On ‘conspiracists’, ‘apologists’,
‘denialists’, social pathology

23 June, 2007

by G.S.  <george.salzman@umb.edu>

this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/S2/2007-06-23.htm

      This is an indictment of the behavior of all of us who, whether often or infrequently, scoff at people with whom we disagree. I indict our attempts, my own included, to argue by heaping scorn on them, supposedly in an effort to convince them and/or other folks that our views are correct and theirs are wrong. It’s a mistake, a psychologically driven indulgence, a real shortcoming.that we ought to avoid. When we do it, we are the victims of a social pathology, a pathology caused by our indoctrination into the cultural values that have shaped our individual lives. These values derive from our nationality, ethnicity, religion (if any), education, economic class status, and so on. Overall, throughout most of today’s world the value systems are shaped by the dominant capitalist economy.

      Let me be specific. There's a small online discussion group that a friend and I started back in 1998. We wanted to resuscitate, initially only on the internet, a radical science group that was very active during the Vietnam War period. Science for the People (SftP), as the group called itself back then, stood in opposition to the uses of science for socially destructive purposes, e.g. developing anti-personnel weapons systems for so-called electronic battlefields (science to defeat the Viet Cong). SftP was unabashedly political, humanistic, clearly with a ‘leftist’ perspective. We stood against the official science establishment. Among us were many bona fide scientists.

      Recently a lot of rancor in the SftP discussion group developed as some individuals attacked one another personally with a suffocating flood of postings that threatened to destroy the value of the list. Some good people quit in disgust. Membership went down from a bit under 155 to just under 125, about a twenty percent drop in the course of a few months. I had been paying but scant attention to the list until I happened to see the following item.[1]

Subject: Re: Alexander Cockburn and the Corruption of Science
From: Carmelo Ruiz <carmelo_ruiz@yahoo.com>
Date: Thu, 31 May 2007 09:16:07 -0700

--- Louis Proyect <lnp3@panix.com> wrote:
> http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=57&ItemID=12951

Thanks for sending that, Louis.

I do not know exactly when I stopped trusting Cockburn. For years I have found him to be extremely opinonated to the point that he seems more interested in winning arguments than in getting to the truth. Self-righteous, obnoxious and totally insufferable. In fact, I have trouble telling him apart from his equally arrogant self indulgent and egomaniacal counterpart, Christopher Hitchens.

      Because Carmelo is someone of whom I think very highly, I pursued the link, and several others subsequently posted to the list by Louis Proyect, including a fine article Louis wrote and a very good critique of Cockburn by George Monbiot. Unhappily, only a few days after Carmelo’s justified criticism of Cockburn, he posted the following disheartening message:
Date: Sun, 3 Jun 2007 11:58:25 -0700

That’s enough, get me off this list! 90% of this list’s email traffic is made up of completely stupid discussions, and I’ve taken as much as I can. It is not insightful, it’s not edifying, it’s nothing but spam. I’ve been pretty patient for the last couple of years, but the fact is that most everything in SftP’s list is mindless, personalistic bickering. Get me off the list!


      I removed his name, regretfully recognizing there was a substantial basis for his scathing comments, though it seemed to me he was a bit too steamed up. I had met him here in Oaxaca at a “Maize and Biodiversity Symposium.” [2] At that meeting I told him about Science for the People and invited him to join the discussion. The same day Carmelo’s angry note came another exasperated member posted the following:
From: Martha Livingston <martha.livingston@rcn.com>
Date: Sun, 3 Jun 2007 15:59:57 -0400

Is there nothing to be done about the endless posts and replies and replies to the replies and replies to the replies to the replies? I’ve just deleted 26 posts from the last few hours alone.

