“We cannot look back with much pleasure on our foreign policy in the last five years. They certainly have been disastrous years. God forbid that I should lay on the government of my own country the charge of responsibility for the evils which have come upon the world in that period…But certainly we have seen the most depressing and alarming change in the outlook of mankind which has ever taken place in so short a period.”
–Winston Churchill, March 1936
When Churchill looked with dismay at the descent of the civilised world into the nightmare of tyranny that culminated in wholesale war, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima, he had good reason to regard that horrific crisis of western civilisation as some sort of final reckoning. But, of course, it was not. For when the guns fell silent in 1945, the war of ideas was far from over, and “the most depressing and alarming change in the outlook of mankind” still had many bewildering twists and turns to take.
Churchill’s predecessors had tried to negotiate with the Nazis, and their efforts had only emboldened the aggression. Was war inevitable given the incapacity of the two sides to communicate effectively as a result of the intellectual and moral chasm that divided them? The question is of more than mere academic interest, because in our world today we have equally impassable barriers to communication creating increasingly violent tensions.
Can the western democracies dialogue with Islamic extremists? Can Democrats and Republicans debate without demonising one another? Can capitalism and socialism find common ground for the good of humanity? Can technocrats come to terms with environmentalists? Can consumerism have a meaningful discussion with humanism? Can pro-life and pro-choice groups discuss their differences rationally? Can management and employees reach a consensus that would recognise the interdependence of the community and business?
And what happens to leadership when communication becomes impossible across all these toxic socio-political and cultural divides? If leadership is inspiring people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all, then an inability to communicate must inevitably be fatal for leadership. And any person in a position of leadership who contributes to the collapse of communication is obviously an active participant in the leadership crisis.
The globalised world enables people from different races, cultures, and creeds to engage in schools, workplaces, communities, and in international political and economic interfaces. This presupposes the ability of people from different backgrounds to communicate effectively, and the assumption seems reasonable enough, given our common human nature. Yet mutual miscomprehension is ubiquitous.
How on earth has this happened in our interconnected high-tech world? In short, technology and information are not enough for effective communication. They cannot compensate for the suppression of truth, a lack of empathy and understanding, the erosion of trust, and the demise of good will. These are the elements of the ideological mindsets impeding rational communication in our world.
Ideological thinking, as exemplified in the prejudice and bigotry that repress rational thought today, grows out of the rejection of the reality of objective truth, and the consequent belief that we are all free to make our own truth. An ideology is a fictitious reality that excludes all knowledge that doesn’t support its claims. It is an attempt to justify might over right. So the cultural silos we know as ideologies, the pseudo-rational manifestos of power and self-justification, like laissez-faire liberalism, socialism, neo-fascism, neo-Marxism, libertarianism, technocracy, consumerism, racism, scientism, and the currently dominant model of globalisation, all arise from a widely held worldview, a metaphysical stance with no scientific grounding, that says that there is no such thing as truth, other than the reality we create for ourselves.
This self-serving mechanistic worldview emerged in the late Middle Ages from the rejection of the classical worldview that saw meaning and purpose in the world, based on the fixed natures of things like potatoes, pigs, and planets. William of Ockham and other nominalist philosophers said that no such natures really existed, and that terms like potatoes, pigs, planets – and human beings – were mere names we use for convenience. So nominalism denied the reality of everything that transcends sense experience, in effect, the very things that make us human: the intellect and the products of abstract reasoning, concepts, propositions, and numbers.
This left western civilisation facing a crucial question: Is there a source of truth that transcends the human mind? The answer one gives to that question determines one’s worldview. An affirmative answer embraces the classical worldview of inherent meaning and purpose in the world, and the reality of objective truth. A negative response, on the other hand, supports the nominalist position that says the only meaning, purpose, and truth in the world is that which humans make for themselves. Modern philosophy, by and large, took the second option.
The development of the mechanistic worldview since the nominalist revolution has been very well documented in books like Sources of the Self by the philosopher Charles Taylor, Passage to Modernity by the French scholar Louis Dupre, and The Unintended Reformation by Professor Brad Gregory. Scepticism, idealism, materialism, utilitarianism, nihilism, positivism, and existentialism, were just some of the blind alleys along the way as modern philosophy tried to escape the reality of objective truth knowable by rational minds.
Out of the morass of modern philosophy, ideologies were bound to arise. And they did: Jacobinism, anarchism, socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism, and all the shrieking fanaticisms that have banished rational debate from every corner of our communal lives.
The loss of commitment to rational enquiry and discourse signalled the demise of Western culture. Today, the trained but uneducated people of the western democracies look with dismay on the breakdown of democracy, the erosion of the rule of law, the re-emergence of slavery, the tsunami of social dysfunction, and the ravages of power and greed in politics and business. Yet these were all predicted in the first half of the 20th century by prescient observers like Belloc, Romano, Simone Weil, Orwell, Huxley, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and many others, from all sides of the political spectrum.
In his 1981 book, Six Great Ideas, Mortimer Adler provided a brilliant exposition of the meaning of truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, and justice. Today, his rational analysis of the concepts would be alien to most people, because the meanings have all been corrupted by ideology. Truth is now relative or unknowable; goodness is a matter of personal choice; beauty is entirely subjective; liberty is the anarchic freedom of the individual; equality is no longer about human dignity and the rule of law, but about social engineering and control; and justice rests on power rather than truth.
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