Intellectual Honesty in the Age of Unreason

I hate to interrupt a string of lighthearted cultural observations, sports references, and stories about awkward moments in the annals of entertainment history with something more serious—but here goes.

A fascinating journal article came to my attention a couple of weeks ago.  The piece was remarkable in its content and unintentionally provided me with a helpful (if unnecessary) reminder about the current state of political discourse in the United States.

The paper, “After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics on February 23rd.  The title is appropriately suggestive of the subject matter.  The crux of the argument advanced by authors Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva is that, since abortion is accepted (or at least legal) in many circumstances wholly unconnected to the health of the baby or the mother, and since a newborn baby has not yet achieved true “personhood,” it therefore follows that after-birth abortion—or, more properly, the killing of an infant—should be permissible in all cases where an abortion would also be permitted.

My initial reaction to the article was that it was perhaps a hoax—a “Modest Proposal”-style strawman created by someone on the right in an attempt to portray the frightening logical conclusion at the end of a slippery slope.  This is not the case.

The manner by which I discovered this article is quite relevant.  The piece popped up on my Facebook newsfeed along with some commentary by the conservative-leaning person who posted it, noting that this was how those on the left conceptualized the rights of the unborn (or, in this case, the newly born).

Outrage from pro-life folks who caught wind of the article has been widespread and powerful.  They attack the viewpoint presented by Giubilini and Minerva as offensive, insensitive, or even unconscionable.  I prefer to use different terminology.

Refreshing.  Consistent.  Intellectually honest.

I suppose I should note here that I would be vehemently opposed to any measure that allowed for what I consider to be infanticide.  Put mildly, I do not agree with the conclusions drawn by the authors of this paper as to the morality of terminating the lives of infants.  I nonetheless applaud them for having the audacity to publish it and for accepting the unfortunate consequences of doing so.

Intellectual honesty is rare in our current political climate and becoming rarer all the time.  Politicians and special interest groups have a symbiotic relationship that requires a euphemistic currency of language.  “Political correctness” isn’t an apt enough description for this phenomenon, although some would likely try to place it under such a heading.

Images like this one routinely pop up on my Facebook feed. Not offensive or upsetting, but certainly reflective of a lack of perspective about current affairs or opposing viewpoints.

I’m referring more to the notion that certain ideas that are sound in logic or belie deeply-held beliefs must masquerade as something else (at best) or be suppressed altogether (at worst) because of violent opposition by those on the other side of a given issue.  From the politician’s perspective, the goal is to find the point at which those who share the politician’s view support him, but those who oppose aren’t sufficiently outraged to attract attention from a sympathetic media.  Pursuit of that sweet spot is a counterproductive balancing act that wastes the time of everyone who listens.

One unhappy side-effect of this cultural mentality is to create an environment in which many ideas are never even discussed for fear that the speaker’s career (or life) will be ruined.  The most troubling aspect is that the prominence of the internet and cable news—and the domination of those media by more extreme voices—has seemed to narrow the range of ideas that are “permissible” even in academic circles.  Political discourse gets simplified to the point that it resembles fans of two rival sports teams “talking trash” more than it does intelligent discussion or debate.

THE DECLINE OF DIALOGUE

Both the right and left in American politics generally adhere to the following Mad-lib mantra when it comes to discourse:

1. My side, the (conservatives / liberals), are fighting for (American values / enlightened, progressive ideas) and the other side, the (liberals / conservatives) are, by contrast (un-American socialists trying to destroy this country / unintelligent and evil oppressors fighting enlightened views).  I don’t know why they have to be so divisive.

2. The other side says outrageous things that I find offensive.  Sure, my side may make a few comments that offend their side from time to time, but my side isn’t nearly as bad about it and are just trying to underscore an important point!   It’s not the same as when they do it, and they do it much more often!  My team is good!  Their team is bad!

A political atmosphere that includes this mentality handicaps us.  Rather than being able to discuss difficult issues like abortion in open terms with intellectual and philosophical arguments, we’re reduced to a series of shouting matches between overly-emotive combatants who seem to be in a contest to prove who feels or cares more about the subject.  This is not constructive.

Even formerly safe places for theoretical discussion, such as a somewhat-obscure journal like the one referenced here, can become dicey if the content goes viral.  Having the speech in question pop up on the radar of a special interest group hostile to the stated position is a risk more and more speakers aren’t willing to take.

The people who drive the conversation choose to believe that they and their ideological allies have the market cornered as to truth, intelligence, and morality.  They also elect to portray anyone who opposes them as lying, stupid, or evil.

