J.E.H. Smith:

There are memes circulating that are known as ‘bingo cards’, in which each square is filled with a typical statement or trait of a person who belongs to a given constituency, a mouth-breathing mom’s-basement-dwelling Reddit-using Mens’s Rights Activist, for example, or, say, an unctuous white male ally of POC feminism. The idea is that within this grid there is an exhaustive and as it were a priori tabulation, deduced like Kant’s categories of the understanding, of all the possible moves a member of one of these groups might make, and whenever the poor sap tries to state his considered view, his opponent need only pull out the table and point to the corresponding box, thus revealing to him that it is not actually a considered view at all, but only an algorithmically predictable bit of output from the particular program he is running. The sap is sapped of his subjectivity, of his belief that he, properly speaking, has views at all.

Who has not found themselves thrust into the uncomfortable position just described, of being told that what we thought were our considered beliefs are in fact something else entirely?

I have to admit that one of the most useful goads to my own intellectual growth has been that still, small voice that wonders, “Wait a minute…am I a cliché?”

For example, when I was nineteen, I thought this book was the most profound thing I’d ever read. Yes, I know. Do be kind, and try to keep your laughter muffled. Still, even though I was emotionally predisposed to give myself completely over to the romanticism of nature worship and Noble Savage-ism, I managed to outgrow it, in no small part because I was aware of the fact that many other people treated it dismissively. Why are those people over there laughing at me? What do they know that I don’t? The thought that others might have already investigated the object of my enthusiasm and found it lacking worried me like a pebble in my shoe. I couldn’t rest comfortably until I had seen myself from their perspective. I seemed congenitally incapable of the self-assurance of the true believer who confidently dismisses all critics as envious fools.

The Lady of the House has a friend who is a man of intense and varying enthusiasms. At forty years old, he has a predilection for the sort of self-aggrandizing self-improvement schemes that you would normally associate with precocious adolescents. From foodie fads, to his conspicuous contrarianism regarding the ordinary habits and conventions of social life, to his current obsession with biohacking, his optimizing never rests. I’ve never seen anyone who better exemplifies Chesterton’s line about how the danger isn’t that people will believe in nothing without God, it’s that they’ll believe in anything. He thinks of himself as proudly atheist, yet everything about him hums with the intensity of someone who yearns, more than anything, to believe, to devote himself to a cause. Each new enthusiasm is described with the zeal of the newly-converted. He is a perfect example of what a former age would have called a holy fool. And yet, he seems serenely untroubled by doubt, well-practiced at rationalizing objections away, completely oblivious to the possibility that his heartfelt convictions might be just so many squares on someone else’s bingo card.

The bingo-card formula of argument is maddening precisely because it is dehumanizing. We would rather be accused of evil than predictability. Being evil would at least be satisfying to the ego; it would place us beyond the comprehensible and flatter our vanity with other people’s fear. Contempt and dismissal is far more wounding. To be told that all of our subjective experience is merely the predictable unfolding of a preprogrammed script is to feel ourselves as a powerless object of study in a laboratory, to be perfectly under someone else’s control. Nothing is more satisfying in an argument than to toy with your opponent, holding him securely at arm’s length while he flails and thrashes futilely. Ideally, we should resist that urge to thoroughly dominate someone, but realistically, domination is such a visible and gratifying example of mastery, whereas understanding is more passive and hidden. Most of us can’t resist the urge to show off, to demonstrate our understanding in an active way, to prove that we have anticipated every counter, blocked off every escape route, and left our opponent at our mercy. Perhaps the best we can do is to turn that imprisoning gaze on ourselves, attempting to box ourselves in, and surprise ourselves with our endless ability to adapt and escape.