Tag: thought

Democracy Is Infuriating. Stop Taking It Personally

By Craig Axford | United States

It shouldn’t be that hard to separate the people that are just trying to deflect or stifle debate from those seriously grappling with important questions. But in a democracy that is experiencing a rapid decline in critical thinking skills, it’s the deflectors and stiflers that are currently ascendant.

I’m not a fan of political correctness either as a phrase or in practice. Correctness and politics ideally intersect only when we translate sound ideas into policy. Originally the term referred specifically to the strict adherence to a particular political view or ideology — one was either correctly or incorrectly towing the party line as it were. Assuming Wikipedia’s history of political correctness is accurate, its contemporary usage didn’t begin to emerge until the early 1970s.

Conservatives, in particular, have turned political correctness into a rhetorical bludgeon. Sadly, their opponents have often been willing to oblige them by providing examples of the practice that range from silly or annoying to loud and occasionally violent. Plain old correctness got lost in the increasingly odious political fog produced in our democracy. Being respectful and polite shouldn’t require us to avoid controversy. Nor should being rude and vulgar be construed as refreshing authenticity.

That ad hominem attacks are not merely fallacious, but a sign of weakness and insecurity in the individual substituting them for sound argumentation is no longer widely understood. By labeling those with differing points of view as everything from fascist to snowflake, the person sticking the label on their opponent is attempting to shut down the debate rather than engage in good faith. Having dehumanized the opposition with a label, they have rendered the other’s views unworthy of consideration. Case closed. Thinking, to say nothing of listening, is no longer required.

Another pernicious form of silencing in democracy is practiced by those adopting the intellectually lazy and ultimately relativist stance that they are “entitled to their opinion.” It would seem at first glance that these individuals must also recognize that others are entitled to theirs. However, what they really mean is that having developed an opinion of their own, there’s really no need to listen to anyone else’s. Furthermore, because having an opinion is something they are “entitled to,” having one is also rather conveniently its own justification.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” — and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse. ~ Patrick Stokes, professor of philosophy at Deakin University in Australia

No matter where we might fall on the political spectrum, the attempt to silence others by any means is a betrayal of classical liberalism’s most essential principle: freedom of speech. When our attention is upon identity (our own or another’s) or upon our own right to hold an opinion, the ideas that should be the focus of our conversations with one another are minimized and tossed aside. There is no room in a democracy for the practice of citizenship in personalized debates that drive individuals into tribal corners or defensive crouches.

In his book The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra writes, “Survival in the crowd seems guaranteed by conformity to the views and opinions of whichever sectarian group one belongs to. The elites,” Mishra continues, “engage meanwhile in their own factional battles and presume to think on behalf of everyone else. The general moral law is one of obedience and conformity to the rules of the rich and powerful.” In the end, “Such a society where social bonds are defined by a dependence on other people’s opinion and competitive private ambition is a place devoid of any possibility of individual freedom.”

But we need not end up in such a society. Some of us are still old enough to remember a time when most disagreements were not taken personally, or at least did not seem to be. We can remember discussions between Republicans and Democrats, and others too, that ended with everyone leaving as friends and wanting to come back for more. Indeed, we can still find examples of such civility between those with different points of view. The friendly back and forth between the conservative David Brooks and the more liberal-minded Mark Shields each Friday night on the PBS Newshour comes to mind as an example.

To get back to civility we must regain faith in the process. Freedom of expression and of the press are necessary to a functioning democracy, not because we have the right view and others need to hear it, but because having all the views openly debated enables the best solutions to emerge from the debate. Only when each of us is able to smooth the rough edges off our position through friction with other perspectives can the best ideas develop and gain popular support.

Single-party states and authoritarian regimes may be more efficient, but they provide limited space for individuals and groups alike to truly flourish. Pluralistic societies necessarily make us uncomfortable with regularity, but they develop in their citizens a greater tolerance for uncertainty that requires faith in the process to take precedence over faith in an ideology. Personal attacks on those with views we don’t share are an indication it’s an ideology or particular leader rather than the process to which we have begun to devote ourselves.

