Privileged Speech

by Mike O’Brien

I’m self-conscious about the style of my writing. Not that I fear my style is flat or derivative otherwise wanting; quite the opposite, in fact. This isn’t too presumptuous, because I have been told many times, by people whose tastes I esteem highly, that my writing is admirably well composed. Given that I have a strong natural tendency to doubt the merits of my own work, my acceptance of such compliments as accurate and warranted is a testament to how many times I have heard them. But a different doubt arises, having put to rest that first one; since I tend to compose pieces which argue for some position on questions of substance, do these succeed (assuming that they do succeed) because of the quality of their arguments and the correctness of their premises, or do they merely enchant by aesthetic and pathetic overtures? (I’ve heard that very attractive people can suffer such doubt about all their socially-mediated successes in life, and I can tell you it’s true.)

On the one hand, if I am arguing for a point about which I really do care and of which I am myself convinced, I don’t really care why people agree with me, so long as they conduct themselves in conformity with my position. Such points are rare, and are generally matters of ecological or existential survival. After so many years staring into assorted abysses of environmental and civilizational catastrophe, much of what animates public debate (especially of the ephemeral “Twitter war” variety) is of no more interest to me than the barking of dogs. Out-barking them would not serve my ego, no matter how impressed I might imagine the dogs to be.

On the other hand, there are strategic considerations at play in arguing about important matters in public. If one supposes one’s own position to be favoured, even singularly indicated, by facts and logic, then one may jeopardize their long-term success by devaluing factual evidence and logical rigour in pursuit of easy though tenuous agreement. A cheap trick is one easily stolen and turned against its employer, and even if not so reversed it still disgraces the user.

Ideally, facts should speak for themselves. Ideally, people should listen to them. More ideally still, the problems of the world should proceed at a pace that allows the slow turning of facts and ideas to reach their ends, and to prevail over whatever errors and confusions created the problems in the first place. But “ideally” is as useful a preface as “in Alpha Centauri” when prescribing solutions to human problems. We are conceited apes, not temporarily disgraced angels, after all. (Some might argue we are both, which I cannot disprove.)

There is a certain imposition in having to pronounce on something in a concrete and unequivocal way with some regularity. Were it not for the need to write this column, I would luxuriate in the freedom to not have any opinions at all, at least not any well considered ones about matters of any importance. I don’t think I’m quite done developing my most closely-held principles, though I’m probably mostly finalized at this point. But I don’t quite have the same zeal for contesting ideas that I used to have. I was much shyer when I was younger, which tempered the outward displays of intellectual arrogance somewhat. I’m more comfortable now in the act of voicing a point of view, but more modest, not to say chastened, about the authority and right by which I occupy my ground of opinion.

When I first was included in the Monday opinion stable, I wondered how many months I could manage before running out of interesting and original things to say. The reader is free to judge for themselves exactly when that happened. I’ve tried to stay away from being reflexive about my own work, because I tend to bog down when doing such writing. In some of the more daunting writing projects I’ve done, I’ve had to work out in writing my feelings and intuitions about choosing a subject of writing, only to set that work aside and compose the finished product directly. The existential self-chat needs to be written, but it does not need to be published. That difference, between writing and publishing, is something I’m still getting accustomed to, as I am still residually in the procrastinating high-school student mode of composing for a deadline.

When I seldom wrote at all, every time I did write it felt like getting a glimpse of some vast underground reservoir, which would sustain a vast output if only I would work to reach it. Well, I’ve had more time to dig in the last year, and the reservoir, while very respectably ample, is not as vast as my vanity led me to fear. It could certainly benefit from more inflow, as I’ve been coasting on some now quite distant formal studies. Some sort of enrolment might be in order, preferably of the paid sort. It’s not that I lack access to the material studied in an accredited program, it’s just that I won’t read it when left to my own whims.

The last time I went back to school, it was after abandoning a second BA in economics and psychology, both painfully statistics-intensive and one irretrievably abstract. The global economy nearly cratered a little while later, so in retrospect it seems like a shrewd move. The psychology still stands up. I decided that I should move up to graduate studies and pursue some kind of “public intellectual” purpose. As a public radio listener and newspaper reader, the figure of the “public intellectual” is one of the prime characters in my media-scape, furnishing a certain model to emulate. Like many who wish they were already public intellectuals, I engaged in group discussions about what it means to be a public intellectual, and how well the current crop of public intellectuals were performing their role. In philosophy, where I have done most of my studies, that role is often discussed like a throne to be won back, or won for the first and last time. Sometimes this conceals a lust for power, sometimes an innocent desire to be uniquely helpful.

I registered for a Zoom seminar about public scientific engagement recently, and was mulling over some ideas in that realm in anticipation of the event. The group that organized the seminar is composed chiefly of ecological ethicists, and its members are quite active in the public sphere, making appearances in popular media and publishing works for a broad audience. Having never published so much as a single academic paper myself, I imagine myself a bit as a tourist in their discussion of expert-to-public communication. I think I’ve got some good ideas, but there is an appropriate difference in credibility between website columnists and university faculty.

When asked if there was anything in particular I’d like answered the seminar, I chose an overly complicated question about the practical value of educating vs propagandizing people. There is an old saw about education being what happens when we tell people how to think, and propaganda being what happens when them other folks over there tell people how to think. Or, without resorting to any ad hominems, when people are told badly how to think badly. The tricky case is when people are told badly how to think rightly, when the need for people to adopt new information is acutely felt. The climate crisis is certainly an acute danger, but it is also a civilizational transition that will require centuries (if we last that long) of well-guided adaptation. Forcing people to achieve carbon neutrality by, say, convincing them that an orbiting alien flotilla will bombard them if they don’t, might get some important short-term results, but the perpetrators of such a ruse might lose credibility in future debate. (I am not completely convinced of this. The last 20 years taught me that a large minority of humanity, a plurality often enough, remains credulous despite incontrovertible evidence of being lied to.)

