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The age of reason: Polarisation is undermining rational debate

Politicians often confront us with warnings about the greatest threats facing their country or the world, and, just as frequently, other politicians ridicule them.

President Obama recently identified climate change, caused by human consumption of fossil fuels, as one of the great threats to society. According to Bloomberg Business Week, the argument that human induced activity is causing climate change, or even whether we are experiencing climate change, is considered heretical to Obama’s opponents. 

With such a chasm between one view and another, it is not possible to have a unified approach to climate change. Consequently, little is being done in the world to redress global warming.

The same phenomenon is being played out in a wide range of philosophic and religious discussions. The fundamentalist, vitriolic Islamic movement is totally resistant to any criticism or compromise. It is just as impossible to persuade it that it is on the wrong path as it is to persuade the so-called ‘sceptics’ that human use of fossil fuel causes climate change.

There is no reasoning mechanism that enables constructive discussion between polarised entities. It seems that this has always been thus. Back in the 17th century, Charles I’s unquestioning belief in the divine right of Kings and in the pre-eminence of royalty over parliament made it impossible for him to surrender the slightest compromise to his parliamentary opponents. The situation was aggravated by the steadfast refusal of Cromwell to countenance any legitimacy on the part of the King. 

President Obama recently accused his opponents of intractability, with words along the following lines: “If I said the sky was blue, they would say it was black”. This was certainly the case in the time of Charles I and Cromwell. The actual operational disputes between the King and parliament were not especially earth shattering, but intransigence on either side resulted in disaster. 

This inability on the part of civilisation to develop a mechanism for breaking down dogmatic positions and introducing reason as a currency of debate has been fundamental to all of the great catastrophes in civilisation. “Unconditional surrender” was the dogmatic mantra that created the most unpardonable carnage in human history, as evidenced by the First World War, the Second World War and the Vietnam War.

This incomprehensible blindness of politicians to the consequences of their refusal to explore reason as the medium for debate is so persistent in our institutions that there is a temptation to describe it as the greatest threat to civilisation.

There is no reasoning mechanism that enables constructive discussion between polarised entities. It seems that this has always been thus.

Recently, this rejection of reason has been supplemented with another fearful tool, which can loosely be described as venom. Politicians attack one another as though each participant possesses eternal truths and their opponents malevolently pursue heresy. Political debate today (and perhaps always) proceeds on the assumption that opponents are dishonest.

Political dogma excludes the possibility of an opponent having an honest belief in the circumstances that form the basis of their opinion. This, of course, excludes the possibility of exploring common ground.

The pursuit of power becomes the driving dynamic of political discourse, but, once that power is achieved, the venomous discourse continues unabated. Reason continues to be eschewed, resulting in rigor mortis in sensible policy development.

At the height of the Spanish Inquisition, John Locke wrote an essay on religious tolerance comparing the cruelty of the inquisitors with the evocation of love by Jesus and his argument that only the meek shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. The blind and relentless persecution of people on the grounds of their heresy by the Inquisition has been re-lived time and again throughout history. It was the basis of Stalin’s reign of terror against his own people. The renegade Islamists who are beheading innocent victims is yet another iteration of this incomprehensibly stupid phenomenon that is totally and intractably resistant to reason.

Fundamental to this failure in public dialogue is an assumption by the participants that they ‘know’. In fact, what we do ‘know’ is that we don’t. Despite the immeasurable explosion in knowledge in our lifetime, we seem to have been unable to separate the knowledge of known physical facts, such as the speed of light, from political persuasion. As a result, politics and philosophy are used to interpret facts.

We now think it was absurd for the Church to threaten Galileo with excommunication and execution for demonstrating factually that the earth was a planet revolving around the sun. However, that is just another recurrent theme in the history of thought. The assumption of the Church was that man was so important as to be central to the universe. So perversely did the Church cling to this unfathomable piece of stupidity that they relied on the thesis of the Greek heathen Ptolemy as the scientific explanation for the centrality of the human individual in the universe.

One wonders what incomprehensible mistakes we are making today in the conduct of our affairs and the management of our beliefs. Will they be ridiculed by history as we ridicule the Church’s behaviour a few centuries ago?

In Ho Chi Minh, William Duiker’s dispassionate history of the Vietnam War, it emerges that before the Vietnamese became involved in the War, Ho Chi Minh explored every possible means of securing Vietnamese independence from the French through peaceful negotiations. He was a moderate who commanded enormous respect within the Vietnamese community and he initially formed a government consisting of a broad coalition of parties, from moderates to communists, with the sole aim of securing independence. He pleaded with Americans for assistance.

During the occupation of Vietnam by the Japanese during the Second World War, Ho and his followers rescued many American pilots shot down over Vietnam by the Japanese, helping them to escape to China. There were many Americans who believed him to be moderate and someone with whom it was safe to negotiate. But the blind dogmatic rejection of Ho as a communist ultimately drove the Americans firstly into the arms of the French, who had ruthlessly ruled Vietnam as their own possession and, when the French gave up, then to assume the ‘holy war’ themselves.

In the meantime, Ho lost his support to the young hot heads who believed that the West had demonstrated that it was not interested in self-determination. Fifty thousand American lives later, and countless millions of other dead innocent people, Vietnam gained its independence with a reactionary absolutist communist government in control.

Perhaps there was an ‘age of reason’. Perhaps there will be another. But the preference for venom, and even self-destruction, over reason as the tool for resolving ideological difference remains a persistent characteristic of the human condition.

In democratic societies such as our own, the refusal to permit reason to arbitrate our differences results in policy inertia. Serious issues such as climate change are not addressed, resulting in an ongoing deterioration in the health of the planet. Not to mention the abandonment by governments of their fundamental responsibility to ensure a well-educated, healthy population. 

In the wider global society, where the constraints of human refinement are rare, the easy accessibility of sophisticated armoury makes it so much easier to substitute violence and self-destruction as the means of resolving conflict rather than reason. One wonders at the ultimate outcome of this policy insanity when we know that there are enough nuclear weapons in existence to annihilate the planet.

The hope of civilisation is that there is a new age of reason where rational debate replaces ideology as the method of public discourse. Regrettably, history and the explosion of weapons of mass destruction, would suggest otherwise.

This article is part of our ‘The season for reason’ series of holiday reading focusing on rationalism and reason. It was originally published in the Winter 2015 edition of Australian Rationalist.

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