Do They Know? How Do We Know They Know?

Culturally elite institutions claim to champion the interests of women, minorities and children; preventing a two-class society; and other values that ought to lead them to support the policies we favor on life, marriage, economics, etc. So why don’t they favor those policies?

Dan says they have made a conscious and intentional choice to subordinate those values to other values, such as multiculturalism and sexual liberation. In other words, Dan says that they know their favored policies are destroying women, minorities and children, driving us toward a two-class society, etc. and have decided that’s OK because that’s the price they have to pay to be multiculturalist and liberationist.

I say poppycock.

Dan argues that if you are in a position to know the real effects of a policy, have a motive to know, and the connection between the policy and real effects is not very complicated, we are entitled to assume that you do know, and are making conscious choices in light of that knowledge.

Against that, I say the human capacity for self-deception is far greater than Dan gives it credit for. Human beings are fallen and sinful creatures, and our sin affects our consciousness. We are “darkened” by sin. This does not excuse us from responsibility for our actions. But it does mean that the sin we are committing when we act wrongly is often a negligent failure to know what we ought to know – to know what we would have known if only we were good people – rather than a conscious decision to do the act even though we know that act to be wrong.

This manifests itself at both the individual and social levels. At the individual level, we are each capable of vast self-deception. At the social level, we build social systems to legitimize and reinforce the self-deceptions we wish to believe.

Dan fails to acknowledge that in addition to having strong reasons to want to know, culturally elite institutions also have strong reasons not to want to know. Their motive not to know is the same as ours: we feel like we avoid the burden of moral responsibility. We don’t, because our ignorance is culpable ignorance, but we feel like we do. And the elite institutions in particular have embedded themselves in especially strong social systems that constantly legitimize and reinforce their self-deceptions. We are not entitled to assume that the motive to know is always and everywhere stronger than the motive not to know.

The idea that if you can know and would want to know then we are entitled to assume that you do know strikes me as clearly Pelagian. I assumes that the functioning of the human mind is not darked by the impact of sin.

Dan gives two examples to illustrate his case. The first is media coverage of radical Islam:

One of the central characteristics of this extreme theology is its misogyny.  The media, however, has been strangely silent on how destructive this is to women.  They’ve even gone beyond silence – they actually run interference for radical Islam, pleading for our tolerance and understanding of differing cultures.  The rights of women take back seat to a higher value (in their minds) – promoting and defending the multi-culturalism imperative.

I question whether media outlets like ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, etc. have actually said very frequently that our response to things like women put to death for having been raped should be merely to exercise tolerance for other cultures. My impression is that they have avoided talking about the subject at all, which is not the same thing. (Other institutions have no doubt promoted that view of Islam’s treatment of women, but for that very reason those institutions are less culturally elite than the media Dan has in mind.)

Why are the media silent about radical Islam’s treatment of women? One hypothesis is that they have consciously decided it’s more important to be multiculturalist than to be feminist. Another hypothesis is that they believe radical Islam is a declining force that is losing ground and will continue to do so, while conservative backlash against feminism in developed countries is a more clear and present danger, and focusing attention on the problem of radical Islam’s treatment of women will have the negative (from their view) effect of strengthening conservatism politically, to the detriment of feminism.

My impression is that the second hypothesis is much more often the case than the first one, although there are no doubt exceptions. The more important point, however, is that Dan ignores the possibility of the second hypothesis altogether.

Dan’s second example is feminism and abortion:

Each of these culturally-elite organizations has invested heavily, both in dollars and intellectual effort, in normalizing the practice of abortion, making it culturally acceptable.  An abortion, of course, involves taking the life of a human being.  And everyone involved in the subject knows it.  Not only is the proximal fuse short between the policy and the destructive consequence, it is simultaneous.  So we may safely charge them with knowingly favoring a policy that has as its primary purpose harming children.  Why?  To preserve sexual libertinism.

But do they know that abortion takes the life of a human being? They say they don’t believe that. Are all of them consciously dissembling all the time? Or is it more plausible that they have really bought into the ideology that says abortion doesn’t take a life? I know that ideology is patently false to anyone who has given the question a modicum of critical thought, but I don’t think that entitles us to assume they don’t believe it.

Our opponents are sinful people (like us). But precisely because they are sinful people, we are not entitled to assume they are guilty of the kind of demonic evil Dan attributes to them. To the contrary, because they are sinful people we are obligated to give strong consideration to the possibility that they are self-decieved about what they are doing, and are therefore not nearly as evil as they might appear to be.