Overconfidence, Heterodoxy, and The Sacred

I'm currently reading David Benatar's The Second Sexism and I thought I would break out a passage from the book's introductory chapter. It reads:

Indeed, overly confident objections are very common among those defending orthodoxies. One reason for this is that the responses to those objections by those defending heterodox views are so much harder for the orthodox to imagine, given either the rarity of unconventional views or the rarity of their being expressed. Orthodoxies are repeated endlessly and usually go unchallenged. The result is that they acquire a life of their own and become self-reinforcing. Thus those who hold orthodox positions have no felt need to justify their positions, which become entrenched by being shared by so many others around them.

I'm sure this has been expressed more eloquently, but I don't feel like mining the Mencken archive at the moment, and I think Benatar's iteration comes with the benefit of clarity. Also, I corrected a typo from the original (for shame, Wiley-Blackwell).

Anyway, if we qualify the problem of overconfidence by stipulating that many orthodox positions become entrenched for useful reasons — i.e., because they are in fact strongly supported by evidence and sound intuition — a corollary question might concern how best then to distinguish weak but rare objections to prevailing orthodoxies from strong but rare objections that warrant more studious consideration. Instinct will only get you so far, time being finite and all, and you can never really trust your gut in a hot zone.

An efficient heuristic, however, might come in handy. One that I've previously noted comes from the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who seems to have cultivated a special knack for detecting the religious sweetener in ostensibly secular fruit. Riffing on the process whereby ideas and beliefs come to be "sacralized" in the social order, Haidt posits the following helpful dictum:

The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.

If you want a sense of how "motivated ignorance" might sound in relevant context — that is, in response to Benatar's argument that men suffer from systemic and harmful dicrimination in significant, if seldom acknowledged, ways — look no further than this fairly typical commentary, which begins and ends in snark without disdaining to seriously engage any of the empirical and philosophical arguments that Benatar develops.

If you want a sense of how "motivated ignorance" sounds in response to Benatar's other heterodox position — antinatalism — just pull up an online thread at random and count the seconds before some clever keypecker implores the Bad Man to kill himself already. Eat your heart out, Godwin.

In such and other instances, it shouldn't be difficult to identify the sacred object at throne. For those to whom the interests of women are paramount, the notion of a "sexism" that victimizes men will be received as a threat to the special role of  women in a practiced narrative about equality. To those who believe that human life must flourish evermore, the notion that being brought into existence could be morally problematic will be received as a threat to cherished narratives about meaning and survival, to say nothing of wee precious babies.

I think the MI reaction has a distinctive character; it's hotly emotional — viscerally invested … yet at the same moment, somehow, emphatically incurious. The heat is a tell. Hostile deflection is a tell. When these elements converge, look for the shiny sacred thing. Then it's time to brace up and pay attention, intrepid truthseeker. From the smell of it, could be there's meat on the table.  

You still have to follow your nose, but at least it's a start.

Memento mori.

3 thoughts on “Overconfidence, Heterodoxy, and The Sacred

  1. Great post. Wish you blogged (or, at least, Tweeted) more frequently, Chip!
    This little episode might be of relevance:
    Several weeks ago, in response to this blog at Feminist Philosophers, I posted the following comment (which was originally #2):
    Another myth is that Summers “conjectured about innate limitations on women’s ability to excel in science” — unless this refers to the “different availability of aptitude at the high end” hypothesis [1], which apparently enjoys substantial support [2]. (David Benatar clearly discusses the affair in THE SECOND SEXISM, pp. 225-228.)
    [1] http://web.archive.org/web/20080130023006/http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html
    [2] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-how-and-why-sex-differences/201101/how-can-there-still-be-sex-difference-even-when-there-is

    Within minutes, what is now comment #2 appeared, followed shortly by the removal of my comment, and then by what is now comment #3. Period.
    My discovery of Mills’ post was through Haidt’s page on Post-Partisan Social Psychology.
    I like to follow the Feminist Philosophers blog for the genuinely illuminating perspective it sometimes provides, and as a liberal I agree with much of the moral agenda it promotes, but I also find it at least as interesting as something of a case study in precisely the phenomenon of sacralization Haidt has diagnosed.

  2. Thanks, Rob.
    My twats are limited to the Mayoral Campaign, which is currently suspended pending a secret investigation (which I am conducting … in secrecy).
    I’m willing to bet that I’ve read more deeply in the femmie-lit than the average bloggy bloke (or chick). I show up for the substance, and I stay for the hypocrisy. Your anecdote is par for the course. Period. (That was a pun, no?)

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