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The Weapon of Criticism

The Weapon of Criticism

By Dennis Loo (3/31/14)

All systems of governance require doctrines of legitimation to stay in power. These doctrines are not, contrary to some commentators’ views, the only thing keeping states in power; governments also require the use of coercion. The use of coercion is directly tied into and justified, however, by those legitimation doctrines.

Governments could not govern without the ability to get those who refuse to accept governmental policies to go along. Your ability to exercise political power would be rendered null and void if you could not compel those who resist to cooperate, albeit reluctantly. This use of coercion is not something that is unique to governments nor is it something that governments as long as they exist could do without. Even parenting involves doing things that involve force, albeit force of a loving kind: you force children to go to bed at a certain time and make them eat their vegetables. If you let them do what they wanted then they would stay up too late and they would eat ice cream and candies all of the time. We call that use of compulsion parenting. Coercion exists on a spectrum, ranging from parental guidance and rules for their kids to friends ribbing their friends for certain behaviors and attitudes all the way up to state violence. All group life involves and will always involve some level of compulsion because group life requires group norms and cooperation and unanimity is almost always impossible.

While the muzzle of a rifle against someone’s temple is an argument that is immediately settled in favor of the one holding the rifle, no states can stay in power indefinitely without maintaining an air of legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of the population. If a government had to rely for its survival solely on its use of state violence, it would be in deep trouble and would be toppled sooner rather than later.

I see it as a key part of my role as a revolutionary intellectual to lay bare the rationales, both the public rationales of, and the logic inherent and therefore implicit to, systems of governance.

I don’t come to that role, by the way, because my childhood dream was to be a revolutionary. On the contrary, when I went to Harvard as an undergraduate back a few decades ago, my intention was to become a high-ranking member of the US State Department, preferably Secretary of State.

But events intervened and my considerable political naiveté was replaced by a rude awakening to the truth of US power. Intellectual honesty and consistency requires that I do what I can to alert people to reality.

The downsides to being a revolutionary in today’s world are far greater than the upside. If I could in good conscience look the other way in the face of reality, then adopting another political posture would certainly be preferable for my comfort. As former British Ambassador to Afghanistan Craig Murray has written, if he had not gone public in his criticisms of British use of torture in the “war on terror,” he could have continued his very cushy lifestyle of fine food and daily pleasures such as the provision of beautiful young women as company. When he violated the conventions that would have kept him in such privileged circumstances, all of this was withdrawn and replaced by trumped up charges against him and efforts to ruin his reputation.

Seeing reality for what it is, however, is not without its benefits: it is incredibly liberating to be able to see the world as it truly is and to be able to think clearly, free of the chilling confines of conventional logic. This extends to everything you do, observe, and experience.


Because intellectuals have the time and training to pursue ideas that undergird systems which the rest of society doesn’t in any analogous way have training or opportunity to do, we exercise a disproportionately important role in either the maintenance or the toppling of systems.

I got a taste when I was an undergraduate of how ruling doctrines and their major exponents can be subjected to unsparing dismantling when engaged directly by critics who know what they’re talking about. One of the virtues of going to a place like Harvard is that you get to engage up close and personal with many of the society’s highest authorities. I was also lucky enough to go there during the 1960s when there was a high tide of insurgent struggle so the status quo and the status quo’s defenders were under fire from those who had come to recognize that the governing doctrines were bankrupt.

There’s a tremendous amount of mystification and lack of deep understanding about the legitimation doctrines that keep systems in control. This is true of both the ruling doctrine and of insurgent doctrines.

It is because others stepped forward before me and in my times to expose, analyze, and fight against the system producing such awful outcomes that I am who I am.

Let me now turn to a specific case study of the impact of revolutionary theory and revolutionary movements – my pedagogy. I want to make very clear that my approach to my pedagogy is not that I am trying to turn all my students into revolutionaries. It would be wrong for me to use my platform as a professor as a political organizer. Teaching and politically organizing are two different activities and conflating them is a bad practice. While it is impossible for any of us to conceal our politics because everything we say and do is infused with our politics and ideology, and I certainly do make announcements about political events in my classes and don't attempt to conceal my views, my role as a professor is to help students to become truly critical thinkers. It is something that I attempt to do in my writing and speaking engagements as well. Critical thinkers know how to use evidence and how to examine the strengths and weaknesses of arguments.

In sociology this means concretely that students get to the last stage of Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy - Evaluation - where they can consciously identify the parameters of different paradigms and compare and contrast them to each other. If you don’t get to Bloom’s final stage of evaluation, you will always have to accept other people’s conclusions as your own because unless you can identify explicitly the unstated value judgments in different paradigms, you cannot truly become an independent thinker.

Why is that? All conclusions rest upon interpretation and interpretations in turn rest upon value judgments. Most value judgments are not explicitly stated within paradigms. Most people don’t receive training in how to identify those unstated assumptions. Yet it is these usually unstated assumptions about values that pre-determine the outcome of the chain of reasoning that goes on.

