The Polarisation Of Society: Captive Minds And Intellectual Cowardice

Ian R Thorpe By Ian R Thorpe, 22nd Sep 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/_v-e_m6a/
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Philosophy>Ethics

Captive minds and Intellectual Cowardice is an examination of the way politically correct authoritarianism is suppressing freedom of speech and thought. It starts in Universities and academic institutions and the political arena and is noe extending to restricting suppoters chants at sports events.

Two Sides To Everything

What a mess the modern way of discussing important issues has produced. based on a politically correct consensus and social engineering. Another user recently challenged me to write an analysis of why I think we might have become so polarised on every issue. (Thanks Jerry). The problem was not so much where to start as where to finish.
A well used but meaningless aphorism holds that there are two sides to every story. How did this witless and fallacious observation come to be widely regarded as a benchmark for fair-mindedness and wisdom? There are two sides to a slice of toast, an ocean, a road and a vinyl record. There are two sides to a coin unless it is one a politician or con man is flipping. Football is a game of two halves. But stories or political and social debates? There are more facets to them all than a diamond. The idea that every narrative has two versions, with the truth to be found in one or the other, is absurd.
Absurd or not however, the polarisation of debate between the politically correct left and the free market right has captured the minds of enough people in the Anglosphere at least to ensure that any social or political controversy will see people fall into completely opposite camps. We find the vacuous rhetoric of irreconcilable opposites in every corner of society from internet comment threads to the debating chambers of government; left or right, science or religion, creationism versus Big Bang, abortion on demand versus criminalisation of abortions, promiscuity versus abstinence. In the law courts, the scales of justice suggest that two opposing sides can be presented and weighed up and the difference may be slight and subtle.
The law is fixed, justice is not quite so clear cut. Some political windbags whose supporters claim their hero is endowed with great intellect have even suggested that the colour of a person's skin or their relative wealth should count for more than evidence and ethical or moral issues in formulating judgement in law. True justice is seldom so simple.
There is an ongoing "war" between religion and science with each side claiming it has the answers to unanswerable questions. Unfortunately by focusing on just two positions the protagonists miss out on what the other 358 angles of perspective can reveal.
Nowhere, however, is the "two sides" dogma more pronounced and more ridiculously irrelevant than in politics. The left of the house battles with the right of the house, in order to prove what? Who even knows what left and right truly stand for now? The first-past-the-post electoral system exists to defend and preserve the "strong" adversarial model. Currently, that model looks to be guaranteeing just one thing: political and social paralysis..
The right promotes the free-market, but is often blind to the fact that allegedly free markets in which global business is done are anything but free, being controlled and manipulated by cartels of multi national industrial and banking corporations. The left promotes the notion that a welfare state will care for the voters from the cradle to the grave but overlooks the fact that providing a comfortable living to those who choose claiming benefits as a career removes from the talented any incentive to work and succeed.
Another meaningless aphorism holds that virtue is it's own reward. There may be a little truth in that but in my experience hard cash is a much better motivator.
In every argument each side insists it is hamstrung by the other's intransigence. The truth is that in politics, academic life, in the battle between religion and secularism, in education, in everything this polarisation ensures the two sides have their horns locked like rutting stags in a death struggle for the right to impregnate virgin minds with their own seed. Neither can win without guaranteeing its own destruction. The so - called centre-ground where the majority should be gathered is increasingly occupied by marginalised eccentrics, and the lunatic fringe of opinion. Such voices as are heard there belong to those not averse to standing on the edge of an abyss, yelling into the void about a mysterious and probably imaginary third way. The voices of reason that ought to be heard calling from the centre have been silenced by the cacophony from left and right.
Even more stupid is the intellectually barren conclusion that flows from this binary thinking. If one side can be proved wrong, the false logic of dualism goes, then it follows that the other side must be correct.
But where did this pattern of irreconcilability begin? I would suggest in the political and academic arenas where empiricism has been battered to death by idealism which pushed a wide spectrum of opinion into a very narrow beam of argument and provokes intolerance of those who are not “on message”.

Under Dreaming Spires

A good example of how this dualism works and all the better for being irrelevant to any of the currently most divisive issues, concerns the election a few years ago to the Oxford University Chair of Poetry. Yeah, I said it was irrelevant but stick with me and learn why our civilization is falling apart.
Despite the fact that I write poetry it was not the quality of the leading candidates' work that interested me as much as the controversy the election created in the genteel world of literature academics because it gave a perfect illustration of how idealism combines with intellectual cowardice to hold the mind captive.

In the election things kicked off and many people became interested when several worthy candidates withdrew or declined to accept nomination for the election, saying that with a Nobel Prize Winning black poet, Derek Walcott in the field they had no chance of winning the election because the politically correct lobby would make the campaign about race. Ruth Padel decided to go for it in the hope that while the race hustlers were saying anyone who did not support Walcott would only decline to do so because they could not stand the idea of a black man being Oxford Professor of Poetry, the feminists would get behind her campaign and claim anyone who did not support the cause of electing the first woman Professor would only do so out of sexist prejudice.

The campaigns became very nasty between the two camps and eventually both candidates withdrew. It's a pity because with two implacable lobby groups supporting two politically correct causes in opposition voters would have had to make a decision with neither available option guaranteeing safety. A lot of people who would normally cast their vote with the sheep tendency to avoid the kind of backlash so often seen from those who preach tolerance, diversity and civility were talking about abstaining. The general public lost interest at that point and few people (me included) now know who is now the Oxford Professor of Poetry.

