Of Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Radicals

There is a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin about hedgehogs and foxes, based on a line by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Hedgehogs, as Nate Silver describes them in his The Signal and the Noise, are people who “believe in Big Ideas–in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society.” He asks us to “Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious.” They are essentially narrative-driven thinkers.

Foxes, on the other hand are “scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion.” Presumably we’re here asked to think of, oh, say, Nate Silver.

I think these adorable animals can help us answer what to me is a burning question: What is the difference between radicals and non-radicals?

For instance, what differentiates Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and PIV-critical, kink-critical tumblr feminists?

Or, what is the nature of the gap between this “neutral” response to Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions and this criticism of the very idea of neutrality?

And even, what is the difference between Christians who wish to legislate from the Bible and those who take a more secular approach to government?

If we’re talking about good forms of each argument, then I think what we’re looking at, broadly speaking, is hedgehogs and foxes.

(Note: Of course, this is an oversimplification. In practice, most people do have multiple ways of looking at the world. This is a typology, not a dichotomy.)

Non-radicals, sometimes called liberals (as in liberal feminists versus radical feminists), sometimes simply moderates, see facts about Big Issues like racism, sexism or God as facts among others. Certainly, there is truth to be discerned on an issue like racism: an empirically verifiable history of discrimination against people of color, internment camps, studies demonstrating the relative likelihood of employers hiring people with “black” names versus “white” names and so on. There are also facts about how to change the facts. Does affirmative action work to promote the economic and cultural success of people of color? How about job training?

There is plenty of disagreement over these facts, to be sure, but the fact remains that these questions are empirical ones that have factual answers, and non-radicals tend to treat them as such. Non-radicals also see the facts of the case, whatever they may be, as just that, facts. They are part of a universe that also contains facts about consciousness, facts about political realities and facts about organic molecules. All facts need to be worked together and be weighed against each other. The facts of racism must be balanced against the facts of the costs of anti-racist public policy. The facts of sexism must be considered along with the facts of the way that economies respond to regulation. And my guess is, for some theists, the facts about God’s law must be taken side-by-side with the facts about living in a pluralistic, generally progressive country like America. This is a fox-like approach.

But of course, that doesn’t make sense to some people. It doesn’t really make sense to me. If you really believed that racism was deeply enrooted in our political realities, how could you then say, “Ah, but there are other things to take into account”? If you truly thought that sexism affected every social interaction, would it be rational to say, “But perhaps the costs of fixing that are too high”? And if you thought that God wanted a certain vision of America, would you, could you, tell yourself to wait until a more favorable congress? There seems to be something deeply wrong with that.

From this way of thinking we get hedgehogs. Hedgehogs, or radicals, ask us to take all of the facts we have in our arsenal, and build something deeper, more powerful with them. There aren’t just facts about how, on average, certain sectors of people of various non-white races have been treated in America; there is, above and beyond those facts, a long-standing history of deeply entrenched racism in almost every facet of American life. Facts about sexism, the pay gap, misogyny, rape statistics, aren’t simply listings in the Great Morally Neutral Book of Facts About the World; they tell a broader story about the treatment of and attitude toward women. And the existence of God, if true, cannot possibly just be an isolated fact about the universe. I’m reminded of a conversation from Orson Scott Card’s First Meetings in Ender’s Universe:

John Paul digested this. “Some people think God doesn’t exist.”

“That’s true,” said the woman:

“Which?” he asked.

She chuckled. “That some people think he doesn’t exist. I don’t know, myself. I don’t have an opinion on the subject.”

“That means you don’t believe there is a God,” said John Paul.

“Oh, does it?”

“St. John Paul II said so. That saying you don’t know or care about God is the same as saying you believe he doesn’t exist, because if you had even a hope that he existed, you would care very much.”

Indeed, radicals care very very much about their given causes. And at least part of the reason why, I think, is that their deep stories, their overarching narratives, are not and cannot be value neutral. A non-radical may consider Larry Summers’s comments about women sexist, but not feel compelled to take action as a result. A radical cannot. Seeing sexism in every part of society: law, politics, employment, family, and more, and acknowledging its virulent harm demands a fight to end it. Same with racism, and presumably, the same with sin.

