Double standard: the road to populism and illiberal times

by Celina Alcantara Brod

– Who would have guessed that in 2020 we would be hit by a microbe? Who would have guessed that schools, airports, bars, restaurants together with big events, such as the Olympic games, would be shut because of an invisible creature, a stealthy virus called covid-19?  

The year had barely started, and the world was forced to stop spinning. Since then, people have unwillingly changed their lifestyles, plans, work environment and were told to stay home and save lives. Nations and their citizens were caught off guard; there was no time for debating and huddling in agoras. The virus was spreading faster than mankind’s flawed abilities to achieve consensus. To date, thousands of people have died, and much is still unknow.

When it comes to matter of facts, as the Scottish philosopher David Hume had claimed, our certainties are mere beliefs. Our rational capacity can organize our experience, yet it is unable to foresee every and each event. We are, at the end of the day, animals thrown into a world of contingencies. We have no control over the whims of nature, we cannot predict what thought or feeling we will experience in the next few minutes, we are not even able to tie the information we know with the actions we take, let alone design and architect the fate of our species. Men are, by no means Gods, not even demigods. If there is a lesson to be learned from this pandemic, is that the wheel of fortune has its own workings and we are too limited to be masters of our own destiny. We, then, should be more skeptical about our assumptions on how the world ought to be.

However, Edmund Burke was right when he wrote that “we do not draw the moral lessons we might from history.” It seems that neither from history nor global despair. With the threat of an “alien enemy”, one could say that this moment was the perfect opportunity for human beings to finally see themselves as part of a greater group. As we often see in movies whenever planet earth is under attack by outer space invaders. We all know the optimistic and somewhat naive plot: the world embraces one single cause making political, economic, social, and religious quarrels vanish in face of a greater threat. It is, indeed, a desirable and noble idea, but reality is proving Hollywood producers wrong. Not only unsavory political differences remained but were renewed. The year is 2020, yet we are living in tribal times with remembrances of Orwell’s novel 1984.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), ), British statesman, parliamentary orator, and political thinker. He championed conservatism in opposition to Jacobinism in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

The Covid-19 outbreak demanded collective action and cunning strategic skills from political leaders. Economy as well as liberty had to be put aside, John Stuart Mill’s remarkable principle – “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”- mismatched reality, for the virus’ challenging features could only be curtailed by social isolation. That meant that people’s freedom of making choices had to be suspended until the curve was flattened and the virus slightly controlled. The risks of health systems collapsing and death tolls reaching unimaginable numbers was greater than our ingrained individual rights. But making people work together for a global health issue is not an easy task. In times where information flows unsupervised, coordinating everyone to trust institutions and authorities seems almost impossible.

As expected, opinions clashed on social media. Some people were in total denial, others plunged into irrational fear, and there were those who remained realistic. However, one message stood out: the great majority harshly criticized people who were unenthusiastic with the idea of sacrificing their freedom. Anyone who dared to question whether societies were actually better off with such strict measures was insulted and depicted as irresponsible or coldhearted. The media along with International organizations reinforced 24-7 that social isolation was undeniably the best answer to the problem.

In Brazil, civilians were even arrested for not respecting social distancing rules, private parties were reported to police, isolated beachgoers were stopped by officers and people marked their Facebook accounts with hash tags saying “stay home”. Defeating the disease was, at least apparently, a common issue. After all, the virus does not select its victims by political stance. Progressives, conservatives, democrats, republicans, liberals, or anarchists, it does not matter, regardless of one’s opinion on how societies should work, the virus looks for hosts not for votes.

In Brazil, civilians were even arrested

Surprisingly, after George Floyd’s brutal death crowds of people took the streets to protest. The Brazilian protester’s revindications piled up. Groups, so-called antifascists, marched the streets opposing President Jair Bolsonaros’s long list of radical anti-democratic attitudes and his constant statements to downplay the outbreak, along with Black Lives Matter’s cause to raise awareness against racism. But hardly anyone criticized their attitude.

No need to say that Bolsonaro deserves to be criticized and racism vilified, however, in times of hypersensitiveness with opinions and words, one needs to be a step ahead of the Orwellian thoughtcrime police and the linguistic patrol.

The point is, after weeks of ubiquitous surveillance to keep people isolated and out of the streets, suddenly, the very same people who demanded lockdown, who had offended others saying that no cause could be above health and life, were then magically licensed and justified to do as they pleased. They swiftly forgot the virtuous motto: stay home, save lives. Fighting racism and Bolsonaro’s bizarre anti-democratic attitudes was now more important than saving lives. It was an obvious expression of a double standard, in plain sight. One rule for my political tribe and another for everyone else.

Jair Messias Bolsonaro (65 years old) is a Brazilian politician and retired military officer who is the 38th president of Brazil.

Roughly speaking, double standard is the application of different sets of principles for analogous situations. It means holding privileged moral judgements for the same action. The evaluation criterium, in this case, depends on which group is performing the action, not the action itself. No one has described this pervasive ideological perspective better than George Orwell in his remarkable novel 1984, which he called doublethink.

