Rooting out 'enemies of the people': 1922 trial of the socialists-revolutionists in Moscow via Wikipedia

Whatever happened to principled disagreement? Perhaps we always overestimated its existence. Since ancient times, political and other quarrels have spiraled periodically into open antagonism: imperial conquest, wars of religion, and ideological annihilation.

Yet a liberal democratic polity is supposed to be different. Growing up in a pluralist society, we are, or were, taught the importance of restraint, encouraged to accept that others will worship different gods – secular and spiritual – from our own. Increasingly, we don’t accept this counsel. Increasingly, we refuse to recognize the legitimacy of competing values. What stymies this recognition?

In a number of recent books, for instance, Gregg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) and Heather Mac Donald’s The Diversity Delusion (2018), several factors are advanced to explain the erosion of civic dialogue: an overweening style of parenting that creates frail children; the emergence of trolling social media; the intervention of massive Diversity bureaucracies that enflame a gratuitous sense of victimhood; the ideological fanaticism of academics.

Revolution and anger

In this essay I focus on another, less remarked on, obstacle to communication. This obstacle centers not on what we disagree about, but how we disagree about it. For it seems to me that we are now accustomed to a manner of talking and writing that is all but calculated to poison our civic conversation. I’ll call this manner the unmasking style. I’ll describe its five key techniques. I’ll also suggest resources that help us avoid unmasking.

When people unmask they claim to rip off a disguise, revealing the true beneath the feigned or imaginary. Two kinds of unmasking are prominent in Western societies. The first, aimed at persons or groups, claims to expose enmity, conspiracy and hypocrisy. The second, directed at ideas, claims to expose false-consciousness and illusion.

When even a gesture or an intonation is potentially offensive to an aggrieved constituency on high alert, the opportunities for unmasking are endless. Some targets of censure are cowed. They apologize for an offense they were not conscious of committing. Publicly chastened, they resolve to be better behaved henceforth. Others fight back. Claiming to be misrepresented and maligned, they proceed to unmask their inquisitors in turn. Accusers and accused swap insults in a vortex of animosity.

In our angry world, today/Odium is but a tweet away.

Though my topic has deep and tangled roots in Western history, the revolutionary tradition proved especially formative of the unmasking style. The French Revolutionaries of the late 18th Century, and the Bolsheviks and Maoists of the 20th, all employed unmasking techniques to root out “enemies of the people” and “objective enemies,” meaning anyone who fell into a forbidden social category: noble, priest, boss, landlord, kulak.

It was not what you did that damned you; it was what you were. Individuals were nothing. Social class or status was everything. When militants fell out with each other, as they always did, the losers were pressed to confess their errors, degrade themselves in public, often before being shot. Labels were hereditary so that the children and even grandchildren of the accused were also suspect. In Soviet times, tens of thousands ended up in the Gulag. Many never returned home.

To the extent that Marxian social and political theory became part of the mainstream in universities, unmasking followed it there, generally stripped of outright violence and today mingling with currents of post-modernism. Detecting concealed racism, white privilege, patriarchy, transgender phobia, and colonial exploitation is the stock in trade of several disciplines, sub-disciplines, and pseudo-disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. The common thread is the supposed ubiquity of domination. Sociologists teach about “intersectionality.” Philosophers cultivate the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Professors of Cultural Studies expatiate on “hegemony.” If the word “critique” were ever banned in universities, several departments would shut down. English would close first.

And yet unmasking is not confined to high-octane theory or to the Left. What began centuries ago as an enterprise of intellectuals is today a democratic blood sport, relentless and aggressive in its pursuit of another person’s destruction.

Imagined conspiracies are a recurrent unmasking obsession. Spot them in stories that expose President Barack Hussein Obama as a Kenyan-born Muslim; or that prove, following extensive reconstruction of the events, that the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were an inside job of the CIA; or that show that big corporations control the weather; or that the shooting of children at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, in 2011 was a hoax perpetrated by gun control advocates.

