Provocations

by Daniel A. Kaufman

  1.  On Some Downsides of Unlimited Choice

Even as I make use of the internet and benefit from its near-universal reach, I find myself quite gloomy about much of its impact.  In particular, I am concerned that it has expanded choice to a point beyond which it is an uncontroversial good.

As is often the case, G.K. Chesterton spoke to what I’m getting at, concisely and with great clarity and style:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.  The reason is obvious.  In a large community, we can choose our companions.  In a small community our companions are chosen for us…

The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside.  And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born. (1)

Some stray thoughts, along these lines —

A. We hear much – and have even spoken a bit ourselves, here, at The Electric Agora – about how difficult it is for young people, today, to bear hearing messages with which they disagree or which cause them any measure of discomfort; about a need for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”; and about the increasing – and increasingly shrill – demands that campus speakers be “disinvited,” teachers and administrators fired, statues and monuments dismantled, all so that a person need never see something, hear something, or be forced to think something that he does not want to see, hear or think.

Our young people have grown up in a world in which, for as long as they can remember, they could exercise an unprecedented degree of control over what they heard and saw and with whom they associated.  There was never a need to watch whatever television programs were being broadcast on any particular day, at any particular time.  The choice of programming is virtually infinite and no longer bound to a broadcast.  There was never a need to listen to whatever was being played on the radio, when one turned it on.  Satellite radio offers niche-programming and every automobile has a built-in port, through which to connect a mobile device, so that one can only ever hear exactly what one wants to hear.  Indeed, technology has brought us to the point where no one need ever even listen to an entire recording, the custom-designed playlist having replaced the album.  And there was never a need to find a way to get along with those among whom one found oneself – one could simply join self-selected virtual communities online, where everyone agrees about everything; where values, tastes, and expectations are homogenous; and where, consequently, there are no surprises, bad or, for that matter, good.

And so we find ourselves, now, shocked that we have produced a generation of people – and are in the process of creating a second — who cannot cope with interactions and experiences over which they cannot exercise control.  Stunned that our students have no capacity to stomach different points of view or people with whom they disagree.  Dismayed that a grown person needs to retreat to a “puppy-room,” when he hears or sees something that he doesn’t like. (2)

It’s funny.  Because this is exactly what we asked for.  Could we really not see it coming?  Or did we just not care, because there was so much damned money to be made?

B.One of the really malignant effects of these new technologies and modalities and the endless “choice” they bring is the almost complete destruction of any sort of substantial, shared, national popular culture. Popular television shows and music could often be of quite high quality and would connect people with one another, even when they had little else in common.  The country, who had worked (and laughed) through difficult questions of race and sex and generational conflict, over nine years of All in the Family, mourned the death of Edith Bunker.  The last episode of M.A.S.H., after eleven seasons, felt like losing beloved members of one’s family.  Casey Kasem was every American’s DJ, for two decades of America’s Top 40.  Americans didn’t watch “the news,” they watched Walter Cronkite.  The 1983 broadcast of The Day After was viewed by 100 million people, every one of whom can remember how the next day at school or work was marked by an eerie, frightened quiet.

There is nothing that connects us in these ways anymore – nothing that binds us together as a common culture  — and this strikes me as obviously bad, and particularly bad for young people, for whom the national popular culture used to provide their one source of real cultural capital, the height of which spanned the period from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, after which it rapidly, catastrophically collapsed.  Because of the way that entertainment is produced, marketed, distributed, and consumed, popular music and film, today, have no power to define generations of young people or to give them a collective and thus, powerful voice – one that the adults cannot deny or ignore — in the way that they used to.  Today, popular culture, with the exception of the thinnest, most grotesquely commercial garbage, is entirely broken up into niches, and the social and cultural ghettoization that results has served only to disempower young people, in their engagements with the larger society.

2.  On What I Look For in a Person

Given that I teach philosophy, do professional writing in philosophy, host and produce an online show devoted to philosophy, and generally operate in intellectual circles, I am obviously often in the company of a lot of very smart people.

Lately, however, I have found myself tiring of what seems to be an overvaluation of intelligence and especially, of rationality.   Somewhat recently, in the midst of a particularly irritating exchange with a particularly irritating New Atheist-type, in which my interlocutor disparaged any and every level of religious commitment, on the grounds of its “irrationality,” I began thinking about all the kinds of people I would rather be talking with, which then led to my making a mental list of all the qualities in a person that I care about more than his or her level of intelligence and rationality.  Here’s what I came up with:

Straightforwardness.

