The Tyranny of the Minority: Why the Authoritarian Left Doesn’t Have a Right to Tell Us Who We Can Listen To.
Bryan W. Van Norden’s June 25 opinion piece in The New York Times, “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience,” is useful for one main reason: it is a symptom of the decline of two venerable institutions, academic philosophy (Van Norden’s profession) and print journalism.
Van Norden’s basic thesis is that John Stuart Mill is wrong to think that we should listen to all opinions, even if they are partly or fully in error. According to Mill, if these are partly wrong, we still learn some truth; if fully wrong, we benefit from sharpening our own dearly held truths by preventing them from descending into dogma. Mill was wrong because he had a “naïve conception of rationality inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes,” based in part on the assumption that we all have “approximately equal” abilities for appreciating the truth.
Van Norden concludes that justice requires that we consign university stages and TV studios to those with the most “merit,” whose views benefit the community as a whole, leaving aside the question of who exactly determines this merit.
The article is full of historical errors, logical gaffes, and unwarranted character attacks. Ironically, if NYT took seriously the advice bruited by his title, the article would never have been published.
To start with, most scholars do not consider Descartes, who died in 1650, to be an “Enlightenment thinker.” Various starting dates have been assigned to the Age of Reason: the best, a sentiment echoed by the History Channel, is that it started with Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1686) and John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). Some date its start as late as the Treaty of Utrecht (1713).
Second, although rationality was used to attack traditional notions of religion, morals and politics during the Enlightenment, it was more an age of reasonableness than of reason. The dominant epistemology of the eighteenth century was not Cartesian rationalism, but the empiricism championed by Locke, Bishop Berkeley, and David Hume. Locke thought that our minds are blank slates filled up by perceptions; Berkeley argued that esse est percipi, to exist is to be perceived; while the great Scottish sceptic Hume saw the mind as “a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance,” gliding by us like actors on a stage.
Most French philosophes adopted British empiricism as their basic method. For instance, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) was a monumental study of how soil, climate, and national character determined the various legal and political structures human beings have created throughout history. Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia sought to be a “systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts and crafts.” Empirical observation and physical science were the order of the day – at least outside of fields where these were impossible, such as mathematics and theology.
This is an important observation because Mill’s father was the Scottish philosopher and historian James Mill, and it’s clear that the junior Mill learned the lesson of the value of empirical observation at his father’s knee. At its best, empirical science is a constant process of presenting and testing hypotheses, then rejecting those that the evidence don’t support, a process the younger Mill no doubt had in mind in his defense of freedom of speech. He also defended “experiments in living” as the sociological equivalent of the empirical method.
Interestingly, the Scottish wing of the Enlightenment was more interested in sociological and historical facts than those sought by chemists and geologists. Most of the leading thinkers in Edinburgh and Glasgow wrote histories, showing a breadth of knowledge nigh impossible in our more addled age: Hume wrote a history of England, James Mill of British India, Adam Ferguson of the Roman Republic, to mention just three. The Scots also helped to found the social sciences: Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) is arguably the first work of sociology, while Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) is much less arguably the foundation of economics.
When Immanuel Kant summed up the century in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”, he said its motto was “dare to know!” (Sapere aude!) so that the human race can emerge from its self-incurred tutelage, so it can grow up. A large part of what Kant wants us to know aren’t the abstract conclusions of pure reason (though he dedicated one Critique to this very subject), but the complexities of empirical reality, which is the surest check on superstition. To put it in the simplest terms, to the Enlighteners, facts matter, a laudatory lesson in both 1776 and 2018.
But Van Norden misses another key lesson of the Enlightenment to do with morality and politics, not science. As Hume put it in talking about morals, “reason is the slave of the passions.” Smith agreed, seeing our moral principles as founded on our sympathy, or lack thereof, for others. The contemporary moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt picks up this thread of thought in The Righteous Mind, seeing our ethical principles as founded on moral intuitions. The emotional dog wags its rational tail during debates on ethics, a conclusion that Hume and Smith would have raised a congratulatory pint of ale to.
So having a given moral belief isn’t a matter of ascertaining a series of facts, or even drawing a logical conclusion from a set of premises, but of having a certain type of psyche, and to a lesser degree existing in a certain type of culture. This moral constitution can certainly be informed by facts. But it is not created by facts. Therefore, moral beliefs cannot be “ignorant,” except in the childish, schoolyard use of that term. Thinking otherwise indicates that the author has never heard of Hume, Smith, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, Camus, Haidt, or other critics of abstract ethics.
