The problem, I think, is critical shorthand– when terms or tropes are used as a way to avoid doing the work of careful, specific criticism. Effective and fair criticism always proceeds from making as sympathetic an interpretation as possible before recounting flaws. Such an accounting can’t happen if criticism is expressed in a predigested idiom, especially if its one that is explicitly mocking and reductive. Being a critic entails, to me, a lot of responsibility, a lot of integrity. And since every piece of art is unique, each deserves the respect of a unique appraisal.
But we are all Bill Maher today. His simulated dinner parties aren’t that different from a lot of the ones that I’ve been to myself, or the virtual ones we convene every day on Facebook. Much has been said about the Balkanization of public discourse, how we only ever listen now to people who share our views, and what that means for our capacity to communicate across partisan lines. But we should also consider what it means for our ability to think in the first place. Opposition, said William Blake, is true friendship. Never being challenged leads to smugness, complacency, and mental stasis. Maher is right: anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. And so is anyone who doesn’t.
Both of them are talking about a sort of complacency that reassures itself that all the heavy mental lifting has long since been done, there’s nothing new under the sun, and no need to pay attention to anything longer than the time needed to file it away in the appropriate folder. Or, as some foolosopher once said, ideas and concepts are forever decaying into clichés, slogans and buzzwords.
To reiterate a point from just the other day, many people are happy to pay lip service to “truth” and “accuracy” as long as doing so bolsters their self-image or gains them status. If they feel their reputation or basic identity to be threatened by those ideals, though, they’d just as soon invest their energy in defending a beautiful lie. In recent months, I’ve seen bloggers whom I used to respect turn into laughingstocks — engaging in transparently dishonest propagandizing, deleting even mildly critical comments, reinforcing groupthink and demonizing opponents. Obviously, they’ve allowed themselves to become convinced that the righteousness of their cause trumps the principles they used to espouse, and having staked all their intellectual credibility on this, sunken-cost fallaciousness comes into play, keeping them hanging on until the bitter end.
The easy thing to do is laugh at them for having succumbed to delusions to which you feel immune. The more important thing is to reflect on where your own blind spots might be, to wonder which issues are so emotionally charged as to short-circuit your own clear thinking. How can you know them until someone else points them out to you? And how do you prevent a temporary fit of madness, born of devotion to your biases, from causing you to perceive even loyal opposition as a treacherous enemy?