A world in which all rights are protected isn’t just impracticable – it’s not even conceivable. Freedom of expression is a good thing, but so is protection from hate speech. We all want to be free to voice our views without fear, but we also want to be free from being insulted or stigmatised. The two freedoms will always be at odds, for they protect different and competing human interests. Both are universal human values, but they’ll never be reconciled in any kind of harmonious whole.
The ideal of a world ruled by rights distracts us from an unalterable reality – we’ll always be mired in dangerous and only partly soluble conflicts. Human rights can’t get round the fact that human values are at odds with one another. The freedom from conflict that many people seek in rights is just an illusion.
This doesn’t mean rights should be scrapped. Like the religion from which they sprang, they’re a valuable part of the human inheritance. But rather than thinking of rights as a militant creed that can deliver the world from its conflicts, we should recognise rights for what they are – useful devices that quite often don’t work. Following EM Forster, we should give human rights a rousing two cheers.
Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.”
Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.” In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs.
The logic of conversation as it plays out across the Internet, however—the into-the-ether observations and the never-ending feeds and the many, many selfies—is fundamentally different, favoring showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you. “That’s not conversation,” Turkle says.
She wants us to reclaim the permission to be, when we want and need to be, dull.
The worst thing about my current schedule is that it often doesn’t leave me any time to get bored. And that’s necessary for mental health, seriously. Too often, there’s always something else that needs to be done. The end of the day comes, and I just feel worn out. I got a lot of things accomplished, but what I really wanted was a few hours to sit and do nothing, to let those deeper roots do their thing.
Conversation, I agree, is the same way. Hours, or even days, can go by without anyone feeling pressed to say anything substantial, and then suddenly, an in-depth discussion starts from out of nowhere. I am fortunate to at least have that going for me.
The study of animal grief is a young field, largely because studies of any animal behaviors that one might think of as “human” were ignored for much of the twentieth century. It was commonly held that nonhuman animals were only reactive beings, lacking thoughts and emotions, and responding to stimuli as unthinking, unfeeling robots. Scientists were cautioned about being anthropomorphic, that is, regarding animals as they are often depicted in naive films and storybooks—as if they were people dressed up in fur or feathers. Researchers who thought they detected animal emotions—especially those that we think of as uniquely human, such as love, joy, or grief—were considered to be sentimentalists. And their reports (such as Darwin’s about the grieving cows) were dismissed as anecdotal.
In the last few decades, though, wildlife biologists have amassed so many firsthand accounts of animals caring for and mourning their dead that the idea of animal grief is no longer as suspect as it once was. Two recent books, both published in March of this year, explore the subject. How Animals Grieve, by anthropologist Barbara J. King, collects anecdotal and scientific data on grief in many kinds of animals, even some that most researchers ignore, such as rabbits, goats, and turtles. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal examines the biological roots of religion and morality. Since our awareness of death is often cited as the reason we developed religion, de Waal investigates whether other animals have a similar sense of their ultimate end. While King doubts that even our close chimpanzee relatives are “aware that death is coming,” de Waal suggests that older apes or elephants may have experienced enough of life to comprehend that they, too, will die. “When an old ape notices that trees are harder and harder to get into or an elephant has ever more trouble keeping up with the herd, might these individuals not apply what they have learned about life and death to their own bodies?” de Waal asks. “It’s hard to know, yet impossible to rule out.”
Buddhism is often called a “science of the mind” because, if it’s true to its eponymous first practitioner, it is less a religion than a training in taking the objective measure of reality. When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describes it, he always stresses that, as a “non-theistic” tradition, its ideas about God and the hereafter are much less important than its commitment to an empirical, scientific investigation of the way things are; the title of his last major work in English was Beyond Religion. The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.
Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of À la recherche.
Long ago, in my callow youth, I briefly entertained the notion of writing a book to elucidate the similarities between Nietzsche’s philosophy and Zen, as I understood each of them. I dunno, I guess I thought this was something missing from the popular philosophy literature. Thankfully, that notion withered on the vine. At best, it might have made a good blog post, though this was conceived in the days before blogs. Anyway, point is, these kinds of thought experiments and comparisons are interesting as far as they go, but words do mean things, and you have to take care not to do Procrustean violence to very different concepts in pursuit of an illusory sameness, lest you become the sort of too-stupid-to-even-feel-embarrassment dilettante who claims in all seriousness that good scientists are already postmodernists whether they know it or not.
