Cogito Zero Sum
MTV News closed down this June. The venture to reboot and rebrand, which had aimed to cement MTV’s foothold in the realm of thoughtful long-form criticism and make it more competitive with the likes of Vice and Buzzfeed, has been scrapped for a company-wide pivot back to video. MTV President Chris McCarthy justified the move by saying, “MTV at its best—whether it’s news, whether it’s a show, whether it’s a docu-series—is about amplifying young people’s voices . . . We put young people on the screen, and we let the world hear their voices. We shouldn’t be writing 6,000-word articles on telling people how to feel” (emphases added). What McCarthy conveniently doesn’t mention is that this kind of dramatic pivot is a direct response to the digital news industry’s waning advertisement revenues as well as the revelation that, in the spaces where consumers are increasingly finding more of their informational “content” (like Facebook), videos are algorithmically given greater preference than articles.
The refrain that people are “entitled to their opinions” amounts to a pseudo-noble cliché.
Still, McCarthy’s cocksure rationale sounds incredibly familiar and, in fact, captures far more of our cultural and political moment than I think he realizes (as many of the great former writers for MTV News could have explained to him if he hadn’t fired them). What once called itself a provider of news now sees itself exclusively as a platform for a plurality of (pre-approved) “voices” and identities, all marching to the beat of same consumer ethos: “do you,” “be one of a kind,” “be together, not the same.” It speaks to the kind of horror show we’re living through, where the power of something like criticism—which embodies the urge to learn, explore, engage, question, challenge, and open one’s mind—is overtaken by the more pressing desire to confirm one’s mind, one’s self, as it is, and to guarantee its equal representation in the cultural and political marketplace. It speaks, I believe, to some of the questions that most sharply define our bizarre historical period—questions of the link between opinion and identity, questions of what it means to be your-self.
What do we really mean when we say we’re “entitled to our opinions”? So many questions have been asked over the past year with the hope that the answers to them may help us better understand how our dangerously absurd political moment came to be. But this question is way more revealing than most.
I’ve been fortunate enough to design and teach my own college courses exploring, from literary, historical, and philosophical angles, the many complex processes that led to a Donald Trump presidency. But, as a teacher of argumentative writing, I’ve also been given a window through which to observe some of those processes in action, to see how their effects manifest in the peculiar ways people—namely, my students—think and act. In classes where argumentation is the center of gravity for everything else we do, my students and I begin every term by discussing whether or not, in our classroom and in the world at large, we are, in fact, entitled to our opinions.
On a purely literal level, the first implication of this common refrain is that, no matter how out of wack your opinion may be, you’re entitled to have it—no one can physically stop you. Sure. That’s reasonable, if kind of banal. (You can physically punish or silence people who have certain opinions, but can you actually stop them from having the opinions in the first place?) But, as it’s generally understood, the second implication of the phrase is more troublesome.
As Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, explains it, the phrase suggests that you’re “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth.” As if there’s a social law that says all opinions are equal and all deserve, by right, to be treated equally. This is where lines start to blur—when opinions themselves are seemingly given their own protective rights—and the common refrain that people are “entitled to their opinions” absorbs into itself the pseudo-noble cliché that we must always “respect other people’s opinions.” For Stokes, the obvious problem is that this kind of customary treatment devalues the ways that opinions are supposed to earn serious consideration through logical argumentation, persuasion, rigorous research, and expertise. When these are thrown out the window, people start to expect that their views deserve to not only be taken seriously, but to also be protected from serious challenges, because, well, it’s their opinion.
As Stokes argues, this shared belief that every opinion has an equal claim to being right or true leads to the twisted state of things we have today where, say, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories or climate change denialism are given plenty of media time and mainstream consideration even when it can be shown that some of their claims are verifiably wrong and have serious negative consequences. Stokes, in other words, is on to something here, but the problem goes much deeper. This prevailing situation hinges less on differing opinions that claim, by their own merits, to be “serious candidates for the truth” and more on the ways that opinions have been given cultural and political protection in the “free market of ideas.” Opinions have been subsumed under the various and more totalizing categories of identity, which are understood to be “off limits.”
Looking back on this tumultuous election year, it seems clear that our political culture is marked, at the micro level, by the fusion of a given person’s opinion and what they perceive to be their singular, permanent, and authentic self. (I know that sounds like highfalutin, farty, pseudo-philosophical B.S., but just bear with me for a minute.) Like race, wingspan, or nationality, a person’s political opinions are now treated as if they are hardwired into their being—they are part of one’s fundamental, seemingly unchanging essence. When I talk with many Trump supporters, for example, or staunch Democrats, they share a striking tendency to describe themselves as individuals who are anything but malleable. They seem to deny that their journey to becoming who they are today might have involved being convinced and even reshaped by the things they’ve chosen to politically affiliate with. Instead, theirs is a story of homecoming. In response to the question, “Why do you support X?” I’ve heard countless personal parables from people who, like every children’s-book character ever, detail how they discovered a place where people like them belonged.
