Reaction Weekend

Weekend Essay: Why fear an idea?

BY David Butterfield   /  6 July 2018

Something odd has happened to opinions. Yes, we’re all grimly familiar with the stories – real and apocryphal – about how intolerant society has become of others’ views. But this disguises a stranger, more alarming phenomenon: what really riles and rankles these days is the holding of any strong opinion at all. At best, voicing such beliefs is dismissed as socially impolite; at worst, to air firm convictions is to perpetrate crimes of thought, crimes which could only be committed (the thinking goes) by rabid, right-wing ideologues.

Surely, you may think, things aren’t quite so bad. After all, views on films, fashion, football and food are exchanged in stringent terms without much bother. British society seems to enjoy an antagonistic restaurant review, or hyperbolic critique on a TV talent show. True enough. But move beyond the relatively relaxed realms of consumerism and leisure, and you’ll find a very different atmosphere indeed.

Somehow, opinions have been hauled up and sent down for being divisive. This is inevitably true: any judgment in favour of any thing implicitly segregates itself from those that judge otherwise. Since inclusivity isn’t a possible outcome in the separatist world of ‘views’, the absurd notion has gained traction that strongly-held opinions with a subjective basis are the exclusive currency of right-wing provocateurs.

Try telling modern Britain that ‘Keats was a better poet than Kavanagh’; that ‘reading books is healthier than watching Netflix’; that ‘some civilisations produced more beautiful art than others.’ A calm course of action would be to discuss how and why you think any such thing– or at least say with Cicero, de gustibus non est disputandum: there’s no arguing about matters of taste. Instead, outrage is inevitable, and any such black-and-white claim is politicised as the Ranting of the Right. By contrast, supposedly Left-wing beliefs are held to be the natural communal view of humanity uncorrupted.

This seems bizarre, but the route of thought is clear enough. Whereas opinions are acknowledged to be inevitably divisive, and unacceptable for that reason, group associations of identity are promoted as inclusive and non-prejudicial, without word or thought muddying the waters. Remove opinions from public discourse entirely, you see, and all will be fair. But the reverse, in fact, is true. Any opinion can be taken up and defended by anyone at all, should they wish to. By contrast, categories such as race, place of birth and biological sex are immutable; whatever club these distinctions do create has a closed membership, restricted to those who have had no say in the matter. Configuring the world by how people choose to think is progressive; structuring it according to individuals’ born identities can only be regressive.

To look at the increasingly vocal and politically-engaged sectors in British society, it may seem perverse to say that forceful opinions are losing ground. But there’s a crucial distinction here between positive and negative propositions. On all sides of the political polyhedron, there’s a frightening dearth of positive ideas to chew over. Instead, public debate faces a proliferation of negative thought, which feeds not on self-standing premises and original conclusions, but on rejecting current policies or practices that are deemed unwelcome or unpopular. Rather than promoting the value of A and B, our airwaves are clogged with denunciations of how (rarely why) X and Y are unconscionable. Yes, corruption is wrong, crime shouldn’t pay, equal opportunities are desirable, and peace beats war. But these are universal truths at which no sound-minded person would baulk. To take things forward, fresh, cogent arguments must be constructed on their own intellectual terms, rather than predicated on upending others’.

The tongue that lashes often fails to lead; the politics of protest often fail to progress.

This is not, I am surprised to conclude, a free speech issue. The increasingly self-confident incursions – from authorities and individuals – on what is and is not sayable are in fact a symptom, not a cause, of the real problem. The university sector, in particular, has borne a lot of criticism for the palpable decline of debate in Britain. Plenty has been said about safe spaces, no-platforming and deproblematised curricula. But, on the ground, these practices are still mercifully rare, and typically condemned by the majority of the academic community, students and staff. The far larger problem is one that transcends any particular institution, group or class. Strong opinions have become strongly objectionable. Reasoned arguments, if cogently expressed, become – by some strange alchemy – unreasonable.

The world is more connected than ever with rapidly-evolving current affairs; exchanging views with strangers has never been easier. The need to encourage individual opinions, and let them fly or fall in a world of open intellectual debate, is paramount. Instead, we are collectively warned from sticking our necks out: just look at what’s happened to others who’ve tried to explain their rational, if personal, thought in public. Even if discussion does manage to get off the ground, it’s hampered by an array of misunderstandings, woeful and wilful. The very business of logical discourse is something most have lost time for. This isn’t an ivory-tower condemnation of unsophisticated debate; the basic principles of discussion and deliberation are being designedly suppressed. Here are five ubiquitous stumbling blocks:

First, the generalisation has been outlawed: a sweeping opinion is dismissed as Neanderthalic crudity. And yet it’s manifestly idiotic to forbid express generalisations on the ground that they apply only to 99% of the field, and thus misrepresent the 1%. Almost every exchange in society depends upon pragmatic generalisations. The very word ‘idea’ has, since Plato, referred to an abstract concept, which can only be rendered imperfectly in the real world. But many would be too stupefied by fear to deploy a catch-all statement of the type ‘humans are bipeds,’ lest it be an outrageous insult to those who are, or perhaps to those who can think of, people without two legs and yet are, indeed, very much humans. This is in no sense a provocative example – and yet, give it a shake, and the unknowable panjandrums on- and increasingly off-line will tell you that heads should roll for such hateful speech.

