One of the stranger rites of passage in American culture is the realization that our fellow citizens can sometimes be completely rational, and at the same time, utterly unreasonable. Rational people always have reasons for what they believe — that is, in essence, what “rational” means — but some reasons are better than others. Reasonable people know this, and have the judgment to tell the difference.
Take conspiracy theories. These aren’t failures of ratiocination so much as lapses of common sense. The fantasists who promote them are able to muster a veritable army of reasons for their beliefs, but lack the judgment to sort them into proper ranks. It’s a poor general who allows certainties to mix with dubious probabilities, or who fails to banish outright absurdities from his camp.
But this is just one species of unreasonableness. Another is to permit oneself only a narrow scope for imagining alternative explanations of acknowledged facts.
Human imagination has the power to unmoor us from ourselves. By conjuring experiences that transcend the merely personal, it enables us to attain, if not quite a godlike perspective, at least a less parochial one. But dogmas tether the imagination to an approved radius of speculation. Over time, our tendentious interpretations lead us in a shrinking spiral around the same fixed talking points, until our decaying intellectual orbit fails to encompass any reasonable speculations at all.
For all the pretense to exposure and revelation, their “journalists” have carefully avoided asking even the most basic questions about the origin of the texts at the heart of this manufactured controversy. Questions like, Who authorized their public release, and for what purpose? How were the texts selected, and what do they mean? Aren’t each of us entitled to our own political opinions, whatever our current jobs might be? And finally, who the hell cares what some random person on Mueller’s team thinks about Donald Trump anyway?
No reasonable person could ever accuse the FBI of being a left wing organization, yet Fox News would have us believe that Mueller’s team is somehow biased against Trump out of an excess of liberal piety. This is absurd on its face, but the gospel of Obama-era “deep state” conspiracy continues to gain adherents. The failure of imagination here is simply staggering. None of their readers appear inclined to wonder what all the other texts, of which there must be many thousands, might say — or to worry that the paltry few the Justice Department has seen fit to reveal were selected to provoke precisely this kind of outrage. Neither do they seem to care that the texts themselves have been denuded of any context.
There is a profound absence of intellectual restlessness in all this, a radical incuriousness that goes beyond mere mental sloth. Reasonable people are never completely satisfied with what they know, because they recognize, as a matter of practical experience, the provisional and uncertain nature of all knowledge, as well as their own capacity for error. Which is to say, they have learned to doubt their own beliefs. Doubts are what drive us forth into the wilderness of conjecture in search of new perspectives and better explanations of the facts. The entire empiricist tradition, that vast corpus of philosophical exploration that gave rise to the scientific method and propelled us into the modern age, is founded on the observation that reason alone is sterile and insufficient. One may rightly exclude whatever is logically untenable or inconsistent, but still fail to entertain any reasonable interpretation of events. Viewed in this light, our current retreat into ideology is less the erection of sturdy principles than it is the evacuation of our collective imagination.
Doubts are the sharpest spurs to discovery. Those who deny them, have little incentive to venture beyond their own fixed opinions. Libertarians are an extreme case in point. They have instructed themselves in the very darkest of hermeneutical arts, that of finding precisely those interpretations of history that lead inexorably towards the single conclusion approved by their philosophy. They have therefore systematically excluded the possibility that maybe, just maybe, that single conclusion is false, or that the world is more complex than they allow. They are the arch-rationalists of the political sphere, and their peculiar style of argument makes them among the least reasonable participants in public debate. Indeed, their self-assurance is almost cult-like in its extremity.
Sadly, they are not alone in this. The Web has facilitated the growth of innumerable little cults, many of them reactionary movements dedicated to their own tortured interpretations of history. The resurgence of the KKK and Nazi parties in the United States is but one manifestation of this phenomenon. The election of Donald Trump is another. The danger this poses to the American polity is difficult to quantify, but it doesn’t take much to appreciate its scale — just look at all the transgressions being committed by the current Administration as it descends into the abyss.
This proliferation of cult-like movements springs out of something elemental in the human psyche — our collective abhorrence for the Unknown, perhaps. It is a truism, much repeated, that the human mind cannot abide mysteries, ambiguities, and doubts. Conservatives especially seem to regard them with an unusual degree of fear and loathing. Perhaps fortunately, the Unknown is a thing of such incalculable vastness and wildness, it defies circumscription by any rational system. The only alternative to containment is exclusion, which means building bulwarks against the darkness. Without walls to mark the ambit of acceptable intellectual wandering, one is bound to encounter certain uncomfortable questions eventually.
But gather behind those walls, and you will experience both the joys of tribal fellowship, and release from the anxieties of doubt. Imagine never again being asked to entertain an alien point of view, or having to confront one of those dirty little ambiguities that tend to creep about behind the tapestries. Imagine everything obscure becoming as clear as air, and all the messy categories of moral feeling sorting themselves into circles as perfect and immutable as the planetary spheres. Which is to say, imagine finally knowing exactly whom to love, and whom to hate. These are the desiderata of the cult, and they have become as deeply lodged in the American psyche as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If you doubt it, I propose a little experiment. Try broaching the topic of Hillary Clinton with any self-professed partisan of the American right. They aren’t too hard to find — just follow the most stentorian voice you hear at the next wedding or family gathering you can’t get out of. Approach carefully, invoke her name, and listen quietly as you are ushered into the scorching presence of their most sacred of sacred fires, contempt of the Other, a flame they tend to with all the seriousness of a priest arranging the sacraments. You may even be privileged to hear that most famous inventory of implausible offenses called the Crimes of the Clintons, a litany whose recitation among conservatives has acquired the cadence of a catechism.
If that’s not a cult, I don’t know what is.
I’ve argued that basic reasonableness (or “critical thinking”, if you prefer) requires judgment and imagination. Neither of these qualities can survive without constant cultivation. Those who would do the hard work of this cultivation, namely high school teachers and university professors, are the very people conservatives most loudly revile. And they reserve their harshest imprecations for the ones who have dedicated themselves to the least economically useful disciplines, subjects like literature, history, art, music — what are collectively called the humanities.
The reason for this is quite simple. Nothing is more destructive to the foundations of ideology than the humanities. They nourish a mental quality Keats called “negative capability,” which he defined as the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In other words, art and literature challenge us to recognize the essential artificiality of our rational categories, to scale their walls and wander naked in the wilderness beyond them. The humanities stimulate imaginative sympathy, encourage awareness of alternative points of view, and promote a broader conception of what it means to be human — broader, at least, than our meager political dogmas tend to allow.
This is broadly compatible with the empiricist tradition, in that it recognizes the primacy of experience in the formation of beliefs, and encourages skepticism of ideologies and dogmas. Reason alone is a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding the world, because any particular belief we form about that world can only be tested through experience. Our political culture appears to have abandoned this insight, instead adopting the explicitly rationalist posture of building far-reaching ideological systems out of untested or untestable component beliefs. We do this because the only real alternative requires constant exposure to the inscrutable complexities and irreducible ambiguities of political life. Such exposure can be bracing, but it is also unsettling and inconvenient. When all is said and done, Americans prefer the comforts of ideological purity to the vulnerability and distress that attends true intellectual growth.