I remember reading a quotation from someone eminent many years ago (my aging brain can’t quite grasp at this moment who) to the effect that it is a sign of psychological maturity to be able to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time. I know, myself, many times in my life have been faced with an ambivalence about a subject or perhaps an important question and from time to time have been persuaded to one side or the other (and occasionally even been then converted to the opposing point of view!). Whilst under such circumstances we might find some intellectual discomfort about not being able to come to a landing on one point of view or another, the issue is generally resolved by listening with intellectual curiosity to the arguments for and against, weighing up the arguments and coming to an informed decision. A truly enlightened mind welcomes multitudinous inputs from varying points of view. Such a person might admit that they could be wrong but takes a position on the balance of the arguments posited one way or the other. We might as a short hand term call such reasonable people, the “considerators”. Such people are able to dispassionately receive the evidence, analyse different points of view and then come to some sort of landing that makes sense to them.
Mind you I am not pretending that such a process is based exclusively on rationality. We have seen in previous blogs the power of intuition. We know how we tend to shoehorn our perceptions of the world into our own particular worldview and rationalise our response to the world to be compatible with our values. But by and large the considerators are not threatened by information and opinions that come their way and as a result are not particularly defensive being largely comfortable in their own skins.
Unfortunately we see fewer and fewer who are prepared to take such an ecumenical philosophical approach. The world seems to be more and more dominated by two other categories of human beings. The first category is the dogmatic.
The dogmatics admit of no argument which opposes their point of view. The dogmatics avoid confronting other ideas by denigrating those people who have different opinions to them.
(My recent blog on “Being Un-Australian” revealed one of their tactics.)
A common theme of the dogmatics is to avoid responding to opposing points of view by impugning the motives of their critics. I might discard the opinions of someone arguing for a response to global warming because they are aligned to the “Greens”. I might disregard the opinion of someone contributing to the same debate because they work in the oil industry. Dogmatics conveniently dismiss the argument by impugning the motives of those with opposing viewpoints.
Sometimes, if we have the power, we seek to prevent opposing points of view even being put. (Instance the recent attempt by the Australian Government via the Finklestein Report of censoring criticism of the Government at the expense of our freedom of speech.)
The ethos of the dogmatics is that “I am right and you are wrong” and they maintain it is so obvious that it is not necessary to have a debate and hear alternative points of view. Society is all the poorer for their dogmatism.
This may be a sweeping statement, but I suspect most of those who are conventionally religious fall into this category. They have come to religious belief in an unquestioning way and then defend their beliefs by referencing sacred texts that to the sceptic have no convincing authority other than their ability to prop up and reinforce the religious dogmatics.
Many of us come to and defend our political beliefs in the same way. So many of us hold political points of view that are not informed by reason and debate but have been arrived at by our histories which imprinted a political standpoint on us with little consideration about options.
I always loved the story about the Republican and the Democrat.
The Democrat says to the Republican, “How can you possibly be a Republican. Republicans are so reactionary and conservative.”
The Republican harrumphs, “Why sir, I am a Republican because my father and his father before him were Republicans.
“But that makes no sense. What if your father and grandfather had been horse thieves?”
The Republican smiles at the Democrat. “Well sir, then of course I would have been a Democrat!”
(I’ve probably told you that before. In my dotage I do often repeat myself and I only know three jokes!)
But getting back to the issue at hand, it is difficult to argue with the dogmatics. Reason and logic are set aside for bias and the preservation of beliefs that are closely connected with their sense of identity. In defending their position the dogmatics will seek to denigrate the person and their motives rather than deal with the arguments.
Of course I am outlining the extremist position here and the more mild dogmatics will listen to your point of view but then dismiss it without counter argument. They are comfortable in their beliefs and would rather not suffer the inconvenience of having them challenged.
But there is another category of those who will not admit arguments against their beliefs. This category is far more dangerous all together. They are the fanatics.
Let us begin with the Christian fundamentalist fanatics. It could only happen in America! (If only that were true!)
The ironically named the “Right to Life Crusaders” is a group of anti-abortionist militants in the US. They have murdered doctors and nurses and innocent bystanders all for the cause of ensuring that whatever the circumstances women must give birth to children no matter that they might be profoundly disabled or forced on them by rape. In a bizarre contradiction they refer to such abortions as murders but seem to have no compunction in engaging in murder themselves when the victims are those who choose not to believe in their ideology.
As the Nigerian writer and Nobel prize winner, Wole Soyinka observed, for such people the dynamic has changed from “I am right and you are wrong” to “I am right and you are dead.”
We have seen the same response from Islamic fundamentalists. Remember the draconian response to the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. One account I read suggested that 200 people were killed in response to this alleged insult to Islam. It is hard to believe that Allah would be so insecure as to be offended by these comic portrayals. (And who would want to worship a god that had no sense of humour?) And of course Allah is not insecure. (I can say this without fear of contradiction!) These crimes were perpetrated as a result of the insecurity and the fragile underpinnings of faith of the believers in Allah.
There are many other examples of the dreadful work of the fanatics – the senseless killings arising from the recent burning of a Koran, the disproportionate response to Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, the treatment of dissidents in China and other oppressed nations, and so on.
You might like at this stage to go back and read my little blog essay, “Who Has Got the Problem?”
Reviewing the hierarchy I have outlined above, the considerators weigh up the merits of different opinions, the dogmatics merely ignore dissident opinions; but the fanatics in their insular certainty, take offense! And then in their childish insecurity they seek to silence their opponents. In the extreme this results in murder, incarceration and vilification.
Psychologists teach us that people seeking to get their own way manipulate others by anger, suffering and withdrawal. Enlightened people should never fall prey to such subterfuges. Be assured that those who take offense are avoiding the issues by drawing on their feigned suffering. As I have stated elsewhere curtailing our freedom of speech lest we give offense to such sensitive souls does our civilisation no good at all. It results in the dogmatists and more particularly the fanatics silencing proper debate.
Every time we remain silent because of our fear of offending the dogmatics and the fanatics then we have devalued our democracy and we have allowed the reactionaries to have diminished our freedom of speech.
If we take as an example the horrible reaction to the Danish cartoons, some, in fact many, said the fault lay with those who dared to offend Muslims by irreverent displays which denigrated the Prophet Mohammad. I can’t accept that. The ones who should take responsibility for the unjust retribution, the vile and unreasonable punishment of those who poked fun at the Prophet (surely he is secure enough to be immured from such slights) are those that have committed the physical offence. In a tolerant democracy we should be free to say whatever we wish. But we should not be free to harm those who don’t agree with us.
Let us not be afraid to offend if our offense is a result of intellectual honesty. We are all uplifted by rational debate and we are demeaned when such debate is stifled by the insecure and overly promoted sensibilities of the dogmatists, and more particularly, the fanatics.