About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Pinochet, Holocaust deniers, and the lessons of history
What do these two events have in common? At first glance, not much. But in fact they do tell us something interesting about the roots of the human tragedy. It was seriously disturbing, for example, to see images of “supporters” of Pinochet gathered outside the hospital were he died. Supporters of a brutal murderer? Yup, and they are (historically) not alone: there are people who would like to see Saddam Hussein back in power, skinheads who long for the good 'ol days of Hitler, plenty of Russians who think Stalin was not so bad after all, Italians who voted for Mussolini's granddaughter just in the same way in which their grandfathers marched under Benito's banner, and Serbs who think Slobodan Milesovic was the good guy and NATO the evil empire. How is this possible? What sort of ideological blinders do these people sport, and where on earth did they get them?
The answer, I think, is similar to that of the other unnerving question raised by this week's events: how can some people deny one of the best documented (and recent) historical events of all times? I mean, these guys have no trouble believing in unseen gods, or swallowing tall tales of miracles allegedly performed by long-dead prophets, but cannot bring themselves to accept the reality of an event for which there are still eyewitnesses around, that has been documented on film, and of which there are detailed historical records kept not by the victims, but by the perpetrators! Evolution deniers are pure dilettantes in comparison with Holocaust deniers.
The commonality between these cases is provided by the frightening effects of ideological blinders on human thinking. While Dawkins, Dennett and Harris (justly) rail against the damage caused by religions, they are missing the broader and most important point: unquestioning ideological commitment is the real enemy, be that in favor of a religion or political position, in reverence of a prophet or a political leader. Ironically, I think our tragic tendency to fall for facile ideological brainwashing may be the result of the fact that, despite our literature, science, and technology, we are still little more than a species of social chimpanzees – and we instinctively align ourselves with the alpha male, regardless of how much stupidity and suffering may result from it.