President Trump’s attacks on the press, his insistence upon personal loyalty, and his affinity for authoritarian leaders represent an assault on a process that has served us well, even if it hasn’t served us perfectly. Similarly, the idea that controversy represents an assault upon our personal feelings or group identity signals that we no longer believe the marketplace of ideas is capable of separating the wheat from the chaff, or that we have lost patience with the time it often takes for it to do so.

In both cases, the willingness to engage in the hard intellectual work of citizenship has been abandoned in favor of slogans and ad hominem attacks. I’m not sure how to persuade those that have given themselves over to the emotional comfort believing in a “strong leader” or embracing the simplicity of an ideology provides. Democracy is messy, which makes any argument for it unappetizing to those that haven’t developed a taste for it.

“To live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger,” de Tocqueville stated after long and careful observation of America. We are now facing the very real possibility that enough Americans have failed to adapt to these conditions to sustain democracy in the United States. Time will tell, but it doesn’t appear we’ll have to wait long for the answer. We should have it by the end of 2020.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

Other articles by Craig that you may enjoy:


“I am large, I contain multitudes”

Walt Whitman understood identity. We no longer do.


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Winter Is Pub Season, But The Rest Of The Year Belongs To Nature

Craig Axford | United States

I’ve never been much of a winter person. I don’t like having to get all bundled up to go outside, and camping in frigid temperatures for me usually means a miserable sleepless night.

I have gone snowshoeing a couple of times, and alpine skiing a few additional times. I briefly organized monthly trips to a local nordic center. Each full moon the center would line the groomed trail around a nearby frozen lake with luminaries. The moonlight reflecting off the snow gave the whole world a kind of silver aura which seemed particularly magical after a couple of hot toddies.

But if I’m being honest, those monthly trips were more social events than moonlit escapes into nature. It wasn’t the kind of thing I ever seemed inclined to do on my own. Winter for me, as for so many people, is spent predominantly indoors. It takes special circumstances to lure me outside for any significant length of time from December to March, and I always reserve the right to cancel on account of the weather.

Experiences accumulate like fat during the other three seasons of the year. During the winter this stored energy is burnt off in various essays and a few other creative pursuits, for better or for worse. Time is spent trying to stretch the supply of experiential material hopefully accumulated during the warmer part of the year when the only item of clothing not technically optional was a pair of hiking boots. Winter was ideally made for research, typing up and reviewing notes, and scribbling short grey days and long cold nights away.

. . .

I have a table at a local pub that I use to get through the colder months. Generally, I visit it only one day a week, though two has not been unheard of. Weekdays are preferable to weekends. Mondays or Tuesdays are the best.

The bar is usually pretty empty early in the week. Just about everyone else has a liver exhausted from a weekend of over-indulgence and is back to their regular 9–5 routine. I’m blessed (or cursed) with a routine that is out of sync with most of the employed world, and so can’t tax my liver on the same schedule.

Regardless, I like having the pub almost exclusively to myself. Sometimes there’s just me and the staff huddling nearby for their weekly meeting. There’s a plug for the computer, and I bring a backpack filled with notes and books to fill the afternoon while casually eavesdropping to learn which beers and liquors were most popular over the course of the previous week.

The TV in the corner behind the bar provides a mild visual distraction, though I can’t hear it over the music. The setting is familiar, but not too familiar. The bartenders have come to know me and to expect I’ll be staying a while. They are polite but respectfully keep their distance knowing the only interruptions I expect or will long endure are those necessary to keep the pints coming. It’s as though I’m a fixture, and I like it that way.

Though my regular Monday and/or Tuesday table would seem about as far removed from nature as one could get — especially being situated, as it is, at a window overlooked by a busy city sidewalk — it plays a similar role. The pub, like treks into the nearby mountains and deserts, provides the occasional necessary change of scenery to keep the creative process on track.

