Why public discussion has become increasingly irrational

A regime of pyramiding illusions that substitutes abuse for argument can’t last forever, and many wonder what will end it.

(Image: pathdoc | us.fotolia.com)

Five years ago I made some comments on the growing mindlessness of Western society. Basically, I said that thought is losing coherence and connection to reality. The reasons include:

Prosperity. If people can get away with stupidity and irrationality they’ll be stupid and irrational.

Functional atheism. If reality isn’t ultimately rational or worthy of allegiance, why bother with it? Isn’t self-indulgent fantasy more pleasant?

Globalization. Everyday life now depends on relations and influences that are far too complex and extensive to understand or even know much about. But if there’s no way to get a grip on what’s going on, why not accept the first silly idea that seems appealing?

Institutionalization. Public thought is increasingly carried on by careerists working for large hierarchical institutions like universities, think tanks, and media organizations. As a result it loses independence and perspective, and reflects the needs, illusions, and vanities of power.

Electronic culture. The electronic media fragment the world into images and soundbites that can be selected and reassembled into anything whatever. If someone suspects the world is flat or run by shape-shifting alien reptiles he can go online and find confirmation.

Diversity and multiculturalism. There is no longer a broad public with a common sense of things concrete enough to carry on intelligent discussion. To make matters worse, the antidiscrimination principle makes it impossible to settle any controversy on rational grounds—to do so would be to devalue some people’s lived reality.

Ideology. Those who want to avoid homemade or amateurish forms of insanity, and find answers institutional voices tell them are plainly correct, can do so by signing on to professionally-curated insanity in the form of dominant political and social ideologies.

Deception. The foregoing circumstances provide an open field for spin, propaganda, “fake news,” public relations, and other arts of illegitimate persuasion.

Catholics should be deeply concerned by such tendencies, because they are public-spirited citizens, and because these tendencies are causing the Church’s own teachings to lose apparent definition and justification. When thought disintegrates all human institutions, including the human aspect of the Church, do the same.

Since I wrote that piece the problems have only radicalized. For example, the notion that the world is constructed by how people think about it—a form of the view that thinking makes things so—has found broader and broader application. The consequences can be seen in the growing rejection of human nature, with transgenderism as the latest and most spectacular example. Catholicism and natural law, which hold that reality has a given structure that carries with it intrinsic goods and obligations, are therefore seen as essentially oppressive. If you think the natural family has a fundamental status that makes it central to any normally functional society, or even that there are two and only two sexes, you’re now considered a hater who needs to be shut up before the hatred turns violent.

If reality is constructed then everyone can join in the fun, and the official view is that we all should do so. The Supreme Court authoritatively tells us that “at the heart of liberty”—and thus the American constitutional order—“is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The liberation of thought from objective reality has thus been declared basic to what we are as a nation.

That principle doesn’t have the effect people think it does. Taken seriously it would mean chaos. So dominant institutions inevitably join together to propagandize their view of reality and what it means. Not surprisingly, that view involves the supremacy of global markets and transnational bureaucracies over the whole of human life.

The result is that all means of public communication promote initiatives such as “inclusiveness,” “tolerance,” and “celebrating diversity” that disrupt institutions, authorities, and connections—family, religion, inherited cultural community—that compete or interfere with the principles of social order favored by the rich and powerful.

The claim, of course, is that such initiatives set everyone free to create his own moral world, just as the Supreme Court demands. The problem is that the moral worlds must all be “tolerant”: they must leave other people alone, accept the equal goodness of every other moral world, and support the public order, which is thought to embody freedom and equality. The result is that the freedom they offer is limited to matters of personal taste regarding private matters people who run things don’t care about.

The Supreme Court’s grand project of human liberation thus reduces to the right to make career, hobby, lifestyle, and consumption choices that can easily be accommodated within a global regulated economic order that programmatically loosens personal connections. “Each of us defines his own moral reality” turns out, when reduced to a workable system, to mean “the strongest define moral reality.”

Propaganda in favor of such understandings has been enormously effective. Religious, moral, and cultural leaders sign on to them because it’s easier to get praised for repeating what they are told than take the responsibilities of their position seriously. And how can anyone resist when thought has become nonfunctional? Consistency and continuity are necessary for effective argumentation, and the disruption of social connections other than market and bureaucratic relationships makes those things very difficult to maintain outside dominant institutions. So if an ordinary person objects to his rulers’ assertion of sovereignty over the very nature of things—as displayed, for example, by their redefinition of sex and marriage—he finds no effective leaders or allies. All he can do is grumble, join what counts as a fringe group, or support sporadic populist outbursts that soon fall apart or get co-opted.

Even so, the situation won’t be stable long-term. A ruling class that believes its own propaganda loses its grip on reality. And to maintain the orthodoxy that justifies its position it must repeatedly double down. That is why 9/11 and AIDs have insulated Islam and homosexuality from criticism, and transgender suicides prove that transgenderism must be welcomed as wholly normal and unremarkable.

Public discussion thus becomes altogether irrational. In the absence of good argumentsto justify official policies and positions criticism is dealt with by personal abuse and destruction of careers. The dominant side refuses to listen to its opponents on principle, because it views opposition as a simple matter of hatred, ignorance, and violence. Discussion, it is thought, would give legitimacy to such things and betray those threatened by them.

A regime of pyramiding illusions that substitutes abuse for argument can’t last forever, and many wonder what will end it. Will it be a return to common sense? Or will it be financial collapse, ethnic conflict, ideological fanaticism, loss of the loyalty and public spirit needed for institutions to function, or the growing power of countries like China that seem largely immune to Western insanity?

Nobody knows. Vacations from reality, like stock market bubbles, can go farther and last longer than seems possible to those who recognize them for what they are. The obvious outcome of present tendencies would be a radically fragmented society ruled by a weak, corrupt, and abusive government. Proponents of recent interventions in the Middle East have noted that the people there are very much like us. But since that’s so, why won’t we deal with a radically diverse and multicultural society—that is to say, one that lacks the common understandings needed to sustain productive discussion and mutual loyalty—the same way they have?

Absit omen. A return to reason is always possible, and the coming years will require us all to defy current trends and think clearly and realistically about a very messy and difficult situation. Catholics have the resources in our tradition to do so, and we should work to take advantage of them. If we succeed in doing so we will make a very great contribution to the world.

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