Tuesday , September 22 2020

Why intellectuals are afraid to break off culture

There used to be something like public intellectuals.

A class of thinkers – mostly writers with prestigious degrees and academics with a knack for writing – set the tone for the discourse. They told other people what to think, or rather, they told the unwashed masses what was going through their own heads lately. These disclosures were received with great seriousness, even if they tended to be vague, incoherent, or obvious. From there, the educated and those who wanted to be seen as educated chose the opinions they wanted to align with. This process created, refined and warmed up politics. (In fact, the term "Overton Window" was popularized by them.) This was part of what it meant to be public.

I explain this, partly out of jest, partly because I belong to the last generation that remembers the age of opinion leaders. I used to be told seriously that I should read the opinion sections of the major newspapers as an edifying activity. But when I was in my mid-20s, words like “think piece” were jokes at the expense of the opinion leader class.

Part of it had to do with the advent of blogs. It was cheaper – and faster – to post opinions than to report, and anyone could create a blog. Thanks to the economic pressure that Craigslist and later Google and Facebook exerted and which ate up the advertising market, this became a broader trend in the media. Writing down facts requires work, and work must be paid for. On the other hand, opinions are cheap. Everyone has one.

It was a decent solution for content generation, especially as social media was on the rise. Social media and opinion letters feed each other. The editors searched for authors based on tweets they liked. (My own career started this way.) Opinions were quickly written about what the author had seen on social media recently. And the social media came in abundance to every opinion that aroused their imagination. The response was occasionally praising, but the loudest response was outrage.

The size of the opinion leader class was once limited by the physical size of a newspaper page. Now everyone can roast an anointed opinion leader with a cell phone and a nice twist into a corncob.

In a way, the fall of the opinion class reflects the rise of the democratized, secular press at the expense of the Church. After the Enlightenment, western public life moved toward a number of secular institutions, including a class of public intellectuals, and away from the pulpit.

When companies are redesigning, it's not because of a handful of brochures (or a hashtag or two). Just as the opinion class used social media for its own purposes for the first time, Johannes Gutenberg's printing press existed for centuries – it printed religious brochures, sermons and Bibles – before undermining religion's monopoly on public life. And the press is just part of an image that encompasses a scientific revolution, religious strife, industrialization, and economic exploitation. Similarly, our current cultural moment happens against a backdrop that can best be described by this cartoon dog drinking coffee in a house in flames.

Nevertheless, the production of French dragonflies – vitriolic political brochures, in which attempts were often made to strike out various public figures, especially members of the royal family – would not have been possible without a mobile type, and the dragonflies themselves played a role in the French Revolution undeniable role. Likewise, the 2020 protests and the sudden shift in public opinion regarding the police and race would not have been possible without social media and the mass adoption of smartphones.

To put it bluntly, opinion leaders are in no danger of actually being guillotined – except maybe metaphorically not the same at all. You will continue to publish. Some of them will continue to make very good money! But they will be less important – not least because they will no longer adjust the overton window.

In fact, there may not even be an Overton window. Political life can even become indistinguishable if you are part of an internet fandom. I don't want to say that facts or logic will go away. But we will no longer pretend to convince others in a free marketplace of ideas. We have long associated bourgeois life with “engaging with ideas” or “participating in debates” or maintaining a “broad political spectrum”. But with the fall of the opinion class, the mask tears off and reveals politics as little but as a conflict between competing information cults that primarily convey values ​​in terms of emotionality and not in terms of rationality. No thin veneer of "fair and impartial" will cover these bastions of information dissemination.

This is not as bad as it sounds; Most internet fandoms behave more responsibly than at least one (or maybe both) of America's major political parties.


In this week, Harper & # 39; s Magazine published an open letter, which I have since called "The Letter". Signed by a number of opinion leaders and then also by J.K. Rowling for some reason (just kidding, I know exactly why) The letter rejects the "censorship" that culture takes on and describes it as "intolerance to opposing views, a fashion for public shame and exclusion and the tendency to resolve complex political issues with dazzling moral certainty".

This is not a particularly clear formulation of the cultural phenomenon they condemned, which is why the meaning and purpose of the letter must be interpreted several times. This is evidenced by the almost instant backpedaling on Twitter by a number of signatories who did not know the identity of all of their co-signers. "Censorship" in the summary is bad, and "Freedom of Speech" in the summary is good. Without further elaboration, however, it is very easy to talk about both purposes.

