Intellectual Standard Bearers

The past few months in media and print have been like a slow mo version of the Red Wedding. In between Brexit, campus protests, conspiracy theories, and the election of God Emperor Donald Trump… every publication seems to have turned into a frontline. Trenches are being dug, hit pieces being deployed, slurs and various -isms unleashed on any and every opponent across the political spectrum. I must confess I can’t fully keep track of all the intellectuals and pundits who have supposedly been “SMASHED”, “ANNIHILATED”, “DESTROYED” by spokespersons and commenters; and vice versa.
The public space of ideas seems to have become much more tribal. With every passing week, scandal and Twitter outrage, the list of voices deemed acceptable by either side of the aisle seems to be shrinking.

Meanwhile, I seem to be following the opposite trajectory. If anything this year has been characterised for me by an interesting “dip” in (what I would have once described as) my intellectual standards.
It used to be that I listened mainly to commentators who (in my view) had things ‘right’. Experienced debaters and scientists who stuck to the facts and arrived at familiar conclusions. For instance, eager to establish my skeptic debating strategies and intellectual bona fides, I devoured anything by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the Hitch, Penn Jillette, James Randi, Bill Maher and so on. These were figures I had some intellectual real estate in common with (puny thought mine was) and the purpose of listening to them was as much to learn as it was to be preached to like a choir.

This isn’t to say that I fully created my own bubble (as the neologism goes), but my interest was definitely geared towards a relatively small group of ‘brothers in thought’.

That’s changed recently. I feel that my horizons have broadened considerably, or at least the spectrum of people that I’m prepared to listen to. I’ve found myself engaged with the ideas of many controversial figures such as Scott Adams, Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Douglas Murray, Larry Elder and many others (yes, they mostly lean right, sue me). I even listened to a discussion with Marine Le Pen recently (oh geez).
While I haven’t agreed with all what they have said, I now appreciate much more the sensation of being challenged, and being exposed to ideas which run counter to my way of thinking. Whether I wind up fully agreeing with their positions or methods, is entirely besides the point. Scott Adams has changed my perspective on communication and politics in a profound way, and Ben Shapiro has given me considerations of economy and society that I could not see before. Who cares that they both have severe intellectual flaws and short-comings? They can be valuable voices nonetheless.

And while the range of people who I listen to has expanded, the through-line between people I respect and admire is still the same. People who are intellectually honest. People who are willing to speak truth wherever and however they encounter it. Who are transmitting their thoughts in real time and honestly representing the contents of their own mind. This should be the true free-thinker alliance, and I fully expect this to be an extremely heterogeneous group. Standing shoulder to shoulder with a conservative Jew like Ben Shapiro, and an AI researcher like Eliezer Yudkowsky. And why not? As long as we can all chase truth in a moral and honest way, I could not think of finer company

intellectualhonesty– Never thought I’d debate next to a Republican
– How about next to a fellow Hitch fanboy?
– Aye… I could do that.

Weinstein put this all masterfully in a recent conversation with Sam Harris:

“We always talk about leadership but not follower-ship, and one of the things that I try to do as a a relatively strong voice, is to lend my voice to the support of others. Because I think that if we don’t teach people that there’s no shame in following others who are doing the noble work, then we have leaders but no followers, and nothing much gets done. And so, as you’ve heard, I am critical of some of the things you’ve said and done, I think it’s important to realise that there’s a really heroic aspect to this project, and one does not need to sign up for all aspects of it to see that the decency, and the attempted clarity and fairness is unmistakable. And so to all of these people who have come after you – I was really interested in Cenk Uygur’s worldview for a long time, I’ve held Greenwald in high respects – we are witnessing something very very strange, and it’s important that we check ourselves and figure out: Are these real conflicts? Or are they conflicts that have been scripted for us because we’ve gotten a postage-size stamp on which to stand on intellectually?

And I think there’s a coming together that is absolutely necessary. Because I don’t want a conversation dictated by Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. I have no use for either of these people. It’s a different generation, it’s a different worldview and it’s a different intellectual ante that has to be put up to talk about these most difficult topics; and it requires humility, it requires a willingness to learn, to camp/decamp, to change one’s mind and revise, and I think that’s really what your core message is. And I’m very angry at those who have hi-jacked it cynically, because there’s no question that someone with the skill and grace of a Reza Aszlan, could easily see your point if only he were striving to see it.

[…]

So I’m super excited to do that, to be here and lend my voice, whether or not I agree with the next podcast you do or not. I have great faith in the process. This is the group who can say, you know what, I made a mistake, I learned something new, I changed my mind. And these are the hallmarks (along with steelmanning and things like Rapaport’s rules) that should be the sina qua non of mature discussion. “

 

I agree entirely with all this, and it’s important enough to render in its entirety.
The more you look at the modern media and our current societal debate, the more it becomes crystal clear that the real fight is between those who think honestly and those who do not. There are far too many people who are interested in just making their side win, and making the other side look bad at all costs. Sometimes they’re politicans and regressives; but equally they can be the media outlets that write blistering articles about one politican in the morning, and contradict themselves by the evening.

Disagreement and spirited debate among honest adults are perfectly fine. In fact that’s to be sought out and relished in, because it means there are interesting conversations to be had.  But those who are intellectual toddlers with commensurate levels of ethics, they don’t get to play.

Centipedes and classical liberals: time to man the barricades.

 

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