Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Dubious Virtue of Denying Your Beliefs

NOTE: While looking through my old essays, I found another 15 that struck me as particularly interesting. Some may seem a bit dated, as they discuss current events during the period 2008 to 2010, but the principles they discuss are still relevant.

Those who have read any of my blogs ("Random Notes", "The Ghost Squirrels", "Examining the War on Drugs", "Nation of Whiners") know I am an odd duck, a federalist/libertarian./conservative who is both Jewish and vegetarian.  I don't make much of an issue of either, mostly because they do not have much relevance to the political or economic matters which I discuss. However, I have to admit I also avoid them to some small degree, as they create uncomfortable situations, either because of Christians who wish to debate theology, even when it is completely irrelevant, or because of those who find vegetarians unusually irritating. Rather than be distracted by such irrelevancies, I tend to find it easier to simply gloss over my own beliefs.

I do not mention this because I feel any regret over such a decision. Given the purpose of my blog posts, it makes sense to limit such distractions. However, the fact that even an aside could provide such a distraction is itself a symptom of something that troubles me about modern American society. And that is our tendency to move away from an individualist society toward one with a mass mind, even among conservatives. Where once we accepted individual disagreements, allowed for variations in beliefs, even saw such disagreements as the source of arguments which might reveal the truth, today, we see them as personal assaults, and demand that all around us adopt beliefs like ours, treating beliefs not as our most treasured truths, but as a fashion to be abandoned when it no longer fits the present trends. And, sadly, even among conservatives, one finds many examples of this attitude.

Now, I will grant my beliefs are a bit outside the norm, so they do not provide the best example, but perhaps in their status of outliers, they might show more strongly tendencies more subtly felt with more mundane differences of opinion. So, let us look at the way others react to my beliefs, and what it shows us about our modern patterns of thought.
One example that immediately comes to mind, and probably shows the most concrete example of what I wish to discuss, is the tendency for non-vegetarians to become upset with vegetarians, to mock or even become angry. Certain this is not a universal reaction, but it is common enough to be noticed. And yet it is confusing. If someone says they never eat onions or can't stand lima beans, no one gets so upset. Yet if I forgo flesh, it becomes an affront to others. The question is why?

The answer can be found in the most common "defense" offered by vegetarians, the claim "just for my health." Whenever I hear this sentence, it is being offered apologetically, by someone who has just noticed the bad reaction his admission of vegetarianism has elicited. And, sure enough, the health claim almost immediately changes the listeners' reaction. Why? Because those who become upset with vegetarians do so for one of two reasons. Some because they associate vegetarianism with a whole cornucopia of political and social beliefs with which they disagree, but many more because they believe vegetarians feel they are superior to non-vegetarians, and they find this sense of superiority offensive*.
But why?

I am sure many reading this immediately nodded when hearing that "they consider themselves superior" and thought to themselves "no one likes someone who feels superior." But why not? If you think about it, any belief you hold, you hold because you believe it correct. You are Christian or Moslem or Jew because you believe it to be true. You are Catholic or Baptist or Pentecostal or Charismatic because you agree with the doctrine. You are Republican or Democrat or libertarian or LaRoucher because you feel it is right. And you are vegetarian because you believe it is the right choice. We hold all our beliefs because we have decided, for whatever reason, they are the correct beliefs.

But, what modern society tries to avoid recognizing, is that for one belief to be right, or to be even best, it means all the rest are either wrong or inferior. If I think Christianity is right, then I must assume all other faiths are wrong**. There is nothing inherently offensive about this, it is simply a recognition of the truth that, for one idea to be best, the rest must be inferior.

Nor is there anything inherently intolerant or anti-pluralistic about this belief. I can believe all my ideas are superior to yours, but so long as I allow you to practice your beliefs, that does not impede freedom of belief. In fact, I can go so far as to tell you that my beliefs are superior to yours and still not impede your freedom. Disagreement, or being made uncomfortable by the words of others, is not a loss of freedom.

However, modern America has come to imagine "tolerance" is something different. We hear it every day when anyone who denounces the belief of another is called "intolerant". Well, yes, in a colloquial sense, they are "intolerant", but saying it is wrong to be gay or that Christianity is false is not politically intolerant, it is simply an expression of one's views, that is exercising that very right the others claim is being violated.

