Why the Open Society Needs Difficult People

“Is it because Voltaire wasn’t afraid to be nasty that he did so much good? Almost certainly. There is no convincing evidence that writers can do their job by being nice.”—John Ralston Saul, The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (1994)

Ancient Greek Troll (commonly known as Socrates)
“Classical Greece was infested with trolls, then called philosophers.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

If Socrates was alive today and on Facebook he’d be that annoying guy that keeps asking uncomfortable questions, bringing up annoying facts. This was, writes John Ralston Saul, his modus operandi: “He spent his life wandering around Athens annoying everyone in the city.” Trolls used to wander around the internet doing the same thing. But they’ve been doing it less and less these days because it’s getting easier and easier to block them. In the Wild West days of the internet, when online communities tended to govern themselves anarchically, troll management was all about extinction. Hence the expression: “DON’T FEED THE TROLL!” But these days it’s all about creating “safe spaces” with the likeminded. This is decidedly unwise because the muscles of the mind atrophy in these echo chambers: moral clarity gives way to sanctimony; shared values give way to groupthink; ethical reasoning gives way to circular reasoning; sound judgment gives way to a reactionary adherence to dogma; and a clear conception of who your real enemies are gives way to a fanatical demonization of all who disagree. To wit: safe spaces may be comfortable, but they’re anything but safe.

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“Remember next time you attend a university lecture that the same people who teach Socrates today would have voted to put him to death then.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2nd edition)

Refusing to engage with a nasty little troll is everyone’s right, but silencing them altogether is rarely a good idea. In Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2010), Barbara Ehrenreich maintains that getting rid of all of the “negative people” in your life is a recipe for disaster: “What would it mean in practice to eliminate all the ‘negative people’ from one’s life? It might be a good move to separate from a chronically carping spouse, but it is not so easy to abandon the whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager. And at the workplace, while it’s probably advisable to detect and terminate those who show signs of becoming mass killers, there are other annoying people who might actually have something useful to say: the financial officer who keeps worrying about the bank’s subprime mortgage exposure or the auto executive who questions the company’s overinvestment in SUVs and trucks. Purge everyone who ‘brings you down,’ and you risk being very lonely or, what is worse, cut off from reality. The challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gauging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights, and offering comfort when needed.”

Just as ecosystems become less resilient, and more fragile, when you reduce their biodiversity (by eradicating species), epistemic communities become less resilient, and more fragile, when you reduce their intellectual and ideological diversity (by eradicating radical ideas). Numerous studies have demonstrated that the only thing worse than thinking through important political matters alone, is thinking through important political matters amongst people who share all of your assumptions. We need to be exposed to challenging unorthodox ideas on a fairly regular basis. But social media (and search engines like Google) are making it easier and easier for us to silence radical voices (by dismissing them as “trolls”), and retreat into homogeneous online echo chambers. This is a worrisome trend. The ease with which we can Facebook “block” trolls ought to give pause to all who value democracy, intelligent debate, and the open society. Why? Because no amount of intelligence or education can replace this kind of diversity. Because smart people with MAs and PhDs are blinded by bias.

Reasoning researcher David Perkins has demonstrated in numerous studies that IQ is a remarkably poor predictor of a person’s capacity for “fair and balanced” reasoning. Most of his studies look something like this: 1) Give the person an IQ test to establish their score. 2) Ask them how they feel about a contentious political issue. 3) Now ask them to come up with reasons and arguments to support the other side. 4) Ask them to come up with reasons and arguments to support their side. As you might imagine, pretty much everyone sucks at finding support for the other side. What’s interesting, though, is that people with high IQs suck just as much as people with low IQs. All of this changes, however, when people are asked to come up with support for their side. There you see a big difference. Test subjects with high IQs can come up with many more reasons and arguments to support their position—regardless of which side they happened to be on!—than those with low IQs. What’s more, Perkins found that people with high IQs are exceptionally good at presenting their position in a clear, elegant, and logically-consistent fashion, which, as you might imagine, makes whatever they happen to be saying seem that much more plausible. Alas, you might say that people with low IQs are like terrible lawyers, whilst people with high IQs are like really good lawyers—but neither, Perkins maintains, is particularly fair and balanced: “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), Jonathan Haidt maintains that higher education only makes this problem worse: “high school students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to college, and the college students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to graduate school. Schools don’t teach people to reason thoroughly; they select the applicants with higher IQs, and people with higher IQs are able to generate more reasons.” Haidt concludes that moral rationalists, such as Sam Harris, who think that education—and an obsessive adherence to argumentative hygiene can save us—are sorely mistaken; just as mistaken, in fact, as Tedsters and technocrats who think we should sideline the citizen and put the nerds in charge.

The open society our grandparents fought for desperately needs difficult people—even though they’re often full of shit, even though their motives are frequently somewhat less than noble. The truth or falsity of what difficult people say is to some extent irrelevant, as is their mental health. Fixating on either of these questions invariably leads to a convenient rationalization for silencing them. Besides, as my friend Graeme Blake rightly observes, “one unusual feature of life is that intelligent, thoughtful people can have violently opposing opinions.” Consequently, the guy who looks like an angry asshole to you might look like a passionate activist to me, and vice versa. Alas, quips Blake: “Trolldom is in the eye of the beholder.” Or, to borrow a phrase commonly attributed to former Attorney General Ramsey Clark: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Don’t bother psychoanalyzing the difficult people in your life, or speculating about their motives. Trust me, I’ve done it, and it really doesn’t get you anywhere interesting. For instance, there’s this famous YouTuber named Anthony Fantano who I’ve been psychoanalyzing for the last five years. This guy is maddening. The worst kind of critic. Someone who seems to actively seek out things he knows he won’t like just so that he can trash them on The Needle Drop (his blog/vlog). I actually think I hate this guy. And yet I find myself staring at his video reviews regardless, from time to time, the way other people find themselves staring at traffic accidents. In the last five years, Fantano has managed to trash every single new artist I love. His most recent crime: he trashed Grimes’s new album, Art Angels (2015). I loathe this man. Such a nasty piece of work. His reviews are mean-spirited, petty, and unfair. Being married to this guy would be a living hell. Being him would be worse! That being said, I’m really glad he’s out there, in the world, on YouTube, making money, and doing his thing. Because the open society needs assholes like him.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

11 thoughts on “Why the Open Society Needs Difficult People

  1. I think you’ve got a secret man crush on Sam Harris. Although, you also seem to love to warp his ideas into something that he doesn’t say or mean.

    Education is the single best tool that we have for a better society, but despite what Haidt says (he’s a highly overrated author IMO, second only to Malcolm Gladwell), this isn’t about better education between folks with college degrees. It’s about giving Cletus and Bubba some skills to engage in an informed discussion. There is still a huge chasm in the levels of education in our society. This is detrimental to democracies, and why technocratic societies are likely to be better governed, more just and more efficient.

    Also, the worry shouldn’t be whether a smart person can defend opposing views so much, but that they are open to them should they be better than theirs. Who cares if a smart person can’t come up with reasons to support something that they don’t believe in? That’s a waste of mental energy.Instead, when someone else provides reasons for you to change your view, then the cranial expenditure is worthwhile to see if this warrants a change in position.

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  2. John this (y)

    //Reasoning researcher David Perkins has demonstrated in numerous studies that IQ is a remarkably poor predictor of a person’s capacity for “fair and balanced” reasoning. Most of his studies look something like this: 1) Give the person an IQ test to establish their score. 2) Ask them how they feel about a contentious political issue. 3) Now ask them to come up with reasons and arguments to support the other side. 4) Ask them to come up with reasons and arguments to support their side. As you might imagine, pretty much everyone sucks at finding support for the other side. What’s interesting, though, is that people with high IQs suck just as much as people with low IQs. All of this changes, however, when people are asked to come up with support for their side. There you see a big difference. Test subjects with high IQs can come up with many more reasons and arguments to support their position—regardless of which side they happened to be on!—than those with low IQs. What’s more, Perkins found that people with high IQs are exceptionally good at presenting their position in a clear, elegant, and logically-consistent fashion, which, as you might imagine, makes whatever they happen to be saying seem that much more plausible. Alas, you might say that people with low IQs are like terrible lawyers, whilst people with high IQs are like really good lawyers—but neither, Perkins maintains, is particularly fair and balanced: “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”//

    I don’t want to bring it to the ”women” question John but the reason why women tend to block or create safe spaces in regressive cultures and Third World countries is because the discourse never traverses to the fine ground of agreement / disagreement, logic / illogic, or fact/opinion. It stays stuck in the deep prejudice and bias that ”women should not and must not give their opinions on politics or culture or society, as a rule!”

    Having suffered bigotry all our lives, it is fascinating to see Western networks and groups interact the way they do openly and agreeing to disagree, and not resorting to name calling and character assassinations. Secondly, social media networks provide us those vital safe spaces denied to us for too long and very important for empowering. The ”trolls” need to be blocked if the discourse never manages to go beyond misogyny and bias. Would you agree?

    It is also linked to my urging people to listen to the ”woes” of the Right wingers too. Once the perceived or real oppression of the right is looked into, one can take steps to address or convince them and come to a middle ground. To just dismiss them amid other – back-patting, Leftist, echo chambers to gain brownie points with your ”tribe” doesn’t provide a solution or workable strategy. This could be practiced with the Left too, who more or less do have genuine concerns for social justice, but instead hero-worshipping them, and almost making prophets out of them, thy too should be looked into critically…

    P.S: I always hesitate to comment on blogs, so this would be a first 🙂

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    1. Much of what passes for tolerance these days is in fact a kind of glorified indifference. So the next time you’re about to self-righteously pat yourself on the back for your tolerance, ask yourself: Was it hard to tolerate this? Did it require effort? Did it cost me anything? If the answer’s NO, if it was more or less effortless, you’re probably trafficking in counterfeit virtue. Because tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. We tolerate the heat. We tolerate the cold.

      It’s easy to be open-minded about things you deem trivial or unimportant. It’s much harder to be open-minded about things you care about. For instance, it’s easy to tolerate your friend’s belief in astrology or prayer when you secretly think it’s all bullshit and you really couldn’t give a shit one way or the other. But when a diehard feminist decides to put up with her sexist little brother, despite all of his MRA bullshit, I know I’m looking at real tolerance. Likewise, when a hardcore fundamentalist decides to accept and love his gay son (and his son’s partner), despite his heartfelt beliefs about homosexuality, I know I’m looking at real tolerance.

      In The Bed of Procrustes (2010), Nassim Nicholas Taleb maintains that “love without sacrifice is like theft.” What I’m saying about tolerance is of a similar stamp: tolerance that doesn’t involve some sort of sacrifice issn’t tolerance. That being said, it would be a mistake to conclude that I’m trashing indifference. Indifference is, for most of us, a coping mechanism, a highly effective coping mechanism; and, truth be told, I suspect that I’d be a total stress case if it weren’t for my well developed capacity for indifference. So I’m not knocking indifference, I’m merely saying that indifference isn’t tolerance.

      Nor, I hasten to add, am I saying that we should tolerate everything. Some of the trolls you mention should be blocked, Arshia! After all, tolerance without reasonable limits is like walking around with a “KICK ME” sign that you put on your own back. Some things are intolerable. Some things shouldn’t be tolerated. And we all have to balance the moral imperative to be tolerant with other equally valid moral imperatives: such as the need to be kind, loving, humble, and just. Ultimately, we choose to tolerate that which we can live with but are not exactly cool with.

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