Reason has taken us a long way. For thousands of years subsistence was the human condition. Then in the late 18th century, prosperity suddenly erupted in Western Europe. And since then it has embraced the bulk of humanity.
It is no coincidence that progress occurred simultaneously with the age of reason. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant explained in his 1784 essay, the Enlightenment helped Europeans break free from a lazy and cowardly submission to the dogmas of religious and political authority. Prosperity was their reward.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the Age of Reason seems to be taking a break. From alternative facts about the size of Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd to vaccine protesters, and from opponents of genetically modified crops to climate change deniers, the world is facing a riot of unreason.
Of course, the madness of crowds is not a new thing. History is full of episodes of idiocy. But at a time of unprecedented access to knowledge, why should the 21st century face a pandemic of false facts?
Fact-free dogmas have taken hold even in our schools. Educationalists now claim children should learn in open classrooms (fashionably called “modern learning environments”) and that teachers should step aside and let students direct their own learning. It is not simply that these dogmas are contradicted by cognitive science. Even the scantest application of common sense exposes their flaws.
The 21st century’s problem with reason is not simply a prevalence of false views. It is that those who hold them resist even attempts at reason. Reason is forbidden as soon as the conversation becomes uncomfortable for one of the participants. Today, feelings count more than facts.
This is a new phenomenon. Former National leader Don Brash may have faced protestors after his 2004 Orewa speech, but he never risked being deplatformed. No one claimed his so-called Nationhood arguments were “hate speech.” Brash’s views provoked disagreement but did not cause offence.
Yet, as Brash discovered in August at Massey University, all this has changed. In the eyes of his opponents, Brash’s views are not simply wrong; they are hurtful. And those taking offence are as convinced of their own self-righteousness as 16th century Puritans.
This modern propensity to be offended knows no limits. As the British Euro-MP Daniel Hannan put it, we are facing the “unquenchable indignation of the offended.” What hope is there for a contest of ideas if one contestant is red-carded as soon as someone claims they feel uncomfortable? Rational discussion becomes impossible.
Indeed, on some issues, it is becoming difficult not to offend. Who could have imagined that recruiting only males for the role of Father Christmas would cause outrage? Or criticising cultures that do not respect women’s rights would be politically incorrect in an age when gender equality is a fundamental human right?
If interest groups advocate both A and non-A, what chance is there for reason? And how have we become so precious?
Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama attributes the problem to identity politics. In his new book, Identity, Fukuyama says “The focus on lived experience by identity groups valorizes inner selves experienced emotionally rather than examined rationally… This privileges sincerely held opinions over reasoned deliberation that may force one to abandon those opinions.”
In other words, we are living in an age which encourages recourse to feelings over reason.
To test this claim, think about how often we see reporters at the scene of some crisis or other asking bystanders how they feel – rather than asking experts to explain what has happened?
And then, of course, there is the role of social media. Every slight, every lived experience, however obscure, is amplified in the caldron of social media. This results in what historian Niall Ferguson describes as the modern-day trial by public opinion.
None of this encourages the better angels of our nature to intercede and apply reason. Instead of applying dispassionate analysis and common sense, the 21st-century prefers to wallow in ignorance and emotion.
In combination, these forces are not just a problem for free speech (as some have argued). They are a threat to reason itself. To the very foundation of enlightenment civilisation.
Yet how many times does each of us dilute the views we express for fear of offending someone? Indeed, anyone? The truth is we are all complicit in the decline of reason.
The good news is this means we can also contribute to reason’s resurrection. The next time someone in authority utters irrational nonsense, each of us can stop nodding and call them out. We can point out the contradictions, and demand evidence and analysis. How about that for a New Year’s resolution?
After all, the sooner we all wake up from this age of unreason the better it will be for liberal democracy – and for civilisation itself.
Roger Partridge is the Chair of The New Zealand Initiative.