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Politics Poisons Everything - transhumanism should avoid “ideological baggage” for it’s own survival

Posted: Thu, January 31, 2013 | By: Reeve Armstrong



(Disclaimer - the following essay is the point-of-view solely of the author; it isn’t the POV of Transhumanity.net)

I think that it would be accurate to claim that transhumanism - as a distinct ‘movement’ or subculture - is fairly fringe. This is not intended pejoratively; it is simply true that a philosophical transhumanist opinion is not sort after in news reports. Transhumanism is not mainstream. Transhumanist themes and tropes are certainly mainstream, there’s no denying that, they are arguably present in almost all modern forms of story-telling. Consider the super-hero genre as just one example, and the current fascination with the idea of transcending one’s limitations. However this means that, at best, transhumanist ideas are “around” although they are rarely, explicitly identified as “transhuman.”

At this stage transhumanism is grass-roots. There are no large scale, widely known, transhumanist organizations or pressure groups or political parties. I am contending that this is a good thing. For transhumanists politics should be avoided. Or rather we should only be entering the political arena through proxy i.e. we should not wear “transhumanist uniforms” or use “transhumanist colours” and take to the streets. We should not have any “transhumanist agenda” be identified as a specific agenda. Of course we should be - those of us in countries where we are able to - steering the government and culture in a direction that supports scientific research and progress, and its promotion. However it is a mistake to make transhumanism something explicitly political.

Why?

A brief look at recent history shows us that politics is poisonous in modern times when it comes to advancing human civilisation. (Particularly in America) This is because politics is essentially a popularity contest where the utility and efficiency of ideas are secondary to how good they are for the proponents reputation in the public eyes; or how well they gel with the proponents’ stagnant ideology. In politics the currency is ego. And time scales are virtually always short-term. And once a particular idea is politically poisoned it is almost impossible to cure in popular culture. Consider the issue of global warming. These days, this topic can never be discussed without political motivations being brought up. In the the public psyche, global warming is now a political issue; not a scientific one. The political poison has muddied the waters such that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern fact from riled up opinion. Again and again we find that scientific issues that would, in theory, advance society – if they clash with an ideology – are warped into a feudal drama between the made up left/right divide. Stem cell research is another example of this. Genetic modification is another example of this. A quick search of YouTube and you will find propaganda put out by Greenpeace and their neo-luddite cronies.

Once the poisoning is done, any particular issue with be forever merged with a certain ideological position. And for transhumanism we need support far and wide, we need people of all stripes and creeds. We should not be burning bridges just because we personally disagree with someone’s opinion on an unrelated topic. That would be irrational and dangerous. Politics is an ad-hom mode of thinking. If transhumanism is going to survive and succeed it needs to overcome the out-dated traditions of this species. It should be possible to be “politically left” and be transhumanist; it should be possible to be “politically right” and be transhumanist; it should be possible to be religious and be transhumanist; it should be possible to be a capitalist or a communist and be transhumaist etc. We ought to remember that ultimately transhumanism is for everyone. And it is about using technology, knowledge and understanding to improve ourselves and society. There’s no convincing reason why that goal ought to be intrinsically related to any other intellectual or emotional position. There is nothing about this goal that means one must accept and support some other philosophical views.  

I do not, for example, want to see transhumanism bound together inseparably with leftist gender politics. I also do not want to see transhumanism bound together inseparably with rasputin-looking, fascist, technocrats.

As transhumanism becomes more popular it would be undesirable for it to be politically poisoned such that one can not be a transhumnist without towing along other ideological baggage. All this does is create division and separation and gives you fewer supporters and more opponents. That is not the road to success. If that was to happen there would be stagnation and redundancy. The ideas that survive are those that can change and be shared. Therefore what must be avoided is the temptation to use transhumanism to piggy-back our other, personal, political views.

We should not use transhumanism as a platform for a myriad other “isms” so that our following is one nodding collective and that, in the public psyche, it becomes impossible to be a transhumanist without being pro-X, Y, Z. If that happened, every time a transhumanist voiced support of one particular thing or other, transhumanism would be attacked and campaigned against. And the thing being supported by the transhumanist would also be attacked – for opponents would conspiratorially suspect that there must be some political motivations involved, working against them. If transhumanism becomes bogged down in politics then the discussion, as we see in politics, would constantly be being side-tracked by personalisations and meta-commentaries on one another’s emotional investment. Such a mess would only achieve distraction, and not progress.

We can see this sort of situation worryingly taking place if we look to the secular/atheist community currently. Instead of education, rationalism and opposition to dogma, the hot topic in that community, as of now, is, strangely, gender politics. That is the situation to avoid. In transhumanism there needs to be discussion, criticism, debate, disagreement, argument and critical thinking.  There should be people from everywhere, waving a patch-work of conflicting ideological flags joining in.

Transhumanism must not become a political position; or a religious cult; or a fixed, constructed, ideological artefact. Transhumanism needs to be more like an intellectual desire, akin to human curiosity: Organic, living, breathing, changing, evolving, with blood flowing through its veins.

Preferably silicon blood. And fibre-optic veins.



Comments:

Correct.
Am going to go touch on a v. brief vignette re the Midwest—but this time by writing what is positive: the practicality (and naturally this applies to many regions in the world). However from our 21st century worldview, such 19th century practicality can be a straightjacket. All you need do is tune to the Rush Limbaugh show (“megadittoes for the fruited plain”) to hear a brilliant mind stuck firmly in the past. Try it: tune in while you are washing the dishes or something and listen to the intelligent words that are not saying much, lead to nothing substantial, are basically a comforting entertaining drone; infotainment that is almost all ‘tainment; little info. Saying “though the world is changing, you will remain the same and go to Heaven. Even if Heaven does not exist, so what, you will go there anyway.” What have you got to lose? is the message. The medium is the message, the soothing drone is the message—the message itself is the message.

By Alan Brooks on Jan 31, 2013 at 7:35am

Agreed! Here is a favorite Gibson quote:

“Technology invariably trumps ideology. And I am inclined to think that history increasingly suggests that human social change is more directly driven by technology than by ideology. I think we develop ideologies in an attempt to cope with technologies and that in fact we’ve been doing that all along. Technology is knowing how to grow, harvest and store cereals without which you can’t really do a city. Technology is knowing how to build efficient sewage infrastructure without which you can’t build a slightly larger city. So I think of technologies as the drivers and ideologies as an attempt to steer.”

By Rich Lee on Jan 31, 2013 at 7:40am

Suffice to say I disagree with the author on multiple levels, but then anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised by that. Three quick criticisms, off the top of my head:

1) As much as most Transhumanists are broadly apolitical (like most people in the general population), their aims are inherently political. Just ask a religious Fundamentalist or an anti-GMO campaigner. Essentially the author seems to be calling for all Transhumanists to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that the success or failure of Transhumanist-friendly projects isn’t decided in the context of a world where economics and politics are king. In other words, Transhumanism is already, and has always been political, whether we like it or not. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that there is no such thing as political neutrality: “apolitical” is just another way of saying “likes the status quo just fine thanks - enough to defend it from anyone who would dare voice criticism, even”.

2) There also seems to be a pretty huge straw man in play here. I’m not aware of anyone who would impose a single political flavour upon all Transhumanism. In fact, the calls of recent so-called “reformists”, particularly on this website, have generally been for increased diversity of opinion. If the author had said that political opinions are fine as long as they’re diverse - that Transhumanism isn’t pegged to any single political point of view - then I would have agreed wholeheartedly. In fact, Transhumanism was historically less politically diverse than it is now: Not so long ago it wasn’t uncommon to imagine that all Transhumanists were Economic Libertarians or Anarcho-Capitalists. Thankfully, now people feel free to express a much wider range of opinions.

3) I hate to say it, but there also seems to be a slightly desperate attempt to equate anyone having a political opinion within Transhumanism as a dangerous weirdo. Yes, I am aware of a few people with interests in “leftist gender politics” (is that a bad thing now, to have an opinion on feminism?), but may I ask who these “Rasputin-like facist technocrats” might be? If that strange label wasn’t meant to imply anyone, then it’s a straw man and a vague scare tactic. If it *was* meant to imply anyone in particular, I’d love to know who. I’ve never met anyone fitting quite *that* description before. Unless of course that was a veiled Ad Hominem attack of some sort? If that’s the case, perhaps the author would care to tell us where these dangerous characters are?

By Amon Kalkin on Jan 31, 2013 at 8:00am

I’m not advocating being apolitical. I was arguing that transhumanism, in itself, shouldn’t be connected to any specific political ideology.

By Reeve Armstrong on Jan 31, 2013 at 12:02pm

Hey Reeves -

Well, that’s good to hear, if what you mean is that no single political ideology should dominate Transhumanism, or be assumed to dominate Transhumanism. That’s also my point of view. This does, however, raise a couple of unavoidable questions re: your article, both of which I hinted at already:

- Transhumanism is inherently political, in that it stands for things - even in its most basic & essential form - that others work against politically. Politically-inclined Fundamentalists, for example, would consider all Transhumanists to be more or less of one political stripe, I’m sure. Trying to ignore that would only put us at a disadvantage, leaving those who would curtail us free to make their moves unopposed, no?