I value this list because folks often post really useful and important stuff - but it’s getting lost in the blizzard of vituperation.
Martha Livingston, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Health and Society
SUNY College at Old Westbury
Box 210
Old Westbury, New York 11568
(516) 876-2748

      Is it even worth considering this tempest in a teaspoon, rancor that belies the insignificance of a group with no discernable prospect of an impact on social developments? I believe it is, not because SftP might carriy any weight but because the same kind of destructive behavior seems endemic in much larger groupings with much more significant agendas. Similar rancor within the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO in its Spanish initials) is an enormous impediment to the struggle for liberation of the Oaxacan population. And I think it almost certain that such internecine conflict among groups fighting against capitalist domination is a common experience throughout much of the world.

An example. One of many conflicts in SftP

      One of the abrasive exchanges is about the relationships among HIV, Aids, the pharmaceutical industry, government agencies and imposed drug-treatment programs, the science research establishment, subsidized professors and hired propagandists. One of the many posts is the following:
Subject: Re: HIV strains are contaminated, HIV proofs in doubt
From: Carrol Cox <cbcox@ilstu.edu>
Date: Fri, 15 Jun 2007 11:01:12 -0500

As far as I can tell, AIDS denialists without exception and the majority of 9/11 conspiracists cannot be affected by argument or facts. They are actually worse than religious fundamentalists, who have the excuse of being part of a tradition with internal coherence. AIDS denialists, on the other hand, have convinced themselves that they have reached their position “independently,” that they are radicals who have grasped the root of an evil system. Hence they have immunized themselves against any conceivable outside diagnosis or help for their condition.

They are hopeless. I think rather than endlessly trying to refute a clearly pathological position it would be more useful to view them as a social pathology which we need to understand more clearly – not to aid the victims of AIDS denialism but because such a study would also be or contribute to the study of the workings of ideology in general in our society and in less pathological forms.

      One of the people who felt targetted by Carrol’s posting wrote me that his statement was an insidious diatribe. So I went to look at it more carefully, having only glanced at it passingly a day earlier. Whether or not one agrees with Carrol’s attempted ‘diagnosis’ (I partially agree), it is clear that a statement like this, which severely stigmatizes individuals who disagree with him — ‘pathologizes’ them, generates additional rancor and polarization. I think Carrol is saying something that is partly true, and that needs to be recognized, namely that a social pathology does exist. But I disagree with him both as to the nature of the pathology and his apparent belief that those of us who are not ‘denialists’ or ‘conspiracists’ are free of it.

      I think the true social pathology, which affects (infects?) many of us, was pointed out with great good humour years ago by Steve Cavrak in the precursor of this discussion list. Steve, the other co-owner of the SftP list, wrote Kathy Greeley in 1978, “I really appreciated your comments about the problems of political consciousness in Science for the People. Often the problems seem to stem from two points — most people do not feel a deep need for political discussion (the exception was the several sessions on Sexism and Feminist),(sic) and most of the discussions seem to end up as arguments (why is this right or wrong, and not what does it mean and why is it important.)” [3]

      Carmelo points to the same pathology when he says, not with humour but exasperation, “[M]ost everything in SftP’s list is mindless, personalistic bickering.” Steve of course was writing in those long-gone days before any simple jerk with a computer could spout off nonsense and pour it directly into your e-mail. Fortunately we don’t have any such people among our membership. We are all very serious, intellectual, socially conscious, mature individuals — Steve would say “too serious. Lighten up guys”, with a twinkle in his eyes.

      The first person to whom I should give advice (and probably the only one) is myself. One thing I’m quite certain of is that if our opponents (the institutions and people running the world) can destroy our sense of humor, they succeed in reducing our flexibility, our inventiveness, our sheer sense of joy in pursuing our struggle against their domination. We don’t want to become leaden, spiritless, mechanical, calculating, oppressive. That is characteristic of them. They and all their institutions make up a death machine. But I know that I am deadly serious, consumed by rage, by hatred of the system and the ever-present realization that my privileged middle-class status rests on the destitution, and even literal destruction of the lives of uncounted numbers of human beings no less deserving of a decent life than I or anyone. And I can’t close my eyes to that reality. I know it is true and I hate all the machinery of capitalism that tries to obscure that terrible truth. I cannot accept the world I live in. So there are black days when my sense of humour and of joy are absent – bad, cranky days.

