Saturday, April 6, 2013

SCOFFERS



No man is an island; we’re all connected.

We’re all social beings, and ridicule, that repulsive attractor, is what holds us together whenever we threaten to break ranks, and escape from the herd, or worse, attempt to lead it in a new direction.  Its use immediately establishes, or reinforces, a hierarchy: it confers superiority on the dispenser by the assumed right to be rude, and thereby tells the humble recipient what he is supposed to believe. It is an entirely unscientific, gut-level, socially acquired and directed behavior, aimed at corralling the uninitiated, or misguided, into the fold of correct (i.e. group) belief of whatever kind.

In his Full Comment in the Canadian National Post a while back1  Jonathan Kay quoted controversial New Age lecturer David Icke -

We are like droplets of water in an ocean of … awareness. We are ‘individual’ at one level of perception, but still part of the infinite whole. More than that, we are the infinite whole, just as a droplet is the ocean and the ocean is the droplet.

I find myself in considerable accord with this, but Kay was approaching it from a different perspective. “Icke has written 16 books, and most of them are full of meandering New Age rhapsodies such as this,” he intoned. The word ‘meandering’ instantly warned me, like a rap over the knuckles, that I was backing the wrong horse, that my beliefs were incorrect. Absent that pejorative term I might well have continued heedlessly in my error. Kay continued - 

Men such as Icke epitomize what I call the “Cosmic Voyager” — the hippie earth child of the eight-part typology I have developed in my research of conspiracy theorists. In broad terms, the Cosmic Voyager resembles what University of York cult expert Colin Campbell called a “seeker” — a spiritual omnivore perpetually spiraling out toward the margins of Western cultural and political life.

Notice how the warning flags marking the borders of heretical belief continued to litter the reader’s path – ‘hippie earth child’, ‘conspiracy theorists’, ‘cult’ -  and alongside them the pointers to correct belief – ‘eight-part typology’, ‘research’, ‘University… expert’.  Without these clues this would be just another, dry, academic anthropological study. It is not. This is propaganda.

The Cosmic Voyager often will follow eccentric food regimens, dabble in Eastern religious doctrines and exhibit a pronounced suspicion of conventional medicine. His conspiracism flows naturally from the instinctive sense that the world around us is not what it seems; and that we are all bound together by some kind of unseen natural life force that is being suppressed or degraded by the guardians of our materialistic society. 

Again, but for the ridicule (‘eccentric’, ’ dabble’, ‘conspiracism’,’instinctive’, ‘some kind of’) I would find this description quite appealing. But Kay's message is clear - he is saying that because the likes of David Icke espouse beliefs so contrary to those we all surely must share (on pain of being labeled ridiculous), it stands to reason that they are borderline insane.  Indeed, put like that, the accusation seems irrefutable, so accustomed are we to still being told – in this supposedly enlightened age - what we may and may not believe.

But what, one is mischievously tempted to ask, is Kay’s own mythology? What unquestioned and ultimately irrational beliefs drive him, or is his position that of theideal observer-without-a-viewpoint? 

Surely what Kay is defending is, loosely, the viewpoint of the mainstream, which he assumes to be by that very fact self-evidently sound and reasonable. The Cosmic Voyager’s mythology, on the other hand, says Kay, is “vague and labile”. 

Central to the Cosmic Voyager’s worldview is the fictional reconstruction of human history. 

Really? Why is the Cosmic Voyager’s interpretation of history so especially ‘fictional’? Is conventional history in some superior sense more ‘factual’? If so, then presumably all historical revision is in error.  Yes, it is at this point that I feel my own critical faculties start to react. We are not, apparently, to question those pieces of received, historical construction (I am not even to name them) that have been cordoned off from factual examination by the people whom Kay represents, namely the guardians of our beliefs. Freedom of speech only applies to topics that won’t rock the big boats. 

Well, ok, so what else is new? My God is better than your God, and if you don’t believe in my God, then you are a heretic. We won't burn you at the stake, we'll just ostracize you.  

Significant in this self-congratulatory circus are the kinds of followers Kay attracts. They strongly resemble subscribers to the Skeptic Magazine of Michael Shermer, and the followers of Richard Dawkins (one of whose blogs had to be temporarily closed down, so vitriolic had become the ridicule piled by his faithful followers on the heads of non-believers). One of Kay's followers dismisses Icke and his followers as “evangelicals”, with a contemptuous “They are all equally loonie” (sic), while another defender of mainstream belief opines that “A worrying number of people believe in 'energy' and 'vibration' and some sort of 'interconnectedness' between us all”.  Interconnectedness? Perish the thought!  A third wonders, nostalgically, “what is 'sane' any longer?”

Oh, the reassuring blanket of received wisdom! As these young minds take their first, faltering baby-steps let no-one move the furniture around!   

“Facts”, Kay would I think say, are immutable, solid, and enduring. They “speak for themselves”. It is this well-worn article of faith which gives the lowly, but indispensable scoffer his right to ridicule.  Implicit in this saying is the belief that there is just one right way of seeing things – our way. There is no room for interpretation. The real, factual world is ‘out there’, and we see it correctly. Consequently anyone who offers analternative interpretation is wrong, and deserves our ridicule.


The inherent self-contradiction of this position is lost on the scoffer, because “contradiction” is not in his vocabulary. Let me briefly explain:  childish though it may often seem, ridicule happens to be socially necessary. This is so because, despite all belief to the contrary, knowledge is not acquired "objectively".  There is nothing intrinsically meaningful in the world of undigested facts.  Their meaning is put there by the act of living.  Consequently there is an infinite number of possible theories to account for the phenomena that constitute our world.  But society couldn’t survive if everyone was allowed to believe what he wanted. We’d begalloping wildly off in all directions. Communication would be impossible. 

Groups and societies are defined, precisely, by the beliefs they share2. Since every phenomenon has an unprovably large number of possible explanations it is impossible to arrive at the “correct” interpretation rationally without artificially creating a frame of reference to contain it. The frame of reference provides the internal consistency that rationality requires. Facts have no rational explanation independent of the frames of reference we apply to them. They cannot meaningfully exist alone, because if all belief is shorn away then – as Gertrude Stein famously said on her deathbed – “a rose is a rose is a rose”. This is the mystical experience of isness, as Meister Eckhart called it, and as David Icke suggests in his books.  But the purposelessness of the universe – the fact that everything is its own justification – is the last thing our consumer society wants to know about as it battles, neck craning towards the future, to compete for the world’s rapidly vanishing resources. Thus arises the need for ridicule, our social guidepost, to tell us “This way, idiot!  Are you one of us, or not?”  

And right there’s your contradiction. Facts don’t speak for themselves; they have to be interpreted; to have words put into their mouths. If language were truly ‘objective’, that is, purged of all affective signposts, far from becoming self-explanatory, it would lose all meaning, and the herd – i.e. society - wouldn’t know which way to turn. ‘Facts’ are not self-evident.  The very need for ridicule proves it, even as it also proves that we are all connected!

Pablo

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1. “Full Comment”,  National Post, May 11, 2011

2. “Multiculturalism” is therefore also a self-contradiction.