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A reply to Brian Micklethwait’s post about projection

What follows was not written by me but by a friend of mine, Niall Kilmartin. As will be apparent, he has known me since university. – NS


At the end of a recent post about lefties making laws for us because they think we’re like them, Brian Micklethwait asks what similar errors we make. I think I can answer with examples from his own post.

First, he talks of gun control freaks – people so violent that if they had guns to hand during temper tantrums, they’d murder – and suggests that these people want guns banned because they think we’re the same as them. Here he does have a specific, documented, public-domain example of a gun-control advocate with a domestic violence history. But let me offer a rival example.

In the week I first met Natalie Solent, she was sitting in the Oxford University D&D club chatting to two friends of mine whom she’d just met. An accident occurred outside and my friends went to help – thus incidentally establishing their bona fides as caring people to her. That situation resolved, they sat down again and – as my friends have a tendency to do, for some reason – began talking about guns. Natalie then was in some ways not Natalie as we now know her. As she told me later, if that accident hadn’t happened, she would have written them off in the unthinking way of many British people: “They like guns, guns are for killing people, so they must like the idea of killing people; I’ll not pursue their acquaintance.”

Natalie, as she then was, is far more representative of how left-wingers think than Brian’s example. No doubt Brian’s example is useful in debate: “We’re not the only violent ones. In fact, we’re not specially violent. In fact, if we can look at some among our opponents for a moment… “. But as regards political fundamentals, that argument is so like the left’s tactics, that it’s fair to use it only when debating with them. My friends’ reaction to the accident persuaded Natalie to change her mind a little. You would have got nowhere with her by saying, “You only think that because you’re so violent yourself”. It would be very like some accusations against the Tea Party: propaganda failures because it is so obvious to Tea Partiers and their friends that they are not true.

Brian’s next illustration is even worse, because he has no public domain example, just speculation about some guy who thinks homosexuality will destroy civilization if tolerated because it would destroy his mental equilibrium if he tolerated it. In a world of seven thousand million (is it?) human beings, this guy may well exist. But in my (far from complete) knowledge of the Anglosphere public domain, past and present, I cannot offhand come up with an example. I can however think of counter-examples.

Before we meet them, however, let’s meet a counter-argument. Turn the argument about homophobes being repressed homosexuals around and assert that homosexuals are really repressed gynophobes or androphobes. Here I can think of public domain examples. Women staff at Bletchley Park said that if a woman so much as spoke to Alan Turing when he was not expecting it, he would visibly shrink into himself in alarm. When the gynophobia is in itself so clear, it’s a fair diagnosis that the homoerotic symptoms are mere side-effects.

Now look instead at, for example, Noel Coward. If I were willing to argue like a leftie, I could diagnose gynophobia. Think of his joke about the queen of Tonga at the coronation. As the enormous queen and diminutive ambassador from Pakistan passed in their shared carriage, someone asked him who that was with Queen Salote: “Oh, I think that’s her lunch.” Think of the plot of Blythe Spirit: the two women make the man’s life hell quarrelling over him and eventually kill him. A clear diagnosis of gynophobia? Or a clear diagnosis of comic genius? Certainly, if Noel Coward was terrified of women, he handled it very much better than Alan Turing – unless you claim his homosexuality shows his bad handling of it, but then we’re into circular reasoning.

In short, a hand-count of examples of people who are or may be assuming that laws should be written to deal with people like themselves does not a true-for-all-cases proof make. Arguing with some supporter of Canada’s current laws against hate speech, I’d think it very fair to push Brian’s argument. But with anyone more reasonable, I would not pretend to know things I don’t know.

But as I said, I can offer counter-examples as well as counter-arguments. Many decades ago, my mother was raised, in humble circumstances, in a very straitlaced small Scottish town, attending the local school, but when she was 13 years old, she knew plenty about homosexuality – because she had a classical education. And there was nothing unusual about this level of classical knowledge even among ordinary people: many of you will know the In Parenthesis anecdote about the WWI Welsh private assigned to latrine duty who defended the utility of his task with the words “Don’t you know the army of Artaxerxes was utterly destroyed for lack of sanitation?” (I love this anecdote because it’s so easy to say “for lack of sanitation” in an appropriately-Welsh accent.)

