New Problem With No Name

The first problem with no name was uncovered in the 1960s by a feminist named Betty Friedan. Once named, the problem had a chance of having its parameters defined and negative consequences addressed.

Now, we are in the grip of another problem with no name. Yet the evidence is everywhere that worthy individuals are strangling in its grip and that in democratic societies the quality of public debate and political decision-making is staggering under its weight.

The problem is a growing and collective regression in the way we decide what is right and true, and, on the basis of this knowledge, how to act.

How did we decide in the past? Back in the day, people knew what was true because they felt it in their bones or because their customs and traditions spelt it out. Or they knew because powerful men in their community who claimed to represent their chosen god, or gods, told them or the local tribesmen commanded they understand it on pain of death.

Arguably, the march of Western nations through the enlightenment and into the prosperity and social stability we enjoy today, has been the result of new ways of knowing. Since the 18th century, decision-making that involves persuasion by dispassionate rational argument and evidence has been the rage.

But now, it seems, the titans of ignorance are struggling to reassert command. To watch them in action, tune in to Fox News or shock-jock radio or the comments section of any opinion website. What you’ll find there is more than evidence of the Dunning-Kruger effect or what Bertrand Russell referred to as the certainty of the stupid. You’ll also witness what John Birmingham calls the toxic, self-defeating culture of rednecks and the “calculating corporate succubus [that] both feeds on it, and exploits it for cheap labor and ready cannon fodder”.

Part and parcel of this malignant culture is the deployment of threat, deception or slight of hand to silence dissent, or to manufacture consent. Here the greatest ridicule is reserved for those who dare to imply that their views are guided by reason, evidence and concern for the public good, rather than circular logic designed to pander to self-serving interests. Because, hey, it’s all just opinion anyway and everyone’s got one of those, so why give one person’s more weight?

This is the true clash of civilisations. Or, to be more precise, the internecine collision of different ways of running a society that determines whether you get a civilisation or a nasty, brutish Hobbesian wasteland.

In one corner are the critical thinkers who’ve spent years trying to wrap their heads around complex information and evidence so they can offer an informed view on public policy. They deploy reason and evidence in a good faith attempt to persuade their fellow citizens to choose one course over another.

In the other are those who seek to get their way to serve the best interests of themselves, their family and their mates. They deploy the time-honoured tricks of the influence trade – charisma, threat, trickery and pork barrelling – while depicting the world as forever and intractably dog-eat-dog and anyone who doesn’t know it as a chump.

Who will win the battle? It’s too early to say. But I fear for the experts – hampered by values of fair play that prohibit logical fallacies, question-begging and playing the person instead of the ball – even if it helps them win the day.

Bloody sanctimonious elites.

Publication history

The tribe has spoken, woe betide those who disagree  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)