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  • Paul D. Wilke

Sorting Ourselves Out


The Heterodox Academy (HA) started up in 2015 to promote viewpoint diversity on college campuses. HA argues that our universities should be free spaces where different ideas can mingle in harmony. To a large extent, HA comes as a reaction to the leftward drift of many universities over the last two decades. Far from being a haven for students to explore different ways of thinking, many universities, particularly in the social sciences, have actually become bastions of illiberality, with dissenting ideas often getting silenced. Beliefs that threaten the orthodoxy are labeled racist, sexist, or fascist. At its worst, controversial scholars like Charles Murray who reside outside the accepted mainstream end up de-platformed, shouted down and unable to speak. Result? Militant intolerance, rigid orthodoxy, and a bland uniformity of thought that cheats students out of the potential richness of a college education. All in the name of social justice! After all, if a university education does not instill a lifelong love of learning, while at the same time accustoming students to dissenting viewpoints, then what will? Cable news? The Internet? How's that going?

Here's HA's definition for viewpoint diversity straight from its website:

"Viewpoint diversity refers to the state of a community or group in which members approach questions or problems from multiple perspectives. When a community is marked by intellectual humility, empathy, trust, and curiosity, viewpoint diversity gives rise to engaged and civil debate, constructive disagreement, and shared progress towards truth."

This worthy goal is equally important for the rest of society, but one that is much harder to attain in today's technologically mediated society. These days our only encounters with opposing viewpoints come online. Rather than encouraging open-minded dialogue, what we're fed are easily mocked caricatures offered up by the smooth talking leaders of our ideological tribes. The loudest and most extreme voices get most of the attention, drawing partisans into tedious arguments that only end up pushing moderates to the margins where they end up disengaging.

As a result, there's now a widely held understanding that online debate is pointless, that you'll never convince anyone of anything and everyone just ends up pissed off in the end. I tend to agree. We've all seen online discussions spiral out of control until they break down into name-calling and insults. If this is bound to happen when we talk about sensitive topics, then what's the point of even trying? That's kind of where we're at now, with constructive conversations giving way to ideologically-rigid echo chambers. Today many people shop online, not only for things, but for some sort of identity they can't seem to find in the real world. They're looking for something dramatic to latch on to, and there is nothing more dramatic than a classic good versus evil narrative. Sadly, the appeal of an epic struggle against shadowy forces is much more enticing than the nuanced give and take of ordinary conversation. But it's here that warped world-views are born.

But the real problem, I'd argue, is a little more complicated. First, yes, it is true that we don't talk enough with others who think differently than us. That rarely happens in even the best of situations. However, even simple day-to-day interactions within a diverse network of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and neighbors will tend to keep most people well grounded in reality. These don't necessarily have to be emotionally deep and moving engagements, but just enough so that it becomes difficult to see those different from us as de-humanized threats. When we come to view others as reflections of our own common humanity, fear and paranoia will struggle to get a foothold. But when we don't get this regular exposure to the full spectrum of the human rainbow, bad things can happen.

Here you get what I like to call Helm's Deep Syndrome (HDS), or what occurs when an identity group fosters a narrative of persecution combined with a collective sense of grievance. People who suffer from HDS see themselves as a small band of clear-eyed culture warriors fighting desperately to hold off the evil hordes of darkness. Gays, atheists, vegans, Christians, whites, blacks, latinos, gun-rights enthusiasts, feminists, liberals, conservatives, socialists, libertarians...I could go on and on, all suffer from HDS sometimes. These all represent identity groups, informal clubs if you will, that you either belong to, or you don't. Vocal dissent is discouraged, and diversity of viewpoints is frowned upon. Yes, there is overlap, but even here the overlap often sorts itself out based on broader left/right political and social ideologies.

Second, there now exists a powerful online reality that is starting to shape our actual reality. Online is where people end up contracting the most extreme cases of HDS. Vague fears get amplified by cherry-picked or misinterpreted information put out by savvy communicators who understand that fear and anger translate into clicks, and those clicks generate cash. Information online therefore becomes commodified truth, fragments of data taken from the real world and then endlessly misinterpreted to fit ideological agendas. Such a relativity of truth gets camouflaged when people are surrounded by massive online tribes made up of others who share and reinforce the same delusions. HDS can offer a real sense of belonging, but more based on a sense of ever-present danger from a hostile outside world. Those outside the tribe are a threat, unpatriotic, racist, bigoted, or whatever other pejorative you want throw out there.

In this realm, fantasy becomes reality, truth gets turned upside down, and what you see is not real, and what is not real becomes what you end up believing to be true, a dream world of conspiracies, deep states, pedophile sex rings, and international cabals. Liars prosper, preying on the existential vertigo and sense of grievance of those too unsophisticated or scared to know just how badly they are

getting played. One finds a world where pathological liars are hailed as truth tellers and truth tellers are condemned as purveyors of "fake news," where the media is a labeled a threat to democracy, rather than its most staunch guardian, and where the very idea of liberal toleration becomes twisted into an intolerant dogma that gives voice only to a narrow range of acceptable ideas. Everything, every lie, every deceit, every dissonant fact, every counter-argument, can be silenced, explained away, justified, or twisted like a pretzel into a sort of truth, whether post-truth, evolving truth, or the most pathetic of all, personal truth. It is sobering what bullshit people will proudly swallow if they admire the bullshitter enough.

And so here we are.

This is the part where I close with some uplifting message of hope for the future so the reader can take something positive away from this article. Everyone likes a happy ending, right? But happy endings are for fairy tales. Maybe I should tell you that all we need are more constructive conversations like those advocated by the Heterodox Academy. If only we talked more, everything would be fine. If only. But that's not going to happen, even if we all agree that would be ideal. We're all experts at noticing everyone else's biases and blind spots, but not so much when it comes to our own. This depressing fact is exacerbated online where we're more often than not just passive consumers of content. Choice ends when we select what information to consume. Not surprisingly, most people choose what makes them feel good and ignore everything else, and then they team up and start fighting about it. Tribalism is in our nature.

As someone recovering from my own virulent strain of HDS, I know how deeply it burrows into one's sense of identity, how appealing it can be to feel like you and a select few have it all figured out, that you're somehow different and special, while everyone else is an idiot. But you're not special in the big scheme of things, little snowflakes. Still, I remain pessimistic. These technological trends will continue, making it easier for people to confuse online conspiratorial fantasy for the objective world that actually exists outside their heads. We'll talk less and less and drown in ever more disorienting content. We could very well end up merging the online world with the natural world at some point in the coming years. Who knows what that will bring? In the meantime, the kind of batshit crazy that was once limited to obscure online message boards will continue seeping out into the real world every now and then with ever more disturbing consequences.

And with more crazy will come more chaos.

So buckle up, baby, it's going to be a bumpy ride!


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