Second, false equivalence besets many stages of discussion: if A and B share one characteristic, they are yoked together wholesale as ‘no different’: Stalin, for example, used words to persuade people, and murdered the innocent; all politicians and journalists use words to persuade people, and are thus ‘really no different from Stalin’.

Third, the erroneous belief that, if I believe X and you believe Y, this marks the end of the argument rather than the beginning of it. ‘That’s your opinion, and that’s fine.’ But opinions should be weighed, not counted: if I have two positive arguments, and you have two negative, it will very rarely mean a 50-50 draw that renders progress impossible. Anodyne remarks about everyone being allowed to do and think as they please only kick the bigger arguments into the long grass.

Fourth, conditional propositions – where the ‘if’ clause sets the crucial conditions for the main assertion – are outlawed from ‘serious’ conversation because they are merely ‘hypothetical.’ Instead of discussing the complexity of an issue honestly, or debating ‘What should be done if’, any thought beyond the here-and-now of present reality is dismissed as fanciful irrelevance

Fifth and finally, while bizarre cryptocurrencies, unfathomable to most, trade at ever higher prices, the value of facts has dipped to an all-time low in the modern era. Printed facts, never in greater abundance and never more readily accessible, are wilfully overlooked, as if outmoded by their very medium: surely all worthwhile data (the modern mind supposes ) must have made the digital transition. And yet those facts that are laboriously dredged up online are uniformly subjected to grave doubt and irresolvable dispute. A difficult but decisive argument is often binned because of the weak-kneed claim, ‘I don’t believe your figures.’ And yet most of what is knowable – and worth knowing – is known.

In such an environment of obscurantism – deliberate or otherwise – opinions are left dangling, neither secured by supportive arguments nor lopped down by incontrovertible reasoning. Any views left in play must face the knee-jerk response that strong convictions must mean strong offence, which must in turn mean strong leanings to the Right. After all, it’s far easier to dismiss robust opinions as crude dogmatism than work them through the cogs of rational debate.

This all really matters, especially for those entering the public sphere afresh. There has never been a historical period when teenagers did not want to rise above their place in society, to challenge their immediate environs, and to aspire to be something else, real or imagined. Views, opinions, beliefs and ideas are the lifeblood for personal motivation, for social mobility, even for happiness. To debate in the abstract is to learn how to live in the concrete. Deprive ourselves of that right – and that pleasure – and we’re in the dark.

Ideas, let it be said, are as ebullient as ever in science, medicine and advertising. But, look closer, and they’re dragging a price tag behind them. In society more broadly, ideas are in short supply. The arts, in particular, are deafeningly quiet. The BBC, it seems, has lost confidence in posing ideas, instead fumbling about in a haze of relativism. Occasionally opinions are aired openly – at 10a.m. on Sunday (The Big Questions), or 10.45p.m. on Thursday (Question Time) – but these are hurried sessions, with only snippets of clear-headed reasoning. As often as not, the brightest flashes of clarity come from the audience, not the pointy-headed panel. Meanwhile, Hollywood retreats into itself, looking back for answers that are as boring as the questions posed: what, oh what, can we remake again? Celebrities, now granted unmediated contact with a wider audience than ever, fritter away that opportunity in marketing plugs or blank expressions of global solidarity. Twitter is a platform of empty leaders: the larger the following, the lesser the thought.

The complaint that politics is more boring than ever is true, if not new. With aspirant MPs showing far greater concern for their careers than their constituents, a grim admixture of brass-necked partisanship and tight-lipped obsequiousness have trumped ideas-first originality and principle-over-party conviction. More cogent arguments are now conducted in the pub and across the dinner table than in the public chamber.

Strong opinions, of course, still can find a market. The press profits in no short measure from its most outspoken opinion-mongers, albeit within a fervid feedback loop. In wider society, this process is commonly mocked as an oafish public being carried along by silver-tongued, black-hearted demagogues. Few stop to consider why such writers persuade in such large measure: in part, it’s their arguments that compel and corral; in part, however, it’s that they are prepared to argue often controversial topics openly and in the uninterrupted flow of a column, without anyone wincing, wailing or walking off.

It’s a self-fulfilling ordinance that strongly condemning the strong condemnation of opinions will be dismissed as the worst of the worst. Perhaps, but I think not quite: far worse is shooting down unwonted and unwelcome sentences before they’ve even reached the main verb.