The United States of America is the land of the ridiculous, the absurd, and thus the dangerous. The pinnacle of its nadir is Trump—the reductio of the idea that a Constitution, no matter how apparently enlightened, is sufficient for greatness, a healthy society and world. While other times have been problematic and terrible in their own way, today we have the great fortune of being what we always wanted to be: special.
Today is a world of conflation, the inability to clearly distinguish between this and that. If the this and that were merely Captain D’s and Long John Silvers, then it would be of little import. Alas, one of the fundamental conflations concerns people and their value. If I had the tiniest cut every time I heard the expression that everyone has a right to their opinion, then I would have bled out long ago. I suppose there’s some basic thing there that’s true, i.e., I don’t have the right to somehow brainwash you or plant a chip in your brain to make you think something. But beyond that, the claim is empty of the content that people seem to think it holds. For they seem to think that it means that their opinion is of equal value with anyone and everyone else’s. Aside from the understandable desire to feel special and at least as smart if not smarter than one’s neighbor, I take it that what truly grounds this inanity is the idea that if one person tells another that their opinion is foolish, stupid, and/or dangerous, or if one has the fortitude to admit this to oneself, then their humanity has been denigrated. If I tell another that I know better than them, then I’m implying that they are somehow lesser as a person.
This is, of course, ridiculous on two fronts. With a little thought one can see that we can respect somebody’s humanity, their personhood, their claims to the rights granted to persons in our society, while at the same time saying that they are not as good as someone else in some aspect, for example, their ability to reason clearly, their understanding of history, their understanding of politics, their understanding of human psychology, their understanding of themselves, etc. — That is not to say that there is no danger in judging others to be inferior in some aspect, for it is all too easy for that to slip into a condemnation of their humanity. So, we must be ever vigilant of that slippage. However, such possibilities of danger should not cause us to “err on the side of caution (stupidity)” and allow ridiculousness to run rampant, as we do.
The other beachhead of ridiculousness is simply that what makes an opinion, a.k.a. a belief, worth having is not one’s having it, but the quality of the evidence, the reasons one has or could have for believing it. What color is the sky? My eyes tell me it’s blue; Trump says it’s green. At this point, it’s really quite straightforward. But, of course, humans are imperfectly rational; belief formation and maintenance are terribly complex, easily influenced by our desires, for example, among other things. I’ve caught myself a number of times, likely far fewer than have actually occurred, disbelieving something because if it were true it would be inconvenient. But these complexities do not invalidate the basic point that having a belief is not a good reason for having it.
The asinine, “all opinions are equal,” I’m sure has a long history, but it is one that has been given a new life with the proliferation of social media and the Internet. It is not difficult to collect an audience on something like Facebook or the comments of a popular online publication. And “we” all know the result: nearly everyone behaves like the paradigmatic antivaxxer who has managed to inoculate themselves against reason.
Another evil of egalitarianism gone awry is the feigned, not rhetorical, question, “Who is to say who is right?” This is simply the assertion that everyone’s opinion is somehow equal because everything is somehow too complicated for anyone to know with any certainty, yet simultaneously, and thus paradoxically, easy enough for everyone to gain sufficient understanding. Well, if we actually take it as a real question, the answer is: it depends. It depends on the topic, and on what counts as expertise on that topic, and what experts are available, their level of expertise, etc.
No doubt, there are important differences in regard to expertise, and again we find here all kinds of conflations and laziness in terms of making distinctions. An expert on building radios from loose parts is a different kind of expert than one on the economy, for example. Both can be judged in relation to their success in achieving their ends: is there a working radio? were the economist’s suggestions successful in steering the economy in the desired direction? Here are all kinds of differences: what counts as a working radio is much more straightforward than what counts as steering the economy in the desired direction, for example. Further, we might be much less forgiving of the person who claims to be an expert in building radios but who very seldom actually can build one that works than with the expert economist whom may still be considered an expert even when their predictions are not always or even often right. Much more can be said about expertise, but the unwillingness to recognize it in others, the unwillingness to defer to others, is a dangerous form of egalitarianism gone awry.
