The Destruction of Thought
By James Kalb
Thought is the attempt to understand the good, beautiful, and true in an orderly way. Man is naturally reasonable and oriented toward those things, so it’s a normal part of life. Even so, it depends on conditions that may not be present. It requires calmness and steadiness of attention, a world that is understood as stable and meaningful, and a willingness to let truth rather than desire or power be the guide.
Those conditions may disappear, so thought cannot be taken for granted as a presence in social life. That can cause problems, because it’s hard to carry it on ourselves when it’s absent from the world around us. We can’t pursue the good, beautiful, and true effectively without discussing them with others who join with us in the pursuit, and share enough expectations, beliefs, and memories to “speak the same language.” That’s how issues develop and come into focus, and traditions of inquiry and action grow up that accumulate insights and bring them into a usable system.
Today the conditions that support thought are being destroyed, often intentionally. Calmness and steadiness of attention are constantly disrupted by electronic communications. That’s partly our own fault, since we are addicted to distraction, but partly the fault of institutions and the PR men, propagandists, advertisers, and spin doctors they employ to keep us confused and pliable. It’s also due to the setting in which public life is carried on. Marshall MacLuhan thought the electronic media would bring us a global village. Instead they’ve brought a global mob. A village has an informal structure and way of life that’s evolved to work for its members, so it’s capable of good sense. A mob doesn’t and isn’t. That’s why what’s called public discussion today so often resembles a lynching.
To make matters worse, accepted understandings are shifting in a way that makes thought pointless. To say that the world is stable and meaningful in some determinable way is now considered fundamentalist. It’s like saying my answer is right and yours is wrong, and if you disagree you have to be silenced. Such claims threaten a public order based on a conception of freedom that tells us, in the Supreme Court’s words, that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” So they must themselves be silenced.
Abolishing stable and determinable meanings has further consequences. It means that the interpretation of the world that becomes the basis of social cooperation, and so is authoritatively treated as true, is a human construction for human purposes. The result is that power in the service of desire becomes the source of what must be treated as reality. If the powers that be decide “gender” must be treated as a social construction or personal determination that’s what it is, so if Bradley Manning says he’s Chelsea Manning it must be so. To disagree, to say that things are what they are without regard to political considerations, is to reject Choice, Change, and Hope, or so it is thought, in favor of the perpetuation of traditional stereotypes and power relations.
As to tradition, today’s outlook opposes it in principle. It wants all rules to be explicit, universal, and demonstrable, while tradition tells us what to do without fully explaining why.