24 October 2007

Apposite cynicism about "rational" debate

We believe if you talk about your [inalienable] rights, you will defin­itely lose part of them.
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The President of Iran yesterday expressed his scepticism about proposed talks with the European Union regarding his country's nuclear programme.

Now, while I do not mean to endorse Iran's position on nuclear power, I do think Ahmadinejad's interpretation of what is being offered may be correct. Once you start 'discussing' whether an important right or principle (e.g. habeas corpus; torture is wrong; no censorship) should or should not be upheld, you have basically lost the crucial battle of the war.

Inalienable rights, to the extent they exist, and whether they are right or wrong, are not based on rational argument but on feeling. This is something certain people, who go in for strenuous efforts to provide key principles with rational support, seem not to understand. Or perhaps they do, and are in fact ambivalent about those principles?

Once you start having to argue about why torture is wrong, or why liberty from unwarranted surveillance might matter, you know the ground has shifted. Compare contemporary discussions of torture with, say, the hoo-ha stirred up by James Watson's comments about race. On one of the two issues, discussion is out of the question. On the other, the answer is up for grabs. Which is more likely to happen soon in Britain: financing of research into racial differences in IQ, or the legally sanctioned torture of a suspected terrorist?

The point is not the postmodern one that rationality is merely one of many equally valid positions, but that what is presented as rational debate is often a cover for an attempt to force a desired change. (Cf. citizens' juries and similar types of phoney consultation.) There is by now a well-established tradition of pseudo-rationality in the West. Ostensibly, we seem to be dealing with intellectual analysis; in practice, the conclusions are almost always in a particular direction: e.g. in favour of pseudo-egalitarianism and more state intervention, and against Christianity, privacy and any kind of non-collectivised hierarchy. Entire collective blogs are based on this kind of pseudo-analysis.

Let me push this point one step further, though here I am getting speculative. Is it possible that one of the key things which certain non-Westerners hate and fear about the West is precisely this pseudo-rationalism, which tends to question and undermine any values other than its own?