In 2023, Let’s Rediscover Wrongness
Not every difference of opinion is an urgent threat
Few articles could better sum up the media and intellectual landscape of 2022 than this one published late last month in The Guardian: “Ancient Apocalypse is the most dangerous show on Netflix.” The subheadline: “A show with a truly preposterous theory is one of the streaming giant’s biggest hits – and it seems to exist solely for conspiracy theorists. Why has this been allowed?”
The show is dangerous! How was it allowed?
The article is by Guardian culture writer Stuart Heritage. “Ancient Apocalypse,” he explains, centers on the theory that “an advanced ice-age civilisation – responsible for teaching humanity concepts such as maths, architecture and agriculture – was wiped out in a giant flood brought about by multiple comet strikes about 12,000 years ago.”
So how is the show dangerous? The term “danger” or its variants doesn’t appear until the penultimate paragraph:
That’s the danger of a show like this. It whispers to the conspiracy theorist in all of us. And Hancock is such a compelling host that he’s bound to create a few more in his wake. Believing that ultra-intelligent creatures helped to build the pyramids is one thing, but where does it end? Believing that election fraud is real? Believing 9/11 was an inside job? Worse? If you were feeling particularly mean-spirited, you could suggest that Netflix knows this, and has gone out of its way to court the conspiracy theorists.
This feels… perfunctory, no? Heritage doesn’t really have a theory as to how this show is dangerous, let alone so dangerous as to warrant a subheadline suggesting someone erred in allowing it to be produced (Heritage likely didn’t write the headline or subheadline, though sometimes writers do write them, or their input is solicited). Heritage’s theory seems to be something like “If you come to falsely believe experts are wrong about this one thing, what’s to stop you from coming to falsely believe in other instances of experts being wrong that are worse and more harmful?”
My possibly uncharitable read? Heritage 1) wanted to say something more original or captivating than “this show is wrong,” and 2) he didn’t want to do any actual reporting or research. So where does that leave him? Accusations of danger. That’s more or less the default in 2022.
In 2023, I hope we can rediscover wrongness. Mere wrongness. Wrongness untethered from other accusations. Not everything that is wrong is dangerous or evil or bigoted. Sometimes people are just wrong. A big part of human life is arguing over who is wrong and attempting to nudge this whole ungainly human enterprise toward rightness, a few painstaking microns at a time. It’s harder to do that when the pitch of everything is so shrill.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people who believe crazy things don’t hurt anyone. No one is going to bomb an airport over Ancient Apocalypse. Even the truly deranged QAnon conspiracy theory, which does posit an international conspiracy of pedophiles, has produced only a blip’s worth of real-world violence. In the vast majority of cases, wrongness is just wrongness. People can usually believe wrong things without being dangerous, and in fact billions of people do hold religious beliefs that make no logical sense without becoming violent zealots.
Some ideas can be credibly described as dangerous, or as likely to lead to bad outcomes. But it becomes harder to make this argument when everything is called dangerous, from, well, Ancient Aliens to non-condescending journalism about bigoted figures. Harm inflation has really taken hold of a lot of public intellectual life, and it has led to a certain boy-crying-wolf dynamic that makes the world seem fuzzy and exhausting. If everything is dangerous or violent, then nothing is.
I do think a lot of this has to do with the attention economy. The aforementioned Guardian article probably gained a wider audience from couching Heritage’s concerns about Ancient Apocalypse in the language of danger and threat and deplatforming than it would have if he and his editors had gone in a more sober direction — both from readers who agreed with the silly premise and those who rage-shared it because of the provocative headline and subheadline.
Contrast all this with Rebecca Onion’s article on the same subject in Slate, which consists mostly of an interview with John Hoopes, a University of Kansas archaeologist who is very familiar with the work of Graham Hancock, the gonzo journalist who hosts Ancient Apocalypse. The article is much more interesting than the Guardian’s because it draws on a subject matter expert, digs into some specifics about Hancock’s worldview and tactics, and so on. Sure, it acknowledges the potential harms of this sort of misinformation spreading, but it does so in a modest, reality-based way. Asked by Onion about the stakes of this controversy for the field of archeology, Hoopes replies: “The biggest stakes right now in the United States are what happens to academic archaeology if university administrators and students and alumni begin demanding that departments of anthropology and archaeology at the university support this line of thinking.” So, like… potentially annoying if you work in this particular field, but not dangerous.
The increasingly ubiquitous leap from accusations of wrongness to accusations of even more serious harms has certain effects on the discourse. For one thing, it probably keeps some of the more thoughtful potential participants on the sidelines. Why would you pipe up to disagree with someone if expressing that disagreement is likely to get you tarred as dangerous or evil? What’s the point? So, as is often the case online, some of the saner, more valuable voices get pushed out of the conversation, because who has time for that?
The constant hurling of these claims also causes people to adopt distorted views about the nature of human disagreement itself. Most disagreement — or most interesting disagreement — can’t be explained solely by the fact that one side is better or smarter or more accurately informed than the other. That’s not to say there are no disagreements with simple right/wrong answers based on our current evidence (“Was an advanced ice age civilization responsible for teaching humanity concepts such as math, architecture, and agriculture wiped out in a giant flood brought about by multiple comet strikes about 12,000 years ago?”), but usually — say it with me — things are more complicated than that.
This has always been an easy way out, though. It’s easier to imagine liberals are just evil and literally don’t care if babies die than it is to grapple with the downsides of a hardline anti-abortion position. Same goes in the other direction, with the claim that conservatives only oppose abortion because their minds have been poisoned by patriarchy — there could be no other explanation.
None of this stuff is new, but surely social media has supercharged it. There’s a generation of too-online would-be public intellectuals who seem only to know how to operate in this mode. They genuinely have little experience dissecting an adversary’s argument, point by point, or even — God forbid — granting that an adversary makes a fair point or two. Rather, the thing to do when you see an opinion to disagree with is to scream about how harmful it is, and/or how evil the person who expressed it is.
I’m not going to pretend that public intellectual life was ever a wholly noble pursuit free of the dynamics I’m describing here. There have always been low blows and ad hominems and demagogues, of course. But in the earlier days of the internet, young public intellectual types really did argue — in the glory years of aughts-era blogging, you could make a name for yourself as an up-and-coming liberal thinker at The Nation or The Prospect or Washington Monthly by knocking the old guard down a peg. You could rebut the latest National Review screed on government-sponsored healthcare point-by-point, archly but with a focus on the facts, and gain professional currency for it.
Of course there’s still some of this. But it’s hard to deny that there’s been a giant trend away from arguing and toward expressing, in ever more colorful and hysterical terms, why “the other side’s” arguments shouldn’t even be allowed. This is intellectually corrosive.
Questions? Comments? Ad hominems? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. I produced the image by prompting DALL·E with “Two people arguing fiercely while everything uis on fire around them, digital art. Themes of chaos and strife.”