My mother, aged 13, imagined that homosexuality was one of those things, like polytheism, human sacrifice and slavery, that had been common in the past but had died out under the beneficent influence of Christianity. Not that anyone told her that – it was a 13-year old’s way of understanding what she was taught in the light of where and when she lived. (My mother aged 16 had become aware that “died out” was putting it too strongly.) Until half a century ago there were many people like her – people who were not taught to respect Socrates because he was homosexual, any more than they were taught to respect him because he owned slaves, or worshipped Zeus and Athena. Although they saw homosexuality as a perversion, they were taught to respect Socrates, and to see Athens killing him as a tragedy – not as good riddance to a nasty pervert. They knew exactly what they believed, but they were also taught to know intimately and respect a culture, and people in that culture, who had very different values from theirs.

Now imagine presenting to these past people – who would certainly fail the Haringey council “anti-homophobia” test or similar – the idea that they believed what they did because they thought tolerated homosexuality would destroy civilization. They would have thought of two responses.

– They would have thought of Sparta, where the idea that homosexuality destroyed a civilization is a possible thesis. The Spartans made homosexuality obligatory for their military training, and (uniquely amongst Greeks), had a positive, rather than just contemptuously tolerant, view of female homosexuality. The Spartans suffered a 90% decline in their citizen body during the classical period; eventually it destroyed the old Sparta. The Spartans had customs – marriage-by-capture, willingness to let visiting nobles sleep with their wives – which it’s easy to explain by saying that their homosexuality was easier to learn in their teens than unlearn when it was time to procreate. So yes, if it is promoted enough, our ancestors would have argued, homosexuality can indeed destroy a civilization.

– But they would have set this level high, because they would also have thought of Athens. In Athens, philosophers taught that men who desired other men showed better taste than men who desired those inferior creatures, women. (And so women who desired women showed bad taste, but then women were inferior, so they would sometimes show bad taste – no need to get in a tiz about it.) Athens did not suffer a decline in its citizen body. If Athens destroyed itself – as one can argue it did – it was for other reasons. Just as with teenage-Natalie and guns above, so for our ancestors – and, today, for those who reject political correctness – Brian’s explanation is simply an irrelevance.

These I think show ways in which we can avoid the vulgarities of left-wing argumentative methods. When you’re forced to debate with such people, it may be fair to use their own tactics of pick the (unrepresentative) example or even invent the hypothetical (irrelevant) example. With anyone fairer, understand what they believe and the reasons why they do.

So much for Brian’s post. One last reflection: writing this raised a question for me – and gave me my answer. People who defend Canada’s anti-free-speech laws say they must because the alternative is the laws of the past. I’m sure that’s just another of the lies the left uses to keep us in line. But suppose (God forbid!) they forced me to believe it? Suppose I had to choose between evils: between Canada’s laws today and the laws of my mother’s youth? Actual sex acts are by their nature private. Free speech is by its nature public – more effectively subject to law. In his first letter on the French revolution, Burke lists requirements for liberty: “… a simple citizen may decently express his sentiments upon public affairs … even though against a predominant and fashionable opinion…”. So I have my answer.

31 comments to A reply to Brian Micklethwait’s post about projection

  • JadedLibertarian

    I think one of the key flawed assumptions that I am prone to when arguing for a reduction of the state is that I assume that most people, given the means and opportunity, are capable of governing their own lives.

    My fear is that I am quite simply wrong about this. So many people, in the absence of an authority figure’s intervention, will simply sit and do nothing, waiting for aid.

    I was out shovelling snow today. Since the council doesn’t seem particularly inclined to dig my street out I am doing it myself. Every other window I passed had able bodied teenagers or young men, vegetating in front of the telly. I could imaging father Royale calling them “workshy arseholes” in my head 😉

    Fact of the matter is they would rather stay in than pick up a shovel, or if they do have to go out they would rather wade through knee deep snow than do anything to help themselves – as I witnessed before I had cleared the path.

    I wondered if they were something of a metaphor for the way many people are. If there was never a possibility of the government coming along and helping them, would these people continue vegetating? Would people like me be figuratively shovelling their snow for them for the rest of time?

    Maybe people like that actually require a paternalistic state? I am almost sure that these citizen “children” are the reason the state can be as interventionist as it is.

  • John B

    Turn the argument about homophobes being repressed homosexuals around and assert that homosexuals are really repressed gynophobes or androphobes.

    This is an excellent point and one that I think has more than a modicum of truth in it.
    Without any judgmentalism in any direction this is an idea I would encourage homosexual orientated folk to look at. I know it has played a part in my thinking that has not particularly disturbed me nor changed my world view.
    When something becomes too difficult or even threatening to our peace and sense of well being we can tend to back away from it.
    I have looked at the guys who got all the girls and the main thing I have noted is that they are not too bothered about the whole business. They did not have any awareness of being over awed or threatened.
    In any thinking on it all, love is the bottom line to all considerations.