There is an idealized picture of how people are convinced by arguments, and it proposes both opportunities and obligations. If most people really do engage with evidence and logic, then they can be guided (when there is some defensible reason for guiding them) by such means. Happily, the promotion of facts and sound logic is good in itself, so it’s a double good. (Any additional benefit is double plus good.) Such a supposed happy accident is reminiscent of the dogma that the best way to fight hate speech is by promoting free speech. It is entirely too convenient for hate-speech abhorring free-speech absolutists to never have to choose between two ideals. It is similarly too convenient that the most respectful way of trying to change someone’s mind is also the most effective.

(I am reminded of attending a discussion about borders, in which someone claimed that the fall of the Berlin Wall was evidence that walls “don’t work”. Another instance of the “not just wrong, but ineffective” conceit. To suppose that travellers go just as far despite obstacles, or that messages go just as far despite suppression, is to posit some form of zero-cost adaptation, akin to perpetual motion or free energy. It is magical thinking, or at the very least faith-based thinking that presupposes the intervention of forces not in evidence.)

Speaking of practical limits, the looming presence of a deadline shapes the nature of a work. There are many things I would do differently in my columns if they were written over a lifetime, occasioned by events and experiences which moved me to give authentic expression to some idea. But that is not how or when the sausages are made. The work of public intellectuals, if we are to believe that such a thing exists in a meaningful way, and that they have an important role to play in guiding their societies, may be situated on two time-scales. One is the open-ended, ongoing project of public education and enculturation, wherein the test of success is “more enlightenment, more knowledge, onwards and upwards forever”. The other is fixed by external necessities and historical closures of possibility, such as convincing a plurality of people to reject a certain falsehood before an election, or explaining the difference between scientific uncertainty and simple ignorance appealingly enough to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

Such “motivated” discourse may be compatible and continuous with a desire to also educate more generally, and to Socraticaly inspire the audience to come to the truth on their own terms and schedules. But that is a happy accident. I suppose that generations of philosophers and comparable thinkers have suffered in their time, tortured by the thought that if only these misguided fools had started thinking sooner, if only we (“we” being us smart people with the best intentions) had more time to educate them, then they (and, trapped in the same societies, we) would not be condemned to our fate. Two hopes can soften the contours of such predicaments: first, the hope that people are educable, and will become more educable than previous experience would suggest, and second, that our deadlines might be further away than we first supposed. For a politics wonk and a climate doom scroller, both hopes are difficult to entertain.

There is a vanity in supposing there is any power to be abused by philosophers seeking a public voice. One must suppose that philosophy, no matter how abstract and professionally rarefied, nevertheless shares in some kind of universal truth-seeking that is the vocation of all humanity. Vanity in the philosophers’ estimation of their communication skills, adaptable to any level of comprehension, and of the power of their arguments over people who are free to ignore them. Vanity in the philosophers’ view of the public, supposing them to possess the same faculties and virtues of thinking as vocational thinkers do, only in a dormant or neglected state. Egalitarianism and the universality of reason are both fine aspirations, but so is knowing your audience.

I am glad that I chose to pursue my last round of studies, and took opportunities to expand my repertoire of public engagement, even if I no longer have the same hopes for “public intellectuals”, whether or not I might become one myself. I will be glad to have studied further and expanded further my repertoire in the years to come (assuming there are years to come, and many of them, and most peaceful enough to get reading done). But I don’t imagine that my truths will set anyone free. I recently heard the philosopher Anastasia Berg reference a comment from Wittgenstein, to the effect of “the worst thing I could accomplish here is to make you think that you have understood something which you have not”. By trading on authority and powerful language, philosophers risk achieving just that, giving lay audiences notions to hold on to and repeat without digesting them and perhaps finding them disagreeable. If the public must be sated in its desire for empty profundity and counterfeit understanding, it is better that they are supplied by well-intentioned educators than by some craven charlatans. But it is bad for philosophers to measure their value by success in such tawdry trade.

I think that the publicity of the public university is publicity enough for me. I do enjoy having access to the audience provided by this website, but I don’t imagine it to be much more reflective of the public at large than a graduate alumni list. We’re nerds, people. We stand apart and always will, even as we stand apart together in our millions. Without some mechanism of compulsion, be it forced attendance or water adulterants that make people crave dialectics, the efforts of public intellectuals will for the most part be ignored, and when heeded will be chiefly a means of entertainment. Sophisticated and edifying entertainment, mind you, but of little help to those disinclined to sophisticate and edify themselves. But that’s alright. I’m letting go of the idea that I was ever going to save the world. I don’t bear the responsibility of finding the secret argument which saves humanity from itself (and saves the rest of the world from us). It is enough for philosophers to do philosophy, if they do it well. If they don’t, doing it badly in public is worse than not doing it at all. If you want to change the world with arguments, get a law degree. (This is precisely what many frustrated philosophers do. I did not do this, I suppose because I don’t really want to change the world, at least not at the cost of a law degree’s worth of effort.)

I tried to come up with a positive ending to this, I really did. I drafted an idea about redirecting the drive for broader engagement, which so many academics and aspiring public intellectuals feel, back into their own institutions, given that so many university graduates remain dumber than a bag of hammers. Which is still a pretty negative take. The truth is that I really do feel as discouraged as I sound in my most dour passages, and any sudden shift to positivity would be an empty flourish of style. And there will be ample opportunities for such trifles in the future, I hope.

How’s that for sudden shifts to positivity?