Sunday, December 02, 2012

Dependence On No One, Best Distrust and Oppose

Tim Black:

As Lukianoff explains: ‘If there’s any risk whatsoever that a person can get into trouble for their opinion, people don’t change their opinion, they just talk to people they agree with, and they don’t bother talking to people they disagree with. And talking with people you disagree with is precisely what people should be doing in higher education.’

‘People not disagreeing with professors’, Lukianoff continues, ‘people not talking to people they disagree with… this all leads to group polarisation. And as far as the research on group polarisation is concerned, if you surround yourself with people you agree with, you tend to become much more certain, and in some cases much more radical in your beliefs, whether conservative, liberal or neither. And you tend, therefore, to have a polarised understanding of where the other side is coming from. And that’s a big problem in the US today. We have these very tight echo chambers and sort of cartoon-like pictures of what the other side is like.

...With rigorous debate discouraged throughout higher education, and people seeking out only those they already agree with, it is unsurprising that many find it difficult to explain why what they believe to be right is right. After all, they have never had to test their beliefs. And the inability to explain why we are right ‘makes us even more emotional and hostile when anything questions our certainty’, says Lukianoff - hence the shrill, overemotional inarticulacy of so much public discourse.

Noel once said that one of the things he appreciated about commenting here is that I don't get defensive when challenged. Well, since we're on the topic of the benefits of open dialogue with opponents, I will grant to Christianity that I've always appreciated the proverb about a soft answer turning away wrath. Deflate your ego enough, and you won't feel the need to escalate when someone initiates hostilities. We're not making policy or influencing anything important here, we're just passing the time; take a deep breath and relax. (Even if you prefer Machiavellian strategizing, you might consider that an even-keeled reaction could unbalance a hostile interlocutor, making them feel unsure of themselves and silly for coming on so fiercely, thus bestowing an advantage upon you.)

Of course, you may also be aware that I've written many posts about all the things I hate about the social web, especially as it concerns the quality of writing and thinking. The excerpt above is another complaint to add to the list, I feel. In a medium that encourages and rewards lightning-quick reactions, tweet-sized opinions and egotistical performance art above nuance and contemplation, where it's more important to be seen holding correct opinions that have "always already" been settled, or joining in on the reinforcement of those opinions through upvoting, liking, retweeting, etc., disagreements quickly turn into hollow displays of choosing sides and shaking fists at each other, before dispersing and reforming somewhere else over some other ostensible issue.

I was already congenitally disposed toward anti-sociability, but I'm becoming ever more resolved to avoid the sorts of tribal loyalties that compromise intellectual activity. I don't want friends, allies or fans; I want people to think with.


  1. My dad liked the book, "I'm Okay, You're Okay". The title is supposed to reflect a healthy attitude. But everything is not okay. We are all imperfect, and everything we think is wrong in some way. There is always room for improvement. All ideas can be further articulated - "Do you believe in God?" "Depends. What do you mean by God?". So seeing the kind of thing you're talking about - whether it is expressed as defensiveness or self-congratulatory smugness - is very annoying. I've done a little poking around to see how deep the rot goes, and I found what you've said to be true - they will say anything to defend their friends.

  2. Are we talking about FacepalmBlogs? Yeah, compare Peezy the other day, still pulling out every logical fallacy in the book to try to defend Watson's speech:

    "We’ve actually got people declaring that she only has a bachelor’s degree in communications, therefore she wasn’t qualified to talk about a field of evolutionary biology." Peezy four months ago:

    "The other appalling thing about Ryan is how much the media is puling about how smart he is, and calling him a brilliant policy wonk (also hammered on by Pierce). Ryan is a guy with a bachelor’s degree in economics whose entire career is defined by political gladhanding and devotion to far-right ideological nonsense. He’s not particularly well-qualified; a BA is a degree that gives you a general knowledge of the basics of a field, and it’s a good thing, but it does not turn you into an expert. Ryan’s degree in economics is worth about as much as Bobby Jindal’s degree in biology."

    It's almost like politics makes for extremely predictable bedfellows.

  3. I saw that, but I was thinking of when I used to comment on some Science Blogs and related ones, many of which became FT Blogs. One time a "Skepchick" argued that one could be a skeptic and religious - she was defending a friend. No one would take my side because, well, because they wouldn't. So, yeah, facepalm.
    There have been other incidents. What can I say; I like how Socrates rolled. They usually attack a straw man, then refuse to allow you to clarify.
    The first rule of BloggerClub is never question BloggerClub.

  4. We learned it long ago in Philosophy 101, how you should never put yourself in a position to fear correction or questioning. That happens when you get your identity invested in being right all the time and looking cool while doing it (especially when you make it into an argument with high moral stakes). But it's boring to have to be careful and constantly say "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know." The temptation to have fun and act snide when you think you do know something for sure creeps in, and before you know it, you're trying desperately to avoid losing face or status after you bite off more than you can chew.

  5. Mea culpa. I've always had a tendency to be argumentative and defensive. An elementary school teacher asked me if I knew the meaning of the word "tact". I didn't. But I've tried to change - it's very embarrassing to find out you've been smug and defensive about wrong positions. And then you realize it's wrong to be that way even when you're right.

  6. "Those with tact have less to retract."

    What is it about gadflies named Noel anyway?