Struggling through an Open University course some twenty years ago, Freud became a problem. The presence of particular items in dreams were indicative of certain thoughts or desires, but equally the absence of the same things was equally significant; either way one was attributed with a set of desires and to deny any such thought was an example of one repressing one’s true inclinations. The argument seemed entirely circular; something was so because it was said to be so, and any attempts at denial only served as an example of the theory in practice.
It recalled undergraduate days in college and debates with revolutionary socialists, or, more precisely, the impossibility of debate with revolutionary socialists. To argue with their Marxist analysis was not to provide an alternative possible perspective, it was simply to demonstrate one as being trapped in a state of false consciousness; proper education would show how wrong one was to have argued against the Marxist view.
In theological college, the Marxist ideology was superseded by Christian fundamentalism. One student spent his days working on a booklet entitled “Proof the Bible Is True”. It wasn’t even a coherent attempt at defending Scripture, more an exposition of the odd ideas of the British Israel movement, arguing that true Britons were the lost tribe of Dan. Rational discussion or debate with him simply was not possible. If one believed, then one would agree with his thesis; if one did not agree with him, it was because one did not believe and one was therefore not a Christian.
The Freudians, Marxists and Fundamentalists are, however, the embodiment of reason compared to the conspiracy theorists. Searching for information on political involvement by the Irish army opened up unimagined vistas on ideas of a New World Order, and other equally esoteric concepts. To attempt to argue with their logic would have invited the rejoinder that one would only argue if one did not possess their knowledge of what was happening. It may be knowledge no more verifiable than a poker beside a fireplace in a Freudian dream (where else would one encounter a poker?) or an obscure verse in the Old Testament translated into an entire understanding of a nation’s history, but, nevertheless, to them it is authoritative knowledge.
The Internet may bring greater access to news and information, it also allows for the promulgation of the strange and the bizarre. Opinions that would never have found a publisher, or would be self-published in a densely worded booklet can now appear on expansive websites.
None of it would be disturbing in a society where there is a high degree of consensus, but in an Ireland where authority of any sort is now regarded with suspicion and where support for the government stands at less than one-third of voters, alternative views become attractive. Esoteric spirituality and fringe politics become attractive to people who feel betrayed by traditional institutions. The alleged manifestations at Knock and the appearance of radical right-wing campaign material during the Lisbon Treaty campaign point to a rise of unreason. The problem lies in knowing how to counter such thinking; thinking that is no more amenable to liberal argument than a revolutionary Communist or a Biblical literalist.