Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Do opinions matter?

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From Heretics by G.K Chesterton (1905):

At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, "Life is not worth living."

We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world.

And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins.

Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.

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Some things have changed in the past century since Chesterton was writing. The official doctrine, which has justified, promoted, subsidised and institutionalized 'conversational pessimism' remains in force; and yet applied unilaterally to suppress its opposition.

Radical nihilism is broadcast and published in the mass media - yet to defend traditional Christianity is viciously punished by means informal and formal.

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The key is differential enforcement. So many laws... but just a few are enforced. Everyone is in breach of regulations all of the time, but only some people and some transgressions are punished.

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So officially there is a free-for-all and this gives unlimited scope to nihilism and its fellow travellers; but anarchy is 'managed' by the liberal-discretion of officials; so that which opposes nihilism may be (but is not consistently - therefore deniably) intimidated, prosecuted, and beaten-up (metaphorically or literally).

So officially 'theories do not matter' - but unofficially any deviation, even if a single word, from approved theory may be (but is not consistently - therefore deniably) punished and punished and punished...

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But what we want is not liberty; nor do we want equality of law nor even equality of enforcement - what we want is the Good: the true and the beautiful and the virtuous - and that which is conducive to them...

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Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.

We are fond of talking about "liberty"; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

We are fond of talking about "progress"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

We are fond of talking about "education"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

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The modern man says, "Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty." This is, logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it."

He says, "Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress." This, logically stated, means, "Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it."

He says, "Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education." This, clearly expressed, means, "We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children."

G.K. Chesterton Heretics (1905)

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