I’ve written on identity politics before, and most recently called the BBC Gender pay gap “mythical”. Also frequently written on freedoms of speech NOT including a right to offend, even though no-one has a right not to be offended. Recently in the PC-Pinker debate the key point is that the freedom to risk offending is coupled with a duty of care – to be careful not to offend where possible and to care enough about potentially offended persons to resolve the offence. It’s why PC was invented, the problem is when PC becomes a censorious taboo (or worse, a physical ban) on even mentioning terms and ideas.
My main underlying thread is that ideas are memes. Thoughts, patterns of thought and argument, and even thinking itself are simply memes upon memes, memeplexes and meta-memes. Our thoughts and thinking tools have evolving lives of their own as they are repeatedly used within and cycled through the brains of humans via our mouths and ears. Ideas coevolve with humanity.
Currently the most problematic meme is the polarisation fetish. The idea that simple statements are right or wrong, true of false. That rational discource – critical thinking – involves questioning based on disagreement and doubt that attempts to show the other guy to be wrong. It’s how objective science makes progress, so it must be the best way to progress thinking and ideas. It’s scientism in fact. It’s a problem because conflict sells media, attracts clicks and eyeballs. If it bleeds it leads and this adversarial Q&A or argument and counter-argument debate meme feeds this drive by reinforcing disagreement, reinforcing the meme that creates it. Polarisation begets polarisation. People being “owned” by their opponents is the most grotesque form. Pure trolling. Oh, how we all laughed.
It is the antithesis of progressive dialogue.
Well, It Happened Today
Jack Kishere brought Jordan Peterson to my attention. I’d been vaguely aware of his controversial views causing a stir out there in the ether – but there’s no shortage of that, so I’d never looked too closely. Jack pointed out a trend in common with Sam Harris (and others), that in the podcast environments they are in control of (“safe spaces” or “intellectual dark web”) conversations and dialogue on contentions non-PC topics seemed to be making progress and taking on a life of their own – and generating audiences. I was always a bit sceptical of Sam Harris intellectual credentials – too pat, to arrogantly scientistic in the God vs Science wars but had noted several times that he seemed to have a hidden long-game riding on his notoriety and book-sales. “What is Sam Harris game?” I questioned at one point. Later, starting with his spectacular falling-out with erstwhile horeseman compatriot Dan Dennett and subsequent kiss-and-make-up podcast conversations with Dan and with Maajid Nawaz, I noted that Harris seemed to be somewhat “chastened” – prepared to be been seen to have been wrong and changing his mind in the course of dialogue.
Today Joseph Ratliff shared links to the recent Channel4TV interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman. A fair bit of it is on gender inequalities. Initially people were sharing a very short clip of Cathy lost for words – accompanied by all the usual predictable misogynistic, anti-mainstream-media hatred. accusing Cathy of some lefty PC agenda and so on. In fact the whole interview is very enlightening. Cathy does follow the journalistic “Paxman” meme of adversarial questions aiming to find fault with Peterson’s case. I’d guess even if she done extra-special research into Peterson’s real arguments beforehand, she’d have had trouble re-inventing the Q&A, summarising points of disagrement style, in one interview the following day. That meme is pretty much engrained in the schedules, standard practices and our own expectations. Hence Jack’s pointing out the alternative “intellectual dark web” where the rules can be, have evolved to be, different.
What we really need is this evolution to happen in mainstream media where journos and channels are judged on public clicks and eyeballs and where the prevailing meme (in the brains behind our fingers and eyeballs) is the adversarial Q&A. It’s that public meme we need to evolve. There are several points in that typically adversarial interview where despite his provocations and her over-simplistic (erroneous) counter summaries, Peterson very good-naturedly points out where they are agreeing and they both exhibit smiley body-language. Moreover when lost for words (where the hate-selected clip ends) Cathy does continue with the admission “you got me” and the interview continues a while longer with good humour and ends mutually respectfully. Result.
I reckon Cathy learned something. You can too. Then we can have the proper dialogue we all need.