Perceptiveness.

Good taste.

A love of good food, good drink, and good conversation.

Well-traveledness.  (I know.  Not a word.)

Wit.

A healthy sense of irony.

A distinctive, personal style.

Adventurousness and a willingness to take risks.

Imaginativeness.

Charm.

Energy.

I wonder what sorts of things might make their way onto our readers’ lists?

Notes

(1)  G.K. Chesterton, “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” (Heretics, 1905).

(2)  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/opinion/sunday/judith-shulevitz-hiding-from-scary-ideas.html

26 Comments »

  1. I’d add; not lying to oneself and knowing oneself sufficiently well that one knows or at least senses when one is lying to oneself. How about adding: intellectual honesty too?

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  2. Let’s start with this “puppy room” that we hear about over and over again. Now how big was it exactly?

    I am guessing it was not that big. And not that packed. A couple of dozen people.the article says.

    How about the debate itself? The article says that the lecture theatre was “packed”.

    So the big unsafe space was packed.

    And the little safe space had about 24 people in it.

    And of course the rest of the students, who didn’t pack into the debate, also didn’t feel the need for a safe space.

    And yet the little safe space is somehow taken as an illustration of what young people are like today and the large packed unsafe space or all the rest of the students are not.

    That doesn’t make sense.

    We have a small self selecting and therefore unrepresentative sample of the population of Brown University, which is of course a tiny proportion of all young people generally.

    So I am wondering about all the rest of the examples we keep hearing about. Did they involve most of the students at the time? Or just a small noisy minority? Isn’t it probably more likely that the majority of young people either don’t mind or welcome opposing viewpoints? And we just get to hear about the noisy minority who don’t.

    And is this behaviour confined even to them. When some Intelligent Design adherent wants an optional class in University to discuss intelligent design, among other things, and does not have it labelled as actual science then Jerry Coyne contacts a large cashed up organisation with full time lawyers who put pressure on the university to cancel the class and theaten the employment of the professor. When the Discovery Institute called him “Censor of the Year” he said that he wore it with pride.

    Jerry Coyne is 65. They didn’t have internet at all when he was growing up.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want nonsense viewpoints like ID cluttering up the time and resources of the University that my kids go to when they get to that age.

    But Jerry Coyne is drippingly snide about an LGBT group who opposed a conservative evangelical Christian who opposed marriage equality being invited to the University. He lectures them that it is more important for them to hear that opposing viewpoint and for it to be debated properly.

    So why is it OK for Coyne to demand universities be safe spaces (kitten rooms, as it were) from ID and that courses should be cancelled and professors be threatened with sacking, and not OK for LGBT groups to feel that the university should not be giving time to evangelical Christian claptrap?

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  3. Robin,

    “So why is it OK for Coyne to demand universities be safe spaces (kitten rooms, as it were) from ID and that courses should be cancelled and professors be threatened with sacking, and not OK for LGBT groups to feel that the university should not be giving time to evangelical Christian claptrap?”
    Well you are talking about to very different contexts, a science classroom and a speaking engagement. I don’t speak for Jerry Coyne (thank God) but I hope he would not try to reject a creationist from speaking at UofC. Creationists frequently go and debate at universities. So I don’t think he would want a safe space to keep away creationists. But in a science classroom educators are expected to uphold a standard in teaching accredited scientific theory. Creationism does not meet that standard. In the same way, simplistic, evangelical arguments would not meet the standards in a philosophy classroom.

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  4. Robin, I’d be more interested in hearing your view on the more general point. Do you think it’s a good thing that we can excercise such overwhelming control over what we see and hear and with whom we associate? What’s your view of the Chesterton quote? And do you think it is a good thing that there is so little left, by way of a national popular culture?

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  5. I don’t know that it isn’t just some form of feel good stage, that will eventually have to come to terms with the broader world. As I recall, our generation did something similar with illegal substances.

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  6. I’m a bit surprised by the following omission. The virtue which I consider most important is “perspective.” It can be very difficult to see the forest, because the trees do naturally tend to get in the way. Specialists are certainly needed in a host of fields, but given their circumstances, it should naturally be difficult to then go “big picture” without bringing along various specialized concerns.

    Daniel, you’re working in the trenches with the youngsters each day, so I can see how they might indeed frustrate you. Perhaps they’d frustrate me as well. But consider the possibility that these kids might not only be just fine, but even superior. Yes they’re losing common television programs, but did we really need such things? We still have things like Christmas, terrorist attacks, and everything in between to bond common peoples — technology doesn’t change this. Furthermore observe the amazing power that modern information technology offers us. It does seem to be changing humanity about the way electricity changed it last century, so there should be some issues to work out. As a person who prides himself on his big picture perspective, I’m all for this new age!

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  7. Eric, given that I can compare the students today with the ones I taught over twenty years ago and all the students in-between, I can tell you with absolute certainty that not only are they not superior, they lag far behind, in terms of every applicable indicator.

    I was quite specific as to why I thought the lack of a national popular culture is bad, so until I hear something equally specific in contrast, I just won’t find it very persuasive, I’m afraid.

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  8. Kindness – Resilience
    Curiosity -Humility
    Self Awareness – Other Awareness

    Traits that serve a joyful process of progressive understanding. I listed them in pairs as I think over development of any virtue at the cost of it’s compliment is unattractive to me.

    I liked the Chesterson quote as it flips our typical perspective of freedom and constraint. I do think however that both too little choice and too much choice can result in a narrowing of perspective. We need an environment that includes enough discomfort to stimulate growth but not so mucc as to retard it. I think there is a pretty wide window under which humans can flourish but I do think we are slipping to far in the too many easily obtainable choices direction.

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  9. Okay Daniel, you do hold the “a posteriori ” of assessing your students now versus 20 years ago. But then isn’t it possible that you’ve at least jumped the gun regarding the cause of the deficiency you see? It seems to me that things were far different five years ago regarding the Utube and such which is progressively diminishing standard media’s enormous hold. Thus the kids you’re now teaching shouldn’t fully be a product of the missing standard media conformity that you’ve implicated. Furthermore beyond standard media (which does still seem prominent) my own preteen son has things like “Mindcraft” to bond him with many other kids. I do suspect that he’d laugh at notions like “trigger warnings,” since he and I do happen to be quite similar. Regardless, his generation might be a better test than your current students if missing standard pop culture does happen to be the issue, though it could be something else entirely.

    More importantly however, what to you think of the “big picture” virtue which I mentioned in my last comment? Of the traits which you personally respect, do you not consider this to be one to be one of the greatest?

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  10. Hi Dan, these were some interesting points to think about.

    1 A. I think the shocking inability of some within younger generations to handle disquieting or even opposing points of view (that puppy-room was unbelievably grotesque) is less a technological manifestation than a sociological one. Though the technology can be used to amplify the sociological.

    My main reason for thinking this is that the extent of bizarre behavior seems primarily limited to the US and maybe the UK. I have been at University in the Netherlands for 6 years now and never heard anyone speak of safe spaces, or disinviting speakers*, or asking the university to protect them from everything. While I still think many of the younger people here seem brittle and risk-averse and conservative (like old people), they aren’t infantalizing themselves in the way these reports indicate. And they have had as much access to modern technologies as the US/UK students do.

    One major difference is that mainland European cultures tend not to treat kids like infants, or subject them to some idealized, sterilized, Disney-fied version of “childhood” or “innocence” until they are 18. Though I admit US influences have begun creeping in and I fear for succeeding generations.

    And when we talk about tech, things like not having to accept what is on commercial stations has been around from at least our generation (X). Yeah it was tape and not digital, so a little harder, but not significantly different. So I don’t think that contributes to any problems, as long as you get out of the house and have to deal with others at work or in regular life.

    *Note: I have no problem with disinviting commencement speakers. It’s a celebration which should be about the students. If they don’t like someone why inflict that person on them and make the thing a downer?

    B. I’m not so much worried about the changes leading to a lack of shared, national culture as I am curious as to what the effects will be. It’s not like shared culture, or local culture will go away. Its just that personal experience of culture won’t be defined as much by the chance of where one was born. It will be different, but is that detrimental?

    What I am worried about is that there seems to be less of a distinction between fantasy and reality. Entertainment becoming indistinguishable from news (and vice versa). And worse still that the main shared events globally (entertainment and news) are horrific tragedies. Tragedy as world culture.

    Also, I am not worried that interest in reading will go away, there is text all over the internet. The problem is with the advance of viewing all arguments as mere opinion, like there is no distinction between them except for what I feel about them. Oh, and gotcha quotes used in place of argument. It’s like the living in a bad sitcom.

    2. What I look for…

    A sense of fucking** humor

    Open-mindedness*** (esp. tolerance of the personal habits of others)

    Cleverness (a combination of Perceptiveness and Wit)

    Imagination

    Creativity

    Hedonism (that includes good food, and drinks)

    Experience (which I suppose entails some level of adventurousness)

    Courage

    Culture… And it really helps if people like books, movies, and games. To be honest this has ended up being one of the most common qualities allowing me to sustain an ongoing or close relationship with others. It gives opening references to talk about, leading to good conversations.

    ** If someone was offended by the “fucking” they lack a sufficient sense of humor.

    *** Otherwise conversations become tedious tirades against offensive behavior (Us v Them) or bitter arguments when someone happens to be Them.

    On your own list, I used to think well-traveled meant something. While it is useful, I’ve met too many extremely well-traveled people that have some of the most closed minds. I don’t understand how that happens, but it does. The difference between a spirit of exploration v. a missionary spirit?

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  11. Hi Dan K,

    Robin, I’d be more interested in hearing your view on the more general point. Do you think it’s a good thing that we can exercise such overwhelming control over what we see and hear and with whom we associate? What’s your view of the Chesterton quote?

    I think there is a good deal of truth and wisdom in Chesterton’s quote, as there is in much of what he has to say.

    So I am quite sympathetic to the general point. I would just point out that it is more true for some kinds of people and less true for others. What I mean is that for many of us, most of us I would venture, we cannot choose our companions whether in large or small communities, including online communities.

    There are some who can go up to just about any group and become their new besty. But not for most of us, we are thrown together with whomever fate throws us.

    This is not a completed thought, so much as a work in progress.

    And do you think it is a good thing that there is so little left, by way of a national popular culture?

    I think that popular culture is in a terrible place right now, although I can’t go along with your specific examples, being from a different nation. We were more enmeshed in Archie and Edith Bunker’s spiritual father and mother Alf and Else Garnett.

    I would need to pull my thoughts on this together to say more. I am fascinated by the way my kids have no interest in television, as such. When the new Thunderbirds series came on, it was quite nostalgic to be sitting together as a family each week watching it, but that was the exception.

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  12. Robin,

    “As I said, it wasn’t a science class, nor pretending to be. It was an optional class on the limits of science.”
    Well you didn’t say how the class was listed, but I doubt it would be up to the standards of any department (if they were treating ID as a serious theory).

    Eric,
    Per our convo on my post, you might look into Sharon Street or Annette Bair.

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  13. Thanks for the advice David. Of course I’d rather talk with you privately, but perhaps this off topic comment will be permitted through.

    I cut Baier off pretty quickly given her gender focus (too non fundamental), but found Street quite impressive. For “constructionist,” in my opinion wiki might even have written “sensible.” Though impressive however, she apparently does not have the revolutionary sort of ideas which I perceive my own to be. For example, (and to her credit) she admittedly wasn’t able to give Sven Nyholm a solution here: http://peasoup.typepad.com/peasoup/2013/08/featured-philosopher-sharon-street.html?cid=6a00d83452b89569e2019104e9bd00970c#comment-6a00d83452b89569e2019104e9bd00970c
    The question asked for the common element which lets a duty versus pleasure become resolved. My own theory is quite clear about this common element, as well as associated complexities.

    We will of course talk more given that we’re each addicted to this stuff, though if you are curious right now, I’m sure that you’re able to figure out where it is that I can be reached…

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  14. Humbleness and empathy are also virtuous, I think.

    Strong popular glues, like the Cronkite effect, go both ways, I guess. It does synchronize a sense of shared values and it gives a society common reference points, but it can also be very excluding.

    No, ID shouldn’t be taught in class, neither should homeopathy.
    But talked about.

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  15. I suppose that I may have given Sharon Street just a bit too much credit above, since I can’t vouch for her construction skills. I meant to say that I admire her as a constructivist. 🙂

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  16. DBHolmes wrote:

    ” I used to think well-traveled meant something. While it is useful, I’ve met too many extremely well-traveled people that have some of the most closed minds. ”

    —————————————————————-

    I live in a place that is overwhelmingly parochial and in which the vast majority of people have never ventured out of the region (the lower Midwest), let alone the country. And it is these parochial attitudes that make living here so difficult.

    So, I have come to really hate the parochial — and the well-traveled struck me as the opposite of that, though I understand the point you are making.

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  17. Robin wrote:

    We were more enmeshed in Archie and Edith Bunker’s spiritual father and mother Alf and Else Garnett.

    —————————————

    You’ve taught me something, here. Did not know this. Thank you!

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