There seem to me to be two tendencies at work in our culture. One is a tendency to great gullibility - people seem ready and willing to believe all kinds of silly, unsubstantiated platitudes and claims. Critical thoughts appears not to be valued. Of course, an observant reader might ask, on what basis do I make this claim? Close and careful reading of many blogs and social media posts all baptised in a dose of my slightly grumpy curmudgeonly spirit would be the (scientifically baseless) answer.
Pesky questions aside what we see is that all that has to happen is a statement is made with a measure of certainty, or posted online on top of an pretty photo and hey presto, this is now going to change the world! I call this “the promise of pious platitudes” - the mere act of reading, and perhaps ‘liking’ or ‘commenting’ or ‘sharing’ this platitude makes you think that you have somehow grown and improved as a moral being, that you have actually accomplished something by way of personal growth or changing the world. Would that it were that easy!
The other tendency, which seems diametrically opposed to the first, is our tendency to be cynical and sceptical about truth claims made by established authority figures. The weed of anti-authoritarian cynicism grows in the fertile soil of disappointment - we are let down by bad science, bad corporate leaders, bad religion, bad political leaders etc. We imbibe suspicion with our mother’s milk and grow up wary and distrustful.
Here is my hypothesis behind this strange combination of tendencies. I suspect that there are a few factors at work.
Firstly, we suck up pious platitudes because in reality they have no power behind them and make no great moral claims on our lives. On the other hand, our cynicism is a strategy to limit the power of truth claims which lay strong claims on our lives, and/or which are made by those who have power behind them to enforce such claims.
Secondly, I think it is just really hard work to be intellectually critical, to engage with ideas on the basis of their underlying representation of reality, or their lack of falsification through experimentation. In the explosion of information and exponential growth in specialisation, even experts can’t be experts in very much! So, we retreat into the psychological comfort of palatable platitudes, and give up on intellectual curiosity.
Thirdly, as a teacher of mine often said, perhaps there are just a lot of idiots in the world!
Why, you might ask, do I even worry about this? Mostly because bad ideas hurt people, whilst good ideas help people flourish. And if we are those with influence over others, we must make every effort we can to ensure that our ideas are true, that they will equip ourselves and those around us to flourish in the world as it is. All leadership ultimately is thought-leadership. What do you think?