The Social Obscene

“In certain young people today…I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.

I find it obscene.”

-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “IT IS OBSCENE: A TRUE REFLECTION IN THREE PARTS.” chimamanda.com. June 15, 2021.

I found this discussion of the “controversy” around this essay pretty interesting. Why did she choose to write this? It seems like setting yourself up for a lot of bother. But, I think the central idea that the incentives of social media tends to do something to people’s perspective – removing nuance of thinking, increasing self-centeredness, etc. is valid. How do you mitigate this problem, for yourself and in relationship with others using these platforms?

The Star Chamber, Cancel Culture and Living for the Bench

“By all accounts intense and single-minded, Dr. Kariko lives for “the bench” — the spot in the lab where she works. She cares little for fame. “The bench is there, the science is good,” she shrugged in a recent interview. “Who cares?” …

…Dr. Kariko’s struggles to stay afloat in academia have a familiar ring to scientists. She needed grants to pursue ideas that seemed wild and fanciful. She did not get them, even as more mundane research was rewarded.

“When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

-Gina Kolata, “Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus.” The New York Times. April 8, 2021.

The Star Chamber was an English court that was “originally established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people so powerful that ordinary courts might hesitate to convict them of their crimes. However, it became synonymous with social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of the power it wielded,” according to Wikipedia. It strikes me as an apt phrase to indicate received opinion and how power is used to enforce conformity, where there is often an inverse relationship between how much deviation and the power applied to deviants.

When I read about The Star Chamber, the analogy to Twitter was obvious. Of course, there are relevant differences too. For example, while both serve as a kind of extra-legal enforcement mechanism, the Star Chamber was a sanctioned institution populated by legal professionals, whereas Twitter is closer to a mob.

There’s a tension. On one hand, society needs some kind of mechanism to hold the powerful into account. On the other, this mechanism tends to get out of control and used arbitrarily.

A think one way of thinking about how it should be used is the same rule that makes for comedy. You need to punch up, at the rich, the powerful, or the famous. But, if your comedy is targeting the weak or defenseless, then it isn’t really comedy.

Same goes for the checks on the powerful. If it’s moving in to act on the weak, then it’s not really doing its job, and the critiques of “cancel culture” are on point.

But, I think the real nuance comes in with people that are different. People can be different, and not necessarily weak. Perhaps they have a different focus, like Dr. Kariko living for “the bench”. A think a real sign of a strength of a culture is how well variance is tolerated within niche communities of the larger culture. Among scientists doing bench top research, is there an effort to be inclusive of interests that lie outside of the mainstream?

All of which is academic. The people who are rich and powerful will make these decisions. What the general population thinks they “should” be doing is largely irrelevant to them. So, the question for each of us is what should we be doing? I think Dr. Kariko is one good answer. Focus on the things you care about and get by. Don’t get involved in the larger culture wars that sap your time and energy away from what you’d rather be doing.

On a slightly more broader level, I think it is a call for each of us to try to see where we can support people of divergent views, backgrounds, etc. because it is by fostering an environment where different perspectives can be expressed and supported that we create conditions better for human flourishing, which in turn helps for more flourishing communities – a virtuous circle.

Illiberalism, Cancel Culture, Free Speech, and The Internet

“Bad faith is the condition of the modern internet, and shitposting is its lingua franca. On—yes—both sides. Look: A professional Twitter troll is president. Trolling won. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that despite their centrality, online platforms aren’t suited to the earnest exchange of big ideas.”

—Lili Loofbourow, “Illiberalism Isn’t to Blame for the Death of Good-Faith Debate.” Slate. July 12, 2020.