The very idea of “ignorance” implies that there are some people who know things and others who don’t, and that the latter often feel obliged to parade this lack of knowledge. On this point Van Norden is right. But to use the word in the accusatory way he does clearly implies that there are epistemological standards for knowledge independent of our subjective feelings, that there is a world of facts “out there” that hard-working investigators can discover. Van Norden’s critique of Descartes and Mill along relativist grounds – of their “ahistorical method” – causes his central premise to implode. Even if we take Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigms seriously, at any given time there can’t be “alternative facts,” unless Kellyanne Conway was re-defining “facts” as little more than our subjective intuitions. To be “ignorant,” facts must exist, and we must have access to them in a roughly equal manner, even if most of us are too lazy or ideologically blinded to seek them out.
Despite the key importance of empiricism to the project of modernity, another offspring of the Enlightenment was the rational method, one that is of continued relevance. A few basic rules should make up our core logical toolkit, one that would be very useful today in exposing ignorance. First, don’t contradict yourself: don’t say X is true, and then two sentences later argue that it’s false. Second, define your terms: if you want to call someone a “racist,” “sexist,” or “homophobe,” then tell us clearly what you mean by these epithets. A quick survey of social media will show that almost no one bothers to even try to follow this rule. Third, don’t shoot the messenger: don’t confuse what someone is saying with the type of person you imagine him or her to be. So no genetic fallacies or ad hominem attacks. Lastly, don’t confuse correlation with causation. Just because whenever your cat sneezes there’s a drop in the stock market doesn’t mean there’s any causal connection between feline allergies and the NASDAQ average. Or between prayer to your chosen deity and victories by your favourite football team.
What Van Norden doesn’t say, though rhetorically manoeuvres us into believing, is also disturbing.
For one thing, he seems rather naive about media theory. Although mentioning Chomsky, Van Norden seems ignorant of his central claim that the central drive of American mass media is to manufacture consent. Further, although mentioning that the media are “motivated primarily by getting the largest audience possible” (a fair point), he seems puzzled by the fact that that audience would rather watch Kirk Cameron than Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum.
Two points here: first, major media corporations are driven by a capitalist desire for profits, and Jenny McCarthy will get more faces glued to screens than venerable linguists. Second, he seems oblivious to the media critique that dates back to at least the 1980s that TV news, driven by ratings, is turning into infotainment, as argued by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). The place we do see serious long-form philosophical and political debates uninterrupted by commercials is on the Internet, in podcasts and YouTube lectures, notably those given by the group christened by Bari Weiss the “dark intellectual web.” We really can’t expect such debates from mainstream broadcast media anymore.
Since 2017 I’ve developed my own private joke when turning on CBC Radio One, which is principally dedicated to news and discussion. “How many sentences can I listen to before the CBC reports on some aspect of identity politics?” The answer is usually zero.
The underlying premise of the article is that the heroes of modern discourse are authoritarian leftists who support these identity politics, people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and the otherwise obscure but currently feminist-insider-hipster Kate Manne, whose theory of “himpathy” proves her to be of greater intellectual value than Jordan Peterson, a laughable conclusion. The tribalism of the old left-vs.-right struggle, with its orthodoxies, heresies and apostates, misses a simple truth recognized decades ago by the political compass test: that political ideologies can be measured along two axes: left vs. right, and authoritarian vs. libertarian. Like Khan in Star Trek II, even the most intelligent political pundits seem able to think on a one-dimensional plane only.
This simplistic way of thinking leaves libertarian leftists such as myself in intellectual purgatory, unable to embrace conservatism, but hated by authoritarian leftists like Van Norden for refusing to be their ideological dancing monkeys by accepting unwarranted restrictions on personal liberties. It’s not a matter of rejecting egalitarianism, but of rejecting tyrannical ways of bringing it about. Orwell deals with this problem at great length in 1984, a novel that since 2015 has suddenly gained new traction. When Winston insists that 2+2=4, he’s calling up the ghost of the Enlightenment empiricism. Facts and politics are at best strange bedfellows, at worst, mortal enemies.
Over the last few years we’ve seen scary real-world examples of Newspeak, Doublethink, Two-Minute Hates and Thought Crime Inquisitions on campuses, in government ministries and from the mass media. For evidence, watch the Middlebury College reaction to Charles Murray’s visit, or the Toronto scenes in Cassie Jaye’s documentary The Red Pill, or listen to Lindsay Shepherd’s interrogation by the moral guardians at Wilfrid Laurier University, including their use of the unintentionally comic reductio ad Hitlerum logical fallacy. Or boot up your laptop and visit Twitter.
