[Reading: What’s Our Problem? by Tim Urban]
Tim Urban is a smart and funny guy. He explains all kinds of things in clear and entertaining ways on his website, Wait But Why. Now he is out to explain a great big thing, namely, why it is that we are so smart but are acting collectively like a bunch of ill-tempered children. He’s written a book in which he offers a clever and interesting overview of human nature and how we’ve gotten ourselves into a societal mess in which we can’t intelligently talk with one another.
His take on human nature is that we are rational and beastly. The beastly part of us tends to see the world in a short-sighted, impulsive, “us vs. them” sort of way. Our rational side, under the right conditions, is able to think long-term and at least somewhat impartially, and to build laws and institutions that allow for more stable lives and progress.
We have ended up in our societal mess by letting our beastly side govern our political thinking. This is a perennial problem for human beings, but over the last half century it has become nearly irresistible due to the advent of cable news and social media. It’s basically the same story as with junk food and obesity: the inventions of tastier and tastier junk foods appealed to our beastly bellies, we couldn’t resist, and we grew fat. Similarly, the cartoon-like nature of network news and social media appealed to our beastly minds, we couldn’t resist, and we grew foolish.
This is the story Urban tells in a light and breezy fashion, though in fact he supplies more historical detail and nuance than I’m providing in this quick summary. He offers a fresh depiction of how we often use our reason to defend whatever it is we like or want to believe, but also how we are capable of using better habits of thought to improve our ideas and work with one another to find what’s best to believe.
To me, perhaps the most interesting insight he offers is that the right vs. left political spectrum we often use needs to be given another dimension to take into account whether our political views are more beastly or more rational. He puts this together into a chart which I’ll explain.
“The Ladder” on the y-axis refers to intellectual sophistication (lower being lower, and higher higher; you can see the little orange beast at the bottom, and the more angelic stick figure at the top). The x-axis is a political spectrum running from more liberal to more conservative. Occupying the lower two spots are golems, or monsters made from mobs that operate in beast mode. The two higher spots are genies, or disembodied intellectual creatures who take ideas seriously and argue fairly over them. So the battle on top might be between Ezra Klein and Ross Douthat, for example, while the battle on the bottom might be between Nikole Hannah-Jones and Tucker Carlson. [I’m a bit unsure of these examples; they’re the best I could come up with.] The higher argument is over what’s best or true, with attempts at understanding the evidential strength of other points of view. The lower argument is just a collision of insistent, opposing claims.
Most of our media attention is on the lower battle, obviously, and most of the “people who follow the news” tend to be combatants in it. This is because the media have ads to sell, and for that they need lots of clicks, and nothing clicks more furiously than furious golems.
Urban offers an interesting chapter on “The Red Golem”, charting how the party of Lincoln devolved into the party of Reagan and then began its sharp descent to the party of Trump. The decline is driven for the most part by the decision to follow baser human instincts as amplified by talk radio and social media. He then offers four or five chapters on blue golem phenomena, or the story of how classical liberalism devolved into “social justice fundamentalism” via Marxism and postmodernism, and the craziness of social justice theory and the cancel culture that issues from it. The difference in coverage suggests he’s more worried about the social justice fundamentalists than he is about the Trumpers; or, more probably, he simply thinks his own audience skews blue, and so will need more convincing on that score.
In the four or five blue golem chapters, Urban recounts story after story of progressive people forming social justice mobs that silence all dissent, expel from their ranks anyone who disagrees, cancel public figures for being insufficiently progressive, and so on. I have to admit that I have been labeling such stories as “just a few isolated incidents here or there”; but now, after reading story after story, I have to recognize it as more of a problem. There’s a lot of stupid, harmful, illiberal stuff going on under the pretense of justice. It seems to happen mostly at elite colleges, which is curious. But not only there: it has also had effects in K-12 education, and in medical journals, and other places where the stupidity is not just annoying, but actually consequential.
But on this topic Urban seems to have been possessed by another kind of golem. It’s not that the many tales he tells of social justice absurdities aren’t worrisome or scary: they are. But Urban doesn’t seriously explore—in true genie mode—what motivates these people or why they should feel so outraged by racial injustice that they seek to curb others’ free speech.
What is Urban’s overall solution to what’s wrong with us? In a word: climb.
I’ve been using a little mantra. When I’m down on the low rungs and I have a moment of self-awareness where I realize I’m on the low rungs, I say in my head: Climb. It’s not a scolding moment, it’s a moment of self-compassion. I’m doing that thing that every human does sometimes. It’s okay. I caught myself. Climb. Once you’ve begun to address your internal tug-of-war, turn your attention outwards. What do your surroundings look like through the Ladder lens?– Tim Urban, What’s Our Problem?
So that means raising your expectations for yourself. Once we have done so, Urban urges us to say what we think. Perhaps in public, perhaps among close friends, perhaps in tweets, essays or books: don’t be intimidated by the golems into silence, but let your genie shine.
I think Urban’s book is clever and illuminating, and I recommend it to everyone. But it is, of course, an oversimplification, as all broad and engaging explanations must be. The most problematic oversimplification, to my mind, happens at the beginning, with the Ladder of Intellectual Sophistication. It suggests that people fall into different groups, ranging from stupid to sagacious; but in fact we are all stupid and sagacious on different days, on different subjects, with different people (as Urban recognizes when he reminds himself to climb). I’m more inclined to believe (against all odds) that people don’t vary all that much when it comes to intellectual virtues. Saying there are golems and genies seems very much like falling into a binary “Disneyfication” (as Urban calls it), when the reality is that everyone is smart about what they pay attention to, and everyone is dumb about what they ignore.
Instead of a ladder, I would present a wide variety of “libraries” from which people form their opinions. Some people study Foreign Affairs and The Economist; some watch only Fox News; some study Facebook and listen to NPR; some watch too many YouTubes; some consume a wide variety of videos and influencers; etc. When there comes an explosion of information—printing press, internet—people have to choose what they will consume, and ideological chaos or polarization is inevitable. So it’s not the stupids vs. the smarts; it’s us vs. us. But the end result is the same: people spend more time trying to refute one another than trying to understand one another. Here I would sign on to Urban’s overall recommendation: climb.