So I was having a conversation on Facebook. As most of my conversations on Facebook go, this one was political, and I had made what I considered to be a salient point: Liz Cheney and her ilk think that the public is easily manipulated, and so they launch attacks that only someone who is easily manipulated would fall prey to. And yet liberals are consistently labeled by their detractors as people who don’t have respect for the American public’s ability to make its own decisions.
And then I commented that liberals are quite possibly wrong in the opposite direction: we assume a greater rationality in the American public than actually exists. The very next comment, someone said, “So, Madison, the people are stupid and liberals are smart, is that it?”
This sort of thing gets me really angry, because what this commenter has done is substitute the words “smart” and “stupid” where the words I used were “rational” and “irrational.” These words have meaning: they are not simply interchangeable.
It is possible to be a smart person and still have irrational moments. I have faith in the Resurrection of Christ and the coming resurrection of the dead. This is irrational. I cannot prove this belief by argument and evidence, and if I ever try I want my atheist friends to laugh at me until I come to my senses.
And it is entirely possible to pursue rational aims and still be stupid. World War I, many have claimed, was caused by a hyper-rationality, a rationality in which everyone pursued reasonable ends for security and suffered cataclysmic results.
And yet when I pointed that out, my interlocutor’s response (privately, via e-mail) was to assert that it is just human nature to believe that our enemies are irrational while we are rational. And while there may be something to it, there is also something greater: rationality is something that can be analyzed. It can be assessed. One can determine the quality of evidence, interrogate the arguments, refute premises and sound out faulty assumptions.
In other words, rationality is something definitional — it is not merely a subjective experience of someone else’s disposition. While I am highly reticent to claim that we humans can always achieve rationality, I am at least willing to go out on a limb and say that we have a reasonableness in us that, paired with humility and discernment, can distinguish irrational from rational in ways that move beyond simply whose “side” we are on.
At the same time I say this, though, the back of my mind is playing the tape that I get from Stanley Fish, the criticisms of feminists and post-structuralists regarding our inability to escape ideology, the assertions of post-modernity that the notion of a single space from which to view truth is untenable and ethically and morally suspect. So I’m struggling with whether my response here is merely an attempt to make my subjective experience of truth appear more objective than it actually is.