On his podcast Deep Questions, Cal Newport said something that has gotten deep into my brain and utterly complicated my life. I notice, by the way, that the very best things tend not to make my life simpler — they make my life more interesting, complicated, and challenging. This is one of those things:
I think a lot of what we see on social media is basically what I call intellectual groupieism. Like, I don’t want to do the work, someone else tell me the cliffnotes. What are the basic ideas we all agree with, and more importantly, what’s good and what’s bad, and what do I do to make sure I do the good thing and not the bad thing? like great, I’m with it. And now I’m going to, with great fervor, push this philosophy, but there is nothing below it. You haven’t read any of the things, you haven’t done the hard reading, you haven’t confronted the criticism, you haven’t read the alternative and let that collide and then let your roots grow deep. On social media you are often just a groupie for intellectuals, and say, “I just trust you. Just give me the cliffnotes I need, because I just want to go around with your metaphorical jam band and make sure I have bootleg tapes from your concerts…” We don’t do this anymore – we don’t build philosophies from scratch, we don’t go to the sources. Social media says “don’t bother with that. In fact, if you do bother with it, we might yell at you, so just come on, we will just give you the cliff notes.
As the Christians say, this quote convicted my spirit. It laid out all the ugly truths about how dishonest my intellect had become. I would rave about Chomsky like all the other Left Beards on twitter, without actually having read him. I would savagely dis Jordan Peterson, even though I was secretly benefiting from the advice he gave in 12 Rules For Life. I would jump on bandwagons and repeat slogans without understanding the first things about them. I would uncritically push agendas or talking point the way a college sophomore would push his latest literary obsession.
Cal’s words completely undressed me, and I realized that I knew basically nothing at all. While I know that I’m on the left, I don’t know anymore if I’m a socialist, Marxist, democratic socialist, or some other thing. I don’t know what I think about immigration or borders. I’ve never examined the actual data on police shootings, and therefore can’t talk with any kind of authority on the matter. I don’t understand the concept of gender, because I haven’t had to spend any of my time actually thinking about it. I’m the worst defender of Critical Theory because I’ve never actually read Critical Theory.
In truth, what I do know is very narrow in scope. I know how to manage a grocery store. I know how to teach a yoga class. I know how to meditate. I know how to pet a cat. I can talk pretty coherently about the intersection of homosexuality and Christian theology, and I don’t think I’m too shabby when it comes to Satanism. Most importantly, I know my principles: I value kindness, curiosity, and honesty. I appreciate people of good character, even if those people disagree with me.
So, here’s my commitment: I will be honest about what I know and don’t know. I will normalize shrugging my shoulders and telling you that I’m still in the data-gathering phase for that particular topic. I will read widely and allow my roots to grow deep. I will take the words of John Stuart Mill to heart:
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…
Let’s be honest: you are probably an intellectual groupie too, because it’s easy. That road is wide and walked by many. I invite you to be brave and honest, and take the uncomfortable, socially fraught path of being your own mind.