Back when the cost of a fill-up was closer to a lunch check than the electric bill, I heard a (self-identified liberal) member of my family bitching about “the conservatives trying to take away our SUVs.” This gave me pause, for it’s generally on the political left that the loudest environmentalist voices are heard.
“How you figure?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Oh, you know, this whole ‘What Would Jesus Drive?’ crowd. They drive me crazy. They’ll have our SUVs before it’s over.”
Never mind Greenpeace. Never mind the Sierra Club. Never mind The Nation. My relative had overlooked a Wrigley Field full of like-minded individuals to pick out two guys watching the game from their balcony across the street, because they matched her definition of “the enemy.” Of course it’s those damned right-wingers who want to take away her SUV.
I thought about this exchange for a long time, mostly in terms of wanting to prevent similar thinking of my own. She thought “bad guy” first, then located an instance of the bad guy saying what she didn’t want to hear. Such could be rather seductive, could it not? Total self-selection of ideas; woohoo!
I considered it again during and after our most recent Dark and Stormy Book Club broadcast, on George Orwell’s 1984. One of the central ideas of the book is oppressing a population through the destruction of language. The totalitarian Party, by removing words such as “revolution” and “freedom” from the language, intends to make it impossible to consider these ideas in future generations, as the words will simply not exist.
With apologies to Meno (and hat tips to Sapir and Whorf), how do you consider something when you don’t know what it is?
On the broadcast, I expressed concern not only about the power of euphemism in today’s society, but about what I perceive to be a near-total dearth of healthy suspicion in today’s younger people, particularly with regard to the power and legitimate role of government. It seems to me that we’re training an entire generation to think of the government first, and remarkably passively, for wants as well as needs. These kids aren’t just not wondering; they’re not even thinking to wonder.
Not to worry, my co-hosts said. Every generation thinks its young people are soft-headed, and besides, we are living in the age of the World Wide Web—an information bazaar beyond the wildest dreams of the greatest visionaries of just a few decades ago.
This partially satisfied me. In one sense, it’s true. I blogged about the Web’s nearly unfathomable utility once before, and proclaimed this the age of the death of wonder. We are talking about what is very close to the sum total of human knowledge, and a little box in your study or bedroom puts it at your fingertips. Don’t let it get by you: that is absolutely amazing.
Ah, but: the Web’s immensity itself cripples critical thought. As of this writing, there are an estimated 63,000,000,000 pages out there. Head out with preconceived notions to validate, and you’ll succeed every time (and this is why I thought of the “conservatives want to take away our SUVs” exchange). Whatever you think the Web is, you’re right. The Web is a bottomless pit of porn. The Web is chock-full of people who are absolutely certain that gay people are going to hell. The Holocaust never happened; here are 1,000 pages that document its nonexistence.
Less absurdly: the Web says that liberal thought is the human race’s only hope. The Web says that conservative thought is the human race’s only hope. The Web says that government must solve the problems of its people, no matter their nature.
Ah, see? I’m right. Here is a Web page that says so.
Absolute self-selection of ideas is now trivially easy, and extremely dangerous if it isn’t seen for what it is. Please, keep yourself wondering.