Is This the End of American Intellectual Life?
A culture that demands purity of thought and offers no pardon for past errors either ends up in tyranny or ruin.
Alexi McCammond is a young, promising journalist who, aged 27 only, covered Joe Biden’s presidential campaign for Axios. She had been hired to serve as Teen Vogue top editor and was due to start in the coming weeks when tweets she had penned ten years ago resurfaced. They contained racist and homophobic words that McCammond had shared as a teenager and for which she had already publicly apologised in 2019. “Past tweets have overshadowed the work I’ve done to highlight the people and issues that I care about,” she shared in a statement; they have also overshadowed her act of contrition. She will never be Teen Vogue’s editor, and her career just got stopped as it was soaring.
In 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to publicly apologise for dressing up as an Arab person in 2001. He had worn “black face” makeup at a school party. The University of Alabama assistant vice-president was forced to resign in 2019 for tweets he had posted two years earlier. The tweets argued that the American flag was a symbol of white supremacy and suggested the cops are racist. There are thousands of stories like these, where words and actions from the past come back to haunt people, forcing them to apologise, resign, and face public shame.
As the case of Ms McCammond demonstrates, public apologies aren’t enough. If you’ve ever stepped out-of-line, beware, and don’t count on a pardon for one isn’t coming. Americans love to posture and expose their Christian values; they routinely say stuff like “may God bless America,” “God be with you,” or “I pray for you.” It would behove them to remember Jesus’ words: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.
It is interesting to notice that, in both Ms McCammond’s and the University VP’s cases, past tweets and pictures were resurfaced by right-wing media. Did these right-wingers instrumentalise current sensibilities among the liberal crowd to ruin the careers of two people, both of them black? Maybe, maybe not, we can’t know for certain. It is obvious, though, that our past has become a source of danger. Our errors are easily instrumentalised to hurt us. Our former selves have become potential enemies of our prospects, whatever we do to right the wrongs.
The Internet has stolen our right to have our past forgotten. We must now bear the weight of all our mistakes until we die without a chance for salvation. Some of you might tell me that “one doesn’t need to atone if one has never sinned,” but think a second about the implications of such a claim. It is like saying, “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.” Having something to hide does not imply guilt; having done something wrong does not mean you’re a bad person for eternity.
The rights to have our errors forgotten and forgiven, to change one’s mind, and to talk without fear of eternal damnation are fundamental to a thriving and vibrant intellectual life. Most of the things we master as humans, we learn through trial and error. We fall before we can walk; the same is true of our thoughts. You believed in Santa, and now you don’t. You might have been an asshole to somebody once, and because you were and somebody talked to you openly and with good intentions, you’ve learnt and changed.
Hanlon’s razor states that we should not attribute to malice what can be easily explained by ignorance and stupidity. We should use it more often.
The Internet has turned communications into a series of monologues to which we react with emojis, likes, and short comments
Ideas that change the world aren’t born in monologues; they don’t come out of consensus. They are created through debate and argumentation, through dialogue and opposition. Dialectical reasoning happens when two opinions clash: to reach the proper conclusion, one needs to hear all arguments. This is how the justice system works: both the prosecution and the defence have a chance to state their cases. Why don’t we apply the same rigorous procedure to ourselves when we dish out judgements in our private lives?
The current American intellectual climate does not care for dialogue; it will not hear the opposite side. To some extent, this is understandable if you consider the other side to be far-right conspiracy nutcases. The thing is, America isn’t divided between white supremacist asshole conservatives and well-meaning liberals. We have learnt to accept that gender or sexual orientation are not binary concepts but lie on a spectrum. Yet, we consider intellectual and political reasoning a black-and-white, Manichean issue. It would help us all to remember that there are as many ways to experience and understand life as there are people.
The Internet has turned communications into a series of monologues to which we react passively with emojis, likes, and short comments. Dialectical reasoning isn’t tolerated anymore for fear that entertaining a thought might cast you out, might make you look like “a loon from the other side.” Free speech should not be absolute. Some speech — hate speech, revisionism, incitation of violence — should be criminalised. I ascribe to Popper’s view that a tolerant society cannot tolerate intolerance, lest it becomes intolerant itself.
However, bad words should not immediately lead to condemnation. When have we stopped arguing; when have we abandoned trying to convince people of what it right? The end of dialogue and dialectical reasoning is the end of intellectual life itself. That there is no public discussion in America that doesn’t boil down to race or party affiliation is a demonstration that intellectualism is fading.
Not only does America not tolerate debate, but it also expects its citizens to be perfect and to have never slipped, never failed, and never strayed out-of-line. America does not grant reprieves and offers no salvation if you have ever sinned in word or deed. It demands purity of thought and, through this very exigence, it kills thinking itself.