by Tibor Machan
Many attorneys of notorious defendants have argued that their clients were unable to receive a fair trial because of the publicity associated with the crime of which they were accused. Such arguments are pretty common and similar to those that prompt venue changes.
This is also a mantra of people who wish to whitewash the likes of Dan Rather and others who commit journalistic malpractice, all based on a kind of post-modernist account of human understanding.
Certainly most of us are appalled at what many defendants are accused of having done. There is no reason to think, however, that this will produce insurmountable prejudice in us about the person who is accused of the crimes. There should be nothing impossible about prospective jurors entering courtrooms without a predisposition to see the defendant in an unfavorable light. Even when the temptation exists, based on some strong emotion and belief, potential jurors, as a rule, can resist this. They need not give in to such disposition because they can exercise self-discipline. Jurors are human beings capable of self-discipline, of looking at arguments and evidence objectively, even if at times this may be difficult to do.
Nor is political partisanship a necessary obstacle to clear understanding. Objectivity isn’t the same as neutrality, of course, but being partial may be well founded — some of us are partial to the truth, some of us couldn’t care less. Objectivity has to do with a commitment to being accurate, factual, well grounded in sound arguments and so forth. Even those who deride objectivity presume to be objective — at least about that topic!
Yet, in our time there is a general belief that underlies the claim that people cannot see things clearly, without prejudice. I have in mind the now widely championed view, advanced by some of the most prestigious thinkers, that human minds are unalterably shaped by history, culture, race, gender, national origin or some combination of these. How we see the world is thus supposed to be determined for us. We are not credited by many of our social scientists and philosophers with the capacity to understand things objectively.
Some academic commentators even believe that natural scientists are necessarily prejudiced. Certain feminists think male scientists cannot help but see things differently from female ones, which is why they believe that had there been more female scientists, historians and philosophers, the understanding of reality would now be different. Others believe our understanding is controlled by the small or large communities to which we owe loyalty. It is our solidarity with a specific community that determines what we think, and objective knowledge is a myth. Many sociologists and social psychologists agree, arguing that even the words we use are invented to suit our social needs and do not really manage to serve to represent the world as it actually is.
What is odd about all these relativist views that so many people embrace is they completely invalidate, in their own terms, all of what their proponents believe. If their ideas were true, then, of course, their own claims could not be taken seriously — they would have to amount to nothing more serious than some group’s or race’s or gender’s “truth,” not likely to be relevant to others who would then have their own “truths.”
Indeed, words themselves would lack any reliable, dependable meaning and none of the points these folks want to communicate could be communicated successfully. The denial that we can be objective fatally undermines itself.
Partly in light of these same ideas, some people think that what theorists, among them philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and other academicians, advocate is really irrelevant to the way the real world works. But this is wrong. The scribbling of these folks leaves a mark.
One of the marks we see around us from what academicians have written and taught in their classrooms is that even journalists and others outside the academy often claim the human mind cannot really think clearly about anything, that we are all irreparably biased.
Certainly this is having its impact on the way members of juries are regarded. It also can have an influence on how some people think about journalism and, indeed, democracy itself, a system that ultimately trusts people to be able to think clearly and independently about crucial political matters — e.g., who should represent us in government, who has done a creditable job of this, what measures deserve our support and so forth.
When such distrusts starts to spread, look out. We will then hear the call for the rule of experts, a dream that was most clearly articulated by the late Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner in his 1971 book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity.” He was at least forthright about it: The country needs to be run by those Skinner called “technologists of behavior,” men and women well versed in the behavior modification method Skinner himself helped to develop, the only ones who can be trusted to be objective, impartial, unbiased.
When proposed so directly, people tend to recoil from the idea that they are basically inept, unqualified to deal with political matters.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: