An intellectual journey: dodging the culture wars, thinking for myself

If we want to find the truth we have to resist the temptation of simply picking a side.
Zac Alstin | 30 October 2014
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The so-called “godfather of neo-conservatism” Irving Kristol once defined a neo-conservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” But in my experience that is only the first step towards intellectual honesty.

In my youth I embraced all the basic dogmata of a modern liberal culture, without realising there was an alternative. The forces of media, peer consensus, and mainstream education informed me with a naïve understanding across a plethora of issues from the bioethical to the political.

Convictions about American hegemony, environmental destruction, the inherent exploitation and greed of capitalism, the backwardness of religious and traditional morality, the inertia of the masses, and above all the need for change coloured my view of the world.

The real dogmata in this context are the attitudes behind the beliefs. After hearing about the courageous rebel who fights against the forces of mindless tradition a hundred times, you learn that tradition is always wrong and the rebel is always right.  After hearing a thousand critiques of the rich and powerful, you internalise the message that the rich and powerful are intrinsically corrupt.

In my mind a conservative was someone who clung to an unjust order out of ignorance, prejudice or a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. By contrast, a liberal was someone who challenged corrupt and staid authority, discovered new possibilities, and fought against injustice. It was a very simple narrative of good versus evil, informed by a combination of culturally influential ideologies and pervasive propaganda.

At university I learned a great deal without ever being challenged in these “liberal” presuppositions. I became depressed at the state of the world: a world dominated by an economic superpower whose prosperity was built on exploitation of the global poor. Socialism may have failed, but I could sympathise with the intent. Everywhere I looked I saw wealth built at the expense of the poor, power wielded at the expense of the weak, and the great mass of my compatriots filled with a complacent ignorance in the face of our own complicity in this global inequality. The only limit on my disdain for American imperialism was my recognition that the problem was not peculiar to the United States, but to hegemony in general.

But what if wealth were not evil?

I don’t remember how it happened, but one day I found myself reflecting on this pervasive, dismaying link between wealth and exploitation. I began to look critically at this belief and my reasons for thinking it was true. I had studied history, politics, and philosophy, but I had never studied economics. Wasn’t it therefore beyond my expertise to accept at face value the claim that Western wealth was built on exploitation of the Third World?

What if a different theory were true: what if it were true instead that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, and that the wealth of the US was actually a driver of global wealth more generally? If that were the case, the wealth of the US would no longer be a force for evil, but a force for good in the world. I “tried on” this point of view, like trying on a different pair of glasses, and the change was dramatic. The signs of prosperity and consumption were no longer reminders of exploitation and Third World oppression, but hopeful signs of growing wealth and progress generally. The US was no longer a malignant economic tumour, draining global resources for its own benefit, but the pinnacle of global economic development: the tip of the spear. The world was not being smothered under the weight of a greedy elite, it was in fact heading generally in the right direction.

I could have stayed in this mindset. But I was fortunate that I came upon it not through simple conversion from one set of beliefs to another, but through an act of self-critical scepticism. My conclusion was not that capitalism is now good rather than evil; rather, that I did not know the answer, yet had allowed my ignorant belief to shape my attitude and worldview for some years.

To exchange one set of unfounded beliefs for another would not have been a true intellectual development. Adopting a sceptical approach to my own beliefs was, by contrast, a revolutionary development that set me on the path of critiquing and investigating the various attitudes and beliefs I had hitherto taken for granted.

This personal process accelerated during my time working at the now defunct Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, where I was afforded the luxury of looking at depth into a range of controversial and contested issues. I remember looking, in passing, at an article by a popular and long-standing Australian social commentator who alleged that the Pope was responsible for the deaths of millions in Africa, due to the Catholic Church’s stance on condoms. Contraception was not one of our areas of study, but I nonetheless wrote to the commentator, wondering how the Church’s stance on condoms could be causing an increase in HIV transmission, given the Church’s stance on sexual promiscuity? Were African AIDS sufferers devout Catholics who obeyed the Pope when he said not to wear condoms, but studiously ignored him when he said not to have sex outside of marriage? Would we hold a doctor responsible if we only followed half of his prescription and continued to get sick? The point was not about objecting to a comment I found disagreeable, but inquiring into a claim that did not ring true and therefore warranted further investigation.

Avoiding the culture warrior approach

But a healthy scepticism also requires us to be equally cautious and self-critical in our own approach. Our attitude should not be that of a heavily-armoured culture warrior rushing into battle, but of a determined and vulnerable seeker for the truth. Our determination should be for the truth, not for victory over some apparent opponent. We must be vulnerable because true inquiry will challenge our own closely held beliefs, and bring with it the possibility of being proved wrong. In fact the only way to become invulnerable is to have no unexamined beliefs in the first place – to be completely honest about the limits of our own knowledge and certainty, and to approach controversial claims with a Socratic or Confucian humility:

Do I have knowledge? No, I do not. If even a bumpkin asks a question of me, I am all empty. I simply tap at both ends of the question until I exhaust it.

When Socrates approaches his interlocutors in dialogue, like Confucius he does not feign ignorance. Rather, he approaches the dialogue afresh, ready to engage with the question as a living thing, utilising not the remembered answer he worked out some time before, but taking the time and the effort to work towards the answer anew each time.

