It’s been a rough week. Jill Filipovic, noteworthy feminist and senior political writer for Cosmopolitan, has evicted me from my own sex. Check out her response to my most recent reflection on abortion:
I hate to question the orders of a true Feministe, and authentic representative of “actual women.” But isn’t it practically illegal nowadays to publicly question my gender identity? I mean, I realize that it’s not terribly relevant nowadays that I have two X-chromosomes and have thrice given birth. But if there’s anything I can count on in these uncertain times, I figured it was my right to self-identify as a woman. It’s certainly ironic that Filipovic, of all people, would feel free to banish me into involuntary manhood just for being pro-life.
But that’s how it works nowadays, right? If you’re Jill Filipovic, member of the Cosmo panetheon, you can say or do whatever you want. We can’t expect Cosmo writers to be respectful of others’ gender identities. Nor can we expect Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be culturally sensitive about the poor. Nor can we demand that Lena Dunham to pay her workers a living wage (or any wage), just because she thinks all the rest of us should.
These Beautiful People can’t be expected to play by the laws they benevolently generate to edify the rest of us. It’s only we, the poor normal schlubs, who must toe the line and abide.
The Reign of the Sophists
Why is our public square so nasty and unproductive? I’ve never been one to shout down spirited exchange, if it seems to be going somewhere. But few people nowadays manage to succeed in a flowering marketplace of ideas through respectful exchange. Bullying, badgering, and point-scoring seem to be the ticket. And if you do make it to the top, the way to stay there is emphatically not by modeling the virtues and values that you claim to champion. Rather, you should use your status to beat down anybody who tries to hold you accountable for what you say or do.
Ours isn’t the first society to have these sorts of problems. Plato’s Socrates regularly does battle with the Beautiful People of his own day, whom he named “the sophists.” These were teachers of rhetoric whom well-to-do parents would employ to instruct their sons in the art of getting ahead. Sound familiar? Apparently Ancient Greece also had its elite class, which was practiced in protecting its ranks through tricks, artifice, and ruthless double standards.
In 2014, we worry about the inegalitarian nature of such an arrangement. This didn’t bother the Greeks nearly so much. But they (or at least Socrates) did notice that the sophists were less than fully committed to justice and truth. Actually that’s something of an understatement. Sophists were mostly quite willing to trample the truth in their mad dash towards fame and fortune.
Sadly, our own sophists aren’t notably better. The Federalist’s own Sean Davis has recently illustrated this point through his exchange with Neil deGrasse Tyson, a giant of the popular-science world, who appears to have a penchant for exaggerating or even just making things up. When Davis called him out on his fibs, Tyson didn’t do what a lover of truth clearly ought to—namely, examine the evidence and apologize for any error. Instead he made every effort to use his status and connections to discredit his detractors and bludgeon them into silence. Media outlets scrambled to help him, speculating on whether conservatives might just be anti-intellectual, and considering deleting The Federalist’s Wikipedia entry. Tyson’s apology finally appeared this week, nestled in a forest of irrelevant “context” and cowardly disclaimers. Quite obviously, even this would never have been offered but for Davis’ extraordinary persistence in the matter.
The underlying philosophy here is painfully clear. People as big as Tyson shouldn’t be held accountable for saying true things. His vaunted persona should transcend concerns about the truth or falsehood of whatever he actually says.
The Truth Is Out There, But Can We Find It?
Once Tyson’s mendacity became painfully clear, several people urged him to come clean and apologize. Some tried to contain the damage by arguing Tyson’s tall tales were irrelevant to his more serious advocacy. Writing at Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler opined: “I am sure some of Tyson’s political adversaries would like to use this episode as a basis for attacking climate science or evolution. No dice. It does not work that way. That Tyson told tall tales here tells us nothing about these other matters. ”
This is simultaneously right and so very wrong. It’s true of course that we can’t draw any confident conclusions about the earth’s climate, just based on the fact that a particular proselytizer for scientific orthodoxy plays fast and loose with the truth. But, as Robert Tracinski recently explained, the incident does speak to a broader problem. Once you realize that people are willing to behave this way, you just can’t trust them. On anything.
