By Louis Devine
We know what we believe, but how often do we know why we believe it? And what effect does this have on our political discourse? During my otherwise disappointing trip to China, I inadvertently came closer to answering this question. While I had hoped the trip would provide the perfect excuse not to think about politics or philosophy for two weeks, this delusion was routinely interrupted by expressions of pseudo-science and new age-woo. Eventually these interruptions became so frequent I was forced to realise that pseudo-science was not an unwelcome hitchhiker that had grafted its way onto Chinese martial arts, rather it was the foundation for much of the practice. Naturally, this prompted some pretty serious introspection into how I had tacitly accepted spurious claims for the better part of five years. I decided that if I were going to interrogate one set of beliefs, it would be good practice to be skeptical of everything I held to be true.
In my quest to expunge fallacious ideas and pseudo-science from the world, I had forgotten to first look in the mirror. A contrarian by nature, I’ve derived much joy from knocking down religious, pseudo-scientific, and outlandishly conservative ideas. Yet I’ve come to realise that the martial artist who accepts the premise for his practice without question is no more intellectually honest than the religious fanatics I’ve frequently derided. This I think is true of any belief or opinion held without self-reflection.
Much of what is espoused by Chinese martial arts rests on the premise that there is an internal force known as Qi or Chi. Today, much of what has been explained via the concept of Qi in martial arts can now be explained in more scientific terms through an analysis of body mechanics and rudimentary physics. Yet because many of the martial techniques which claim to use Qi actually do work due to other reasons, a pernicious general acceptance of Qi leads towards much more dangerous practices such as an acceptance of traditional medicine and rejecting vaccinations.
But this is not the point. Rather, the problem is that that while one’s beliefs might maintain the outward illusion of logical consistency, internally our beliefs are more often than not completely contradictory to one another, linked together in an incoherent chain of bias and skewed perception. It is therefore not enough to simply publicly profess that you believe in reason rather than faith, and empiricism rather than dogma and ideology. Unless you are prepared to analyse your own beliefs with the same level of objectivity and scrutiny as you do to others’ beliefs, your denunciations are nothing but empty platitudes.
We tend to assume that someone’s beliefs are internally connected to each other in a logical framework. One expressed belief is just the naturally reached conclusion stemming from a previous chain of beliefs which, if accepted, would seem support the current argument being made, and provide us with a roadmap to further extrapolate what they might say in future about related topics. This practice can be benign and efficient; we shouldn’t take medical advice from an anti-vaxxer. Yet it can also be the death of healthy debate. How often do we dismiss the views and opinions of someone merely because they have disagreed with us in the past? The danger of this practice becomes particularly pronounced when the issue is controversial, often involving identity.
The current debate around whether or not to amend section 18C of the racial discrimination act so that is no longer unlawful to “offend” or “insult” someone on the basis of race is a perfect crystallisation of this sort of thinking. Much of the commentary on the debate can be slotted into the following train of ‘logic’: 1) Cory Bernadi supports repealing aspects of 18C 2) Cory Bernadi is against gay marriage and thinks Halal certification funds terrorism, 3) Bernadi is a bigot and therefore 4) wanting to amend 18C is bigoted. Not only is this factually incorrect (Julian Burnside also supports amending 18C), but many people will form their opinion on the debate without having heard any actual arguments about the real content of the issue.
This is a huge problem with identity politics. On contentious issues we tend to fall into separate camps, which are not often defined by nuanced differences of opinion, but by identities that are formed in opposition to someone else. Statements such as “I don’t think that, because I am not a conservative” make no logical sense. If we are seriously concerned with arriving at the truth of an issue, reality cannot possibly be predicated on one’s identity. If an idea contains an element of truth about the world, it will continue doing so regardless of who says it. We cannot dismiss the views of our political opponents because they are ‘stupid conservatives’ or ‘overly emotional progressives’. That is why ideas and opinions ought to be treated on a case by case basis, regardless of who first uttered them.
If you fail to scrutinise each idea in its’ own right, you might find yourself engaged in fruitless conversations where no one addresses the core of an issue, and just talks past one another. Or you might end up on a mountain in China trying to cultivate your Qi. Both are just as bad.