For instance, take one of the more frustrating memes that has proliferated here in Virginia and elsewhere of late.  In light of recent state legislation that would have classified an embryo as a “person” for certain legal purposes (which failed), and another bill that mandated an ultrasound for all women seeking an abortion in order to ascertain the age of the fetus (which passed), opponents have taken to calling such measures a “War on Women.”

The suggestion that people want to see rape victims beaten, or need them to be physically abused, is misleading at best, and, again, adds nothing to reasoned discussion.

Just as those on the right instantly and reflexively attacked the after-birth abortion piece in the strongest terms possible, many of those who are pro-choice (and the largely sympathetic national media) were quick to transform the narrative into one that classified any opposition as a form of “hate” or “hate speech” (an increasingly cliched, but surprisingly effective tactic) and painted any politician who supported these measures as a caveman or worse.

On the other side, fairly mild efforts by President Obama to expand the number of Americans who have health care coverage quickly turned into “evidence” that Obama is a crypto-socialist determined to undermine the fundamental systems upon which the beloved Founding Fathers allegedly based the United States.

Both arguments are rooted in a choice to adopt closed-minded beliefs about the opposition.

Explaining why this sort of thing happens isn’t difficult.  Life is much simpler and easier if you can convince yourself that those who think differently than you do are somehow evil or less-than-fully-human.  If you can successfully portray politicians as advocating a “War on Women,” or state-mandated “rape,” then defeating them naturally becomes much easier, since no one would possibly favor such policies.  Being able to dismiss your opposite number as inferior or trivial quite obviously enhances one’s own feelings of superiority or importance, as does attaching inflated significance to the success or failure of your political agenda.

THE HIERARCHY OF VALUES

The essential mistake we all make is to misunderstand what ideological preferences actually represent.  An ideology is an expression of a hierarchy of values.  The subservience of one preference to another, more important value does not mean that the subservient value is irrelevant.  “Less important” does not mean unimportant.

I’ll use a very basic example to illustrate this point.  Forgive the simplicity of the simile in such a serious context, but I think it works to show the essence of the problem I’m discussing.

Suppose a little boy were deciding what type of food he wanted to have at his birthday party.  Further suppose that he can only have one kind of food to serve to his friends.  He likes the idea of having a pizza party, but he also likes the possibility of having a cookout with hamburgers off the grill.  He and his friends love both.

Ultimately, he opts to have hamburgers.  So, in this extremely basic metaphor, his hierarchy of values would look like this:

1. Hamburgers
2. Pizza

This was a decision between two desirable outcomes that our hypothetical child considered carefully.  In the end, it was more important to him to have a cookout than it was to have a pizza party.

The important point to note is that his ultimate decision does not reflect a hatred for his second choice, nor is it the opening salvo in a War on Pizza.

To bring this example back to the much more serious issue at hand, both pro-choice people and pro-life people struggle with the difficult topic of abortion.  Despite propaganda to the contrary, most people who are pro-choice understand the consideration of the value of an unborn child, and that, for precisely that reason, terminating a pregnancy isn’t as simple as another medical procedure.  By that same token, the vast majority of pro-life voters appreciate and understand the hardship that a particular pregnancy may cause a mother, whether it be for medical, emotional, or financial reasons.

Christianity, American revolutionaries, topless women with guns. Oh, plus the Constitution.

In other words, most of the people on both sides of this and many other issues attach value to the same things.  The difference is that the pro-choice side begrudgingly places the interests of the mother ahead of those of the unborn child for reasons that are logical and reasonable, while the pro-life side places the interests of the unborn child at the top of its hierarchy because it logically and reasonably perceives the fetus to be a formative (sometimes viable) human, and, therefore, abortion to be either the taking of a life or the taking of a potential life.

Put simply, a mainstream pro-choice advocate is saying, “I understand why people have sympathy for the unborn child in this situation.  I do as well.  However, most of these unborn children have not yet reached a state of development indicating any higher brain function, much less sentience.  Weighing terminating such a potential life against the damage that millions of unborn children can inflict upon myriad aspects of our society, and specifically to the mothers who carry them to term, the proper decision in my view is to allow the mother to decide for herself whether to terminate her pregnancy.”

A mainstream pro-life advocate is saying, “I understand why people have sympathy for the mothers in this situation.  I do as well.  However, we can’t know for certain when life as we understand it begins, and the morality of taking a potential life weighs heavily in this determination.  Sometimes, we must decide as a society not to allow certain acts that we find morally repugnant, even if such acts might arguably alleviate various kinds of burdens.  The decision to take what we perceive to be a life is one such act.  The mother’s control over her own body is sacred, but that control ends at the point at which the body of another grows inside her.  The proper decision in my view is to prevent terminating the life of an unborn child.”

