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When Ideology Is More Important Than Truth

More from philosopher Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon In Democracy [1]in which the Polish Catholic academic, an anti-communist dissident, explores the similarities between communism and liberal democracy:

The liberal-democratic man, especially if he is an intellectual or an artist, is very reluctant to learn, but, at the same time, all too eager to teach. This trait of his character is in a way understandable once we remember that his nature was considerably impoverished by his turning back on standards of classical and Christian anthropology. He lost, or rather, as his apologists would have put it, was relieved of the intellectual instruments — deemed unnecessary — that would enable him to describe the inadequacy of his existence and to articulate a sense of want. He is, as Ortega once put it, a self-satisfied individual, not in the sense that he occasionally fails to feel his misery, or to be haunted by a fear of death, a disgust of meaninglessness, a fatigue of the mystification that, as he begins to realize more and more acutely, surrounds him, but because he assumes and never has the slightest doubt that he is in possession of the entirety of the human experience. Looking around, he finds hardly anything that would put this conviction into question and a lot that gives it — practically each day and with each development – a strong corroboration.

On life under communist ideology:

The ubiquitous ideology in the communist and liberal-democratic societies drag people farther and farther from reality. One of the most unpleasant aspects of living under communism was an awareness that we were always surrounded by nonreality, i.e., artifacts fabricated by the propaganda machine, whose aim was to prevent us from seeing reality as it was.

Oftentimes it was a fraud or simply a suppression of information about, for example, the state of the economy, or who murdered whom at Katyn, or what the fraternal Parties agreed on during the summit. But it was something more sinister than that. The entire atmosphere was sultry, because we could not free ourselves from a feeling that we were living among phantoms in the world of illusion, or rather of delusion.

After communism ended in Poland, Prof. Legutko found that:

Very quickly the world became hidden under a new ideological shell and the people became hostage to another version of the Newspeak but with similar ideological mystifications. Obligatory rituals of loyalty and condemnations were revived, this time with a different object of worship and a different enemy.

The new commissars of the language appeared and were given powerful prerogatives, and just as before, mediocrities assumed their self-proclaimed authority to track down ideological apostasy and condemn the unorthodox — all, of course, for the glory of the new system and the good of the new man. Media — more refined than under communism — performed a similar function: standing at the forefront of the great transformation leading to a better world and spreading the corruption of the language to the entire social organism and all its cells.

… Practically everyone felt coerced not only to take the right side, but to reassert his partisanship by surrendering to all the necessary language rituals without any critical thought or disarming doubt. The person accused of a reactionary attitude under communism could not effectively defend himself because once the accusation was made it disallowed any objection. Even the best counterargument to the effect that the charge was ill-stated, and that being a reactionary does not mean that one is necessarily wrong just as being a progressive does not mean that one is necessarily right, only sank the accused person deeper. Any such argument was a confirmation of his belonging to the reactionary camp, which was clearly reprehensible if not downright criminal. The only option that the defendant had was to admit his own guilt and submit a self-criticism as self-downgrading as possible, but even that did not have to be accepted. If the defendant had the right to answer the charges in public — and of course hd did not — the immediate result was an avalanche of well-orchestrated condemnations and mass protests where the indignant engineers, workers, and writers shredded the insolent reactionary into pieces.

Legutko says it’s the same way under contemporary liberal-democracy on the subject of homosexuality. If you’re smart, he says, and you have anything critical to say about homosexuality or the gay rights movement, you had better begin by condemning homophobia and praising the gay rights movement, and you had better serve up your criticism wrapped in “the rhetoric of tolerance, human rights,” etc.

The characteristic feature of both societies — communist and liberal democratic — was that a lot of things simply could not be discussed because they were unquestionably bad or unquestionably good. Discussing them was tantamount to casting doubts on something whose value had been unequivocally determined. … The language discipline is the first test for loyalty to the orthodoxy just as the neglect of this discipline is the beginning of all evil.

Trust me, if you are a conservative, you need to buy Prof. Legutko’s book [1]. It’s powerful. These passages brought to mind philosopher Edward Feser’s discussion [2] of the recent controversy in the Midwest Society of Christian Philosophers. As I wrote yesterday [3], Richard Swinburne, one of the most important Christian philosophers on the planet, delivered at their recent meeting a lecture in which he criticized homosexuality. Notre Dame philosopher Michael Rea, the president of the group, issued this public apology:

I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne’s keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As President of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward.

Edward Feser comes out swinging hard in defense of Swinburne’s right to say what was on his mind. Excerpts:

Fourth, Rea says that because he is “committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community,” he is “consequently… committed to the values of diversity and inclusion.”  Well, fine.  So what’s the problem, exactly?  “Diversity and inclusion” in the context of “the intellectual life of [a] philosophical community” surely entails that a “diversity” of opinions and arguments be “included” in the discussion.  Now, Swinburne’s view is unpopular these days.  It is often not “included” in philosophical discussions of sexual morality, discussions which tend not to be “diverse” but instead are dominated by liberal views.  Hence having Swinburne present the views he did is precisely a way of advancing the cause of “diversity and inclusion.”  Yet Rea treats it as if it were the opposite.  Why?

