Sunday, December 10, 2006

Fashion or Fact?

Today’s entry is going to consist mostly of today’s entry in my other blog, FLIGHTS OF PEGASUS. That’s not just because I’m lazy, but also because I was planning to write the same general message for this blog before I found myself writing it for the other blog.

In FLIGHTS OF PEGASUS I’ve emphasized that if most of us eliminated all of our spiritual and religious beliefs which we could trace to another person’s mind we would have very few beliefs left. In VIEW FROM THE MOON I want to apply that idea to political and social beliefs – particularly those we acquire day by day from our newspapers, magazines, radios, televisions, and movies.

Before I retired from my last stint of Life in a Box, I had lunch on working days with colleagues who, after recapping the last “Seinfield” or “Simpsons” episode and relaying office gossip, would talk about the latest national and international events. What struck me was that they would recite the previous evening’s television news commentary as if it were their own opinion. There was one woman in particular who predictably would say, with an air of having reflected long and seriously on the matter, “Well, I think . . .”and then recite verbatim what I had heard someone say on PBS or CNN or CBS or MSNBC the night before.

These were sophisticated and educated professional people, and yet when it came to political and social opinion they were nothing more than parrots. Debate was, to them, retrospectively pitting one talk show host or TV “expert” against another. There was not one original idea, much less shockingly unconventional notion, in a week’s worth of lunchtime conversation. In fact an idea outside the currently accepted pros and cons of television and radio discussions would have resulted in the speaker being declared “Nuts” or worse.

It seems to me that the ability to think outside one’s milieu, to defy the opinion prescribers of one’s times, to peek around the television screen to see what is in the darkness behind it, must be one of the rarest gifts on Earth.

Might you think that the world was flat, or that the Earth moved around the sun, unless someone had told you otherwise?

Would you think that democracy was the greatest form of government if you hadn’t been taught that it was? If you had been told from kindergarten through college that monarchy is the finest and heaven-blessed form of government, what are the odds you would believe otherwise? If you were a happy and prosperous Italian under Mussolini, or a working person enjoying new opportunities and prosperity under Hitler, might you not think that Fascism or National Socialism was the ideal political philosophy?

What if you’d been born in the ancient world when it was universally believed that slavery was a natural and proper institution – or even in the Confederate States of America? Would you automatically have condemned slavery as you probably do now? Be fair: If your parents, respected teachers, ministers,lawmakers, judges, entertainers and friends all believed that to question slavery was unspeakably ridiculous, illogical, and even seditious, would you have been likely to hold the same opinion you do 150 or 2050 years later?

Would you “believe in” Jesus or Mohammed or Jehovah or Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Mormonism or the meanings of the signs of the zodiac unless someone had taught you what to believe? Even when people change their religious beliefs they usually go from one “teaching” to another, do they not? How do they decide whose old ideas are qualified for acceptance?

In sciences like physics and astronomy and geology there are proofs available which help us to evaluate what is true and untrue . . . but what about religious, social, and political beliefs? That which constitutes acceptable social, moral, racial, and sexual views has changed radically just in my lifetime within the United States. And you can multiply that by all the countries in the world, where a political essay which might win you a prize today in China or Russia would have resulted in your imprisonment not many years ago. American university presidents and college professors have been forced out of their positions in recent years for saying things which would have been considered bedrock fact in the 1940’s and 1950’s. They are not in trouble because what they say is contradicted by updated facts, but because they are going up against propaganda and the latest fad in arbitrary preferences.

That is the most fascinating thing about all this: Virtually none of the old beliefs (for example those dating from 1920 to 1960) have been contradicted, much less disproved, by new evidence. Formerly acceptable and respectable beliefs – taught in universities, promulgated by national governments, regarded by the average person as normal and proper – on racial differences, segregation, eugenics, immigration, sexual behavior, sexual differences, sexual roles, and mores generally have changed drastically since 1900 not because they have been “disproved” but because they have been “disapproved”. People are mocked for saying things their parents or grandparents would have considered self-evident, and yet the facts have not changed. Indeed, genetic research, intelligence testing, anthropology and other areas of expanded factual knowledge have probably bolstered and affirmed “outmoded” beliefs more than torn them down.

What has changed is not what is true, but what is fashionable to believe.

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