You might have noticed a subtle change in my work over the past few months. I’m covering more controversial topics and guests. This is less rooted in some over-arching ideal, and more so fatigue. After years of being an online content creator, I’m straining under the pressure of being one person online and another person in real life. The stress is subtle but persistent, and I’ve decided that, in order to be sustainable as a creator, I need more cohesion between my on and offline personas.
Keep in mind that authentic does not mean virtuous or correct. By doubling down on authenticity I don’t, therefore, assume that the attitudes and postures I hold are unassailable. By all means, criticize me, regardless of the authenticity I am trying to demonstrate. If anything, being authentic gives me greater access to accurate criticisms of my beliefs.
I’ve had controversial guests on lately with whom I disagree because that is actually how I live. I have close friends and conversation partners from a vast swath of backgrounds. Plus, my job and economic status don’t afford me the privilege of hand-picking my social circles. I don’t have a cushy desk job that allows me to only socialize with my political peers, and I generally resent the classist assumption that I can or should. I enjoy conversations with those who disagree with me, and I value friendship. I’m not doing that as a political act or to win people to my side — I do it simply because it’s who I am. It feels weird to conduct myself in a certain way in my real life, and then not do the same online.
Because this is the internet and we are all addicted to thinking in extremes, let me make something clear: this does not mean that I’m interested in having public conversations with Nazis, white nationalists, or conspiracy theorists. I’ve never had someone like that on my show because I think it would harm the discourse, and I’m not skilled enough to conduct those interviews in a productive manner.
Reading and discussing problematic books is similarly part of my personality. I don’t do that to be edgy, but because it’s what I actually do to relax and enjoy an evening. I wrote a long series recently about the benefits of reading problematic literature, and while I stand by everything I wrote in that series, I realized that there was a crucial context missing. I engage in stupid, deceptive, controversial, and false media because curiosity is pleasurable.
I will sit in riveted silence listening to a gender-critical or anti-gay podcast, not because I agree with them, but because I’m simply fascinated by the minds of others. My curiosity is a far larger force in my life than disgust, rage, or hurt. That doesn’t make me better than anyone, because I don’t feel like it’s a temperament I actively choose. It’s just who I am. I do experience the rage and disgust at people I find odious, but those feelings simply aren’t primary. Curiosity almost always reigns supreme. Even people and views that directly harm me become fascinating puzzles to understand.
This is especially true now that I’m spending less time on social media. As Michael Pollan writes in This Is Your Mind on Plants, you don’t understand the influence of a drug until you’ve tried to quit it. I didn’t understand how much social media was creating a false personality until I stopped looking at it. Beneath all the outrage and artifice social media gave me, I discovered a genuine pleasure in being curious and that my rage was largely artificial.
My rage/disgust response is so low that I honestly sometimes have a hard time understanding the emotions of others. I see other people losing their minds in a manic state of fury because a right-wing figure said something stupid, and I simply don’t understand. Where I experience piercing curiosity, others recoil in horror. I’m reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a friend about pedophilia. I was absolutely fascinated by the biological underpinnings of pedophilia and convinced that understanding these biological facts could help us protect both children and integrate pedophiles into society. My friend simply shut down. The thought of humanizing a pedophile in any way so disgusted her that she simply couldn’t carry on the conversation. I didn’t understand that then, and I don’t understand it now.
This authentic pleasure in curiosity is the same quality that makes me fascinated with serial killers and obsessed with horror (I only watch horror movies, because I find everything else boring.) It’s probably what draws me to daring and quirky journalists like Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson. Maybe my brain is broken or I’m some kind of sociopath. Maybe I lack some essential emotional ingredient that other people have. But I’m tired of pretending to be something I’m not.
I’m tired of pretending to be as angry as everyone else when I’m just not. I’m tired of feeling like my curiosity is morally reprehensible. I’m tired of feeling like rage is the only valid expression of virtue. I’m tired of feeling like I have to line up with every leftist talking point and that my natural skepticism of everything is some kind of treason.
So, I will continue to speak my mind in a responsible, compassionate, and considerate way. I will continue to try to be respectful, coherent, and mindful of social forces that I might not always understand. But I am also resolving, at the very least, to not lie or pretend to be something I’m not.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts. I love hearing back from my audience.
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