Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Anarchy of Ideas.

“Opinions are like arseholes. Everyone has one, and everyone else’s stinks.”
— old witticism.
“Only when they’re full of shit.”
Quincy’s stock response.
The expression which forms this post’s title is most commonly used to refer to the notion that “anything goes”, in terms of philosophy and opinion. To favour it is to hold that opinions somehow should be immune from attack, because they’re personal and precious; and coupled with this, because opinions are personal and precious, everyone has a responsibility to reinvent the wheel and have a unique set of opinions rather than accepting those of others, even if he agrees with them.

This is to some extent commendable. The capacity for independent thought is a virtue, but in encouraging skepticism and critical thinking it is easy to encourage cynicism and solipsism, which are just as unhealthy as ignorance and blind faith. Note that I said the capacity for independent thought. If someone has come up with compelling arguments for a view you accept, there’s nothing wrong with agreeing and leaving it at that. Constant criticism is mentally exhausting and for the most part unnecessary.

The use of the word anarchy is especially apt, because it suggests not just liberty and individualism but also a state of disorganised chaos. Such an intellectual climate emphasises the difference between competing views, and downplays their compatibility; the extremists drown out the moderates, as we’ve seen in the last decade in American politics. The average Republican voter is nowhere near as fundamentalist or as libertarian as the average Republican campaigner or supporter. The average Christian has no problem with the existence of Muslims or gays, or the use of contraception, but you wouldn’t think that to listen to the average minister. Marcus Brigstocke accuses the reasonable moderates of complicity in such extremism by providing it with a power base; without it, the extremists “would just be loonies, harmlessly locked away somewhere nice.”

The results are felt on both sides of politics; the Greens, the communists and other vaguely socialist groups might agree on the majority of their core tenets, but they compete and emphasise their differences, splitting off the socialist vote. This is especially damaging in plurality systems like in the USA, but even in preferential Australia the lack of a united front leaves the ALP the default, or default second preference, for the socialist left. On the right, churches have split over the most minor theological or metaphysical disagreements, and ecumenism has won few battles to overcome these divides; if the DLP, the Christian Party, Fred Nile and Family First, all of which share mostly similar policies, had pooled their resources, they might have been able to get some seats. I don’t think this would have been a good thing for the country, but it would have been in line with the parties’ policy goals. Once you’ve got some united sort of power, you can work on making the appropriate compromises so as to best represent your electorate.

I, of all people, don’t mean to advocate simple conservatism, or sacrificing one’s individuality. I am certainly not a moral conservative, although I am conservative when it comes to things like fashion and architecture, for reasons I will detail another day. What I would really like to see is an emphasis on context, on the relationship between ideas, and on qualified agreement rather than complete rejection where some compatibility exists.

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