Understanding Our Growing Social Chaos

Understanding Our Growing Social Chaos

An anonymous commentary made the rounds of the Internet before it vanished. It pointed out a number of absurdities in America today, the following ones among them:

“Russians influencing our elections is bad, but illegal Mexicans voting in our elections is good. It was cool for Joe Biden to ‘blackmail’ the President of Ukraine, but it’s an impeachable offense if our President inquires about it. Somehow it’s un-American for the census to count how many Americans are in America. People who have never owned slaves should pay slavery reparations to people who have never been slaves. If you cheat to get into college you go to prison, but if you cheat to get into the country you go to college for free. People who say there is no such thing as gender are demanding a female President. Some people are held responsible for things that happened before they were born, and other people are not held responsible for what they are doing right now. Criminals are catch-and-released to hurt more people, but stopping them is bad because it’s a violation of their rights.”

Half a century or so ago people would have been embarrassed to see, let alone express such foolishness. Today, as the anonymous commentator suggests, it is ubiquitous and, worse, many people find no fault with it.

The question is, what happened between that earlier time and today to change people’s perspective? The answer is, America has largely abandoned reasoning, which may be defined as the process for discovering intelligent ideas—that is, those that best fit the facts and are supportable by evidence—and making wise decisions.

Before the 1960s, reasoning was not taught directly yet every teacher encouraged students to practice it by asking questions and seeking defensible answers. But in the 1960s, influential psychologists like Carl Rogers claimed that reasoning is overvalued. They argued that intelligent ideas are not discovered at all but created by each person, and that the way to create them is not by careful reasoning, but by following our feelings. That notion caught on among educators and in the general culture. In the late 1970s and 80s, the Critical Thinking movement for a time returned the emphasis to reasoning in education, though it failed to do so in the general culture.

In the late 1980s, however, feelings recaptured dominance when a group of people asserted that reason and critical thinking can undermine self-esteem and threaten mental health. The new mantra, in education and the general culture, became follow your feelings and don’t allow self-questioning or doubt to diminish your self-esteem. That mantra has been taught and promoted for a couple of generations and continues to be the guiding focus of modern American culture.

Feelings are a complex phenomenon. Some are positive, like joy, gratitude, contentment, and love. Others are negative, like anxiety, envy, worry, and hate. As a rule, neither good nor bad feelings are static but instead tend to grow more or less intense. Interest can become attraction and then love; dislike can become loathing; anger can become rage.

What is it about valuing feelings over reason that leads to social chaos? The answer is found in these characteristics of feelings:

They come without being summoned, in some cases without our even being aware we have them. To some extent they can be controlled—that is, positive feelings can be encouraged and cultivated, and negative ones discouraged. But given their nature, they cannot control themselves. Instead, they need outside help.

They are careless and capricious. Feelings are subject to shifts in our state of mind and to passing moods, impulses, or urges. What they embrace with enthusiasm one day, they may reject with revulsion the next. They may fit the occasion at this moment but be unsuited to it at the next.

They are spontaneous and unreflecting. Feelings do not admit of caution or restraint, but demand immediate fulfillment. And their intensity is seldom bound by moral values or social norms or mores.

They are not subject to guiding principles. Feelings contain no procedures for testing and validating their wisdom or worth; that is, for deciding whether they are positive or negative, produce beneficial or harmful results.

The last characteristic is the most significant. Before we can follow feelings with confidence, we need to understand them well enough to decide their worthiness. The only way to do that is through reasoning. By abandoning reasoning, we have left ourselves and our country at the mercy of our impulses and urges. Even worse in some ways, we have made ourselves vulnerable to those who wish to manipulate us for their own purposes, such as political extremism.  And the results have become all too common in America today:

The widespread acceptance of logical inconsistencies and contradictions such as those noted in my first paragraph.

The inability of many elected officials to put aside their emotional attachment to political agendas and come together to solve the nation’s problems.

The eagerness of many to go beyond improving the American criminal justice system and seeking to overthrow it.

The rise of leniency among legislators and judges toward even the most dangerous criminals.

Widespread complacency in public officials and the mainstream media toward mob activities, including assaulting innocent people; destroying private property; looting, rioting, and committing arson; seizing entire sections of cities; and attempting to disband the police who protect people’s rights.

One does not have to be a prophet to project that the longer America’s exaltation of feelings continues, the greater the social chaos will be, and the greater that chaos, the more certain will be the end of the noblest and most meaningful social experiment in human history.

Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero