Why the Open Society Needs Annoying People

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 group-think; 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.

Refusing to engage with a nasty little troll is everyone’s right, but silencing them altogether is rarely a good idea. In Bright-Sided (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 over-investment 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 than those with low IQs, regardless of which side they happened to be on! 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 (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 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.”

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A hard-core feminist friend of mine was once faced with a moral dilemma: her mom, a hard-core traditionalist, insisted that her wedding invitation be addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Dad’s Full Name. Needless to say, this offended her feminist sensibilities: “It’s like she wants to erase her own identity!” Of course she caved. Because she’s a decent person who realizes that you’ve gotta call people what they want to be called (even if you think it’s silly). This is a simple truth of social life that’s lost on Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor who has, rather ridiculously, decided that he’s going to heroically stand up for the right to be a prick to trans students. That being said, prosecuting Peterson for being a prick is equally ridiculous. Indeed, probably more so. As my friend Matt Talley puts it: “just because it’s decent, doesn’t mean it should be legally mandated behavior.” Being a prick’s bad, but outlawing pricks is worse.

Many of the criticisms of The Open Society that I hear from the far left and the far right come down to the same thing: The Open Society is, like a big city, far too loud, rude, uncouth, hectic, smelly, stinky, disgusting, profane, disorderly, gross. They say that if The Open Society is going to survive and thrive, if it’s to have a future, it must become The Respectful Society. I know it sounds like a good idea, maybe even a noble idea, but The Respectful Society people on the far left and the far right long for is little more than a mirage, a misleading myth. There have always been but two choices available to us: We can live in The Open Society, which is a messy, chaotic place where nobody gets their way all the time, a place where everybody has to put up with shit they don’t like. Or we can live in The Closed Society, which is, in practice, usually just one big fat “safe space” for the ruling majority.

Although I find some of his ideas maddening, I’m glad that, for now, we live in the kind of Open Society that makes it possible for Jordan Peterson to voice his opposition. He’s not my enemy. But if you’re one of those people who wants to silence him, or get him fired, you are. Regardless, beware of those who claim that the latest Twitter pile-on, or canceled talk, is a victory for social justice. As Margaret Atwood makes clear in her dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), even in a totalitarian theocracy like Gilead, the oppressed are allowed to beat a scapegoat to death from time to time.

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Isaiah dreamed of a peaceful world without predation: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat . . . and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” John Lennon dreamed of a peaceful world without religion, nation states, and private property: “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world.” We dream of a peaceful online world without trolls. But what if banishing trolls altogether isn’t feasible? Or legal? Or even desirable? What then? Well, maybe every movement needs to have its own trolls, the way that every bar has its own bouncers, every country its own army, and every body its own white blood cells. Jezebel is a case in point. Its witty writers can be every bit as clever and cutting as their online opponents. Jezebel has, for that very reason, come to constitute online feminism’s white blood cells, online feminism’s bouncers, online feminism’s trolls.

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When the (supposedly) sacrilegious film The Last Temptation of Christ came out in 1988, the conservative Pentecostal church I attended as a teenager convened an emergency meeting, made protest signs, and demonstrated outside of the theaters showing the movie. These were hard-core Christian fundamentalists, and they were pissed. The movie infuriated them. Yet no one suggested that we shut down the movie theater, or prevent people from seeing the film.

When some local activists learned that a (supposedly) misogynistic poet was coming to town for a poetry reading, they discussed various ways to forcibly prevent Zachariah Wells from speaking, and forcibly prevent people from getting into the building to hear him. One person actually suggested rushing the stage at The Atwater Library, grabbing all of the copies of his new book, taking them outside, and throwing them in the snow.

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Every time we allow a piece of public space to be seized and transformed into someone’s private little safe space, every time we allow touchiness to trump tolerance, we become a little less free. Our thin-skinned age needs to remember that The Open Society isn’t a safe space; it’s a tolerant space. And tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. The Respectful Society isn’t a new and improved version of The Open Society; it’s a new and improved version of The Closed Society. Every new generation seems to think they’ve figured out how to have freedom and creativity without the mess, without the vulgarity and vice. Our capacity for historical amnesia never ceases to amaze me. Free societies have always been messy as fuck.

Much of what passes for tolerance these days is in fact a kind of glorified indifference. Indifference is a highly effective coping mechanism. I’d be a total stress case if it weren’t for my well-developed capacity for indifference. But indifference isn’t tolerance. 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.

Should we tolerate everything? Of course not. 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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Jonathan Haidt has found that when you give conservatives a questionnaire and ask them to answer it like a liberal, they’re able to do so with ease. When you ask them to answer like a libertarian, they’re able to do that too. Libertarians aren’t nearly as adept as conservatives, but they’re still fairly good at imagining how a conservative or a liberal might answer the questionnaire. Alas, the real outliers are the liberals. In numerous studies, with respectable sample sizes, Haidt has demonstrated that liberals simply don’t have a clue. When you ask them to answer the questionnaire like a conservative, they answer it like a fascist. When you ask them to answer it like a libertarian, they answer it like a sociopath. The liberal conception of what makes the average conservative or libertarian tick is, Haidt concludes, way off.

Are liberals less imaginative than conservatives and libertarians? I highly doubt it. The virtues and vices are, it seems, to be found everywhere to varying degrees. Why, then, do liberals do so terribly on this “ideological Turing test”? And why do conservatives do so well? Haidt maintains that conservatives do well because they base their moral thinking on all six of the moral foundations (Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, Liberty, Care & Fairness). Liberals do poorly because they base their moral thinking on only two of them (Care & Fairness). Haidt’s explanation is fascinating. But it’s got way too many moving parts and a fatal flaw: namely, it implicitly presumes that liberals are somehow spectacularly deficient in imagination. I find it hard to believe that any sizable group of human beings could be spectacularly deficient in any virtue (or vice). That’s why I’ve come up with a simpler explanation for Haidt’s robust findings: liberals suck at this test because shutting down certain parts of your imagination has become central to what it means to be liberal.

Liberals haven’t just demonized their political opponents, they’ve demonized the very act of trying to think like their political opponents. Trying to sympathize with, say, a Trump supporter, has come to constitute a kind of thought-crime for many liberals (and almost all progressives). So it’s not that liberals have less imagination than conservatives or libertarians; it’s that they’ve set up mental firewalls that actively prevent them from even going there. Just as Odysseus’s men stopped up their ears with wax so they wouldn’t be tempted by the seductive song of the Sirens, many liberals have, it seems, set up taboo boundaries which more or less ensure that they’ll never have to empathize with a conservative or a libertarian. Strategically speaking, this is decidedly unwise. The three truly great treatises on the art of war—Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Art of War (1521), Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—are in agreement on this: you must understand your enemy before you can defeat him.

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I once had a young man with Asperger’s in my class. Poor guy managed to alienate the entire class before Labor Day. He would hit on the young women in the class in ways that varied from the laughably clueless to the downright disgusting. He once loudly declared to the shy young woman sitting next to him: “You have really nice boobs!” To another he said, after class, but within my earshot: “My penis gets really hard when I look at you!” I eventually had to kick him out of the class. Not, however, because of his inappropriate comments and lascivious staring, but rather because he simply couldn’t take a hint. He was very persistent.

Like many guys who suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome, he’d keep telling a joke, even when everything about his interlocutor’s body language was shouting: I’m not finding you funny! What’s worse, much worse: once he started hitting on a woman in my class, he’d keep going even when everything about her body language and tone of voice was shouting: I’m not interested! Go away! You’re making me really uncomfortable! Alas, he never picked up on these clues. Why? Because people with Asperger’s don’t pick up on tone. But the rest of us do pick up on tone, and it greatly influences how we respond to people, and how they respond to us.

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around young children or animals knows that tone is extremely important, often more important than content. And that’s why I’ve long since concluded that most of the people in Social Media Land who moralistically insist that tone doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter are lying through their teeth. If you strapped them up to a lie-detector, you’d soon discover that they know full well that tone matters. They just can’t be bothered. Because delivering diatribes has always been easier than delving into dialogue. Because demonization has always been easier than democratic deliberation. Because being enraged has always been easier than being engaged. And pompous preaching has always been easier than painstaking persuasion.

Activists and intellectuals like to think that they’re better than the proverbial loud obnoxious American tourist in Europe, but they often sound just like him: repeating themselves again and again, louder and louder each time, to someone who doesn’t speak English, as if deafness were the problem. We seem to have forgotten that which was obvious to our ancestors: namely, that well-crafted apologetics are primarily for internal consumption. They shore up the belief system of the faithful by providing all of the requisite intellectual cover. They provide people who already agree with you with all sorts of fantastic reasons for agreeing with you.

Good arguments can convince the undecided, especially if they happen to resonate with their lived experience, but they rarely convince the folks on the other side of the issue. Does this mean that the whole intellectual enterprise is a sham and the Open Society is doomed? Of course not. We reason together all the time, and we do it well often; but there are limits to reason, and limits to reasoning together. Acknowledging these limits, and respecting them, can actually make it easier for us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and respect the humanity of those who disagree with us.

—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.

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