George Walford: Confirmations

From time to time IC draws attention to confirmation of parts of s.i. appearing in independent sources, often unexpected ones. Here we offer a small collection.

Andrew Rutherford has written Criminal Justice and the Pursuit of Decency (OUP). It reports three ways of treating criminals, favoured by different groups working in the criminal justice system: degradation, efficient management, and the humanitarian or caring approach. In s.i. terms, the ideologies of domination, precision and reform.

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Dealing with intentional behaviour, s.i. points out the effect upon it of assumptions. Never do we enjoy absolute, unconditional, totally reliable knowledge. We have to balance the evidence for and against any given possibility and perform an act of judgement, accepting the best-supported conclusion. (Although, nearly always, we do this with a speed and informality which makes that phrasing seem hopelessly ponderous). In other words, we make an assumption. Over time each of us acquires an elaborate structure of assumptions and this, rather than any unchallengeable truth or fact, guides our future actions. It also takes part in deciding which assumptions shall henceforth find acceptance.

This finds confirmation in linguistic theory, where prior assumptions appear as the major influence upon the information accepted, outweighing even the content of the message. (The linguists speak of the ‘knowledge’ the listener applies to the message, but all knowledge involves an element of taking for granted; every item of cognition is to some extent assumed, ‘knowledge,’ ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ being terms for the assumptions enjoying the best support). Discussing what happens upon receipt of a message, D.B.Fry explains that the listener brings to bear both a knowledge of the language system [i.e. a set of assumptions concerning it] and ‘a very wide range of statistical information about the language.’ This establishes a set of assumptions concerning ‘sequential probabilities’; what, at any given point, is most likely to come next. The speaker does not enjoy complete freedom, being constrained by the need to ‘make sense’ in the light of what has already been said, and the listener, also, has to ‘make sense’ of the message, using his or her assumptions concerning sequential probabilities to formulate expectations. ‘This factor is so powerful that whenever there is a conflict between what the listener thinks is likely and what actually reaches his ear, it is most frequently the first of these that wins the day.'[1] Or, translating that last sentence into s.i.: The influence exercised by the pre-existing structure of assumptions often outweighs that of the sense-impressions received. (1.D.B.Fry, Speech Reception and Perception, in Lyons J. ed: New Horizons in Linguistics, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1973 (1970), 30)

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IC maintains (readers may feel, ad nauseam), that the belief that the great numbers ‘really’ favour the revolutionary movements, their actual acceptance or support of authoritarian government being a superficial appearance produced by deceit and oppression, is a pathetic fallacy. To put the point with brutal directness, Nazism received immeasurably more support, both public and private, than anarchism has ever done. Freedom, the anarchist fortnightly, agrees with us, although they may not have realised quite what they were saying: ‘It was one of the characteristics of the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, and Stalinism in Russia and satellites, that the patriotic citizen was prepared to inform not only on his neighbour but even on members of the family.’ (January 8)

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S.i. emphasises the part played by possessive individualism in the primal ideology, the one with which we are all born. Although people who move on to more sophisticated modes of behaviour come to suppress this (without eliminating it) the process needs time, effort and experience, it does not come as an immediate reaction to particular circumstances.

The Zionist kibbutzim began with more than a strong tinge of socialistic ideas, among them belief in the communal mode of life as a cure-all for social ills; experience forced correction. This comes from Professor Anita Shapira’s Land and Power; the Zionist resort to force, 1881-1948 (Oxford UP): ‘When we saw our first children in the babies’ playpen hitting one another, and even grabbing toys for themselves – we were seized by fear. “In that case,” we said, “being educated in communal society is not enough to remove all traces of egoism.” So, little by little, our original utopian social concepts were destroyed.

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S.I. stresses that prior assumptions exercise particular influence in social affairs; here we hardly find even the appearance of a totally objective world independent of ideology. G. M. Tamas has written an article on the recent history of dissidence in Eastern Europe. It shows how institutions appear from two different viewpoints, illustrating the effect of what we can perhaps call ideological parallax: – Law, also known as imposition of political will by an elite. – Public order, aka coercion used to elicit uniform behaviour. – Representative government, aka political deliberation through public controversy conducted by a specialized group. – Liberal capitalism, aka unequal concentration of wealth, fame and influence. – Education, aka indoctrination according to elite preferences. (TLS May 14,15).

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.