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W.E. Gutman: To some readers and their ‘ilk'

The Long View

Posted: June 12, 2010 10:17 p.m.
Updated: June 13, 2010 4:55 a.m.

What if history was drawn not from verifiable facts but from the opinion pages of newspapers? What if the sum total of human knowledge was distilled from letters to the editor and the blogosphere - that mighty soap box the idle and the surly so impetuously scale to orate, often with shameless fatuity?

In other words, what good are facts when opinions prevail?

What emerges from the doctrinal struggles that cleave society is a frenzied tug-of-war between conflicting ideas. Essential truths are often trampled in the process. Everybody has opinions. Most of our mental constructs are erected on a vast scaffolding of dogmas - generally someone else's.

We fiercely cling to them, claiming they're the offspring of our own ruminations because they encourage us not to think outside the box, because they shield us from what we fear most - unbendable reality - and because they keep us warm and cozy in our self-woven ideological cocoons.

Journalists face reality and bare it with conscious self-awareness, mindful that candor and disquieting facts will trigger caustic ripostes and bitter denunciations.

The deconstructionist arguments advanced by amateur pundits and the craven ad hominem attacks to which they sometimes resort offer little more than artful equivocation, tangential reasoning, slippery-slope arguments, arguments from ignorance (or ruse), distinctions without difference and specious reasoning.

What also emerges from some bloggers' angry snarls is the suggestion that telling inconvenient truths or advancing unconventional concepts is tantamount to treason. Patriotism never had an uglier visage.

Accredited members of the press don't pretend to have all the answers. We dig for the truth. We ask questions - some troubling, some unendurable. What we unearth can never be to everyone's liking. Journalism is not a popularity contest.

We take no particular pleasure in chronicling the ills of society. We are powerless against a tide of opinions that blithely disregard, defy and, if need be, corrupt the truth. Tainted fruits of ignorance and self-delusion (or planted seeds of malice) opinions conveniently overlook faulty data or peddle arguments riddled with ideological monstrosities. Dearly held opinions shield people from the risks and rewards of enlightenment.

In the mouths of demagogues - or amateur mimics - inflexible convictions assume dangerous dimensions: They are no longer what can be borne from deduction or experience, but what opinion-mongers themselves will get away with. Regurgitated by imbeciles, they are promptly espoused by other imbeciles.

Voicing an opinion, especially when unsolicited, is an incorrigible human reflex. Witness the recreational sharpshooters who fire on anything that moves in their cross-hairs. Every time they inhale a whiff of fact, they exhale a gust of mangled inferences.

Opinions have merit when they stimulate inquiry and rational dialogue, embody essential truths, are advanced with lucidity and sobriety and when, having withstood the rigors of scrutiny, they still invite coherent discourse.

Opinions are worthless when they are shot cannon-like and appallingly devoid of civility - as was Brian Baker's recent scurrilous attack on Gary Horton. ("Concerns about selective liberal outrage in America," May 16)

If The Signal will not denounce Mr. Baker's hateful language, I willingly assume this obligation. It's one thing to disagree with someone; it's quite another to level insults and impugn a person's character and reputation.

Advocates of extreme political and religious dogma - as are some of The Signal's readers and their "ilk" - are particularly adept at blurring the truth to advance their own agendas (or shield against the glare of incontrovertible fact). The greater their zeal in promoting their own causes, the more tempting it becomes for them to strike at the messenger for having failed to deliver the message they had hoped to receive.

Thus, the messenger is now viewed as an apostate engaged in spreading truths engineered to dismantle cherished values. Witch hunts, ancient and modern, are the offspring of this blinkered mindset.

Only those willing to question the validity of "received" wisdom and "accepted" convention ever get closer to the truth. Fallacious reasoning and arrogant convictions, licit as they might be, are more dangerous enemies of truth than outright lies.

They are the prisons in which we lock ourselves to feign a clear conscience. As someone once remarked, a clear conscience is usually the sign of a very bad memory.

Troublesome facts, computed by rational minds, are more useful than myths peddled by uninformed crusaders. When flock mentality is at play, it is the myths, alas, that capture the imagination of the rabble.

Inflexible convictions render men blind, arrogant and, carried to the extreme, mad.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author. His columns reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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