The increasing inability to reach a “sensible centre” consensus on important political and cultural issues – what the late Christopher Pearson called “club sensible” – has been much noted across Western countries. The capacity to “reach across the aisle” in the USA, for example, is all but a distant memory. Ideological and partisan opponents have dug into entrenched positions on most issues and refuse to budge. More and more, we find that ad hominem attacks substitute for reasoned, solutions-oriented, respectful conversations among antagonists. There are a number of reasons why this has occurred.
One is the pervasive influence of relativism – the belief that there is no truth, not in relation to anything. Another is the coming of social media, which encourages all sorts of people with all sorts of views to vent them boldly to audiences they may not know personally and will ikely never meet face to face. A third reason is the general shallowness and incoherence of the age in which we live. A fourth is the decline of critical thinking skills that were, in former times, routinely developed in the many classics, humanities and liberal arts programs that now more or less no longer exist. Critical skills that supported reasoned arguments, and therefore reasonable positions on topics of the day. A fifth, I believe, is that now it is just about universally (and erroneously) accepted across most political and cultural institutions that “everything is political”, and that “the personal is political”. Again, this is post-modernism 101. A sixth is the close contemporary alignment of the political with one’s group “identity”, guaranteeing a deeply personal and entirely subjective stake in one’s political positions. This applies specifically to those of the left, who so often are allowed to set the agendas for political and cultural debate.
But there is something else at work. This is an age of ideology, of group identity, of culture wars and warriors. Of in-built, reflexively and tightly held positions on issues. There is much intransigence, often viciously expressed. And the stakes are high. If you are religious, for example, it matters deeply when supporters of gay rights press on beyond the acquisition of agreed, sensible respect for all persons and their dignity, towards dictating whom Christian schools can employ. We see all around the attacks on freedom of speech and of belief, their enemies gussied-up with awards and accolades despite representing the antithesis of that which they are purported to champion. The stakes are indeed high. People can lose their jobs, their careers even, when they express the “wrong” views (especially in public) on a contested subject where there are ideologically entrenched positions in play.
There seems very little desire abroad to say, “Well, you have a point, you know. Let’s sit down and discuss this over a coffee. We might both be right, or at least we might both hit upon parts of the truth.” Yeah, right.
One of the ultimate fears of the ideologue is of losing face. Hence there can never be an admission or error , no ejaculative “Crikey, you may be onto something!” when new facts emerge or a compelling case is made which undermines one’s core position(s). There is simply too much at stake when one is deeply dug in, and when one sees much riding on the outcome of the argument. The thinking is entirely self-serving: If I admit this bit, well, my whole philosophy looks shaky. The commanding heights, won so hard, must never be conceded. No one, therefore, seems inclined to follow Lord Keynes, who famously and sensibly said, “I change my mind when the facts change. What do you do?”
I recall a 2016 conversation over a dinner at a conference where I and another were prosecuting the case that Donald Trump would be a far less disastrous president than Hillary Clinton, who, we suggested, was a crook and known to be a crook. The response was, “Well, that’s your truth; it isn’t necessarily mine” — a guaranteed conversation stopper. There is little comeback, when the notion of truth itself, the very possibility of reaching a conclusion to the debate, is jettisoned. Ideology breeds entrenched positions, and denies the possibility of reasoned argument, especially when it is buttressed by relativism as the operating system of debate. I hate Trump, ergo Hillary Clinton cannot be a crook who broke the law (as she clearly did) through her use of private email servers and accounts that exposed or potentially exposed state secrets. And that is before we get to her peddling of influence for profit.
One of the consequences of ideology-driven, rather than fact-driven, political positioning is that it ensures baseless positions and arguments survive in the marketplace of ideas for way longer than they should, indeed long past their used-by dates. It also often makes ideologues simply look stupid, when they hold to embarrassing positions in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Yet because ideology trumps evidence, these people have no option but to keep digging the hole. The results ain’t pretty.
Case one: George Monbiot of The Guardian during the recent snow storms in Britain, opined as follows:
Really. This would have to be the archetypal case of ideology forcing someone to hold to a position that simply makes him look like a plonker, all because he cannot accept the consequences of changing his position. The investment in his ideology is too great.
Case two. Embattled Greens leader Richard Di Natale just the other day
No, they are not. Of the many falsely claimed impacts of (claimed) global warming, this is one of the most ridiculous of those regularly repeated. There are many causes of bushfires (with apologies to Aristotle), whether they be formal, material, efficient or final causes. But if one holds the view that councils must never engage in hazard reduction through controlled burnings because of harm done to the environment, then one has to find another cause for the often tragic bushfires that rip through the waiting bonfires of accumulated fuel loads. Hence “global warming”. The ideologically sustained fallacies in this instance are twofold, as the catastrophists must keep finding fresh and scary things about (claimed) global warming. So let’s add bushfires to the list! Those who make these inane arguments do so because their ideological investments are so pervasive and so deep.
Case three. Twitter celebrity and one of the ABC’s most garrulousl Muslim hood ornament Yassmeen Abdel-Magied
To summarise, it is racist to offer refugee status to white South African farmers who are regularly murdered on their farms, and who are now under the real threat of having their farms and incomes confiscated without compensation by their government. Those who hold this view do so because of an ideological belief in the ghastliness of any and all post-colonial vestiges of Western imperialism. In this case, it is quite OK not to defend group rights because of South Africans on the pointy end of home invasions and rural massacres because of what there are and their ancestors were. (In point of fact, the real racism here is the very use of the phrase “white farmer”, but that is another matter). Again, the argument is silly and looks silly, but the folks who believe the argument against logic and honest evidence must sustain their overall positions and, most important, deflect scrutiny from their previous positions and statements.
Case four. Greg Jericho gives Guardian readers another helping of the same old, same old
“…the issue of childcare – who does it, its accessibility and cost – remains
a massive barrier to work for women…”
The subtext here is that we must forever extend, facilitate, subsidise and make a career of child care so that women can fulfil their destinies to escape the grinding heel of patriarchy and domestic drudgery (and become wage slaves like their unfortunate male partners). The deep and pervasive upper-middle-class chip-on-the-shoulder feminism that underpins the belief in subsidised child care trumps any evidence that it might do harm to children — and, indeed, to their mothers. It, too, is based on ideology, not science, as the consequences of one of the greatest social experiments in human history must never be raised, let alone questioned. We cannot not do this. We simply cannot concede there might be problems with institutionalised, subsidised care of very young children by strangers. These are some of the fruits of the feminist revolution — and the revolution’s ideology trumps children’s welfare.
In all four of the above, and many other cases, there is too much at stake for ideologues to give ground on the core issues on the basis of logical thought and empirical argument, or even to concede that there might be another position. The personal is political. Ideology must prevail over argument and evidence. When the facts change, I don’t change my mind, I simply shout louder. Scream even. Abuse opponents. Unfriend them. Shut up – the science is settled! There can be no debate on this.
Far more dangerously, though, acquiring and retaining power is now routinely the means of enforcing one’s positions on the many, typically using state power but now also deploying corporate power when state power proves insufficient (see under Joyce, Alan or AGL or Bank Australia. “Let’s be honest,” the AGL ad begins. How’s that for chutzpah!)
Ideologues are so often forced to defend the indefensible, and look silly doing so, because they have lost the will, and perhaps the ability, to argue their positions on the facts. But on a deeper level, now that ideology is so entrenched in our society and institutions one’s ideological position scotches critical thinking and reason. It nukes the very possibility of debate.
No, this is not an enlightened age. There can be no sensible centre. Derrida wins.