It’s never easy to hear bad news, and that’s true whether it’s bad news in a literal sense – some new atrocity or catastrophe on the ten o’clock bulletin, or something more local: some sinister diagnosis, or some shocking trauma suffered by friend or family.
But the worst news that most of us ever get to hear of that sort is that a beloved relative or friend has died, or is close to death, and a curious calculus of probability is at work – the younger the person concerned, for example, the less likely it is to happen; if you want to be more fatalistic, you can say that you are particularly unlucky if it does, even though ‘luck’ doesn’t really mean anything. The more remote the connection with someone, the more people who are included and so the more likely the news may be more unusual or shocking. In my own experience, a close friend died shockingly, of leukemia before he was fifty; a more distant acquaintance was murdered; a yet further connection was killed on active service in Afghanistan.
In the extreme, if we include the whole world in our group of connections, then daily there will be shocking or unpleasant things happening, such is the nature of the world. The fact that these horrible events will still be a fraction of what is going on, and that the vast majority of people will live blameless and happy lives and die in their beds (to a large extent) doesn’t tend to diminish how we feel when we learn about the others.
When the bad news is of a more abstract sort, feeling shocked and upset is not the only possible response. If it isn’t something purely factual that has happened, we have denial as an option, we can simply pretend it isn’t actually true. In extreme cases, we can simply shoot the messenger, these days, probably not literally.
Christians refer to the ‘good news’ of Christ’s redemption. It would be bad news, presumably, to learn that a body that had recently been discovered in a two thousand year old tomb was in fact that of Jesus of Nazareth, given that it is an article of faith of (as far as I am aware) all Christians that he did not die, but ascended bodily into heaven, having risen from the dead after crucifixion. It’s a safe assumption that however convincing that evidence, it would be denied and ignored by those Christians. Almost certainly, some would even want to destroy it, fearful of the consequences for their religion if it were generally known. When Homer Simpson, temporarily made brilliant by the removal of a crayon which has been lodged in his brain from childhood, shows his happy-clappy neighbour Ned Flanders his cast-iron proof that there is no God, Flanders first doubts it. Then, when he is convinced that it is watertight, sets fire to it. ‘Can’t let this little doozy get out.’
I have a good friend who is one such Christian, and I happened to ask him if he had ever read the Quran. ‘Oh, I would want to do a lot of praying before doing something like that,’ was his reply, without any suggestion that he planned to do that any time soon. I asked him what he meant. ‘Well, you know, the devil is always trying to shake our faith.’ The conversation never went much further, so it wasn’t clear to me whether he feared that he would be converted to Islam by the experience or that merely reading the holy text of an alien religion would confront him with the inadequacies of his own, or perhaps some other reason. There is a line of atheist argument, often used by Richard Dawkins, that goes, in essence ‘You know how strongly you believe in your book? Well, the faithful of these other religions believe theirs just as much. How are you sure yours is the correct one?’ Put another way ‘Aren’t you just a Christian/ Muslim/ Buddhist/ Jew/ Sikh/Jain because your parents/converting friends were?’ If you were able to start from scratch and choose the most convincing religion, would you choose the same one again?
For my own part, I fully remember the feeling of queasy terror at the prospect that reading one of Dawkins’ books might rob me of my religious faith, but I reasoned that if that faith were so flimsy that something so simple as a well-argued book could dispel it, then it couldn’t be worth much. Naturally, believers who hear that that is precisely what then happened have a tendency to blame the quality of my faith. They agree with me. ‘Yes, it couldn’t have been worth much,’ they’ll say or ‘You didn’t really believe in the first place’. But it’s funny how no one ever doubted or tested the quality of my faith before I lost it. They were happy to accept that because I said I believed, then I did. The friend I mentioned above clearly has concerns about the quality of his faith too, but doesn’t feel able to put it to the proof. ‘Thou shalt not put the Lord your God to the test,’ as Deuteronomy, later quoted by Christ, has it. Maybe there’s a good reason for that article of Christian faith. Don’t go checking or challenging your beliefs by listening to opposition or alternatives. What will you do if it breaks?
But it isn’t just the religious who want to shut their ears to potentially distressing news. The regressive left are also very keen to silence rational criticism, as has frequently been a topic in this blog. A multitude of positions is now considered to be beyond the pale for rational analysis. For such people, it is as reasonable to refuse to hear the opinion expressed that, say, a man can never truly become a woman by the use of surgery and hormones, as it is to hear a pub bore talk about how foreigners should all go back to where they came from. In fact, the pub bore would be no less offensive, apparently, if he claimed that people should have to tolerate being surrounded by totems of a colonial past, if he tried to hold that statues of Queen Victoria and Cecil Rhodes should not be torn down.
Those who express such opinions are likely to be branded racist, transphobic, and any number of the other labels which the left uses as a signal that others should not listen either, as a cue for such techniques as ‘no-platforming’ which seek to demote any opponent of a faddish regressive idea to the status of a BNP member.
In short, unable to address opposition or objection, the posers of this attitude are essentially covering their ears like a kid. They seal out the noise they don’t want to hear, and they make noise among themselves to further drown it out. Like a kid; and though kids can sometimes be taken seriously, their opinions need to be qualified by the naivety of their views.
As a strategy, there is little to distinguish this attitude from Islamic religious iconoclasm, albeit that the latter is more permanently and obviously destructive. Evidence of other faiths must be destroyed as idolatry goes the doctrine – for Islam to be correct, all adherents to other faiths must be wrong, and must therefore be sinful infidels, even if they pre-date Mohammed, leading to the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the city of Palmyra being laid waste by the Daesh in Syria. Yet none of this means that the other faiths don’t exist or that they weren’t honestly and reverently pursued any more than refusing to speak to Germaine Greer means that transgender men are really women.
Denying the holocaust is a crime in many countries, but here’s the great Christopher Hitchens deploring even this act of ear-stopping. For me, such a denial is akin to the voice of the pub bore; I don’t feel I need to take seriously any one who doubts that it happened, or who wishes to expound those beliefs, but I share Hitch’s feelings that if there were any hint of evidence, it should be heard. But to some, even attempting to understand Hitler is regarded as somehow morally wrong. If we understand him, it is said, do we not excuse him? Do we not ourselves become something like him? Yet, Hitler was a human being, was he not? Or is that fact itself something we do not wish to admit? Is it important that he be re-cast as a villain too vile even to be allowed to be part of our species? For if not, it is essential that we understand how he became what he did, and how his nation did what it did. The alternative is to say that it was a unique event, and could not happen again anywhere else, or at any other time: that only the German people, and only under him, could have done it. For me, that’s not just racist, it is naive in the extreme. Like a kid.