Jeff Bercovici, a staff writer for Forbes covering media and technology, wrote in a blog post that he knew Ms. Sacco and considered her a friend. Over drinks a few weeks ago, he wrote, Ms. Sacco explained that she had recently noticed that “people seemed to like the tweets that were just a little bit risqué or outrageous.”
Maybe that need to impress, to find validation through the people that follow us online, was what led to Ms. Sacco’s inappropriate tweet, and also gave the people who attacked her the justification for their own vitriolic behavior.
The question is whether some of the people making these critiques actually care about education, about changing people. I think part of the reason that misogyny has become the term of choice is precisely because it is more inflammatory. As I will continue to point out, political critiques are subject to competitive social behaviors, and in the social networks where so much political critique happens– Tumblr, Twitter– what is rewarded is the critique that is most brutal, not the critique which is most effective for creating change. In that context, the word misogyny is a better tool than the word sexism; if sexism is X bad, then misogyny is X+1 bad, and so that term gets used, regardless of whether the situation described actually involves the hatred of women. I find this, frankly, a deeply misguided way to conduct a movement for social justice, and I think the people who take part in this kind of critique– many or most of whom are white and affluent, given the demographic nature of social networking– are ultimately privileging what makes them feel good over what is effective, even if they are completely sincere in their efforts. And this is very challenging for a lot of people who engage this way online, because they are deeply invested in a vision of politics in which there is no space whatsoever between the nobility of their intent, the purity of their politics, and the value of what they say. For me, the most important political lesson of my adulthood has been the sobering knowledge that I can be entirely noble in my intent and entirely destructive in my effects.
The conflict between the self as social performance and the self as authentic expression of one’s inner truth has roots much deeper than social media. It has been a concern of much theorizing about modernity and, if you agree with these theories, a mostly unspoken preoccupation throughout modern culture. Whether it’s Max Weber on rationalization, Walter Benjamin on aura, Jacques Ellul on technique, Jean Baudrillard on simulations, or Zygmunt Bauman and the Frankfurt School on modernity and the Enlightenment, there has been a long tradition of social theory linking the consequences of altering the “natural” world in the name of convenience, efficiency, comfort, and safety to draining reality of its truth or essence.
…These theories also share an understanding that people in Western society are generally uncomfortable admitting that who they are might be partly, or perhaps deeply, structured and performed. To be a “poser” is an insult; instead common wisdom is “be true to yourself,” which assumes there is a truth of your self. Digital-austerity discourse has tapped into this deep, subconscious modern tension, and brings to it the false hope that unplugging can bring catharsis.
…Of course, digital devices shouldn’t be excused from the moral order — nothing should or could be. But too often discussions about technology use are conducted in bad faith, particularly when the detoxers and disconnectionists and digital-etiquette-police seem more interested in discussing the trivial differences of when and how one looks at the screen rather than the larger moral quandaries of what one is doing with the screen. But the disconnectionists’ selfie-help has little to do with technology and more to do with enforcing a traditional vision of the natural, healthy, and normal. Disconnect. Take breaks. Unplug all you want. You’ll have different experiences and enjoy them, but you won’t be any more healthy or real.
It is not mysterious why conservatives think the Phil Robertson disciplining is rights-infringing but think the Dixie Chicks disciplining was not. They support what Phil Robertson had to say, but oppose what the Dixie Chicks had to say. Despite their pretensions to the contrary, conservatives, and most people in general for that matter, do not care about content-neutral procedural fairness. They care about winning their stuff and beating the other’s side stuff.
…Most of the time, proclaimed commitments to uncoerced free speech, minority parliamentary power, states rights and any other content-neutral procedural rule are not serious. Some people are seriously concerned about process for its own sake, but such people are few and far between. Everyone else has a substantive agenda and merely stakes out the short-term positions on content-neutral procedural justice that further that agenda. Filibusters are good when they block what I dislike, but bad when they block what I like. States rights are good when states do what I like, but bad when they do what I dislike. Private economic coercion of expression is good when it shuts down comments I dislike, but bad when it shuts down comments I like. And so on.
One point of consensus is that it is getting harder and harder to muster the deep attention that literature demands. In one sense, the Internet has made it easier to access literary materials – particularly the free, out-of-copyright materials found on sites like Project Gutenberg. But by speeding up the rhythm of life – and making it more difficult to adjust ourselves to the longer, slower rhythms of reading – the digital age has made genuine “access” more elusive. The upside is that these moments of true access, when they come, are all the more magical. As Sven Birkerts – author of 1994’s The Gutenberg Elegies and the dean of debates on digital reading – puts it, “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won.”
