How to Direct Your Own Thinking in a Divisive Age

A “Why” of Woke: Idealization

Posted Jul 14, 2020

“You’re right from your side; I’m right from mine,” Bob Dylan sang in his plea for understanding, “One Too Many Mornings.” That sentiment is no longer the default premise in social discourse. Today, gotcha-style bad faith has morphed into a culture of purges. An honest inquirer risks getting canceled even mentioning cancel culture. Add a dash of youth zealotry, sloganeering, and social media, and things start to happen.

The once authoritative The New York Times now purges dissenters in order to uphold their definition of inclusive. That’s ironic. “Inclusive” now seems to mean, “Defer and agree, or get out.” NYT op-ed editor Bari Weiss reported a barrage of personal harassment from her colleagues and today resigned after displaying “Wrongthink.” 

Outrage, whether ideological or aggressive, cold or hot, propels emotional signals designed to work in the heat of the moment. Self-righteous outrage allows no space for reflection. In the best of times it is tough to tune into one’s own self-talk. It’s especially hard to do when reading words with which one vehemently disagrees, or when participating in an ecstatic protest march. 

The impulse to purge opposing viewpoints often feels justified. So the slightest collective reinforcement, whether on Twitter or on the streets, redoubles the outrage. Why would we ever check our own premises when action is afoot and validated all around?  

Slogans and chants, usually in group settings, actively create a happening, (literally called that in the 60s) and stoke passions. To cancel a person or call someone out for wrongthink is to uphold the collective “wisdom” of one’s tribe. 

Where the will of the collective turns into a “superorganism” — whether via protests or calls to silence or suppress people who hold opposing views —we move into dangerous territory. There lies the threat of violence, or indeed, actual violence.  

Religious group sentiment can culminate in the feeling that one is part of a superorganism. In fact, any galvanizing idea can give rise to a secular form of the religious experience. 

We all want progress and justice as we define it. Important underlying questions to ask oneself: Progress to whom, for whom, to what ends? And at what costs? Too much questioning leads to inaction, as Shakespeare noted, but convulsive mass action elicits many unintended effects, some of them unknowable. Still, if one feels chronic frustration and expects Jehovah's Justice to sweep through the land, as rage justifies itself. 

When the message is not “consider this,” but “believe and repeat this,” then reason is no longer the referee. That’s true whether the message comes from the streets or the newspaper. The winnings are no longer hearts and minds, victories that Gandhi and Martin Luther King accomplished. What is won is obedience. If what we witness is an attack on reason, voluntary assembly, freedom, peace, and self-direction, we will hardly find the beginning step for true justice and progress. 

Nando Pelusi/Personal archive
Source: Nando Pelusi/Personal archive