In my role as an educator, it is becoming an independent and critical thinker that I seek to train people in, regardless of what ideological and political position someone ends up adopting. I just want students to be able to consciously adopt their positions, rather than unconsciously and unknowingly, and to recognize the need for evidence and rigor of argument and to be able to tell when those are present and when they are not.

Another major and overlapping component here comprises sociology's heart and soul: the fact that systems and social structures are overall more important than individuals. Even though sociology students have heard this via, for example, C. Wright Mills’ famous sociological imagination, and even though sociology professors know the difference between structure and agency, chapter and verse, consistently analyzing phenomena from this perspective, both social and otherwise, is fairly rare.

Systems have systems-logic and if you want to change the outcomes of systems, you have to fully grasp that understanding and apply it or else you’ve not really come to grips with and you have not learned the essence of sociology.

One of the courses I teach is Classical Sociological Theory. I have students primarily reading the words of the major figures in theory directly – Durkheim, Weber, Marx and Engels – rather than secondary sources. My students are virtually all from working class backgrounds and have had limited to no exposure to theory before that point. So you can imagine the consternation this produces in most of them to be reading these theorists’ works in their original English translations. To many of them it’s like reading a foreign language and they struggle a great deal with it. Because the NCLB generation has been trained to memorize rather than to think holistically, their difficulties are all the greater. I counsel them to be patient and that it will come but they have to persist through the difficulty.

One of the keys to this besides my repeated and varied ways of approaching the structure vs. agency question is my delving deeply into the logic of the major theorists. Durkheim’s functionalism, for example, is premised on the division of labor and social hierarchies being the most functional for society. As part of this functionalists believe that material rewards are necessarily unequally distributed with the most going to those in leadership positions.

While training them in Durkheim’s social facts and the primacy of structure over individuals, pivotal contributions that Durkheim made to sociology, I also draw out the implications of his view that social inequality and differential material and psychic rewards are inevitable and desirable and the hidden contradictions between his celebration of the necessity and suitability of social hierarchies and his condescension towards the working class. Specifically, we spend significant amounts of time parsing out this statement of his:

If one acquires the habit of contemplating vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations, one can no longer without impatience allow oneself to be confined within the narrow limits of a special task. Such a remedy would therefore only make specialization [the division of labor and existence of classes] inoffensive by making it intolerable and in consequence more or less impossible.

In this passage Durkheim is tacitly admitting that the working class can actually appreciate the significance of those “vast horizons and … fine generalizations” which is why it is something that must be avoided: expose workers as a whole to that kind of an education and they will be unwilling to accept their constrained role in the working class as “cogs in the machine.” If workers were in fact too stupid to grasp the meaning of those vast horizons, then it would be harmless to expose them to it and it would not pose a problem for the stability of the existing order of capitalism to teach them these things.

When students learn this about Durkheim, especially when working class students come to see this, their eyes widen. I had a student this past quarter, for example, who is used to getting high grades, come to me at around the fourth week of our ten week term very anxious and worried that she was going to fail the class. A week and a half later she wrote to me that the pieces were at last starting to fall into place and that she had no idea that she could function at such a high cognitive level as she was then experiencing.

To be continued


0 # vices 2014-04-02 01:33
Governments thrive on their ability to use coercion. It would seem they want to keep the public less informed so that they can exercise power. The majority of the public have the mentality that what they do not know, can't hurt them, which is completely wrong. Durkheim believes that the conscience collective would not allow for such a government to exist because his view that the conscience collective would correct itself. Weber's view of the Iron Cage seems to be more relevant because as society adapts to power, so does the Iron Cage. It seems that the government anticipates that more people are becoming informed, so they find ways of dismantling the public. It would seem that being informed/specia lized is no longer enough. Becoming a revolutionary may be the necessary option in the near future if not now.
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-04-02 03:04
Quoting vices:
The majority of the public have the mentality that what they do not know, can't hurt them, which is completely wrong...It would seem that being informed/specialized is no longer enough.

