CXXXIII – Why Do We Fear Our Minds?

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To
think is to differ.
~
Clarence Darrow

Symptoms
of a chronic and troublesome phenomenon have
recently appeared in a more virulent form.
This is the insistent demand, largely arising
from within institutions, that the expression
of unconventional opinions be subject to punishment.
One such occurrence involved the Colorado
high school teacher, Jay Bennish, who was
suspended for comments made, in class, suggesting
there were similarities in the tone of speeches
by George Bush and Adolf Hitler. He also reportedly
stated that the United States is the u201Csingle
most violent nation on planet Earth.u201D

Another
incident involved the forced resignation of
Harvard University president Lawrence Summers,
who had committed the sin of secular heresy.
In January 2005, Mr. Summers suggested that
the reason there were not more women in mathematics
and the sciences might be due to genetic differences
between men and women. In modern academia,
such an idea will be as summarily dismissed
as would the denial of the existence of God
in medieval Europe. Had a faculty member at
almost any major university sought research
funding to prove that such differences are
the product of male-dominated institutions
seeking to suppress competition from women,
such support would be readily forthcoming.
But a contrary viewpoint has become heresy
on most college campuses, as illustrated in
this case. While most Harvard students supported
Mr. Summers, the Arts and Sciences faculty
voted, 218 to 185, their lack of confidence
in the president, thus sealing his fate.

Another
example arises from comments made by Eric
Pianka, a University of Texas biology professor,
who declared that the Earth would be better
off if ninety percent of the human species
could be eliminated. He was reported to say
that disease u201Cwill control the scourge of
humanity. We're looking forward to a huge
collapse.u201D His critics interpret his remarks
as advocating the destruction of the bulk
of human life. In the institutionally-generated
paranoia of our time, it comes as no surprise
that the FBI is investigating this man as
a possible u201Cterroristu201D threat.

One
need not agree with the statements of any
of these men to see the danger inherent in
punishing the expression of views that might
be unpopular with given audiences. Mr. Bennish
was doing nothing more than stating his opinions,
something that teachers do in classrooms every
day. If schools did a better job than they
do to help students develop critical, analytical
minds, such opinions would be challenged in
the classroom instead of in administrative
offices.

Mr.
Summers' statements are of an empirical nature,
subject to being tested by the evidence. It
is a sad commentary that a university that
likes to imagine itself the pinnacle of academic
respectability, should experience intellectual
panic over the suggestion that the relative
scarcity of women in math and science fields
might be due to factors other than those dictated
by feminist-inspired articles of faith. When
the life of a university becomes driven by
an insistence upon ideological conformity,
its vibrancy is lost. A healthy skepticism
in this arena, as in others, ought to take
into account that when ideology confronts
biology, it is smart to put your money on
biology.

Let
us imagine that we are intelligent, rational
beings, and that someone makes an allegedly
factual statement, the truth or falsity of
which is subject to the marshaling of evidence.
How ought we to approach such a statement,
particularly if it conflicts with some firmly-established,
strongly-held belief of ours? Would we not
insist that this person substantiate his or
her position with facts? Would we not have
sufficient confidence in our mental capacities
to be able to deal with an unpleasant or erroneous
opinion? At the same time, would we not —
as intelligent persons — want to know whether
that statement was true?

Prof.
Pianka's comments, on the other hand, are
normative rather than empirical
in nature. He is making a value judgment,
namely, that the Earth would be better off
if only one-tenth of the present human population
was consuming resources and destroying the
environment. Again, if school systems did
a better job helping students learn to develop
their rational, analytical capacities — instead
of emphasizing rote conditioning — people
would be able to make intelligent responses
to his statements. One might, for example,
point out that political institutions are
doing a remarkable job bringing about this
man's vision. Wars, genocides, and the unintended
consequences of state regulation of economic
activity have combined, in the past century
alone, to destroy hundreds of millions of
lives.

When
we react with anger to statements of fact
or opinions with which we do not agree, and
demand punishments for such utterances, might
our response not be due to an unconscious
fear that the other person could be right?
If I were to suggest to you that the earth
is flat, or that the multiplication tables
are erroneous, I doubt that you would feel
offended or threatened by such remarks. Your
confidence in your views on such matters would
be so strong that I cannot imagine your willingness
to have me punished for my views. But what
if you hold a belief about which you might
have some latent uncertainty, and I offer
an opinion that challenges yours? Would you
be as inclined toward tolerance on my behalf?

