What would the Martians Think?
Nathan Robinson has a piece up, "The Power of Anarchist Analysis." Choice bit for me:
In discussing how to study human beings, Chomsky famously invoked the example of a “Martian visiting Earth.” The Martian would be something of an anarchist, in that they would not have any reason to accept our justifications for things until we satisfied their questions. The Martian might notice things about us that we do not notice about ourselves, like seeing a unified human language structure rather than a set of many different languages. The Martian might be puzzled when you tried to explain what a nation-state was and why it mattered, or why we use chromosomal sex as an important category for classifying human beings, or why we have cars.
Interesting, because when I think of someone adopting the POV an alien landing here from another planet, my go-to is someone like Robin Hanson, whose politics are certainly out of step with Robinson or Chomsky (though they all share a fundamentally WEIRD personality type, unlike e.g. Pat Buchanan). In fact he's even been called creepy, a term you'd absolutely expect to hear directed at a space alien.
The article goes on to list things that should be reconsidered in light of this anarcho-Martian mentality, like schools. Albeit private schools, not public schools, which 90+% of students attend. But also police and... scientism. We're too deferential to science and reason, suggests Robinson, and people like Sam Harris are awful exemplars of this. The article poo-namedrops Pinker, Shapiro, Peterson, etc., i.e. the IDW crowd. For an article taking aim at societal notions of common sense borne of a lack of critical thinking and interrogation, actual celebrities and myriad mass media talking heads are overlooked in favor of Robinson's Very Online and intellectual enemies.
Anyway, I've said my piece on the, er, piece. Anyone else care to chime in?
The Martian thought experiment is always an interesting one, but I think the Anarchist spin is only one possible variant. I'm not even sure it's an interesting variant, since the Anarchist Martian ends up deconstructing social conventions with a fairly common political critique. It's more interesting to consider an alien with alien values. Perhaps this Martian would question why we haven't genocided the Bolivians. Maybe he'd find it gross that we fry steak in the butter of another cow. He could even offer some strong opinions about how society thwarts children from watching 20 hours of TV a day. Why, after all, do we park in the driveway and drive on the parkway?
I think this is half the fun of history, trying to digest truly alien attitudes and imagine them in new contexts. What opinion would a Spartan general have on spanking and diet coke? Would Tlaxcalan corn farmers prefer Ford or Ferrari? Would Luther be a moon-truther? How would Augustus and Napoleon get along?
My point here is not to be glib -- but if we try to imagine a Martian perspective, why should we imagine he would deconstruct our society? Might he deconstruct the deconstruction? It's an important question. If you try thinking outside the box, without also thinking about how you are thinking outside the box, you are liable to build a new box for yourself to think in. (This is my problem with Chomsky, who Robinson cites -- Chomsky imagines he has this stinging criticism of Western society, but his criticism never considers how his criticism has been incorporated into Western society. This is also similar to the point Robinson makes about atheists believing in capital-R Reason.)
For example, Robinson says:
Feminism is born from rational thinking, from refusing to defer to social tradition and prejudice and demanding answers for why things are the way they are. [...] Both science and the study of history are enriched by feminism and anti-racism, which correct for the bias that comes from certain perspectives and voices being excluded from mainstream analysis and therefore leading to falsehoods being accepted as truth.
Couldn't I also say "Murdering your wife is born from rational thinking, from refusing to defer to social tradition"? Couldn't it be argued that feminism is now social tradition, and the "way things are" that needs "answers demanded" is sexual liberation? Aren't the voices of Victorian anti-feminists also "being excluded from mainstream analysis"? We could play this back-and-forth all day.
Ultimately, there is no one single deconstruction that exposes all history. The Anarchist point of view, is, I think, highly productive to engage in. But it's not the default point of view, is it? There are millions of others to consider and integrate. There is, I think, an infinite variety of such worldviews, and it's very limiting if we try to integrate one and one only.