On his podcast Deep Questions, Cal Newport said something that has gotten deep into my brain and utterly complicated my life. I notice, by the way, that the very best things tend not to make my life simpler — they make my life more interesting, complicated, and challenging. This is one of those things:
I think a lot of what we see on social media is basically what I call intellectual groupieism. Like, I don’t want to do the work, someone else tell me the cliffnotes. What are the basic ideas we all agree with, and more importantly, what’s good and what’s bad, and what do I do to make sure I do the good thing and not the bad thing? like great, I’m with it. And now I’m going to, with great fervor, push this philosophy, but there is nothing below it. You haven’t read any of the things, you haven’t done the hard reading, you haven’t confronted the criticism, you haven’t read the alternative and let that collide and then let your roots grow deep. On social media you are often just a groupie for intellectuals, and say, “I just trust you. Just give me the cliffnotes I need, because I just want to go around with your metaphorical jam band and make sure I have bootleg tapes from your concerts…” We don’t do this anymore – we don’t build philosophies from scratch, we don’t go to the sources. Social media says “don’t bother with that. In fact, if you do bother with it, we might yell at you, so just come on, we will just give you the cliff notes.
For the past few days, I’ve watched with fascination the trashing of prominent leftist cultural critic, author, and youtuber Lindsay Ellis. Several weeks ago, she tweeted something about Avatar: The Last Airbender which apparently sparked a controversy. (I’ve never seen any of the pieces of media she was referring to, so I can’t offer comment on them.) The ensuing controversy, trashing, and demonizing led her to delete her twitter account, and I witnessed some anonymous twitter users dancing on her digital grave. The whole episode seemed, in typical twitter fashion, bewilderingly excessive.
In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff spelled out three great untruths that they believe are infesting our culture. While I’m ambivalent about the book, these three great untruths have stayed with me. They are:
The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: always trust your feelings.
The Untruth of Us Vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
There is one particular section in Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now that keeps me up at night. He describes the trajectory of online social justice movements. First, they experience a honeymoon phase of progress, but because of the invisible business model of social media, these social movements are algorithmically catalogued, manipulated, and studied for profit in a way that leads to greater social unrest, bigotry, and inequality. Lanier calls this process “Arc Burn,” in reference to MLK Jr’s moral ark quote.
Like many people on the internet, I’ve had the harrowing experience of being “called out” publicly, often viciously and brutally. I’m so often surprised by how awful it feels when it happens. It never seems like it’s as bad as people say it is, and then you experience it, and it is many times worse.
On Wednesday, we all watched in stunned horror as a pro-Trump mob stormed the capitol. We watched as they broke windows, hung from ledges, ransacked offices, and in one case, even died for their cause. Like everyone else, I’m still processing the events at the capitol. It will probably take months for a full picture of what happened this week to emerge.
The title of this article is, of course, something of a trick. If you know me or are even remotely familiar with my work, you know that I am robustly of the left. I am somewhere on the Social Democrat to Democratic Socialist spectrum, and I am pro sex work, pro degeneracy, and pro sex positivity. I believe every billionaire is a blight on the human race and a failure of our system. I believe Black Lives Matter, that trans women are women and that trans men are men. I believe we should have a broad social safety net, correct climate change, and empower minorities. If you gave me a list of leftist mantras and talking points, I would affirm most of them.
Instead, this title has to do with where I place my own identity, with how I name myself to myself. When I look at myself in a cognitive mirror, what do I see, first and foremost? What words do I use to filter the unfathomable complexity of self into a single narrative?
In the aftermath of the horrific Charlottesville rally, a memed quote by Carl Popper called “The Paradox of Tolerance” started making the rounds on leftist Internet. I’ve heard it invoked regularly since by figures like Vaush and Science Mike (this isn’t a dig at either of these creators. I admire both of them for different reasons. Please don’t be mean to them.) I myself have favorably invoked the Paradox in private conversation. The “Paradox” is this:
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
When I was writing exclusively about LGBT issues within the church, many people new to the topic would ask me what they could do to help LGBT people. The first response of many straight people new to understanding LGBT experience was feelings of helplessness, and a desperation to do something.
My answer was always the same. There are 4 preliminary steps, I told them, to standing in solidarity with LGBT people: 1. learn, read, and listen as much as you can. 2. Get to know LGBT people personally 3. Be in the process of learning and engaging for the long haul — don’t opt out once you feel like you’ve learned “enough.” 4. Let it fuck up your life –let it disrupt your privilege, worldview, and theology.
Last week in my Sunday Curiosities series, I posted a fiery video in which Steve Shives explains why he thinks Sam Harris is a douchebag. Of all the interesting things I posted in that article, I was dismayed to see my item on Harris get the most attention. People on social media were aggrieved that I would post such an “unfair” portrayal of Harris.