My first posts at Times and Seasons were about epistemic humility, which is the awareness of the limits of knowledge. One of the common responses I got at the time was to ask how conviction was compatible with such an emphasis on uncertainty. The quote I led with (“The wise man doubts often, and changes his mind.”) seemed like a perfect setup for the ominous lines from Yeats’ The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
The answer is that even if one accepts the adage that “all models are wrong,” one ought to go all in and accept the entire adage: “essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful” [emphasis added]. Copernicus’ model of the solar system was wrong because he believed the orbits are circular. They are not; they are elliptical. But he still got heliocentrism right, and later on Kepler added in the elliptical orbits. Newton’s theory of gravity was wrong in many respects that were later corrected by Einstein’s general relativity, but Newton’s model was still a great improvement over Aristotle’s.
These models are obviously more useful in a simplistic sense: if you want to get to the moon it helps to have an accurate representation of astronomy and physics. But there’s more to it than that: this sequence of imperfect and flawed models can point the direction towards still greater truths. And so, rather than erode conviction generally, epistemic humility tends to shift conviction away from outcomes and towards processes. Conviction hasn’t disappeared. It has just found a new focus. Everything we believe is wrong, but the erroneous beliefs can be stepping stones leading to something greater. In that case, we can replace mistaken loyalty to individual and erroneous beliefs with dedication to the path of which these stepping stones are comprised.
It is no coincidence that the examples I chose involved multiple thinkers contributing to the same fundamental problems (Copernicus and Kepler, Newton and Einstein) across generations. The systematic biases of individual human beings (who all have their egos to protect and bread to win, which can warp intellectual clarity) mean that human knowledge expands best when it is undertaken as a communal endeavor.
Using scientific progress as an example again: Science is the sausage. A community of scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, politicians, administrative staff, publishers, and so forth is the factory that makes the sausage. Because monocultures are brittle and limited, the communal factory works best when it plays host to a wide diversity of opinions and perspectives and boisterous interactions among them. This diversity is what helps the community detect and eventually correct dead-end alleys (like phrenology, aether, or élan vital).
The process is decentralized because no one person can be aware of all the activity taking place across the entire community, let alone hope to command or even coordinate it. But—when the community is healthy—it is also organized and purposeful at a level above the individual participants. Out of the cooperation and conflict of many individuals, progress can be made.
This is the vision I have in mind when I write blog posts or articles to advance arguments that I believe in. The ultimate success or failure of theories I espouse isn’t within my control. The best I can do is be diligent and careful, and I have a hope that in doing so I am acting out my role as one neuron alongside a billion others in a social brain in which we each have our role to play.
The much-observed partisan animus that runs through so much of today’s discourse on controversial topics threatens the health of this system by creating insular sub-communities that each hold to their own dogmatic orthodoxies and do not interact productively with each other.
That’s what I want to spend the rest of the post talking about. It’s a strange post for Times and Seasons in that nothing will be essentially related to Mormonism, and I usually post that kind of thing to my Difficult Run blog. But I want to put this one here because, sometimes wittingly and sometimes not, I’ve trampled my way across fairly controversial ground on several Mormon topics. I’ll continue to do that (here, at Expand, and at Difficult Run), and so I’d like to share some thoughts on debating sensitive issues while trying to avoid the spirit of the devil.
The left is increasingly obsessed with hypersensitivity in the discussion of serious issues. (Fear not, fair readers, I have sweeping generalization and harsh pronouncements for the right as well.) One clear example of how this works at a popular level is the propagation of pseudo-scientific “trigger warnings.” The concept of a trigger warning is noble: it is a kind of disclaimer at the top of an article to warn people who may have an episode of PTSD (or anxiety, etc.) triggered by the content that they are about to read. Trigger warnings generally relate to depictions of sexual abuse and violence.
One problem with trigger warnings is that they are not based on any empirical evidence or on sound psychological theory. This has not prevented them from proliferating in the blogosphere, where they have become conventional in certain communities. (Typical examples here and here.) Another problem is that there doesn’t appear to be any limiting principle to what content should deserve a trigger warning. My favorite example of a non-satirical trigger warning was one for “colonialism.”
The trigger warning trend may have crested already. After trigger warnings became a serious issue on college campuses this year, a series of criticisms were unleashed from sources like the LA Times, Guardian, New York Times, and NPR. In many circles, trigger warnings have become something of a joke.
I bring them up simply as an illustration of how good intentions can lead to insidious outcomes. If you write about a controversial topic (including, apparently, anything having to do with colonialism) and you don’t use a trigger warning, then your argument can be dismissed without consideration by those who believe trigger warnings are essential. In practice, this has limited effect (because trigger warnings are not universally accepted), but it’s typical of generic form of argument that looks something like this:
- It is wrong to harm people.
- Offending people is a form of harm.
- Your argument offends.
- Therefore your argument harms.
- Therefore it is immoral of you to make your argument.