The notion that the metaphorical “court of public opinion” should be a truth-seeking body was chucked overboard long ago. Today, a peculiar, pluralistic ideology dominates the “free market(place) of ideas”—an ideology cast in the same mold as liberal multiculturalism. The noblest virtue of this ideology, we’re taught, is not the bare-knuckle struggle for truth, but the equal protection and representation of variegated perspectives and identities, especially those that have been historically excluded from the mainstream (or feel like they have been).
Liberal multiculturalism professes “tolerance” of other cultures and identities above all else, which allows its practitioners to believe they have moved beyond the unjust discrimination of other races, cultures, ethnicities, etc.—or to profess a crushing sense of “woke” guilt for all the ways they haven’t. But as social critics like Slavoj Žižek have noted, this kind of “tolerance” has plenty discriminatory ticks built into it, particularly in the way it reduces other people and cultures to “the folklorist Other deprived of its substance.” Self-described tolerant liberals, for example, will often argue for treating people of a certain foreign ethnicity (and their culture) with equal “respect” and “understanding” while still reducing their human complexity to a monolithic, culturally determined ideal—or a handful of “charming customs.” (This happens all the time, for example, when well-meaning white, progressive friends will defend my Mexicanness and, in the process, make it sound like I was raised by George Lopez and La Malinche). In philosophy, this view—that the entirety of a single entity’s “essence” or identity is reducible to a core of unchanging characteristics—is called essentialism.
The peculiar thing, though, is that we have embraced this essentialism, not only to categorize other people and groups, but to categorize ourselves. The process that anchors one’s opinions to a vision of their unchanging, authentic self thrives under the shared cultural assumption that our selves are so easily reducible. Consumer and communicative capitalism, in turn, have developed countless means to profit from that assumption: “Discover your true self and we will provide infinite products, brands, lifestyle choices, news sources, algorithmically filtered content, etc., all custom-fitted for you.” Accordingly, the wild proliferation of “true selves” results in the extreme “balkanization” that defines our political scene today. Competing worldviews and ideological identity camps today are so splintered and alien to one another that there seems to be little room for compromise, civility, or even the ability to live side by side. When we talk about political “opponents” on this field, we’re not really talking about people with strong opinions that can be challenged through “deliberative democracy.”
Again, for all of the frustration it causes, we seem to have wholeheartedly embraced this balkanization, partly because it protects people from the nuisance of having to “change their mind,” but more severely because it relieves us of the existential burden of considering people—selves—to be changeable. In a completely essentialist way, one’s opinions become a staple marker and expression of who they already are, at base, as a conscious individual. And, in a completely multiculturalist way, such viewpoints are counted among the categories of identity that are “entitled” to equal representation and “tolerance” in the public sphere.
It is only through such an understanding of how we treat opinions and identity that we can even begin to make sense of the seemingly infinite cases where people who hold certain political opinions and beliefs genuinely feel like they’re being oppressed when others argue against those opinions. While this may seem like ridiculous hyperbole, it actually makes sense in the warped political culture we have, where all of my opinions (ranging from personal taste to expertise) are bundled together as the expression of who I truly am inside and out.
This is also why it makes sense for our multiculturalist media market to be structured the way it is. The New York Times, for example, has recently faced intense backlash for hiring climate-change denier Bret Stephens as a regular columnist. James Bennet, the Times’ editorial page editor, made a revealing defense of the hire by saying that there are “millions of people who agree with [Stephens].” The same rationale lurks behind CNN’s paper-thin justification for hiring bombastic idiots like Jeffrey Lord or Corey Lewandowski as commentators in order to tap into their supposed “expertise.” In one sense, it’s baldly a question of money and ratings—news outlets maximize their chances of drawing in bigger audiences by giving platforms to a more “diverse” range of opinions. In another sense, though, this rationale takes for granted that the job of a news outlet is not so much to present consumers with “truth” as to represent an array of rigid viewpoints with which consumers can potentially identify. I use the word “identify” instead of “agree with” here because that is precisely what is happening. In fact, the truth of an opinion stems mainly from the fact that people can identify with it, that it fits within the existing way they interpret the world. To “agree” with political commentators today is not to just be convinced by their reasoning, but to side with them as representatives of something that defines your self, something that cuts to the core of what makes you who you are.
At the collective level, the implications of this linking of opinion to selfhood are obvious—we’re living through them. Dangerous and stupid opinions are “normalized” and given an equal footing with others that have substantiated themselves through some agreed-upon criteria of legitimacy. Fringe groups with violent goals feel emboldened by their growing acceptance in the mainstream. People all over become more and more alien to one another as we all harden into stubborn, fixed kernels, retreating ever farther into our skull-shaped cages of self.
René Descartes’ legendary formulation “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”) has given perpetual justification to a specific way of thinking about what a human “self” is. In Descartes’ rationale, one’s individual act of conscious meditation (“I think”) proves that one exists (“therefore I am”). More than this, though, it—the act of thinking—also seems to prove how one exists: as an individual “I” that thinks, an “I” whose identity exists on its own and for which consciousness is an expression thereof. The Cartesian image of the thinking self affirms what feels like the natural sense of personal identity as some ethereal presence that exists inside our material body, some self-defining, permanent substance that both resides in and exceeds the rubbery folds of our brains.
More totalizing than a single trait, more unique than one’s genetic makeup, the self today is repeatedly framed as a special matrix.
In our times, this enduring image of the self as permanent substance—the source of thinking, the way one thinks—and of consciousness as its expression has a kind of cultural and existential currency that can only be compared to that of “the soul” (and for Descartes, the two were inextricable). More totalizing than a single trait, more unique than one’s genetic makeup, the self today is repeatedly framed as a special matrix that shapes how a person consciously processes and thinks about the world in a way that simultaneously reflects and defines who they are at the most essential level. It is the portrait of one’s most intimate hardwiring, the fingerprint of one’s soul. This, of course, is an essential complement to—one could say the enabler of—our addiction to discursive balkanization. Of course, Descartes and his descendants offered a rich and varied legacy, but it is the enduring image of the cogito that drives our impulse to essentialize others and even ourselves.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the concrete effects of this general understanding of what a self is (and where a self comes from) are just as noticeable in politics as they are in college essay writing. There are distinct ways in which student writing in college reflects the same obstacles to measured discourse that you see every time commentators like Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones go at each other on TV. As the great educator and writer Frank Cioffi noted in his essay “Argumentation in a Culture of Discord,” this is partly because the “food-fight journalism” that dominates our media sphere displays a specific form of fiercely partisan argumentation that is mimicked by those who grow up in that sphere. But, again, this goes much deeper.
When students arrive at college, many of them do fall back on the conventions of this crappy form of argumentation, which isn’t really argumentation so much as a war of attrition between polarized viewpoints. However, the real problem here isn’t merely that students mimic the argumentative “tactics” they’ve seen in the mainstream media, but that they routinely perform the most basic assumptions our culture has taught us about who we are, where our opinions come from, and what it means to argue for them in the multiculturalist marketplace of ideas and identities.
It is from this well of pure individuality that students are expected to draw the meaningful and original ideas that strong writing needs. Argument, as it’s been presented to them, doesn’t require them to search and accrue and learn and persuade so much as it requires them to deeply meditate and connect with their inner oneness, to fish around the ordered rooms of their conscious selves and articulate what they see. Again, this process makes sense when common wisdom demands that we’re entitled to our opinions—that we need not craft and test those opinions through trial and error because their value supposedly comes from their connection to the soul-like substance that defines us.
Moreover, it makes sense that the endgame of this process isn’t to justify the righteousness of an argumentative position but to assert that position’s right to exist in the social museum of tolerance. For instance, most of my new students understand that a basic requirement of argumentative papers is to include something called a “counterargument.” So many of them simply take this to mean that they must acknowledge that other viewpoints on the matter at hand exist. At the beginning, students can rarely conceptualize how such counterarguments may derive from conflicts with the logic or evidence bolstering their own arguments; instead, nine times out of ten, they can only imagine these counterarguments coming from assumed interlocutors who quite simply think differently than they do.
In their assigned classwork, students are pushed to express what is otherwise a general condition for social actors today, who daily demonstrate the leap from I-think-therefore-I-am to I-am-therefore-what-I-think. It is really no wonder that, from classrooms to social media pages to newsrooms, strong challenges to individuals’ argumentative positions feel more like personal, existential attacks than anything else. Even if others are responding to your viewpoint with researched facts and deductive reasoning, the idea that they are arguing against your viewpoint in the first place means that they are challenging the very tissue of who you are.
The alternative is the very spirit of learning itself, the thing that instructors should impart to their students and, more important, the thing that makes perpetual students of us all. The concept of “learning” revolves around the admission that a person is always incomplete, open, vulnerable. To learn is to accept that one’s growth—the endless process of becoming who they will be—depends on engaging the strangeness within themselves (the part that is perpetually open, unpredictable) as much as interacting with a strange world of knowledge that they can absorb but never know in its entirety on their own. They must share in it with others. It belongs to no one, and so it belongs to everyone; this is the radically communist (or “commonist”) core of learning itself. The same goes for consciousness and selfhood: both are open things, and both are as dependent on you as they are on other people. It can be a scary thing to confront the openness of your self, to acknowledge that who you are is suspended always by where you are, where you’ve been, whom you’re with, what you’ll confront. But look around you. The opposite is much scarier.