Late yesterday I had a very interesting session with the older youth in our churches. We discussed a number of topics — the existence of different religions, the nature of evolution and so on. As the evening went on, however, I was forcibly struck by the way in which our educational system had not taught these youngsters actually to think. On the contrary, some of them seem to have been actively taught not to think — that is to say, they have been taught an attitude of mind which makes it impossible for them to evaluate an opinion critically.
What they brought to the discussion consisted of two propositions: “Everyone is equal” and, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
The problem is that the first proposition is clearly false. Everyone is, in fact, not equal in terms of almost every measure that can be applied, whether physical, intellectual, social or moral. Faced with this suggestion, all these young people could say is that they meant everyone should be treated equally.
But this conflicts with the intention behind the suggestion that “everyone is equal”, for if everyone is treated equally then many people are treated unfairly. Indeed, it would be perfectly possible to say, “Everyone is equal” and treat everyone equally badly!
After some probing and analysis, we concluded that the proposition, “Everyone is equal,” actually needed rephrasing, to something along the lines of, “We should treat everyone appropriately according to their situation” — still not an entirely satisfying proposal, but at least corresponding more to reality.
As to the second proposition, it is clearly an assumption of no real consequence. We have no way of showing it to be true that “Everyone is entitled to their opinion”, and even if we simply accept it, we are in no better position to evaluate whether those opinions are true, false or just plain mad.
Yet it was with these two propositions — one untrue and the other unhelpful — that they approached issues like the existence of other religions. The sheer vacuity of this approach was revealed in the attack on my own comments: “You can’t tell someone their religion is wrong; everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
The logical clash between the second statement and the first just didn’t occur to the proposer: namely that if everyone, including me, was entitled to their opinion, I could indeed tell someone their religion was wrong, whereas if I couldn’t tell them their religion was wrong, then I, at least, was not entitled to my opinion.
You needed to be there to see how long it took to explain this, and how challenging it was to the worldview of the hearer.
What was even more remarkable to me, however, was discovering that the source of this difficulty lay in their English Literature classes. It is in English that they learn that everyone reads things differently, and that ‘the truth’ is ‘what it true for you’. And at this point, I had a remarkable sense of dejá vu, for this was precisely where CS Lewis identified the sources of the future deconstruction of society, in his book The Abolition of Man.
Writing in 1943, Lewis started from a critique of what the called ‘The Green Book’ by Gaius and Titius (actually The Control of Language: A critical approach to reading and writing, by Alex King and Martin Ketley, 1939). Lewis argues with the authors’ suggestion (which he quotes in the original) that the statement ‘This view is sublime’ really means, “I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘Sublime’, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.”
Leaving aside the fact that these two alternative statements are not, in fact, saying the same thing, Lewis picks on the subtle impact of what has been alleged:
The schoolboy who reads ... The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.
In the modern context we see this brought to its full flowering. Today’s schoolchildren now accept that all attributions of value are expressions of the mind of the speaker and that they are all of equal worth.
Lewis identifies how the authors of The Green Book subtly lay the foundations for this way of thinking:
... they have not said that judgements of value are unimportant. Their words are that we ‘appear to be saying something very important’ when in reality we are ‘only saying something about our own feelings’. No schoolboy will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only. I do not mean, of course, that he will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.
All that has happened today is that our children are being taught by the children, and children’s children, of Gaius and Titius. And just as Lewis’s ‘schoolboy’ did not know what was being done to him, so the schoolboy does not know what he has done to the next generation. Yet Lewis feared the most dreadful consequences:
I am not here thinking solely, perhaps not even chiefly of those who are our public enemies at the moment. The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany. Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it.
“All people are equal” and “Everyone is entitled to their opinion”, are held up as paradigm virtues. As the youngsters told me on Sunday night, this is what their school teaches them to think, because this is how the school tackles bullying and conflict, and how everyone is enabled to live together.
But in fact, the propositions are a Trojan horse, for with them there also enters into our thinking the view that no one can say another opinion is wrong if everyone who holds it is ‘entitled’ to do so. And so critical judgement ceases — or rather is rejected as ‘judgementalism’. And the lack of critical thinking sees no conflict between the statement, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” and, “You can’t say someone else is wrong.”
Finally, then, we arrive at the situation where value derives from authority, authority from virtue, and virtue from the refusal to exclude any except those who would exclude others on the grounds that they are wrong. And then, Lewis said, we would fall into the hands of the Conditioners — those who would reshape us, and reshape society, as they saw fit. But even the Conditioners might lack a full awareness of what they are doing, for as Lewis writes,
When all that says, ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains. It cannot be exploded or ‘seen through’ because it never had any pretensions. The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure.Thus,
At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ — to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, though them, all humanity.
After last night I have a horrible feeling I have seen that future, and it is just around the next corner.
Revd John P Richardson
2 July 2007
PS: Minutes after posting this article, I hopped over to the Society for Popular Astronomy website where I read this: “I go along with the suggestion that ‘infinity’ is a tricky concept. However, in my opinion everyone has their right to decide what infinity is.” I rest my case!
PPS: And you must read this, by Theodore Dalrymple: The Gift of Language.