The authoritarian left, which has done such a wonderful job at improving the reputations of Middlebury College, Evergreen State College, and Wilfrid Laurier University over the last year, champions its own brand of ignorance. There is little empirical evidence that its toolkit of trigger warnings, safe spaces, thought policing and micro-aggression theory have done anything to make colleges and universities free and open spaces where all people – male or female, white, brown or black, gay or straight – can engage with each other in a healthy dialectical atmosphere. Instead, it has created paranoid spaces where the dialogical silence is punctuated by phoney fire alarms and angry voices of those hiding in black hoodies when the “wrong” people show up to speak. Like the Trumpian right, itself equally authoritarian, postmodern identity politics extremists don’t care about facts. Just moral outrage, fuelled by Twitter, and the sublime comfort of never being wrong.
Where did this sudden eruption of irrationality come from? Like the dancing men or red-headed league in Conan-Doyle, the case was at first baffling. An obvious partial explanation is the millions of university students who refuse to look up from their smart phones and laptop screens, getting lost in the desert of the real that is social media. They then transfer the moral outrage found there from virtual to the real world, just like Russell Crowe in Virtuosity, even though the objects of their anger are fictional avatars invented by angry tweeters.
But Douglas Murray has offered hints of a less obvious explanation. Young people today face an economy with lots of part-time service industry jobs, but flat wages, and little chance for stability or promotion. They legitimately fear that they will never join the “propertied classes.” Murray ties this economic frustration to the growth of secularism in the West, and thus to the opening of a void of metaphysical meaning. Into this void steps radical identity politics, with its demands for commitment, faith (in the face of disconfirming facts), and quasi-religious promise of social salvation – if only we can exterminate the four deadly sins of sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. It claims that these sins run rampant, like witchcraft in seventeenth century Europe. The judges of Salem now use hashtags and cleverly posed photos.
Van Norden plays the role of Witchfinder General in his article. He plays a rhetorical trick on the reader in his examples of who he considers not worth listening to, conflating celebrities and clowns with genuine intellectuals he doesn’t like since they don’t agree with his moral intuitions. Yes, we shouldn’t listen to what Kirk Cameron, Jenny McCarthy, Roseanne Barr or Kellyanne Conway have to say about serious political matters. Like Van Norden, I welcomed the cancellation of Roseanne, though more because I find its star to be crude and unfunny (which you can’t say about Conway, a brilliant comedian). But it’s absurd virtue signalling to call ABC’s decision “courageous”: given the howls of outrage from social media, they had no choice. And as Kant says, if you do something out of necessity, you can’t claim the moral high ground.
On the other side, his few comments on Jordan Peterson show that his knowledge of the Canadian psychologist doesn’t extend beyond Twitter rants and skewed soundbytes. He paints him as a worthless sexist, ignoring his defense of individual rights against the authoritarian left’s imperial notions of group rights and group guilt, which leads directly to his attack on compelled speech. Though I think he’s wrong in connecting neo-Marxism to the hypocritical postmodernist ethic that finds violations of its identity politics code deeply “problematic” (hypocritical in part because it largely ignores class, and is lead by people with healthy upper-middle-class salaries who are far from powerless), Peterson’s explorations of myth and religious traditions outlined in Maps of Meaning, along with his clinical psychology practise, give him an intellectual credibility that Van Norden is clearly ignorant of.
And if you want to see another brazen display of such ignorance, watch Peterson’s interview with Kathy Newman on Channel 4, which, to paraphrase Hume, contains little more than sophistry and illusion on Newman’s part. Also see Paul Benedetti’s fine piece in Quillette on the active attempt by print and web journalists to systematically simplify and distort Peterson’s views.
So yes, we still need the Enlightenment because we still need a healthy dedication to facts, and a logical toolkit to sort out clear thinking from irrational vituperations. We still need the “Socratic dialectics” that Mill champions in On Liberty to help us sort out truth from error. The very argument that Mill is inexcusably wrong implies two things that reality can’t give us: epistemological access to a pristine realm of settled empirical truths (which Van Norden clearly doesn’t have), and the end of history when it comes to our moral and political intuitions.
We still need a “collision with adverse opinions” both to discover things we don’t know and to sharpen our moral intuitions lest they devolve into empty prejudices. To restrict speech and opinion to those approved by a small coterie of authoritarian leftist intellectuals and corporate media heads would be to accept a new form of tyranny – the tyranny of a self-righteous and historically misinformed minority.
APP Editors’ Note:
Doug Mann was trained as a professional academic philosopher, but liberated himself and is currently a free thinker who teaches a variety of subjects as a part-time professor at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of four books and over a hundred articles.
You can read more about his work HERE.