The more tone-deaf hot takes I hear, the more convinced I am that they share a lot of similarities with cooties.
Remember cooties? If you were declared to have the condition, associating with you became risky. Anyone known or rumoured to hang around you would get it too. Was it a general ickiness? An unspecified malaise? An unsavoriness of character? This was generally left open to the imagination. It was bad. That was all you needed to know.
Recesses are being shortened or eliminated entirely at schools. Free, unstructured play — in which games of tag and Capture the Flag spontaneously erupt, forts get built, adventures planned, and authority figures ditched — is ever more distant. In this era in which play is being removed from children’s lives, the enduring childhood meme of cooties is erupting in the adult world.
Passing for logic, we now hear claims like: “X went on Y’s show, and we know that Y is bad, so X must be too.” Sometimes it devolves further, into: “X was seen with Y, so X must agree with the horrible thing that Y said.”
It is true, for instance, that Jordan Peterson produced content with Dennis Prager, James Damore sat down for an interview with Stefan Molyneux, and Bret Weinstein went on Tucker Carlson. And now they all have cooties.
Putting aside the gross over-simplifications and, in some cases, outright lies about what these media outlets stand for, is it not in fact possible that speaking to people, and the audiences of people, with whom you disagree might be helpful in discharging harmful rhetoric and opening up the conversation? Sorry, no. Why? Cooties.
At Evergreen last year, when Bret Weinstein did go on Tucker Carlson, some faculty cried out: “when Bret went on Tucker, the world moved to the right!” Not so, not so. It is true that in the wake of that story — which would have aired with or without Bret’s participation — some loons made grotesque threats to individuals at the college. But there were orders of magnitude more people who reached out to say versions of: “I wouldn’t have known to listen to you but for your appearance on Fox, and I find myself glad to know that there is still some life left, on the left.”
And an aside: the same people who imagine that cooties are infecting those who leave their sanctioned silos to engage in discourse are also quite comfortable dismissing groups of people whom they find too similar in their thinking. To wit: I heard, repeatedly, the (incorrect) claim that there was no viewpoint diversity on this panel of four left-leaning speakers, of which I was one. We were invited by the College Republicans (although none of us are Republicans). Due to the purported homogeneity in viewpoint on the panel, there was apparently nothing to be learned from us, as we are hypocrites who only speak to our own kind. We are not supposed to speak to those with whom we disagree (on many but not all points), nor to those with whom we agree (on many but not all points). It’s a devious one-two punch — the rhetorical equivalent of hitting below the belt.
When Bret Weinstein did go on Tucker Carlson, people reached out to say “I wouldn’t have known to listen to you but for your appearance on Fox, and I find myself glad to know that there is still some life left, on the left.”
Perhaps the problem is that, when they were younger, many adults were not inoculated. They were protected from insult and injury, from pathogens real and imagined, and now, as adults they have scant defences — immunological, physical, or emotional.
Instead of valorising the fragile, we should be creating the antifragile (Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s important neologism). We should not aim low and build the merely robust, although the robust could resist breakage, endure, and slog along. We should strive higher, seek to produce the antifragile, those who become stronger under duress.
For decades, we have been fed a sanitised story of health, both physical and mental. Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all. Clear your environment of bacteria (here’s a handy product to help you!), of risk (be afraid, be very afraid), of hurt feelings (everyone shall be included in all games, everywhere). Rumblings against sanitisation are finally emerging. Children who grow up in bacteria-free homes have higher rates of allergies (among other concerns) — their immune systems haven’t been able to learn. Children who grow up in a world where they never experience grief or pain, and all the stories end with “happily ever after”, have had no chance to learn what they might do with another ending.
At their base, arguments for sanitised social environments are making an epidemiological assumption: ideas and people are highly virulent pathogens. Highly virulent pathogens are dangerous, and the only way to treat them, and come out alive, is to rigorously avoid them, or to kill them on sight. Ideas are being treated like the Black Plague.
But this is the wrong epidemiological metaphor. Try this instead: by exposure to diverse ideas and people, we become broader minded ourselves. With greater exposure, we become more receptive to good ideas, more immune to bad ones, and better able to defend against uninvestigated assumptions that have never held up to scrutiny.
Instead of quarantine, let’s try inoculation.