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On the Cost of Intellectual Dishonesty

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In my second column I attempted to dissect intellectual dishonesty. I made Glenn Beck the target of my rant, although he lost his show in April 2011, so perhaps there is Justice in the world.

I am not sure if this week’s column is going to be very funny, although depending on your opinion of last week’s that might not be much of a change. If this week is the first time you’ve read me, feel free to read my last column: it’ll be like taking a time machine back to when I was hilarious.

As promised, I am going to spend this column discussing intellectual dishonesty. I have been worried about this for a few reasons. For one, I do not want it to seem like I am merely picking people whose worldview I disagree with, and calling them “intellectually dishonest.” This is not my intent. It is one thing to hold a different view than me, so long as it is held honestly. It is another entirely to espouse a view you do not believe in for the sake of some temporary advantage. That is the province of the sophist, and I think the danger in it is real.

The man I think of immediately when I think of intellectual dishonesty is one Glenn Beck. He is the poster child for it in many ways. I cannot even say I disagree with this man, because I do not actually know what he believes. His fixation on the term “czars” as it refers to Barack Obama’s political appointees is a great example.

Beck would have you believe that “czar” is something other than a turn of phrase, an ornamentation of the language. That word is somehow sinister, a slipup in a grand conspiracy. Beck links it, constantly and ominously with czarist Russia. “This collection of these czars, these are evil people. These are wicked, crazy, frightening people,” he says, direct quote. One segment of his Fox show, ostensibly explaining who these appointees are and what they do, has Beck discussing the craziness of Russian czars, despite the fact, and I cannot stress this enough, that there is NO link between the two kinds of czars worth wasting breath, air, ink or time over.

So maybe Beck believes these czars are a threat. Maybe he believes the other things he says. Except he tells us, constantly, that he does not. It is in his words. “I am not saying you are x” he says, “Other people are claiming this thing.” A torrent of “just sayin’, just wonderin'”, backing away from controversy only to incite more later. Above all, pressed, pushed into a corner, finally forced to justify his views, the man skips away, claiming to be in the business of entertainment, not politics (a whole other level of dishonesty…really, he’s like some kind of weasel-ninja…damn, I need to make that a movie: Weasel-Ninja! Sorry, back to business…)

Beck is not the only one. He is not the first, not the last and not the only person to be intellectually dishonest to serve their own goals. We all do it. Some are worse than others. Some just have a bigger soapbox to stand on (Cough, not myself of course, cough). That, however, is no excuse. The core of the problem is not what I believe, or what you believe. We can believe different things, wildly different things, and still co-exist, on one very important condition.

To live in a society is to interact with other people. In a democratic society, each person has a say, and ideally, a forum to air their ideas. But all I can ever really know about your ideas are what you yourself tell me. I cannot read your mind. In order for there to be trust, for there to be community, we need to be reasonably sure that what the other person is saying is at least broadly representative of what they actually think or feel or believe. Without this, there is no trust, there is no community. Not really, anyway.

So, what’s the point? The point is, every time someone like Beck says something they don’t believe to boost ratings, every time a politician wilfully misconstrues an opponent’s words for their own gain, every time you purposefully misread someone else’s intentions…we all lose. We corrupt the very thing that is supposed to tie us together. In the end, I am not sure what that does to us, or what it means that we continue to do it.


Written by Colin Hodd

April 14, 2011 at 5:34 PM

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