The book What’s Wrong? written with Chris Wallace-Crabbe is out now and in a bookshop near you. Here are some extracts
7 The problems with dogma
There was a famous experiment in the US that you can get on YouTube. A group of students are working out in passing at basketball. Some are in white and some are in black. You are asked to count how many times the ball is passed between those in white. It takes about a minute. Very few people who carry out that task notice a gorilla walking right across the middle of the set. The gorilla is in black, but that may not make much difference – the observer is concentrating on the movement of the balls between those in white. Following the bouncing ball produces a kind of tunnel vision. You are so focussed on what you see as the whole point of the exercise that you miss the blindingly obvious.
We see something very similar every day with people who are dogmatic. They can get so focussed that they are like one‑eyed football supporters. We are speaking of a species of prejudice, but it is worth looking at it in its own right.
A dogma is an opinion that is stated with authority and that is held as binding by those who adhere to that authority. Dogma is big in ‘think tanks’, the current repositories of secular faith. But also among our scattered fuellers of civil discord. The Oxford English Dictionary has for dogmatic: ‘Asserting dogmas or opinions in an authoritative or arrogant manner.’ If someone says that you are being dogmatic, they are not paying you a compliment. Rather, they are suggesting that you are too heavy handed in the way you hand out your views and seek to impose them on others.
It is something we run into often in arguments about football, religion – especially sectarian issues – and politics. An argument on politics between a North and South Korean would soon founder on dogmatism. But dogmatism is not confined to Communists, Fascists, or those who subscribe to the teaching of a church. It is all around us. It inheres in every profession. The trick is to be able to determine where it is legitimate and required, and where it just leads to debilitating short‑sightedness. Passionate believers, like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and some animal rights groups, are very prone to dogmatism.
People who hold on to dogma are by definition dogmatic. One example occurs when some who subscribe to a right to life assert that, as a consequence, no form of abortion can be tolerated because it involves the taking of a life, which is murder. A person who is a dedicated pacifist must adopt the role of conscientious objector in a war, but if the whole populace did that, the nation would be undefended.
Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher who was a lapsed Pietist, wrote a paper called What is Enlightenment? It began with the answer: ‘Man’s emergence from his self‑incurred immaturity.’ What is immaturity? It is ‘the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another.’ Kant concluded by saying that an enlightened government finds it can profit by treating man ‘who is more than a machine in a manner appropriate to his dignity’. In the meantime, he had said:
Dogmas and formulas, those mechanical instruments for rational use (or rather misuse) of its natural endowments are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity.
Dogmatism is not only the prerogative of people of faith. It is, of course, the case that those who deny God are likely to be at least as dogmatic as those who affirm God.
But Kant was also aware that conflicts about dogma between people of faith tend to get lethal.
Now, when, as usually happens, a church proclaims itself to be the one church universal (even though it is based upon faith in a special revelation which, being historical can never be required of everyone), he who refuses to acknowledge its (peculiar) ecclesiastical faith is called by it ‘an unbeliever’ and is hated wholeheartedly; he who diverges therefrom only in path (in non‑essentials) is called ‘heterodox’ and is at least shunned as a source of infection. But he who avows allegiance to this church and diverges from it on essentials of its faith (namely, regarding the practices connected with it), is called, especially if he spreads abroad his false belief, a ‘heretic’ and, as a rebel, such a man is held more culpable than a foreign foe, is expelled from the church with anathema (like that which the Romans pronounced on him who crossed the Rubicon against the Senate’s will) and is given over to all the gods of hell. Exclusive correctness of belief in matters of ecclesiastical faith claimed by the church’s teachers or heads is called orthodoxy. This could be sub‑divided into ‘despotic’ (brutal) or ‘liberal’ orthodoxy.
This is strong stuff, but we are reminded that the higher the stakes are on dogma, the greater the risk of being caught on the wrong side.
11 The vice of labelling
Some years ago, a lady at Oxford, en route from the reading room to the dining room for breakfast, was heard to say: ‘I have just been described as a typical Guardian reader, and I’m trying to work out whether I should feel insulted.’ A discussion about the meaning of the word ‘presumptuous’ then followed.
There is no law or custom that says that we should apply a label to people – or put them in boxes, or in a file, or give them a codename. There is no law that we should not. But most of us can’t help ourselves. So what?
Well, most of us don’t like being put into boxes. That is how we tend to see governments or Telstra or a big bank behaving toward us. Nor do most of us want to be typed. When someone says that an opinion or act of yours is ‘typical’ of you or your like, they are very rarely trying to be pleasant to you.