Obviously the left doesn’t have a monopoly on outrage, but it is clearly the leader when it comes to using the indictment of offensive / harmful speech as a way to pre-emptively shut down debate, as the rise in university disinvitations of speakers over the last decade illustrates. (These speakers are likely to be conservative rather than liberal by a ratio of nearly 3:1.) For more information on the trend, known as the New Intolerance, Mary Eberstadt’s presentation at First Things is great.
This trend isn’t hard to explain from a pragmatic point of view. The deployment of hypersensitivity as an offensive rhetorical weapon is paradoxical (since it turns apparent victimhood into a trump card), but its effectiveness is obvious. Compared to righteous outrage other methods of disagreement—reason, evidence, statistical analysis, pragmatism, etc.—are obsolete. Outrage is the atomic weapon of intellectual dispute, and this makes its adoption hard to resist.
Trolling and Codependence
The right demonstrates a correspondingly paradoxical dysfunction of its own: bombastic and insulting rhetoric that appears strong but is vacuous and counter-productive. The response is understandable but childish: if a conservative is going to be labeled as a racist or a bigot as matter of routine, then why bother making an effort to speak clearly and carefully? It is far simpler to give up on communication across an ideological gulf and direct comments to one’s own side. (This explains the rise of talk radio and the alternative media that dominates the right wing of American politics.)
This replaces discussion with something like performance art. It is common for commentators (professional and amateur) on the right to intentionally make points or phrase arguments in extreme and inflammatory ways that they know will provoke an outraged reaction from their opponents. Emotionally, the resulting outrage fuels a sense of in-group solidarity. For some on the right your conservative bona fides are directly proportional to the degree of public hatred that comes your way from the left. Logically, the resulting outrage vindicates the right’s critique of the left as being hypersensitive and intolerant.
It is performance art in the sense that the person on the right may appear to address the left or engage in debate, but actually just wants to provoke outrage in order to validate the dismissal of the left as irrational to the point of malevolence. The immediate problem, as someone who identifies with the right, is that we risk turning pointless provocation into an intellectual fetish. It is the legitimization of trolling.
The deeper problem is that hypersensitivity and trolling are codependent dysfunctions. The more the right veers into trolling, the more the left’s hypersensitivity is vindicated as a call for compassion in a sea of aggressive callousness and hostility. The more hypersensitive the left becomes, the more the right’s trolling seems like an appropriate rebellion against a suffocating climate of intellectual conformity.
We often remark that political and social discourse is becoming more polarized. This is one of the chief mechanisms of that increasing polarization.
Conclusions and Practical Applications
In one sense, the main conclusion is obvious. Liberals should be less sensitive and conservatives should be less trollish. But this is easier said than done.
First, there is the intense pressure we always feel (whether we admit it or not, even to ourselves) to conform to the standards of our “team.” For a conservative to eschew confrontational language is to court accusations from fellow conservatives of being a cowardly or willing collaborator with the liberal thought police. For a liberal to eschew hypersensitivity is to court accusations from fellow liberals of being a cowardly or wiling collaborator with the conservative oppressors. It is never easy to cross one’s own tribe.
Second, there is the fact that compromise satisfies no one. Conservatives should abandon trolling, but not to the extent of conforming to liberal hypersensitivity. It’s never acceptable to give offense maliciously or callously, but none of us have the ability—in theory or in practice—to write a perfectly inoffensive piece about meaningful, controversial topics. It cannot be done, and the pursuit of this impossibility is intellectually suffocating and should be abandoned. Liberals should abandon hypersensitivity, but not to the point of abandoning concern for civility and compassion in how arguments are expressed. We need a boisterous medley of conflicting ideas, but not a bedlam of toxic and shallow provocations. This is not a solution that anyone will get excited about.
I spent more time talking about hypersensitivity because I think a call for less civility is a lot less intuitive than a call for less trolling. But that is a real part of what I’m saying. Civility is a good, but it is not the good, and unbalanced appeals to total or complete civility are a waste of time at best and can be much worse. When there is no upper bound to civility, one side can always win every debate by constantly ratcheting the bar one notch higher than whatever their opponent writes. For this, and for many other reasons, we should try our best not to mistake tribal values—things like blunt forthrightness or careful nuance—for universals.
I’m not convinced that there’s one perfect point of balance where all of these values are given their due consideration and the correct approach—all factors incorporated—emerges as the one, true voice. Or, if there is such a perspective, I am pretty sure that it is God’s and not ours. I strike the balance as best I can, but I anticipate that other people—just as smart and just as good—will find the balance in other places. There are conservatives I admire and respect who are much, much more direct and abrasive than me, and I value their voices. There are liberals I admire and respect who are much, much more careful and nuanced than me, and I value their voices, too.
The best we can hope for in this world, I think, is to strike our own balance as best we see fit while striving to develop a broad palate for rhetorical styles and approaches. Whatever we individually feel is the right amount of sensitivity and nuance in an argument, we ought to stretch ourselves to occasionally consider arguments that exceed that amount in either direction. We need to reach beyond our comfort zone when we consider alternative ideas. It’s the only way to counteract the fragmentation of our social meta-brain and preserve the healthy diversity that can benefit us all.
 In the original version, I attributed elliptical orbits to Galileo instead of Kepler. Old Man (comment #6) spotted the error.