How To Be A “Heterodox” (Or Whatever) Progressive Without Going Crazy
These are important conversations but they can take you to some dark places
I’m on record as saying that there have been some really disturbing and counterproductive trends in progressive spaces for a while now. If you want the short version, the Harper’s Letter holds up pretty well. If you want the longer version, read Ryan Grim’s reporting on all the progressive organizations that have screeched to a halt because of meltdowns that ostensibly have to do with issues of fairness and justice and bigotry, but that are often caused by bad actors weaponizing these concepts to bully colleagues and jockey for professional position.
This is an issue, and it is harming the left. Progressives — and progressive organizations — who deny it’s an issue do so at their peril. We need to have these conversations.
That being said, there is a subset of people who join the fight against illiberalism in liberal spaces and who subsequently go a little bit crazy. There’s no need to name names here, but they often start in a relatively reasonable place, as progressives criticizing certain forms of contemporary progressive excess, and mere weeks later they are ranting about how the Powers That Be are attempting to sweep the side effects of mRNA viruses under the rug, how Joe Biden is the most corrupt president in US history, how trans activists aren’t just wrong about specific arguments but are groomers, and so on.
I’ve written about this before in The Spectator, but I focused more on the phenomenon itself than on how people can prevent themselves from falling victim to this dynamic. After all, it doesn’t happen to everyone — some people are able to contribute to this important internecine conflict without developing a case of severe online brain rot. The following observations are far from scientific and of course don’t apply to every person in every case, but I do think these patterns are worth noting.
It’s Important To Have Other Interests
In general, the people involved in intraleft culture wars who are most likely to become radicalized are the ones who spend the most time, proportionally, engaged in said wars. If you find that this is taking up more and more of your free time, or that your interests or relationships unconnected to fighting “wokeness” (or whatever) are withering, that might be a sign that you’re headed someplace dark and should take a break from all this toxicity.
Sam Harris is a good example of someone who has criticized the left harshly but who hasn’t gone off the deep end, and I think that’s partly due to the fact that he’s always had a lot of other stuff going on. He writes and podcasts about meditation and consciousness and neuroscience and a bunch of other subjects, and he hosts a wide range of guests on his podcast. It would be hard for him to fall headfirst into a culture war pit of radicalization because he’s busy with other projects and interests.
Obviously, not everyone can become a best-selling author who rakes in millions via an interview podcast and a meditation app. But everyone does have some ability to control their online activity and what they do in their free time.
It’s Important To Have Some Knowledge Of How The Media, Academia, And Government Actually Function
Conspiracy theories can snare otherwise sound minds, and once you start to believe in one, it can permanently warp your view of the world. The Great Reset is a really good example: Some individuals started with reasonable concerns about the proper trade-offs concerning lockdown policy or masks or school closures, and before long they had fallen for a truly deranged conspiracy theory that seemingly tied all their concerns together, placing the blame at the feet of a secretive cabal of global elites.
There aren’t that many instances of genuine conspiracy or collusion. Even when government officials or journalists or academics do undeniably bad things, it is much more often the result of negligence, ignorance, or incompetence (or some combination thereof) than outright malice, let alone conspiracy. That isn’t to say that conspiracies are unheard of, especially in government — of course not — but usually something more pedestrian is going on. And a lot of the time, decisions that seem bad in retrospect are the result of difficult trade-offs, competing pressures, nonoptical established practices with inertia behind them, and other boring, quotidian forces.
The more you know about how institutions work, the more you will realize how often this is the case. I’m most familiar with the media, and often when I see people issue grand pronouncements about how the media has fallen, conspires against the common people, and so on, I have to roll my eyes. Is a lot of the media broken? For sure. I’ve written a lot about that. But it isn’t the result of a grand conspiracy, or even of individual evil actors, for the most part. Journalism is a flawed human institution where, like anywhere else, there is groupthink and social pressure and cowardice. A tiny subset of journalists are actual capital-L Liars, but usually the world is more complicated than that.
I’m less familiar with how government works, but I do know a little about it from friends I made while living in DC in the aughts, and from going to public policy grad school. I’ve heard a lot of stories about the insides of giant bureaucracies, and I promise you, 99% of the time the government makes a decision you don’t like, or sticks stubbornly to a policy that doesn’t make sense, the explanation is fundamentally boring, perhaps so boring that it’s hard even to explain. For real: Talk to someone who has put in serious years at State or Treasury. Ask them what it’s like to attempt to enact even minor changes. Ask them about the folks still clinging to the underside of these departments decades after they brought any energy to their jobs, drawing big salaries and doing absolutely nothing because they are virtually unfireable.
Governments, schools, newsrooms, and NGOs are disorganized, chaotic places rife with turf wars, inefficiency, and unresolved questions about their most basic missions. Do the members of these organizations sometimes conspire to advance their interests, harming others in the process? Of course. Is this common? It is not. Institutional dysfunction, on the other hand, is quite common. And where an “alternative news”–addled gadfly might see a nefarious conspiracy, someone with a bit more knowledge of how institutions function will see just a regular day at the office that leads, as so many regular days at the office do, to laughably frustrating outcomes.
Be Aware Of Audience Capture, Intensity Preference, And So On
Audience capture is a really useful concept. According to a wiki centered on Eric Weinstein’s podcast — Weinstein himself coined the term — it refers to “a self-reinforcing feedback loop that involves telling one’s audience what they want to hear and getting rewarded for it.” It’s definitely fun to tell people what they want to hear. It also corrodes your ability as a thinker and a writer. The more you serve red meat to your audience, the hungrier they — and you — will get for it.
I guess technically “audience capture” affects only those who have, well, an audience. But I think a version of it can afflict even regular Twitter users who don’t have much of an audience. Your followers are still an audience, and given how human nature and the algorithms work, you’re likely to find yourself very tempted to tweet about certain issues in a certain way, and you might find yourself at least a bit radicalized.
“Preference intensity” is another useful concept here. Well, I guess technically it’s “intensity of preference,” but the term has been lodged in my head the other way. Whatever it’s called, the basic dynamic is that if you have a group of 100 people, and 10 of them feel very strongly about protecting access to guns, and 90 of them have only weak preferences on this subject (pro and con), the 10 can, in certain settings, have an impact on deliberative or democratic processes disproportionate to their numbers.
Online, some subjects will lead to responses from folks with very strong preferences. If you tweet about taxes and wetlands policy and gender identity, one of those subjects is going to elicit far stronger reactions than either of the other two (I’m sure you can guess which!). That will expose you to a particular subset of people, and you’ll engage with that community in particular, leading you to tweet more about that subject, leading to more response from that community, and on and on. Before you know it, again, you’ve been a bit radicalized by 5% of the people you’re in contact with online. It’s worth watching out for!
I hope this is a little helpful. I wrote it in part because I’m hoping against hope that online discourse can get a bit saner in 2023. I am not holding my breath!
Questions? Comments? Intense preferences? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Image: Germany, Bavaria, Munich, Man holding mobile phone, screaming, portrait - stock photo via Getty.