Cut from a similar cloth is the phenomenon known as Trump Derangement Syndrome: the dogged resolve to expose all of the President’s actions as evil – even before they happen.

How does unmasking work? What are the ways in which one person or group unmasks another?

Techniques of the unmasking style

Weaponization is the extreme edge of accusation. It is the use of terms, different in each culture, that when invoked transform a disagreement into enmity. Principled disagreement is obliterated.

Arguments by one party often fail to persuade another. In most cases, this does not matter. We can agree to disagree on whether the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were the greater rock band of the 60s.

However, where the stakes of the argument impinge on major interests — political, religious, national — they become markers for antagonistic relationships: Marxists versus liberals, Fascists versus Communists, Islamists versus Christians, and so forth. Because argument is by nature adversarial, combative language pervades it. Fight, clash, confront, parry, contest are just a few of the terms that are used. Heavily stylized in a democratic polity, these words lose much of their “force.”

But in some contexts words and phrases are lethal. Specifically, any term or metaphor that transforms an opponent into a “traitor,” an “apostate,” or a “running dog of capitalism” is weaponized. Such terms openly invite physical harm and even mortal destruction of the accused. For instance, the urge to expose conspirators, spies, wreckers, renegades, traitors, right and left deviationists, Trotskyists, “cosmopolitans,” and other reprobates shook Soviet society in periodic paroxysms of violence. Unmasking was the search for an ulterior motive behind every action. Constant vigilance was imperative. It was “a crime against the party and people for a Communist not to see through the enemy in good time and expose him,” Pravda editorialized in August 1936.

In revolutionary times, we might expect such language. Less explicable is how weaponized language enchants intellectuals who live a sheltered existence in free countries. In Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), Erich Fromm, the ambassador of Frankfurt School humanism, endorses the Marxian “weapon of truth” for “uncovering the reality behind the illusions and ideologies which cover it.” Likewise, Columbia University political theorist Bernard Harcourt (in an unpublished paper) cites approvingly Michel Foucault’s proposal to “liquidate” the Western “myth” of truth. For good measure, Harcourt concurs with Foucault that knowledge is “murderous.”

Reduction and positioning. Unmasking is the claim to see through a facade. One form of this exposure is the reductive assertion that a person making an argument about one thing is really talking in “code” about something else, blowing a “dog whistle” to incite an audience in the wings.

The assertion is unanswerable. That is its attraction to those who assert it. A more theoretical approach infers social and psychological structures from clues that, supposedly, an agent has an interest in hiding or is unwittingly hiding. This forensic, in turn, depends on a reduction of one kind of reality to another: the reduction of politics to a socio-economic structure, the reduction of morality to a will to power, the reduction of social life to a psychological substratum.

A related reductive technique is positioning. Instead of evaluating the content of a concept, distinction or argument, and judging it on its merits, it suffices to gesture from where it derives. Classical Marxism slammed whatever it disliked as “bourgeois.” An equivalent today is white male or cisgendered.  

Inversion is an unmasking technique in which a person’s words are taken as evidence of interests or forces diametrically opposed to those professed in the person’s utterances. More generally, inversion assumes the very worst about an action turning it into something it is not.

Here’s a somewhat comical example from the Financial Times back in 2014. It comes from an article by Simon Kuper listing a roster of individuals who have made fortunes from the so-called Blair Disease: “the growing propensity of former heads of government to monetize their service” by delivering paid speeches to the well-heeled.

In addition to Tony Blair, Great Britain’s prime minister from 1997 to 2007, Kuper’s list includes Gerhard Schröder, the ex-Chancellor of Germany, the former President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and past US President Bill Clinton. Another previous American president, George W. Bush, however, has largely absented himself from this plutocratic club. Why? Perhaps it has simply not occurred to him, as an independently wealthy person, to join the ranks of Blair et al. Or perhaps, with a decent sense of his place post-politics, Bush the younger will not stoop to the role of pontificating salesman.

