Mark Lilla’s “The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics” is a cautionary study for all of us. Rather than an indictment of intellectuals in politics, he broadly examines how some of the most well-recognized philosophers of the 20th century – the smartest people on earth – so egregiously misjudged the ideological ramifications of their intellectual commitments.
Take German philosopher Martin Heidegger, for example. Heidegger published “Being and Time” in 1927. In the philosophical world, “Being and Time” was cataclysmic. It reset the agenda for conventional philosophy, and secured Heidegger’s place as the most influential thinker in Europe. And yet, perhaps as early as 1931, Heidegger, influential thinker of continental and international renown, began voicing support for Nazism, and even gave propaganda lectures across Germany, ending them with the standard, “Heil Hitler!”
It’s easy to pick on people like Heidegger — breathtaking geniuses whose thinking is exposed as lacking. It gets us off the hook because we are not world-renowned philosophers, and if they can’t get it right, how can we be expected to do so? But we do have minds, and we have been given the capacity to think, reason, examine, conclude, express an opinion and take a position. If we live in the United States, our form of government is dependent upon a well-informed electorate. And, yet, in our era, where information is available at our fingertips, how do we discern good information from bad information? Accurate analysis from manipulated analysis? Genuine facts from opinions? Objectively reported news from fake news? How can we understand the present apart from the self-deception of our own prejudices? The fact is that it takes work and commitment to nurture an informed opinion, but there are steps we can take to better our odds.
Understand our prejudices. This was one of the significant insights of Hans-Georg Gadamer, a former student whom Heidegger didn’t think would amount to anything. In this usage, Gadamer is not presenting the concept of prejudice in our contemporary meaning of the word. Rather, he believed that because language comes to human beings with embedded meaning, interpretations and understandings of the world can never be prejudice-free.
Expressed differently, our words create worlds, so pay careful attention to the outlets from which we receive our words. Prejudice – bias – is part of the human language condition. Work to be self-aware of it as best you can.
Social media understands Gadamer. Well, I doubt that social media experts study Gadamer, but using various algorithmic formulas, social media platforms identify and capture our language preferences, which then, in turn, shape the news and information that is filtered into our social media inboxes. Consequently, with ease, we read stories, opinions and studies that consistently support our prejudices — that is, are algorithmically in alignment with our language biases and preferences and, thusly, reinforce our points of view.
Have you ever ordered a book online from Amazon, only to see three additional titles suggested for your enjoyment? Those suggested titles are the result of algorithmic formulas that capture your informational preferences, which were harvested from your initial order. So rather than being intellectually challenged, our positions are easily confirmed. These words shape our intellectually prejudiced worlds.
Intentionally disrupt your brain’s hard drive. If we are serious about engaging the world around us, we must work at acquiring information differently. One of the most thoughtfully engaged people I know practices this discipline by purposely reading contrasting periodicals. For example, every day he reads a local paper, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Four different publications that will often cover the same event, but with significantly different perspectives.
Try it. If you read Time Magazine, also read the National Review. And, if you really want to stretch yourself, read the Economist to experience a European take on American news. And if you tend not to read periodicals but watch television instead, view Fox, CNN and maybe one of the national networks. Experience how each outlet reports and interprets the same event, or how each newspaper may have a slightly different take on the same news story.
Check sources. It is common today for advocacy groups from various stripes to hire intellectual mercenaries to conduct studies that look legitimate but, upon closer scrutiny, are written to promote a specific point of view or ideological prejudice. These pieces often look like serious research, citing studies at Harvard or having been written by professors from Stanford, but they’re not serious intellectual or scientific examinations. Sometimes just a little digging will help to separate legitimate information from propaganda.
Have discipline. It’s easier to take the path of least resistance. Most people simply don’t want to work at acquiring an informed opinion. It takes time and consistent effort to read and analyze a variety of sources. It’s unsettling to be in a semi-perpetual state of feeling like you’re missing something, or that some of the information you’re reading or hearing about just doesn’t add up.
Various purveyors of persuasion are counting on that unease, and they’re making it easier for us to gravitate toward that which satisfies our prejudices. If we become so confident in our convictions that we don’t need to seriously access contrasting viewpoints, we’ve taken the path of least resistance.
Listen. I’m always amazed when I find myself in situations in which complete strangers presume their respective positions on me. Years ago, I received a call from a president at an eastern university. Without pause, he introduced himself, and then proceeded to lecture me for about 15 minutes on why Duquesne University had made a terrible mistake in taking a wrong position on an issue related to its intercollegiate athletic conference. He went on and on, with great passion, and concluded his diatribe with, “What do you think of that?”
“Well, your argument sounds plausible to me,” I said, “but you may wish to know that you’ve been speaking to the president of Dubuque not Duquesne, so you might be better served by talking to Duquesne’s president instead of me.” He hung up the phone.
More often than not, we’re better informed by listening to and engaging others, than presuming that we’ve got something important to say.
Take a sabbath. I had several friends from other countries email me during the most recent government shutdown. Generally, they wanted to know how we were doing. Behind their kind question was a concern that we were living in calamity. I assured our friends that we were just fine and that the vast majority of our country experienced very little disruption. I also cautioned that Washington, D.C., as reported through many outlets, is not a window into the rest of our country. It was a nice way of saying that, though serious, Washington today is mostly theater, and that what is real in America often happens outside of news coverage. Discussions around the dinner table, school sporting events and theater performances, religious observance, volunteering at the food pantry, counselors providing grief support, professors that teach, tucking children into bed at night, surgeries, examinations, potluck suppers, planting crops, coffee groups, book clubs, innovations in business, technology, research and medicine — these things, and other moments, are what is real in America.
So take a sabbath. Try turning off the television or radio, and recycling the newspaper one day a month or week. Instead, talk to your spouse, or listen to your children or grandchildren tell you about their day. Mow the lawn or tend to your garden, or take a walk. Visit your neighbor whose husband died earlier in the fall, or take a load of groceries to the food pantry. These moments are real. They’re not political theater, but points of unfiltered, unvarnished, human-to-human contact. They put what we read and watch into their proper perspective.
So why does all of this matter?
It’s important because we live in an era where ideologies competing for our assent are available with a click of the mouse. An ideology is a system of ideas and ideals, especially as it concerns economic and political theory and policy. Ideologies are a way of simplifying a very complex world and, yet, no ideology is comprehensively truth-full. Ideologies shape a point of view. These ideas and ideals – these words – form worlds. Nazism is an ideology that intended to shape a specific view of the world. Communism and socialism are ideologies, each intending to shape a specific view of the world. Capitalism is an ideology and shapes a unique worldview. No ideology is value-less, but clearly some ideologies are more just than others.
What ideological world is being shaped by the words you consume?
Jeffrey F. Bullock is the president of the University of Dubuque and University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa. He is the loving father to three boys and husband to Dana. He blogs regularly at jeffbullock.com.
This article was first published on jeffbullock.com and is reprinted here with permission from the author.