I fear that I am bloodless, devoid of the passion to support any particular cause with real vigour. I worry that, because I am not an activist and I don’t add my voice to causes I sympathise with, I am somehow lacking. I don’t participate on Twitter. I hardly ever add my voice to the stream of comments after articles I read on blogs or other websites. I have never had the privilege of typing “FIRST!!!1!”
Part of this is because I don’t feel so hard done by that I need to ‘rage against the machine’. I recognise that there are a number of injustices in the world, but because few of them affect me deeply, directly and personally, I feel that adding my voice would be inauthentic (name your injustice – I’ll be against it, but my voice would lack the power of someone who was directly affected).
Another aspect of this is my refusal (to date) to participate in Twitter. I just can’t conceive how to distill anything worthwhile into its format. I suspect this is a trick very few people have mastered, which might explain the Twitterstorms I occasionally hear about (and pretty much never give two shits about). I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I simply cannot summon up the passion to care about what anyone says about anything on Twitter. I know many people think it’s terribly important, but I… simply don’t.
Also, as I’ve mentioned previously, for many subjects I simply don’t have the confidence any more to support my opinions – when the facts change, so do they. The trouble is, other people don’t play by the same rules. If I’m lucky, I’ll find myself able to understand why people get so exercised by whatever the topic is, and I’ll know a number of the facts and considerations of the pros and cons – but be unable to muster any passion for either side. I’d sooner leave people to scream at each other electronically than intervene. Has anyone’s opinion ever been changed by a Facebook comment?
When I was younger, I used to take Star Trek characters like Mr Spock or Commander Data as role models – they would consider arguments based on logic and facts alone (ostensibly, but usually in a way to support an episode’s plot demands), and frequently become bemused by the emotional considerations of their friends. They had input into arguments and discussions, but I’m not sure I could say they held sway over others’ opinions; they were never leaders.
Likewise, I’m perfectly happy to contribute to discussions or arguments, but I’ve learnt that the skills of leadership and persuasion aren’t exactly my strongest. I sometimes wonder how many other public figures suffer from the same problem without realising it.
If I have the time, I’ll spectate online arguments, but they inevitably reach the point where I get bored because opposing commenters are talking at cross-purposes. They fall into a pattern of assuming that because the other has disagreed with them on one point, the other disagrees with them on all points. No matter how valid the points made by either side (or not), the debate becomes polarised; it ceases to be about the topic under discussion – it turns into a fight to demonstrate that one side is correct and the other is stupid or malicious. (I try not to attribute to malice what can be better explained by stupidity…)
I suspect this is also part of the reason people decide to make heroes (or enemies) of their causes. (Hell – not even something as grand as causes; just emotional biases will do.) The likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris might be modern examples of such divisive figures. They’ve made statements that are reasonable, and statements which are deeply objectionable on a number of grounds. Yet, one could argue that historical figures such as Newton were just as fallible (sure, he wrote the original Principia Mathematica, but he was a Christian occultist, astrologer, and alchemist as well). We have chosen to celebrate Newton for the things he got right, rather than mock him for the things he got wrong. Galileo, despite our modern sympathies for what he went through, was another who got carried away in his arguments, and could get them wrong.
I’d rather not fall into the habit of hero worship – even of those who I enjoy reading or listening to – or of outright vilification of others for the same reasons (even broken clocks can be right, twice a day).
For me, the important thing is the argument, not the person making the argument. I’d rather not second-guess people’s ulterior motives for saying the things they do. Rather, does the argument make sense? Whether the argument is phrased in a way to appeal to others (or to be ‘inoffensive’) is lower down in my considerations. Of course, I have to recognise that others may disagree, and that the weight of popular opinion (let alone the voices of popular opinionists) will sway arguments more than any bloodless, cold, limpid viewpoint ever could.
The tl;dr version: people can make mistakes. Focus on the arguments, not the people, no matter how much you love or hate the person. This is extremely difficult to do.
And at the risk of sounding like I’m flattering myself:
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
– Bertrand Russell