sophistry and itching ears


In the time I’ve spent away from posting here on sailerb, I’d like to say that I’ve been working on my book, or that I’ve been studying or working on something special. I prefer, though, to keep this space honest.

I haven’t done much, save for attempting to slake my thirst for good writing. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find good writing these days? The interwebs are good for lots of things, but finding good writing is not one of them. In fact, the blogging service which hosts this space, WordPress, has a daily feature called Freshly Pressed, allegedly containing the best of the site’s users and content. Most of the pages which earn the Freshly Pressed distinction have little, if any rhetoric at all. The overwhelming majority of FP sites are photo blogs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy good photography. But the service is WordPress, not Instagram-or-Photoshop-or-look-how-world-traveled-I-am-because-I-took-a-trip-to-ParisPress. Occasionally, I’ve stumbled into some decent pages via FP, but it’s clear the staff who make the designations are less interested in substance than they are in style, and by style, I mean photographs.

Clearly, the most telling sign that Freshly Pressed is a broken system is that I’ve never made it. Duh.

I’m kidding. Really!

/end rant

In any case, in my quest, largely quixotic though it has been, to find truly good writing online, I’ve discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) just how much rhetoric has been supplanted by sophistry. And I’m probably just as guilty of it from time to time as anyone else, but I try to remain committed to good argumentation, and avoid, if at all possible, the temptation of merely being compelling rather than being internally consistent and logically sound. It’s not always easy, and I’m not even convinced that I’m very successful at it, but nothing will make me move along with a firm facepalm than someone flaming online with all the coruscating skill of a hipster namedropping enough bands and records to give himself credibility by bombing the audience into submission. Which, of course, is not earning credibility at all.

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

Letting alone the theological and doctrinal meaning Paul intends for Timothy in the above scripture quotation, I think there is value in reflecting on this away from a religious subtext and on a pox which threatens our culture house.

Which brings me to confirmation bias.

This is most prevalent in political arenas, when they haven’t stooped entirely into the deep and erudite philosophical dialectic of poopyheads versus doodoofaces. The old Socratic axiom of following the truth wherever it might lead is so passe; we don’t need the critical functions to weigh information, nor do we need a broad-based evaluation of a contentious (or otherwise) topic, we just need to feel good about whatever position we have. Edification is more important than education, comfort over challenge.

These are typically the low-hanging grapes of wrath saved for fundamentalist Christians, but the truth of the matter is that a cursory glance at any online comment section will demonstrate that our society as a whole doesn’t give a stale fart, much less a full-on crap, for being willing to be wrong. Matters of opinion—Beatles or Rolling Stones, ketchup or mustard only on a bratwurst, what have you—are placed on equal footing as matters of fact, to the lasting detriment of both.

Western civilization is now a fundamentalist kind of place. That is to say, we need not worry about religious lunatics dragging us back into the Dark Ages: the disconcerting reality is that we’re probably already there.

Self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives are not interested in escaping their own perspectives, unless they’re interested in mockery. One of the lasting benefits of being exposed to the late Canadian philosopher Etienne Gilson so early in my intellectual life was that I was able to see a thinker able to articulate the criticisms of his own position, be able to wrestle with and overcome them. We don’t see much of that critical self-reflection anymore; perhaps we never really got a lot of it in the first place.

And there is nothing less helpful to current political matters than the aforementioned labels—including independents, of which I have yet to actually meet a singular one—and uncritical epistemic (using the word charitably) commitments. Bring up religion on a website like CNN or the Huffington Post, like the occasional poor schmuck who launches into a ‘ye-must-be-born-again!’ kind of digital soapbox, and a dozen others pull out their naturalist/atheist bully pulpits and drop the hammer down without pity. This is not meaningful dialogue worthy of a democratic republic or the vestiges of a great civilization, but a Brewers fan caught in that wretched circle of the inferno known as a Cubs bar: barbaric, crude and inhumane.

It’s not Mars Hill, or even the gilded age of Rome. It’s Beyond Thunderdome. Or Idiocracy.

Ultimately, it comes back to being right or being wrong. Being right is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the pursuit of truth is important and a noble endeavor, however, if the eye doesn’t stay on the prize—or, worse yet, the eye fixates too much on it—then the pursuer may find herself subject to any number of biases which turns truth into a mirage.

The willingness to be wrong, on the other hand, lends itself to no biases or pratfalls. To avoid falsehood means that the concern is not on being right, but in not being wrong. Conversations are supposed to provide an ebb and flow, the great philosophical dialogues are set up as such to provide a perspectival approach to an issue (when they’re not set up as strawmen, looking at you, David Hume.) Healthy stances and viewpoints are not merely unimpeachable, but rather ought to welcome scrutiny, the pain of valid criticism being akin to the body telling us something is wrong when we can’t apply pressure on a blown-out knee.

[EDITORIAL ASIDE: While I’m thinking about it, indirectly related, all the religious talk of grace and love is rendered moot without the other important soteriological principle of mercy. Grace and love tolerate but do not accept relational detachment, but mercy only comes to those who recognize their distance to God. It is not the action which is sin, but the state of being which insists that, like Lewis said, the geldings be fruitful after they were castrated. These divine qualities only matter in circumstances where people can be forthright about the ways in which we’ve screwed up. Indeed, being right only results in Pelagian nonsense, while admitting being wrong allows for restoration, healing and wholeness. I digress.]

This is what makes agreement to disagree such a sweet rhetorical poison. It’s the trump card which allows a person to appear humble, but really has the gall to avoid the humbling task of admitting a flawed stance, while the other person is left in a ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ kind of fallacious cornering. […Agreeing to disagree is a way of admitting reprobation. I digress again.]

So, perhaps I shouldn’t be so concerned with the fact that truly good writing, wherever it is to be found, is indeed so hard to find, and more with the fact that the undergirding principles which uphold reasonable discourse in Western civilization are neglected and rotting.

And, as such, so are we.

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