When Pessimism Tramples Truth

Roger Scruton’s New York Times column “When Hope Tramples Truth” extols the virtues of pessimism by decrying the mindlessness of those endorsing marriage equality. But it turns out that being a pessimist does not preclude one from being a bigot; Scruton’s column shows how to be both at once.

Scruton sets out to convince us that there is a general human tendency to assume optimistic, beneficial outcomes instead of arduously assessing the truth of the matter. But what is the example he takes in order to do so? Is it global warming, up against our continued reliance of fossil fuels? Or our boundless faith in an economic system that creates unconscionable global injustice? No. He chooses as his example the growing — and increasingly successful — movement for marriage equality.

Those endorsing marriage equality are, as Scruton explains in a mere two paragraphs, unwilling to grapple with hard questions about the consequences of their actions. They don’t engage with the other side’s arguments. Rather, these exemplary optimists shout bigotry and stare down anyone who doesn’t agree with their position. This evident lack of thoughtful engagement demonstrates the pernicious effects of blindly hoping for the best, especially when uninformed by counter-arguments. In contrast, “People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them.”

Could it be, however, that in his rush to defend the virtues of pessimism, Scruton sacrifices a bit of truth? As someone allegedly interested in the truth in public debate shouldn’t he seek out the historians, theologians, religious studies scholars, and others who have indeed dissected the various arguments against marriage equality and found them wanting?

He may respond that his was not a column on marriage equality per se but one about the role of optimism in public decision-making. However, in painting the supporters of marriage equality with the optimist brush, as people uninterested in truth, he intervenes in this high-stakes debate in a particularly reckless manner. The column implies that supporting marriage equality is an instance of mindless optimism along the lines of the rush to war in World War I, the enthusiasm for fascism or Bolshevism, the Arab Spring, or president Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. What unites all these events, to Scrunton, is the unwillingness to notice that there is another side to the issue.

Had we only heeded the motto of Roman jurisprudence “audiri aut altera pars” (“one must always listen to the other party”)! If only same-sex couples were to spend more time listening to those among their families, friends, teachers, co-workers, religious authorities, and political leaders who have condemned their relationships without bothering to understand them!

Does Scruton himself give space to the other side? Not so much. By failing to mention that there are thoughtful engagements with the opposition to marriage equality, he not only makes those supporting it into mindless fools but hides from public view an important insight: The social costs of stagnation can be just as great, or greater, than the costs of change. This is a point, for example, made very clearly in more than a hundred years of feminist scholarship.

By sort-of arguing that everyone who advocates for social change is unwarrantedly optimistic about their actions, whereas everyone who resists it is justifiably pessimistic, he stacks the deck; Scruton willfully obscures the consequences of clinging to the status quo. His defense of pessimism exhibits therefore a willingness to “trample the truth” for the sake of keeping unquestioned the true costs of our current sexual order.