I am fascinated by public issues that seem so firmly decided by the majority that even raising a question about the accepted wisdom provokes a violent silencing of the dissenter. I’m not talking about issues where the majority “agrees to disagree” with the minority; I’m talking about issues where dissent is shouted down because it is considered dangerous. Some examples would be: childhood vaccinations, Holocaust denial, climate change, and the teaching of evolution in public schools.
If one of your friends mentions one of these issues at a party (or all four issues–that sounds like quite a party!), it’s likely that s/he is not seeking to have a debate on the merits, but rather to signal his/her status as a “right-thinking person” to the group. Certain views are considered to be “beyond the pale,” dangerous, not to be entertained, or perhaps not even protected by free speech (Holocaust denial is actually a crime in some European countries, for understandable reasons).
On the other hand, we all know someone who always seems to be questioning the “accepted wisdom,” who is always suspicious of the majority position. No matter what overwhelming evidence is offered by the majority position, the skeptic insists that the contrary evidence has been suppressed by powerful interests.
We might call these stances “orthodox” and “heretical”; they are not philosophies, but rather emotional or intellectual dispositions.
What fascinates me is that these two dispositions are not incompatible within a single mind: one person can be quite happy with the accepted wisdom on one issue but completely heretical on another. This happens at different ends of the political spectrum and in all different combinations. For example, many in the “anti-vax” crowd are leftists who would, I presume, be disgusted with those who deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming. On the other hand, you have conservative Christians who think that vaccination is common sense (some suggesting that refusal to vaccinate should be considered child abuse), but who are also skeptical of evolution and global warming.
What is it about human nature that draws an individual to skepticism on the one hand, and yet makes him/her completely susceptible to the conventional wisdom on the other hand? And why the peculiar combinations of orthodoxy and heresy within the same mind?
Consider, for example, some of the following stereotypes drawn from my observation:
- Subsets of Reformed Christians who are skeptical of evolution and climate change, but instead of viewing the academy as a fount of evil conspiracies like fundamentalists do, they emphasize liberal (even classical) education and even seek advanced degrees in the humanities
- Occupy Wall Street-ers who are skeptical of the alliance of big corporations, yet would like the government that bailed out those corporations to confiscate wealth to administer education and social programs
- Someone who thinks that childhood vaccinations are common sense, yet mistrusts pharmaceutical companies’ marketing of other drugs
Consider also the following stereotypical “strange bedfellows” who might not agree on anything other than one particular heresy or orthodoxy:
- A young-earth creationist and an atheistic evolutionist agree that the world is being destroyed by pollution, and legislation is necessary to avoid the apocalypse
- Hyper-conservative Christian homeschoolers and a commune-living hippie who refuse to vaccinate
- Anti-Semites and civil libertarians who both think that Holocaust denial should be legal
Certainly upbringing has a lot to do with it–not just the presuppositions that we learn from our family of origin (FOO), but also whether we were discouraged from questioning authority.
For example, I was raised in a theologically conservative Christian home and was homeschooled–both could be considered counter-cultural movements. I am also a political libertarian. I therefore am instinctively distrustful of government initiatives (particularly in education), the “herd” mentality, cultural “progress,” experts, and top-down systems.
However, I also come from an educated family and am highly educated (PhD). That makes me part of the “expert” class, and I find myself frustrated when others don’t listen to the agreed-upon answers by experts–at least, in my field. I’m bred and raised to be suspicious of elites–but now I myself am a frustrated elite. I recognize this contradiction in my dispositions: tending toward “heresy” in most areas, but lamenting that no one listens to common-sense “orthodoxy” in Old Testament studies. I don’t know that it’s something I have to necessarily resolve; it’s just interesting.
This means I have a schizophrenic attitude toward–for example–for-profit educational institutions. On the one hand, the market/emergent-order/libertarian/heretic side of me thinks that people should be free and encouraged to explore other models that could meet the needs of consumers, i.e., students and families. On the other hand, my elitist/liberal-arts/anti-commoditization-of-education/orthodox side of me accepts the standard “market failure” argument and thinks that for-profit institutions will not ultimately succeed in providing meaningful liberal education that broadens students’ understanding. Again, I recognize the contradiction: I don’t want higher-ed money coming from government (my inner heretic), but I also don’t want it to come from consumers (my inner orthodox). The only funding left is endowments from wealthy constituents–which can also compromise “orthodoxy” when donors dictate the curriculum to academics. So, I guess I’m out of a job.
Heretic and orthodox alike have a responsibility to reëvaluate their stances from time to time. We all take mental shortcuts; if we thought through every decision every time, we would never get anything done. But shortcuts taken too often can become ruts. As I got older (and further into my field), I reässessed my knee-jerk heretical stances on evolution in public schools and climate change. (I now think of myself as open and agnostic on both, wary of public schools in the first place, and skeptical about most specific policy proposals designed to limit emissions.) In other areas, reconsideration has only strengthened my dispositions (since I pursued and received a PhD in humanities, I’ve become even more radically anti-statist–the heretical direction), but I can hold my positions with more integrity and honesty.
On balance, I would rather have heretics out there questioning orthodoxy, no matter how “dangerous” it might seem to some. If we suppress ideas that have been roundly rejected (anti-vax, Holocaust denial, etc.), they nevertheless have a way of popping back up when a new generation hasn’t been inoculated (haha) against them by being forced to engage. Society needs Holocaust deniers, because they prompt us to recall and remember the Holocaust.
The title of this post is a bit of Greek cheek, because the etymology of “heresy” is αἱρειν, “to choose.” We rarely choose our heresies consciously. But perhaps we should.