Passionate Views

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2012 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Interestingly enough, the hardest part of a research essay, for the majority of my students, is not articulating and defending their own position, but coming to understand the position of their opponent, regardless of the claim they are choosing to defend. It is no wonder that the weakest part of their essay is typically this part, namely, the clear and credible defense of their opponent's point of view. They are inclined not to bother with their opposition; it fails to dawn on them that anyone who opposes their own point of view might have some good reasons for doing so and might actually help them to understand their own position more fully and refine it accordingly.

And that's the culture in which they live and breathe; a culture with a reigning orthodoxy, and if anyone chooses to dissent from that reigning cultural ideology, they are ridiculed and dismissed out of hand.

Recently, an educator told me that watching a certain news station would cause her blood pressure to go up, so she stopped watching it. She was referring to my favorite news channel. Her reaction is revealing, not to mention ironic; for an emotional reaction is rooted in a judgment, because emotion is an appetitive reaction that always follows upon cognition of one kind or another. And so in this case, at the very least, her reaction is rooted in a judgment that this person is wrong. If, however, the emotion arising out of that judgment is one of anger, then the judgment is much more than a simple "…this person is mistaken". Anger is a natural response to a perceived injustice; thus, it is a judgment that an injustice has been committed.

Now it is one thing to judge that a person holding certain political and economic views is mistaken and to react quickly for fear of the negative repercussions that the mistaken position will have on society as a whole - and that's just what it is, namely fear. But anger is a response to a moral offense, an injustice. Thus, I have made a judgment, conscious or unconscious, that this person I am watching is, in the very point of view he or she is articulating, a moral fool who is violating another's basic rights.

Granted, some of the hosts are annoying, possibly even obnoxious at times, and all of them certainly controversial, counter cultural, and politically incorrect, but if any of them give rise to anger, I have to wonder what exactly the apparent injustice at the root of that anger is.

I suspect there isn't a genuine injustice at all. People are very passionate about their views, but that is the last thing in the world we should be passionate about. We ought to have, on the contrary, a passion for truth, a passion for learning, but not a passion for our views. To love learning is to be open to learn, but anyone who is genuinely open to learn is comfortable with the sense of his own limitations and his need to be expanded. Those who are passionate about their views, however, lack a healthy sense of their own limitations and are not as open to learning as they might believe themselves to be; for they fear opposition for what it reveals about what they love, which is their view, or what amounts to the same thing, themselves. If my viewpoint is wrong, then I am far more limited than I originally suspected, and if that's an insight to which I am closed, I will resent anyone who forces me to acknowledge the fact.

To get a better sense of the how unwarranted is anger against one's opponents in debate, consider for a moment some of the implications of the three levels of abstraction. The mind in search of "science", or the "reasoned facts" for things, always abstracts from the individuating conditions of material things in order to possess necessary and universal conclusions, such as a2 + b2 = c2; or the amount of usable energy in a closed system will decrease over time, or what amounts to the same thing, the entropy of the universe always increases in the course of every natural change, etc. Now, there are three different levels of abstraction. The first level is that on which the physical sciences take place. Here the mind abstracts from individual matter, but it does not abstract from common sensible matter. Biology, for example, abstracts from this body, this bone, these nerves, but it does not abstract from "bone, nerves, cells, etc." At this level, we theorize, we posit a hypothesis, i.e., the cause of cancer. Experiment and empirical data are needed to verify the hypothesis, but a verification of a hypothesis is no guarantee that the effect cannot be accounted for through another cause or explanation. The history of science is filled with examples of such revisions and counter theories.

The second level of abstraction is the mathematical. On this level, the mind considers quantity abstracted from material things. Geometry considers shapes and lines that have no sensible matter (i.e., wood or steal) and concerns itself solely with the properties and relationships of continuous and discrete quantities (numbers) considered in themselves.

The highest level of abstraction deals not with any specific mode of being, such as living being, or quantified being, or human being, or chemical entities, etc., but with being insofar as it is being. Since outside of being is non-being, it is impossible to abstract any further.

Now what is particularly noteworthy about the levels of abstraction is that the higher the level of abstraction, the greater the certainty and the less do our conclusions depend on empirical investigation. For example, we can be absolutely certain that "nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect". To deny it, one has to assume it is true; thus, it is impossible to deny it with any consistency. Moreover, there is no need for any experiment to verify it.

Mathematics also enjoys tremendous certainty; for there are no conflicting schools of mathematics. If anyone is in doubt about the truth of a mathematical problem, one simply takes out a pencil or a piece of chalk and rationally demonstrates how the answer was derived.

Certainty, however, is far more difficult to come by on the first level of abstraction; one must empirically investigate in order to establish one's conclusion with relative certainty, thus one needs more than a pencil and paper; one needs a lab.

But consider how much more labor is required to arrive at any kind of certainty in history, for example, which is not an abstract science, for its object is particular events that are past. To do history well requires a great deal of reading, sifting through archives, deducing and inferencing, etc., but in the end, one is very often far from certain of one's conclusions.

Economics and politics are both sciences, and they are very low on the levels of intellectual abstraction. To know the laws of economics requires a study of particular economies - which are vast and complex - , and economic theory requires empirical evidence that this or that theory actually increases the overall living standard of a state. There are also a myriad of aspects in political life, and individuals only have a very limited area of expertise; thus every political leader needs advisors from a wide variety of backgrounds. Political prudence requires a great deal of experience, for there is a very steep learning curve here, as there is in other smaller administrative positions.

So, unless I am watching a Klu Klux Klan rally or something of the sort, what right do I have to become incensed at another person's political or economic arguments? Curious? Yes. Fearful? Perhaps. But angry? There's only a small area of this universe about which any of us can hope to enjoy a degree of certainty, and although some people may be clearly mistaken, there are often a host of reasons for the mistaken views they hold, and the more we try to get a handle of some of those reasons, the less anger we'll experience and the more we will understand the scope of our own position. We might even discover that they are not mistaken after all.

For the sake of the truth, which is always much larger than ourselves, we ought to pay more attention to our own emotional reactions to others, because they tell us far more about ourselves than they do about the ones we're listening to, or refusing to listen to.