In praise of argument, extremism, and confrontation
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he responds to a group of white clergymen calling his anti-segregation protests ill-timed and extreme, Martin Luther King Jr. says, “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.”
When I first read these words over a year ago, I found myself stopping to think—being an extremist can be a good thing? At no time in my moderate-liberal household or in the surrounding Midwestern and postmodern culture was I told that being an extremist had its merits.
We live by the aphorism, “everything in moderation,” whether it be politics, religion, or chocolate chip cookies. Being somewhere in between the extremes was always the way to go.
Only upon reading King’s letter did I begin to realize that this isn’t always true. In order to see what King is on to, let’s look at an example in the form of a national controversy and then examine postmodernism’s effect on public discourse more generally.
Take the current creationism versus evolution debate. Any person convinced by the evidence will know that nearly the entire scientific community line up is on the evolution side of this issue.
The only reason we even have a controversy is that religious fundamentalists insist on literal belief in their creation myths, which were long ago proven inaccurate. In spite of the fact that evolution is scientifically proven, moderate positions have developed in the forms of “teach the controversy” and “intelligent design.”
As King goes on to say, moderate positions can be motivated by a fear of conflict and tension—a tendency currently being fed by postmodernism and its aversion to confrontation.
This occurs within the moderate positions mentioned above, which pander to both sides and try to keep the peace—even in the teeth of the fact that creationism is not a legitimate scientific theory.
Why should we teach our children that there’s a controversy between creationism and evolution when evolution is the proven explanation of the origins of species? “Intelligent design,” or the explanation that God set the evolutionary process in motion, is merely religion trying to profit from its own retreat.
Having been forced to give up its monopoly on explaining the origins of species, religion steals the scientific explanation and makes it its own—trying to have its cake and eat it too.
Both of these moderate positions regarding the evolution vs creationism debate sacrifice intellectual honesty in order to mitigate the chance of argument. More broadly, I would say that valuing peace and harmony over truth is a postmodern proclivity that we shouldn’t so readily stomach.
The prevalent postmodern fear of confrontation, coupled with its general acceptance of nearly everyone and everything, can be a menace in disguise. Disagreement, anger, offense, and even ridicule are necessary in order to keep our minds sharp and our ideas clear. If bad ideas are not heavily criticized and dismissed, they are essentially given a free pass into our public discourse—thereby reducing the quality of the entire conversation.
Yes, arguing with people and potentially angering them can be uncomfortable, but that’s often the only way ideas are improved. Avoiding confrontation in order to avoid an argument is tantamount to sitting back and spectating as stupidity breeds and multiplies.
Get irritated when you hear something untrue stated as truth and speak up to the contrary. Don’t be a listless observer.
The late Christopher Hitchens, former contributing editor to Vanity Fair, captures my meaning well when, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, he writes,
“Every day, the New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print,’ it says. It’s been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I imagine most readers of the canonical sheet have long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know I still have a pulse.”