In the season finale of Black Mirror (S03 E06)—“Hated in the Nation”—a hacker uses Automated Drone bees to kill all of the internet trolls in the U.K. All of their Facebook-liking cheerleaders are killed too, as well as everyone who’s ever participated in a Twitter pile-on (e.g., all of the progressives who participated in the online mobbing of a provocative, politically-incorrect journalist are killed, as well as all of the conservatives who participated in an equally nasty pile-on). If something like this happened, would it lead to a better world? I doubt it. I think it would be like destroying a person’s immune system to kill off a treatable infection. Some trolls are like viruses, it’s true; but others are like white blood cells. Alas, telling them apart is no easy task.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Except for extreme physical abuse,” avers Epictetus, “other people cannot hurt you unless you allow them to. And this holds true even if the person is your parent, brother, sister, teacher, or employer. Don’t consent to be hurt and you won’t be hurt.” Like all Stoic philosophers, Epictetus places responsibility for offense solely on the shoulders of the offended listener.
Twenty-first-century progressives tend to be equally immoderate, but in the opposite direction. For instance, Sarah Mei recently tweeted: “Blows my mind that there are still people in the world who don’t understand basic stuff like: your intentions don’t matter. If someone thinks you were mean, you were mean – even if you didn’t intend to be! – and you should work to make it right.”
If you’re offended by something, it’s always good to consider the possibility that you’re the problem. Taking that possibility off the table categorically, as Mei does—“If someone thinks you were mean, you were mean”—is a recipe for bad communication. Because the way I feel isn’t necessarily a fair or accurate reflection of reality. The fact that I think someone is being mean to me doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re actually being mean to me. Maybe I’m just sick. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe I just misunderstood what was said.
I was very sick with the flu and strep throat a few weeks ago. It made me extremely grumpy for a few days. I took everything the wrong way, snapped at everyone, and thought everyone was being mean to me. But of course they weren’t being mean; I was just being unreasonable and uncharitable. Thank God I didn’t have someone like Sarah Mei around to enable my crazy!
Human communication is complicated and misunderstandings abound. If we’re going to figure things out together, speakers need to be as clear and sensitive to their audience as possible, and listeners need to be as charitable and self-aware as possible. Placing all of the responsibility for reception on the listener or the speaker is decidedly unwise. Both ways lead to badness.
Whenever you get a group of people together who share certain basic assumptions, there’s a natural tendency for the group to gravitate toward the most uncompromising positions. Social psychologists call this tendency group polarization. It explains why Trump’s victory came as such as surprise to the kind of people who listen to NPR, watch CNN, and read the New York Times; just as it explains why the Bush Administration invaded Iraq without an exit strategy. At a certain point, the neoconservative ideologues running the show, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, stopped inviting people who disagreed with their assumptions, people like Colin Powell, to the planning meetings.
Group polarization also explains the breathtaking stupidity of Lindsay Shepherd’s inquisitors at Wilfred Laurier University. These people speak, as someone rightly observed on Twitter, “like people who are used to standing up in front of a class and talking for a long time without being challenged or interrupted.” Surrounding yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear is toxic. Sweet as it sometimes sounds, the siren song of the safe space must be resisted, lest ye be shipwrecked on the rocky coast of the Isle of Impotentia.
There’s no harm in group polarization if you’re just having fun or brainstorming. But if you actually want to change the world, if you actually want to communicate and be relevant, it’s a tendency that must be actively resisted. In The Righteous Mind (2013), psychologist Jonathan Haidt maintains that the best way to resist group polarization is to actively cultivate viewpoint diversity. Talk to people who you disagree with on a regular basis. You don’t have to agree with them. But you should at least listen to them. Bite your lip if you have to. Be respectful. Be charitable. And—for God’s sake!—avoid conversation killers like: You’re a racist! You’re a libtard SJW! You’re a Randroid! You’re a feminazi! You’re a regressive leftist! You’re a rape apologist! You’re antisemitic! You’re Islamophobic! You’re a de facto defender of white supremacy! As the Lindsay Shepherd fiasco makes clear, shouting people down, silencing them, resorting to name-calling prematurely (e.g., You’re transphobic!)—these things just alienate people.
If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality, and a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested, a Lindsay Shepherd is a middle-of-the-road moderate who’s been called a white supremacist by a thousand strangers on Twitter. Just as the violent suppression of the labor movement pushed a lot of good people into the communist camp in the 20th century, I fear that the outrageous attacks on nonconformists like Jordan Peterson and Lindsay Shepherd may radicalize a lot of middle-of-the-road moderates. As Malcolm Gladwell makes clear in David and Goliath (2014), when you crack down on terrorism by demonizing an entire community, you invariably end up strengthening support for the terrorists; and when you crack down on the civil rights movement in a draconian fashion, you invariably end up strengthening support for the civil rights movement. What’s happening on the left at the moment is striking similar. Demonize everyone who seems to disagree with you and you’ll invariably end up strengthening support for those who actually disagree with you.
Telling people off and preaching to the choir can be fun. But it’s a dangerous kind of fun. Because you get intellectually lazy. Because you start speaking in a specialized jargon that no one outside of your safe space can understand. Because you develop a contempt for everyone outside of your élite group of cool kids that frequently leads you to dehumanize those who disagree with you. Live in your little bubble long enough, and you’ll become downright delusional, like that ill-clad emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale.
This is especially true if you and your little possé of likeminded homies become powerful (e.g., by winning an election, taking over a department, capturing an important institution, etc.). As Aaron Haspel rightly observes in Everything (2015): “The less you are contradicted, the stupider you become. The more powerful you become, the less you are contradicted.” Wanna change the world? Stop preaching to the 20% who agree with you and arguing with the 20% who disagree with you; focus, instead, on the 60% who aren’t sure.
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2018)