Classic liberalism is credited with ushering in the Enlightenment in Europe, a period that led to profound transformations in European society. This era, spanning from the late 17th to the early 18th century, witnessed significant changes in European politics, science, and philosophy.
These changes gave rise to societies that prioritized the pursuit of knowledge, the dispersion of political power, and the establishment of rational thinking as a formalized norm. This upheaval effectively rendered the old hierarchical power structures, rooted in divine authority, obsolete. Instead, a new hierarchy emerged, with individuals possessing knowledge and reason as the key constituents.
This significant transformation spread worldwide through trade, colonization, and conquest. Even three centuries later, many of our contemporary ideas can be traced back to the fundamental principles of the Age of Enlightenment. One notable example is our current focus on an individual’s inherent right to life, freedom, and happiness. Before these ideas emerged, the lives of ordinary people were often constrained by feudal or religious systems of governance.
Without trivializing the past, it’s important to acknowledge that the path to the present was marked by suffering, sacrifice, and challenges for a significant part of the population. However, it’s undeniable that millions of people around the world today enjoy remarkable improvements in their lives when compared to their relatively recent ancestors.
However, these enlightenment ideals that we hold to be true face increasing threats in the present day. On one front, there’s a rising influence of pre-Enlightenment fundamentalist ideals. On another front, there’s a notion that individual happiness can be pursued by undermining all forms of rationalism.
Contemporary public discourse often exhibits cognitive dissonance. For instance, there is a contradiction between some pro-life advocates in the US who also support capital punishment. Another example can be seen in groups advocating for the right to express diverse gender identities, who, at the same time, oppose any rights for individuals to question these identities.
It’s concerning that complex issues often remain unresolved because people tend to resort to tribalism. Perhaps these problems have become so intricate and when everyone believes they are an expert, groups tend to rely on simplified soundbites to justify their stances. We can’t, as a society, maintain our way of life for much too long if we don’t get out of this cycle.
Brief tweet-sized responses not only fail to contribute to the resolution of contemporary issues, but they also tend to exacerbate the problem by creating polarizing positions that people adhere to in order to strengthen their stances. We must prioritize rationality by ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the issues before advocating or opposing any positions.
Perhaps, the only effective way to alleviate tension in today’s climate is to respond simply with, “I’m not sure. Let me take the time to better understand the issue, and I’ll get back to you in due time.”
And I would also add, “In the meantime, don’t do or say anything rash.”