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Literalism

The Obsessive Pedantry of the Global Right Is So Fucking Dumb

From the Supreme Court to Paul Joseph Watson, "literalism" has become the dominant ideology of halfwits who think dictionary definitions are everything.

by Bertie Brandes
06 April 2017, 1:58pm

Photo by Marta Parszeniew

Collage by Marta Parszeniew

Nominated by Donald Trump in January, judge Neil Gorsuch is being positioned to become the ninth Supreme Court Justice. However, he has some serious opposition – not least from Democrats appalled that Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's more moderate nominee, was never even given a hearing. While Gorsuch might be incredibly qualified (he has degrees from Columbia and Harvard, plus a PhD from Oxford) he also adheres to the extreme and increasingly popular conservative doctrine of "textualism" when implementing the law. If he makes it onto the Supreme Court bench, which is highly likely given that the Republicans have stated they will bypass any Democratic filibustering with a simple majority loophole, he will replace the now deceased Antonin Scalia, another man who defined his practise as textualism, so called because it involves taking the text of the constitution at its literal meaning, rather than interpreting it for the problems of, say, civil rights and internet privacy, that the founding fathers never could have foreseen. 

Textualism isn't just big among conservative supreme justices, though; it's part of a global ideology of understanding everything to the letter, which I am going to call literalism. Literalism is the dictionary definition argument, which refuses social or cultural context. It's the legal position of people who are enraged by "special privileges" for minorities while ignoring the extreme economic and social disadvantages they already face. The political attitude of people who don't agree extra effort is needed to ensure women and PoC are present in boardrooms despite them having been structurally excluded for centuries. It's the outlook of people with absolute faith in the market to regulate itself and absolute faith in society to organise itself fairly. Why are there so many more black men in prison? They must commit more crime. End of story.

There are gaping flaws in the literalist's obsessive logic. While they will smugly use a dictionary to define things like feminism or racism, they refuse to acknowledge any contextual ramifications or bias within the dictionary itself. This goes for the judicial system, policing, housing, welfare and employment as well. Literalists are not interested in why something has come to be defined as it has or how that definition may have dated; they aren't interested in the meaning and meaninglessness of words or the structures of power and class present in language. They conform to the ideological equivalent of "computer says no". When you apply this kind of fundamentalist textualism to law, as Gorsuch does and Scalia did before him, you're essentially preaching the Constitution as gospel. Along with a growing number of conservative Americans, this behaviour symbolises the desire to rigorously control what is perceived as an increasingly chaotic society. Gorsuch's method is a "No Running in the hallway" "but I was being chased by a shooter with a gun" "No Running in the hallway" kind of enforcement, which relies on the total submission to a set of rules as opposed to their constructive or critical application.

Earlier in his career, Gorsuch ruled on the highly publicised case of a trucker being forced to decide between freezing to death in his vehicle or leaving to find shelter. After doing everything he could to try and get help, the driver eventually left, and was fired. He challenged the ruling and won after seven judges heard his case. Gorsuch was the only judge on the case to rule against the driver. When challenged on his decision by a superior, he unashamedly argued the factual tenets of the law without sense or empathy. It's infuriating to behold.

"He uses literalism as a way of immediately proving themselves right about anything by finding it written down somewhere, and in the process exposing anyone who doesn't agree as a 'moron' or an 'idiot'."

Over on our fair isle, things are not wildly different. Brexit rhetoric convinced huge swathes of people that by leaving the EU they were claiming back "sovereignty" for the UK, which has resulted in the recent triggering of Article 50. Sovereignty – though it sounds cool, like claiming back a sort of Union Jack tin of shortbread that had been nicked by Poland – in fact ended up to just be a word meaning absolutely nothing. Sovereignty for the people of an independent United Kingdom basically means Sports Direct-style workers' rights, EU regulations without a seat at the table and the sinking realisation that America really does not have to give us a smashing-great trade deal despite that deeply dubious special relationship.

Insufferable talking heads like Paul Joseph Watson use literalism as a way of immediately proving themselves right about anything by finding it written down somewhere, or proven by any poll whatsoever, and in the process exposing anyone who doesn't agree as a "moron" or an "idiot". It's this obsession with reducing everything down to the sum of its parts which permits him to dismiss the entirety of modern art as "stupid"

The right as a wider movement revels in the idea that "rape culture" must be a myth because rape is a crime, or that the wage gap is a myth because it doesn't take into account the fact that women are in fewer top-level jobs as men, as if that somehow made it OK. This literalism is moronic, yet it positions itself a pseudo-intellectualism in which Butler and Foucault apparently never existed.

So why this newfound admiration for "common sense" politics? Probably because "sense" – as an entrenched establishment ideology – is less common than ever, and that frightens conservatives. As digital media splinters the mainstream partisan/conservative media's control over current affairs, the Good American narrative is under threat. In response, a new pepped-up alt-right point aghast towards the chaotic unpredictability of the internet and shriek that it's eliminating rationality on a global scale. Outlets like Rebel Media and Breitbart spring up promising to tell the truth, clear the bullshit, drain the swamp. They shout fake news and cry "ideology" at every turn. They miss the point. 

In an article for the New Inquiry, Trevor Paglen writes that "ideology's ultimate trick has always been to present itself as objective truth, to present historical conditions as eternal, and to present political formations as natural". Literalists buy into this truth absolutely. They believe that society can only function in the most rudimentary, mechanical sense, or else it will descend into violent disorder. Chaos taps at their windows and nips at their shoelaces. But the literalist's pragmatism is ideology extreme; it's a philosophy which hands all power to the capricious open market. Their arguments for rationality are in fact demands for absolute chaos. What they're doing, without realising, is fundamentally undermining their own fundamentalism. I wonder what the dictionary definition of that is.

@BertieBrandes

Tagged:
Brexit
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