the same average in the end, but with worse effects along the way.
But I don’t think even that is the case.
Because what’s the response to the quandary outlined above? The response is that it’s not the idea of radically empowering individuals that’s the problem; rather, it is increasingly argued that the fundamental problem is in applying this enablement across the board. Instead, what we ought to do, goes the argument, is empower the only the “right” people, which in common relative measures means disempowering the “wrong” people.
I don’t need to point out that this is where we are today (it is both the essence of the SJW movement and the Radical Right), or that there is little consensus on this point, but rather open, aggressive, oppressive warfare in which every empowered individual is using this empowerment to pursue the disempowerment of the individuals that he or she perceives to be wrong.
Concepts like civility, comity, due process, and basic rights can’t be countenanced when as a mechanical default all individuals are to be empowered to a historically unprecedented degree; this creates a massive risk quotient that must be managed. When you’ve flipped a switch to empower everyone, it becomes an urgent manner to follow immediately behind and to quickly pursue and disempower the dangerous, lest any random individual with bad intentions have the power to blow up the world.
Yet just what “bad intentions” are and what constitutes “blowing up the world” are personal understandings that inhere in the thoughts of the very individuals that we have generally radically empowered.
And around and around we go.
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What all of this isn’t—is justice. In fact, it all makes justice—in any way in which the term has any meaning—if indeed we are able to have collective meanings at all any longer in this state of affairs—completely and entirely impossible.
So I’ll posit this:
Beyond some threshold of empowerment that we have likely crossed, justice is impossible when individuals are generally empowered, and this limitation inheres in the structures of human social life and reality in its most pedestrian sense.
Continuing to ever-increase individual empowerment and the ability to “speak truth to power” only exacerbates the situation and renders justice less and less possible, rather than more and more so.
The solution to our problems is not the empowerment of the individual or the ability to speak truth to power, but rather a general disempowerment (one that applies to all) of the lone individual and a reduction in the reach and efficacy of individual speech.
But this only works if it applies across the board, entirely, to all sides.
And as a result of the unflinchingly and wrongheadedly utopian trajectory outlined above, it would appear that we have likely neutered any machinery by which this could plausibly be accomplished.
We may already be too far slid down too steep a hill to do anything but fall all the way to the bottom.