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293. Fellowship with men (V)

The other day, I overheard someone say, “The right has been reduced to stating the obvious.” If you take the right to represent reality, reality in all its many dimensions, then this is no criticism: the right has always been about stating the obvious. At the moment, the obvious aspect of reality that is in contention—the observation that men and women are different—is, perhaps, so basic and fundamental that many people are incredulous. “I mean, you don’t actually have to say that. There must be some more complex point about policy or philosophy to bring up. Just saying men and women are different is too basic.” Yet this is where the debate currently stands, so this is what needs to be said.

As with many assertions about reality, the idea that men and women are different seems very obvious at first—or, rather, it is obvious until the proposition has to be defended. The debate recapitulates Descartes: it is surprisingly difficult to demonstrate from first principles that there is an external world and other minds in this world. It is only when you start to pick at the question and need to provide arguments to support the assertion that you begin to realise that you are about to enter centuries upon centuries of philosophic disputation.

The same holds true for sex differences: it sounds and feels obvious that there are differences between the sexes, and yet when you actually have to defend and explain those differences it is harder than you think. All this is harder still when your opponent has been primed with fine-tuned slogans from the mass media, slogans designed to tug at the emotions and manipulate thought in just the right way so that you have to acquiesce. Hence the rightist is fated—insofar as he always offers a rejoinder to clever rhetoric—to look tongue-tied, unsophisticated, and stupid. Ultimately, you will find yourself falling back into metaphysical disputations; and, as with Brexit and many political issues, all these debates eventually terminate, in my view, in the ultimate debate: does there exist a non-material power—sometimes referred to as “God”, “the gods”, or “Nature”—that is higher than man?

The right also states the obvious because it defends wisdom and wisdom is to state the obvious. This is what is meant when people say that common sense is uncommon. It is guileless, subtle, and canny. The wisdom found in Aesop, the Bible, and various folk sayings is eternal and consists, in the main, of statements of the bleeding obvious, often formulated into little poems or quips to make them easier to remember. Common sense, to use a currently fashionable and high status phrase, is epistemically non-scientific. “A stitch in time really does save nine, Oxford scientists find. Research shows regular home maintenance prevents catastrophic loss in 77.5 per cent of cases.” Such headlines appear from time to time, yet no individual statistical test confirms or refutes the wisdom found in the expression.

Wisdom constitutes meta-knowledge, knowledge about knowledge, that comes before actual knowledge in the scientific sense. For example, if you say to a scientist who fails to clean out his test tubes properly that a stitch in time saves nine, then you may well help his work; he will not taint an experiment and have to repeat it fruitlessly, yet the knowledge in the phrase is not scientific—nor can it be fully confirmed by science; perhaps in 65 per cent of experiments the taint makes no difference. For people with a religious sensibility, this is significant: it means that there are truths outside those established by science.

These truths, I contend, are related to direct experience of reality and underpin the more complex truths found in science and other rationalistic investigations into the world. These meta-truths are also easily forgotten; more precisely, people fall asleep and become enamoured with particular truths—truths from commerce, technology, and science—that actually stand upon common sense, though these foundations have been forgotten.


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