Something other than rationality is at play, but what?
In the first anxious days that followed the American elections, Salon Magazine had an article by Chris Marshall, a senior Democratic strategist who feels justified to think that he has seen enough to be less than reassured by recent events. In fact, he was alarmed. People might think, he wrote, that Trump’s attempt to overturn the result of the election and seize a second term has failed. “Forget it”, they would say. “Can’t happen. Haven't you heard? Trump's losing every single frivolous lawsuit! They're all a joke.”
Marshall is not convinced. “Call me a pessimist”, he writes. “A compulsive doom-scroller. A nervous nelly. A buzzkiller. A realist. Whatever. After decades as a Democratic strategist, working at the center of numerous national and statewide campaigns, I've simply seen too much not to be traumatized with the permanent scars of PTSD (Politically Traumatic Stress Disorder).”
This joking reference, of course, is to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental health condition thought to be caused by a traumatic experience. Described in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), PTSD is seen as a deviation from an imaginary “order”, that is, a statistically established stress-less “normality”.
One should question the features of this imaginary “normality”, but the concept feels highly pertinent when considering the damaging unpredictability of the current occupier of the White House. There is indeed something very disorderly, almost traumatic, in observing the actions, reactions and interactions of someone who does not seem to be very bothered by failures to meet the requirements of rational thinking, common sense, decency, principles – you name it.
So, this is the question that permeates everyone’s post-election anxiety: what if something goes wrong? What if they continue to refuse the facts? What if they insist that the election was “stolen”? What if they choose to ignore all evidence and stand by their delusion? What if they decide that they don’t want to play fair at all?
What if they decide that they don’t want to play fair at all ?
In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato presents a long discussion regarding the question of virtue, about what it is, and about whether it can be taught or not. It’s a playful and engaging dialogue, involving strong arguments by both a younger Socrates and his main interlocutor, the older Protagoras. It becomes more and more convoluted, and gradually the two interlocutors end up arguing for the opposite of what they started with. Socrates notices it and draws Protagoras’ attention to the fact. “The result of our discussion appears to me to be singular”, he says to him. “For if the argument had a human voice, that voice would be heard laughing at us and saying: 'Protagoras and Socrates, you are strange beings; there are you, Socrates, who were saying that virtue cannot be taught, contradicting yourself now by your attempt to prove that all things are knowledge […] Protagoras, on the other hand, who started by saying that it might be taught, is now eager to prove it to be anything rather than knowledge.’”
An argument with a human voice, laughing at the mere humans who try to explore a question… It’s quite innovative, you will agree. As if the argument existed somewhere independently, along with the conclusions following from it; as if the only thing that human beings can do is try to trace carefully the unique paths connecting premise to conclusion.
This has been the hope and promise of modernity, namely the belief in the inherent rationality of the world, as such...
This has been the hope and promise of modernity, namely the belief in the inherent rationality of the world, as such, and also of the human intellect qua observer in this world. It is the basic premise of the Cartesian / Kantian / Hegelian tradition. In Descartes’s view, for example, rationality is a clear and self-evident corollary of thinking itself – the cogito. Kant claims that rationality and the possibility of knowledge stem seamlessly and self-evidently (“a-priori”) from “pure” reason alone. And Hegel takes this a step further, arguing that the Spirit (or Mind) cannot but reach, necessarily and unavoidably, the state of becoming pure knowledge.
In this tradition we are all rational, and, unless there are other objective reasons beyond our control, we have no choice but to be rational. Failure is caused by ignorance, sloppiness, or indifference. Or because we so choose. But we choose against our nature so to speak, and in principle we can see it.
It’s not only the tradition. Echoes of the same line of thinking can be discerned in the Marxist claim that traditional philosophy, history, and political economy are historically determined products of their time. And that’s because Marxist thought sees itself as “scientific” and objective, i.e., above history and any subjective (or class-determined) whims.
There is something that doesn’t fit. Let’s return to the American elections. You read that the majority of Republicans still believe that the election has been to a greater or lesser extent “rigged”. You observe that most of these people do not seem to be bothered by the lack of evidence. In fact, they seem to be emboldened by it. If there is no evidence, this can onlymean that they, the “others”, have become so good at concealing it. If the popular vote shows such and such, this can only mean that elections lie, that people are not listened to, that the elites are winning. And so on and so forth.
How can we reconcile these observations with the belief (or hope) that human beings are unavoidably rational? How are we to explain the blind decisiveness of all those who when presented with solid evidence and clear facts turn their gaze elsewhere and proceed on their (self)harming path? Surely it cannot just be an issue of sloppiness or ignorance. That’s too arrogant to claim. Conveniently arrogant, one would say.
It’s clear. Something else is at play. But what?
This piece was originally published in the Splinters December edition .
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