I completely understand how, for the simple minded, life would be so much easier to grasp and deal with if every ethical, philosophical, or political issue truly existed in an “either-or” world. But the idea that “if you are not for us you must be against us” is a stupid, simplistic, and intellectually poverty-stricken concept. Nevertheless it seems to be the one perspective at play in the press and in social media these days.
Perhaps it really does speak of a complete failure of insight for those whose input of data comes only from sources singing with their own particular choir. Perhaps it reveals a concession to intellectual laziness that is endemic to our increasingly entitled and brain-numbed society. But from wherever it stems, it is a failure that has led us to near complete governmental dysfunction and gridlock at one of the most dangerous and vulnerable times in our history. And it has created a world of intellectual retardation that, if allowed to continue, can lead us only backwards into a devolution of spirit and knowledge that will make the Hobbesian prophesy of a life that is “Nasty, brutish, and short” seem like a vacation in paradise.
This “with us or against us” perspective pretty much eliminates the inclusion of anyone with more than a few brain cells to rub together and it is an outlook honed and polished by the simple expedients of demonizing all whose philosophies that are not sung about in the hymnals of a particular choir. Surrounding oneself only with “like minded” people is a sure prescription for a narrowing of view and a constraint upon incoming information that might be accurate but tends to remove one from the safe comfort zone of their own myopia.
Sincerity of belief does not, and never has been, an indicator of reality any more than a localized or even broad consensus of opinion. Human history is riddled with sincerely held but now discredited beliefs in virtually all areas of inquiry from philosophy to hard science that fell because one person, usually vilified and persecuted at the time, had the intellectual honesty and personal courage to say, basically, “I don’t think that is right…”
And yet, at universities, the places allegedly dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge and broadening of intellect and intellectual pursuits, we are seeing a frightening closure of minds. From political correctness run amuck to what appears like a primal terror of opposing ideas and ideals, students and faculty collude to shut down even the option of hearing ideas contrary to their own. No longer satisfied simply to not show up and hope the speaker found themselves speaking to rows of empty seats, out of control students now bully faculty and administrations into prohibiting the speech in the first place.
If the loyalists in the late 18th century on this continent had adopted those behaviors we would still be a colony of Great Britain. There can be few things more in conflict with the American ideals than the prohibition of the free flow of ideas including those with which we disagree.
That was a problem we addressed back when it was accepted that ideas and philosophies about how a people would govern themselves were complex and derived from an incredible diversity of resources from ancient literature and the Bible to the (then) modern debates between the intellectual giants such as Locke and Black and Rousseau and Godwin.
But the crowd whose memes and tropes I now read on Facebook would be incapable of grasping the nuances of those towering essays and their internal complexities because none of them were easily reduceable to one-liners, demonizing labels, or bumper sticker philosophies. They are blithely unaware of the fact that by grasping at simple and single concepts stemming from both sides of those great debates that ultimately found their way into what we now loosely refer to as Liberal and Conservative perspectives, we now would make those past thinkers on all sides of the discussions stunned at our collective ignorance of what they were all about. I think they would all be ashamed of the poor quality of the progeny, both intellectually and educationally, that followed them, in other words… us.
Because we no longer grasp the nuances and subtleties of the underlying concepts we claim to follow and, worse, cannot see past the cherry-picked sub-concepts we decided, for our own preferences and needs, were the ones to be adhered to and accepted as our own gospels, we no longer have the intellectual ammunition to be able to see areas of overlap with other concepts from which compromise can be found. If you only know the letters “A” and “Z” then any inclusion of something such as “L” or “M” is not even possible.
r intellectual myopia has blinded us to the forest of ideas than can be harvested for personal and culture growth and we see only the trees, and worse yet, only those trees that fit with our preferences independent of any connection to reality or the larger impact of those selected views on the broader culture of our own society, much less those of others.
While social media is increasingly filled with voices terrified of counter ideas, for my part I am terrified of that crowd seeking to shut down debate and the free expression of ideas, even those I despise. This is self-righteous book burning that does not even allow the book to be created before its ideas are vilified and its authors run out or locked out of town lest their scurrilous ideas contaminate our precious little ears.
When I was young we knew that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Today we have grown so fragile of insight and psyches, and so vulnerable to words that we deem some of them harmful in and of themselves and seek to shelter ourselves from even hearing them.
We should stand ashamed of ourselves for our moral and intellectual cowardice. We should stand ashamed of how we have dumbed down education and basic parenting to foist a generation of thin-skinned, entitled, victimized, intellectual cowards on this world. And, especially for the so-called educators who have joined in on this embrace of a binary world view when if any group should know better it is that credentialed, self-benighted crowd, their well-deserved shame should put them on their knees in a collective revival of their forgotten calling to expand the minds of their students instead of narrowing them down to where they can see only the world as the Prof sees it.
Teaching critical thinking does NOT mean teaching students they should learn to see the world as the professor does. It means giving them the tools to see the broader collection of influences having an impact on THEIR world and then formulate their own conclusions as to what collection of concepts they wish to assemble to make it work for them.
But that revival of intellectual courage and moral honesty is not likely to happen anytime soon. Adams wrote that a republic for of government could last only so long as the citizenry shared an ethical moral code. We’ve not just lost that code, in a successful effort to remove consequences from behaviors we have thrown it away. I think we are seeing his sad prophesy coming to fruition. And the rallying call of the destructive force is being broadcast in post after post on social media for all to see.