Both of these are reasonable positions.  Neither represents moral bankruptcy or animus towards some other group.

To suggest that either one of these positions is “incorrect” is to misunderstand the fundamental character of such questions: This isn’t simple arithmetic.  It is a judgment upon which reasonable people may differ.

Yet, many on the left would have us believe that anyone who believes the latter is a religious zealot and/or a misogynist.  Many on the right would have us believe that anyone who believes the former is an amoral advocate of promiscuity and murder.

That’s why bills such as the ones recently before the Virginia General Assembly are not seen as modest measures by pro-lifers that fall short of taking away the right to an abortion.  Rather, these proposals are viewed as the work of woman-hating oppressors who suffer from a form of mental illness and are attempting to begin down a path of banning the all-important “right to choose.”

My own view was that the “personhood” bill was a bad one.  I was ambivalent about the mandatory ultrasound bill.  I had concerns about how the bill would work in practice, but I also think it is entirely legitimate to ascertain the approximate age of the fetus by some means prior to performing an abortion.  I admittedly don’t know enough about medicine to know whether there is a better or easier way to determine the developmental phase of the fetus.

The point is that we should be able to raise those sorts of questions and discuss such touchy subjects without fear of reprisal, or without resorting to rabble-rousing and inflammatory, hyperbolic phrases like “state-mandated rape.”

My wish would be that those on the left could oppose these bills without resorting to rhetoric that deems them to be a violent attack.  I wish that those on the right could do the same when it comes to gun control or health care laws.  People are free to oppose these measures if that’s their preference, but it’s crucial to understand enough about the other side to see that they have legitimate concerns and aren’t merely infringing upon perceived rights out of spiteful animus.  They’re doing what they think is best for everyone.

Some (or many) may disagree with a given policy, but they also must accept the fact that they do not have sole possession of the power to try to craft our society.  In a democratic republic, people with whom we disagree may sometimes be the ones making decisions at a given moment.  We have to learn to work within that framework, rather than trying to reject the legitimacy of others governing as they see fit.

THE NEW TOTALITARIANISM

This is all part of a much bigger picture, and it isn’t a pretty one.  When we come to believe that ours is not only the better view, but the only acceptable view, we encounter the problem of informational echo chambers.

It is a vast understatement to say that the internet has been a wonderful development in the ability of citizens to obtain information quickly, easily, and, often, accurately.  But there’s a problem.

The double-edged sword of living in an on-demand world is that we become less and less tolerant of any “noise” that conflicts with the narratives we like.  We have total freedom to seek out the voices and views that we prefer, but the necessary side-effect of that is voluntarily isolating ourselves from reasonable but competing viewpoints.

We become so good at filtering out things that conflict with our respective worldviews that we can even do it contextually.  I recently observed a social media acquaintance complaining about this article about Republican opposition to the proposed revisions to the Violence Against Women Act.  Despite the fact that the article itself was a balanced piece that makes it clear that the opposition is due largely to immigration-related concerns, the reader in question had no trouble filtering out that portion of the article and, instead, deemed it another example of Republicans having an “archaic and disgusting” platform-wide stance “against women.”  When I raised the immigration point that was clearly discussed in the article, the person in question ironically accused me of oversimplifying.

In another example, a different acquaintance posted a link to an article discussing the fact that brain atrophy rates are higher in “born-again” Christians.  He crowed that the recent legislative flurry in Virginia was the result of a symptom of this disease, and that perhaps we should work to get these men medical care (to which he quickly added that they couldn’t get said care due to their own budget cuts, which he deemed divine justice).  I bring this up because the article also says that folks with no religious affiliation also suffer from the same heightened rate of brain atrophy.  Of course, that doesn’t fit the narrative of  political opponents being impaired.  I helpfully pointed out this additional information.

We usually don’t need to work that hard to ignore the part of the story we don’t like, because we normally don’t even see it.  Most of us watch the particular cable news network that reinforces what we already believe, read the websites and blogs that agree with our existing opinions, and listen to talk radio sources that tell us what we want to hear (or refuse to listen when they don’t).  We also dismiss as “biased” or insane any contradictory information or opinion that accidentally gets through our filter.

The Gawker family of sites are well-run, well-written monuments to this sort of slanted presentation of information through a particular ideological prism.  The same can be said of Fox News or MSNBC, although neither is as honest about their editorial leanings as Gawker is.  Rush Limbaugh is, though, and he provides not only an instance of slanted presentation, but also one of unreasonable discourse, and, in a twist, an ironic example of the end point of the havoc wrought by informational echo chambers.