These are the characteristics of a hedgehog. Sin, bigotry, environmental negligence, injustice, or fill-in-the-blank; there are Big Governing Principles of the world. Not only are these principles more than just mere facts, they are the lenses through which all other facts may be understood. Sin explains all degradation and harm and moral decay in the world. Feminism gives us the framework to fully understand social and political interactions. And so on and so forth.

Nate Silver doesn’t much like hedgehogs, as we saw above, but I don’t think these views are wrong, necessarily. I do think they are risky. Anti-racist hedgehogs may well be right about the world we live in. Racism and race relations may well be the only (or the primary) lens that properly makes sense of my experiences and known empirical facts. After all, I am white, which gives me privileged status in American society. So all of my experiences are affected by that fact. My experiences in stores, not being followed around. My experiences in classrooms, being listened to more seriously. And so on. I agree with all of this.

And yet, there is the risk. Because what we end up getting from hedgehogs, in fact, is a kind of deontology. The fact of your moral obligation to oppose racism is a logical deduction from properly understanding racism. Any other approach cannot account for this rigid logical connection, so it cannot be trusted. Therefore, anti-racists have to be absolutely right about the nature of racism and the effects it has and its primacy as the lens through which I should understand the world, or they have thrown away all other possible forms of analysis in vain.

This deontological radical position compels me to certain political and social stances on issues even before I have examined them individually. If an issue involves race/sex/religion, my position is known. It cannot be otherwise, because I have a largely unchanging approach to the world, and that approach morally demands my backing whenever it is called into play. Because I am against racism and I am against sexism and religious people are against sin. And that might be right! If we really had a Theory of Everything, we wouldn’t need to analyze individual cases! Absolutely!

But this is a very troubling approach.  Because these lenses, these Big Governing Principles, might fail me, and I will have rejected any other – science, utilitarianism, political pragmatism, hell, even virtue ethics – that might have helped me or given me another perspective. And then it would be incredibly difficult to admit the the Big Governing Principle has failed. The list of men’s rights issues feminists care about in this otherwise great article demonstrates this perfectly; some of them are completely correct, but some of them push far beyond what I think is reasonable, in what I see as an attempt to bring all facts into the same explanatory rubric.

There are many models of how the world works, and blending them in just the right way is part of the difficult work of building a worldview. If you have one that works for everything, whether it’s simply your chosen approach towards the world or one built on other principles (like reason or empiricism), more power to you. If you’re right, about God, about power dynamics, about the unconscious, then you’re going to get all the answers right, and well done.

But I’m skeptical. I think all of us would be much better served by becoming more foxlike, by being comfortable with many different types of thinking and models of the world, and then using models only where they’re best suited and throwing them out where they’re not.

I’m a feminist, sure, and that helps me analyze all kinds of situations in the world I couldn’t without feminism. I think racism exists, too, and ditto. Intersectional social justice activists have been doing excellent work on blending these types of models, and acknowledging that they don’t all work all the time. But I’m also a utilitarian, and there’s a point where, for instance, I wouldn’t support public policy that could help women but might overly hurt the economy. The world is a complicated place, with many competing interests and an overabundance of competing narratives. The truth is that all facts are relevant facts, and we have to learn how to balance them effectively. If our thinking is primarily narrative-driven, we’re likely to be led to wrong answers that we can’t account for and then can’t adjust to correct.

I, for one, would rather be a fox.

2 thoughts on “Of Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Radicals

  1. […] Beware of associating the truth with a ‘side’. Beware of focusing your discussion on groups of people — ‘neoconservatives’, ‘atheists’… — rather than specific ideas and arguments. In particular, treating someone you’re talking to merely as an avatar of a monolithic Ideology will inevitably lead you to oversimplify both the individual and the ideology. That is perhaps Hussain’s most transparent error. He was convinced that he knew what genus Harris belonged to, hence felt little need to expend effort on research or on parsing new arguments. Too much theory, not enough data. Too much hedgehog, not enough fox. […]

  2. […] lot of smart atheists trying to understand theists – and Chana in particular – wonder how we reconcile faith and reason. The official and correct Catholic answer is pretty […]

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