Most of us just want to be what we are. You don’t have to have a university degree specialising in the philosophy of Kant to believe that each of us has his or her own dignity, merely because we are human. We are in a different league to camels and gnats. So, if I am singled out as a Muslim, a Jew, or an Aboriginal, what does that label add to or take away from my humanity? What good can come from subtracting from my humanity by labelling me in that way?
So, the first problem with labelling is that it is likely to be demeaning to the target, and presumptuous on the part of the labeller. We are detracting from a person’s dignity. We put registration numbers on dog collars, and we brand cattle, but we should afford humans the courtesy – no, the dignity – of their own humanity. After all, we can scarcely bring ourselves to think of that time when some people were tattooing identifying numbers on the bodies of other human beings.
The second problem with labelling is that it is both loose and lazy. If you say of someone that they are a typical Conservative or Tory, that immediately raises two questions. What do the labels Conservative and Tory mean? What are the characteristics of the target that might warrant the application of the label?
In this country, at the moment, the terms Left and Right hardly mean anything at all – except as terms of abuse – which is how the words Tory and Whig started in England. These terms are now generally only applied by one side to the other. Not many people are happy to have either of those labels applied to themselves. The categories are just too plastic and fluid.
There is one curious distinction in the way that these terms are applied in this country at the moment. The Murdoch press is happy to call followers of the Fairfax press or the ABC ‘the Left’ (or ‘the PC Left’ or ‘the Love Media’), but those members of the press very rarely respond by calling readers of the Murdoch press Right Wing (or Far Right, or worse). Is the difference one of custom or courtesy – or don’t we know or don’t we care?
Similarly, the labels Liberal and Labour hardly stand for any difference in principle any more. At the time of writing, on any of the major issues in Australian politics, what were the differences in the policies of those parties that derived from their platform? (We will come back to this point later, too.) The old forms of name‑calling between Liberal and Labour mean nothing to our children – absolutely nothing. These old ways are as outmoded as name‑calling between Catholics and Protestants. And there is some common ground in the two shifts – very many people have lost faith in both religion and politics. The old tensions or rivalries just don’t seem to matter anymore.
Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the obvious problems we have just referred to, labelling is not just common but mandatory in far too much political discussion in the press, and certainly for shock jocks or those who make a career out of working TV chat shows. While some people naturally thrive on conflict – Napoleon and Hitler are two bad cases – some journalists in the press engage in conflict, for a living. These people rarely have a financial motive to respond reasonably, much less to resolve the conflict. To the contrary, they have a direct financial interest in keeping the conflict as explosive as possible. It is notorious that controversy feeds ratings and that bad news sells newspapers.
If you put up an argument to one of these people who live of the earnings of conflict, the response will very commonly involve two limbs – a personal attack on you (the Latin tag for which is ad hominem), followed by some labels, which are never meant as compliments. So, for example if someone, were to query the rigour of the government’s policies toward refugees, a predictable response would be ‘What else would you expect from someone who subscribes to the ABC? How would you like these people to move in next door?’ There is no argument – just vulgar abuse.
The disintegration of thought is palpable, but a lot of people are making a handy living out of it – and not in ways that do the rest of us any good.
There is commonly a third problem with labelling – it generally tells you a lot more about the labeller – some would say the sniper – than the target, and the answer is rarely pretty. And if you pile cliché upon label, and venom upon petulance, the result is as sad as it is predictable. You disappear up your own bum.
Let us take one label that became prominent in 2016 – right across the western world. There has been a lot of chatter – some call it white noise – about populists. Who are they? One of the problems with this word is that people who use it rarely say what they mean by it. If you go to the Web, you will find references to ordinary or regular or common people against political insiders or a wealthy elite. These vague terms don’t help – to the contrary. What do they mean? Is dividing people into classes a good idea in Australia now – or anywhere at any time? And if it is simply a matter of the common people wresting control from a wealthy elite, who could decently object? Is this not just democracy triumphing over oligarchy?
Populus is the Latin word for ‘people,’ with pretty much the same connotations as that word in English. Do populists, therefore, appeal to the people for their vote? Well, anyone standing for office in a democracy does just that. The most famous political speech in history concludes with the words ‘of the people, for the people, by the people’.
But the word populist is not used to describe anyone standing for office. It is used to refer to only some of those, and the difference seems to be in the parts of the people that are appealed to and the way in which that appeal is made.
So, what kind of public do populists appeal to? Well, those who use this word say that the people appealed to are anything but the ‘elite’ – those who have got on well in life because of their background or education, or both. In both the UK and the US this feeling about the elite – which might look like simple envy to some – is linked to a suspicion of or contempt for ‘experts’. People do, however, tend to get choosy about which experts they reject. This rejection does not extend to experts who may save their life (in the surgery, or at 30,000 feet) or their liberty, but it may explain the curious intellectual lesion that many people of a reactionary turn of mind have about science and the environment.