Double Standard corrupts what we understand by fairness, because it implies that some political causes and movements are beyond criticism. As Piaget showed on his studies of children’s moral engagement, nobody likes to interact in a game where ones are licensed to break the rules while others are not. In our current state of affairs, Piaget’s findings can be put in this way: no one likes to interact in a game where ones are justified to be reckless, are licensed to censor other people’s speeches while others are not. In plain language: it is not fair.

Besides, doublethink fosters an extremist bifurcation in people’s judgment, erecting a social reality in which a certain group is taken to be superior and other groups as inferior, shameful, or even dangerous. When people recognize themselves as part of a kin or tribe, they can no longer judge facts as impartial spectators. One thing is to deal with conflicting opinions, another is conflicting with alternative world versions, that are not merely political divergencies, but are regarded as absolute and dogmatic stances. And that is exactly where identity politics is taking us, to a tribalistic world view, in which an inclusive moral view is shunned and freedom of speech attacked, under the name of “justice”, known to other people as cancel culture.

“Canceling” others promotes moral intimidation and a thoughtcrime shushing environment, in which public discourse is destructively affected. It is crystal clear that such activism is an authoritarian position for anyone who values liberal ideas: tolerance, freedom of speech and diversity of thought. Ideas which are being eroded every single day.

Double standard is not simply a feature of identity politics, it is exactly what sustains it, promoting tribalism. A tribalistic mentality makes people act as religious zealots, who are unable to tolerate anyone or anything that contradicts their “holy” earthly cause.  Michael Oakeshott named such conduct “political pelagianism”, the belief that an overall world view, that is, a moral view should be imposed on everyone through political agendas. Opponents are therefore seen as despicable heretics; their personal reputation is then stained by online purges or lynch mobs. The reprehensible ad hominem, which was consensually a low maneuver is being normalized.

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) British political theorist and philosopher, whose work belongs to the conservatism.

This not only provokes this irrational tribalism, but it also paves the way for populist leaders to hoard resentful voters. They know how much selective indignation can make people feel resentful and that is exactly how they profit from identity politics. They reinforce the idea that intellectual classes and mainstream medias are picking winners. They win people over by saying that they are on their side, that is, in the weak edge of the tug-of-war between the “elite” and “the people”. The people being the victims of the elite.

Some people believe that cancel culture, wokeness and identity politics do not deserve attention in the face of far-right populist agendas. What they ignore is the fact that it was precisely this “intellectual” anti-intellectualism and “cancellation” environment that helped to elect these populists. If a given political movement is beyond criticism and can establish moral privilege, that will inevitably feed and flame the populist leaders’ discourse: they “the intelligentsia” are against us “the common people”. That is exactly what far-right populist leaders, such as Bolsonaro himself, use to stir emotions in culture wars.

Doublethink can be seen in both extremes. For example, when ideological groups make excuses or minimize dictatorships when a political leader in question represents their political stance. Is Maduro justified to torture his opponents? To radical leftists he is. On the same token, Bolsonaro pays homage to Lieutenant Ustra, a torturer during the military coup in 64, which by the way, he thinks it was not that bad, while at the same time scolding Maduro’s socialist dictatorship.

Enlightenment thinkers’ statues together with the philosopher Steven Pinker have been some of the newest targets. Except for Marx and Engels’, who were left untouched even though they were openly antisemitic and racist, as Spartaco Pupo demonstrated in detail in his recent article, Ma guardate che Marx ed Engels erano i più razzisti (https://www.oikoscentrostudi.org/ma-guardate-che-marx-ed-engels-erano-i-piu-razzisti/).

 This has been the cultural battle within identity politics. Either we abandon such madness, or this will not stop. And this criticism must start precisely at academia. The institutionalization of ad hominem is the end of any restoration of democracy. Additionally, the idea that identity politics and cancel culture are limited to social media and do not cause harm is pure denial or a tepid agreement with the inquisition.

Both sides, be it right or left, when interpreting politics as an instrument of human betterment, act driven by the same political style: that of faith. In it, “the activity of governing is at the service of human perfection”, wrote Oakeshott. In the rhetoric of today’s ideologues, there is always somewhere to offload all the guilt in the world to justify censorship and humiliation.

Ironically, current tribalism has become not only a problem between nations but a social problem within nations. A risky game to be played, a dangerous place to be in. Intrasocial tribalism corrupts any notion of common interest, a vital presumption for democracies to thrive. As Mark Lilla said, “there can be no liberal politics without a sense of we —of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other”.

Mark Lilla (born 1956) is an American political scientist, historian of ideas, and professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City.

History is this tangle of human misdeeds. From injustices, cruelty, wars, and some timid advances. From cave drawings to the pyramids of Egypt. From Sade’s tales to Lobato’s characters. How many slaves laid each of Cairo’s bricks? How many crusades and inquisitions for the Sistine Chapel? There is no clean history. Because History is made of a very precarious material called a human being, an incredibly flawed creature.

Whoever sees themselves fit to erase and overthrow the past thinks they can dictate and decide the future by force. Whoever denies the complexity and tragedies of life and the human experience will be willing to enact any kind of justice. Who was that statue of? Why is it there? What did it do? When did it do it?  What did we learn from it? How can we not repeat its mistakes? These questions belong to humanity and are the ones we will extract truths from.