There is agreement too that prolonged periods of solitude – prerequisite for most forms of literary reading – are becoming scarcer and scarcer. In the liveliest and most original contribution to the volume, Drew Nelles also turns this apparent deficit into an asset. “When you read,” he notes, “you are by yourself, in a radical way – momentarily solitary and unplugged.” The reading experience suffers from any attempt at breaking this radical solitude. The two most conspicuous analog efforts at making reading social – readings and book clubs – are, Nelles says, “also the most irritating.” Digital efforts like Goodreads likewise “feel all wrong,” smacking of “enforced sociability.” For Nelles, the asocial nature of reading should, in a culture beset by sociality, be embraced. He closes his piece with a challenge: pick up a book, read it, but don’t talk about it – not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on Goodreads. “Keep it a secret – your secret. … Consider the independence this book gives you. Learn to be alone again.”
“For Christmas of 2013, I got a great present: I finally encountered someone else echoing the exact themes I’ve been banging on about for years.”
Over the last few days, poster JacquesCuze at the Slymepit has made several good points on an important theme. One:
I think that if constant internet mob actions results in constant deplorable disproportionate witch hunts that destroy people’s lives in real space, that it’s time to think again if free speech is truly only something between man and government and not something between man and man.
“The marketplace of ideas” does not conduct business solely in a Government Warehouse. A rich marketplace of ideas should then be able to counter ugly speech with more speech, not counter ugly speech with real world firings, career and personal destruction.
My education was horribly lacking and I don’t have a great response to Popehat’s and others when they cry #FREEZEPEACH to say that the First Amendment does not apply to non governmental acts of censorship.
On the one hand they are right, and on the other hand it seems to go against the grain of everything I was brought up to believe, namely that citizens supporting the speech and freedom of expression of others, including unpopular views, were the marks of a 20th century, “progressive” society.
Are there any great philosophers, lawyers, essays, videos that directly refute Popehat and the FREEZEPEACHER’s claims that it’s fine to counter ugly speech with calls for censorship and real world destruction?
My point with White is that when these Internet blow ups over speech flare up and result in firings and the destruction of personal lives and careers, Ken can be counted on to say:
1. It’s not a first amendment issue
2. Those of you saying, duh, we know, but the real issue is … are still wrong because there are other people who say it’s a first amendment issue
3. Their ugly speech was met on the net with more speech! That’s all good!
4. Yes, people were fired, careers lost, lives ruined, and yeah, the people that did that were deplorable and responses should be proportionate
But he is never able to connect 3 & 4 and realize that his 1 is used by the people in 4 to justify their bullshit and then realize the answer is that ugly speech should be met with more speech and his theory of proportionality is bullshit not because its false but because none of the incidents he writes about have ever shown any amount of proportionality and yet his hobby horse is still his 1 and 3, screaming it’s not a first amendment issue and the social hate is just more speech.
Back in my days of reading progressive blogs, I was frequently dismayed by how often such narrow legalistic definitions of free speech were used to justify actions which clearly violated the spirit of the concept. I’m sure you’ve heard some version of it before: “Yeah, well, Thoughtcrime Jones doesn’t have a Constitutional right to a career/TV show/radio show, so, too fucking bad.” Technically true, but it would nonetheless be a pretty piss-poor society in which anything not specifically protected by the Constitution was subject to revocation at the hands of a vigilante mob. As Chomsky has succinctly said, even Hitler and Stalin were in favor of free speech for ideas they liked. One of the most disgusting things about the social justards — and Lord, how many things there are to choose from — is the way they’ve made “freezepeach” a trendy, snarky meme to justify the way they behave towards members of the out-group and the way they police their own communities for dissent. Those loopholes you gleefully exploit for temporary partisan advantage now will be used against you eventually as well; you can count on that. This Prisoner’s Carnival atmosphere that has been created through social media is far more threatening to a healthy society than any stupid joke or ignorant remark made by some viral insta-celebrity.
The principle, at least in its ideal form, is intended to make sure that ideas stand or fall on their own reasonable merit, not due to the cunning and guile of political machinations. Yet it’s exceedingly rare to find anyone with enough integrity to place that principle ahead of tribal loyalties. Same as it ever was, I suppose. It’s too abstract of a notion for most people. Humans are social creatures with a deeply embedded instinct to monitor and regulate the behavior of others in the group. Still, it’s heartening to see the occasional instance of someone rising above those censorious urges.