Kuper considers neither of these possibilities. The reason Bush has not joined the likes of Blair et al., Kuper insists, is because Bush is ashamed of his presidency. He avoids the limelight for that reason. Hence what might well be an admirable quality of George W. is rendered presumptively a disguise for a bad one.

The political writer Hannah Arendt, in her book On Revolution (1963), saw a similar move rampant in the social sciences. Citing an article “that evaluates the lack of resentment on the part of the working men as ‘fear of equality’,” she dryly remarks that the author manages “to turn every virtue into a hidden vice – a tour de force in the art of hunting for non-existent ulterior motives.”

Inversion is pervasive today. Find it in attributions of “micro-aggression” where a kind or innocent word is regarded as nasty, a compliment regarded as a masked criticism. Find inversion too in the accusation that Israelis are the new Nazis. An earlier example of inversion is the claim made in the 1930s by Communist militants that Socialist leaders in Germany, whatever their professions of solidarity with the proletariat, were objectively in cahoots with the Nazis. Communists asserted that the socialists were in fact “social fascists” because their refusal to accept Communist leadership impeded the progressive wing of the working class, split the opposition to National Socialism, and enabled Hitler to become Chancellor of Germany.

Deflation is a close cousin of reductionism and inversion. Metaphorically, it punctures argument and immobilizes discourse. Analytically, it consists of two steps.

The first step leaves the terrain of an adversary’s discourse and takes it to another region entirely. That region is noxious. You say that you wish to defend freedom. I say that you are really defending capitalism, an oppressive system. You say that you believe in the compassionate message of Christ. I say that you are really advancing a will to power. You say that you have principled grounds for your opposition to same-sex marriages. I say that you are a bigot.

In principle, step one still permits an argument of sorts to take place, albeit with the remotest chance of resolution. The second step is the deflationary coup de grâce for, in justifying step one, it attributes, either to a person or to an idea, a social or psychological debility that makes further argument unnecessary.

An old deflationary attribution is illusion. Recurrently in political and moral discussion, illusion and delusion are ways to sort society into rival groups or, much the same thing, sort minds into more and less perspicacious types. Both terms are value judgments posing as factual statements. They drown in the weed-choked pools of illusion. We bathe in the pellucid water of enlightenment. But the biggest problem about the concept of illusion, when attributed to ideas, is one of mistaken extrapolation. What is scientifically demonstrable in optics, and in some branches of psychology, is merely question-begging in politics and social thought. And wherever beliefs of the past are judged to be illusions what we typically mean is that they became outmoded or lost their powers of persuasion.

A more modern deflationary move is evident in the proliferation of terms that end in phobic: homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, ecophobic, and several others in a steadily expanding list.

Strictly speaking, this language is redundant. We have other terms to express intolerance: bigotry, prejudice, narrow-mindedness and so forth. Phobia, in contrast, has connotations that are distinctly medical and therapeutic. Phobic language unmasks because it translates one set of statements (for instance on immigration or radical Islam) into another that negates the sincerity, probity, or rationality of the first. It transforms an account that expresses a political or moral argument into a social sickness caused by toxic motives or interests. It is striking more generally that that an ever more common way of denouncing political opponents – Presidents included – is to claim that they are unhinged or even mad.

Deflation is chiefly, then, the move that shifts the grounds of an opponent’s position (step one) by explaining it away (step two). Step two makes continued argument unnecessary for the attributor and impossible for its target. The latter has become a clinical object as distinct from an interlocutor.

I mentioned five unmasking techniques but these hardly exhaust the unmasking repertoire. We might consider the failure to disavow where an attempt to weigh two or more sides of an argument in a neutral manner is to be deemed guilty of the worst side. (On this see Lauren Chen’s smart YouTube video, “Lindsay Shepherd, Taylor Swift, and the Failure to Disavow”.

