“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment.”
― Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?
Kant challenges us to grow up and “think for ourselves”, but that would mean giving up the comfort and equilibrium of our self-assured and assuring echo-chambers. For until we count the cost of independent thinking, we will remain in the tight grip of our “self-incurred tutelage.” Many of us live under the “tutelage” of leaders and experts, including those celebrated media figures who traffic in the deceitful discourse of politics and news media. In exchange for our trust and followership, our “leaders” exploit our fears by convincing us that there are essentially two kinds of people in the world, those caring, intelligent people like ‘us’, and those heartless imbeciles like ‘them.’
Arguments from authority are both lazy and unconvincing. But, unfortunately, we live in an age that values the feeling of “being right” over the unimpressive and uncomfortable discipline of trying to “get it right.” Our divisive and reductionist discourse of ‘either/or’, ‘all or nothing’, and ‘us against them’ is simultaneously crippling our thinking, while dividing, and devastating our civic life. Following the example of our media experts and political leaders, and with the help of social media, we have begun a form of discourse that can rightly be referred to as a modern-day inquisition.
Inquisitors come from all walks of life: rich and poor, the political left, right, secular, religious, etc. These crusaders of conformity are on a mission to “call out” and “cancel” the infidels and the traitors in our midst. So, when they ask “Do you believe in God? Do you believe in science? Do you believe that ___________ lives matter (black, all, unborn, etc.)?”, just know they are not asking because they are interested in a friendly discussion or a civil debate. The questions are asked for the sole purpose of assigning people to one of two groups: “believers or unbelievers”, “affirmers or deniers”, “supporters or resisters”, “lovers or haters”, “faithful or unfaithful” etc.
An inquisition is essentially when one person or group applies pressure (social, psychological, or physical) to another person or group to believe and confess the “right thing” about the “right things.” The inquisition will often begin with the inquisitor proclaiming some ‘self-evident, truth,’ or some ‘unassailable fact.’ Following the inquisitor’s manifesto on “the way it is”, the inquisitor will begin lecturing those in their midst as to how one ought to think, feel and behave. “The inquisition has begun!”
When you find yourself in an inquisition, you must be careful how you respond to your inquisitor. The temptation is to respond by either agreeing or disputing, but there is a third option. When you realize that nothing good comes from an inquisition, the best response is to immediately change the subject, and if your inquisitor persists, firmly state, “with regard to this conversation, I would prefer not to.” The inquisitor will likely be offended at such a response, but there simply is no other way. When it comes to inquisitions, you must be willing to disappoint right up front, in hopes of avoiding further untold frustration.
So, learning to think for ourselves includes discerning the practice of modern inquisitions. The alternative is you can “convert” and begin practicing strict adherence to certain prescribed and authorized thought-forms, speech acts and ethical and moral affirmations. You can learn how to laugh (or don’t) at the right jokes, parrot the right slogans, and say “amen” to the right people in the right settings.
Sadly, some of us have literally never submitted our own worldview to a thorough critique or deconstruction. “I’ve been a conservative Christian since I was a child. If it’s good enough for my parents and my church, then it’s good enough for me.” Or, “I have been a liberal democrat since 1969.” In other words, “I am still under ‘self-incurred tutelage’ to some political party or ideological cohort. I am convinced that people like us are generally smarter or at least more loving or ‘righteous’ than those awful infidels on the other side of the political or religious bar-ditch.”
Ok. I will admit it. Many days I still feel like a frightened child. I do not want to grow up. And instead of doing the difficult and uncomfortable work of thinking for myself, I prefer to go on following the directions of the experts and leaders (I follow experts and leaders and then pretend that their ideas coincidentally cohere with my own!).
At some point, if we are lucky, we will experience a moment of clarity. Perhaps we will have our Morpheus moment where we choose between the “red pill” that leads to both freedom and suffering, and the “blue pill” that allows us to remain asleep in our “self-incurred tutelage.” Some days I take the “red pill” and some days I swallow the “blue pill” and retreat back into the Matrix. I am regularly conflicted, but I no longer believe that “ignorance is bliss.” I no longer trust my sense of confidence or incredulity, which once assured me that I was right and therefore, “righteous.”
I have been intentionally detoxing for some time now from my childish dependency on experts and authority figures to provide me with direction for my life. I refuse to come under the interrogation of the modern-day inquisitor who wants to pigeon-hole me by asking me to me affirm or deny some sacred “belief” or another.
- I value faith and theology, but I no longer believe in pastors and theologians.
- I value knowledge and discovery, but I do not believe in experts.
- I value education, but I do not believe in professors and scholars.
- I value my neighbor, but I do not believe in humanity.
- I value the civic life I share with my fellow citizens, but I do not believe in government and political leaders.
- I value theory and discourse, but I do not believe in ‘isms.’
- I value love, but I do not believe in love.
I do believe, however, that there is a cost to everything – and the cost of life is living it. And part of living involves growing up and learning how to think for ourselves, which includes learning to affirm that same activity for people whom we may disagree with. Thinking for yourself as an act of love, requires that we encourage and even celebrate others thinking for themselves, even, or especially if their thoughts are different from our own. To quote Voltaire, ‘Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.”
There are experts in every field. A physicist, for example, can discover the secrets of nuclear energy, but who is qualified to determine how or whether or not such power should be utilized? And if we take Voltaire’s advice, and honestly “think about how difficult it is to change (ourselves)”, we would realize that the world does not need more signs or lectures telling others how to think or feel or vote. How about a little less sanctimony and certainty, and a little more humility and honesty? I have witnessed an incredible irony, where those who are most vocal about ‘truth and righteousness’, manage to remain completely oblivious to their own blindspots and double standards. Also, I have observed that those who are most vocal about the need for ‘love and peace,’ are often the most demanding and intolerant of all people.
As for “love” the most cherished concept of all, I am convinced that the word “love” is quite possibly the most abused and misused word in the English language. Like so many words, it can mean whatever we want it to mean. There is, of course, that famous gloss on love from Paul of Tarsus, that appears to have stood the test of time.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Cor. 13 5-7).
The real challenge is to remember that these words on love are not addressed to our adversaries, or to our “Facebook friends”, or our spouse. These words are addressed to you, and they are addressed to me. According to this version of “love”, none of us are masters, but rather we are all infants in this department. The good news is that if we learn to think for ourselves, “and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too”, we don’t have to remain that way. We can grow up, and learn how to “live in the land of others.” Think about it!
(This article is dedicated to my friend and dialogue partner Randall, who is both fearless and gracious in discussion and debate. Randall has helped me to understand that thinking for oneself and valuing the thoughts of others, are simply two sides of the same coin!)