And while I shall keep silent about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you.
Brian raises a fair point in a recent comment: when criticizing an opponent, there’s a chance that your criticism may be appropriated and used by other opponents of your opponent, whom you may find even more distasteful, all things considered. All right, but there’s also another way to express that concept, one with which most of us will be familiar from recent political history: watch what you say, lest you give aid and comfort to the enemy. Why would you criticize the president when the terrorists are obviously worse? Why do you hate this, that or the other?
Unfortunately, attempting to caricature an opponent’s argument or perform a reductio ad absurdum is a time-honored rhetorical practice. But the strategy for navigating such highly charged arguments is the same prosaic one it always is: be as thorough, clear and precise as you can in your communication, be charitable in your interpretation of others, use your best judgment in the frequent absence of certainty, and have faith that eventually, truth will out. Weigh arguments on their merits, not their political utility. Be highly suspicious of anyone who insists on the inevitability of ends that require the means of sacrificing inconvenient truths, especially when the precise nature of those ends and the precise means for reaching them are still very much up for debate. Practice the humility of admitting “I don’t know,” and don’t let anyone else do your thinking for you.
When I insist that I do not consider myself a political animal, I don’t simply mean that I’m sick of reading about politicians and elections per se. I mean that I don’t primarily identify as a member of any collective movement pursuing sociopolitical goals. I’m not interested in being on anyone’s team. I am a Berliner. I am an insignificant individual, neither having nor seeking power or influence, which leaves me free to speak the truth as I see it without having to worry about inconveniencing anyone else’s plans or disrupting any fragile coalitions. I take it for granted that the handful of you reading this already share my basic belief that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are bad things, and that you aren’t here because you need me to reinforce your convictions for you. There are plenty of bloggers who are trying to build a brand, rehearse a shtick, sell you something, or write the same post about the same things that everyone else has already written about. I’m not one of them.
So, when I criticize or mock the acolytes of Atheism+, for example, it’s because it amuses me for now. I’m not concerned that by doing so, I’m somehow weakening the foundations of atheism in America, or diminishing all progressive activism by proxy. I’m laughing at a specific group of stupid people saying stupid things, made that much funnier by the fact that atheists — it must be admitted — have a not-completely-undeserved reputation for taking smug pride in their intellects. There’s a non-partisan, slapstick humor in watching people like that step on the end of a loose board and take it full in the face. I used to primarily make fun of religious believers, but then that started to feel trite and predictable. Now, there’s a certain fascination with watching a mad experiment in group psychology play out right before my eyes. In a few months, assuming anyone still wants to even be associated with the movement, it, too, will likely have become boring, and I’ll find something else to occupy my attention.
Most people have enough of a social instinct to want to be involved in whatever’s going on. They want to be heeded, respected and included. They feel compelled to keep up with the conversational zeitgeist, which means accepting and using the same heuristics as everyone else. In other words, when they themselves are unsure or ignorant about the details of a particular issue, they allow themselves to be persuaded by authority figures or an atmosphere of collective certainty among the rest of the tribe. (Again, people think differently on their own than they do as part of a group, for reasons that have nothing to do with reason.) To me, it’s imperative to avoid any kind of social pressure that could compromise intellectual integrity. If that means being ignored or scorned, so be it.
I would rather be the same taciturn, mildly misanthropic, autism-spectrum-dwelling mofo I am in offline life, moving at my own methodical, tortoise-like pace, scrutinizing details that others deem insignificant and unworthy of their time.