Another unmasking move is anathema by miscategorization in which a person’s argument is mislabeled, as when the support of populism marks someone as a fascist or racist. And then there is the assumption of perversity in which an argument is portrayed not as an argument at all, based on justifiable or at least defensible reasons, but as an irrational spasm, a “reaction” or “backlash” to a normal or healthy state of affairs. (Using a rather different language, the last two unmasking moves are criticized effectively in Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s data-packed book, National Populism. The Revolt Against Democracy [2018].)

Avoiding Unmasking

Unmasking inverts people’s statements and makes them look foolish. It reduces a concept or a theory to the supposed ideological position of the writer. It trades on a mistaken concept of illusion. And, more generally, it burdens enquiry with a radical agenda of emancipation that people of different views have no reason to accept as valid. In politics, writers who adopt the unmasking style repeatedly treat other people not as fellow citizens with rival views of the good but as villains. In some revolutionary situations unmasking weaponization is the rhetoric of mass murder. And beyond these extremes, unmasking stokes mutual contempt.

Such an approach is problematic for obvious reasons. Discord expands knowledge. Scientific progress is unimaginable without disagreement. New theories arise that challenge, amend or refute existing theories. Revisionist perspectives collide with received opinions. Disagreement is also integral to politics. Ideologies and policy prescriptions clash. Young Turks provoke their elders with radical ideas. In a plural world, plural viewpoints are to be expected.

And no group is immune to unmasking today, not even its perpetrators. Denouncers are denounced. Self-righteousness breeds more answering self-righteousness. The circle of exposure is unbroken. It is also self-reproducing for unmasking is subject to two complementary laws. The more unmasking is applied, the greater is the incentive for all parties to apply it. (As is often noted, identity politics obeys the same logic.) You unmask me. I will unmask you. You hate me. I will hate you back. More. White Despisers occupy the same extreme polemical space as White Supremacists: Sarah Jeong becomes a twin of Richard Spencer.

And yet the more someone is unmasked, the less credible the unmasking becomes to those with no stakes in the accusation. To those on the sidelines, unmasking then appears more hysterical than reasoned. And because the accusing party appears unhinged, so does its argument.

Can unmasking be avoided?

Unmasking is deeply etched into modern culture. It is not about to disappear. Yet, as individuals, we are not helpless in the face of it. If we are aware of unmasking we can choose not to repeat the unmasking techniques of those who unmask us. That requires restraint and moderation, the very qualities that unmasking recklessly destroys.

What might fortify our efforts to avoid unmasking? Not counter-unmasking techniques for none exist, unless one considers empathetic understanding and disinterested scientific study to be techniques.

I suggest three resources to steel us against unmasking other people and to console us when we are – inevitably – unmasked. The first resource is the novel, the literary genre that explores motives more deeply than any social theory. The second is a diffuse body of non-fiction characterized by caution and a sense of limits. The third resource for the reader wishing to avoid unmaking is a tradition of politics that considers conflict to be inescapable under any plural order. Because conflict is normal, we must learn how best to engage in it.

The novel

A recurring move of the unmasking style is the exposure of bad motives. The move is characteristic of pre-19th Century criticisms of hypocrisy. It is a staple of all revolutionary situations in which treason is suspected. And it is a perennial of slash and burn polemic in journalism and social media. The novel shows why the attribution of motives is no simple thing. The lives disclosed in, say, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows are unpredictable. The protagonists move on the page, assuming new qualities as they do. People who appear abhorrent or mediocre early on in the narrative may turn out to be admirable later. The reverse applies.

Novelists are required to think through the lives of many characters all at once. At the onset of their narratives it is never entirely clear where those lives are headed or at what point they may be diverted or arrested. The reader is unsure until it happens. So, often, is the writer. Novels show that life is inherently disorderly, never entirely predictable; it is the order that the characters bring to life that resolves the suspense. Causality is acknowledged. People inhabit situations. These impose limits, offer opportunities, and furnish incentives. But time and again the individual finds a creative way to choose.

