Thursday, March 15, 2012
“Reason Rally”: Doubleplusgood newspeak for groupthink!
There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there also is the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case), even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd -- a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd -- untruth would at once be in evidence.
For a “crowd” is the untruth.
Søren Kierkegaard, “That Individual”
One of the symptoms of groupthink is the members’ persistence in conveying to each other the cliché and oversimplified images of political enemies embodied in long-standing ideological stereotypes…
When a group of people who respect each other’s opinions arrive at a unanimous view, each member is likely to feel that the belief must be true. This reliance on consensual validation tends to replace individual critical thinking and reality-testing.
Irving Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Second edition
I have always hated mobs. Thus I dislike mass demonstrations with their slogans and banners, marches and sit-ins, and all the rest of the obnoxious apparatus of modern protest. Usually the cause is bad, and the participants are ignorant yahoos. But I dislike such rallies even when the cause is good and the participants well-meaning. They may sometimes be necessary, but they are always regrettable and to be avoided if possible.
The reason is that reason is impossible with a crowd. Serious matters require calm reflection, sufficient background knowledge, careful distinctions, the give and take of objections and replies, and always the willingness to submit oneself to superior arguments and objective truth. But the thinking of a crowd is, in the best circumstances, dumbed down, slipshod, and banal; and at its worst there is no madness or evil to which a crowd might not descend. A crowd shouts, chants, emotes, and is always, always demanding this or that -- it is appetitive rather than cognitive. In a crowd, the rational in rational animal is always in danger of giving way, leaving just the animal, indeed a herd of animals. The individual, or a small group of friends, can dispute with Socrates about the good, the true, and the beautiful. The crowd votes to execute him. The individual, or a small group of disciples, can have their hearts moved by Christ. The crowd shouts for His crucifixion.
How fitting, then, that the Counter-Religion that is the New Atheism has now decided to make of itself a mob. Something called the “Reason Rally” is scheduled for March 24 at the National Mall in Washington, D. C. and the Counter-Prophet Richard Dawkins is headlining as chief rouser of the “rationalist” rabble. The name alone exposes it for the farce that it is -- a “Reason Rally” being (for the reasons just given) somewhat akin to a “Chastity Orgy” or a “Temperance Kegger.” As always, the New Atheist satirizes himself before you can do it for him.
The aim of this “movement-wide event,” we are told, is “to unify, energize, and embolden” the secularist faithful. Naturally, this is not the reason of Socrates, but that of the “Religion of Reason,” of the French and Russian Revolutions, of Comte. It is “Reason” as a slogan, something to stick on a banner and march behind, and in the name of which to promote an agenda and shout down critics. Fortunately, the “movement” hasn’t yet reached the guillotine stage, and the mob will have to satisfy itself with “music, comedy, great speakers, and lots of fun” -- rather than, say, storming Vatican City and arresting the Pope, as Dawkins would no doubt prefer. And it seems some advance footage of the fun has somehow already been made available.
OK, just kidding -- and in fact it has not yet been announced whether a Two Minutes Hate will be part of the proceedings. But it would certainly be fitting given that it is the loathing of the perceived enemies of “reason,” rather than the love of truth and of rational argument, that will unite the communion of non-believers on the Mall come March 24. That, in any event, is the conclusion to which one is unavoidably led when considering the work of Dawkins and fellow “Reason Rally” speakers like P. Z. Myers, whose modus operandi is to spew venom at critics while explicitly refusing, as a matter of general policy, to engage rationally with their criticisms.
Thus, that Dawkins’ arguments are directed at ludicrous straw men has been demonstrated time and again (for example, here). Yet he resolutely declines to answer those who have exposed the numerous errors and fallacies in his writings -- dismissing them as “fleas,” without explaining how exactly they have got his arguments wrong -- or, in general, to debate anyone with expertise in the philosophy of religion. Meanwhile, the even more vitriolic P. Z. Myers’ main claim to New Atheist fame is his “Courtier’s reply” dodge, a shamelessly question-begging rationalization for remaining ignorant of what the other side actually says. New Atheists will ridicule their opponents, but actually read only each others’ work. Hence Christopher Hitchens derives his main arguments from Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss learns everything he needs to know from Hitchens, and Dawkins has his confidence in the atheist worldview bolstered from reading Krauss. And now this mutual mental onanism will be expanded across the National Mall. Somewhere Joycelyn Elders is smiling.
As Alex Rosenberg, without a trace of irony, assures the secularist reader of his Atheist’s Guide to Reality, “we won’t treat theism as a serious alternative that stills [sic] needs to be refuted. [We] have moved past that point. We know the truth.” And that, dear reader, is what passes for the “reality-based” alternative to “faith-based” thinking -- just like black is white, ignorance is strength, war is peace, and a “Reason Rally” is somehow different from groupthink. A purer specimen of the phenomenon described by Irving Janis in the passage quoted above cannot be imagined.