The Rise of Unreason

Many of us have been lucky enough to live our lives in an age and geographical region where reason has dominated human affairs. Since the end of the Second World War life in Europe has become more prosperous, democratic and tolerant (and yes, the EU has helped to make it so). Minorities of many kinds, whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion or sexual identity have felt increasingly free and safe. And they have seemed ever less threatening to the majority, too, to the extent, for example, that same-sex marriage is seen by most as a strengthening, rather than a weakening, of the institution of marriage and a multi-ethnic society has come to seem culturally vibrant, flexible, creative and resilient.

There have, of course, been appalling lapses into hatred and violence on the margins of Europe, such as in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but most of us take it for granted that reasonableness and peace will prevail, and that the checks and balances of democracy will prevent unreason and its allies, ignorance and stupidity, from ever wielding power.

But even in prosperous, tolerant societies there will be unbalanced people, who for fathomable, or unfathomable, pathological, reasons, are intent on harming others. There will always be hate crime (and sex crime and greed crime), and those who hate can usually find an ideological or religious justification for what they do (and encouragement from faraway places now that the internet allows ideologists and religious extremists to reach across the world).

Saturday night’s appalling crime in Orlando was probably a hate crime rather than terrorism (though the distinction is largely irrelevant). The facts that so-called Islamic State applauded its ‘fighter’, and that Omar Mateen claimed allegiance to so-called Islamic State in a 911 call, are surely matters of opportunism on the one hand, and an attempt at self-justification on the other. But who knows? In due course we may learn more about how he came to hate the gay community, or we may never come to understand what made him kill. Sometimes explanation fails.

But what is mind-boggling is that a man as unstable as he was could obtain appallingly dangerous weapons so easily. Without an assault rifle he might never have set out to massacre so many, or he might have killed far fewer. Violent unreason will never be eliminated from society, but that it can arm itself so easily is astonishing. Tinkering with controls, even staffing gun shops with psychologists, will never work. The right to bear arms should be annulled.

But the unreason I fear even more is the unreason that has political power – for example, the unreason, demonstrated graphically over the last twenty-four hours, of Trump and the National Rifle Association.

 

 

Consider the claim (repeated yesterday) that if more people armed themselves then crimes such as this one in Orlando would happen less frequently. The NRA says that the US needs more guns in people’s hands, not fewer. This is surely insane. Do they imagine that gay men and women should step out for a night at a club armed with handguns or assault rifles, that they’d wear them on the dance floor, ready to crouch and fire if threatened by a lone looney with another gun? Perhaps they imagine a world of trained, responsible, capable, trigger-ready citizens, all at ease with guns. The reality would surely be a world of incompetent, intoxicated, untrained, trigger-happy, nervous/aggressive citizens often ill at ease with their weapons and daily shootouts or accidents. The slaughter would be terrible. I would rather see guns only in the hands of a small minority of highly trained, responsible, police officers. Keep them away from citizens.

And consider Trump’s claim that Omar Mateen is the product of Radical Islam. This is unlikely. Radical Islam was probably a late, convenient justification for hate, rather than its underlying cause (did he perhaps hate the homosexuality in himself?). And Trump’s self-congratulation (‘I told you so.’) was utterly disgusting. Contrast that with Hillary Clinton’s message of sympathy.

It is the unreason of the NRA and men like Trump that I fear the most. Whatever the circumstances, such as inequality, or political alienation, that have made unreason appealing to so many over the last few years, perhaps even electable, they must be addressed urgently. Hate, fed by poverty and humiliation, became appealing in the 1930s. It must be marginalised now.

 

 

 

 

Acceptable, Respectable or Prejudiced

Last Friday, somewhere five miles above Afghanistan,  I began a blog about prejudice (Race, Culture, Nationality, Religion and Citizenship – Tiptoeing Across a Minefield). I’d been annoyed by the fuss surrounding Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone’s remarks about Israel, which were widely branded as ‘anti-Semitic’.  I disagree with the view that Naz Shah’s remarks were anti-Semitic, even if I strongly disagree with her (now withdrawn) suggestion that Israel should be relocated to the United States. I therefore agree with Ken Livingstone that her remarks were not anti-Semitic, even if they did imply criticism of Israeli policy, and even of the United Nations’ vote in 1948 to establish othe state of Israel. To criticise Israel is not necessarily to be anti-Semitic. It is important to establish this.