  • Jaded: in the absence of a nanny state, most would shovel themselves out, others would pay others to do it for them or emotionally trick them into doing it. Some would stay snowed in until the summer when the smell would become an issue for the neighbors. In any case, life would go on.

  • One of the interesting things to me is that such thinking (and we all do it, lets’ be honest here) tends to presume that a particular effect has a single cause. As with, “homophobia is caused by repressed homosexuality”.

    One interesting and current example is the effect called transexuality, which is the cultural marxists’ latest vanguard movement. But the effect- the belief that one “is” one gender with the “wrong body” may have multiple causes. It is impossible currently to know which if any of these causes are correct.

    It may be due to a brain wiring error, caused by a genetic mutation.

    It may be due to a brain wiring error, which is congenital.

    It may be a delusion (that is, the person is “mad”).

    It may be an acquired sexual fetish.

    It may be an acquired affectation.

    The person may be lying to gain attention.

    And so on. There may be transexuals of all, or some, of these types. To presume that an effect has a unitary cause is like a doctor presuming that a particular symptom (e.g. a high temperature) only has one cause, whereas the problem for most diagnoses is figuring out what is causing the symptoms.

  • PeterT


    I think the flaw you make here is that you assume that you or anybody else are able to judge whether or not other people are capable of running their lives.

    Personally it seems perfectly rational to stay in the warmth watching TV rather than go out in the snow to ‘build character’. Obviously if I had to out to do my groceries and couldn’t get out I would think about doing some shovelling – or maybe just douse the snow with petrol and flick a lit match at it from a distance.

    More seriously, there may be situations in which we can reasonably confidently take the view that other people are not acting in their own best interest, but I think these are relatively few (essentially restricted to the clinically insane) and do not include smoking or eating too many chips.

  • JadedLibertarian

    Peter T:

    Indeed the tv watching teenagers are operating in their own short term interest.

    That said, the council is not coping. There is no one coming to keep our street clear, and there are young families and elderly people living here.

    I think it incumbent on the able bodied males of the street to show some spine and take care of their neighbours themselves. The key ability needed to govern oneself is not the ability to act in your own interest, but to chose to act in the interests of others without “the man” standing over you and pulling your wallet open for the “needy”.

    I think they should also recognise that the longer they sit on their arse, the harder the work shovelling will be so it is better to get it done sooner rather than later.

    But they are only thinking in the short term, and about themselves. They do not consider the longer term, or the well-being of their neighbours.

    If people are to live without government they need to learn to anticipate problems and care for the vulnerable in their midst. When I see unthinking selfishness it makes me question people’s capacity for this kind of independence.

    Alternatively, I may just be pissed because I worked my ass off to clear the street, and no one sent their bone-idle teenage sons out to help me.

    Or both… take your pick 😉

  • pete

    Lefties don’t make laws for us because they think we’re like them. The opposite is true.

    They make laws for us because we aren’t like them. We are often bigoted, stupid, selfish and easily led.

    They are clever and caring and know what’s best for everyone.

  • Ian,
    Transexuality is not even a single “symptom”. There are a bewildering variety of chromosomal and biochemical conditions (such as AIS) sheltering under the same umbrella. To say nothing of the possibly purely mental ones and where does brain end and mind start?

  • Tedd


    Perhaps it would help develop the idea to consider how natural environmental factors influence human behaviour.

    In Saskatchewan, Canada, the climate is harsh and the land is not particularly fruitful. Saskatchewan was settled by Europeans of various sorts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attracted by the possibility of owning their own land. So you had people with a high desire to own real property and a willingness to work very hard to look after themselves, combined with a very harsh climate and relatively unproductive land. What resulted is perhaps best labeled communitarianism, in that it combined social-democratic economic views with conservative social views.

    Saskatchewan is also the poster-child for cooperative ventures. A lot of what is now government policy in Saskatchewan began as voluntary cooperative ventures between independent farmers. Some still is voluntary, but much has been made compulsory by law over the years (such as commodity marketing boards).

    Nowadays, the conservative social views are waning and the larger cities (relatively speaking) have plenty of people with both leftish economic views and socially liberal views. You will not finder nicer left-leaning people anywhere.

    I’m sure this says something important about how environment influences people, though I’m not entirely sure what.

