Friday, October 08, 2004

Distrust of Our Minds Indicts Citizenship
Tibor R. Machan
Many defense attorneys, of numerous more or less notorious defendants across the country, have been arguing for some time now that their clients shouldn't be indicted because they cannot get a fair trial after all the publicity associated with the crime of which they are accused. Such arguments are pretty common now and similar to those that prompt venue changes. Not that long ago, both the Unabomber and the Oklahoma City bombing cases have generated such lines of argument from defense attorneys, as have others where the charge has been terrorism or some other very serious crime. This is also a mantra of people who wish to white wash the likes of Dan Rather and others who commit journalistic malpractice, all based on a kind of post-modernist account of human understanding.
Certainly most of us are appalled at what many defendants are accused of having done. There is no reason to think, however, that this will produce insurmountable prejudice in us about the persons who is accused of the crimes. There should be nothing impossible about prospective jurors entering courtrooms without a predisposition to see the defendant in an unfavorable light. Even when the temptation exists, based on some strong emotion and belief, potential jurors, as a rule, can resist this. They need not give in to such disposition because they can exercise self-discipline. Jurors are human beings capable of self-discipline, of looking at arguments and evidence objectively, even if at times this may be difficult to do.
Nor is political partisanship a necessary obstacle to clear understanding. Objectivity isn’t the same as neutrality, of course, but being partial may be well founded—some of us are partial to the truth, some of us couldn’t care less. Objectivity has to do with a commitment to being accurate, factual, well grounded in sound arguments and so forth. Even those who deride objectivity presume to be objective—at least about that topic!
Yet, in our time there is a very general belief that underlies the claim that people cannot see things clearly, without prejudice. I have in mind the now very widely championed view, advanced by some of the most prestigious thinkers, that human minds are unalterably shaped by history, culture, race, gender, national origin or some combination of these. How we see the world is thus supposed to be determined for us. In fact, we are not credited by many of our social scientists and philosophers with the capacity to understand things objectively.
Some academic commentators even believe that natural scientists are necessarily prejudiced. Certain feminists think that male scientists cannot help but see things differently from female ones, which is why they believe that had there been more female scientists, historians and philosophers, the very understanding of reality would now be different. Others believe that our understanding is controlled by the small or large communities to which we owe loyalty. It is our solidarity with a specific community that determines what we think and objective knowledge is a myth. Many sociologists and social psychologists agree, arguing that even the words we use are invented to suit our social needs and do not really manage to serve to represent the world as it actually is.
What is very odd about all these relativist views that so many people embrace is that they completely invalidate, in their own terms, all of what their proponents believe. If their ideas were true, then, of course, their own claims could not be taken seriously -- they would have to amount to nothing more serious than some group's or race's or gender's "truth," not likely to be relevant to others who would, then have, their own "truths." Indeed, words themselves would lack any reliable, dependable meaning and none of the points these folks want to communicated could be communicated successfully. The denial that we can be objective fatally undermines itself.
Partly in light of these very same ideas, some people think that what theorists, among them philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and other academicians, advocate is really irrelevant to the way the real world works. But this is wrong. The scribbling of these folks leaves a mark. One of the marks that we see around us from what academicians have written and taught in their class rooms is that even journalists and others outside the academy often claim that the human mind cannot really think clearly about anything, that we are all irreparably biased.
Certainly this is having its impact on the way members of juries are regarded in our day. It also can have an influence on how some people think about journalism and, indeed, democracy itself, a system that ultimately trusts people to be able to think clearly and independently about crucial political matters -- e.g., who should represent us in government, who has done a creditable job of this, what measures deserve our support and so forth.
When such distrusts starts to spread, look out. We will then hear the call for the rule of experts, a dream that was most clearly articulated by the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner in his 1971 book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He was at least forthright about it: the country needs to be run by those Skinner called "technologists of behavior," men and women well versed in the behavior modification method Skinner himself helped to develop, the only ones who can be trusted to be objective, impartial, unbiased.
When proposed so directly, people tend to recoil from the idea that they are basically inept, unqualified to deal with political matters. However, at the hands of other academics the attack on the human capacity to think clearly and objectively is more circumspect and as such it can sneak up on an unsuspecting public.
For example we are told by some social scientists that people's economic or cultural background unalterably tilts how they see the world. Folks from one region of the world, with certain kinds of traditions, living in certain economic conditions, just understand things in certain ways, like it or not. Independent understanding is impossible for them. Marvin Kitman, a columnist for Newsday, says: "There can be no such thing as objectivity. ‘Of all journalistic pretensions, that is the most hypocritical,’ explained Geraldo Rivera in a brilliant lecture at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002, largely ignored by the objective media. ‘To suggest that alone among the human race we reporters have the unique ability to divorce from emotion with machinelike efficiency, cull not only the truth from fiction, but also fact from perception or opinion, is baloney. We all try to get the facts right. But all of us see things differently, whether it is because you're standing over there and I'm over here, or personal experiences. We could look at the same event, both of us believing that we are being 100 percent professional and factual and call the story differently.’" Kitman goes on to claim that it is the lack of our capacity for objectivity that makes the free press so precious. "It's time we grew up and accepted the fact that all news is biased; only some is more biased than other. You take your pick. That is the great thing about freedom of the press."
This stance, apart from sounding like a lame effort to bail out Dan Rather and CBS-TV news, is a very serious threat against political liberty, something that may well turn out to be the worst impact of the teaching of the theorists in contemporary academe. It is also a colossal cop out. It is also what has given support to many of the worst dictatorships and one party system of politics, since when you and I are denied the capacity to be able to know things for what they are, it is easier to sell us on the idea that we require a select few, who have learned to escape our bonds, to run things for us.
The possibility for objectivity, while not guaranteeing that we will always get things right, is a bulwark against those who would deny our rights and proceed to rule the rest of us properly, as they believe only they can. Never mind that the view that we are incapable of getting things right makes such a belief itself incredible—why would it be free of bias and if it isn’t why bother taking it seriously? But if we buy their story, we will undermine our ability to see this for ourselves and such folks will have managed to hoodwink us despite the paradoxical views they champion. (For more on this, see Tibor R. Machan, Objectivity: Recovering Determinate Reality in Philosophy, Science, and Everyday Life [UK: Ashgate, 2004].)

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