Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Disciplinary Bulverism

C.S. Lewis, Brendan Eich, and the societal imperative to "cure" wrongthink

This is a follow-up to my earlier post about disagreement.

Occasionally Americans debate the correctness of beliefs and practices — political, moral, social. But not very often. Most Americans, or so one would judge from social media anyway, are Bulverists: they already know who is right and who isn’t, so all they need to debate is why the people who get things wrong — so, so wrong — do so.

But wait: it turns out that there is actually a second form or stage of Bulverism, one that is becoming increasingly common. If the first stage of Bulverism is explanatory, this second stage is disciplinary: it is concerned to determine what penalties should be administered to those who are wrong. Disciplinary Bulverism is where all the action is today.

Consider the case of Brendan Eich, the former Mozilla CEO who was pressured to resign when it became widely known that he had contributed financially to the campaign for California’s Proposition 8. Now, Eich has made it clear that he doesn’t think he’s a martyr and would rather not have his name brought up so often in these contexts — a request that I am going to ignore, just this once, because well before he said that I asked whether people supported Eich’s ouster. Almost everyone who replied said that they did, but that’s as unscientific as a sample gets; and I’ve been unable to get a sense of just how severely Eich should be punished. One person tweeted to me that “A homophobe like Eich deserves whatever he gets,” but didn’t reply when I asked whether permanent unemployment would be a just punishment, or violent assault.

So I don’t think many people have a clear sense of how severely people should be punished for holding the wrong social, moral, or political views; but there seems to be widespread support for some kind of punishment, and something more than mere shaming. For most of the people Jon Ronson writes about in his work on internet shaming, shaming is just one element of the discipline they were subjected to. Consider the recent case of the English scientist Sir Tim Hunt, who after one sexist remark — or, as Catherine Bennett called it in the Guardian, “his determination to rescue science from female biology” — not only was forced to resign from his position at University College London but was also pushed out of the European Research Council. One strike and you’re out. Forever.

But it doesn’t always work this way — though I think more and more often the internet outrage machine demands the nuclear option as the first and only valid response. I suspect that Brendan Eich would have had at least a chance of keeping his job if he had said something like this: “I deeply regret having supported Proposition 8 and apologize without reservation to all who were rightly offended by my insensitivity. My views on same-sex marriage have evolved since then, and I pledge to do everything in my power to make Mozilla a more fully inclusive environment.” But no statement less absolute would have allowed him to escape with merely a public shaming and his job intact. (Tim Hunt actually made such an apology without receiving any mercy, but that could have been because his positions were more-or-less voluntary and more-or-less honorary.)

“Punishment” is the narrower category here, “discipline” the broader one, because there are forms of discipline that are not, or at least do not claim to be, punitive. So, for example, when scholars argue that racism is a form of mental illness, or that homophobia is, they would not suggest that racists and homophobes be punished. And while internet mobs delight in administering punishment and are happy to call it by that name, people in positions of social authority prefer a gentler approach, either to generate public confidence in their discretion or to burnish their own self-images. As Yeats wrote, “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors, / The sentimentalist himself.”

Now, I certainly believe that racism is very wrong, though I would call it a sin rather than an illness or an error. (I’m not sure what homophobia is, but I think hatred of homosexuals is a sin also.) But that’s not the issue under debate here. My subject is what is to be done about people who hold the wrong beliefs, whether or not we describe their condition as an illness. And from the point of view of the Disciplinary Bulverism, wrong beliefs must be dealt with in some way, must be subjected to some form of discipline. And in that light, thinking of their error as a form of illness has certain advantages.

C.S. Lewis, the creator of the term “Bulverism,” also wrote an essay that’s very relevant to these considerations. It is called “The Humanitarian Theory of Pubishment,” and here is a key excerpt:

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable?

But this theory is not quite as amiable as it looks — at least if you’re the one being “cured.” Lewis continues: “On this remedial view of punishment, the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence … an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts.” This point leads Lewis to his peroration:

It may be said that by the continued use of the word Punishment and the use of the verb “inflict” I am misrepresenting the Humanitarians. They are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be remade after some pattern of “normality” hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I have grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success — who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared — shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust — is obvious.

And of course this kind of thing happens all the time in Western societies today: sensitivity training and its many near relations. Nothing new there. In fact, the disciplinary structures that have been well-emplaced for decades will simply continue: but in the coming decades they will have different targets.

Because this is how a society built on disciplinary Bulverism works. The reparative or conversion therapy that was once widely used to change homosexuals can easily be adapted to address the problems of racists and homophobes — who can be easy to find, thanks to the social-media trails that most people leave online. Sometimes such reparation will merely be encouraged by friends and family; sometimes it will be made a condition of employment; sometimes it will be mandated by judges. Discipline will not always (perhaps not often) come directly from the State; it will typically be administered by what one of the more acute Marxist theorists called ideological state apparatuses — institutions (schools, hospitals, many private businesses) that the State trusts to enforce its preferences. And these preferences will not be argued for; as always in Bulverist thought, their essential truth will be assumed; and the way social media are used today will ensure that dissent is driven out of any given circle of discourse.

Althusser’s picture of how the state works closely resembles what Foucault — who was not a Marxist and whose political positions were highly ambiguous — called the “power/knowledge regime,” and what some current neoreactionaries call “the Cathedral.” It’s interesting to see people from all over the political map exploring the subtle ways that State power works. There’s a reason for this. People who support using the disciplinary powers of the State against their enemies always assume that people like them will be in power forever. And on this point they are always wrong.