A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

The title is borrowed from Winston Churchill. Though he coined the phrase in reference to another matter, it describes perfectly the present situation in contemporary America. Our culture and society have fallen into a pit of confusion and contradictions, and it is difficult identifying how the fall happened and what we should do about it. The timing correlates with the Covid19 pandemic, so it is tempting to blame it on that phenomenon. But correlation does not prove causation, and a closer look back over the last half-century suggests that the fall began much earlier. In other words, instead of causing the problems, the pandemic has simply exposed (and perhaps amplified) an existing condition.

Let’s begin with some examples of the present confusion and contradiction.

Facial masks were classified as unnecessary, then necessary indoors and out, then only indoors, then (again) indoors and out. Then masks were determined to be so vital that we should wear two at once. Then they were declared no longer necessary after we get the vaccine. Then it was recommended that, as a precaution, they be used even after getting the vaccine.

The Covid vaccine itself was recommended for the elderly and those with certain chronic conditions, then for everyone who had not contracted Covid, then for those who had contracted Covid, as well. Then the recommendation became a requirement for everyone. At the time I am writing, there have been indications that proof of having had the vaccine will be necessary for leaving and re-entering the country, for attending college, and for employment at many companies. This even as some doctors are expressing concerns that the vaccine itself may pose a serious health risk for some people.

Social distancing of 6 feet was required by federal and state governments, and all organizations, businesses, and agencies were required to adhere. After more than eight or ten months, it was revealed that six feet isn’t nearly enough—that in fact 27 feet is necessary. Yet this knowledge has been ignored by the government and everyone else, and six feet remains the standard.

Schools were closed for months to protect students and teachers from Covid, even though, almost from the beginning, scientists agreed the risk of children contracting the disease was minimal. Even after teachers were able to get the vaccine, public school teachers’ unions claimed teachers’ risk of their getting the virus in the classroom (from students??) was too great. Meanwhile, private schools reopened their classrooms, and some states opened their public schools as well, without suffering an outbreak of the virus.

Many other examples of confusion/contradiction could be cited. Here are a few in briefer format: Government officials giving laid-off workers more money to stay at home than they earned working, and then wondering why the workers lose interest in finding a job. The same officials passing a bill to repair the nation’s infrastructure, giving over 90% of the money to non-infrastructure projects, and then redefining “infrastructure” to justify their action. Journalists deciding that part of their job of reporting the news is withholding news they don’t like; also, assuming it is reasonable for them to call riots, arson, and looting “peaceful protest.” Educators claiming that telling students what to think—that is, propagandizing them—is a valid substitute for teaching them how to think. Social media barons refusing to tolerate people they disagree with by censoring their statements, and doing so in the name of tolerance and truth.

All of these examples of confusion and/or contradiction in modern American culture are the result of a deeper phenomenon—the loss of our fundamental intellectual and moral foundations—that has advanced over decades.

Among the most important foundations that have been largely lost are these five understandings:

That the truth about any subject or issue is discovered rather than created. In other words, it is found by searching relevant sources of information using appropriate methods, not fashioned in our own minds to suit our own preferences.

That discovering the truth involves identifying opposing viewpoints, evaluating competing arguments, and making judgments. This process is difficult and can result in mistakes, not only by amateurs but also by professional searchers. The history of human thought testifies to the reality of frequent and often significant error.

That opinions are not truths but merely beliefs about what is true. We have a right to form and express opinions, but that does not mean they are necessarily correct. In fact, when they are formed carelessly or without consideration of conflicting views, they are more likely to be incorrect. The test of an opinion’s validity is not how strongly it is held or how many people share it. It is how well supported it is by the evidence.

That making careful distinctions is essential not only to avoiding confusion and error, but also to engaging in meaningful discourse with others. Among the most important distinctions—and the ones most neglected today—are these: legal vs. illegal, moral vs. immoral, freedom vs. license, truth vs. falsehood, tolerance vs. intolerance, justice vs. injustice, rights vs. responsibilities, nature vs. nurture.

That humility is necessary in order to accept and apply the above understandings. Humility enables us to be as critical of our own opinions as we are of opposing ones and to discard those that do not withstand scrutiny.

The question that looms over America and, in the larger sense, Western Civilization, is, “Can the foundational understandings described above be recovered after being largely lost?” No one knows the answer to this question, but it is possible to say with confidence what conditions are necessary for recovery to occur.

The main condition (among many) is that education at every level from K through graduate school return to teaching the foundational understandings. This can be done by minimizing  students’ memorizing material and then repeating it on exams, and maximizing having them grapple with problems and issues related to the academic subject, where possible the very challenges that historic achievers in the subject grappled with. This method teaches them how to think as those individuals did—pursuing particular truths through the investigation and evaluation of conflicting ideas, making judgments, comparing their judgments with other judgments, and deciding which ideas are best.

This approach will not just teach the nation’s young people the process of thinking about each subject; it will also teach them the difference between sound and unsound opinions and the importance of the other distinctions mentioned above. And the successes they achieve, as well as the failures they overcome, will build in them the humility required for improving themselves and guiding their country from the confusion and contradiction in which it has become mired.

Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero