Idea Spotlight – False Consciousness

This will be the first of my articles where I will try to focus on ideas I am leaning about.  At worst, I change my mind on some issues and at best I become more fluent in fields in which I am ignorant.  So let’s  begin…
The concept of False Consciousness is associated with Karl Marx, although he never used the term and in fact it was coined by his friend, Friedrich Engels.  It is defined as a phenomenon where oppressed classes are complicit in their own oppression by internalizing the values and practices of more dominant classes.  These internalized values and practices make up the “consciousness” of the oppressed class.  In order to be “false” the components of the collective consciousness must not serve the group’s interests, keeping the dominant class at the top of the dominance hierarchy and keeping the oppressed at the bottom.  For example, a group of poor people believing in the principle of private property.  This keeps the rich in power because they own land while the poor do not.
Some modern examples:
  •  An article in the Black Agenda Report by Paul Street says “The latest Marvel Comics science-fiction movie “Black Panther” is stealth ruling-class propaganda, consistent with its production by the great manufactory of mass consent that is the American corporate entertainment complex.” The article goes on to describe the antagonists as metaphors for revolutionaries such as Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, but the implication is that activists (or the protagonists held up by Hollywood) that calmly work within the power structure are contributing the the oppression of Blacks because they are accepting the system as it is.  To sum up, Hollywood makes movies that condition blacks and whites into accepting the status quo of whites dominating blacks.
  • You can find modern feminists railing against women who choose to become stay-at-home mothers because this supports the Patriarchy. This from a feminist blogger, “If you are not very smart, if you are kind of lazy, if you are not into working, if a career is not something that interests you, and if your libido is very dormant, patriarchy is quite a good little system for this kind of a woman.” Basically saying women who are not ambitious or high-achieving serve to keep men in power.
  • Modern feminists claim that the majority, if not all, differences between men and women is  due to social conditioning.  Therefore, believing that the genders are differentiated due to evolutionary or biological factors, once again, serve to solidify men in their historical positions of power and women subjugated under them.
After reading for a few days on the concept I found a couple facets compelling.  One, it’s certainly true that individuals cling to heuristics and values that do not serve them i.e. self-limiting beliefs, negative thought patterns, or cognitive biases.  Two, it’s plausible that certain modes of thought keep individuals lower in a dominance hierarchy.  However, it’s not clear to me that the theory can stand on it’s own.
To start, the concept is contradictory.  If someone is pursuing an end (using their consciousness to determine a goal) how can that consciousness be false?  By definition, a person’s values etc. are subjective; they may be misguided or ignorant, but that fact does not remove the validity of their choices or devalue their freewill.  If I go around kicking rocks, thinking it will toughen my feet (let’s say I value tough feet as a goal) and proceed to break my foot on a rock and then have a foot prone to future injury or a limp, this does not mean having tough feet is a bad thing to value.  (Side note, this is not a fallacious example.  Some martial artists think they can condition their heads to impacts and only succeed in becoming prone to knockouts from too many concussions.  Stupid conditioning)
On the other hand, Shaolin monks seem to have conditioned their bodies to good effect.  That’s not to say being able to snap a piece of metal with your head is something most people would care to pursue.  The point is I can do a thing well or badly and I may fail or succeed, but I will fail or succeed based on my aims not yours.  If I am using my consciousness to achieve ends of which someone else disapproves; there exists some kind of disagreement between us, but it does not negate my value as an actor nor does it mean that my goals are good for someone else.  My consciousness cannot be true or false because it assumes that consciousness is measured on some universal scale by which everyone else’s is measured, not simply measured by my own definition of success or failure.
Next, I am not sure if we can know if the observer claiming to witness false consciousness is not under the influence of any number of cognitive biases.  After a cursory look at a list of cognitive biases I chose a few that may be at work, though I am sure I am not exhausting the list:
  • Group attribution error- the belief that the characteristics of an individual group member are reflective of the group as a whole or the tendency to assume that group decision outcomes reflect the preferences of group members
  • Illusion of transparency- to overestimate others’ ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others
  • Ultimate attribution error- a person is likely to make an internal attribution to an entire group instead of the individuals within the group
This does not prove that observers who claim to see false consciousness are not identifying cognitive biases in the observed and it is highly likely that biases are at work in both the observed and the observer (as well as within this author).  Seeing how difficult it is to root out biases in each individual, how can we ascribe a broad claim of false consciousness upon an entire group?  Even worse, how can we try to legislate and create public policy upon these conclusions?  Seeing as how scientific Marx (and modern sociology) claim to be, the theory strikes me as being unscientific and vague.
Finally, I cannot see, even if we grant validity to the theory, that claiming false consciousness is a productive exercise.  If the theory is ascribed to groups it begins to resemble something more like bigotry and less like science or psychology.  Ascribing it to someone borders on an ad hominem argument rather than measured consideration of someone’s subjective values and motives.
To view this from another angle let’s use a counter-narrative.  Let’s take the example of the police officer who enforces drug policies.  How can we separate a claim of false consciousness from what could simply be the officer’s personality which demands an ordered and structured society?  Is it the case that the officer is a puppet of the dominant class keeping the oppressed down or does the officer have values and morals that inform his or her actions to, for instance, protect the community from gang crime that comes with any black market?
Accusing someone of false consciousness is no way to change their mind and would likely impel them to hold to their course of action.  I would argue false consciousness is a polite way of calling an entire group delusional, stupid, or deceived.  It seems to me that it is a nice way of elevating yourself over a group of those you consider less educated, intelligent, or self-aware; an easy way to dismiss their concerns and impugn their motives .  Even if the term is ascribed without malice, there is no reason for the accused to take it the spirit of constructive criticism.  If I were the target of such a claim I would likely tell the person to go kick rocks.
So while Marxists may have gleaned some small truths in their observations, the term false consciousness impugns the motives of others (negating their agency). It isclose to any number of more exacting cognitive bias terms (indeed the observer may be in the grip of a bias themselves), and seems to me to be a pleasant and “scientific” way (we know how much Marxists like their ‘science’ *zing*) of demeaning swathes of people.  It is sloppy way of taking a “group” of people and patting them on their heads and saying “well this is how the world really works silly child”.

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