It is often said that the discipline a daily routine imposes is essential to every would be writer, artist, scholar and/or scientist. But everything is poison at a certain dose. Creativity requires breaks from the usual surroundings, even if these changes are themselves a predictable part of a regular schedule. If five or six days are spent working largely alone staring at the same four walls, introducing the mildly unpredictable ruckus of a pub and some different faces to look at now and then can lubricate the gears a little. Of course, the beer helps too.

. . .

But now it’s mid-March. In just a few days spring officially gets underway. This may qualify as a fifth season of the year: the anticipatory season. Thoughts increasingly turn toward the chance to really get away. The eyes begin to scan the nearby mountains more and more to assess how much longer the snow-pack will interfere with the chance to go for a hike.

Text messages with particular friends during these final days of winter inevitably include the possibility of near future day hikes and camping trips. We know that many of these will never take place. A lack of time and resources will squeeze the possibility out of most of these schemes before they have a chance to become reality.

But that’s not the point. Just imagining weekends or even whole weeks away is itself a kind of mini vacation. Researching new places to go on the internet and sharing the findings with friends that likewise find sitting around campfires, scrambling over rocks, or climbing unfamiliar mountain peaks intoxicating brings its own rewards. Indulging these fantasies is essential to maintaining the outward appearance that we are fully engaged with reality that polite society generally expects.

Corona Arch outside of Moab Utah. Taken by author during last autumn trip of 2017.

But at least a few of these fantasies will materialize into experiences more tangible than bucket lists and daydreams. “Wisdom often wanders,” Robert Moor writes in his book On Trails: An Exploration. “St. Augustine, Siddhartha, Li Po, Thomas Merton, Maya Angelou — the insight of each was deepened by wild and meandering youth.” I’m not exactly youthful anymore. Nor do I claim to be particularly wise. That said, I’m looking forward to leaving this winter’s pub table for another season of wandering of both the imaginary and real variety. Perhaps in the process, I’ll get lucky and gain some wisdom that will make its way to paper next pub season.

Cover Image by author along Canada’s West Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at Medium.com

The Ideological Echo Chamber: What is it? Why is it Harmful? And How do You Avoid it?

By Osh | USA

An “echo chamber,” is a pretty common phrase. An echo chamber is basically what happens when someone surrounds themselves with individuals with almost the exact same ideals as them. The echo chamber can occur almost anywhere, but I find it to be most common with political enthusiasts.

An echo chamber can occur either on purpose or by accident. It could occur when you follow several right-wing accounts or surround yourself with right winged friends. The results are always the same: in the end, you are surrounded by people who hold the same ideals as you and agree with almost every one of your points. It’s most common, however, in social media. With social media, you can filter what content you want to see. If you were to check your Instagram right now, I’m fairly sure a good majority of you follow a number of Libertarian accounts, with a few Conservative accounts. But how many liberals do you follow? How many feminists? Nationalists? The numbers have probably dwindled down to two or one or even zero. You have surrounded yourself with like-minded people. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. However, the effects of the echo chamber are not immediate.

The biggest flaw with the echo chamber is that it leads to the stagnation of ideas. You’ll be chanting the same phrase that every other right-wing account has posted. You’ll be convinced that the other side is filled with nothing but over-sensitive babies. You’ll believe you know every side of the argument, and how to combat the “libtard” arguments. You’ll start believing almost anything they throw at you. “Liberals defend paedophilia,” they’ll say, and you’ll think to yourself, “Wow, these liberals are crazy, and must be stopped!” However, a quick visit to any LGBT, feminist, communist, or any left-leaning account, and you’ll find that they are just as disgusted with paedophilia as you are. Politics shouldn’t be about staying in your own lane. You have to grow your ideology, and adjust them as new evidence or arguments come to light.

So, the question is: how do I avoid the echo chamber? The answer is honestly really simple: diversify. Instead of scoffing at all the feminist accounts, actually, try to follow one. Of course, you will disagree with their some of their ideas, and that’s perfectly alright. Engage in a debate with them, and try to figure it all out from there point of view. You might gain new insight on something or it will be a waste of time, who knows until you actually try it?