A Cartesian Education
Recently I attended a political meeting. As we all know, I think, political meetings are purely pro forma these days — ritualistic and ceremonial. Probably everyone feels that way about political meetings but are too polite to say so — not to be taken seriously, but not to be taken as comedy and farce either. “Earnest” might be the right word. Everyone is expected to be earnest. It’s theatre.
In the course of the meeting, a man of very conservative views (in fact, I’ld say they were fascistic) stood up to make his opinion known — something about “entitlements”. What came out of his mouth was so absurd, so full of self-contradiction, that I felt I had to respond by pointing out that what he had said was unreasonable, was contrary to evidence and experience, and ended in an absurdity.
The man was quite astonished, even offended, that I would call him to account for what he had just said. “Don’t you understand that it’s my opinion?” he replied, emphasising the word “opinion” very strongly. In other words, didn’t I understand that this was a political meeting and so, nothing was supposed to be taken as sincere or serious? I had no right to question his opinion or to call him to account for it because he had the right of free speech.
So, it was my turn to be astonished. I looked at that man and thought, “there standing right in front of me is the End of the World”.
I reflected on that exchange and on the political meeting itself for some time afterwards. That man wasn’t exactly a one-off. Everyone is expected to “have an opinion” these days, and I realised that the man was simply a product of a pernicious Cartesian education and pedagogy. “Opinion” wasn’t a tentative hypothesis to be tested against experience, evidence, and reason, but “self-expression” and therefore all tangled up with the identity and self-image. “Opinion” had become sanctified as private property, inviolable, and in questioning his opinion, I had violated not only his private property rights, but had challenged his very identity. What I had not understood, or so he seemed to say, was that political meetings such as this weren’t arranged to come to a shared truth or understanding about some issue. They were simply forums for “self-expression” and for the assertion of a property right — the right to an opinion, regardless of how demented that opinion really is or how ineffective it was.
No doubt, this man of very conservative inclinations attended Church on Sunday and probably really believed that the essence of the spiritual life was regular attendance at Church and in obeying the ten commandments. He was very self-righteous. In fact, I’ld say he was the bastard offspring of the union of Self-Pity and Self-Righteousness — a kind of hybrid of these two. Perhaps he had never even read The New Testament at all, and so had missed the bit about “Not that which entereth the mouth, defileth a man; but that which proceedeth from the mouth, that defileth a man.” (Matt, 15:11).
Count me old-fashioned, if you will, but I had always thought that an opinion, and the expression of an opinion, was part of the process of arriving at a shared and common truth, and that an opinion had to be tested against reason and experience. “Don’t you understand that it’s my opinion?” has nothing to do with a shared truth, but more as an opportunity for “self-expression” and the assertion of a property right. This is acquisitive individualism run amok and into degeneracy. In questioning the veracity of his opinion I had violated his property rights. Obviously, I was a communist.
This man was the spitting image of everything that has gone terrible wrong at our “end of history”. He was the very avatar of William Blake’s “cavern’d” man: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern“. He’s not all that unusual in that respect, but in looking at him and hearing his speech I really did feel I was seeing the End of the World incarnate.
Quite obviously, if we hold that our opinion and its expression as “free speech” is a private property right, we will never form a viable “we” in such circumstances, and so political meetings will be just pro forma and a farce — nothing to be taken too seriously or with the requisite degree of sincerity. And I realised that implicit in that man’s “Don’t you understand that it’s my opinion?” was the climax of Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am, and of the “culture of narcissism”. His opinion was his very being, and to contradict it was to question his very existence.
This is going to be a tough nut to crack.