Argument & Censorship, Opposition & Oppression, by Eric Gerlach

A friend of mine passed me an article about millennials and George Orwell, which claimed that young people on the internet are bullying others mercilessly who are out of step with the dogmas of the left.  This is hardly a new claim about millennials, as many since the 80’s have said that “political correctness” is oppressive and invoked 1984. While I agree that militant dogmatism is found on both sides of the aisle, I think what irked me most about the article was the comparison to Orwell and claims of censorship regarding heated exchanges online between free individuals.  At a time when many are confusing arguments and boycotts with fascism, I feel that a distinction needs to be made between opposition and oppression, between argument and censorship.

If someone argues with you, and continues to argue with you, they are not censoring you.  They are speaking with you.  They are opposed to your beliefs, but not necessarily opposed to you speaking. They may not be good at listening, and they may give you little chance to speak, but they are engaging you in a conversation, even if it is a terrible one. Often, they are hoping to hear the reasons you won’t change your mind, to change your mind, and then hear you say that your mind has been changed.  When I receive critical comments, I am irritated, but I have not been censored.  Nietzsche said that one should appreciate one’s enemies, as they help one to grow stronger, which I find to be an inspirational strategy for getting the most out of one’s beliefs.


Eric Gerlach teaches philosophy and the history of human thought at Berkeley City College. This piece was originally published on April 16 at his excellent blog Eric Gerlach, ‘A Skeptical & Global Guide to the History of Human Thought’, which I highly recommend, and re-published here with the author’s permission.

A Mind Like A Dog Endlessly Chasing Its Tail: Confessions of an Obsessive Thinker

I’ve always been a person with a lot of existential anxiety, but in a good way, I think. Ever since childhood, I obsessively think about the things I observe people say and do, about what I see around me, about the beliefs I and other people hold, and so on, and wonder what they mean and what they’re really like outside of my own perception.

I feel this driving urgency to question what I’ve been told, to understand what myself and what other people are really like, what they think, and why they think it (including, especially, our heroes: I want to know their flaws as well as their strengths, otherwise I know what I’m getting is not the full richness of a personality, but a glittering, hollow icon), and what is going on out there that I’m missing out on right now. I’m endlessly curious, and need change and adventure to keep me from becoming miserably restlessness. I like to mix it up, to, and hang out with people who are very different than me, since they present me with new and interesting viewpoints (including disturbing ones!), challenge my assumptions, and broaden my understanding of human nature. I use the dog chasing its tail analogy, in short, because I just can’t seem to stop endlessly evaluating and reevaluating every idea that’s every been in my mind, new or old.

I’m also an obsessive explainer: I find it very difficult to make simple statements of fact or opinion, without fully explaining what I really mean or describing the full set of circumstances surrounding the issue at hand. Although I’ve no doubt the latter is often a source of annoyance for my friends and family (in fact, I’ve been told as much), it’s something I really like about myself. Discovering what this world is like, both within and and without my own mind, is a project that I find endlessly fascinating and fulfilling, and I have no plans to break these habits anytime soon. (I call all of this ‘nerding’.)

But all of this often makes me an uncomfortable companion to have and even, sometimes, a shitty friend. When half your life is an existential crisis and you’re constantly chasing some new ideas around, you end up so scattered that it’s very unlikely you’ll make the decision nearly often enough to sit down and make that phone call, or write that email, or plan that group trip, or invite people over for dinner or a movie or a board game. Which is ridiculous of me, really, because I think that the human race, and its features and products (such as consciousness, and morality, and culture), is the most interesting phenomenon of the whole world! And not just the human race in the abstract: I mean the actual people in my life too. One of these days, I hope to settle down and improve my habits, all you loved ones out there that I neglect, and I am always glad when you’re a good influence on my flibbertigibbet self.

Anyway, I hope I’m reasonably adept at thinking some things through in an intelligent and capable fashion, but not because I’m at all brilliant. If so, I would have come up with some amazing original ideas long before now: the great minds, I’ve often heard, come up with their best ideas before they’re thirty. I’m most definitely nowhere near their league. I’m just hoping that in my case, the constant practice might be fruitful at some point, and in any case, I’ll keep myself busy and amused ’till I die.

One thing I think I’m okay at is explaining, in plain enough language, those complex or obscure ideas that I have managed to wrap my mind around. Another thing I like to do and might not be half bad at sometimes is to put together the disparate things I’ve learned into a larger, coherent picture or narrative, to reconcile or unify those aspects of reality that seem to exist contradictorily. For example, why do human beings, whose evolutionary success is due to highly developed social instincts, so often display such violent tendencies? (Still, like so many others, figuring that one out.)

So that’s what I’ll do: I’ll keep thinking, and thinking, and thinking, but now, since I’ve subjected my thoughts to the discipline of writing them down and sharing them with all of you out there on a regular basis, hopefully, my ideas and scribblings will improve in quality and even, I dare to hope, become useful for something other than my own amusement and satisfaction.

IRS Targets Conservative Groups

This story is deeply disturbing to me. 

When any concerned citizens, be it individuals or groups, from Communists to Tea Party subscribers, are harassed or silenced, the people are cheated out of hearing arguments that enrich their understanding of the world and of what moves people to think and act as they do. 

A most invaluable lesson instilled in me, informally through listening to political and philosophical discussions around the dinner table, and more formally in my education in philosophy, is how invaluable it is to always learn the arguments presented in a positive and sympathetic manner, no matter how alien to your own, so that you come away understanding the actual arguments, not some amalgam or distortion infused with your own prejudices. In this way, the position you reach on the matter is likely to be informed, and honest.