“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” C.S. Lewis
There is much to be said on the subject of today’s world, even though events happen much in the same way as they have been happening since the dawn of human history. There is violence, war, famine, disease, empty political discourse, yet there are also festivals, scientific developments, and a higher standard of living than ever before in many parts of the world. In short, humankind moves forward through time, if I may be allowed this perhaps scientifically inaccurate expression, in much the same way it has always done.
At the same time, as every generation before this one, ours has its unique characteristics. I cannot speak for the parts of society with which I am unfamiliar but people in most countries today live their lives surrounded by technology, with perhaps what may be seen as an excess of information, the likes of which has not been known by our predecessors. We have easier access to this information than ever before. The works of Shakespeare and Dickens, Kant and Spinoza, Eminescu and Eliade, Einstein, Goethe, Picasso, Monet, Grigorescu, Enescu, Beethoven, and so many more, are only a click away. There are free online courses, free works from the classics, e-books, audio books, newspapers, magazines, and the list goes on. There is much for which to be grateful during this era of information and technology.
It is probably because of some of these technological gifts that time has become a commodity not easily spared. And, for this reason, data has to be compressed and delivered constantly to us at great speed and in brief and simple formats, so as not to take up too much of our attention which is already struggling to keep pace with the rest of our daily functions. Unfortunately, such a thing comes at a cost. We have become content with reading the headlines and, perhaps, in the case of those with a little more ambition, a few paragraphs, from the news articles with which we are inundated each day, eschewing in depth engagement with material in favour of cursory glances. We have become too distracted to look up whether particular rumours are true or not, to decompress the reports we receive, to analyse, and, ultimately, to ask questions. We might, therefore, have become too distracted to be free.
This perhaps plays a role in the way society functions at present. One no longer needs to understand behaviour or rational processes. It is enough to simply give them a name. Instead of attempting to comprehend why one’s wife is stressed or moody, they attribute it to ‘hormones’. It must be ‘a woman thing’. Instead of trying to realize why one’s husband never confides in them, they convince themselves it is ‘a man thing’. If one’s child shrieks like a banshee, it is ‘a kid thing’. ‘Let them have their little tantrum, no need for us to find the source of the problem. We have heard about this sort of thing. Everyone has heard of it.’
All of a sudden, knowing something exists and labelling it substitutes for the need to understand it. Everything simply…‘is what it is’. And soon the man may find out his wife is sick, the woman may find out her husband is unfaithful, the child may grow up frustrated and angry at their parents. No need to tell parents what life is like from the perspective of the youngster’s mind or soul, it always has been ‘what it is” and they’ve learned to just ‘deal with it on their own’. You might think that this is not true for everyone and you would be right. Unfortunately, it is becoming true for many around the world and has been true for most in the West for quite some time.
Politicians have moulded their discourse in order to better suit the public’s needs for maximum excitation with minimum delivery, favouring soundbites and sloganeering.
On another level, politicians have moulded their discourse in order to better suit the public’s needs for maximum excitation with minimum delivery, favouring soundbites and sloganeering. There is the need for a “them” and an “us” in political speeches. They make sure not to use the ‘wrong’ words, the unsanctioned, unofficial or unapproved language while in a group appertaining to a certain political side. To the ‘connoisseurs’, it is evident that they should refrain from talking about the unfairness of the ‘gender wage gap’ in many groups of conservatives in the same manner they should refrain from saying ‘life begins at conception’ in most left-wing groups.
We have come to know this ‘newspeak’-like vocabulary as the ‘trigger word’ phenomenon. Words that belong to this new type of language are always followed by the assumption that the person who is using them must be of a certain kind or fit into a specific category. That is to say, whether we are referring to interpersonal relations or to public discourse, it seems everyone must be subject to a particular label.
Every side of the political spectrum has structured itself in such a way that they restrict the amount of plasticity one’s thoughts can have, swiftly labelling dissenters with an ism, phobia, or other accusations meant to discredit both the person and their opinion. In fact, often, the ‘wrong’ questions are checked by template ‘corrective’ answers.