This
collapse of the mind's capacity to reason
finds expression in many settings, with the
continuing public support of Mr. Bush's criminal
war against the Iraqi people being a prime
example. One finds further evidence of this
trait in responses to conspiratorial explanations
of events. The conditioned learning that causes
people to react to rather than analyze
politically-incorrect statements has produced
a mindset that rejects all allusions to conspiracies.
To categorically deny all conspiracies is
to admit to being a poor student of history.
Those who take such a knee-jerk position should
be asked to explain why the World Trade Center
buildings no longer stand: someone
brought them down!

In
the words of a late friend, u201CI am not interested
in conspiracy theories; I am interested
in the facts of conspiracies.u201D Anyone
who advocates the existence of conspiracies
should be put to the test of providing evidence
for his or her claims. But, more importantly,
if we are to live intelligently, each of us
should be up to the task of listening to and
evaluating such assertions. As we ought to
have learned from the buildup to the war against
Iraq, anyone can fabricate what, on the surface,
appear to be facts, it being the task of intelligent
minds to judge their authenticity. Had the
minds of more Americans insisted upon such
intellectual standards, the baseless conspiracy
theories about Iraq advocated by the Bush
administration and its neocon falsifiers,
would have prevented the current atrocities
in that country.

How
far will this malignancy on the mind metastasize?
As people increasingly identify themselves
with racial, ethnic, nationality, gender,
religious, lifestyle, or ideological interests,
can we expect a proliferation of verboten
opinions? Will truths and values be fought
out in legislative halls, courtrooms, voting
booths, and the streets, with competing power
blocs amassing the force of numbers to impress
their respective imprimaturs upon the minds
of all?

Once
different groups begin to see the benefits
to themselves of calling upon the state to
enforce their particular views of reality,
you can expect all sorts of offenses to be
added to the list of crimes and misdemeanors.
For example, should the dominant view that
the American Civil War was fought to end slavery
become confirmed, by the state, as the only
opinion allowed on the subject? Will those
who believe that this war was a struggle between
the forces of federal hegemony and southern
independence be punished for denying officially-defined
u201Ctruth?u201D Will they be castigated as u201Cracistsu201D
because they do not adhere to the slavery
explanation?

And
what will be the future of the debate over
u201Ccreationismu201D versus u201Cevolution?u201D Will each
position — along with any others that might
develop — be permitted open expression without
fear of punishment from the state? Will the
mass-picketing of schools become the means
by which truth and falsity are determined?
Will thoughtful minds be forced to hide prohibited
texts from Guy Montag and his associated book-burners?

Can
we expect self-styled environmentalists to
call upon the state to prohibit the expression
of views that deny the threats of u201Cglobal
warmingu201D? Will it soon be a punishable offense
to publicly deny the most exaggerated estimate
of the numbers of species threatened with
extinction? Will Prof. Pianka's values be
incorporated into laws declaring that u201Cpeople
should have no more than two children?u201D Will
the wearing of fur — like the smoking of cigarettes
— become subject to fines and/or imprisonment?

What
about religious groups getting in on this
game? What if some vocal evangelicals were
able to persuade a state legislature to make
it a criminal offense for anyone to profane
Christ or to deny the Holy Trinity, with punishments
ranging from having one's tongue bored, to
burning a u201CBu201D into the offender's forehead,
to the infliction of the death penalty? If
you regard this as an abuse of hyperbole,
be aware that just such a law was in place
in 18th century Maryland.

Perhaps,
in this Panglossian u201Cbest of all possible
worlds,u201D the statists will find themselves
in need of an Orwellian Department of Truth,
one of whose functions will be to put together
a compilation of state-certified truths. In
this way, people will be able to know what
opinions it will be permissible for them to
hold and express. No longer will college students
— or their equally beleaguered professors
— have to struggle to discover u201Cthe good,
the true, and the beautiful.u201D Such answers
will be provided them – in bold, black-letter
formats — with pocket-parts at the back of
the book to accommodate any updated statements
of permissible expression. Those whose opinions
deviate from such norms can, of course, be
expected to suffer the kinds of penalties
meted out to Mr. Summers.

Why
are we so in fear of our minds that we want
the state — or other institutions — to define
the parameters of our thinking for us? It
is to deny our own rational capacities to
suggest that others should take care of our
thinking. The horrors of the Inquisition ought
to have taught us that people should not be
burned at the stake — or imprisoned — for
disputing established opinions, no matter
how outrageous or offensive we find their
words to be. The practice of fastening chains
upon the bodies of men and women was only
made possible by the creation and enforcement
of chains upon their minds.

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