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On Hard Hearts and Soft Minds

To truly think critically requires more than rhetorical skill. It begins by cultivating the right feelings.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis observes with some weariness the way modern education was trending toward something we might call a “knowing skepticism”—that is, signaling the “nuance” of one’s thought because one is not “taken in” by the values and feelings that are common to one’s milieu. As an example, Lewis offers a bit of literary criticism in which a piece of writing is condemned for calling horses “willing servants.” The critic calls it “anthropomorphization” and the reader is meant to understand what a silly mistake that is. Lewis points out that this observation actually does nothing to help students distinguish between good and bad writing, only between acceptable and unacceptable opinions. More importantly, Lewis chides the so-called critic for a worse crime:

“Much less do [the students] learn of the two classes of men who are, respectively above and below the danger of such writing—the man who really knows horses and loves them … with ordinate love, and the irredeemable urban blockhead to whom a horse is merely an old-fashioned means of transport. Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost; some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received; some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds.” 

In other words, it’s possible to express correct (or at least defensible) opinions in ways that inculcate the wrong feelings. In this case, the knowing skeptic’s real crime is not simply his cold rationalism, which leaves him and those he influences no better oriented to their world. It’s that in merely teaching people contempt for certain opinions, he is not cultivating better thinking, he is only cultivating contemptible feelings. According to Lewis, “the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” What students really need is “to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.” 

The main takeaway here is that a hard heart does not actually make anyone a better critical thinker. As Lewis says, “By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”

The main takeaway here is that a hard heart does not actually make anyone a better critical thinker.

Poor reasoning and incorrect opinions aren’t always easy to detect, but they generate much more scrutiny in our culture of online exchanges. These are usually the only two aspects of an argument that get any attention, maybe because there are objective standards in the case of reasoning and expertise or cultural consensus in the case of opinions. Almost no attention is given to the deeper, more subjective (but no less important) questions of sentiments, which are the unarticulated attitudes and impulses underlying our explicit views and opinions. Those attitudes have a much bigger impact on the world around us than we realize, even arguably more than our explicit views.

For example, someone might claim they love freedom, which is an opinion most people consider good and with which they’d readily agree. However, if that person were claiming to love freedom in response to someone reminding them to follow the rules of the board game they were playing, we would probably say the context of their claim reveals a deeper attitude of poor sportsmanship—caring more for eking out a win (by any means necessary) than they do for fairness. The expressed opinion might be good, but the actual sentiment behind it is not. It points to a character flaw that affects this person’s ability to deal justly with others and, by extension, their trustworthiness. This, more than their declared love of freedom, will inform how people interact with this person.

Thus it is possible to hold opinions that convey one attitude while engaging in tactics that reveal another. Because we are so focused on the former, it’s particularly easy for destructive sentiments to advance unnoticed, warping our discourse and corrupting our judgment irrespective of the defensibility of the opinions that conceal them. Destructive feelings and motivations are easy to hide if the rhetoric used to express them is popular or sophisticated enough.

As an example, the Deseret News recently published a perspective by Meg Walter on her misadventures at AlphaCon. If you don’t know what AlphaCon is about, it appears to have been geared toward helping men and leaders find confidence and purpose in a position of strength. My initial impression from the marketing materials is that, in my view, it was a somewhat ill-conceived attempt at bolstering modern masculinity by contrasting it with cultural tropes about male weakness. Though I may not agree with the mode of presentation, the desire to shore up men against the cultural onslaught depicting them alternately as buffoons or oppressors is a good one, and not surprising. 

In any case, a group of white men interested in traditional masculinity presents an irresistible target in our cultural climate. Elite public opinion is so thoroughly decided against a project like AlphaCon that inviting public derision against it is as easy as it is riskless. I did not expect the Deseret News to lead the charge against them, but Walter’s piece was a disappointing exception in a publication that usually aims to articulate something nobler. Her piece offers nothing substantive about the conference itself. We never learn what perspective the presenters were striving to offer or what they find important, and she gives no meaningful criticism of anything discussed. What can’t be laughed at upfront is mentioned only in passing in order to focus our attention on a handful of mean-spirited caricatures of both people and their ideas, ready-made for mass ridicule.

Apparently, there was something funny about one presenter showing a slide of abused children and animals, which he labeled “There is Evil in This World,” but we’re never told what it is. I’m guessing Walter singled out this slide because she believes, maybe correctly, that the presenter’s manner is simplistic or trite. But the sentiment—condemning cruelty toward the powerless—is a just one, and that’s the point that’s lost on Walter and those laughing along. Her laser focus on her punchlines keeps her tearing down jungles where there are deserts in desperate need of irrigation.

If I’ve observed anything about ordinary cruelty, it’s that its ordinariness is exactly what makes it so hard to detect. All the usual nuanced thinkers are so busy lauding Walter’s piece for its skilled comedy and the choiceness of her target, that I doubt they notice the insidious sentiments to which it gives rise. There is nothing very interesting or difficult about those—they are at the disposal of every playground bully. To expose for ridicule someone on the wrong side of our prejudices, to present the world with compromising depictions of those with whom we disagree, and to pretend to be a victim when they protect themselves from one’s own transparent design to injure them are not impulses we should celebrate. They are profoundly sad.

This brings us back around to Lewis’ claim that “a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.” My instinct is that many people will note that scorn isn’t very nice, but ask “why is niceness more important than our laughs or exposing people who need to be confronted? Don’t you know what x group has done?” There are a lot of reasons why we should care about cultivating Christian impulses toward other people (even our enemies). But for now, I’ll simply focus on the way it makes us “prey to the propagandist.”

Expanding upon an example which Lewis gives in “Men Without Chests,” imagine you were about to sit down to a card game where you’d staked a large sum of money on the outcome. Supposing their skill to be the same, who would you choose as your opponent: 1) the man who had never studied ethics but was raised from childhood to believe that cheating is morally wrong or 2) a world-renowned moral philosopher whose parents had taught him card sharping? I suspect most of us would choose the first because we believe habits and attitudes guide behavior more than discursive knowledge. This is, in essence, the entire premise behind Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. He writes: 

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.

To put Haidt more succinctly, our intuitionsC.S. Lewis’ “sentiments”largely shape and guide our reasoning, far more than the other way around. The only way to be sure that we don’t fall prey to someone else’s suggestive rhetoric is to align our values with an unchanging source. Lewis draws this distinction as being between propagation and propaganda. To propagate truth is to know what it is and seek to plant it in the heart of another because both the truth and the person are loved. Propagandism, on the other hand, relies on sloganeering, shaming, mockery, and other rhetorical tricks to condition people to conform to one’s views, but without loving either truth or people. The propagator and the propagandist are not revealed by their claims, but by their sincerity, which is not a matter of conviction but of what one loves.

I can see traces of both the propagandist and the propagator in myself, and I can also see how very different are the influences of the world’s propagandists and propagators on my own heart.  No one is forever one or the other, but there is no in-between. We are all becoming either a propagator or a propagandist and, depending on where our attention most often goes, we are being influenced more by one or the other. Let’s not deceive ourselves, though: only one of these outcomes will truly leave us wiser.

About the author

Meagan Kohler

Meagan Kohler is a Latter-day Saint wife, boy mom, writer, and occasional philosopher. She also writes on Substack at Mirabile Dictu.
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