There is an ageless question about what makes people in a group become tyrants and intolerant savages when you know that, as individuals, they give every appearance of being bright, articulate and rational.
Some of the finest minds in the known universe have struggled with this apparent paradox, but have not come to any stunning insights on the dynamics that turn ap0parently reasonable people into dictatorial thought police.
Just check out the idiocies and intolerances immediately evident on any social network. Not just now, but ever since chat rooms and interest forums have existed.
Doing that appears to offer up powerful evidence that rationality is in full retreat across the Western world. The most imbecilic demands that entirely ludicrous propositions be met not only with respect, but an absence of rational critique, abound everywhere.
On 29 December fellow Google Plus commentator Alexander Becker drew my attention to a blog by New York environmental journalist and lecturer Keith Kloor. The premiss of the piece appeared to be that atheists should concede some benefits accruing from religion.
There was a quite well-mannered debate in Becker’s thread, but it ended before it really came to grips with Kloor’s quoted position –
The other big argument waged by a vocal group of prominent scientists involves the assertion that science is incompatible with religion. This insistence by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne is a puzzler. As someone who dislikes dogma of any kind and distrusts vested powers, I’m no fan of institutional religion. I’m also an atheist. But I see no value in making an enemy of virtually the whole world. What’s more, an argument that lumps together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus strikes me as rather simplistic. The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don’t dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can’t (or aren’t yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone.
There was something about this position I found deeply disturbing, so in the midst of year-end festivities I endeavoured to acquaint myself in more detail with Kloor’s position and the nature of the dispute he was having with biology professors PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, which appeared to have caused the blog post in the first case.
What emerged from that exercise was a deep sense of disappointment because it was inescapable to conclude:
Kloor’s blogs certainly don’t reflect anything of his profession, obfuscating with tortured language rather than illuminating his topic;
The ‘dispute’ seems to have been manufactured to generate publicity for Kloor rather than to make any cogent point; and
Kloor’s rhetoric is a potent ally for his opponents rather than a credit to him, nor a serious attempt to deal with a topic that deserves to be dealt with sincerely.
Trust an old Bolshie friend of mine to beat me about the head with a perfect example of the Stalinist political correctness that has so devastated the Western academy for the past 40 years: we must be tolerant of intolerance in order to be morally righteous people.
I am well aware of the embarrassing ideological-ethical cowardice within the academy, but something about Michael Brull’s sanctimonious defence of Islam in the University of NSW online Overland magazine wouldn’t quite let go of me.
It wasn’t the overbearingly self-righteous tone. That’s almost de rigeur from the university literary set. Dull and doctrinaire writers apparently obsessed with lost causes, and competing for some imaginary prize awarded to whoever can demonstrate the furthest remove from social or economic practicalities, let alone worthy ethical positions.
It wasn’t the credulous, politically correct, abhorrent defence of misogynistic mediaevalism either; it strikes me as an almost obligatory sideline for humanities academics to defend the indefensible ever since they made a kind of fetish cult of supporting Stalinism and all its brutal horrors just to give the finger to American imperialism. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.