Listening to an NPR story about free speech and people trying to stop speakers from speaking on campuses suggests further instances of conflation and false egalitarianism. People, academics and non-, seem pathologically incapable of distinguishing between a) the importance of listening to/considering opinions different from their own and b) not wanting to hear or thinking it is dangerous to give a stage to people/opinions that are bankrupt in terms of their quality. There is an unbridgeable difference between an Alex Jones and a Friedrich Hayek. In recognition of the importance of hearing dissenting opinions, it would make sense for a “liberal” to give the latter a fair hearing. But it makes absolutely no sense to give an Alex Jones a fair hearing, nor, I dare say, the likes of Douglas Young. Who is to say? I am, for one. As an expert in reasoning, and that does not mean that I’m infallible, I can tell you neither Alex Jones nor Young know how to reason well—many/most/all of their claims fail to follow from their assumptions, for example. And others can tell you that he does not have a grasp of history, economics, politics, etc. As a further example of what I mean, consider this from Young, where he writes the despicable line, “Celebrity chef Paula Deen was professionally lynched for once using a racist epithet at home 30 years ago when referring to the black man who robbed her at gunpoint” (my emphasis). This is vile vomitus, racist diarrhea coming from their mouths and fingers (and, alas, Young is a professor) that they believe to be the “politically incorrect” hard truth. The nonexperts who are their fans fall all over this as it is affirmation of their own disgusting racism. However, they fall under b) above, i.e., by their very endorsement of Jones and/or Young they show that their opinions constitute a vacuum of value. And, so, one manifestation of this false egalitarianism is that too many people lack the education and/or ability to tell the difference between who should be listened to and who should not, including whether to listen to themselves.
A further part of this false egalitarianism, and one that pushes back against the above, is the idea that we need to listen to white supremacists, bigots, sexist, religious fundamentalists, stupid folks etc., so we can better understand them and what they really need or want. Part of this seems to be due to the confusion mentioned above regarding the inability to distinguish a person’s humanity from their level of rationality, their character, actions, and expressed views. But another part seems to stem from the idea that if we do not engage in “civil discourse” with them, we will not be able to get along. We must be willing to reach out to those that have different views, for only if we understand them and their needs, can we help fulfill them; and then maybe they won’t be so racist, sexist, etc. These issues are terribly complex; however, not only is that kind of thinking terribly paternalistic, it also radically misunderstands the nature of racism, sexism, etc. As much as I would love a society in which we all get along and genuinely like each other, and are genuinely equal beyond our humanity, I am skeptical given our history, and whatever remains of human nature, that that’s a real possibility. I just don’t see how we get there from here. In pretending that we will if only we listen to the other, the other again who is spewing stupidities if not also hatred, is delusional. Yes, genuine dialogue is a great ideal. But, again, humans are imperfectly rational, to say the least. Further, when we continue to engage in dialogue with those who undermine society, either through their stupidity or hatred, or both, we legitimize their stupidity and hatred by showing that there is no real consequence for them. We’ll keep being nice, keep rubbing elbows with them despite their bankruptcy of value, not of their personhood but their value to the creation and maintenance of a healthy society.
What is the answer then? As terrible as it would be, in some sense, if we were to take this seriously, I see an ever further partitioning of society into those who know (a term needing a great deal of finessing) and those full of stupidity and/or hatred. One that could easily lead to conflict—even more so if we bring in class distinctions due to capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. To be clear, I see the real culprits of our society to be the purveyors and practitioners of the ideal of profit and material consumption and accumulation. Trump and his horde are dangerous not simply for their lack of integrity, stupidity, and ignorance, but because of their self-centered drive to benefit themselves in the short-term, again, primarily in terms of material gain. I am departing from my beginning here at the end, but they are connected insofar as the conflations outlined above, and there are certainly others, ground the rise of Trump and the slow (but quickening?) fall of this country, and, with the tentacled fingers of global capitalism, the world.
*I take it as obvious that all of this needs to be finessed, added to, expanded upon, etc., and that all my general statements are defeasible.