It’s important to remember that tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. We tolerate the cold. We tolerate the heat. And we have to tolerate difficult people. The open society needs them.
“Is it because Voltaire wasn’t afraid to be nasty that he did so much good? Almost certainly. There is no convincing evidence that writers can do their job by being nice.”—John Ralston Saul, The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (1994)
If Socrates was alive today and on Facebook he’d be that annoying guy that keeps asking uncomfortable questions, bringing up annoying facts. This was, writes John Ralston Saul, his modus operandi: “He spent his life wandering around Athens annoying everyone in the city.” Trolls used to wander around the internet doing the same thing. But they’ve been doing it less and less these days because it’s getting easier and easier to block them. In the Wild West days of the internet, when online communities tended to govern themselves anarchically, troll management was all about extinction. Hence the expression: “DON’T FEED THE TROLL!” But these days it’s all about creating “safe spaces” with the likeminded. This is decidedly unwise because the muscles of the mind atrophy in these echo chambers: moral clarity gives way to sanctimony; shared values give way to groupthink; ethical reasoning gives way to circular reasoning; sound judgment gives way to a reactionary adherence to dogma; and a clear conception of who your real enemies are gives way to a fanatical demonization of all who disagree. To wit: safe spaces may be comfortable, but they’re anything but safe.
Refusing to engage with a nasty little troll is everyone’s right, but silencing them altogether is rarely a good idea. In Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2010), Barbara Ehrenreich maintains that getting rid of all of the “negative people” in your life is a recipe for disaster: “What would it mean in practice to eliminate all the ‘negative people’ from one’s life? It might be a good move to separate from a chronically carping spouse, but it is not so easy to abandon the whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager. And at the workplace, while it’s probably advisable to detect and terminate those who show signs of becoming mass killers, there are other annoying people who might actually have something useful to say: the financial officer who keeps worrying about the bank’s subprime mortgage exposure or the auto executive who questions the company’s overinvestment in SUVs and trucks. Purge everyone who ‘brings you down,’ and you risk being very lonely or, what is worse, cut off from reality. The challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gauging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights, and offering comfort when needed.”
Just as ecosystems become less resilient, and more fragile, when you reduce their biodiversity (by eradicating species), epistemic communities become less resilient, and more fragile, when you reduce their intellectual and ideological diversity (by eradicating radical ideas). Numerous studies have demonstrated that the only thing worse than thinking through important political matters alone, is thinking through important political matters amongst people who share all of your assumptions. We need to be exposed to challenging unorthodox ideas on a fairly regular basis. But social media (and search engines like Google) are making it easier and easier for us to silence radical voices (by dismissing them as “trolls”), and retreat into homogeneous online echo chambers. This is a worrisome trend. The ease with which we can Facebook “block” trolls ought to give pause to all who value democracy, intelligent debate, and the open society. Why? Because no amount of intelligence or education can replace this kind of diversity. Because smart people with MAs and PhDs are blinded by bias.
Reasoning researcher David Perkins has demonstrated in numerous studies that IQ is a remarkably poor predictor of a person’s capacity for “fair and balanced” reasoning. Most of his studies look something like this: 1) Give the person an IQ test to establish their score. 2) Ask them how they feel about a contentious political issue. 3) Now ask them to come up with reasons and arguments to support the other side. 4) Ask them to come up with reasons and arguments to support their side. As you might imagine, pretty much everyone sucks at finding support for the other side. What’s interesting, though, is that people with high IQs suck just as much as people with low IQs. All of this changes, however, when people are asked to come up with support for their side. There you see a big difference. Test subjects with high IQs can come up with many more reasons and arguments to support their position—regardless of which side they happened to be on!—than those with low IQs. What’s more, Perkins found that people with high IQs are exceptionally good at presenting their position in a clear, elegant, and logically-consistent fashion, which, as you might imagine, makes whatever they happen to be saying seem that much more plausible. Alas, you might say that people with low IQs are like terrible lawyers, whilst people with high IQs are like really good lawyers—but neither, Perkins maintains, is particularly fair and balanced: “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”
In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), Jonathan Haidt maintains that higher education only makes this problem worse: “high school students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to college, and the college students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to graduate school. Schools don’t teach people to reason thoroughly; they select the applicants with higher IQs, and people with higher IQs are able to generate more reasons.” Haidt concludes that moral rationalists, such as Sam Harris, who think that education—and an obsessive adherence to argumentative hygiene can save us—are sorely mistaken; just as mistaken, in fact, as Tedsters and technocrats who think we should sideline the citizen and put the nerds in charge.
The open society our grandparents fought for desperately needs difficult people—even though they’re often full of shit, even though their motives are frequently somewhat less than noble. The truth or falsity of what difficult people say is to some extent irrelevant, as is their mental health. Fixating on either of these questions invariably leads to a convenient rationalization for silencing them. Besides, as my friend Graeme Blake rightly observes, “one unusual feature of life is that intelligent, thoughtful people can have violently opposing opinions.” Consequently, the guy who looks like an angry asshole to you might look like a passionate activist to me, and vice versa. Alas, quips Blake: “Trolldom is in the eye of the beholder.” Or, to borrow a phrase commonly attributed to former Attorney General Ramsey Clark: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Don’t bother psychoanalyzing the difficult people in your life, or speculating about their motives. Trust me, I’ve done it, and it really doesn’t get you anywhere interesting. For instance, there’s this famous YouTuber named Anthony Fantano who I’ve been psychoanalyzing for the last five years. This guy is maddening. The worst kind of critic. Someone who seems to actively seek out things he knows he won’t like just so that he can trash them on The Needle Drop (his blog/vlog). I actually think I hate this guy. And yet I find myself staring at his video reviews regardless, from time to time, the way other people find themselves staring at traffic accidents. In the last five years, Fantano has managed to trash every single new artist I love. His most recent crime: he trashed Grimes’s new album, Art Angels (2015). I loathe this man. Such a nasty piece of work. His reviews are mean-spirited, petty, and unfair. Being married to this guy would be a living hell. Being him would be worse! That being said, I’m really glad he’s out there, in the world, on YouTube, making money, and doing his thing. Because the open society needs assholes like him.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2nd edition)
This article has been updated. It was originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.