But modern tolerance is a different beast. It insists we not only accept that others believe differently, we must now also say their beliefs are the equal of our own. We must not insist our beliefs are in any way superior, that is, we must basically deny the truth of our beliefs.

We hear this all the time, in parents who are praised for not "forcing" their beliefs on their children. Which means, not imparting to their children beliefs with which the speaker disagrees. After all, if I were to not "force" on my child the belief that playing in traffic is bad, the same speakers would be quite upset. But not "forcing" on them religious beliefs, which I could view as every bit as important, is seen as worthy of praise.

Actually, I am being a bit imprecise. We are not, as a culture, completely opposed holding ideas. As we saw with the child example, imparting some ideas, even some political and ethical ones, such as "tolerance", is considered fine, it is only when we enter into ideas where there is either no cultural consensus, or the consensus goes against us, that not "forcing": ideas on children is to be praised. In other words, we are to teach children only ideas which the majority find acceptable, and which are unlikely to cause any dispute. All other ideas must be studiously avoided.

And that seems to be the pattern throughout our society as a whole, we adopt the ideas of others as a sign of solidarity. We hold beliefs so weakly that we can drop them and pick them up to do nothing more than establish some sort of bond. And those who do not do so, who hold beliefs strongly and take them seriously, unless, of course they hold ideas which are in concert with those around them, are called intolerant, simply for holding a different belief.

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* Among a handful of listeners, especially ex-vegetarians, off and on vegetarians and  those claiming "I am a vegetarian, except I eat fish and chicken", the reaction is driven more by some sense of guilt, as they themselves imagine vegetarianism to be superior, but have not quite kept to their own ideals. But that is not relevant for this essay. [UPDATE 04/10/2011: I do not mean to imply vegetarianism is superior here, just that these people appear by their reactions to suggest they believe so. It is similar to the reaction of those who quit smoking and then relapsed, when they meet successful ex-smokers. They feel upset at meeting those who did something they could not, and which they consider important.]

** There are a handful of  inclusive faiths which allow for the truth of multiple beliefs, but even those tend to claim their understanding is superior to the other true but inferior belief systems. I have yet to find a  non-polytheistic religion which both admits the truth of other faiths and declares them equal to its own teachings. And even among polytheists, each deity has his partisans, so I can think of no faith anywhere 

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POSTSCRIPT

Obviously, throughout history society has been impatient with those who hold ideas outside of the mainstream, that is nothing new. However, that is not what I am discussing here. In many of these cases were discussing, not religion or philosophy, but even trivial matters such as taste in music or books. And yet, like teens eager to please, our society as a whole seems quite willing to deny their own beliefs, even beliefs long held, just to "fit in". This is not the behavior of adults, or at least was not in the past. Only since we have begun praising the behavior of teens have we begun to act like teens, to the point of placing as little importance on ideas as they do, and using the changing of one's beliefs as nothing more than a handshake. ("The Fascination with Change", "Uniqueness", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Trophy Spouses", "Cranky Old Man?", "Faux "Realism"", "Our Complete Lack of Creativity ", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Slippery Slopes", "Frightened for our Future", "The Adoration of Youth", "I Blame the Romantics", "Revisiting an Old Topic", "Changing Incentives", "How Fast Things Change", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Deadly Cynicism" and "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "Disturbing Entertainment, Ethnic Quotas and Distorted Views of Pop Culture - A Potpourri of Post Topics")

POSTSCRIPT II

Of course, simply recognizing that belief in an idea implies all other ideas are either false or at least inferior does not mean one needs to be offensive about other beliefs. It is quite possible to be civil about differing ideas, even give a respectful hearing to ideas one considers false. My point here is simply that we fail to recognize the very obvious truth that if one believes a given idea to be true, it inevitably implies others are not, and so, conversely, forcing people to pretend all beliefs are equal is to demand that they give up any faith they placed in their original beliefs. We cannot have both strong beliefs and the modern sort of "tolerance" which demands all ideas be viewed as equal.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/04/10.

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