Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Critique of Critical Criticism
or
For a ruthless critique of the ruthless critique of everything existing.

A tenet of liberalism is that all beliefs should be subject to criticism and evaluation in the light of brute and raw experience. I think that liberalism must condemn itself as it's central dogma is based on a utopian view of debate, discussion and discorsi (and like hell I'm gonna pretend that discourse is an English word).

First what do I mean by liberalism ? I write about liberalism it's own self, an ideology so pervasive that there seems to be no need to name it leading to absurd reinterpretations of the word. I mean the belief that free is, in general, not only good in itself but a means towards good ends and, in particular, the belief that free debate leads us towards the truth. I do not refer to the modern English usage that defines liberalism as follows: liberal is to leftist as pink is to red. And I certainly do not accept the continental defition that liberalism is the pro-market ideology defined as follows: Neoclassical economic theory is liberal ideology formalized. That is liberal means pro-laissez faire (don't try to convince me that the use of French to describe the ideology that dominates economic policy in English speaking countries isn't a deliberate joke).

As a liberal, I have deep faith that debate leads towards true belief and that all beliefs should be ruthlessly examined. Unfortunately, my ruthless examination of my liberal faith has caused me to lose it. I think that debate and discussion are not ... (can't finish the sentence it hurts to much). I think some things don't bear looking in to and some convictions should remain unexamined.

I believe that torture is wrong. I don't like the question of what I would do if there were a ticking atomic bomb and I had my hands on the person who knows where it is. There is another question which I like much much less. What if there is a ticking atomic bomb in New York, I am able to send video to the terrorist who knows where it is (I know what TV channel he is watching) and I have in my hands his much beloved totally innocent two year old child ?

Just a perfectly hypothetical situation in which I have done no more than note a possible situation. Notice I did not discuss any possible courses of action. I think that writing what I wrote was wrong, that people should not be encouraged to think about such situations. That such reflection is bad. That the partially unexamined life is worth living and better than the alternative.

After that, this discussion of "pluralistic ignorance" AKA "group think" is a bit pallid. The fact is that discussion does not always bring people closer to the truth. This has been demonstrated empirically by psychologists. Group average opinion is excellent compared to individual opinions provided that the group is not allowed to discuss and seek consensus (see Quarterly Journal of Economics vol. 111 pp 21-40 (February 1996) and references. People exposed to groups are so inclined to conform that they deny the evidence of their own eyes (Chico Marx should have asked "who are you going to believe us or your lying eyes ?").

Take a group of people. Poll them on a matter of fact. Quite often their ignorant errors will average out. Put them together so they can share information and discuss and debate. Their views will converge. They converge on the view of the most eloquent and confident and outspoken members of the group. Usually the average opinion after the discussion is further from the truth than the pre discussion average. The liberal ideology has been falsified by experimental evidence.

The internet makes it possible for people to assort in groups of like minded ideologues. It has made free speech and a free press a reality not an ideal. It has made a thousand flowers bloom and a thousand schools of thought avoid the need to contend. We have real freedom now. We use it to be free from debate.

Since I think debate is a bad thing, that's fine by me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh dear; such a fine moving post. I do not know what more to say than, thank you.

anne