‘Ascription by Assumption’ and Democratic Politics

I recently read novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s acclaimed first novel, Under the Net, published in 1954. While I had read other of her works, I had never before completed this much-feted book. Murdoch, who died in 1999 at 80, was a gifted writer whose works were, perhaps not unexpectedly, steeped in philosophic themes and explorations. Her initial offering set the template for what would become the rule in her subsequent novels. In Under the Net, the reader meets a feckless artist/narrator, Jake Donaghue, and learns how he came to tell the story offered in the book as a result of a number of specific relationships and events he experiences in London. The novel chronicles its narrator’s adventures as he careens about Britain’s capital city on what amounts to a search for truth. As Kiernan Ryan, Professor of English Literature of the University of London pointed up in the introduction to my edition of the book, Donaghue grapples with at least two fundamental issues as he seeks to make sense of his feelings concerning a broken relationship particularly. First, he must learn about himself, or learn to practice reflexivity, a capacity and habit he has never acquired. Second, Donaghue must wrestle with allowing others to be themselves and not projecting onto each his desired view of them. As Ryan observed in his essay,

… This is the fundamental wisdom that suffuses Iris Murdoch’s fiction from Under the Net onward. True virtue, true goodness, true love flow from the respect for the strangeness of the mystery of other people and the world that surrounds us. They flow from the refusal to inflict our own designs on them, to deny their innate elusiveness, their impenetrable quiddity. When Jake reaches this realization, he is ready to write, … instead of projecting his illusions upon [the world].[1]

There is not space here to provide an account of all of Donaghue’s experiences as he repeatedly attributed views and characteristics to those he met, and just as often found himself in difficult straits as a result. I have come to label this very human propensity “ascription by assumption.” That is, as we go about our daily lives and seek to make sense of them, we are drawn to sort what we encounter into categories and meanings with which we are comfortable and to which, for whatever complex set of reasons, we are drawn. This can and often does lead individuals to assign characteristics and views to others that they have adopted or desire, but which their targets may never have articulated or intended. Murdoch’s genius was to highlight this common human foible, to point up how difficult a philosophic problem it represents and also to illustrate how often it results in misunderstanding, injustice and worse. Despite all this, and irrespective of its ubiquity, humans fall prey to ascription by assumption every day. The question is not whether one will find this propensity alluring, but how to prevent it from clouding one’s vision and experience of reality. That is, as Murdoch’s protagonist’s experience made clear, one may overcome this inclination, but it is never easy. To do so requires self-discipline and awareness and a habit of mind willing to suspend judgment rather than jump to conclusions about “others” based on projections of one’s desires, beliefs or fears.

Murdoch’s powerful novel set me considering the implications of its vision of truth, reality and humanity for democratic politics, and my first thought was to conclude that she was surely right about the pervasiveness of the phenomenon of ascription by assumption. Ideologues of all stripes take this stance as a matter of course and see their views as reality and demand that their experiences accord with their beliefs rather than vice versa. Likewise, such individuals are willing to “other” all and sundry to maintain a desired purity of their sensemaking convictions. It is far easier so to behave than to grapple with the complexities that characterize the concerns they seek to address. So it was that President George W. Bush and other key leaders in his administration could assume that the United States could “democratize” other cultures by force of arms and conviction, and why they were long blind to the implications of what was in fact occurring as a result of their assumptions. So it was, too, that Mao Zedong could persecute millions in the name of a set of abstract beliefs during China’s so called “Cultural Revolution.”

These are dramatic, ugly and costly examples, but the phenomenon is so common that we often fail to notice it at play. We ascribe by assumption in our family and work relationships every day or, at least, we are subject to just such possibilities daily. Our politics, too, is chock full of such claims aimed at simplifying complexities to mobilize groups to the polls. It is also striking how often this phenomenon pervades our policy conversation. On August 7, for example, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, Gerard Alexander, a University of Virginia Associate Professor of Politics, criticized television talk show host Jon Stewart as he was retiring for too often being unsparing of conservative guests and unduly smug about his own views on his show.  In a particularly ironic and strong example of Murdoch’s warning against ascription by assumption, Alexander faulted Stewart for not using his bully pulpit to pull the ideological wool from progressives’ eyes, and then went on to illustrate his argument by referring to an interview the talk show host undertook with John Yoo in 2010.

Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, served in the Department of Justice during the Bush administration and was tasked with providing a justification for torture of prisoners during the Iraq and Afghan wars that the White House had chosen to undertake. This much is well known. But, according to Alexander, Stewart was caught flat-footed by the soft-spoken Yoo, who “explained that he had been asked to determine what legally constituted torture so the government could stay safely on this side of the line.”[2] In fact, torture was illegal at the time under both United States and International law to which the U.S. was a signatory, and these were being ignored by an administration that had decided to engage in such practices anyway. The issue for Stewart in the interview was not an academic discussion of interrogation techniques and torture, but why the White House pressed this issue in the first place. In short, Alexander criticized Stewart on the basis of assumptions about what was at stake that host did not appear to share.  The professor attributed assumptions to his target as he pressed his own argument. In this case, the paradox of contending that others have practiced such an orientation while unleashing it oneself, was especially obvious.

While ascription by assumption is extremely common and daily has important consequences at individual, family and state scales, it seems true, too, that the mediatization of society makes it easier for the phenomenon to have broad implications for democratic politics. This is so to the extent that those campaigning for office assign views by assumption to their counterparts and relevant electorates are unable to discern that such is occurring and account for it in their voting behavior. Misinformation could cause this result, as could ideology, as could willful ignorance, practiced on whatever grounds. Media make it easier both to position such claims and to trumpet them, and to do so knowingly.

The only way to equip a democratic citizenry to take the pragmatic and open philosophic stance Murdoch advocated in her writing is to provide people with the critical reasoning capabilities and self-awareness necessary to practice it. The way to do that is to begin in elementary school and continue to develop students’ self-awareness and critical capacities through high school and beyond. Unfortunately, the U.S. education system is today far from pursuing this aspiration, leaving substantial shares of the electorate vulnerable to ascription by assumption, whether as they might personally practice it or as it might intentionally be employed in mobilization politics to persuade them. To the extent that both forms of the phenomenon proceed unchecked in our culture, this trend cannot be counted a healthy one for a democratic polity.



[1] Iris Murdoch, Under the Net, London: Vintage, 2002, p. xiii.

[2] Gerard Alexander, “Jon Stewart, Patron Saint of Liberal Smugness,” The New York Times, Aug. 7, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/opinion/sunday/jon-stewart-patron-saint-of-liberal-smugness.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article