Fighting the Right: the Problem with Misusing Hegelian Dialectics

It seems to be entirely natural and organic to integrate some ideas or methods from other thinkers into your own systems. As animals who hunt in packs, we are collaborative thinkers and do our best work in groups. (Think about the co-ordinated hunting practices of lionesses, wolves, and dolphins, even the complex hive-behaviours of bees or ants.) 

Adopting other people’s ideas is a necessary step in a healthy and benign evolution of mind – the creation of thoughtful, constructive, and community-minded citizens. You should hope, in the unending grail quest of your mental development, to encounter some brilliant ideas that trigger a fundamental change, a paradigm shift in the way you see the world.  

But this will only happen if you interrogate these ideas, identify their flaws and take the best bits for your own theories and methods. The student should outgrow the master.  

Some people, however, accept, wholesale, a complete prefabricated theory, believing that its originator is some sort of infallible genius, a messiah for a secular age. These people seem far less mentally healthy, their thinking far less hygienic. They are what Lenin is supposed to have called “useful idiots”, doggedly, slavishly loyal to their guru, no matter how far he falls. This has historically led to the embarrassing and unedifying phenomena of bewildered and well-meaning lefties trying to deny or justify Lenin and Stalin’s purges, massacres, murderous incompetence and Molotov-Ribbentrop treacheries. 

Unfortunately, such unedifying behaviour still seems to occur. I have just listened to an episode of File on 4 (on BBC Radio 4) called Ukraine: The Disinformation War. The producers of this programme have discovered British, left-wing academics, so intent on questioning Western, capitalist narratives that they have started parroting and promoting the Kremlin’s lies as a valid alternative reading of events. In other words, they have allowed themselves to become Putin’s propogandists rather than weighing up and cross-referencing different sources of information, for themselves to reach a plausible, mature conclusion on what actually happened. 

This is, of course, a classic conspiracy theorist’s argument and fallacy. We’re all familiar, nowadays, with that bloke who says, “Well, I’ve been doing some research…” and then delivers some insane paranoid fantasy, complete with add-on invented “facts”  all of which he gathered from one far right would be race terrorist somehere in his parents’ basement in the Mid-west. (“apparently, on that same day, 6 million dollars was transferred from the Soros Foundation, to CNN.”) 

This way of debating is fallacious because it misunderstands the process of Hegelian dialectic so beloved of Marx and Marxists. Conspiracy theorists think that “the official narrative” expounded by “The Mainstream Media” is the Thesis of Hegelian fame. All they need to do is posit an alternative more compatible with their world view, which they consider to be the Antithesis (“anti-thesis”), although they may not use these terms. (“I’m just putting that out there”, they say.)

Then, these free thinkers assume, we all just pick the one we prefer and battle it out, hopefully with a lot of shouting, vivid and inventive insults, and witty comebacks. The winners are the ones who make the cleverest comments and gather the most support and likes. Their argument wins completely without needing to be changed in any way. It has somehow, magically, been proved right by this process (often mis-named “democratic”) 

Of course, what is supposed to come next, in Hegelian dialectic, is a process of rational discussion, taking in all the available information and considering the merits of all analytical positions, leading to the formation of a Synthesis, which is neither the Thesis nor the Antithesis but an improvement on both. It is a constructive process, whereas an argument is just an alienating row and is highly destructive.

You are not supposed to confront the truth with your own social-media bubble’s invented hate-rant against people you fear and resent, and then discuss the issue by saying, “Well, screw you, I prefer my story and I’m not going to change my mind.” The dialectical idea is supposed to be that everybody changes their mind through negotiation and compromise. 

Of course, Hegelian Dialectic is already too simplistic because it suggests two opposing positions only, instead of many, or many contributing factors and circumstances. This fosters antagonism, as does the corrupting example of our democracy’s left-right, Labour-Conservative polarity. Parliamentary debates are sneering brawls, rather than constructive discussions of how to solve the country’s problems. Too often they are just a series of furious, petty and infantile rebuttals, but this unpleasant sight is labelled as a working democracy in action, which encourages us all to follow its unhelpful example. 

It is therefore extremely worrying to see academics from reputable British universities also making these basic errors in understanding. Universities are supposed to be bastions of rational debate and freedom of thought. Academics should be the very last people to be joining these destructive conversations. It’s their job to maintain the general health of the nation’s discourse, to supervise and correct our errors. 

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