It is vital that we likewise resist the temptation to let old answers take the place of live reason. If we succumb to this temptation we cease to exercise the virtues of wisdom and instead become mere partisans of a different stripe. We risk replacing naïve liberal narratives and attitudes with conservative or neo-conservative ones. The problem is not that the narratives are liberal or conservative, but that in either case we allow narratives to inform our thoughts instead of doing the hard work of thinking for ourselves. The truth is neither liberal nor conservative, and we should be wary of any tendency in ourselves to let the difficult and elegant pursuit of truth collapse into a partisan attitude.   

Thinking about the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal

This latest realisation became most evident to me in my own intellectual response to the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. While I did not doubt the magnitude of the sex abuse scandal, I found that my attention was drawn more to exculpating factors than to a rightful appreciation of the crimes and cover-ups themselves. I automatically critiqued the “consensus” view that the Church was rife with abusers, noting the points that now constitute something of a standard apologia for the Church in this context: that sexual abuse of minors was hitherto common across society and institutions, that the media has a demonstrated animus for the Church and singled it out for attack, that the “cover-up” was based in ignorance and misleading professional advice about the nature of abusers, and that the proportion of abusers was actually relatively low among the clergy compared to the rest of society.

I had seen so many instances in which popular wisdom about the failings of the Church had proved misleading and inadequate: the Galileo affair, the Crusades, the rationale against contraception, even oddities like the Beavers-are-fish anecdote and the claim that Pope Gregory IX declared cats to be “diabolical”. Anyone with an ounce of genuine fairness toward the Church could investigate these claims and find that the truth was more complex than popular wisdom would allow.

But the danger is that these experiences can themselves become another unthinking narrative. How many times can you find that the truth is much kinder to the Church than popular wisdom will admit, before you internalise this message and start searching for the kinder truths from the outset? How many times can you be astonished at the errors and seemingly wilful ignorance of the Church’s critics, before you presume that all such criticisms are bound to be in error?

In my experience, it is hard to fully appreciate the enormity of the failings while also searching earnestly for mitigating factors. And given the exalted nature of the Church’s mission, it is hard to see what factors could truly mitigate the failures. It has never been the case that my neighbour’s faults mitigate my own. “Everyone else was doing it” is not an excuse we allow for children, so why would we proffer it for an institution that claims to speak with moral authority?

These realisations about the Church epitomised a more general retreat from partisan thinking.  While I had long ago rejected the kind of unreflecting anti-American sentiment imbibed as an undergraduate student, I now knew that an equally fractious pro-American attitude made me want to gloss over or ignore the worst excesses of that superpower. 

Seeking truth rather than victory

My thinking on economic matters underwent a similar inversion: while I had recoiled from the socialist critique of capitalism as an inherently immoral system, time and familiarity have made me increasingly wary of the alternative extreme – faith in the “free market” as the impersonal arbiter of economic justice. 

On environmental issues, it was a liberating and contrarian move for me to recognise that human development and human exceptionalism deserve to be retained, against the most misanthropic, misguided and inhumane thinking within the environmental movement.  But such a realisation could all too easily become a complacent and uncritical endorsement of “progress”, as though human avarice and contempt for nature were not truly ugly and immoral.

Whether the subject be the Catholic Church, American supremacy, Western civilisation, or the morality of capitalism, there is something in the human mind that pushes us to extremes: either for or against.  As Confucius said: “[T]he superior man is catholic and not partisan. The mean man is partisan and not catholic.” No matter how intelligent and objective our starting point, a part of us wants the security and ease of simply picking a side; having somewhere to lay our head. This tendency cannot be resisted without courage, hard work, and uncompromising honesty. 

In our age it can be hard to find exemplars of such intellectual honesty if we do not exemplify it ourselves.  They are, I believe, more common than we realise yet less liable to capture our attention than all the partisan proponents of lesser wisdom, who feed our appetite for easy answers and reassurances. 

Will we recognise such people when we meet them?  Only if we become fellow travellers on the way, seeking truth rather than victory and regarding true knowledge as the victory worth having.  It means no longer regarding other people as our enemies or opponents when the real opponent is our own ignorance, self-deception, pride and distorted passions.  It means a willingness to face the terrible discomfort that comes with scrutinising one’s own knowledge and beliefs: What do I really know? How do I know it? Are my standards of knowledge good enough?  Is this real knowledge or pseudo-knowledge? 

Such self-scrutiny is both bitter and humbling, especially when applied to the beliefs and opinions we take for granted.  But the rewards are worth it – to come closer to the truth, and be freed, at least in part, from the burden and pretention of error.  As the French Philosopher Antonin Sertillanges wrote:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

I would not go so far as Socrates in saying that the unexamined life is not worth living.  But with a recollected and unburdened soul we can begin to savour the same wisdom that inspired our ancient and revered teachers, and experience that ecstasy described by Sertillanges as “a flight upwards, away from self, a forgetting to live our own poor life, in order that the object of our delight may live in our thought and in our heart”. 

What could be more worth our while?

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com

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