Disputation and Obedience

Todd Gitlin asks a searching question:

Sects are always in need of heretics to blame, expel and punish. First, fervor takes hold, then rigidity. Righteousness dictates uniformity. Dissent seems dangerous, even treasonous. The spirit hardens: You’re either with us or with the evildoers…Why is the left so determined to eat its own? Sometimes it can be explained as the fervor of fighters determined to root out impurities.

Indeed – and the fervor of fighters determined to root out impurities is a very scary thing. And before I get all righteous, I should note that I probably have a tendency that way myself. Perhaps a strong one. There are quite a few ‘impurities’ that I want, if not to root out, at least to avoid. But then – one of them would be the fervor of people who want to root out impurities and enforce orthodoxy and sanctity and conventional wisdom – so I’m confused. Am I a Puritan or an Impuritan or what?

Well, we all have commitments; I suppose one can have commitments and still not be a furious extirpator of impurities. B&W is obviously for some things and against others; if it weren’t it wouldn’t be B&W, it would be just some random collection of material. B&W has always been about something, so naturally there will be a certain amount of orthodoxy about it – but I hope it falls short of heretic-punishing and evildoer-pointing-at. Though who knows – a former fan of B&W tells me he’s gone off it because he doesn’t like my ‘religion-bashing.’ So clearly that’s one heretic right there.

At least as often, though, the sect becomes inflamed not because it has won but because it has lost. Out of weakness, it imagines treason. As it dwindles, it devotes more of its energies to the urge to purge. It loses patience with arguments about ideas. It is already dead certain of how the world works and needs obedience, not disputation. It develops a taste for scurrilous charges and loyalty oaths. To its own dissenters it says not, “Consider this point,” but, “How dare you?”

And that’s where we get off the train – when there is no patience for arguments about ideas; when obedience replaces disputation. Obedience and submission are not what’s wanted, and the replacement of ‘Consider this point’ with ‘How dare you’ is just the tactic I quarrel with several times a day. ‘How dare you’ is another word for Taboo which is another word for unconditional respect, and they all stink; they all stink of smelly little orthodoxy.

I write this not to complain, but to note and bemoan a widespread disrespect for serious disputation. There’s a lot of this disrespect going around, all over the political spectrum. The confusion of manliness with belligerence does not help. The sound-bite culture does not help. The mixture of insinuation, sneering and yelling practiced by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews and Michael Moore does not help. A president who tells a reporter, “I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation,” and acts on this premise, does not help. Nor does it help when the Bush White House muzzles government scientists who dare report what virtually all their colleagues think about climate change. In claiming that abstention is the best method of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and that intelligent design deserves to be considered science, the administration enshrines mindlessness rather than rational thought as a governing principle. The sectarian mind is at home everywhere – left, right, you name it. On every front, passion plunges ahead while reason takes its time, cleaning up the mess.

Well, I said B&W was about something, and that’s pretty much what it’s about. One impurity I would like to see a lot less of is this widespread disrespect for serious disputation, and this preference for passion over reason. It just muddies things up.

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