Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Babylonian Puppet Shows and Thought-Terminating Clichés

Have you ever wondered if people who create memes are in some kind of competition to produce thought-terminating clichés? I recently saw a someecard written by a petulant unbeliever: “I don’t need your Babylonian puppet show to tell me to share with others. I learned that from Sesame Street™.”

Okay, smartass. Where did the writers and creators of Sesame Street learn it from?

What’s the Right Question?

If Christ was and is who we Catholics believe him to be, it shouldn’t be surprising that the natural order or that evolution would produce in us a moral need to be nice to each other.[*] It shouldn’t be surprising that some idea of justice, mercy, benevolence, and every other common moral imperative should manifest in other cultures. Jesus didn’t come primarily to be an ethical philosopher; God is the ultimate Source of all natural ethoi.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that you could learn from Sesame Street what the Church has taught for a couple of millennia, and the Jews taught for centuries before us. Nor should it be surprising that the Church teaches some moral principles other religions teach. In that much, it shouldn’t surprise us that some things Jesus taught weren’t “original” … save in that the Logos is the Origin. It surprises me that some would find his “unoriginality” significant.

The question, then, is: Why do you not need a “Babylonian puppet show” to explain why Sesame Street taught you to share? A materialist explanation for the origins of life and the universe must take into account a lot of things; a consistent and coherent moral theory is only one of them. It’s not the sort of thing that can be accomplished by a 20-word  attempt at a “drop the mike” witticism.

What are Thought-Terminating Clichés?

Thought-terminating clichés are statements pretending to be self-evidently true. The person is so dazzled by the façade of obviousness that he doesn’t check to see if there’s any substance behind it. However, the façade is a false front, a cardboard cutout of a real argument. To borrow from Stephen Colbert: it’s not a truism so much as it is a truthyism.

Why “thought-terminating”? Well, like “mike drops”, they’re supposed to be wrecking balls: “You can’t rebut this; you’ll only look foolish if you try. You lose.” The thought is where the creator stopped thinking. Very often, it stops other people’s thought as well. Even otherwise rational and intelligent people can be swayed into uncritically accepting it. The illusion of obviousness is so enchanting that it can become foundational to a social philosophy or a political ideology. Only when enough people start paying attention to the man behind the curtain can the spell of the illusion be broken.

Common Nonsense

I bring this all up because, in the last few weeks, I’ve been caught up in writing a book, the working title of which is Common Nonsense: Recapturing Reason in the Age of Unreason.

Over the course of the last eight years of writing, reading, and thinking, I’ve become more concerned about the ideological tribalization of the US, and the intellectual ossification of our social thought that has come with it. In no real sense do we have public debates, let alone public conversations; we have competing monologues that very quickly devolve into screaming and slanging matches. (Mea culpa, I’ve contributed my mite to the problem as well.) Much of it is fundamentally irrational — blithering, yammering conglomerations of “feels”, fallacies, and foot-stomping insistence, with no sense of charity, consistency, or commitment to anything other than tribal orthodoxy. I know I’m not the only one to notice this. Many people wonder how the heck we got into this mess, and why people (especially those people in the other tribe) are so unreasonable nowadays.

Part of the answer lies in our education: we can no longer reason as effectively as we once did because we’re no longer trained to think critically as a habit. It is simply one more “skill” confined to one or two courses taught long after we should have been practicing it as a matter of course. Many of the pedagogical changes that eventually disestablished the classical liberal trivium took place before, or just after, universal education became a practical fact. So far as there was a “golden era” of reason, it was confined to the scions of the middle and upper classes who had had access to schools that employed the trivium. For at least the last century, we’ve been eating the seed corn of that legacy, and the seed bag (I believe) is running out.

Another part — the part with which the book is concerned — is that, along the way, certain philosophical ideas became entrenched in our education. They aren’t taught as philosophical ideas; rather, they’re assumptions baked into the language of the textbooks, the pedagogical theories of the education profession, and the tribal orthodoxies of teachers and their parents. Their dangerous quality is that they question, even deny, fundamental truths we must assume even before we begin practical reasoning … before we can be said to reason in any meaningful sense. They’re so self-evidently true that we assume their truth even when we try to prove that they’re false. A couple are so true that, if they were false, reason itself would be an absurd futility, a meaningless belch of our brains. Since we begin in error, we end up with thought-terminating clichés and self-referential incoherencies masquerading as truths we are verbally bullied into upholding. The point of the classical liberal education was to free men’s minds; under the current progressive educational system, men and women alike have become slaves to demagogues and social planners.

Back to Work

In any event, I apologize for not writing more often. I hope to check back in now and again, but I don’t know how much I can contribute to the public square anymore. With the current political scene, I’m pretty much at the wake-me-when-it’s-over stage.

Even the recent SCOTUS decision is no surprise, given the passing of Antonin Scalia. Access to abortion has always mattered more to the pro-aborts than the safety of the procedure or the surroundings in which it takes place. The “safe, legal, and rare” cliché is its own nonsense — the legality is all.

If you’ve got something you want me to talk about, contact me through my Google profile. See you soon. Semper Fi.

[*] It’s only surprising if you’re committed to a literalist understanding of the creation stories — yes, plural — in Genesis. It’s my understanding that the Church Fathers were not so committed; they had a more intuitive understanding of metaphor in language that our education and culture have largely beaten out of us. The extent to which Genesis is true secundum litteram is best left for another time and another medium. (For instance, read Benedict XVI’s In The Beginning.)