G.K. Chesterton’s War & Parker J. Palmer’s Objection To Objectivity

ID-10075802G.K Chesterton and educational expert Parker J. Palmer might seem like unlikely conversation partners. However, the former draws lines that help frame the concerns of the latter.

As Palmer views it, the ire against subjectivism permeates our world. This, largely, academic angst, favours the glowing promise it sees in objectivism. The problem, according to Palmer, is that objectivism by itself fails. This is because objectivism enforces detachment over and against subjective intimacy.

Palmer lays out his point clearly and with bite: objectivism is objectivity gone mad; ‘no scientist knows the world merely by holding it at arm’s length’ (Palmer, p.55) [i].

Yes. ‘Objectivism set out to put truth on firmer ground than the whims of princes and priests, and for that we can be grateful. But history is full of ironies, and one of them is the way objectivism has bred new versions of the same evils it tried to correct. Two examples come to mind: the rise of modern dictatorships and the character [capacity to kill at great remove] of modern warfare’ (Ibid, pp.53 & 54)

Chesterton’s frame around this is in his discussion on the difference between the globe-trotter and the peasant.

‘He [the globetrotter] is always breathing, an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men— diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons.’ (Heretics)[ii]

The peasant however,

‘Has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men— hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.’[iii]

Chesterton paints a picture of those who have become obsessed with empirical perfectionism; those who have lost touch with their subject, ergo, also themselves and a sense of reality. What follows is Chesterton’s solemn prediction that in due time there will be an ‘inevitable war between the microscopic and the telescopic.’[iv]

It might be that the war Chesterton foresees is a battle between progressives and conservatives; one side a stranger to the other, detached from relationship; no longer respectful opponents, but the bitterest of enemies.

It’s here that Chesterton’s connection to Palmer’s objections stands out:

‘The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.’[v]

The difference between the moss and the rolling stone is that one is alive, the other isn’t.

Which side of politics is determined to be the rolling stone or the moss is a matter for debate. It seems evident enough, though, that progressive ideology and its servants appear to be more akin to the rolling stone.

‘It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them. [vi]

In other words, it’s equal with losing an appreciation for the music and mystery of the forest. Replacing it with a stoic view of the forest; its inhabitants, now catalogued, tagged and dissected, have been rendered lifeless.

The forest effectively conquered, is, as Chesterton said, the forest effectively lost.

Palmer’s and Chesterton’s themes are linked by their challenge to the worship of objectivism and blind allegiance to subjectivism. They focus attention on the dangers of preferencing one over the other.

As Palmer notes:

‘’A good case can be made that objectivism, which intended to free people from the clutches of arbitrary power, has sometimes conspired with other forces to deliver modern people into the clutches of totalitarianism. As people became convinced that objective answers to all questions were possible – and as specialists emerged who were glad to give those answers – people began to distrust their own knowledge and turn to authorities for truth. Thus the stage was set for “authorities” with a political agenda to seize power at moments of social vulnerability’ (Palmer, pp.53-54)

This is Palmer’s objection to absolute objectivity.

It gets especially relevant when raised up against slander and malicious selectivity. A selectivity that has no regard for the double standard it just created or endorsed. As long as it gets what it wants and appears morally superior by doing it.

Such as, the abuse hurled at Christians, who vote against gay marriage with a reasoned and loving “no,” and yet are berated as extremists, hater’s et.al. The double standard goes unnoticed. Christians almost every day have to tolerate the intolerant misuse of the name, Jesus Christ, in a large part of the workplace, society, and the entertainment that society sells.

Those seeking balance are quickly shamed into silence. For the progressives nothing but total, blind loyalty is accepted; all disagreement is unwelcome and usually punished. The irony is that such intolerance is of little consequence to those who pride themselves on their own stand against intolerance.

As for historical examples: consider Trotsky’s exile and later execution. Alongside Stalin’s photo shopped rewrite of Russian history, which sought to erase Trotsky in order to seal Stalin’s authority.

Both sides of the political spectrum are open to the temptation of overemphasising subjectivity or objectivity. I’m not arguing that they don’t. What I am suggesting is that Chesterton and Palmer both identify a problem when servitude to progressive ideology becomes, win-at-any-cost. Here we find the rumblings of protest against a total reliance on ‘hard science’ and the disempowering of that which is called ‘soft science.’ (Palmer, p.54)

For academics an ‘overemphasis on objectivity is engrained in technique and method.’ (Palmer)

In contrast, for non-academics, the imbalance between the objective and subjective leans more towards an overemphasis on the subjective.

Even so, the modernist ire against subjectivism favours the glowing promise they see in objectivism. Consequently, it’s impacting every part of our post-everything milieu.

Among the more recent and raw examples includes the industrial scale slaughter of unborn babies. The sole objective view justifies the violent removal of a baby from the mother’s womb. It does this by hiding facts and redefining the language, in order to further detach citizens from the truth and its reality.

If Palmer is right about the dangers of an overemphasis on objectivity, then there needs to be a balance; as in a speech that has balanced Aristotle’s logos, ethos and pathos. We are less likely to get lost, be convoluted or seem lifeless. Without this balance, we will remain worn down, detached and divided. Finding ourselves looking down the barrel towards Chesterton’s war between the telescopists and the microscopists, where through coercion rather than persuasive, reasoned debate, we are enslaved to human ideas and insecurity. Sentenced to constantly second guess ourselves and reject truths that have been proven trustworthy. This impact on our thinking affects how we vote, what we learn, who we listen to and ultimately, who we will serve.


[i] Palmer, P.J. 1998 The Courage to Teach: “A Culture Of Fear” Jossey-Bass

[ii] Chesterton, G.K. 1905 Heretics, Catholic Way Publishing

[iii] Ibid. p.24

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

Image courtesy of Rawich at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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