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Taboo

By Maarten van Swaay

Maarten van Swaay’s second entry introduces the “My View” series. Today Maarten challenges the worth of the taboo commonly placed on political and public policy discussion. As you will find with all “My View” entries, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by this author and forum participants do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Village Shalom.

One would expect that ‘trial by challenge’ could be equally useful to assess the strength of political opinion. Yet such challenge can arise only from sustained and open discussion, and that is precisely what the current taboo forbids.

Common wisdom appears to have declared some topics taboo, or off-limits, in polite conversation, e.g., politics, and more specifically economic policy. One may ask why. Both politics and economic policy admit to a rich variety of viewpoints, and it would be the height of hubris to claim ‘absolute truth’ for any of them. Then how might one assess the quality of any given viewpoint?

The alleged taboo itself actually appears to be far from absolute: both politics and economic policy are widely discussed, but generally only within groups of people who share a common viewpoint. Only when the topics are raised among people with contrasting viewpoints do they tend to lead to tension, or worse.

I submit that this dynamic is both incongruous and unfortunate. Both topics – and other topics as well – address models whose validity cannot be easily assessed. From scientific disciplines we know that one of the most powerful tools to assess validity of a model or theory is to expose it to challenge. Perhaps the best example of that mechanism is the development of thermodynamics: it took some 150 years of discarding and refining a long sequence of models to develop what now has earned standing as the ‘three laws of thermodynamics’. Even so, no scientist will claim that those ‘laws’ are immune from challenge or refinement. But they did survive enough sustained challenge that they are now regarded as both powerful in their capability to support prediction, and credible by virtue of having survived extensive challenge.

One would expect that this ‘trial by challenge’ could be equally useful to assess the strength of political opinion. Yet such challenge can arise only from sustained and open discussion, and that is precisely what the current taboo forbids. Moreover, the habit of limiting such discussion to only groups of like-minded people may well lead to hardened viewpoints that, ironically, can be both weak and brittle. They are likely to be weak because they have not been allowed to grow resistant to challenge, and they are brittle because there has been no demand to support them with sound argument. Perversely, that may reinforce the reluctance of people to expose their cherished views to scrutiny: they would risk having them blown over.

The taboo may serve to avoid acrimony, but it limits a much-needed opportunity to refine and inform opinion. Does discussion have to lead to acrimony? One would hope not: it may well be that acrimony is the result of treating those who have different viewpoints as second-rate, without effort to discover just what those others think, and why. Indeed, dismissing a viewpoint out-of-hand without evaluation could well be seen as impolite, whereas a clear and patient attempt at evaluation should be, and probably would be, recognized as welcome courtesy.

If this taboo is incongruous because it interferes with the understanding and refinement of opinion, that raises the question how it might have come into existence. Addressing that question will lead to far more conjecture than the earlier question about the effects of a taboo; those effects can be observable, or at least plausible. In contrast, a search for the origin of a taboo will have to lean more heavily on hypothesis. Even so, it may well be worthwhile.

It appears plausible – and human – that people can be reluctant to expose unexamined views to scrutiny: that would put those views at risk of challenge and possible overthrow. How might one try to avoid exposure and discourage challenge? Possibly by finding an excuse to exclude or dismiss those who hold divergent views, maybe by classifying them as ‘other’, and by implication inferior.

That, too, would be incongruous in today’s culture with its emphasis on tolerance. But is the claimed virtue of tolerance really a virtue, or a camouflaged form of bigotry? Several decades ago a widely heard slogan was “do your own thing: do like us!” Few of those who subscribed to it appear to have recognized its internal contradiction.

A more recent form of a similar contradiction appears in a current slogan: “Don’t be judgmental.” It, too, contradicts itself. What is the unstated consequence for those who do not abide by the imperative? They will be judged, possibly harshly, most likely by the same elite that issued the edict. The phrase is also questionable: no society would survive without judgment. We choose friends and spouses, we elect representatives and other officials, and we spend much time evaluating the merits of cars and dinner menus. The making of judgment is one of the major tasks of all teachers. The ideas of being non-judgmental, and its sibling: (unconditional) tolerance, are both nihilistic and quite possibly insulting. Both declare it unnecessary and even improper to evaluate others. Effectively, those others will then not even be worth recognition. Even worse: unconditional, i.e. unjudged, tolerance will invite the intolerant, and the latter will win.

If this analysis is defensible, it might point to a possibly unrecognized but invidious danger from class warfare and partisanship. Both aim at creating a view of ‘the others’ as hostile and inferior, and thereby undeserving of trust, or even attention. That would frustrate any attempt at the reasoned discussion of diverging viewpoints that is essential for a viable society.