Not just in the cloistered world of ancient universities but in all walks of life Political Correctness is causing many people to live in fear. In a society that values freedom of speech we should not find it hard to muster the courage to speak our minds openly in matters where race, gender or disability is an issue. For example Derek Walcott is a fine poet but, as it turned out, (horror of horrors!) a sex pest, I have met him and liked him. Ruth Padel is also a fine poet, I have met her and liked her.
Had the election not been curtailed by political correctness, I would have liked to see John Cooper Clarke win, not because he is white, not because he is male, but because as a performing poet in the punk era (when I was performing) he took hold of the stilted and snobbish world of poetry by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good shake. Johnny would go on stage with a punk band thrashing their instruments behind him as he ranted his protest poems. The alumni of Oxford University would never have voted for such a controversial figure but the fact that somebody tried to nominate him was encouraging.

Few in the academic world would ever openly support Johnny C (as his contemporaries on the circuit knew him – we were both protégées of a maverick literary critic named Jeff Nuttall) The fear of not falling into step with the Politically Correct Thought Police, of going “off message” is too great. People on the left might be bristling with indignation now because the phrase politically correct is associated with the left but in reality it can be associated with any ideology. Margaret Thatcher's UK government in the 1980s is an example. If you stray off message, you're out.

Educators and opinion leaders who should be delivering objective and rational judgements rarely dare to express considered opinions. To go against the orthodoxy is to put one's career at risk and many careers have been wrecked as a result of challenging the orthodoxy. Like my ancestors who were dispossessed for supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie in The '45, modern academics have learned the cost of not being on the winning side.

Cowardly Intellectuals

As a consultant in many large corporations and for government departments I had many opportunities to see political correctness in action: in the so-called “equal opportunities” recruitment policies that are anything but equal, in the introduction of training programmes to teach racial and sexual awareness, in the unfailing faux-reverence with which all aspects of non British and non European literature and culture are treated, and right down to Pythonesque discussions about the rights of transgender staff to be treated as women in all respects. It is, however, not a matter of political correctness alone but collective thinking at its worst, sheepleism, a primordial need to be one of the herd, fear of standing out.

In The Captive Mind an analysis of how intellectuals behaved under an oppressive and coercive Stalinist regime, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz provided an analysis of the life of the mind under any intellectually oppressive dictatorship, and the processes which force, manipulate and seduce highly intelligent men and women to believe self-evident lies.

If you've ever wondered how people can have believed such culturally self destructive nonsense as Stalin's pogroms, and convinced themselves that it is socially necessary not only to do so but force others to do so too, this is the definitive book on the subject. Milosz was interested not only in the compulsions of totalitarianism but in the significant emotional and psychological attractions of Communist regime used to bend individual wills to Party orthodoxy. It looks at the reassurances and rewards of surrendering responsibility for actions to a central authority, and the reasons why intellectuals could so easily justify to themselves the imposed conformity.

Milosz did not allow his case to remain in the East or the past; whether we believe the lies of the left, the right, or the 'third way', we all have the potential to deceive or delude ourselves that the oppression of others and the suppression of dissent for the advancement of the agenda we support is for “the greatest good of the greatest number”. Leftist, anti-Western, feminist, and multiculturalist: the desire to fall in line, and to compel or outlaw those who do not, seems to be a durable aspect of human nature.

Even when free of threat or compulsion, many intellectuals will choose to surrender their independence of thought to a more primordial impulse. C.S. Lewis wrote about the seductive pleasures of belonging in “The Inner Ring,” highlighting the desire planted deep in the heart of every human being for the acceptance and approval of peers, to be acknowledged as “one of us” by the people we live and work among. To get into that circle, that Orwellian “Inner Party” Lewis warned, many of us will condone almost any injustice.
Clearly then while those who like to think of themselves as “the left” the side of the political spectrum that ought to be associated with freedom, individualism, personal development, choice, diversity and social mobility those attracted to left wing thinking are as if not more susceptible to emotional insecurity as any other social group. Thus they have been duped by the dark forces of authoritarianism into positioning themselves at one extreme and denouncing those who decline to join them as belonging to the other extreme. Really it is an adolescent need to be liked, to be part of the gang that is driving debate in society rather than reasoned argument. And that cannot be good for anybody or anything.

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Tags

Academic, Debate, Intellectual, Political Correctness, University

Meet the author

author avatar Ian R Thorpe
Born Manchester UK, 1948. varied early career from clerk via construction site worker and street trader to I T consultant. Performance poet, broadcaster, fiction writer and essayist on many topics.

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author avatar MarilynDavisatTIERS
22nd Sep 2013 (#)

Thank you, Ian. You went out on the short limb, and I hope you hid the saw. There would be those who would look for it to lob you off.

I have been accused many times of commenting on the emperor being nude, only to be told to watch the parade. Sometimes, it may be prudent, other times; it is nothing more than the cowardice your article references. ~Marilyn

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author avatar Ian R Thorpe
23rd Sep 2013 (#)

Thanks Marilyn,
The Emperor is not only nude, he has micropenis syndrome too.
Yes, there is a marked reluctance to stand up and be counted these days, in fact most people in the meritocracy do not even want to be counted sitting down, they'd rather crawl under the carpet and hide :-)

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