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The Values of Knowledge, Reason, and Intelligent Discussion–Can They Be Saved?

I think that most of us grew up with a view of the world which included the belief that if we had a good and insightful opinion about something, we had a reasonable chance of convincing another person or group of people to change their previously held viewpoint. It seemed reasonable. You learn something, or you study something, or observe something, and then you might want to convey it to others, as important information, or discussion which can have import.

This has been called the art of rhetoric, the ability to make an argument which will convince others. But what if we are now at a time where no one can convince anyone to change or even reconsider any of their notions or beliefs?

There are other reasons to communicate with people than trying to convince them. But we speak to communicate, and a part of it is to express our thoughts about some aspect of the world. And of course at least some of the time we want to convey such thoughts because we want to show others something we think is important, or hopefully to get them to join us in our position, be on our side. Isn’t that what democracy is ultimately all about?

In earlier eras, people were told what to think. By the King or by the Pope, who by doctrine was said to be infallible. If you argued with the king, you were beheaded. If you argued with the Pope or his subordinates, you were burned at the stake. Same difference, little distinction. Obey or die.

That made things easy, if frightening, for the populace. Finally, a long process began where independent thought, based on observation, analysis, and science, were respected. The Renaissance, then The Age of Reason, then the Age of Enlightenment. It proceeded by fits and starts, of course. But there was a period where the term “right reason” was used to signal that there was great value in thinking about things, trying to learn as much as one could, and then conveying that to someone else, with at least the chance that employing those attributes would win the day, and convince others as to the value and insights contained in your ideas and positions.

This seems self-evident, which of course was a phrase used in the American Declaration of Independence, written by people who were children of the Age of Enlightenment. There are truths,they are self-evident, and they are about the rights of human beings, and their essential equality. This was very different from the “chain of being” belief system of the Middle Ages, where there was an eternal hierarchy, with God at the top, then the Pope and the King, then the aristocrats, on down, to where the peasants and serfs were on the bottom, and must accept that immutable position.

The historical process through which this changed is probably the most remarkable accomplishment of humans, from a perspective other than pure science. Of course the ancient Greeks developed much of it, but it was essentially lost when the Church dominated thought. But it was retrieved and reborn after that.

And the essential part of that development was the idea that one should observe the world, learn from what you saw. try to imbibe as much knowledge as you could, and then try to convey that to other people. It was assumed that there would be differences of opinion, that others might see things differently than you; but that by politely if impassionedly discussing these positions and differences, the more accurate and just ones would prevail. If you read some of the essays written during the 17th and 18th Centuries, you will see the appeals to “reason” as a way to arrive at truth. And the belief that reasonable people would discuss their ideas with other reasonable people, and ultimately arrive at a meaningful truth, and course of action

Well, skipping ahead to this century, and focusing on America, do we see any of that? We still retain the framework: the concept that one has a position, and then sets it out, and someone else may contest it. But is anyone still capable of being convinced by anything anyone says? Or have we devolved into just talking “at” people, essentially wasting our breath, because they have such a rigid belief system that nothing can permeate or change it? It certainly seems that way.

How we got there is rather self-evident. Lack of interest in obtaining knowledge. Contempt for science, planted there by forces which find science inconvenient to their goals of getting people to do what they want them to do, primarily funneling money into their own pockets. Fundamentalist religion, always more prevalent here than in modern Europe. The frightening need of masses of people to be told what to do, to follow a charismatic would-be leader who would shape them to his own will.

That last aspect, at least in the Western World, started in Europe, and the great intellectual tragedy–apart from the other more vivid and horrifying human tragedies–was the rise of fascism, and how countries which had once prided themselves on independent thinking and empirically based reasoning, easily gave way to the lure of tyrants controlling their actions and even thoughts, under the guise of nationalism, superiority, and power.

Now we have it here, in the country which stood for the values of the Enlightenment. It was always under the surface here, but we could see it. And then a stupid, insane, brutal man was able to captivate tens of millions of people to follow his warped and perverted view of the world, and his twisting of reality; to believe his lies, so much so that anyone who rejects them is deemed “an enemy of the people.” Just like in the 1930’s in Europe. Just like in the days of the Spanish Inquisition or the Bloody Assizes in England.

Without dwelling on all of that in a historical context, it seems obvious that we cannot convince the followers of what has sometimes been called a death cult, of anything. We can’t convince them that vaccines largely work. That masks are important for protection. That the climate is rising and the earth s burning. That there was a violent insurrection at the Capitol which almost destroyed democracy. That Trump stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the government. That the last election was one of the most free and fair in our history, and that Republicans who won races won them legitimately, and that Democrats who won, also won them fairly. And the list of course goes on, of clearly observable facts which now about 100 million people do not believe or do not even care to learn or hear about.

What do you do when people refuse to listen to anything but the propaganda networks which spew out lies and hatred to fill what would otherwise be the emptiness of their mental lives? I have heard enough anecdotal evidence of people who say that they have found members of their own families impossible to talk to or reason with, as if they were brainwashed beyond repair.

Look at any internet site, and do you ever see people learning from one another? Maybe very rarely, and it is gratifying, but it is really only within “our side” and with regard to relatively small nuances in positions. Trying to convince anyone on ‘the other side” of anything, even that ingesting a medicine for horses, or household bleach, does not cure Covid, and is poisonous to humans, seems impossible. In fact, the weirder and more frighteningly irrational the things are that they believe, the more they hold on to them.

And we know that the “news” is mostly about the battle between the sides, presented as if it were a sports event, with both teams worthy of respect. This makes a lot of money for the networks, and further impoverishes our so-called national discourse.

One of the needs of human beings is to communicate with others,; and some of that involves sharing our own perceptions and conclusions with them. Why? Well, sometimes we want to convince them to join us in whatever we believe, or our causes. Sometimes, we are inviting their response, to learn from them, and to perhaps adjust our thinking about some concept. And sometimes, because we are social creatures who want companionship, including intellectual companionship, and do not want to feel as if we are shouting into an uncrossable gulf, or into the black void.

What to do about this? Can we educate people? Is the entire concept of education, as between people, or in regard to the formal system of schools,, disappearing? What would it take to get at least some people to see that they are being brainwashed by venal people who want to use them for their own ends?

When I was in elementary school, and living in a rather politically conservative town, I had teachers who would proudly talk about “The Voice of America,” how it penetrated the propaganda of the Iron Curtain, to get through to the people living there. I used to think, “How awful it must be to be told lies every day, and not be able to learn the truth.”

But now, with large parts of this country now being ruled by their own Iron Curtain of lies, and the hatred of knowledge and ideas and thinking, what is the equivalent to the Voice of America which is going to be able to get through to them?