THE PERILS OF PATTER

 

Given the number of times a politician’s heart goes out to the families of this tragedy or of that, one wonders whether it ever stays home.

This kind of patter isn’t as innocent as it might appear. It’s not that anyone’s so Asperger’s that she doesn’t understand the metaphor. Nor is it that anyone’s so untutored in the nature of human emotion that she thinks the speaker really does feel equally and deeply saddened by each and every tragedy he’s required to publicly lament. It’s that at a certain point we become so inured to the patter that we cease to hear it. Having ceased to hear it we cease to listen to what’s actually being said. And then before we know it we’ve let pass a blatant and dangerous falsehood.

“All Canadians are outraged by …”

No they’re not. I wasn’t. In fact I thought the bastards deserved what they got on 9/11.

“Global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today.”

Then certainly it’s the most urgent problem facing you too. More urgent than your having to pee? Or driving your wife to the hospital for her knee operation? Or flying off to your next save-the-world conference? If you’re wondering why none of us is doing anything about global warming it’s because there’s not a single person on the planet – nor a married one for that matter – for whom it’s an urgent problem, let alone the most urgent one. But your saying that it is blinds you to why it isn’t.

We have a colleague who’s bragged that he “can’t even imagine what would count as evidence that the Holocaust didn’t happen.”

If he meant that he couldn’t have an IQ over sixty. So let’s hope it was rhetorical flourish. But what it says is worse. It says that he’s not open to counter-evidence. That neither should anyone else be. And that therefore the historicity of the Holocaust is no more an empirical question than the existence of God, or that homosexuality is contra natura.

And that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it leaves it open to the Holocaust denier to likewise declare, as some have, that nothing could count as evidence that the Holocaust did happen. And then, since any and all evidence has been ruled out of court, the question can only be settled by who can muster the most deafening ad hominem circumstantial, as in:

“How much is B’nai Brith paying you?”, countered by

“Less than what the Iranians are paying you!”

It will, of course, be objected that getting from some politician’s heart going out to the irrelevance of evidence in the vaccination safety debate is a bit of a stretch. I don’t think it is. I think they’re of a piece. Tolerating sloppy reasoning in one domain encourages it in another. We’ve been watching this dialectic in action on the other side of the border. And some of us, my colleagues included, are watching it creep northward with growing alarm. Our mistake is focusing on its right-wing content rather than its form. But idiocy is ambidextrous.

Many of us have reached what Jonathan Kay calls the ‘Legacy Stage’ of an academic career. Not content to let the chips fall where they have, we’re desperate to convince ourselves, before taking down our shingle, that we changed the world. In that desperation decades of training gets cast to the wind. Our students can see it even when we can’t. What’s consoling is they love us all the more for it. One could even say their hearts go out to us.

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