This is a huge problem, with respect to scientific orthodoxy, but also more generally with America’s dominant elite. They’re sophists. Too many are liars and hypocrites who will do or say whatever is necessary to protect their own status and privilege. Sensible people are not overly trusting in such cases, especially when the relevant “authorities” quite obviously have strong self-interested reasons to hedge and prevaricate.
Liberal feminists like Jill Filipovic have no incentive to deeply reflect on women’s issues. They especially have no reason to consider whether pro-life women (which is to say, the majority of American women today) might have any insights into what “actual women” actually need. Her bully pulpit is well-established and, for her, quite rewarding. Thoughtful and circumspect doesn’t sell when you’re Cosmo’s ranking feminist, and Filipovic knows full well that among elite liberal Democrats, a willingness to celebrate abortion is an absolute requirement for membership—especially if you’re a woman.
Similar reasoning applies to climate scientists. They’re smart enough to know where their bread is buttered. “Why would scientists deceive us about climate change?” asked a liberal friend of mine once, all wide-eyed and innocent. Gosh, I don’t know. Maybe because they’ve turned climate change into a multi-billion-dollar gravy train raining taxpayer dollars down on their labs and organizations? Because popular apologists for “climate change” are treated like rock stars, while politicians who promote these “inconvenient truths” end up (quite conveniently indeed) winning Nobel Prizes? It’s unclear whether climate scientists are doing good in the world, but it’s obvious that they’re doing very, very well. Don’t expect them to jeopardize those comfortable positions by getting overly concerned about truth and fairness.
The interesting thing about climate change is that most conservatives are, in my anecdotal experience, fairly non-dogmatic in their views. They can discuss the issues in an open and reasonable way, provided their interlocutors don’t seem like partisan hacks or crusaders. What sort of shifts in the global climate would reasonably be viewed as “abnormal”? How do we even establish a norm, given the natural complexity of the global climate? If climate trends are legitimately alarming, is there good reason to think we can change them and, if so, is it worth the cost? The conservatives I know are quite adept at separating out these considerations.
Actually answering those questions is another matter, of course. I’m an educated non-scientist who nevertheless has probably read more about this than 99 percent of the population. And my considered opinion is that I have no idea what’s going on with the global climate. I can read the social and political currents well enough to appreciate that, from a scientific perspective, the issues are basically opaque to anyone who isn’t deeply embedded within the community itself. The truth is out there, but in a world of sophists, normal people have no reliable means of finding it.
Stop Rewarding Trolls and Sophists
Sophists poison society in all kinds of ways. They’re like the mainstream, respectable equivalent of Internet trolls: people whose antipathy towards real discussion hinders everyone else’s ability to explore the truth. If polarizing hackery is your livelihood, you can’t stand for too much integrity, honesty, or genuine bridge-building. That would jeopardize your lucrative perch.
The sad truth is, there will always be people out there who are happy to assume the role of sophist. Sacrificing honesty and integrity for money and prestige is, for some people, a worthwhile trade. The only way to protect ourselves from these social predators is to stop rewarding them. Stop watching their programs and buying their books. Stop promoting them to prominent perches where they can be ever-more comfortable in their brazen hypocrisy.
Wouldn’t it be great to live in a society in which women across the political spectrum could have an honest conversation about their varied concerns? Maybe we could even make progress towards helping women thrive and be happy, rather than crassly bandying them about as political bargaining chips. Who knows? Maybe such a society could even be happier for children, and for men. Maybe it’s not a truth of the universe that we can only protect women by pitting their interests against everyone else’s, as our sophists love to do.
Here’s another amazing thought. Imagine a world in which we could trust our scientific popularizers to explain science, honestly and fairly, so that interested non-scientists had some reasonable understanding of what modern researchers were doing. Wouldn’t that be exciting? I love watching scientific documentaries with my kids, so long as the focus is on explaining the natural world, rather than peddling cheap philosophy and promoting partisan politics. Suppose we rewarded the people who do that?
In the end, sophists can only preserve their perches if the American public allows it. Let’s demand better.