Look I get it, we’re all busy (busy scrolling through twitter and facebook but still busy). But is it too much to ask to at least have people pick between being someone who actually cares about ideas and someone who accepts substitutes and then can focus on other things?
Here is a tip. If it looks like you’re going to argue with someone about some controversial topic, start with a book. If someone challenges you with something pertaining to, say, feminism, why not say, “Oh that reminds me of The Bell Jar/Mrs. Dalloway/The Second Sex. What are your views on those?” If they’ve actually investigated the thing they’re getting so worked-up about and read something like those books, suddenly I think you’ll find that the conversation is on more stable ground. Not because those authors, or any author, is infallibly correct, but they have at least done some real work on the topic. That is one of the benefits of a common culture (or what is left of it, anyway); we are supposed to be able to reference the work of others so we don’t have to start at the beginning.
Now please remember that I am ranting about this in response to the endless stream of supposed intellectual content featured on social media, oftentimes in the form of “articles”. Clearly many of those articles are quite good, and the intelligent always use those good articles as either the first-fruits of further investigation or an interesting addition to an already substantial body of knowledge.
And I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this but will anyway: context is vitally important here. You don’t have to be well-read in a given topic to weigh-in. You still have a brain so when someone says “the patriarchy is responsible for all the world’s ills” you don’t have to feel inadequate to the task of disputing such a claim merely because you haven’t read on the topic (though whether you’d want to engage someone who made such a statement is another matter). This is especially true of a sincere intellectual. Wide-reading in other topics can oftentimes make you more qualified to deal with nearly any topic, provided you do so honestly admitting your own gaps in knowledge.
But for those of you tempted to click on an article with a picture of Hillary Clinton asking “Is modern feminism out of touch?” or one suggesting corporations be nicer or something, might I advise you to consider your other options if you are interested in such things? For instance, here is the beginning to the feminism article by Christine Emba in the Washington Post:
Hillary Clinton’s post-election party took place in a room with a glass ceiling, the Javits Convention Center in New York. At a certain point in the expected celebrations, confetti mimicking glass shards was meant to fall from the sky, a symbol of the candidate reaching feminism’s peak — breaking the glass ceiling that held women back from achieving the highest position in the country.
Of course, things didn’t turn out exactly as planned. But even if they had, it’s up for debate whether Hillary Clinton and those like her adequately represent the needs and nuance of the feminist movement today.
There are a lot of people who are going to read something like that and think they’ve actually learned something. Certainly the insinuating prose gives the indication of belonging to a savvy in-group, one who is keeping up with the times. But now consider the opening few paragraphs of The Bell Jar[note]The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. Published by Harper Collins.[/note]:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me at every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.
New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.”
Look, I get that you don’t necessarily have to pick between the two, but is it too much to ask that at least you pick one first, and the other second?