Events on SHAMblog in recent times have me mulling the whole point of discussion and "intellectual engagement," if you will. Or let me be more direct: What is the point? (That's not rhetorical. I'm honestly asking.) Do we really want to have our assumptions challenged, tested? Or do we just want all of our personal truths confirmed, so that we sense the ground a bit firmer beneath our feet when we leave the house each day, and feel that much more secure in our beds as we pull the covers over us each night? Is that why some people refuse to watch Keith Olbermann ooze his special brand of left-leaning sanctimony on MSNBC...but are perfectly comfortable watching Sean (DMoTV) bluster and bloviate from the starboard side on FOX? Is that why many of us have a welter of issues that we simply declare "off the table" when it comes to debate?
Come on, Salerno. There are certain things that all civilized people can agree on. For instance, we all agree that murder is wrong.See the problem? We don't know what the universal constants are—assuming any exist in the first place. Further, as soon as you're allowed to parse these concepts, creating exclusions and conditions and amendments, so am I. So are Islamic terrorists. So is everyone else. And murder is an issue on which the largest number of us would probably agree. Imagine trying to find any degree of unanimity on the lesser concepts!
Is that so? What about abortion? What about capital punishment? What about war?
That's not murder.
Well, that's not murder as I define it.
Ahhh, as you define it. Well, some people define it differently. Pro-life groups, for example. Or ask the Catholic Church or Amnesty International about capital punishment. For that matter, ask the Japanese about Hiroshima, or ask the Taliban about our actions in Afghanistan, or...
But we're Americans!
Yes. And they're not. Where is it written that "American truth" is The Truth for all of mankind?
Dammit, Steve, you're contradicting yourself again. You yourself said we should consider "taking out" the regime in North Korea!
Yes, and I'm an American, aren't I? If I were Kim Jong-il, I'd see it differently. There's nothing contradictory about it....
So then, how should we go about deciding which Givens are universal constants and which aren't?
What most people believe?The only approach that makes sense to me, then, is to take all the Givens off the table. To assume that everything is up for discussion. Every last thing.
Well, most people once believed in slavery. Most people once believed in male-only voting. They still do in some other cultures. People in China and other parts of Asia think it's OK to abort, even kill, the female children.
What most right-thinking people believe?
I hope the flaw is obvious on that one.
What science shows us?
Science reverses itself all the time. Besides, science is amoral. There are many things that are "true" in science that we might not want to implement in daily life. Science marches on, oblivious to its coincident impact on mankind: It gave us both amoxicillin and the hydrogen bomb. You can't trust science (or anything overseen by men); it can be perverted to opportunistic ends.
Well then, how 'bout what your religion tells you?
Sorry. I'm not obliged to recognize your religion's catechism or its overall lens on life. I'm not obliged to recognize any religion. I'm not even obliged to recognize the idea of a Supreme Being. Your belief in the Ten Commandments is no more inherently valid than someone else's non-belief. Maybe I climbed a mountain and came down with a tablet that says "Thou Shalt Kill." And lest you think I'm being purposely asinine, let me remind you that there's a section of the Qur'an that comes darned close to saying just that.
Something else that occurred to me recently is that you'll get some of the most close-minded, intolerant feedback from those who regard themselves as skeptics, cynics, "free thinkers." Several times on this blog I've alluded to Barbara Ehrenreich's wonderful piece for Harper's, "Pathologies of Hope," in which she chronicles and laments the fury of the true believers. But the true un-believers strike me as being just as bad, if not worse. They won't give an inch, either. They're as entrenched in their disbelief as the other side is in its belief. As a class, in fact, they much remind me of the aforementioned Hannity, who seems unable to give an iota of credit to Barack Obama or the Democrats, no matter the topic or situation. If Obama were to walk out onto the White House lawn today and announce that he loves his daughters, Hannity tonight would (a) try to refute it, and (b) link it to some covert plot to put U.S. military forces under the thumb of the UN.
This actually speaks to a common, and ironic, human foible. Even those who consider themselves rebels, revolutionaries and groundbreakers often get stuck in the revolutions they start, such that they're incapable of further growth and eventually become the very mainstream that subsequent generations of rebels must rebel against. A fair number of the same musicians who got (and gleefully accepted) the credit for innovating "bop" could not, a decade or so later, bring themselves to admit the aesthetic legitimacy of John Coltrane. At least not at first. "But the cat doesn't play music!" they complained of Trane's so-called "sheets of sound." Apparently they felt that the leading edge of the modern-jazz vanguard extended only to them, and not one grace note beyond.
Look, I have my beliefs, and some of them are quite strong. One of those beliefs is that most self-help is worthless, if not damaging. I think the empirical evidence is on my side; a few years ago, that evidence took the form of a book, which is the whole reason why we're here today. But I recognize that there's a difference between my beliefs and Universal Truth. I recognize that my beliefs are valid only for me, and only in the immediate moment when I'm believing them. As for the next moment, all bets are off. As an example, I cannot imagine that the Law of Attraction is the solution to any of life's problems. It seems absurd; indeed, it seems borderline-insane. If, however, I one day awaken to the notion that the LoA really is the solution, I'll have committed no crime in doing so. I will not have transgressed either legally or morally. I will have simply changed my mind. (Or, to be more precise, my mind will have changed itself.)
Or maybe that will indicate that I've finally gone insane. Who knows?
I can be a bit slow on the uptake, folks, but I'm learning that there may be no more inflexible a creature alive than the evangelical skeptic. He has all the non-answers. He's not the least bit unsure of himself. And if you call him on it...watch out.