Our media ecosystem, at least in its current form, rewards partisan hyperventalism. There are few incentives for commentators to roll back the hysteria, to commit to a measured, judicious, and thoughtful analytical posture.
This is precisely why it’s never been more important to embrace and embody these virtues.
Embodying measuredness or thoughtfulness doesn’t necessarily mean taking a middle position between opposing views, or disarming yourself of rhetorical verve.
Rather, it means that both your epistemic processes (belief-formation) and discourse posture (belief-expression) are characterized by intellectual virtues like reasonableness, openness to evidence, and an uncompromising commitment to the truth.
The last trait is crucial. Consider what its opposite—a contempt for truth—does to a person. Here’s what I wrote about Tucker Carlson, who suppresses his true beliefs about Trump every single day.
There is a better way. A conscious—and vehement—effort to hierarchically privilege truthtelling can help us repel some of our most epistemically destructive vices, such as our everpresent predilection toward tribalism, which is intellectually ruinous.
As John Locke wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
He that would seriously set upon the search of truth ought in the first place to prepare his mind with a love of it. For he that loves it not will not take much pains to get it; nor be much concerned when he misses it.
A love for truth is paramount. We show it the respect it deserves by attuning our hearts to desire it more than comforting illusions, or financial gain, or social respect, or anything else that steers us away from preeminently valuing it.
One particularly subtle danger is audience capture, which over time can erode a person’s commitment to truthtelling without them ever noticing.
I’m a writer. I have a publication, multiple newsletters, a Twitter account, a Substack Notes presence, and hopefully one day soon, a podcast or two. It’s not quite Obama’s “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone”—but it’s something. Avoiding intellectual capture is very important to me, and to my ongoing sense that being a writer is good use of the short time I have on this earth.
When I say “captured” that means occupying a place in the discourse where you are fundamentally performing a part, or where you have to actively suppress what you really believe due to investors disagreeing with it, or advertising people not approving of it, or an audience not appreciating it.
The lifeblood of a writer is being able to think and write freely.
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One indicator I use to gauge whether I’m on the path I want to be on is who my audience is.
If I had a master list of my newsletter subscribers and Twitter followers, it would legitimately be ideologically diverse. I’m not saying that to say, “My followership is more ideologically diverse than yours, therefore, it’s better than yours.” I do think it’s good to have people in our orbit who don’t think like we do, so the people who staff their circles exclusively with yes-men are doing themselves a huge disservice. But I’m proud of the range of folks who follow me for one simple reason: it means I’m being true to myself, since my positions genuinely are more scattershot than most. In other words, this diversity I see—in comments, replies, private messages, etc.—means what I publish in my newsletters and say on Twitter lines up with my actual set of beliefs. And it means I’m not performing some sort of bit, some song and dance, some scheme for bucks.
Being “balanced” is very often not a commodity in the discourse these days (“both-sides-ism” and all that). As a matter of fact, being fiercely antitribal has been a continuous source of “unfollows” and an active inhibitor of success. For every account that tells me it’s refreshing to see someone who doesn’t fit neatly into a discourse-standard box, there are two or three or 10 that unfollow likely due to feeling betrayed over a particular take. Sometimes they’re even kind enough to tell me so in a parting note on their way out the door.
There are costs to alienating, at different times and in various ways, basically everyone on my followers list. It would be professionally advantageous to cast my lot with one group or other. But that would weaken, not strengthen, my love for truth—or, rather, it would reveal that it’s already been weakened to the point where something other than a desire to get things right is now driving my creative output.
Most of my positions are in the center-left to center-right range. I also have some views that are farther left and farther right than that. For me to have an account that didn’t reflect this would be a textbook case of bad faith.
So, that’s the main downside: this way of being makes it harder to come by an audience. The upside, though, is that for the very same reason, it’s also harder to become captured by an audience.
When you join a specific side, there is remarkable pressure not to go against their interests. For people who are naturally tribal, and want to continue to be, this isn’t really an issue. For them and their supporters, there’s a perfect synergy of writer inspiration and audience expectation. But if you’re not naturally a party man, a tribal person, then it is crucial for you to struggle mightily against the system. The architecture of social media does its best to box you in. You are promised likes and shares when you say something your followers like, but unfollows and scorn when you say something they don’t.
The solution is to avoid putting yourself in a situation where the makeup of your audience is so incongruous with who you are as a thinker, so unrepresentative of where you actually land on the issues, that it disinclines you from sharing what you actually think. The reality is that if you know most of your followers would disapprove of a tweet or post, that can create remarkable pressure to withhold it—or, worse, to assert its opposite.
I don’t think a subscriber list should be the prime indicator of who you are as a thinker. But audience capture is one of the oldest pitfalls in media. It can easily come to influence, for the worse, a person’s ability to be true to themselves.
When that happens, when you see yourself there, on that sad height, as Dylan Thomas once wrote, hyperventilating like the rest of them, the alarmism starting to earn the impressions that now matter to you so much more than speaking the truth ever did, then you’ll know your time as a free thinker is over, and that you are ready for fame.
I am solidly and forever conservative. The reason I follow you is because steel sharpens steel. Your opinions seem to be based on facts and remain firm regardless of who supports/opposes what you also support/oppose. I am the same way, having established a strong foundation of conservative ideology to stand on while analyzing current events and issues. I test my opinions against facts and reading you sometimes makes facts I'm not aware of available to narrow or broaden my opinion.
This article is a good articulation of the perils of audience capture. Kudos!
I’d say, however, for a fuller epistemology of contemporary discourse, some other things should be discussed adjacent to this critique:
1) We need to differentiate between values and knowledge. There are many complicated things involved in the construction of knowledge, so I wouldn’t want to be too reductive on this point, but at the surface, at least, knowledge is a neutral representation of reality. Values are not and can never be neutral, nor are they really concerned with representation as such; values are about our aspirations, actions, feelings. This idea of “belief” tends to conflate these two things, where what we value is construed as a kind of highly contingent knowledge, or vice versa. “I believe X” is often a statement of identity, not of comprehension, and it is not really expected to be a conscientious representation of X. In journalism, the segregation of “hard news” and “opinion” or “analysis” writing, in some ways, gets at this difference, but I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on the dialectic as a deep cognitive and epistemological phenomenon.
2) The world is always changing and humans change with it. Our understanding of the world can always be improved. Because of these two facts, we need “discourse” which is not merely not-false, but ideas that are, simultaneously, new and apposite to the present state of the world. A “balanced” re-hash of stuff that has been kicked around for centuries, however nominally accurate, is not sufficient for a healthy media culture, if that’s all there is. It is very challenging to be original and insightful, and so we can’t expect that these moments of clarity and discovery will come from everyone producing content; rather writers should be seeking out to report about what’s new out there in culture if they don’t have the talent and inspiration to be truly original. Sometimes I wonder if our poverty of ideas, or, at least, a concerted discomfort with anything fresh and imaginative, is as much a catalyst for tribalism as the base instincts usually posited.
3) A complement to audience capture is contrarianism, where the person spouting vicious nonsense actually believes what he is saying, and is not performing his supposed beliefs for status or money. These people may only be “tribal” in a provisional sense, gleefully ditching their affiliations at the first sign of dissension. Does Glenn Greenwald need to be pro-Russian asshole hack of a writer to pay his way in the world? Maybe? But he also just might be a resentful, disagreeable asshole down at his core, fully immersed in all the shit he writes, in which the case, the only reason he isn’t a full-on crank is that his flair appeals to a mass of other, similar assholes out there in the ether.