Intellectual Honesty

Posted on November 22, 2010


Note: My apologies for the links — there seems to be some issues with my copy of Internet Explorer, and I’m too lazy right now to figure it out.  You don’t really have to check out the commentators’ websites (they’re not that interesting), but if you want a good laugh, browse [] for a moment.

There is a progression in our society toward a brand of intellectualism based entirely on falsehoods.

This is evident nearly everywhere in our media.  We can see it on Fox News, during Glenn Beck’s [] show.  We can hear it on the radio, listening to Rush Limbaugh [] or Sean Hannity [].  It’s even found among ordinary citizens [].  (Now, see, I’ll make jokes about people like that with my friends, but I don’t know anyone who thinks that way.  And yet, it seems to be true.)

Where these people fail is in the area of intellectual honesty.  This is a term coined by my brother, and I’ve come to regard it with a certain reverence.  Truth is often hard to sift out of the much and mire of human debate.  In my life I’ve shifted from one extreme to the other, and back again, and each time the change was determined by the acknowledgement of some small piece of Truth.  But the Beck’s and Hannity’s of our modern era — an age when anything can become viral within seconds of airtime — seem to operate from a different playing field.  They use different rules.  For people like them, there is no such thing as honesty in debate.  So long as an argument furthers their cause, they use it, regardless of the lack of Truth behind it.  This is how arguments like the birther movement [] or the public health care option grew: someone insisted on it, despite clear evidence or argument to the contrary, and the public accepted it.  Even to the point that people still believe it.

Just to be certain that I’m clear about my meaning: when I say, for example, that the birther movement is intellectually dishonest, I mean that there is a an absurdity behind it that should discredit it immediately.  That President Obama might not be a natural born citizen, or that he might not be a citizen proper, is a possibility, just as much as it is possible that I am not a citizen of this country.  But to believe that our government, specifically the FBI, CIA and Secret Service, would allow a non-citizen to become president, thus creating an obvious compromise in national security, is just plain ignorant.  It may be possible to take the argument apart and consider pieces on their own merits, but as a whole, the claim is intellectually dishonest.

Now, it may seem like I’m harping only on conservatives here, but there are plenty of liberals who practice this sort of thing.  I cannot, unfortunately, reference any in the public eye because I have only recently started consuming a broader range of media.  I do not doubt that there are liberal talk show hosts who twist and lie in order to drive home their point, but I don’t listen to them.  I have, however, had conversations with individuals who have fallen prey to intellectual dishonesty.

One conversation went something like this:

Me: I don’t agree with defining marriage to allow homosexuals to marry.
Him: Do you agree with the Constitution?
Me: Yes.
Him: Do we, as individuals, have the right to pursue the life that makes us happy?
Me: Sure.
Him: How does allowing homosexual marriages harm you?
Me: The answer would be too complicated for this conversation (we really didn’t have the time for me to explain).
Him: For the sake of argument, it wouldn’t?
Me: Sure.
Him: Then how can you deny them their happiness?
Me: The issue is too complicated for me to explain.  If it were made law, I would support it, because I am a lawful person, but if I’m asked to vote on it, I’d say ‘no.’
Him: But you agree with the Constitution.
Me: Yes.
Him: And you’re not saying that it causes you harm?
Me: Sure.
Him: Then how can you deny them?

It went downhill from there.  Without getting into the details of either argument, my point is that he did not accept that I could not answer his question.  When he pressed further, I got the impression that his line of reasoning was the only thing that mattered.  So I tried to explain my thoughts, to show why I’m conflicted about the issue, to illustrate how a person can think two things at once and how I’m willing to accept that I don’t have a definite answer right now.  He insisted that, based on the reasoning he provided, there was no other answer.  In other words, I was wrong because he had created a logical trap from which I could not escape.  The problem was this: the trap only worked because he refused to acknolwedge that other factors have a say in the issue.  This is one of the pitfalls of intellectual dishonesty: that one line of reasoning is the only one that matters, and everything else must be subordinate to it.  In other words, it doesn’t matter that I can’t decide whether I believe homosexuality is genetic or learned; it doesn’t matter that I’m conflicted about telling people they can’t live their lives as they choose; it doesn’t matter that my sense of social decency seems to run counter to my religious beliefs; all that matters is that I agree with the Constitution, and therefore I must vote ‘yes’ on this issue.

This is dangerous thinking.  It’s dangerous because, I feel, too many people use it and become complacent.  They think they’ve discovered something that answers all the questions, that gets to the heart of the matter, but in the process they ignore other relevent possibilities.  Their thinking becomes stagnant, and when confronted by someone who disagrees on real, honest terms, they shut down and simply repeat the mantras they’ve taught themselves.

Right, that’s my rant.  This coming weekend I’ll make the effort to post pics and videos of the family, as it’s Eva’s first Thanksgiving, and she’s really close to walking, and I know there are people who want to see that.

Posted in: Philosophy, Politics