      I’m reasonably sure there are no deliberate trolls among us. After all, who would want to bother with such an insignificant group? We ought to keep in mind that we amount to practically nothing, a handful of individuals. Part of what Carrol wrote is, I think, applicable to most if not all of us, We “are radicals who have grasped the root of an evil system.” We, each of us, like Carrol’s ‘them’ have convinced ourselves that we have reached our position “independently.” If I’m right, then we are wrong to use terms that denigrate others in the group.

Gratuitous, derogatory terms

      Alexander Cockburn’s attempts to argue by denigrating people he disagrees with are what finally got to Carmelo — that, together with Cockburn’s ‘Beyond Chutzpah’ utter stupidity in taking the position that human activity has no impact on global climate change.[4] There’s no question about Cockburn’s brilliance. He’s an extremely valuable commentator, bringing detailed knowledge to his social criticisms, and remarkable for the rapidity with which he can respond to the issues of the day. He thinks he’s hot shit, and in fact he is, and very often ‘on target’. For that reason many readers, I among them, are ready to overlook his nastiness. But there are other people who engage in debate on provocative issues who think they are hot shit, and who are only half right.

      Bob Lange, a long-time very solid member of the Science for the People group, on 2 June posted a note that said in part, “I have been a “member” of the “left” for several decades now. We are a dismal failure. There is no reflection of us of any significance in the power structure of the US. ... Recovery from failure requires humility. The most striking thing about this flurry of recent stuff on the Science for the People list ... is the total lack of humiliity.” That sounds right to me. One indication of a lack of humility is a readiness to use labels that stigmatize people whose opinions contradict ours, with the assurance that we are correct and they are not to be granted any intellectual credance.

      Some derogatory labels that find frequent use are, for example, ‘conspiracists’ or ‘conspiracy theorists’, ‘apologists’, ‘denialists’. I know for example that in my discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict I may sometimes refer to people who defend the actions of the Israeli government as apologists, which suggests that they are unwilling to examine the evidence, as I believe I am, and instead of facing what I see as the awful reality of the conquest of the Palestinians, they prefer to make excuses to justify the Israeli government’s actions. However, by labeling someone an apologist the individual is demeaned, is claimed to be taking a position that does not deserve respect and therefore, it suggests, that person is not deserving of rexpect. This is tricky ground to navigate. Certainly there are people who act out of motives that are entirely reprehensible, and it would be absurd to try to carry on a reasonable intellectual exchange with them. Extreme examples: Bush (either one), Clinton (either one), Pinochet (now dead), any high-ranking member of the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI in its Spanish acronym), Kissinger, and so on.

      Apart from them are billions of ordinary people who would agree that the state of the world is terrible and who want to see it changed so that everyone can enjoy a dignified, peaceful life. A handful of these billions are the relatively very privileged members of the tiny SftP discussion group. Even among ourselves, a self-selected group, the amount of bickering and use of derogatory labels has been quite destructive. Why is this?

The need for self-respect

      It seems obvious that each of us wants to feel good about him/herself. Because we are social animals we rely on what others think of us. If they respect us we are pleased and it helps us to respect ourselves. In fact, we don’t require the respect of more than a small number of people of whom we think highly in order to satisfy that need. Unfortunately, one of the values intensely promoted by the capitalist system is the practice of – and supposed benefits from – competition. For people like us, whose energy goes largely into intellectual efforts, this competitive indoctrination leads us to an exaggerated desire to have our ideas accepted and conflicting ideas of other intellectuals rejected. As Steve Cavrak put it,[3] “most of the discussions seem to end up as arguments (why is this right or wrong, and not what does it mean and why is it important.)” We come to feel that we ‘must’ win the argument. This may lead us to denigrate our opponents by using various derogatory labels.

