Monday, 1 February 2016

The Politics of Anti-Rationality

As a philosopher, John Stuart Mill produced highly influential works that explain how arbitrary beliefs should be displaced by systematic, experimental reasoning. As an elected Member of Parliament, he turned his attention to politicians who deliberately exploited foolishness and prejudice as a means to win support for their self-centred agenda which was actually detrimental to the public. When asked if he was maligning the Conservative Party as dim-witted, he explained thus:

“What I stated was, that the Conservative party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party. ... Now, I do not retract this assertion; but I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. ... And I do not see why honourable Gentlemen should feel that position at all offensive to them; for it ensures their always being an extremely powerful party. ... There is a dense solid force in sheer stupidity – such, that a few able men, with that force pressing behind them, are assured of victory in many a struggle; and many a
victory the Conservative party have owed to that force.”

It may be argued that rationality is a matter of degree, and everybody has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to what we know (or not). But as Socrates pointed out, while we are all ignorant about various matters, those who know about what they lack knowledge of are wise, but those who think they know when they are in fact quite ignorant of the subject in question are fools. And what makes Mill object to his political antagonists is that they build their platform on the exploitation of irrationality. Far from trying to help people reason and understand, they encourage them to despise the pursuit of knowledge, they endorse the display of blind hate and twisted prejudice, and they deride those who seek deeper understanding as feeble.

These tendencies can be seen from ancient emperors and monarchs pretending that they speak for the gods, while encouraging superstitions amongst the masses so that it was all the easier to trick them into accepting raw deals in this life. They can be seen in religious charlatans through the ages as they prey upon the minds of dupes and would-be fanatics. And they are all too visible amongst contemporary neo-conservative politicians who extol the god-like virtues of the corporate elite, dismiss criticisms of oppressive business practices as mere jibes made by ‘know all’s, and champion every vicious prejudice as a great traditional value.

Like the philosophers of the Enlightenment who came before him, Mill hoped that education would enable more and more people to reason, discuss and explore what would be better ways to shape their lives and organise society. But like many progressive politicians who came after him, he was concerned that the power of education might not always be a match for the deceit and propaganda deployed by those who would glorify prejudices for the sake of turning the gullible into legions of diehard supporters for exploitative regimes (see, ‘Convert or Con Victim’).

The enemies of mutual respect and rational cooperation will always have the edge in any process for allocating political power if there is nothing in place to expose their lies and misdirection. Some have concluded from this that the devil cannot be beaten and henceforth they too would try to win votes by pandering to people’s prejudices – whether these take the form of anti-immigrants, anti-internationalism, anti-science, anti-welfare, anti-equality in any sphere, or anti-diversity in every context.

But there is a different conclusion that can be drawn from this conundrum – and that is, we must be resolute in exposing lies and misdirection. We must use every means at our disposal, and develop new tools and networks to question those in power, challenge prejudices, and help those with unreasonable views to reflect on the implications of their beliefs and rethink what they may have hitherto held to be indubitable. It is commonplace these days to maintain that there is no guaranteed march of reason and progress. Indeed, irrationality not only resurfaces, but goaded by unscrupulous politicians, can even spread alarmingly. But history has shown that where the citadels of dogmas and bigotry are relentlessly and imaginatively challenged, truth and understanding can prevail (see the short history, Against Power Inequalities)

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