Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This is why we need to be afraid of opinions, Catherine

Ah, Catherine Deveny. If controversey is the key to success in the media business, then The Age certainly is onto a winner with this woman. And you know what? They're proud of it! (see here)

No matter, as we here at SCE find her a most stimulating commentator on our social mores. Today's colum in the Age ("Most people are idiots - even the ones who agree with me" Catherine Deveny December 17, 2008) is such a case.

"WHY are people so threatened by opinions?" she begins. Well, let me tell you why, Catherine.

1) Because we live in a democracy, "opinions" determine legislation.
2) Because most people's "opinions" have about as much rational foundation as their most recent emotional reaction to an issue.
3) Because very few people, when called to do so, are actually either able to or prepared to defend their opinion with any other justification than "That's what I think and we're all entitled to our own opinion"

As I said long ago in this post:
The degree to which I am honour bound to respect your "right" to hold any given opinion is precisely the degree to which it is possible "to verify the truth" of it, that is, the degree to which it may be substantiated "by positive knowledge or proof".
Actually, I wouldn't care two hoots about your opinion if you didn't have any sort of power to enact your opinion into legislation (civil or ecclesiastical) which could bind my action and conscience. For that reason, I am a far happier individiual as a Catholic than I was as a Protestant. As a Catholic, I am secure in the fact that none of you reading this (unless you are a bishop or likely to become one in the near future - hullo to all those in "the purple" reading this blog - I would really like to know who you are!) can have any effect upon what I am obliged to believe. The same was not the case when I was a Lutheran. Then I had to fight every battle with the knowledge of the fact that my "opponent" in the matter of opinion had just as much right to vote at General Synod as I did. Very dangerous... (Considering the possibility that my opinions could be erroneous, at least!).

Ms Deveny defines "opinions" as "basically just 'I reckon'." Yes, I remember that. All through Seminary, I can recall that my fellow students would begin statements in class with "I think...". Personally (and don't take offence here, dear reader) who gives a damn about what "you think". I want documented authoritative guidance. I want rational argumentation. Something that goes someway to prove that your "opinion" has validity in that it has a positive degree of correlation to reality. (As an example of such "opinion", may I cite the good Cardinal Pole, who has demonstrated himself to be far more patient with me in argumentation than I am with him!).

Again, Ms Deveny finds consolation in the fact that "most people are idiots". That this is a tempting conclusion, based on every day experience, I will grant. However, it is not the attitude that we here at SCE have adopted. We are (rather gratuitously) ready to begin with the assumption that that you, dear Reader, are NOT an idiot - while at the same time not discounting the real possibility that you (or indeed your humble correspondent for that matter) MAY well be such.

Ms Deveny fears that opinions are "becoming extinct". I haven't noticed. What I have noticed is an incredible lack of willingness of people to defend their opinions when challenged - or indeed the number of people who are in fact offended if you dare to trespass upon the ground of their sacred opinons.

Actually, though, I share her concern that
Most of what passes for opinion these days are [I think she means "is"] often hermetically sealed arguments difficult to bite back at or engage with. Hermetically sealed "opinion" is generally nothing of the sort, just a list of facts that make people think, "Well that's sorted. No need for me to think."
Maybe there is something of the Orthodox Catholic sensibility in this (and I do hope Brian Coyne is reading). There are indeed those who confuse loyalty to the magisterium with "a list of facts" such that there is "no need for me to think". An interesting document arrived on my desk just yesterday, on which I intend to blog at some length as soon as I have fully investigated it, called "The Spirituality of Teachers in Catholic Schools: Project Report prepared for the Principals Association of Victorian Catholic Secondary Schools" (are you interested already?). In this document, the teachers are divided up into a number of different categories, but the first two most interested me:
1. Uncritically Catholic: "(9 out of 60) These were people who had always been Catholic, and who were quite uncritical in the way that they approached their faith. Several of them, for example, were deeply concerned to know 'what the Church taught', approaching this as an 'orthodoxy' which they would not dream of questioning. ....

2. Reflectively Catholic: "(23 out of 60) The largest group among those whom we interviewed... They identified themselves as Catholic and their Catholicism was important to them... These people were 'reflectively Catholic' rather than uncritically Catholic because they had thought critically about their faith. They did not simply accept what the Church said. Indeed, many of them were critical of some aspects of the teaching or practices of their own faith."
What gets me about this labelling is that it suggests that "magisterial Catholics" are "unthinking" and "dissenting Catholics" are "reflective". The fact of the matter is that "magisterial Catholics" are obliged to "reflect" upon the teaching of the Church AND upon their own thought and opinions, and find ways in which the two may be found to be congruent rather than dissonent. Often this will take more "reflection", more "thinking" than to simply be a "dissenting Catholic" who asserts that "in my opinion the Church is wrong".

Ms Deveny continues:
Answers and truths come about by being stimulated into rigorous debate, rational thinking and soul searching. Usually because something seems a bit wonky. It jars a little. And if it jars a little it's time to question what you believe. If you're game. Keep in mind the word is believe.
And I couldn't agree more. But "belief" is not simply an "I think". It has some basis. Rational thought, or revelation, experience, "soul searching" or some such. And all of this should be involved in the formation of our "opinions". Opinions that begin and end with a gut reaction are only "half-baked" and not worthy of serving up sliced with butter and tea. The "baking" process is precisely the "rigorous debate" to which Ms Deveny refers. Hence her column. Hence this blog.

Ms Deveny asserts that "We make decisions emotionally and defend them rationally". She may well be right. But if we are really rational creatures, and if our "opinions" are truly rational, then our rationality must also question our initial emotional decisions as well as defend them.
They say it's impolite to discuss sex, politics and religion. Stuff that. They're the only things worth talking about.
And I probably couldn't agree or have ever agreed with Ms Deveny more than in that last statement.


At Thursday, December 18, 2008 8:25:00 am , Anonymous matthias said...

My opinion of catherine deveny is that she is rude ,arrogant and bad mannered. She wrote a piece once about private schools putting them down. My daughter,then 14,now 18,wrote directly to Ms Deveny disagreeing with her column's content for that week. Not a response,not any acknowledgement. It would seem that here bitter outlook on life even extends to common courtesies

At Thursday, December 18, 2008 11:11:00 am , Blogger Past Elder said...

Well, just wait until the boys in purple get to-gether and turn what you've been taught is Catholicism inside out.

As to Catherine, I reckon I have only one thing to say. Wow!

At Friday, December 19, 2008 6:16:00 pm , Blogger Louise said...

They say it's impolite to discuss sex, politics and religion. Stuff that. They're the only things worth talking about.

She's right. Except for sex. I wish everyone would get right back into their closets!

At Saturday, December 20, 2008 1:26:00 am , Blogger Past Elder said...

Yeah well, if I ever DO get invited to one of these dinner parties David talks about, I'm gonna ask her to be my date -- which may make it more unlikely on several levels that I'll make it to one than the price of airfare from Omaha that David won't pick up. Lito, you'll have to carry on without me.


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