To the extent that the letter makes any sense at all, it seems to be about opposing “illiberalism”. The "liberalism" mentioned here is the general philosophy that society should be based on a free and equitable discussion from different perspectives. "Illiberalism" is therefore an unusual substitute for what opinion leaders have alternately called "campus culture", "aborting culture" and "wakefulness".

This very vaguely illiberal force is described by Wesley Yang as a "successor ideology", and his coinage is immediately adopted by a number of conservative commentators Ross Douthat (whose name does not appear on the letter) and Andrew Sullivan (whose name does). But this term only seems to cloud the water because what they are concerned about is actually not a concrete ideology, but an incomplete social force with the hallmarks of religious revival.

It may not come as a surprise that Douthat, a devout Catholic, is able to handle the aspect of "spiritual renewal" that the Americans are striving for at the moment, although he apparently cannot continue with this observation. But I suspect that he also senses what I feel as someone who grew up in a Protestant-Christian family: the feeling of charismatic spirituality that permeates the marches and rallies of 2020, the passion of the newly converted, the worrying hunger for moral Justice.

Matthew Yglesias (signer of the letter) described this cultural moment as "The great Awakening, ”To compare it somewhat fleetingly with the religious revival of the 19th century, which flowed into the fire of the movement to abolish slavery. He does not mention the other awakenings in American history, such as the forerunner of the 18th century American Revolution or the recent great 20th century tent revivals that paved the way for the evangelical-Christian policies that marked the Bush era. Our current era was largely determined by the pretext that religious zeal and emotional feeling go hand in hand with politics and that everyone can and should be combated through rational discourse. That was never true, but at least that's what we did.

This fifth great awakening is what Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift" and Martin Heidegger a "world breakdown". In the words of St. Paul: "We will not all sleep, but we will all change – in a moment, in the blink of an eye, with the last trumpet." What is happening cannot be adequately described in the language of the old paradigm – and because of that, we all sound like absolute idiots trying to talk about it.

Part of this has to do with the various errors made by people who reject “abort culture”.

First, there is the ongoing fusion of "alertness" – broadly defined as the idea that white domination and patriarchy permeate our society – with illiberalism. As my friend Ezekiel Kweku, an editor at New York Magazineobserved, neither arises nor needs the other. There are many public intellectuals who advocate "alertness" while using the language of the so-called civil debate, with the strict word "I agree", "with all due respect" and "to play the devil's lawyer for a moment." ".

Then there is that Moth-and-Bailey error about what "cancel" actually means. Will someone be canceled for being heavily criticized? Or will someone be canceled because they have received death threats? Or is someone just canceled because they lost their job? Probably politicians should lose their jobs if they stir up enough indignation. Does this rule also apply to prominent personalities who have been formally or informally named as representatives of public opinion? Where should you draw the line between the truly outrageous and undeserved victims of an internet mob?

However, this general inconsistency in relation to the problem of "canceling culture" is not entirely to blame for the anti-woke comment. They work with old tools that crumble in their hands and in an old work area that rises in the air.


Despite the conversation about illiberalism and the threat to freedom of speech, the real fear that motivates the letter becomes clear in the text itself, exactly where its authors are going in circles, about the obvious contradiction that a coalition is trying to address has his critics to shut up: "It is now too common to hear calls for quick and severe retaliation in response to perceived violations of language and thinking." The opinion leaders are actually not afraid of being silenced. They want to pick up inches without a group of people telling them how wrong they are.

With all claims to logic and debate, the old paradigm produced an irrational and incomprehensibly unjust society. Opinion leaders often exposed exposed or faulty science and led a “debate” about climate change that has not existed among scientists for decades. They tolerated intolerance and treated dehumanization as a disagreement. Although they were seen as models for rational discourse, they were never particularly rational. One only has to point to the war in Iraq as evidence of this.

Nevertheless, I am restless over the coming days. I admit that this is partly because I am a professional opinion writer who has been aggressively canceled online, but mostly because I am over 30 while staring at the barrel of mass social change. But chaos is not the same as evil. And although the reign of terror may have followed the French Revolution, the horrors of the previous system were far greater. in the Mark Twain's words::

There were two "terrorist governments" if we only remembered and thought about it; one committed murder with hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; one lasted only months, the other had lasted a thousand years; one inflicted death on ten thousand people, the other one hundred million.

For my restless people, I ask you to remember that chaos is not evil, change is not wrong, conflict is not violence and relevance is not a human right. All things change. And although you have the right to have hurt feelings, don't be surprised if your feelings subside in the new marketplace of emotions.

About Johnnie Roberts

Johnnie Roberts is a 23 years old college student. Technology-loving Johnnie is a blogger about this topic.

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