Novels such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov imbue situations with ambiguity and tragedy. Unmasking social theory and public polemic does the reverse. It simplifies character by reducing motives and ideas to a standard, stereotyped script. Unmasking writers, unlike novelists, are monarchs of all they survey. Their subjects are cartoons that are never given the chance to talk back.

Cautionary currents

The unmasking style is fueled by certainty. It reduces life to a binary formula. It describes itself as suspicious yet it is anything but. It dogmatically asserts what truth is, and what it is not.

The statements I quote now – from the writings of Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Simone Weil (1909-1943) – could not be more different from the unmasking style. They are joined less by substantive beliefs than by a stance towards all belief. They evoke a universal being caught within “the contradictions of human existence, the polarities of light and darkness, knowledge and ignorance, greatness and wretchedness, doubt and certainty, anxiety and boredom, and fear and confidence,” to quote Anthony Levi summarizing the attitude of the 17th Century scientist and Catholic, Blaise Pascal (in the Oxford University Press edition of Pascal’s Pensées). No human vision will dispel these contradictions. No social emancipation will remove them.

The first quote comes from Albert Camus’s speech, “Call for a Civilian Truce in Algeria.” Camus was a Nobel Prize winning mid-20th Century French journalist and novelist who grew up in Algeria. His father died when he was one. His mother was deaf and illiterate.

Camus’s speech was delivered in Algiers on January 22,1956 in the midst of violent clashes between elements of the French settler community and the French military, on one side, and Arab and nationalist forces on the other. Throughout his life, Camus advocated on behalf of the Algerian Arabs’ demands for justice and democratic rights. He also sought a continuing home for the 1.2 million French settlers, most of whom felt Algerian, and were of modest means: small farmers, small businessmen, artisans.

The burden of Camus’s speech is to urge a cessation of attacks on civilians. It is an appeal to the antagonists’ humanity, not a political intervention. In these remarks and elsewhere, Camus sought to reach over multiple divides: chasms separating metropolitan France from the French of Algeria, French Algerians from Algerian Arabs, Algerian Arabs from metropolitan France, and Algerian Arabs from French Algerians.

On the substance of the Algerian question, I may have more doubts than certitudes to express, given the pace of events and the growing suspicions on both sides. My only qualification to speak about the issue is that I have experienced Algeria’s misfortune as a personal tragedy. Nor can I rejoice in any death, no matter whose it is.  For twenty years I have used the feeble means available to me to help bring harmony between our two peoples. To my preaching in favor of reconciliation, history has responded in cruel fashion: the two peoples I love are today locked in mortal combat. The look of consternation on my face is no doubt a cause for laughter. But I myself am not inclined to laugh. In the face of such failure, my only conceivable concern is to spare my country any unnecessary suffering … But at least one thing unites us all: namely love of the land we share, and distress.

The second statement is from Simone Weil’s The Iliad or the Poem of Force. Reflecting on the attitude towards the human predicament in the greatest epic of the Western tradition, Simone Weil writes:

Nothing of value, whether doomed to die or not, is slighted; the misery of all is revealed without dissimulation or condescension; no man is set above or below the common human condition; all that is destroyed is regretted. Victors and victims are equally close to us, and thereby akin to both poet and listener. If there is a discrepancy, it is that the misfortune of enemies is perhaps experienced more grievously.

In Homer’s tableau, the victors are one day vanquished, life is uncertain except in its suffering, and all are equal under the hand of fate. No human or group of humans will ever control even a part of the world for long. They do not know what they are doing. Neither do we.

Simone Weil – social activist, philosopher, mystic – admired the poem for its “exceptional impartiality… It is difficult to detect that the poet is Greek and not Trojan.” Writing at the start of the Second World War she wondered if the spirit of the poem would ever be recovered. This will only happen, she said, if we “learn to believe nothing is protected from fate, learn never to admire force, not to hate the enemy nor to scorn the unfortunate. It is doubtful whether this will soon occur.”

