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Wasting Your Public Voice

Steve Sailer, writing about my blog post this week on my extreme moral queasiness over HBD, quotes a response cited by Brad DeLong, who, believe it or not, is a prominent academic. From the passage from another blog, quoted approvingly by DeLong: If I’ve given you the impression that Dreher is bullying, racist sxxxhead, I […]

Steve Sailer, writing about my blog post this week on my extreme moral queasiness over HBD, quotes a response cited by Brad DeLong, who, believe it or not, is a prominent academic. From the passage from another blog, quoted approvingly by DeLong:

If I’ve given you the impression that Dreher is bullying, racist sxxxhead, I apologize. He’s not. He’s heavy-hearted about what he’s telling us. He’s SAD that black people are stupid and inferior. But don’t you see that he’s left no choice but to be a racist sxxxbag when we insist on forcing our reality down his throat?

This is, of course, spittle-flecked raving. I said no such thing. I said simply that it makes scientific sense to me that peoples in various populations would have evolved to be stronger in one area than in others, but focusing on this fact deeply troubles me because of humanity’s history of using differences like this to dehumanize and to justify dominating and exploiting the so-called “inferior” peoples. If ours was a society that was strongly committed to the moral equality of peoples, it might be safer to consider these ideas, but our meritocratic ideology makes it especially dangerous to entertain the possibility that they might be true. Whether I’m right or wrong or somewhere in between, that’s a far, far cry from how this idiot characterized my post.

Now, you could have one of several reasonable responses to this. You could say, perhaps, as some of you did, “You’re worried about nothing, Rod; Sailer and the HBD people are wrong on the science.” Or you could say, as some of you did, “Whether or not HBD is true, we should never be afraid to face the truth.” We might then have had a conversation about what how we should deal with truths that are potentially dangerous, if they become known and accepted. In fact, the scientific site Edge, in 2006, asked its contributors (mostly prominent scientists) to answer the question, “What is your dangerous idea?”  J. Craig Venter said his is the idea that discovering the genetic basis for personality differences could raise the likelihood of social conflict. Evolutionary biologist Randolph Nesse said the idea of dangerous ideas is scary, even though there really are some ideas that are dangerous. Nesse wrote:

Racial superiority is yet another dangerous idea that hurts real people. More examples come to mind all too easily and some quickly get complicated. For instance, the idea that men are inherently different from women has been used to justify discrimination, but the idea that men and women have identical abilities and preferences may also cause great harm.

While I don’t want to promote ideas dangerous to others, I am fascinated by ideas that are dangerous to anyone who expresses them. These are “unspeakable ideas.” By unspeakable ideas I don’t mean those whose expression is forbidden in a certain group. Instead, I propose that there is class of ideas whose expression is inherently dangerous everywhere and always because of the nature of human social groups. Such unspeakable ideas are anti-memes. Memes, both true and false, spread fast because they are interesting and give social credit to those who spread them. Unspeakable ideas, even true important ones, don’t spread at all, because expressing them is dangerous to those who speak them.

Now that’s a topic worth talking about. It’s what I was trying to get at in that original post that drew such a stupid and pungent rant from the blog DeLong quotes approvingly. I stay away from blogs of the left and the right where this level of discourse is the rule, so I rarely see it. It’s a shame that someone of Brad DeLong’s stature would endorse it. Maybe DeLong’s own blogging is the same way, I dunno. If so, I feel bad for the guy’s students. Can you imagine studying under a professor who thought this kind of discourse was an acceptable way to discuss issues, especially controversial ones? Sailer offers public intellectuals like DeLong this advice:

Try to be extremely reasonable. Put yourself in other people’s shoes so you can understand the incentives they face. Learn a few important subject areas in depth, especially major topics where the quality of thought is typically shallow. Don’t assume you are an expert on complicated subjects such as macroeconomics or race if you are not. Check yourself to make sure your theories are level-headed. Read widely and carefully. Rethink your old policy favorites, especially when they’ve become popular because diminishing returns are probably setting in. Question conventional wisdom. Use wit to deflate the powerful, prestigious, and the smug when they go wrong. Don’t pile on the unfashionable. Undermine Malcolm Gladwell when he’s riding high in 2005-2012, but ease off in 2013 when everybody else finally gets what you’ve been pointing out. In summary, be less like Brad DeLong writing about race and more like Steve Sailer.

As rhetorical strategy, that’s quite good. Again, I don’t always agree with Steve Sailer, but I keep reading him because, as I said, he makes me reconsider things I thought were true, and because his calm tone makes me consider things I don’t want to see or think about, but ought to. This is what I look for in bloggers: not those who necessarily confirm my own opinions, but who make me think about things in a different way. I don’t bother reading bloggers who may broadly share my religious and political convictions, but who make distortion and demonization their stock in trade. Why bother? It’s depressing to read a thoughtful, nuanced column by Ross Douthat (say), then wade into the comments section on the NYT website, and realize quickly that you have stepped into a sewer of ideological idiocy. The Times‘ reader comboxes is where thought and meaningful exchange of ideas go to die. I’m telling you, even if certain commenters of the left or the right drive you crazy in this blog’s comboxes, we have it pretty good around here. This is not an accident.

This, by the way, is why I read Ta-Nehisi Coates. I disagree with him about as often as I disagree with Sailer, but he has a way of writing that invites readers to consider his propositions. Isn’t that what public intellectual types want? Isn’t that what they should want? The pissed-off shriekers of the left are no better than the right-wing ranters they despise; they don’t want to persuade, but rather to preen and to browbeat. Whatever else it is, it’s dull.



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