- The straw man thing. Of course I could be wrong, but the tone of your article seemed to be going a lot further than saying “no single political ideology should dominate Transhumanism”. You seem quite opposed to people voicing political opinions in a Transhumanist context, even if they’re in a minority within Transhumanism and are more or less happy to stay that way, not wishing to impose their views on everyone else. Could you please clarify, and even in just a couple of words say what your opinion is toward such people? For example, you mentioned leftists and facist-technocrats… would you tolerate them and their views as long as they didn’t try to “take over” Transhumanism? Would you feel the same way about “traditional” Economic Libertarians and Anarcho-Capitalists, who historically already dominated Transhumanism to the point that their views were (and sometimes still are) frequently considered to be essential features of it?

Sorry to go on, I just think it would be good to clarify your position, since it was so forthrightly expressed on a site that is rapidly becoming influential within Transhumanism.

By the way, I’m not trying to give you a hard time personally. I like your writing and admire your style, I just disagreed with the assertions in this particular piece. Your piece on the illusion of progress was *excellent*, and I look forward to hearing more from you   grin

All the Best,
Amon Kalkin

By Amon Kalkin on Feb 01, 2013 at 12:02am

I agree with most of what you said but I think it would be impossible to succeed without some government participation.Perhaps I sound like a “crypto Marxist"but,quite frankly almost every issue,belief,idea,etc.has a political component.
Also,to totally ignore the reality of politics is to invite disaster.Think of the rules,regulations,etc.that accompany any social,medical,or scientific undertaking.
I agree with you in principle but I think I think ignoring the reality of how things work will make it extremely difficult to succeed.
                                                      Tom Mooney
                                          Coalition to Extend Life

By Tom Mooney on Feb 01, 2013 at 11:31am

Transhumanity.net has been taken over by neocommunists and eurosocialists. If there is to be any purge of politics, let it start by removing them.

By Mike Lorrey on Feb 01, 2013 at 12:41pm

Amon,

I enjoy discussion so I’m glad you’ve given me something to reply to.

First of all, I should state my general political opinion (or lack of): Personally I’m not a fan of “isms.” I don’t really know what catch-all term I fit into but usually my view will depend on the situation. To me, it does not seem useful to tar everything with a brush of universal principles.
Based on my (probably limited) understanding, ideologies always seem to have difficulty adapting and welcoming change - maybe because proponents of any specific one are emotionally invested?

Secondly, in the article I haven’t said (nor do I say!) that transhumanism is inherently non-political. In fact, in the article I give a brief description of my understanding of what transhumanist philosophy is about. I even say:

“There’s no convincing reason why that goal ought to be intrinsically related to any other intellectual or emotional position.”

The key term there being “any other.”

Thirdly, you say that “You seem quite opposed to people voicing political opinions in a Transhumanist context” while in the article I clearly state that:

“In transhumanism there needs to be discussion, criticism, debate, disagreement, argument and critical thinking.”

(Incidentally the word ‘tolerate’ - to me anyway - sounds begrudging. I don’t like to think that I tolerate people. I prefer to think that I welcome people. smile )

In answer to your second question: I think - as I hoped was apparent - all views from minorities or otherwise should be given a chance. But the situation that needs to be avoided is someone claiming (for example):

“You are not a transhumanist if you are not pro-gun/piracy/abortion etc.”

For ‘outsiders’ it needs to be clear that being a transhumanist doesn’t mean you must support other unrelated ideological things. Ideally, people should be able to see that a wide variety of different types of people, with a variety of views, can all be transhumanists.

Else you’re left with a cultus.

I hope that clarifies things! smile I enjoyed getting the chance to expand on some points.

(By the way, I did not intend to be “anti-left” or “anti-technocratic fascist” I only used those as examples to illustrate the idea of a spectrum of ideas i.e. so that it did not seem like I was attacking any specific political opinion.)

Thanks

By Reeve Armstrong on Feb 01, 2013 at 1:37pm

Promoting ethical values alongside technological advances is the ONLY way that Transhumanism will survive.

By Sean Henderson on Feb 02, 2013 at 12:22pm

I agree that politics as we currently understand it should be avoided but most of us have positions on major issues such as global warming,health care,war and peace,and so on.We all have various “political"points of view and it is virtually impossible to ignore the ideological baggage we all possess.

Perhaps I am being,“too Marxist"in my analysis but serious debate with conflicting opinions is endemic to any group that reaches out to the public.
Personally,I am a big fan of “transhumanism"but I sincerely believe that a political agenda will ultimately arise
                                            Tom Mooney
                                Executive Director C.E.L.

By Tom Mooney on Feb 03, 2013 at 11:29am

I have to ask an important question.  I assume that your article also suggests that species dysphoria, morphological freedom, and self-ownership need to be kept out of the political arena.  Instead of introducing the political element by raising public awareness of these issues, what do you suggest I do to further the goals of addressing these problems with our current reality?

By Tathar on Mar 09, 2013 at 2:50pm


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