  • I think that Jaded does have a point in that if the welfare state was to abruptly disappear overnight, in would not be pretty, and it would take quite some time until things got back to “normal” (whatever that means). Those young men he is observing grew up under current status quo and most likely are not familiar with any other social order, not even from reading (ha). It would probably take at least a generation, if not more, to re-develop the civil society as it was once understood.

  • Eh? What exactly was Brian’s alleged crime here? I’m slightly colour-blind and trying to read this post is like trying to identify the green spotted digit among the red and orange spots. So far as I can tell it’s something about homosexuals and the writer is angry at Brian for speculating about other people’s psychology. WTF?

  • He doesn’t sound angry to me, just offering a different point of view.

  • It’s not just the welfare state. That is just part of an economic system which has developed over the past century upon which virtually everyone is dependent. If somebody hit a magic button to turn the UK or USA libertarian in a flash, virtually the whole population would be wandering dazed and confused, incapable of handling the new situation. Everything is entwined with the State. Property, business, personal finances.

    Our whole pseudo-capitalist system is predicated on massive wealth transfers by the oligarchy. Very few of us would have the necessary instincts to cope with a true free market situation. It would be very messy indeed. A lot of people would die, and not just the poor. Just imagine the financial services sector suddenly bereft of the fiat pyramid scheme, for instance.

    If the UK had transitioned to a properly “liberal” system in say 1850, it would have been a largely positive experience for virtually everyone. Not now.

  • Tedd


    Just imagine the financial services sector suddenly bereft of the fiat pyramid scheme, for instance.

    Not to contradict your point, which I think is generally correct, but I think the financial services sector would be one of the quickest to adapt. It’s small (in numbers of people) and filled with people who are accustomed, personally, to adapting and innovating. Their first instinct would be to re-establish the oligopoly, I’m sure, but, since we’re engaging in fantasy here, if we assume that was somehow understood not to be an option then I think they would adapt very quickly.

    Now that I think of it, the understanding that non-libertarianism is not an option is a critical part of the whole fantasy. Without it, we would probably just return to the present status quo after not very long. I think I’ll call that Angle of Repose Social Theory.

  • Professor Henry Brubaker, director of the Institute for Studies, said

    Thanks Current, you made my evening:-)

  • On the business of perfectly able-bodied individuals staying indoors, watching TV while jaded is out shoveling snow:

    Rather than claim that we see this behavior because these people are waiting for the State to do it for them, or that they have been spoiled by indulgent parents (both of which might be true), a simpler explanation to me is that they have achieved a level of wealth and material possession which allows them to ignore snowy conditions, for the most part.

    I am sure almost all of the TV zombies would be out there clearing away the white stuff if their food supply or home heating depended on it.

    As for the question of whether people can manage their own affairs, well, of course they can. We’re here, arent we? The Nanny State is a very recent phenomenon when compared to the whole of human history.

  • mike,

    I don’t necessarily agree with Niall Kilmartin, the writer of email to me that I turned into a Samizdata post, in all that he says. But since the post is partially the result of a conversation I had with him, I can confidently say he’s not angry. He usually likes Brian’s posts, but he thought this one had a flawed argument.

    His own argument, summarised as I understood it from the conversation and the post, is the following:

    1. Few people really project their own natures onto others to that extent. They have other reasons for believing what they believe.

    2. Telling people, “You only think that because you are violent/homosexual/whatever yourself” is not polite and does not work because they know it’s not true.

    3. Brian’s example of the repressed homosexual homophobe was speculation. The argument could equally well (or badly) be turned around to say that homosexuals are repressed androphobes/gynophobes.

    4. Most opposition to homosexuality has completely different reasons to the one Brian suggested. For example most educated British people of 50-100 years ago would have been mystified by that argument. They knew about homosexuality, they were not incapable of admiring homosexuals, but they disapproved of it anyway.

    5. An aside: if he had to choose between laws allowing freedom of speech and laws allowing freedom of sexual behaviour, he’d choose the former.

  • PeterT


    The libertarian argument does not rests on the notion that people will care for each other in the absence of a ‘caring’ state. While I am no Randian I do not think we have any duty to care for each other. Self interested co-operation is enough.

    I take Alisa’s point on the time it may take for the populace to adapt to living in a libertarian state, but think it overdone. If somehow the politicans could muster the courage to cut the state to the bone during an economic upswing then it would be so much easier.

  • JadedLibertarian


    I suppose that depends on what you mean by “duty”. If you mean a mandate from above that you must follow or else face punishment, then there is no duty – at least not in our society or indeed in any hypothetical libertarian one.

