The Politization of Truth: The New Sophism
by R.C. Sproul
In October of 1991, the American people were riveted to the drama of the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas. Then, a twist of biting irony took place when Anita Hill emerged with allegations of sexual harassment. After Professor Hill testified before a watching world, Clarence Thomas reappeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But something had changed. A marked contrast appeared in the demeanor of Judge Thomas from what he described as his “real” confirmation hearing. Thomas was angry. Sensing that his appointment to the Court was lost and that he had nothing else of a political nature to lose, he waded into the fray with fists flying. Gone was the elusive, evasive, “politically correct” respondent. Now Thomas spoke with the candor of fury, accusing those who sat in judgment on him of a “high-tech lynching.” Thomas was obviously unconcerned about further alienating his antagonists.
I don’t know if Thomas spoke the truth. I know, however, that he spoke differently, and the nation responded positively to his less—than—cautious replies. He broke all the rules of political sensitivity and got away with it. That part, at least, was a breath of fresh air, a political aggiornamento (a Latin term used by Pope John XXIII meaning “to open the windows”) in an atmosphere of choking blue smoke.
Politics in America has degenerated to the nadir of the rhetoric of sophistry. It was not truth that kindled the spark that brought Socrates to the fore in Athens. It was the sophists of antiquity with their multitude of empty phrases and vacant words designed for persuasion. The “gadfly of Greece” was convinced that sophism was a clear and present danger to the very survival of civilization, and that made him willing to drink the bitter dregs of hemlock to sound his protest.
Socrates, with his protegé Plato, and in turn, Plato’s most gifted student, Aristotle, restored truth over perception and science over political opinion, and delayed the disintegration of Western civilization.
With the advent of Christianity, the quest for ultimate truth and the priority of ethics over vested interests conquered the new pragmatism of Roman morals.
Now, however, it seems that once again civilization is threatened by neo-sophism. To understand this, we need a brief recapitulation of ancient sophism. Sophism emerged in ancient Greece after science and philosophy reached an impasse in the metaphysical tension between Parmenides and Heraclitus.
Parmenides postulated a land of metaphysical monism by declaring the ultimacy of being with his famous maxim, “Whatever is, is.” He rejected the physical world of changing entities as being ephemeral and illusory.
Heraclitus responded by asserting the ultimacy of change, arguing that whatever is, is changing. The only thing permanent is change itself. Everything is always and everywhere in a state of flux.
This metaphysical debate left the public with a collective Excedrin headache. The man in the street reasoned, “If these two titans of theoretical thought cannot agree, how can we ever resolve such ultimate issues?” Ultimate truth was then deemed unknowable and equally unnecessary. What was left was the pragmatic concerns of daily living.
The cry of the sophist was, “Give us some news we can use.” Ultimate truth is not possible; what matters is the here and now in my political situation. Sophism gave rise to “how to” schools that majored in the art of political expediency. The new science of rhetoric became popular. This “science” was not concerned about discerning truth through argument and debate. Rather, rhetoric stressed the importance of political persuasion. Whatever is persuasive is true. Science was reduced to popularity opinion polls. Does this sound familiar? Sophism became equated with superficiality where truth and ethics were relativized and politicized.
Western civilization experienced a renaissance of culture with the emergence of modern forms of democracy. The supreme model for the new experiment was the republic of the United States. It was formed not as a pure democracy but as a republic. The difference between a pure democracy and a republic is crucial, though this difference is being more and more obscured with each passing day. The republic is defined as “rule by law,” whereas a pure democracy is defined in terms of majority rule. The chief safeguard of a republic is embodied in a constitution that guarantees certain rights to every person in the society, individual rights that may not be usurped via a tyranny of the majority.
When the American experiment began the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville warned of two eventualities that could destroy the plan. Both involved the threat of the politicization of economics. He said that when people discover that the vote is worth money, the republic is in trouble (bribes and financial support can corrupt statesmen and turn them into prostituted politicians); and when people discover that they can vote for themselves largess from the government, it’s over.
What de Tocqueville apparently did not anticipate was the politicization of education. Once economics is politicized, the public education system follows. We are accustomed to distinguishing in our culture between public schools and private schools. Perhaps a more accurate designation for “public schools” is “government schools,” or more precisely, “politicized schools.”
The relativization of higher education philosophy was documented by Allen Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. Now, the politization of American higher education is documented in the recent work of Dinesh D’Souza entitled Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. D’Souza traces the pattern of the new sophism as it has moved through institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, Duke, and other universities that had achieved the highest level of credibility in education. Now, hiring policies, entrance policies, and curricula are being reshaped by a left-wing activistic political agenda.
The book jacket asserts: “Student activists march under the banners of pluralism and diversity. They have demanded an admissions policy based not on academic merit but on ethnic representation; a curriculum and faculty assembled not by intellectual standards but by race and gender categories; and sensitivity training which borders on the totalitarian in its invasive insistence on a new social and political orthodoxy.”
The structural innovations D’Souza documents are as scary as they are silly. The politics of intimidation are used to enforce a radically leftist political agenda on liberal arts education. D’Souza did well on exposing the illiberal character of this movement. We need a new Socrates who would prefer hemlock to such a distortion of the academic enterprise.