Fifth, Rea speaks about the SCP having “fallen short” of the ideals of diversity and inclusion and of his resolve to “strive for them going forward.”  Well, what does that entail exactly?  Evidently he thinks that letting Swinburne say what he did amounts to having “fallen short.”  So is Rea saying that, “going forward,” he will work to make sure that views like Swinburne’s are no longer expressed at SCP meetings, or at least in SCP keynote addresses?  How would preventing views from being expressed amount to the furthering of “diversity and inclusion”?  And how would that square with the free and open debate that philosophy is supposed to be all about?

 

What this is really about, says Feser, is “making public dissent from liberal conventional wisdom on sexuality practically difficult or impossible.” And:

What does all this have to do with Rea and Swinburne?  Just this.  Sophistries and ruthless political pressure tactics of the sort just described succeed only when people let them succeed – when they let themselves be intimidated, when they acquiesce in the shaming and shunning of those who express unpopular views, when they enable the delegitimization of such views by treating them as something embarrassing, something to apologize for, something “hurtful,” etc.

This, it seems to me, is what Rea has done in the case of Swinburne.  Given current cultural circumstances, Rea’s statement amounts to what philosophers call a Gricean implicature – it “sends a message,” as it were — to the effect that the SCP agrees that views like Swinburne’s really are disreputable and deserving of special censure, something to be quarantined and set apart from the ideas and arguments that respectable philosophers, including Christian philosophers, should normally be discussing.

That is unjust and damaging to philosophy itself, not merely to Swinburne.  It is especially unjust and damaging to younger academic philosophers – grad students, untenured professors, and so forth – who are bound to be deterred from the free and scholarly investigation of unpopular ideas and arguments.  If even the Society of Christian Philosophers is willing to participate in the public humiliation even of someone of the eminence, scholarly achievement, and gentlemanly temperament of Richard Swinburne, then why should any young and vulnerable scholar trust his fellow academic philosophers to “have his back” when questions of academic freedom arise?  Why should he believe they are sincere in their purported commitment to reason over sophistry?

Read Feser’s whole commentary.  [2] This is the world that conservatives, especially conservative Christians, are now living in. It is not going to get better anytime soon. We had better prepare to fight and to be courageous, and we had better be prepared to lose without violating our consciences or capitulating to the intellectual bullies. If you think this is only going to stop in academia, you’re very, very wrong.

64 Comments (Open | Close)

64 Comments To "When Ideology Is More Important Than Truth"

#1 Comment By dan On September 28, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

>>JonF

“If we do not hang together we will all hang separately”. Legutko’s Poland in its history illustrates this point: by decentralizing and hamstringing the central government Poland became easy prey to its neighbors. The same lesson can be seen repeatedly in political history: small polities are easily eaten for dinner by large polities.”

That’s a pretty weak balm for someone about to be brought to the guiotine or dragged off to the Gulag. The question posed by this post, in my view, is whether classical liberalism can exist, or if it always has been, and always will be, a zero-sum game (as many commenters seem to insist).

#2 Comment By TA On September 28, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

@Hector_St_Clare

This is true. But doesn’t it indicate that basically all of American foreign policy for about the last century has been based on a Big Lie, that liberal democracy is somehow special?

If by “special” you mean untainted by human failings, than I suppose it would be a lie. If you mean “better than the other systems”, I would say it’s not a lie.

@Rob G

Yeah, because we all know that context provides no interpretive insight whatsoever into isolated excerpts!

Time is limited, there are many books, and we always have partial information. Even if the rest of the book is somehow better than these cherry-picked excerpts, reading it would still be a very, very low priority.

#3 Comment By Anne On September 28, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

To mend my fractured syntax for clarity, let me repeat; Legutkos compares feeling coerced into feigning respect for ideas he abhors, a type of social pressure or constraint, with being physically coerced by the state. He mentions specifically being expected to follow a “politicly correct” line with regard to homosexual issues.

That seems to me less a condition of liberal democracy per se than a function of culture, any culture, wherein what’s considered proper or not proper waxes and wanes depending on many factors, the nation’s political philosophy playing little if any part in it. Clearly, this country was no less a liberal democracy 60 years ago when homosexuality was taboo and Jim Crow laws held sway in the South than it is today when both have lost social legitimacy. It’s society itself that successfully enforces so-called political correctness. Until a new behavior reaches a high level of social acceptance, what liberals think won’t determine anything. In a liberal democracy, society simply has more freedom to change than under some other forms of government.

#4 Comment By Anne On September 28, 2016 @ 6:07 pm

Re what I said above, academia is just a smaller version of society at large. When the larger society held more conservative opinions on homosexuality, etc., academia too was far more conservative. In the 1950s, in loco parentis rules meant no boys in the girls’ dorms, and vice versa. Today, coeds go where they choose, as they do in society at large. Political correctness doesn’t really matter.