    If however you mean that it is the right, moral and “evolved” thing to do, then I believe there is a duty to help others. Part of moving beyond paternalistic states is showing we can act “grown up” without them. Although I do not believe in doing anything to seek control over another, I believe a man with a capacity to help his neighbour in need and who chooses to do nothing is worthy of our contempt.

    And I’m sure his neighbours would agree with me, and thus he would find their willingness to engage in any self-interested cooperation greatly reduced the next time he wanted something.

  • Thanks Natalie… some criticisms:

    (1) Few people really project their own natures onto others to that extent. They have other reasons for believing what they believe.

    That little word “few” stands for so much there, and it is not obviously true that it applies. I have met many people to whom Brian’s charge of projection might well stick (in the firearms case) – listening to what they say, what sort of language they use and observing body language, such people often have aggression written all over them.

    Whether it applies to homophobes being repressed homosexuals or homosexuals being repressed gynophobes or androphobes or whatever-phobes I just have no idea. That’s all just weird psychology shit. I have a fairly strong (though far from overwhelming) dislike of women wearing nail varnish – I’ll even go to a different checkout counter in a supermarket if I see that the girl at the one I’m waiting at is wearing nail varnish. It will literally make me shudder in disgust. What does that make me – a repressed painter and decorator?

    (2) “Telling people, “You only think that because you are violent/homosexual/whatever yourself” is not polite and does not work because they know it’s not true.”

    Well you might also have to get ready to block a beer or wine glass being launched at your head. That’s another reason why it wouldn’t work. But there’s a difference between an hypothesis and a rhetorical technique.

    (4) “Most opposition to homosexuality has completely different reasons to the one Brian suggested.”

    Has it? The idea of being “opposed” to homosexuality strikes me as just more weird psychology shit. Is it not a bit like being “opposed” to people who are ugly and/or unfunny?

    (5) “…if he had to choose between laws allowing freedom of speech and laws allowing freedom of sexual behaviour, he’d choose the former.”

    OK that’s clear now, but why was that question asked in the first place? There seems to be some context about Canada missing that Niall assumes everybody else knows – and maybe everybody else here is aware of this – but I’m left looking like Manuel out of Fawlty Towers going “que?”

  • John B

    Mike, is the colour of the nail varnish at all significant?
    Perhaps you are a repressed vampire hunter or abattoir worker?
    It is very interesting. I’m sure someone could get a PhD out of that somewhere.

  • No, the colour is irrelevant – it’s a blanket dislike, but it becomes that much worse whenever food is involved. I almost cannot bring myself to eat any food handled in any way by a woman wearing nail varnish.

  • Wandering off topic at mike’s instigation, I have a similar repellence to earrings and piercings in general. I don’t avoid checkout girls wearing them, but they really do revolt me. I’ve never had a girlfriend with pierced ears and have indeed actively avoided pursuing anyone who has.

    I appreciate that this is entirely irrational and at odds with society in general, but even so I cannot comprehend why it has ever been considered attractive to poke holes in oneself and stuff bits of metal etc in them; yet it has been done by every culture in history pretty much. But I wonder if any man anywhere has ever thought, “that girl is pretty, but what she really needs is two gigantic brass curtain rings clanging about round her neck”. What’s the point?

  • Laird

    Earrings don’t bother me, but I greatly dislike other piercings and I despise tatoos (especially on women).

  • Piercings I can live with (to a limited extent), though I also think they’re a bit daft. Tattoos – I’ve never understood why anyone would want one (unless it was say someone like Nick getting a tattoo of Maxwell’s equations), and I generally take them as a sign that there either is or, at one point in the past, was, something dodgy about the person who has them.

    I’d better stop here or I might get kicked out for straying too far off topic!

  • Off topic warning. Might do a few deletions.

  • Well, I did do a few deletions. No offence guys, but it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of other places on the internet where all that can be discussed.

  • Seems a bit draconian. I’m quite surprised.

    Just out of interest, considering I’ve only ever seen deletions here when people are in full really piss off Perry with blatant “trolling” mode and getting themselves banned, what was the harm of 3 or 4 posts about butt tattoos? What does “all that” encompass exactly?

  • I’m surprised you are suprised, Ian B.

    I’m not saying that there was any harm in 3 or 4 posts about butt tattoos. It’s the sort of discussion that happens in pubs and workplaces up and down the land every day. But that’s the point.

  • Laird

    Sorry, Natalie.