“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is, contempt prior to examination.”
Some of the best historical quotes – like the one above – are unattributable with any degree of certitude. It has been attributed to several people including Edmund Spencer and William Paley as far back as 1794.
Still, there is wisdom in these words – especially in regard to their meaning in our times insofar as what we have come to know as “fake news” and “conspiracy theories.”
Think about it.
The key words in this parable are “contempt prior to examination.”
It means making up your mind before the facts are in. We’re all guilty of it sometimes. But it has become de rigueur for far too many.
You have seen examples of “contempt prior to examination” many times in your life. In fact, I would venture to say you see examples of it displayed in the “politically correct” media, academia and other cultural institutions.
Finding the truth is difficult when powerful assumptions rule the way we think and when questioning those assumptions is ridiculed by dominant, authoritarian and even wicked forces.
Let’s look at just one example of how this plays out in American politics today.
In 2016, Donald Trump ran for president. After defeating more than 17 Republican candidates in primaries, he ran against Hillary Clinton. The media and the “smart money” gave little chance for victory to Trump. Nevertheless, he won – fair and square.
But the dominant institutions, including what we have come to know as the “Deep State,” refused to accept the verdict of the American electoral process. The intelligence community, including rogue elements of the FBI, CIA and NSA, began making allegations the election had been compromised through a conspiracy between Donald Trump and a foreign power.
Investigations were ordered of a spurious memo concocted and paid for by the Clinton campaign and leaked to the media without verification. Despite these investigations, over the last two years, no credible evidence has yet been found to link Trump to this alleged “Russian collusion.”
That’s the way I and perhaps half of America see it. The other half, which never liked the winner of the election, still believe that with enough time and resources, proof will be found that their “self-evident” conspiracy theory is true, has always been true and will always be true.
To ensure that is the case, however, influential dissenters in this narrative need to be dealt with. They need to be purged from polite company by any means necessary – defamation of character, boycott of advertisers, biased algorithms in search engines and social media, attacks on credibility, harassment and threats of violence.
I suggest that this is not how free societies can long endure.
Yet, here we are after two years – no end in sight. Visceral hatred of Donald Trump, his manner and his ideas are tearing America apart, destroying our social fabric, rendering justice and self-government impossible.
Of course, both sides are strident in their perceptions, conclusions and beliefs. Yet what should concern us most about this crisis is not just the war against Trump, but the violence it does to our highest ideals – free speech, free press, free expression and the future of free elections.
By the way, this is not the only example of how and why the principle of “contempt prior to examination” is important to understand for Americans. Remember, I played the Trump card as an example. But consider the entire quote in context.
What are the consequences of the principle?
- It’s a proof against all argument.
- It cannot fail to keep man in everlasting ignorance.
No matter what you might believe about Donald Trump, is it inarguably true that “contempt prior to examination” is foolishness, error, absurdity, craziness?
If so, why do we practice it? Why just accept what you hear from those with the biggest megaphone?