Misguided Metaphors and the Perversion of Ideals

February 21, 2006

In recent years, some people have noted the increasing importance of metaphor in public discourse, and the way changes over time to these metaphors (whether deliberately imposed or not) affect discourse, politics, and human experience. This is, like many but not all politically-oriented problems, something that happens on both sides of the aisle, as a natural consequence of political rhetoric (since politics is about, among other things, expressing complicated issues in simplified terms so people can make decisions without being paralyzed by their own ignorance). I’d like to focus for the moment on two terms that have undergone such a shift in meaning as to become almost trivial: tolerance and equality.

Both of these concepts have been held up as cornerstones of liberal democracy for a couple centuries, and rightly so. Liberal democracy is founded upon the universality of human rights—the “for all” is just as significant as the “liberty and justice.” The existence of such rights is great in and of itself, but it’s meaningless if it’s reserved for some arbitrarily chosen group of people. Rights are only rights as long as we can effectively take them for granted (not that we should) regardless of our socioeconomic status, race, gender, country of residence, religion or lack thereof, etc.; if there is a possibility of arbitrary abridging of these rights, they are more accurately described as privileges. Moral values must be universally applicable, as I’ve said, but they also must be universally applied. From these ideas are born the concepts of equality and tolerance.

In the case of equality, there has been a transition over the last few decades from equal respect and opportunity to a sort of enforced, end-result sameness. The idea that “all men are created equal” has been taken out of the context of inviolable natural rights and placed in a bubble of thick-headed literalism, wherein the constructs of fairness and impartiality are applied in deeply flawed ways. This manifests itself in the obvious political and social ways, namely affirmative action, and this is certainly something I’ll get to in future posts (the steadfast pursuit of affirmative action policies has been one of my main quarrels with the Democratic party, as thoroughly as I tend to align myself with progressive/liberal points of view), but it is also present in a more abstract sense: the equality of ideas.

(More below the fold.)

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The Denial of Objective Reality

January 31, 2006

The last thing most people want to do these days is to recognize reality.

The attempts to justify alternate “ways of knowing,” the politicization of science research and education, the preponderance of overemotional and manipulative rhetoric, the perversion of journalistic integrity and standards, the rise of religious fundamentalism over common sense—these are all expressions of the same impulse towards denying the existence and significance of an objective reality. Escapism isn’t a phenomenon unique to the 21st century, or even to the modern era, though the advent of truly global warfare and modern weapons technologies had a profound effect on the modern consciousness. Certainly scientific inquiry has always been a thing to fear for some, especially when it reaches unpleasant conclusions, conclusions that challenge the status quo and force us to adopt new ways of thinking about the world. Likewise, people have always felt the need to deal with the realities with which they’re confronted, to find some way to make fact compatible with mythology, prejudice, and preconception. So when I mention this impulse towards denying reality, I don’t mean to suggest that it is unique to 2006—I realize it has a longer history than that.

Nevertheless, it seems to have become increasingly widespread and increasingly relevant in recent years. Even as science and technology experience exponential levels of growth and development, even as we learn more and more about the world around us, most people maintain a belief that facts are to some degree malleable. Reality, within this mindset, is secondary to belief and emotion. The core of the fallacy here is that reality (by definition) actually exists independent of belief and emotion; denying reality doesn’t make it any less real, nor does it keep reality from affecting us. There is an objective, empirically knowable world out there, and while we can certainly entertain some interesting philosophical scenarios about our senses being deceived, we all rely on our senses to give us an experience of the world, and those who retreat to faux nihilism in order to justify ignoring specific parts (the objectionable ones) of the empirical world are being intellectually dishonest.

This tendency is a result of a number of things, but mostly it’s a result of dogma. Religious dogma, political dogma, cultural dogma—the common denominator is the steadfast reliance on ideas that don’t respond or correspond to reality. Most of it, I suppose, tends to be tied to religious/theistic dogma, given that speculation about metaphysics (not to mention many religions’ teachings that the material/corporeal world is not something to worry about and is only a means to an end) is likely to lead to a disdain for the material world, and therefore a disdain for empirical fact. Intelligent Design/creationism proponents tout their beliefs as science because they don’t like the implications of the available data and of the accepted scientific theories; politicians and corporations work to distort science to their own ends, filtering out the research that doesn’t support the “conclusions” that have been pre-chosen according to self-interest; blowhard pundits spout shameless nonsense day after day for the purpose of manipulating public opinion, since the facts are either too much of a hassle to analyze rationally or else not supportive of the pundits’ views; journalists and newscasters twist stories to meet their own largely commercial ends, now that “news” has bled into “entertainment.” In nearly every significant area of life, there is a central drive toward ignoring or outright rejecting facts that happen to be inconvenient. If this isn’t chronic denial in the psychological sense, I don’t know what is.

The bottom line is this: the world doesn’t go away when we close our eyes. It is something that needs to be viewed, studied, analyzed, and dealt with, regardless of how much easier it may be to cover our eyes at the parts that challenge us. Truth seems to have fallen by the wayside as something to strive for, as a noble and important value to hold up beside beauty, freedom, and love (although I suppose at least two of those three are also disintegrating as ideals). This is not as it should be. The limitations of what we know about the world are significant enough without people deliberately ignoring the things we do know for the sake of expediency. Without a steadfast pursuit of truth, those other cherished ideals—especially freedom—start to become trivial.

We should be dealing with the world, and with the social and political and scientific realities of that world. Choosing to arbitrarily ignore these things should be unthinkable. Life doesn’t stop being complicated because we pretend it’s simple. Anyone who advocates this “facts don’t matter” attitude should be openly and publicly criticized–the facts do matter. They always have, and they always will, no matter how many people choose to indulge their ridiculous preconceptions at the cost of things like truth, honesty, and accuracy.