#5 Comment By Rob G On September 28, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

Anne, your 2:16 comment is so far from the reality of the text itself that it would be hard for someone even intentionally misinterpreting it to get it more wrong.

Or is it too much to ask to suggest that you attempt actually to read a book before you decide to misread it?

#6 Comment By Anne On September 28, 2016 @ 6:21 pm

To those who argue that liberal democracy inevitably leads to society’s current opinions on homosexuality and name-a-stand, all I can say is it took it’s own precious time (!). Why must it be Liberalism that led us here? Why liberalism, and not the Hand of Fate, or Progress, or Satan, or for that matter, the Holy Spirit?

#7 Comment By Anne On September 28, 2016 @ 6:27 pm

Not sure what happened to my last post, but for the record, I asked why Legutkos or anyone else can be so sure Liberalism led society to its current thinking on homosexuality and other positions they don’t like? Why is it Liberalism that determines these things, and not Progress, or Fate, or Satan, or for that matter, the Holy Spirit?

[NFR: I can’t take it anymore! Would you *please* spell the man’s name right, Miss Emily Litella?! — RD]

#8 Comment By JonF On September 28, 2016 @ 9:19 pm

Re: That’s a pretty weak balm for someone about to be brought to the guiotine or dragged off to the Gulag.

There is no (well, pending) future in which guillotines are going to be used to execute people in the USA, nor gulags constructed to hold dissidents. These discussions become very tedious when we constantly have to deal with paranoid fears of things that are not in the realm of the possible in any time frame we need to care about.

And at the end of the discussion maintaining the sovereignty of one’s own nation is a prerequisite for maintaining liberty. Foolish internecine feuding, as I posted, has destroyed more than one people. The Moors conquered Spain originally because every petty Gothic lordling had insisted on having his own little kingdom, even if it was scarce larger than a cow pasture. The Moors failed to conquer France because Charles Martel had quite providentially reunited a fractured Frankish kingdom and thus could oppose them with the full strength of his people.

#9 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 29, 2016 @ 5:44 am

[NFR: I can’t take it anymore! Would you *please* spell the man’s name right, Miss Emily Litella?! — RD]

You’re dating yourself Rod. Has the AARP membership application arrived in the mail yet?

Mine arrived last year.

#10 Comment By roberto buffagni On September 29, 2016 @ 6:24 am

Great book, thanks for the advice
To make a long story short,Legutko says that liberal-democracy is the civilization of Nietzsche’s Last Man, and that communism prepared it, forging its immediate ancestor, “homo sovieticus”.
I agree.

#11 Comment By Rick On September 29, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

There have been, are now and will always be fanatics and gross ideological rigidity through policy or societal coercion imposed on us by them. More importantly those coercions will be reinforced through individual actions for self preservation in a system run by, created by, and reinforced by fanatics.

Fighting fanaticism is always difficult. It always has been. It will continue to be. Fanaticism remains the most vexing aspect of the human condition to be reckoned with.

But Ryszard Legato implies a false equivalency.

“The new commissars of the language appeared and were given powerful prerogatives, and just as before, mediocrities assumed their self-proclaimed authority to track down ideological apostasy and condemn the unorthodox — all, of course, for the glory of the new system and the good of the new man.

Under Stalinist Communism the old commissars would have “condemned the unorthodox” by putting a bullet into the back of their head in a cold damp room with a trough at the end to catch the blood.

And that’s one terrible aspect fanaticism does to it’s victims who survive. It often makes them reactionary and hyperbolic fanatics themselves. Ayn Rand is a perfect example of someone who was victimized by fanaticism who went commando reactionary in the ideologically constrained “philosophy” of objectivism.

Free speech and the concept of polite disagreement are under attack for sure. It always has been under attack though. It’s just who’s doing the attacking that’s changed. There will be reactionary forces in response. It’s a dialectic as old as humanity.

#12 Comment By Rob G On September 30, 2016 @ 7:04 am

“But Ryszard Legato implies a false equivalency.”

No he doesn’t. If you read the book he states in no uncertain terms that it’s the mentality that’s the same, not the methods, and that liberalism achieves its goals without Communism’s brutality. His point is not that Communism and liberalism are the same in all regards, but in one major one, their totalizing tendency.

#13 Comment By Kyle Peterson On October 6, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

For context, watch Dr. Swinburne’s complete lecture: [4]

#14 Comment By Ed On February 18, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

When you come across somebody associating personality traits or behavioral patterns with an ideology, you might want to ask if the traits aren’t rather characteristic of an age, or of human nature through time.

It’s true that some characteristics are more common in a particular party or movement at a given time, but the way that people have of condemning the other side and letting themselves off the hook can be striking and unappealing.

Those who think their movement is on the upswing are likely to demand conformity with it, whatever their professed principles may be.

If you’ve got into the habit of thinking “liberalism equals gnosticism” you might need to rethink or unthink that rather than apply it automatically to situations which may be very different.