The Observers

Tibor R. Machan

Many contemporary intellectuals have a problem. They are theoretically committed to the idea that they can be no more than observers of human life and make no value judgments about it. This is because the philosophical basis for evaluating people, their conduct, and their institutions has been destroyed by the view that all that we can do is observe, say what is the case based on what our senses tell us; evaluations, beliefs and statements about what is good and bad, right and wrong are unavailable to us since they cannot be derived from observations alone. They amount to little more than how we feel about something, or how the community to which we belong does. The disciplines in which human affairs are studied have no place for evaluation, only for description. And if there is more, it must come from religion. But religion rests mostly on faith and the faiths of people are too varied to put them on the same page with their judgments and, in any case, who can argue about faith?

Of course, all of this has exceptions but those are not what dominate among our culture’s thinkers. The dominant view is that only observations are intellectually, philosophically respectable. Nothing else is well grounded, nothing else warrants our allegiance. It is this outlook about how our minds work that carries conviction with most academics and those who have studied with them.

This is so even though no one can really stick to the position for very long. Most people, even those who profess to be nothing other than observers–such as university researchers, news reporters or analysts–do have values, often quite pronounced ones, and they rarely can hold them back, keep them out of what they think, say, or write about human affairs. This is especially so with the elite media, be it print or broadcast. On the Internet, too, people–though not all–tend mainly to vent and emote instead of argue for their values because, well, values cannot be defended logically, rationally, or so many have been taught at our institutions of higher learning.

So how do these people then go about trying to apply their felt values? What do they do to influence the world, especially political trends? Mostly by imply and intimate that they are superior observers to those with whom they disagree. And why would this be so? Because they have superior upbringing, education, occupations, and, of course, culture.

You want to have your value judgments taken seriously? Well, then, get go to Harvard or Princeton and get a job at The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Atlantic or NPR, PBS and some other snooty outfit. You will then be able to skip having to argue for your views–your gravitas will do it for you. And all those with whom you disagree, whose values you dislike or disdain, will simply have to slouch away sheepishly as not up to snuff. No one will need to demonstrate that his or her ideas about how we should act and what policies should be pursued are better than the ideas of those who they find objectionable. That will not be necessary. You will simply need to make sure that you are in the company of the elite. Why are they the elite? Never mind that, it cannot be known since that would mean that one could know about which values are superior and which are inferior, just the stuff that is off limits in the contemporary philosophical, intellectual climate.

At one time this outlook tended to engender tolerance for all viewpoints and there was some hope in that so long as the really obnoxious viewpoints were held by just a few in one’s community. And those abroad could be ignored, except, of course, when they grew into large masses of disagreeable folks like Nazis and Communists. But even then, they were mostly kept at arms length, so arguing with them wasn’t necessary.

Now, however, the very disagreeable folks are close up and personal, quite often. Not only do they bring their hostile attitudes to our universities and communities but they actually lash out at us, physically, fatally at times. And that is difficult to deal with by just ignoring it all, sticking one’s head in the sand. So the preferred response, again, is a kind of effeteness, a posture of superciliousness. Spread the idea that the elites will figure it out, they will be able to manage it all, so long as they are in power. And for that to happen their critics must be fended off, marginalized.

The best way to do this when one cannot demonstrate that one’s position is right, that one’s values are indeed sound and should therefore prevail, is to pretend that these opponents are inferior human beings, small and narrow minded.

The observers, they do hold values but they will not argue for them, only insist that their stature and social rank must be honored more than the views of those who are not of their type.

And people are surprised when there is no respectful political discourse in the air during political campaigns! How can there be when the observers have read all others out of the arena and have reserved for themselves the position of, well, observers, with just some refined feelings to spread around that they need not stand up for and justify.