Limbaugh recently made headlines (again) for saying some nasty things (again) about someone expressing views to the left of his (i.e. everyone but his audience).  In this case, it was a woman already positioned to be a political martyr, and Limbaugh made the mistake not only of picking the wrong target, but also showing a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject matter.  My aforementioned lack of medical knowledge notwithstanding, even I am aware that “the pill” is a hormonal drug that is taken on a regular schedule, not one that is taken more often if a person happens to engage in intercourse on a frequent basis.

Most of that story has been well-documented and is beyond the scope of this already-lengthy piece.  The short version is that Rush Limbaugh says a lot of silly or dumb things and people who hear about them often get angry, which is not exactly news.  There is one thing that is instructive about it: Consider that Rush Limbaugh has an audience that is made up almost entirely of people who agree with him (and possibly a few masochists).  Yet, some who abhor him politically are calling for him to be removed from the airwaves altogether.

We’ve seen a cousin to this over and over, from recent right-wing attacks on the ABC show “Good Christian Belles” (f/k/a “Good Christian Bitches”), who criticized it as being demeaning to Christians, to left-wing attacks on the, uh, ABC show “Work It” (since cancelled), who criticized it as being demeaning to transgendered people.  This happens all the time.  Special interest groups have made a cottage industry of informing us of what is and what is not forbidden.

The wisdom of making those in the business of being offended the arbiters of what is offensive aside, there is something quite unusual about the Limbaugh situation.

Unlike an ABC sitcom, Rush Limbaugh has a specific audience who are of a particular political stripe: His.  His radio show is essentially a conversation between him and them.  Yes, others may listen in, but he has a much more “targeted” program than a prime time sitcom, major newspaper, or more general interest radio program.

I’m not trying to make Limbaugh out to be the victim.  He is an extreme case in many senses of the word.  But the useful part of this story is that it provides a sneak peek at the next obvious progression of an entitled, on-demand culture built around filtering out information.

Once we’ve pared down sources of information to include only the narratives we prefer, the next step is to filter others’ sources of information to exclude the narratives we don’t like.  Again, that becomes extremely easy to stomach once we cross the threshold of deeming beliefs that differ from ours to be “backwards” or “hate speech.”

That brings me full circle, back to “After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”  Here we have another example of ideas targeted at a specific audience that might be more receptive to them (not to mention ideas much more sophisticated and academic than the simple name-calling from Limbaugh).  Yet, third-party interlopers would have such discussions stricken from the marketplace of ideas on the pretense that these notions are too offensive to be uttered.

That’s why I applaud the authors despite my respectful but total disagreement with their conclusions.  I want to hear a full range of competing views, not merely repetitive reinforcement of my own existing mindset.  Intellectual and academic freedom is gradually eroding at the edges as a result of this brand of “unreason.”

Continue disagreeing or objecting, of course—but disagree on thoughtful grounds, effectuate dissent using reasonable methods, and, most importantly, understand and accept that neither your side nor the other has a monopoly on morality, intelligence, or compassion.

If we can find common ground on that point, the rest will take care of itself.

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16 Responses to Intellectual Honesty in the Age of Unreason

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  5. Z says:

    Read this again and believe your piece is more relevant (and on-point) in light of this ugly and harmful presidential campaign. You need to have a bigger stage.

  6. And this is folks, reason why, if you hold your own opinions and you hold them dearly to your heart, it’s advisable to avoid politics like you would the plague.

    Great, great post. This is exactly the reason that I a) loathe politics, generally, and b) have shunned a career down lawyerly paths to starve as an ‘artist’ who’s pc reputation means less than the scurf off an ants back.

    And for the record, I agree with you entirely. As far as I know, pre-birthed babies don’t feel pain. A live infant would. And that for me, is the drawing line.

  7. Tom Garrett says:

    Reblogged this on The Axis of Ego and commented:

    With the latter of the conventions coming to a close tonight, and, more importantly, me not wanting to stay up late to crank out another dog-related post, I thought it might be useful to dust off this gem from about six months ago. It’s worth a read as we ramp up for the hellish days of the last two months of a presidential election cycle.

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  10. Well said! It’s gotten to the point where I’d say that even your post required a measure of courage.

  11. Matt says:

    Exactly what I think, but I’ve given up hope on it changing. Too many people get what they want by avoiding reasoned discussion.

  12. Z says:

    Did you really expect me to read that many, uh, whatdoyoucallit . . . words?
    Haha. This is the most thoughtful piece I have seen in many years. Bravo, Mr. Garrett.

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