Labelling gives one a sense of security by providing a term for complex things or situations. But in doing so it actually leads one to shut down the power of their own logic or will to discern and guides them to a reality which is black and white. As such, discord and monologue, instead of dialogue and cooperation, reign in our political spheres, from often cited isms (relativism, absolutism, populism, feminism) which are meant to dictate how the world should be structured according to only a specific group of worldviews (and subsequent islamo/homo/xeno phobia- accusations which are meant to discourage dissent) to the comfortable and simplistic labels of “the other” or “evil”. Every side of the political spectrum has structured itself in such a way that they restrict the amount of plasticity one’s thoughts can have, swiftly labelling dissenters with an ism, phobia, or other accusations meant to discredit both the person and their opinion. In fact, often, the ‘wrong’ questions are checked by template ‘corrective’ answers. Unfortunately, one can notice this type of political attitude spilling over in other areas, such as religion, education, and relationships.
However, while it is understandable that a word might have a very rich and meaningful character to scholars and those who have studied certain phenomena, this is not true of everyone, and, especially of those who have not researched the views they hold. For them, the distinction between speculation and knowledgeable opinion does not exist. It is this particular segment of the populace which suffers the most from the oversimplified perspective of the “label”. Nevertheless, even in the case of experts, a mindset which functions according to templates cannot help but be superficial in its outlook.
The crisis of today
The consequences of living with such distorted views are never far behind. For instance, as this is a current incendiary issue, let us take the example of terrorism. Instead of trying to understand why many of the Islamic faith move to terrorism, numerous people shy away from the subject for fear of being labelled Islamophobic, or even worse, racist. These terms seem very often to be linked together.
Trying to find solutions to modern problems has become so risky for individuals’ careers and personal safety that they prefer to abandon these intentions. What is worse is that people will follow whatever is the majority’s opinion to the detriment of their own power of rational analysis, therefore missing out on important details, such as the fact that to call one racist for trying to solve the problem with terrorism means that soon there might not be enough left who want to fight the issue, for fear of the stigma and perils they would have to face. Also, perhaps more disadvantageous to one’s reason, such critics miss the fact that Islam is not a race, but a religion.
Another often heard stance is that which regards dictators. Depending on how the global political stage wheel spins at the time, they are either ‘working with the international community’ or they are ‘evil killers’. Yet, letting a president or shah proceed blamelessly with their actions because they are considered to have ‘good’ goals and to be led by ‘good’ ideals while disregarding tragic results of their actions and not daring to fathom that their intents might be the same as those of the above mentioned dictators, can be just as dangerous as not recognizing the threat of a totalitarian regime. Simplistic pseudo characterizations are perilous.
To stop at headlines and not go further with our analyses, to agree without question with any scientific discovery, to label everything in life in order to be spared the effort of comprehending it, is to abandon ourselves to the abyss of rational and emotional oblivion.
Yes, there is right and wrong, at least if you cleave to the family of religious beliefs and worldviews which dictate that there is. But a good intention, if not well thought out, or, if left purposefully to less than clear planning, does not necessarily lead to good results. And a bad intention does not always lead to bad consequences. How should we judge? By result or intent? Or by both? And how could we realistically judge by intent, when there is always the option that what one says and what one really intends to do is completely different? This is not to say that we must not try to decode the right and the wrong around us, but that, if we truly seek the truth, we must not stop at a paragraph’s worth of interpreting the world or a black or white view of life. To stop at headlines and not go further with our analyses, to agree without question with any scientific discovery, to label everything in life in order to be spared the effort of comprehending it, is to abandon ourselves to the abyss of rational and emotional oblivion.
This could be the era of readily available information waiting to be turned into knowledge. For many, however, it is in fact the era of brief, oversimplified news and reports, the era of complicated questions and generalized answers, the era of misinformation and disinformation.
The only cure to such an epidemic is the individual’s steady and systematic fight against their own will to find facts as opposed to rumours and turn information into knowledge. It will not be easy, especially when, sometimes, even looking for verities is challenging in a system more and more politicized and meant to suit agendas instead of advancement. Even so, if people do not take the matters of education and reason seriously, it is hard to imagine that the future will be free, let alone stable. Ronald Reagan summed up the power of human will by stating: “There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.”
As a final thought, let me go back to C.S. Lewis, however: “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive”. Today with all the things lost in the name of progress, starting, especially in the West, with certain freedoms, can we still see ourselves as being on the right path?
It is vital for mankind to remember the power of human reason and the importance of searching for the truth, lest one day, after long having obeyed those who told it what to think, it should forget it ever had the option to do otherwise.
This article was originally published in The Market for Ideas , No. 3, Jan.-Feb. 2017