For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.
— William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads
There was an absurd piece making the rounds on social media the other day, written by a women’s studies professor (of course), which claimed that the recent SpaceX launch was just another example of patriarchy in action, because isn’t it just like men to think they can use up resources here before nonchalantly heading off into space to despoil virgin frontiers with their phallic rockets, etc. You can find eye-rolling material like that every day, of course; the only thing that was even slightly eyebrow-raising at all about this was that it was published by nbcnews.com. One of the people retweeting it commented that this was more proof that toxic intersectionality doesn’t stay confined to undergrads on campus, but leaks out and pollutes the groundwater of mainstream society too.
Typically, though, when we talk about the threat of campus radicalism to social norms, we picture it as the work of committed ideologues. While there are certainly plenty of earnest preachers of the intersectional gospel, one can’t help but notice that there are some rather more prosaic factors involved in broadcasting — normalizing, if you will — the message to a wider audience. The structure of online media incentivizes a race to publish inflammatory garbage for easy clicks, and the jaded boredom of an audience which “craves extraordinary incident” acts in concert with “rapid communication” to turn grotesque deformations of intelligent, thoughtful conversation into “great national events.” Hardly anyone involved in creating this climate of ridiculous opinion needs to be a true believer, but we all have to live under it regardless.
If, indeed, social media is to bad ideas what the first cities were to infectious diseases, one simple solution would be for far more people to stop carelessly coughing and sneezing. Ironic amusement can be just as much of a vector as ideology for spreading asinine notions. Intellectual bacteria don’t care why they get passed from host to host as long as they do. Wash your hands before linking or retweeting.