On Being Vulnerable

I came across this New York Times piece by Michael Roth entitled Young Minds in Critical Condition and really enjoyed it. Roth is an instructor among other roles at Wesleyan and has written broadly on education, but what took me with this piece is its critical read on the type of ‘critical thought’ that gets one promoted through the academic ranks:

Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own “privilege.” The combination of resistance to influence and deflection of responsibility by confessing to one’s advantages is a sure sign of one’s ability to negotiate the politics of learning on campus. But this ability will not take you very far beyond the university. Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But this is thin gruel.

We’ve all seen this in the university an in all the university’s little echo chambers, the brightest magazines and the internet salons of the literati. One’s intellectual merit is gauged by one’s skill as a takedown artist: can you explain why literally everything on television is ‘problematic’? Can you tell me why a particular hashtag needs to be ‘problematized’? Can you demonstrate why literally no one has the occasion to speak on this or that issue, and/or that nothing can really be known or understood about it, given the limits of experience and communication? If you can pull this all off with a little flair and some references to Judith Butler, you can be an internet intellectual superhero.

Not that you would want to be. But that really is the shape of things among the intelligentsia. I think this is likely for the stylistic reason Roth suggests, that is, there’s something aesthetically attractive in an almost virtue-ethical fashion about being the type of person who can demonstrate a near nihilistic absence of commitments to identity, ideology, creed. The stunningly self-abnegating person who can check every single one of their privileges in order and then render problematic every single ideology or system of belief they have even the remotest affiliation to seems to really get it, to see beyond the artifices and constructs.

But there’s something else, too.

Back when I did debate, both the affirmative and negative sides were expected to show up to the debate round with cases. But sometimes the negative side wouldn’t prepare a case, and would instead “go straight ref” — that is, ‘straight refutation.’ In that situation the negative side would have no counter-proposals or alternative reasoning; they would just refute everything the affirmative said with no alternative. You could technically win this way, but it was hard with a lot of judges, because they thought: hey, at least the affirmative is putting something out there.

The cynical thrill of deconstruction is straight refutation. You’re not putting something out there, you’re not offering an alternative, and you’re not rendering yourself open to any kind of attack. In may ways straight refutation is an invulnerable position: because you’re not proposing anything, your commitments are never available to be damaged or questioned, because they just don’t exist. Your only commitments are non-commitments, a dedication to reduction, destruction, irony. In this way you can preserve your ego for a very long time, because there’s no avenue there through which you might be wounded. Thus we have very self-assured intellectuals out there who are able to preserve a pretty robust sense of self-importance purely by nature of never having proposed anything that could lead to critique.

The takeaway: believing in something makes you vulnerable.

This is true in part because espousing a proposal puts you in the affirmative position, wherein you’re responsible for managing and describing your commitments, which is a lot of activity. In our context it’s especially true because of all those aforementioned intellectuals who are especially trained to tear things down. As Christ says (Matt 10:16),

 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

The latter half of this formulation is a good way of managing commitment to belief while wading around in what can be a periodically hostile intellectual arena. Your belief makes you vulnerable, which is something that just has to be accepted: people with very strong positive commitments rarely get first dibs on the tweed and elbow patches, which will sometimes cause them to wrongly blame the belief itself for holding them back, when it is actually the act of believing that signals to some intellectual weakness and vulnerability. Be innocent, believe in things, posit them genuinely, and you ultimately reap the rewards; in my experience, belief is a far more ennobling and informative process than reflexive cynicism, and I know both sides of the thing pretty well.

On the other hand, belief that is innocent and dedicated doesn’t have to be ignorant. This is my philosophy on the arguments that could, according to some, serve a deleterious take-down function: don’t avoid them. There’s absolutely nothing that can destroy committed belief, though some things can shape it, which is usually a good thing. There is therefore no reason to hide from any intellectual inquiry, from evolution or atheism or various theological stabs, and no need to conceal oneself from pop culture, from licentiousness and excess and nihilism, because at last it’s better to know what you’re saying no to than to imagine those things to be far more organized and threatening than they really are.

Which also puts you in the driver’s seat, as it were, of your belief: rather than remaining on the defensive, trying to protect yourself from the unavoidable condition of vulnerability, you can own up to the nature of it and, confident that you will encounter challenges, go out into the world no less happy-go-lucky. I have a feeling this is a level of personal responsibility some people — say, the ones who kicked some girl out of her own prom because boys and dads couldn’t stop leering at her — don’t especially want. Lust and envy and so on are all threats to belief in much the same way as academic cynicism; they want to debase and whittle away at belief, to make it seem useless and old-fashioned and backward. A little self-mastery goes a long way here, and self-mastery requires a great deal of inquiry and discovery and thought. It is the shrewd as serpents half of the equation, not the innocent as doves.

Being vulnerable is a condition of belief. Always will be. Thank heavens.