‘An age of social autism’

Read the column by George F. Will in the Washington Post here: The ‘alternative facts’ epidemic goes way beyond politics. Copied below in its entirety:

Impulse control is unfashionable as well as unpresidential, but perhaps you should resist the urge to trip people who stride briskly down the sidewalk fixated on their phone screens, absorbed in texting and feeling entitled to expect others to make way. New technologies are shaping behaviors and dissolving civilities.

In 2005, Lynne Truss, in her book “Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door,” presciently said we were slouching into “an age of social autism” with a “Universal Eff-Off Reflex.” Long before progress, understood as streaming, brought us binge-watching, she foresaw people entertaining themselves into inanition with portable technologies that enable “limitless self-absorption,” making people solipsistic and unmannerly. Truss foresaw an age of “hair-trigger sensitivity” and “lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence.” This was 12 years before some Wellesley College professors said, last month, that inviting controversial, a.k.a. conservative, speakers to campus injures students by forcing them to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.”

In the latest issue of the American Interest, the Hudson Institute’s Carolyn Stewart, revisiting Truss’s book, wonders, “What is it about social media that compels us to throw off the gloves?” Stewart notes that, as Truss anticipated, people “have taken an expectation that previously applied to the private sphere — control over our environment — and are increasingly applying it to the public sphere.” Social media’s “self-affirming feedback loop” encourages “expectations for a custom-made reality” and indignation about anything “that deviates from our preferences.”

The consequences of what Stewart calls “our growing intolerance of an unedited reality” are enumerated in Tom Nichols’s new book, “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” Our devices and social media are, he says, producing people who confuse “Internet grazing” with research and this faux research with higher education, defined by a wit as “those magical seven years between high school and your first warehouse job.” Years when students demand to run institutions that the students insist should treat them as fragile children.

“It is,” Nichols writes, “a new Declaration of Independence: no longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.” In the movie “Animal House,” when the epically unruly fraternity is hauled before the student court, the fraternity member who is going to defend it, when asked by a fellow member if he knows what he is doing, replies, “Take it easy, I’m pre-law.” When someone says, “I thought you were pre-med,” he replies, “What’s the difference?” What indeed.

In today’s therapeutic culture, which seems designed to validate every opinion and feeling, there will rarely be disagreement without anger between thin-skinned people who cannot distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from “you’re stupid.” Equating “critical thinking” with “relentless criticism” results in worse than the indiscriminate rejection not merely of this or that expert. Nichols says this equation produces “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden” disdain for even the ideal of expertise. This ideal becomes an affront in a culture that “cannot endure even the slightest hint of inequality of any kind.” Unfortunately, Nichols tartly notes, “specialization is necessarily exclusive.”

And aren’t we glad: “When you take an elevator to the top of a tall building, the certificate in the elevator does not say ‘good luck up there’; it says that a civic authority, relying on engineers educated and examined by other engineers, have looked at that box and know, with as much certainty as anyone can, that you’ll be safe.”

The “spreading epidemic of misinformation,” nowadays known as “alternative facts,” gives rise to a corollary to Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”): “Misinformation pushes aside knowledge.” Everyone with a smartphone has in his or her pocket, Nichols says, more information “than ever existed in the entire Library of Alexandria,” which can produce a self-deluding veneer of erudition.

Nichols recounts an old joke about a British Foreign Office official who retired after 40 years: “Every morning I went to the prime minister and assured him there would be no world war today. And I am pleased to note that in a career of 40 years, I was only wrong twice.” This official deserved an A grade, like everyone else.

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Just imagine how people could benefit if they took the time to read and understand every word that Mr. Will writes . . . Easy enough to do sitting at a computer; open a new tab and search for “define erudition” as one example. You might say that erudition is that which President Trump lacks and Hillary Clinton fails to use to her advantage.

I’m amazed every morning at Boulder Shelter for the Homeless by the incessant rumor-mongering of most transients with smartphones; they’re unable to distinguish the unvarnished truth from horse s***:

— MRW 

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2 thoughts on “‘An age of social autism’

  1. Mark Miller

    I think I listened to a talk by the author of “The Death of Expertise.” At first, I was interested, but what I remember is he started into the “denial” of global warming as one of the symptoms of what he was describing, as if all criticisms of this notion were invalid, because “the scientific community accepts it.” I instantly became disappointed in his thesis, because I studied that particular issue for several years, and I could tell he hadn’t. He was mischaracterizing the situation quite a bit. I think unfortunately Will is conflating some complaints about the culture that has been cultivated on the internet that I don’t think he would put together if he examined them more closely. Secondly, there are indications that it’s not the internet that’s to blame, it’s the culture that comes into it. When the internet first started in the early 1980s, there was mostly high-minded conversation on it. It’s just that as it grew, and it brought in more participants from the broader culture in the world that the quality of discourse degraded (and I was probably doing my small part to make it that way, mea culpa). What Will is describing has a lot more to do with a philosophy, if you will, or a cult of indiscriminateness that calls itself “openness,” but is not really open to other ideas. It celebrates “diversity,” but doesn’t really understand it, because according to this philosophy there’s no need to. All that’s needed is the acceptance of diversity’s existence, and the acceptance of its virtue by its existence. So all voices are valid, except those who want to distinguish between stronger and weaker ideas. That’s “discriminatory,” and so is forbidden in this philosophical framework, because the one thing it will not tolerate is discrimination of any kind, even if that discrimination is rational thought.

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