What’s so polite about the polite society?

Table of contents for The Polite Society

  1. The Polite Society
  2. What’s so polite about the polite society?

In the previous post on what I am calling the “Polite Society” hypothesis, I glossed very generally over what politeness with respect to society is. I must admit that I am not using politeness here merely in the sense of “being nice” or “being respectful”; I think politeness can be both explicitly toxic in some cases and also sometimes an example of people acting in an expedient (and thus not necessarily morally virtuous) manner. So, what, precisely, do I mean by politeness here?

Well, in a recent (forthcoming) paper, “Can there be reasonable disagreement about conspiracy theories?” I say the following in a footnote:

How this notion of politeness plays out in any given polite society is open to interpretation. Sometimes a society will be polite because everyone knows everyone else in some nationstate, and thus no one wants cause trouble for the people they know (which might be the case in a small country like Aotearoa (New Zealand). Sometimes the politeness might be a feature of a long history of one class showing deference to another (as we saw in the middle of the Twentieth Century in the United Kingdom). Sometimes a society will be polite because it would be imprudent to mention the possibility that one does not live in a truly open society (which seems to have been the case in the U.S., where journalists had heard stories about the NSA surveillance programme prior to the leaks by Edward Snowden, but did not pursue them). The notion, then, of politeness here could be seen as an extension of what Lee Basham has termed “toxic truths”, evidence of wrong-doing by influential institutions, which the consequence of reporting such activity would be unthinkable. Thus we never speak of said wrong-doing, and thus we inadvertently maintain the fiction that we live in an open society. As such, the polite society is one where toxic truths are allowed to fester whilst people maintain – sometimes explicitly, sometimes unwittingly, that everything is okay.

Footnotes are, depending on who you talk to, either the place where ideas go to die or are the start of someone’s exciting research project. The polite society plays only a very minor part in “Can there be reasonable disagreement about conspiracy theories?”, but it’s something I think I’ll be working on developing in further works, mostly because I think the polite society explains a fair amount of our scepticism of conspiracy theories.

Why is that (you probably should be asking)? Well, I think it’s clear from the academic literature that much scepticism of conspiracy theories stems from a belief that in open societies (like our own, supposedly) conspiracies are rare and thus conspiracy theories are something we should treat with due suspicion. When people claim that conspiracy theorists are paranoid (Richard Hofstadter, for example), gullible (Quassim Cassam) or fantasist (Daniel Pipes), they are comparing belief in conspiracy theories with the kinds of beliefs people should have given the assertion we live in an open society. People who know they live in open societies should be suspicious of conspiracy theories (they are claiming) because conspiracies are rare in such societies; they get found out and dealt with in a transparent manner, because that is what the open society is all about.

The open society hypothesis also, I think, is a major factor in Noam Chomsky’s response to conspiracy theories. I am no fan of Daniel Pipes (both politically and theoretically), but in his book “Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From” Pipes chastises Chomsky – correctly, in my opinion – for trying to avoid talking about conspiracy theories by simply relabelling the worries he has about conspiracies as instances of institutional malfeasance.1 It seems that Chomsky’s institutional analysis requires that we think individuals conspiring is unlikely in an open society, so we load the worries about conspiratorial activity on to what are essentially malformed and malfunctioning institutions instead. Since institutions operate in an open society, we can tell that they are wonky, and thus we can shine a light on them.2

Now, the fact we can tell that certain institutions are wonky could be seen as support of the notion that we truly do live closer to something approaching an open society, rather than a polite one. However, it also allows a certain politeness in discourse to creep in. “Don’t accuse them of conspiring,” the Chomskian says, “they are just part of a bad system.” That’s just another way to be polite about conspiracies; it is the claim that we just don’t use that word to describe bad behaviour in our societies because it would be impolite…3

I may well be being very unfair to Chomsky here; he’s an anarchist, after all, and looks down upon the modern nation state. As such, whatever kind of society we currently live in is not an ideal one.4 Still, I think his (conditional) scepticism of conspiracy theories is grounded in a belief in openness, one that I think is probably best crouched in terms of politeness.

Talking about anarchists, this gets me back very briefly to talk of the Ben Rachinger allegations. I think some of the (lack of) response to the claims Rachinger made are elements of politeness, and some of it is explicable in non-polite terms. On the one hand, there are a variety of polite reasons as to why Rachinger’s allegations seem to have led to little media attention; Cameron Slater, despite losing some cachet as a political figure after the 2014 General Election, is still one of many sources the media likes to turn to and does not want to get off side of. There is also the fact that Aotearoa being a small country, aspects of the allegations and the nature of the person making the allegations have met with silence because people do not want to talk about those aspects.

Yet, there’s also a way of looking at the allegations which explains the lack of media attention which is both polite and impolite; Rachinger’s allegations about Slater aren’t anything particularly big or novel compared to what we found out in Nicky Hager’s “Dirty Politics”. The media tried to cover that story and yet it seemed to go nowhere (at least with respect to a large section of the public). That might have been due to politeness at the time, but it’s at least explicable that people might go “It was a non-story then, so why assume it won’t be a non-story now?”

As I think is obvious, I am still trying to distill how to talk about the polite society in a precise way. The whole #dirtypolitics fiasco fascinates me because it might cut both ways for my analysis. Of course, the problem could simply be that #dirtypolitics needs a multi-variate analysis, of which the polite society is just one factor… Food, as they say, for my thoughts.