Another attribute of the public appealed to by populists is that they have often missed out on the increase in wealth brought about by free trade around the world and by advances in technology. These movements obviously have cost people jobs and are thought by some experts to be likely to cost another 40% over the next ten years.
A third attribute of those appealed to by populists is said to be that, in their reduced condition, they value their citizenship above all else, and they are not willing to share it. They are therefore against taking refugees or people whose faith or colour threatens the idea of their national identity.
Now, if folk who use the word populist are describing politicians who appeal to people with those attributes, they may want to be careful about where they say so. The picture that emerges is one of a backward, angry, and mean chauvinist. That picture is seriously derogatory, but it adds warmth and not light to the discussion. If that is what people mean when they refer to populists, then it is just a loose label that unfairly smears a large part of the population. The term does then itself suffer from the vice of labelling that we have identified.
So, we would leave labels with George Bush senior, who said that labels are what you put on soup cans
We started this chapter on the subject of prejudice as the main corrupter of thought, and near the end of it we come to a common source of prejudice – you might call it tribalism or clannishness, or just the herd instinct. It is our tendency to surrender our judgment, and therefore our dignity, to the crowd, or the mob. In its most terrifying form, it is the lynch mob, which the French reached on a national scale during the Great Terror of the French Revolution in 1794. The surrender was more complete, and the consequences more financially severe, during the Great Crash in 1929, but we see it all round us every day, and as often as not we do not notice when we have switched into the mode of group control.
A harmless form is the one‑eyed Collingwood supporter. Indeed, one reason why people enjoy that part of the entertainment industry called sport is that this is just the area, either in the stands or on the terraces or around the firm’s coffee machine, where independent judgment can be suspended and blind prejudice masquerading as loyalty can be safely put on show. (You might from time to time graciously applaud someone from the other side, but you may want to watch who you do that in front of.) You can even blow the ref a raspberry without going to the slammer.
One worrying form of clannishness is the tendency of some groups to form their own language, and retreat behind it when they come under attack, when they feel insecure, or when they just feel like being pompous. Lawyers and doctors used to be notorious for this, but both have improved. It is no longer smart or clever to be obscure; the contrary is the case.
A clannish corruption of thought is dangerous because it obscures meaning – it makes the author harder to pin down – and it masks a crude self‑interest in protecting the relevant group as the proper or even the sole repository of truth. This is very worrying when they are unable to spell out a verifiable meaning for the benefit of the uninitiated. Secular thinkers for many centuries have accused priests of doing just this – of denying ordinary people access to the truth, or, if you prefer, the light, by refusing to give them the keys to the codes. You might recall that, before the Reformation, you could be burnt at the stake in England if you dared to translate the Bible into the native language of the believers. That must be the ultimate example of people being asked to take articles of faith on trust.
We see examples of this form of clannish or tribal protectionism, and the consequent mutilation of language and logic, in the newer social sciences – which some think is a phrase that contradicts itself – and in marketing, among ideologues, especially think tanks and their acolytes, political advisers, and also in some parts of academia. We tend to see the problem at its worst with the political ideologues – the advisers tend to be hard‑headed people who hardly believe anything, whereas the ideologues bring commitment and passion, and so are likely to invoke that most dangerous ingredient in rational discussion called sincerity. (We will come back to sincerity in the next section.)
The problem now is that you are dealing with people with a position and with a patch to defend. Helen Garner referred to people ‘who have an agenda’. You are dealing with someone who subscribes to articles of faith, and they may not realise or accept that articles of faith lie outside the borders of rational debate. You might therefore be talking to a zealot. Zealots are people whose zeal has infected their judgment. They become like one‑eyed Collingwood supporters, but much, much worse, because they believe that the stakes are so big. In the language of the stock market, they have their own skin in the game.
Unable to see the world from the other person’s point of view, they are very likely to think that they have uncovered the logical answer – that is, the answer, and there can only be one of those. They become progressively less able to see that reasonable people might differ on almost any question relating to human behaviour or belief. That is to say, they get less and less tolerant, and intolerance is the cancer of sensible discussion.
Agenda bearers tend to look on disputes not as debates about ideas but as conflicts between the kinds of people who hold various ideas. They become emotionally attached to their own side and emotionally opposed to the others. We saw that the writer in The Australian who is obsessed with PC correctness said it was unfair that ‘we’ did not have the same remedies as her adversaries. With agenda bearers, judgment goes clean out the window. They are ready to argue about things that they know little or nothing about, and that must end up in bullshit. They then get ready to attack almost anything said by the other side, and to defend almost anything that has come out of their side. They become driven by and to conflict.
They therefore pick fights that they do not have to pick, and so they ignore the first rule of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t bugger it up with a dud; if you don’t have a good point, shut up.
Agenda bearers are heavily into mockery, and into nodding and winking among themselves. They are not beyond leering or even jeering, and they may have an obsession about sneering: one of those cases where they project their own feelings and reactions onto their opponents. They often accuse others of being dogmatic or feeling morally or intellectually superior because they have right on their side.
They disdain experts, but that disdain tends to get wobbly at 30,000 feet in an electrical storm, or if they need urgent heart surgery, or if they get framed for a murder they did not commit – or even if their super fund goes down the tube.
They are long on conspiracies, especially when it comes to the newspapers or television consulted by the other side. Indeed, they stereotype people by reference to their chosen media – readers of Fairfax or viewers of the ABC must be like readers of The New York Times or The Guardian, and must oppose the Murdoch press, or Fox News. (Would you be insulted if described as a typical Age reader or an adherent to Fox News? Or would you just think that the author of the remark was thick and presumptuous?)
If you are not into these nuances, a word that people known as culture warriors may be fond of, you are not part of the game. Indeed, there are times when they seem unable to choose their cheerleader – the Famous Five or Kim, Enid Blyton or Rudyard Kipling.
Ideologues are very defensive about their own culture or faith – words broad enough to mean or contain just what they want them to mean or contain – and very suspicious of those who want to share the good life, or who threaten to change its underlying fabric. For this purpose, they may allow a shock jock or some other gutter‑rat to put up kites for them, but the sensible ones always preserve deniability and a distance from the overtly vulgar. (These gradations were very carefully measured during the French Revolution. The punctilious Robespierre could benefit from the work of Marat in stirring people up, without adopting his squalid venom.)
Their arguments are mainly aimed at the man – ad hominem – in part because of the innate or acquired hostility of those advancing the arguments,, and in part because they tend not to play by the rules, and in part again because they have lost control of their moral or intellectual compass. They always accuse the other side of hypocrisy, of which they are World’s Best Practice exponents, and of utter indifference to the consequences of their ideology – which they are past noticing in themselves. Even when they set out their own contradictions in black and white, they cannot see them for what they are. They are not just biased or unbalanced – they are wilfully beyond persuasion. In ordinary terms, they are crippled by the chips on their shoulders.
You will recognise here many of the attributes of a bush lawyer and of far too many of our politicians. It will only get worse – as people subscribe to internet sites for the true believers, and commune in language‑killing terms on what are preposterously described as social media, and banish the anxiety that comes with uncertainty by cocooning themselves in their own echo chambers.
There might be residual categories of falsity which are commonly described, and not just in Australia, as bullshit. Lest it be thought that that word is too common for a book directed to professional people, let us refer you to a priceless little monograph by Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, On Bullshit. As we set out on the inscription page, the professor said:
It is just this lack of a connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit … Bullshit is unavoidable wherever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.
Being fake does not, of itself, mean that you are wrong. Since we have referred to politicians, we have already seen that Professor Frankfurt cites a remark that is the credo of politicians: ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.’ He says that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff, and that it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements that people make do not necessarily reveal what they in fact believe or feel. And since it may be objected that we have taken objection to things done in all sincerity, especially the ideologues referred to in the last section, we may say what Professor Frankfurt also says at the very end of this little book, ‘Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.’
At his first press conference, the Press Secretary for President Trump was caught lying. A White House staffer called Kellyanne Conway then lit up the world with her defence. The Press Secretary, we were assured, was merely offering ‘alternative facts.’ She may have just been getting into her stride. The President issued an executive order aimed at certain immigrants. There was worldwide condemnation of the order as a ban on people of one faith, Islam. The targets were identified by their citizenship of nations that were Muslim. Conway said that the ban could not be called a Muslim ban because it did not extend to all Muslim countries. And she did so with a straight face. Conway either believed what she said — or she did not. Which do you find the more discomfiting? And do you notice how the President gets to maintain deniability by multiplying the links in the chain of his advisers? It’s all just part of a very squalid game.
These emphases on people being unconstrained by a concern with truth and on bullshit being phony, rather than merely false, are central this book. They are also very instructive on the links between bluff merchants, bull artists, and con men.
We will come back to the subject of bullshit later in this book. It is a proper subject of study, and a reminder that the headings for the ways we can go off the rails are not terms of art, and are very far from being a comprehensive account of how we can go wrong in fact. It is the same for the failures of logic described in the next chapter that are commonly called fallacies. Is there any hope that in the future the West will look back on the year 2016as that in which bullshit reached its peak?