The majority don't know that what they don't know is a) so considerable and b) devastating. The average person is extremely poorly informed, extremely, and doesn't know that they are, and even those who do their best to keep up with current affairs and who are specialists in various ways, are not nearly as well-informed as they think they are.
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0 # marcam 2014-04-04 21:44
I agree with you. There are many people who are not knowledgeable about issues occurring around the world and also about domestic issues. Even those who are professional in a career don’t know everything that is occurring because they only specialize in their field. Also, many college students, like myself, don’t know about many of the issues unless a professor mentions it in classroom and after do a little research on it to understand what is actually happening.
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0 # sadiez 2014-04-06 08:07
You read my thoughts exactly. I honestly had no idea that these occurrences were happening, and as a student of course we read a lot and conduct quite a bit of research. However, never have I come across such happenings, and it's mind-boggling. Nonetheless, these findings encourage me to question the power exerted over me by the government. And I'm not talking about striking up random riots in the middle of the street, I mean more along the lines of avoiding the Mickey D's on the corner and actually cooking dinner. As you explained in class, Professor, hedonists seek to fulfill pleasure and avoid pain at all costs. In order to prevent hedonistic tendencies, I believe that we should embrace pain because it will help us see through lies and prevent shortcomings. If we open our eyes and take the pain or hurt as it comes in the form of truth, we are in turn being more truthful to ourselves and society as a whole.
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0 # jnandez 2014-04-07 05:08
What you say should be preached on the streets! I completely agree with you when you say people should take the pain of hearing the truth. In America especially, people would rather be ignorant. Perhaps it is because of the fear that would come with spreading that knowledge. Like Professor said, whistle blowers like Craig Murray can be in jeopardy of having their lives ruined by what is more powerful than them, the U.S. government. So perhaps it is a matter of courage that is also needed rather than acceptance of pain alone.
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0 # marcam 2014-04-04 21:35
I believe that governments use coercion to have power over its people and other nations. These types of coercions are done by laws and by misleading information. Government use laws to put fear in people and to prevent them from doing things that are out of society norms with its punishments. Governments also give a lot of misleading information to its people. With the help of the media, many people are not given accurate important information but instead they are given junk information. By putting fear in people with breaking laws and not educating them with important information, people won’t be able to stand up and create an uprising; keeping things how they are and continue to use coercion for power.
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0 # minnie 2014-04-07 08:19
I completely agree with your comment. Governments practice coercion through laws with punishments, although the laws do not apply fairly to everyone in society. Your statement Quoting marcam:
Governments also give a lot of misleading information to its people. With the help of the media, many people are not given accurate important information but instead they are given junk information.
reminded me of my class discussion about measuring crime. The media portrays that certain groups, notably blacks and Latinos, are "notorious" for committing crimes while it is extremely rare that white collar crimes should ever be aired on television. The media distorts the image of crime and gives citizens of society a inaccurate view of who the real criminals are.
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0 # Sme 2014-04-04 21:53
In the first day of class we discussed the term conformity among individuals in a group and the pressure that society enforces on us to conform and go along with the stream of beliefs that the society has as a whole. It is hard to speak out about our beliefs when we know we are the minority, even though we have different beliefs about certain policies we decide to close our eyes and look the other way to avoid conflict. It is difficult for an individual to have a mind and a set of beliefs on their own when that person lacks knowledge about the subject. Our decisions are driven by the beliefs of others (government) who we consider to be well educated about the needs of the society, and those who we believe share and have the same interest as we do.
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0 # cutemeow 2014-04-07 06:56
I agree that much of our society's political beliefs are shaped by what our government feeds us. In another article, "The World We Live In", Patty Moreno makes the point that democracy is an illusion because we "vote" on pre-selected people who may or may not truly represent what we individually believe in. Often times the beliefs presented by our government are nothing more than political schemes which is why we cannot conform so blindly. In placing all our trust in our government, we are missing out on forming our own opinions and seeking real truth! Also, speaking out when our opinions differ is very crucial in forming a government representative of its people. Without differing opinions and criticisms, we will lose our voice.
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0 # vices 2014-04-05 19:05
"The mass media were crucial to the success of these efforts to highlight crime-related problems--espec ially violent street crime--and frame them in ways that indicate the need for enhanced punishment. (p. 8 Beckett) " This is an example of how the government enhanced their coercive force. The media portrays crime as an epidemic so that the government's actions to crack down on crime is necessary. The government seems justified in its steps to incarcerate more citizens because the false sense of it being for the good of the public.
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0 # Christine Lopez 2014-04-07 02:22
Goverment requires that verybody have health insurance or they would have to pay a fine on there income taxes. This is another exmample of coercion.
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0 # LA305302 2014-04-07 04:47
I think that most of our society fails to acknowledge that coercion is used at all to control our society. like loo stated in class, most people fail to even recognize that there is a box. the social structures that our built around our very own institutions are more important than they invididual, and we see these in our very own laws. Coercsion can be seen in many ways, and abuses our system. An example is how much index crime is glamorized, as opposed to white collar crime. if more of society knew this, many of them might want to become revolutionist.
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0 # LA305302 2014-04-07 04:58
I find durkheims quote about the working class to be true if i understood correctly. working class is capable of wanting more for themselves given the right tools. they are not people with no conscious to want more. since social solidarity exist, most people stay within their margins.
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0 # AGris 2014-04-08 01:47
It is true that governments uses coercion to enforce laws and governmental power. When reading I couldn’t help to look at it from a functionalist perspective. Due to our grouping nature, laws and regulations have become to be slightly necessary. If the world was run on the honor system, would it really be a functional society in the way that our human nature needs it to be? It is necessary to say that is not legal to engage in massive serial killings. But is it necessary for the state senate to be debating over wither or not it should be legal for parents to smoke with a child in their car? Don’t get me wrong children’s health is important to me but when did the government’s power switch from universal laws to personal decisions? In the case of serial murder it is functional for the government to coerce society into believing these acts are wrong. In the case of parents smoking with their child in a car, what function does that serve the society as a whole?
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Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12