The controversy inspired me to think about prejudice in general and about the nature of argument. Broadly, I think, there are two kinds of view. There are views for which ‘respectable’ arguments can be made, where disagreement as to the facts of a matter, differences as to interpretation and sometimes even differences as to principle can be discussed rationally, even if opposing parties might finally agree to differ. And then there are views that are beyond the pale of civilised argument, views founded on prejudice that are not amenable to rational discussion, where no facts, interpretations or principles could ever be persuasive.

argument

In general, a good test of a ‘respectable’ view is to ask whether there are any imaginable circumstances that might cause one to change one’s view. This is what determines whether a scientific theory is properly scientific. If a theory cannot be falsified  by observation then it isn’t scientific. (Thus Relativity replaced Newtonian theory.)

But, of course, science is one thing and politics and ethics are another. Facts are generally amenable to discussion, interpretations are to some extent, but principles are often  not. Especially if your principles are based on ‘divine’ text then argument will usually reach a roadblock.

My own view is that arguments based on ‘divine text’ are not ‘respectable’. Arguments based on ‘universally’ agreed concepts of human rights, however, are. To that extent my views on the demarcation between ‘respectable’ views and ‘prejudiced’ views is also ideological. I subscribe to a secular, scientific view of the world and I will never believe that ‘God says so’ could ever be an acceptable principle.

I set myself a challenge. I made a list of statements, almost all of them ones I disagree with, and asked which of these might be classified as ‘respectable’, and therefore amenable to rational debate, and which might be classified as ‘prejudiced’. And if ‘prejudiced’ what type of prejudice?

Now that I have to decide, I find it rather difficult!

For a start, I must  take a flexible view on vague generalisations. For example, if I say ‘Germans have no sense of humour’ I don’t mean that no German could ever understand a joke, but rather that ‘by and large’ no German could, and I probably mean ‘sense of humour, as I understand humour’.

‘Respectable’ (but often false, in my view)

  1. Asians take education more seriously than Europeans (possibly demonstrable?)
  2. Christians are guiltily obsessed with sex (a view I share)
  3. Germans have no sense of humour (probably wrong)
  4. Italians make the best lovers (unlikely, but amenable to experiment)
  5. The Kurds should not be given their own homeland (amenable to discussion)
  6. Israel should never have been created where it is located today (amenable to discussion, but for the record, I disagree)
  7. The Jews take education very seriously (possibly demonstrable?)
  8. Hitler for a time supported Zionism. It was an aspect of his anti-Semitism. (A lot depends on how you view the word ‘support’, but this is discussable, and has recently been discussed).
  9. Zionism is racist to the extent that it favours Jewish immigration to Israel (this is amenable to discussion, and this would centre around what ‘racism’ is)
  10. Israel’s policy of settlement in the West Bank is wrong and in breach of international law (amenable to discussion)
  11. There aren’t enough actors and actresses of colour nominated for the Oscars
  12. Gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt (I disagree, and no evidence supports this view, but I believe the view can be ‘respectably’ discussed)
  13. African Americans commit more crime than white Americans in proportion to their population (I do not know if this is true, but assuming we could agree on a definition of ‘crime’ I can imagine facts that would support or undermine this view).
  14. European civilisation is in decline (a vague statement but a starting point for highly academic discussion)

‘Prejudiced’

  1. Muslims should be treated with suspicion (religious intolerance)
  2. Arabs are lazy (racist)
  3. Americans are stupid, blinkered imperialists (nationalist)
  4. The French don’t wash (nationalist)
  5. Americans are arrogant (nationalist)
  6. Gays shouldn’t be allowed near children (homophobic)
  7. Women drive cars less well than men (sexist)
  8. Gays should be flung to their deaths from tall buildings (theologically based homophobia)
  9. There’s a gay mafia in the film industry (homophobic because what would establish the truth of this?)
  10. Gypsies (the Roma people of Central and Eastern Europe, for example) should never be trusted (racist)
  11. Gays have no place in the military (rejection of the ‘established’ evidence that being gay makes no difference would suggest underlying homophobia but I am less certain of this classification)
  12. Asians are less inventive than Europeans and Americans (racist)
  13. Women shouldn’t drive cars (sexist – I listed this twice!)
  14. There is only one true faith and it is Roman Catholicism (religious prejudice)
  15. Black people are less intelligent than white people (racist)
  16. Mexicans are rapists (nationalist)
  17. African Americans are more criminally inclined than white Americans (racist)
  18. Immigrants are spongers (nationalist)
  19. The Swiss have never invented anything more interesting than the cuckoo clock (nationalist)

 

Well, I am not certain of these classifications. Opinions please – but, NOT on whether you disagree or agree with a view, but rather on whether you think I have classified a view correctly as ‘respectable’ (in my sense of ‘amenable to rational discussion’) or ‘prejudiced’.