      An example is in a posting to the SftP listserv dated Fri, 22 Jun 2007 20:47:10 +0200 by Michael Balter, who wrote, “. . . I intend to engage in only one exchange on each of the 5-7 AIDS denialist talking points and then as far as I am personally concerned the debate will be closed . . .” This was the twelfth posting on a string, “Rebuttal ref required: HIV strains are contaminated, HIV proofs in doubt”, which began on 20 June. Of the 13 posts, 6 are courtesy of Balter; the other 7 are by 5 other members of the group. The use of the term ‘denialist’ is regularly employed in order to, in my view, denigrate the people who do not accept the dominant paradigm among most professional scientists that HIV leads to AIDS.

      My current view is that probably there is a causal connection between HIV and AIDS, although I am only a lay person as regards the scientific questions involved, never having had even a high school course in biology. As to which ‘side’ of the dispute is correct, if either, I really cannot know with any certainty. My objection is not to the viewpoint of those who believe the dominant paradigm, but to those among them who feel obliged to scoff at people who hold an opposing view.

A differnt focus

      Usually I try to stay away from the temptation to put my oar in on issues that in my opinion are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they involve struggles whose resolution, even if ‘our’ side can prevail, leaves more fundamental questions unaddressed. From my perspective the basic problem is domination, almost everywhere, by global capitalism, in particular by the entire system of values it has spawned and been enormously successful in indoctrinating many many people to believe unquestioningly. Most of the issues that are discussed on the SftP listserv appear to me of this ‘secondary’ nature. I think such issues tend to divert us from what ought to be our main concern. Nevertheless, sometimes an issue grabs me with such force, whether for logical or psychological reasons, that I respond. That was the case with my essay “Is there a Jewish gene? Israel-Palestine, Alan Dershowitz, Norman G. Finkelstein”.[5]

      I mention this article again because the correspondence following it showed me that I too have sometimes been guilty of using disparaging language towards those I dasagree with. Among the comments on that essay which came to me was the following, written by a Jewish American woman: “It is unnecessarily provocative and filled with inflammatory language. He does his position no service whatsoever to present his points in this way. There is much to be disturbed about when it comes to Israel, the mainstream American Jewish lobby and, of course, U.S. foreign policy. My question: Who is he talking to and is he just venting or does he actually think he can change any hearts and/or minds with this strident essay?” There is, I’m sure, some validity in her criticism. I rcognize that my style has been to write a mix of straightforward discussion and enraged rant. I do feel passionately about the issues I discuss. However, if my intent is to reach people with whom I don’t agree, but who are open to reason, it would be much more effective to omit the ranting. I intend to return to that essay and rewrite the offending passages.

      My own mea culpa doesn’t imply that I’ll back down from criticizing others on the SftP list whose behavior in my opinion needs to be changed in order to prevent further disintegration of the group. At the moment (Saturday afternoon, 23 June 5 pm) we’re down to 123 members.


[1] All items posted to SftP are in the archives, which are at
http://list.uvm.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A0=SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE .

[2] The Maize and Biodiversity Symposium was held in March 2004, on “The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico.” This contrived symposium, in the most luxurious hotel in the city, was organized by a so-called Joint Public Advisory Committee (JPAC), one of “three partners that constitute the CEC [Commission for Environmental Cooperation]. The CEC is itself an agency of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The purpose of JPAC appears to be to provide the appearance of public participation in the CEC. The other two “partners” that constitute the CFC are “the Council and the Secretariat.” Even the “15 volunteer citizens” who make up the JPAC seem to be carefully weighted to guard corporate bio-engineering and government interests.

[3] Steve Cavrak’s great sense of humour. To savor a sample of it, read “Fun in the revolution — a letter to my friends in Science for the People”. Steve's quiz is a riot (unless you happen to be a Maoist). It's at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-09-08.htm .

[4] Beyond Chutzpah is the title of an extremely important book by Norman G. Finkelstein, who just lost a tenured position at DePaul University for exposing a great deal of truth. Info on the struggle is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/S2/2007-06-03.htm .

[5] The essay, “Is there a Jewish gene? Israel-Palestine, Alan Dershowitz, Norman G. Finkelstein” is at the link in the preceeding note.

All comments and criticisms are welcome.  <george.salzman@umb.edu>

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