Thursday, February 19, 2009

Big Bird, Bulverism, and Balderdash

This year, 2009, marks the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. I can’t believe it. It seems like only yesterday that I sat in front of the TV set with my two-year-old son (who’s nearly 33 now!) and snickered at the surliness of Oscar the Grouch; counted with The Count; howled with delight as the Cookie Monster was undone by the mere sight of chocolate chips; and wished the world as wonderful as Big Bird believed it to be. Forty years! Who knew? Today the program has been exported and dubbed into almost every country and culture on the planet, except, that is, for Great Britain. Back in the 50’s when Sesame Street made its debut, British broadcasters turned down the offer to televise the program to their audiences because (wait for it!) they deemed the program too authoritarian and imperious because the program kept insisting that there were right answers to things. That’s right…Big Bird was deemed by the Brits to be an intellectual bigot and bully.

C. S. Lewis saw it coming. Back in 1944, he penned an essay that was shockingly prophetic of the contemporary postmodern penchant to dismiss all truth claims as narrow-minded and bigoted. The essay, titled “Bulverism, or The Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” was intended to be more sardonic than prophetic, but as visionary as Lewis was, he could not have foreseen just how complete the triumph of intellectual egalitarianism would become.

In the article Lewis excoriates the “aspective anthropology” of the Freudians and Marxists who reduce all human beings to some “aspect” of their personhood, whether psychological or economic or whatever, and then explain and consequently dismiss any assertion they happen not to like solely on the basis of these allegedly vitiating factors, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Consequently, says Lewis, thanks to this kind of radical “aspective approach” to truth, the views of persons may now be dismissed not on purely logical grounds – that is, because one’s views can be demonstrated to be unreasonable or indefensible or otherwise lacking in supporting evidence or rational credibility – but rather solely on the presumption that one’s views are somehow psychologically or ideologically “tainted at the source.”

This method of assuming someone to be in error without discussion or analysis of the actual evidence and then proceeding to distract that one’s attention by explaining how one came to be wrong Lewis says was so pervasive in his time that he had to invent a name for it – Bulverism. He attributed this pseudo-philosophy to a certain imaginary inventor he named Ezekiel Bulver, “whose destiny,” Lewis says, “was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument [italics mine]. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.’”

Today’s brand of Bulverists, known variously as deconstructionists, post-modernists, and purveyors of political correctness, have taken the method one step further. They, like their psychological and Marxist counterparts of another generation, not only affirm that everyone has a point of view, or an “angle of vision” as it’s now known, but, they go on to argue, reality itself is plural not singular. They say it plainly, in the Postmodern Manifesto: “Nothing is certain, not even this.” They argue that the so-called rational, coherent world which modernism attempted to give us has now unraveled completely. Modern assertions about allegedly “universal values,” so say the deconstructionists, have given way to the postmodern values of pluralistic alternatives, competing points of view, paradox, diversity, multiculturalism, deconstruction, uncentering, and ideological egalitarianism. Every “truth claim” must be deconstructed, analyzed for its “angle of vision” which is always biased, and therefore, never to be taken as absolute or accurate. There’s a word for that in Greek, difficult to bring over into English, but I believe the loose translation is “balderdash.”

Now, to be sure, all of this is great fun. What a wonderful way to win an argument! I don’t have to prove you wrong, I can just assume you’re wrong on the basis of your faulty, biased “angle of vision,” and then go on to explain to you how your particular point of view skewed your vision of things. But of course, this is a game at which two can play! If my “angle of vision” distorts my view of things, then doesn’t your “angle of vision” distort yours as well? And if all “angles of vision” are thus distorted, how shall we ever know that they are “distorted?” The knowledge of a thing cannot be one of its parts. If all ideas are only relativized perspectives, then isn’t my idea of relativity also relative? If the name of the game is “deconstructionism,” then mustn’t I also be willing to “deconstruct” my deconstructionism? Isn’t this a bit like trying to prove that all proofs are invalid? If you succeed, then you fail all the more, for the proof that all proofs are invalid must itself be invalid! I don't know about you, but I'm getting a headache.

There are two questions, according to Lewis, that ought to be asked of people who attempt to dismiss your thinking on the basis that it is biased toward some “angle of vision” and, therefore, tainted at the source. One is, Are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or just some? The second is, Does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or can a thought be true despite the fact that the thinker may be biased, that is, “tainted?” If they say that all thoughts are tainted, then of course so also are theirs. If they say that only some thoughts are thus tainted, then the question becomes – and don’t let them wriggle off the hook on this one – how do you know which thoughts are tainted and which are not? What makes the difference?

At this point, you may move on to the second question: Does the fact that a thinker is “tainted” invalidate the thought of the thinker thus “tainted,” or can his/her thinking be true despite the fact that s/he may be tainted? If they say that the taint invalidates the thinking of the thinker, then so also must their thinking be invalid. If they say that despite the fact that a tainted thinker is doing the thinking, a thinker’s thoughts might still be valid on occasion, the question becomes again, What makes the difference?

The answer, of course, is reason. Unless we can trust reason to give us genuine insight into the nature of reality itself, and not merely the way our minds happen to work, then we can know nothing. The only reason I can argue with you that my idea of Charlotte is more accurate than yours is because there is a real city of Charlotte. If there were not, then the entire enterprise would be pointless. What I am saying is that in order to think at all I must claim for my thinking validity that is not credible if, as the Bulverists (of whatever generation) say, thought is nothing more than an exercise of my own unique “angle of vision,” and as such gives me no accurate information about the nature of things in themselves.

Suppose, Lewis illustrates, that you really do believe that you have a large balance in your bank account. And suppose you want to test this hypothesis to determine whether or not it is in fact true. You will never come to any useful conclusion about the size of your bank account by examining your psychological or social or political or racial or sexual condition or views, no matter how helpful such an exercise might otherwise be. Your only chance of finding out whether your allegedly large bank account is merely the product of wish-fulfillment or whether you do, in fact, possess extensive financial resources is to sit down and do the arithmetic. When you’ve thus checked the numbers, and not a moment before, you will know whether or not to order the new car. If the arithmetic validates your assumption, then no amount of psychological adumbration about your alleged propensity to engage in “wishful thinking” can be anything more than a complete waste of time.

But alas, that kind of thinking; indeed, thinking at all!, has gone the way of the dinosaur. The assault on reason has succeeded in shifting the ground from truth to power. Today, you don’t have to be right or correct to carry the day; you just have to be loud, at least louder than the other voices in the room. You get enough supporters on your side agreeing that three times three equals seven, and it does! Moreover, anyone who dares to suggest otherwise and says, “But the emperor is naked!” is riduculed, savaged, and regarded with suspicion. Postmodernism doesn’t do “think;” it only does “group think.”

Alas, I fear Professor Lewis was not only correct but prophetic in ways he could not have then imagined. Bulverism is alive and well and making its presence felt, and I do mean felt, both on the street and in the classroom. Despite his best efforts to warn us, we may be yet on the brink of the complete triumph of sloppy thinking. The noble pursuit of seeking truth through the careful sifting of evidence and ideas seems, in the current climate, destined to be inundated in a devouring deluge of sloganizing and name calling. Apparently it is still too much to ask that one be proven wrong before one is shown how and where one actually went wrong. The latter is so much easier, and a lot more fun, than the former. Refutation, it seems, is still no necessary part of argument.

And what of Big Bird? I sat there years ago wondering what kind of bird this big, overgrown, ridiculous creature was who kept insisting that questions had answers and that some answers were right and some were wrong, some were true and some were false. I think I now know. He was a Dodo.

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