Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The fundamental contradiction in society — conventional vs critical thinking

I wonder if it has always been the case that there is a fundamental tension in society, or societies, between a kind of conventional, mainstream opinion (what the ancient Greek philosophers derogatorily called “doxa”), on the one hand, and a countervailing, critical thread of thinking, on the other.

Moreover, in addition to this tension, there seems to be an outright contradiction — at least today — between (conservative) conventional opinion and a simultaneous encouragement of critical thinking. How should we understand this?

Considering the reasons for Socrates’s untimely death by hemlock, namely, that the rulers of Athens had had enough of his relentless philosophical questioning of the epistemic (knowledge) grounds of their rule — a questioning that had won Socrates quite a following among especially young Athenians — it would appear that the tension referred to, if not the contradiction, has always been there.

This is confirmed by the equally untimely death of the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600, for daring to question the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine concerning the nature of the universe. Bruno’s crimes? Among others (which included charges of heresy concerning church dogma), he suggested that simple logic indicates that the earth cannot possibly be unique in the order of creation, because a cause and an effect are always commensurate. And because God is an infinite cause, it is unthinkable for his creation to be finite. Hence it followed, he reasoned, that there must be innumerable planets like the earth, with rational beings like humans on them.

To this may be added many other instances of philosophers and other critical thinkers who have paid with their lives for being critical of those in powerful social and political positions. Boethius, who was executed by King Theodoric on suspicion of treason in the 6th century CE, comes to mind, as does Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the radical theologian who was critical of Hitler’s regime, participated in the German resistance movement against the Nazis, and was hanged by them in 1945.

Even Galileo — who is currently being redeemed by the Roman Catholic Church for the supposed compatibility between his scientific claims and his faith in God; something I noticed in the RC churches we recently visited in Rome — was coerced, on pain of death, into recanting some of his scientific and astronomical assertions that the RC church regarded as heretical in the 17th century.

And yet, despite abundant evidence that individuals who have been truly critical of mainstream, conventional beliefs and practices have paid dearly for their critical stance, today we constantly encounter encouragement, on the part of educational authorities for example, to “think critically”, or, to use De Bono’s well-known phrase, to “think laterally”, or “out of the box”. How should we understand this — the fact that indications suggest that true criticism is not easily tolerated in society, on the one hand (that criticism and conventional opinion are not really compatible), and yet, that such critical thinking is simultaneously encouraged?

I’m not sure whether the contradiction (between lack of tolerance of criticism, and yet encouraging it) has always existed, although the persecution of individuals who have been critical of those in power does indicate that the tension between convention or “orthodoxy” (literally: “correct opinion”) and criticism has always been there. One way to understand it is in terms of what Freud called the “death drive”, which manifests itself in different ways, one of which is the (conservative) tendency, on the part of an organism (including humans), to return or revert to a previous or customary position.

In other words, the vast majority of people in societies of any era have always preferred (or been unable to resist) reverting to the positions or conditions that they are most familiar with — their “comfort zones”. It is only a few souls who have been able and willing to express (radical) criticism of the societal status quo — philosophers, artists, scientists, or what Foucault named the “universal intellectual” (who spoke on behalf of all of humanity) in former times, and more recently the “specific intellectual”, who is able to offer criticism because of her or his special area of knowledge. (According to Foucault, we are way beyond the time of the “universal intellectual”.)

In our era, particularly, the criticism of such “specific intellectuals” has not generally been welcomed or tolerated by mainstream society, despite all the orthodox affirmations of the desirability of “critical thinking” or “lateral thinking”. This is because what these putative supporters of a critical mode of looking at the world understand by such a “critical” take is not really anything critical at all, but merely ways of improving the accepted, neo-liberal capitalist, liberal democratic economic and social/political model or system. (I have no problem with democracy, but it should be a variant of social democracy, which recognises the link between the individual and community, unlike the internecine, competitive individualism of liberal democracy.)

There is a sequence in the second Matrix movie, where the “Architect” (apparently a person, but really only a function of the eponymous “matrix” programme), tells Neo that he should not suppose himself to be the first would-be “saviour” of the people of Zion. (Don’t you just love the quasi-Christian ideas and names in The Matrix: “Neo” is an anagram of the “One”, “Trinity” and “Zion” are self-evident.) There have been many like yourself before, says the “Architect”, and like Neo, they, too, served the purpose of “testing” the system (the “matrix”-program of deluding people into thinking that they are free), so that the system can be improved or perfected.

Criticism, therefore, should only serve the purpose of stabilising and entrenching the existing paradigm, and not — heaven forbid — expose the hollowness or, to be kinder, the obsolescence of the existing paradigm, in this way showing that the time has come for a “paradigm-switch”.

This is the important part, which applies to all vaunted “criticism”, today, as long as it is not radical: be critical, be a “lateral thinker”, as long as you don’t rock the boat too much with any truly RADICAL criticism (literally, criticism that goes to the “root” of the matter) — if you dare to, the system will target you and either “take you out” — whatever that may mean — or neutralise you, or ostracise you. For the “system” does not tolerate real critique and criticism (the two concepts are not synonymous). And this is precisely why radical critique and criticism are what is called for today, in such increasing volume that the system eventually cannot deal with all of it any more. It is time to switch to a new paradigm — one that makes provision for the well-being of ALL human beings, instead of only the so-called 1%, AND for the well-being of nature in all her diversity.

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