Camus and Simone Weil are pillars of the anti-unmasking style because they avoid hatred, because they draw from the deep well of human experience and human fallibility, and because they value reconciliation more than division.

Conflictual pluralism

Unmasking can also be avoided if we take a different view of the nature of politics. For want of a better term, I will call this view conflictual pluralism, an attitude to politics that, fittingly, is associated with a variety of authors who otherwise disagree on many topics. James Madison, Max Weber, Herbert Butterfield, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, John Gray, and Chantal Mouffe all offer variations on conflictual pluralism.

Common to this perspective is a commitment to a democratic polity and to constitutional pluralist rules of the game. The most important rules are legality and compromise where compromise is possible (sometimes it is not). Such rules of the game are menaced, and usually destroyed, by single-party rule, arbitrary governance, and all attempts to monopolize the political space with one ideology.

Unlike Marxists, conflictual pluralists do not believe in the end of politics. Unlike liberal rationalists conflictual pluralists are convinced that collisions of value and clashes between rival conceptions of the goods of life – liberty and equality, religion and secularism, conservatism and socialism, conservatism and liberalism, conjugal and revisionist views of marriage – are inescapable. Groups as much as individuals collide. In the real world of politics, hostility is the other side of reciprocity, exclusion the other side of inclusion, and both are likely to endure so long as humans live side by side. For this reason, conflictual pluralists avoid invoking the concept of humanity — a homogenizing idea — in a political context.

Conflictual pluralists have relatively low expectations of social solidarity. Civil peace and the acceptance of the rules of the pluralist game are sufficient for a democratic polity to operate. Conflictual pluralists believe that hopes of achieving a transparent and unconstrained speech situation capable of eliminating partisanship, or a third way, or a state without enemies, or one-nation politics are all without foundation. They are also potentially hazardous when adopted by political and cultural elites. For once politics is believed to have only one legitimate and rational shape, those who reject that shape must be irrational, perverse, phobic or ignorant fanatics who deserve to be unmasked and silenced.

A political vision that emphasizes consensus and rational governance flattens the political landscape. Opposing parties become increasingly alike. Offering no substantive alternatives, they induce frustrated and unrepresented voters to embrace more extreme options. And extremism is by definition dangerous to any democratic polity. For the conflictual pluralist, a major purpose of politics is to keep it within the bounds of adversarial relations, to avoid its decay into brutish antagonism. Those bounds are both respected and strengthened when a variety of constituencies are able to voice divergent views without them being dismissed out of hand as irrational (“racist,” “phobic” and so forth).

Conflictual pluralism is a tougher idea than diversity. Diversity rhetoric seeks to convince us that the more diverse populations are, the better and, ultimately, the happier and more enriched they are. Conflictual pluralist theorists are less sanguine about the nature of human intercourse, believing that diversity is just as likely to create conflict than salve it. The divergence of values in modern life, bereft of a unifying religious cosmos of faith, is not pathological or accidental nor is it likely to diminish. Globalization is likely to intensify divergence as people rub up against alien communities to which they were never before exposed, whose rival views of life offend and threaten them. It is harmony that is the exception.

We become what we do. The more unmasking is employed to defeat rival views, even in self-defense, the greater the general taste for it and the more normal we consider it. None of us will ever stop others from unmasking us. This essay will be unmasked. I will be told, absurdly, that I have unmasked unmasking. I haven’t. Unmasking is not tantamount to criticism as such; it is a specific kind of criticism with the techniques I delineated.

I conclude that the most basic question about unmasking is not what is to be done about it – only megalomaniacs think they can change society — but how we as individuals should behave towards it. My simple suggestion is this: now that you know what the unmasking style entails, avoid it at all costs.

Peter Baehr is Research Professor in Social Theory at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. This essay draws on his forthcoming book The Unmasking Style in Social Theory, to be published by Routledge in June 2019. Reach him at: pbaehr@LN.edu.hk

Peter Baehr

Peter Baehr is Research Professor in Social Theory at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.