  1. This is a worry I have about the work of Lance deHaven-Smith, although deHaven-Smith at least is well aware that he is relabelling conspiracy theories as “state crimes against democracy”.
  2. Shining a light on them doesn’t necessarily fix things, of course, because if more than one institution is wonky, then we might be expecting the fix to come from another malformed and manufacturing organisation.
  3. Chomsky doesn’t dismiss all belief in conspiracy theories by saying “Let’s talk about institutions instead!” However, it is fair to say he prefers talk of institutional analysis to talk of the analysis of these things called “conspiracy theories”, which I think allows him to gloss over certain problems as irrelevant to the well-informed citizen.
  4. In this way, he’s a lot like Popper, the arch-authoritarian; just because our society is open, that doesn’t mean it is the best or even good.

The Polite Society

Table of contents for The Polite Society

  1. The Polite Society
  2. What’s so polite about the polite society?

Karl Popper loved the idea of the Open Society. It grounds his arguments against what he calls the conspiracy theory of society, the notion that history can be explained by reference to a sequence of successful conspiracies. Because it is obviously false – according to Popper – that history is not a succession of conspiracies, belief in the conspiracy theory of society must be false and thus belief in conspiracy theories is irrational.

An open society is one in which governments are largely transparent in their operations, and bad behaviour on the part of members of those governments are easily found out by interested citizens. It seems to fall out of that characterisation that conspiracies should be rare in such societies, and so we get our case for a scepticism of conspiracy theories.

Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies” was published in the mid 1940s, and aspects of the open society (the idea, rather than the book itself) seem quaint and just a little naive. As history has shown us, the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s… Well, up till the current day, has been replete with conspiracies and cover-ups. Notably, in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” Popper twists himself into knots to try and describe the Shoah (The Holocaust) as not being the result of some conspiracy because it wasn’t ultimately successful despite the fact that whilst the Nazis might well have failed to exterminate the entire Jewish people, they still ran concentration camps with frightening efficiency for quite some time. Post the publication of “The Open Society and its Enemies” we have had other notable conspiracies like Watergate, the Gulf of Tonkin, 9/11, Dirty Politics and more besides; our supposedly open society is not quite as immune to conspiracies as Popper would have had us believe.

Now, it is unfair to sling Popper with this criticism; after all, he was not necessarily convinced that our society was an open as it could be. Instead, it was more open than it had been. Popper was comparing the world of the 1940s with that of the 30s and 20s, and the world post WWII was, indeed, a more open society than its forebears. However, the trajectory of openness that Popper thought the new world of the Forties promised was not quite the world of the 50s onwards; governments were both loath to reveal more of their inner workings and, of course, there was that Cold War thing. Nothing like having an enemy which is set on infiltrating your governments to make you paranoid about anyone finding out anything of what you are up to.

Which brings me to the Polite Society hypothesis. I have been thinking a lot over the last few years about how to respond to people who base their scepticism of conspiracy theories generally on some version of the open society argument. Some of this work appears in my book, where I look at the notions of Public Trust Skepticism (which I associate closely with both the works of Popper and Brian L. Keeley) and the Openness Objection (which I find in the works of Lee Basham). Some of it comes out of discussion with Basham about these things he calls “toxic truths” (information people refuse to investigate because such an investigation would be deleterious to them or their society), which I mention briefly in the book. A large part of it, however, simply comes out of trying to work out why the numerous scandals in the governing National Party have simply failed to materialise in falling poll numbers.

What is a Polite Society? Well, a polite society is one which thinks or even loudly claims to be an open society, but often overlooks what appears to be bad behaviour on the part of members of its influential institutions on the grounds of politeness.

Take, for example, rumours that a relative has been engaging in inappropriate behaviour with with a minor. You could ask questions of your other relatives to fact check this claim, but that would be impolite; it would cause bother. You don’t want to ask the relative in question because if it turns out the rumour is merely gossip, that would be embarrassing both to them and to you. So, you ignore the rumour because acting upon it would be impolite.

A situation like that, I take it, is the kind of thing Basham is concerned about when it comes to truths which are toxic. In the polite society, however, it would turn out that you are the kind of person who opines that if you heard a good rumour that someone was behaving in such an inappropriate way, you would definitely investigate it.

Imagine, then, that kind of polite behaviour coupled with expressed opinion to the contrary being expressed not just by a few individuals but as society as a whole. “Yes”, members of the polite society say, “we are definitely interested in holding MPs to account for the things that get uncovered!” Yet when it comes to investigative reporting about what MPs might get up to, they invent a whole bunch of excuses for being politely disinterested in such stories.

The problem, then, for a polite society is that members of the polite society are likely to claim they belong to an open society whilst not actually pursuing any active policy towards openness and transparency. Members of a polite society, then, express fealty to the standards of openness and transparency whilst acting otherwise.

Do we really live in a polite society? Do we live in such a society out of choice or because we are told to, or because it is expected of us? These are the questions which vex me; am I buying into some conspiracy theory about our society or is this a real diagnosis of a societal ill?1 More, next time.

Next time: Some further rumination on the polite society hypothesis (and some objections to it) and a bit of #dirtypolitics.


  1. I’m not saying this diagnosis is unique to me; similar theories can be found in the work of other theorists concerned with public discourse.