Ideas have consequences.
That, at least, is what Richard Weaver was claiming when he authored a book with that title in 1948. The Wikipedia article for the book describes it as “largely a treatise on the harmful effects of nominalism on Western civilization.” Nominalism, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, can be either “the rejection of abstract objects” or “the rejection of universals.”
You can read the full book here, though I think his basic point was a fairly simple one. Weaver was concerned about the practical effects of nominalism, and I can understand why: It can be hard to have principles or believe in the concept of rights if you reject the idea of universals altogether.
Yet I would say that right now, we should primarily be concerned about another idea that seems to have gotten fairly popular recently — namely, the very idea that ideas have consequences. I’ve come to believe that promoting this idea by itself is not a good thing to do even though some ideological zealots seem to think that it is.
Their argument usually goes something like the following sentence. (For reference, when I notate something in the format [A | B], it means “either A or B can be used in this sentence.”)
“You and I both know,” they say, that “the [left | right] is incapable of [rational thought | basic human decency] whereas the people espousing the [reasonable position | true ideology] are the only ones fighting for [justice | liberty], and they need to stand up and fight for the good ideas before they are overcome by the terrible ideas from the other side!”
Admittedly, no one has said exactly those things; this line of thought is a caricature of the types of arguments that are made. I threw a bunch of fallacies together into a run-on sentence so that I could point out how silly this line of thinking can be. This is true even if most of us, including myself, are willing to believe this sort of thing to one degree or another. Thinking this way can be tempting, but I don’t think it is the right way to look at things for the following reasons.
1) Whether it is said exactly in this way or not, the phrase “you and I both know” is a telltale sign of a bad argument because it is an attempt to make a claim that warrants no further justification. Often, it is said in the context of an implied other group who doesn’t see things the right way like “you and I” do. On the other hand, “you and I both believe” is fine when it is true that you and I both actually believe something. It can of course be very useful to establish areas of agreement up front. I am skeptical, however, when someone encourages their listeners to accept something as true by making an appeal to some shared group identity, whether it is implicit or explicit.
2) Overgeneralizations such as “the left” or “the right” are reductionist and usually unjustified. The phrase “the radical left,” for example, is more specific, but I would contend that it’s often best to be even more precise than that. Who is the problem? Antifa? Violent protesters generally? Critical theorists? Far-left columnists? I have a lot of disagreements with each of these groups, but they don’t all overlap, and many times they are quite critical of each other. I believe that it’s important to be specific, both when you are defining the groups that you are criticizing and when you are describing the ways in which they are wrong.
3) Accusing a person or group of being irrational does not usually make them more rational, though it might sometimes have the opposite effect. It is sometimes necessary, of course, to call someone out when they are being egregiously inconsistent or nonsensical. Still, I believe that it is usually best to do this after making a good faith attempt to assess the quality of their arguments. Similarly, if you think someone is being rude, then it’s fair to tell them to stop it, but I think it can often be helpful to consider whether there is a more charitable interpretation of what they have said or done. Perhaps psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman said it best with this tweet (and the one that follows it):
Some people are unintentional assholes, just attempting to speak the truth. Some are assholes, just because it's part of their disposition to be antagonistic. And some are trolls, just because they get enjoyment from creating a disturbance in the force. Important to distinguish.
I suspect we've all been an "unintentional asshole" at least a few times in our lives. I am all about giving people the benefit of the doubt, at least until it's clear it's part of a general disposition and pattern across contexts over a long stretch of time.
4) No one has the whole truth; I believe that everyone sees some part of the truth from their equally important, but equally limited, perspective. If I had to place myself on the left-right spectrum, I would say that I’m center-right, but I am certainly willing to grant that people to the left or right of me have a point every now and then. (Hence the title of my blog and podcast.)
5) Liberty and justice are such abstract concepts that I try not to be overly hasty in claiming that my side is the one that is fighting for them. Appeals to universals are important to me, but I believe that it can be easy to get so caught up in defending universals that we end up ignoring the particulars of a given circumstance.
Despite all this, I think it is fine to believe that ideas have consequences and to act on that belief. For instance, I am conservative because I genuinely believe that conservative ideas are what’s best for individuals and society as a whole, and part of my intent with blog is to promote those ideas.
(As my fellow conservative Matt Lewis noted in my recent interview with him, it is hard to define what “conservative” in the American context even means any more. For my part, I think conservatism has to have something to do with an emphasis on individual liberty, a tendency to prefer tradition over radical change, and a belief in the power of an uncorrupted free market as the best way to solve many complex problems.)
Despite my conservatism, however, I don’t see conservatives as being in a zero-sum power struggle with “the left.” When I do criticize leftist ideas that I believe are dangerous, I try to be a lot more specific than that, and I also try to recognize that the right has its own problems.
My hesitancy to embrace any ideological cause wholesale is probably due in part to my temperament. I tend to be more cautious than most, and I can sometimes be full of doubt about what I believe. As this Quillette article notes, this is a trait that might be more common in conservatives:
Both [Thomas] Sowell and [Steven] Pinker contend that conservatives see an unfortunate world of moral trade-offs in which every moral judgment comes with costs that must be properly balanced… This is why conservatives don’t tend to express the same emotional hostility as the Left; a deeper grasp of the world’s complexity has the effect of encouraging intellectual humility.
Even if that was once true, however, it doesn’t seem as accurate to me as it used to be — and it's not just me. One of the commentators with perhaps the most credibility to criticize the right is Rod Dreher, author of Live Not By Lies, which details the faults of the secular left and how he thinks Christians and conservatives should respond. In his recent column about the Jericho March and its participants’ willful ignorance of the evidence that Trump lost he wrote this:
I talk about how these criteria explain the woke Left, and why educated elites throughout politics, media, academia, and corporations, have absorbed their dogmas. But read the piece in light of what I’ve written above, especially about how alienated people are willing to believe ideology over truth, and how they are willing to smash any institutions for the sake of seeing their idea of justice triumph.
This is where the woke Left is. But this is also where a lot of the Trumpist Right — in particular, the Trumpist Christian Right — is.
As Dreher’s column describes in great detail, the emotional hostility from some on the right seems to be increasing, perhaps in some misguided attempt to match the perceived timbre of the illiberal left. I believe that this mindset is not only misguided but fundamentally wrong in its worldview.
In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about how he used to be a liberal who viewed conservatives as obstacles to moral progress. After studying the moral psychology of people groups in other countries, though, he eventually came to see our own partisan divide differently: “I had escaped from my prior partisan mind-set (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later) and began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.”
Even though I don’t share Haidt’s worldview, I still highly recommend his book. I found his description of how intelligent, goodhearted people can nevertheless disagree profoundly on fundamental moral and political questions and why to be pretty compelling. While it did not convince me to be an atheist or a liberal (though of course that wasn’t his intent in writing it), I did come away from it thinking that it offers deep insights into human psychology from which everyone could benefit. At the least, I think his insights should give us pause before we dismiss everyone who is not on our ideological team as either being dupes or reprobates.
It might be difficult to convince someone that their ideology is wrong (in part or in whole), but I believe that it is achievable. For me, it starts with recognizing that I am one person with an extremely limited understanding of the full range of human experience and of human knowledge. There are almost eight billion other human beings on the planet and a large number of differing value systems. While I don’t believe it’s possible to fully reconcile them with one another, I am thankful that today, relatively minor differences of opinion are tolerated much more than they were in the past. I believe that learning and relearning how to do this -- without compromising our principles and while continuing to advocate for our vision of a just society -- is what real progress looks like.