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September 10, 2003

The Typological Temptation: Introduction


1. The study or systematic classification of types that have characteristics or traits in common.
2. A theory or doctrine of types, as in scriptural studies.

My previous post on the book Geography of Thought got me thinking of the tendency toward "typologies"-which the book implies is a more "Western" (or Anglo-centric) mode of mental behavior. I'm going to now start a series zeroing in on what I feel is excessive manipulation and use of "typologies." This post will be a general introduction & a specific example. Future posts will focus on other examples.

I am a compulsive typologist. That I will admit ahead of time. But just as the best security consultants are former burglars, I think someone who is as prone to categorize and hair-split as I am can give great insight into the folly of excessive typology and its uses & abuses. Definition 2 in particular is crucial in understanding how typological thinking can get out of hand-and lead to what I will term manichaean typology.

  • Manichaean typology is a vice characterized by a microscopic attentiveness to one's own affiliation, its traits, implications and correlates. It shows up in discussions of public policy constantly. It lends itself to being transformed into a vehicle for abuse, defamation and dismissal. This being a zero-sum world, the focus and attention to detail of one's own group is balanced by a total lack of concern & interest in the nuance of the positions of others.

My my first two examples are political typologies (in the American context).

For years Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein made a living smearing Democratic politicians for being "liberal." He did such a good job that now liberals use the term "progressive" for fear of being associated with "liberalism." But what exactly is "liberal"? The term liberal can mean pro-union New Deal Democrats like the late Bob Casey, governor of Pennsylvania, who was a pro-life Catholic. Or, it can mean someone like Barney Frank, who represents the cultural avante garde from his district based out of Brookline. Or, it can mean someone like Bill Clinton, who as a friend of mine said, was a very good "moderate Republican president." Of course, when taken out of the American context, the term starts to get very confusing and the typology becomes nothing more than a mantra to incite the true believers. Did you know that Arnold is too liberal? Did you know that GW is also a liberal? Remember, The John Birch Society thought Eisenhower was a Communist!. We all "know that 'neocons' aren't true conservatives," they are liberals in conservative cloathing.

I am Right-wing. I support abortion on demand, am enthusiastic about miscegenation, am close to being a free speech absolutist, reject religion and am in favor of the post-Human project. But to many, I am conservative. I know, because I have been called as such by many friends in college. One of the most amusing experiences I had in college was getting into a pretty intense argument with a "liberal" who was very happy to give the police extended search & seizure powers in "dangerous" neighborhoods. Later she told me that she was surprised that I objected so strongly as I am obviously a Republican (I was an Independent then, though Republican is my registration now). She was obviously unaware that the Right was a coalition, just as the Left is a coalition, her manichaean world-view instead saw those who did not agree with her as of the amorphous pagan masses. This is not a tendency restricted to the low level liberal prols, I remember Alan Dershowitz, America's lawyer, berating the Bush administration because they had selected the "harshly conservative" Republican governor of Pennsylvania as the head of Homeland Security. Dershowitz did not know that Secretary Ridge supports abortion rights (to the point where his Catholic Church rejects him communion!) and that he had a dovish record in the 1980s. Details...details....

Posted by razib at 02:47 PM

When it comes to political typology, the thing I find most entertaining is the way that radicals lump essentially everyone else into some 'other' category while maintaining very fine distinctions amongst themselves. In the case of libertarian radicals this means classifying essentially all other political movements as simply 'statist' while devising categories such as 'minarchist', 'anarchist', 'anarcho-capitalist' etcetera to account for the intragroup differences.

Posted by: bbartlog at September 11, 2003 07:13 AM

bbart, yes, this is totally true, i've noticed this.... (happens on the far Left and the Right-where everyone further to the "center" is Right-wing or Left-wing respectively)

Posted by: razib at September 11, 2003 11:27 AM