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When Hope Tramples Truth

3rd April 2013

ResPublica Fellow Professor Roger Scruton writes for the New York Times

Apollo granted to his Trojan priestess Cassandra the gift of prophecy. But because she resisted his advances he punished her by ensuring that nobody would ever believe what she said. Such has been the fate of pessimists down the ages. Those who interrupt the good cheer of their fellows with the thought that the things about which they are all agreed might go badly wrong are either dismissed as madmen or condemned as fools.
Consider only what we know from the 20th century – the collective enthusiasm that launched the First World War, the belief in a new order of social justice that fired the Bolsheviks, the craze for national unity that brought Hitler to power and the simultaneous triumph of the “Peace Pledge Union” in Britain which impeded the efforts to arm against him – these are just a few of the myriad examples which show us that, in any emergency, it is optimism that triumphs, and the prophets of doom who are pushed aside.

We have witnessed something similar in the so-called Arab Spring. “Unscrupulous optimism,” as Schopenhauer called it, led both the United States and the nations of Europe to embrace changes that have led, so far, to Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt, to the heightened persecution of Christians across the region, to the total destruction of Syria, to the murder of the American ambassador in Benghazi, to the destabilization of Mali and to a constant tally of death and destruction with no end in sight.

A small amount of thought about the forces that would inevitably be unleashed by the collapse of the Arab autocracies would have caused the Western powers to be a little more cautious in endorsing the changes. But in sudden emergencies optimism takes over. Political leaders choose their advisers from among those who already agree with them, and this is the primary reason for the irrationality of so much democratic politics. Dissenting voices appear, but only as “the other side,” to be vanquished, or else in columns like this one, which our media have, to their credit, retained through all the mass movements of insanity that created the modern world. Just as Apollo protected Cassandra within his temple, at least until the fall of Troy, so do our newspapers protect scrupulous pessimists, who warn us, fruitlessly of course, against the passions of the day.

Consider one of our own day: gay marriage. What could be more sensible than to extend marriage to homosexuals, granting them the security of an institution devoted to lifelong partnership? The result will be improvements all around – not just improved toleration of homosexuals, but improvement in the lives of gay couples, as they adapt to established norms. Optimists have therefore united to promote this cause, and, as is so often the case, have turned persecuting stares on those who dissent from it, dismissing them as intolerant, “homophobic,” “bigoted,” offenders against the principles of liberal democracy. Of course the optimists may be right. The important fact, however, is that hope is more important to them than truth.

People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than the optimists, who rush forward with a sense of purpose that is not to be deflected by what they regard as the cavilings of mean-minded bigots. Here in Britain, discussions on gay marriage have been conducted as though it were entirely a matter of extending rights, and not of fundamentally altering the institution. Difficult issues, like the role of sexual difference in social reproduction, the nature of the family, the emotional needs of children and the meaning of rites of passage, have been ignored or brushed aside.

It is easy to trace disasters, in retrospect, to the bursts of unfounded optimism that gave rise to them. We can trace the subprime mortgage crisis to President Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which required lenders to override all considerations of prudence and fiscal rectitude in the pursuit of an impossible goal. We can trace the current crisis of the Euro to the belief that countries can share a single legal currency without also sharing loyalty, culture and habits of honest accounting. We can trace the disastrous attempt to introduce responsible government into Afghanistan to the idea that democracy and the rule of law are the default conditions of mankind, rather than precious achievements resulting from centuries of discipline and conflict. And we can trace the major disasters of 20th century politics to the impeccably optimistic doctrines of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and the many others for whom progress was the inevitable tendency of history. Pessimism, so obviously vindicated in retrospect, is almost always ineffective at the time. Why is this?

Our approaches to questions of that kind have been strongly influenced in recent years by evolutionary psychology, which tells us that we are endowed with traits of character and patterns of feeling that were “adaptive” in the conditions from which human societies first emerged. And what was adaptive then might be profoundly maladaptive today, in the mass societies that we ourselves have created. It was adaptive in those small bands of hunter-gatherers to join the crowd, to persecute the doubter, to go cheerfully forward against the foe. And from these traits have sprung certain patterns of thinking that serve the vital purpose of preventing people from perceiving the truth, when the truth will discourage them.

I don’t go along entirely with the evolutionary psychologists, who in my view pay insufficient attention to the change that civilization has wrought in our ways of dealing with each other. But I agree with them about one thing, which is that when truth threatens hope it is truth we usually sacrifice, often along with those who search for it.

The New York Times Article

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