Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Fall of the Culture of Mind



Among those who think they comprise “the free world,” many speak well of keeping an open mind. In these lands many have spoken up over the centuries for a free exchange of ideas, and free speech. Modern, “Western” societies are defined in part by the adoption of such principles as fundaments. The more historically-minded have been inclined to appraise this celebrated, continuing tradition as a remarkable testament to modernity, to the triumph of Western values as vehicles of enlightenment. In those same countries of the West where progressive individuals once developed these principles with much deliberation, and envisioned these values so distinctly and firmly as to stamp them indelibly on Western thought for centuries, free ideas and free thought unquestionably remain worshipped icons of Progress today.

So, I should not be controversial at all to reiterate the above from a different angle: there are those who like the notion of the power and importance of ideas, and all the social preparations to trade them. Academic intellectuals in particular have reason to endorse such formulations professionally, to serve the reputation and impact of their own profession. But all intellectuals, in fact all who ever mull over ideas or tinker with them, have a reason: promoting grand perceptions of ideas flatters them through their pastime.

Keeping an Open Mind Careless

Very many of all those who profess their affinity for the principles of ideological freedom nonetheless avoid concomitant responsibility that consistent adherence to principles would imply. They certainly do not want to go so far with ‘taking ideas seriously’ that they admit an uncomfortable possibility: their appraisals of the world around them or the subjects they toss around in discussion could indirectly cause harm. They want to think that ‘free speech’ and ideas free-flowing on tap are all-at-once necessary, fundamental, all-important and yet also casual. Charging their minds with serious matters, they demand their right to think and speak freely, but also loosely, trivially, flippantly, superficially, impractically or senselessly, all in all without sufficient concern for consequences.

For what it seems they really want is mental entertainment in one way or another: sociability through talk, to have their ideas listened to, to tickle their curiosity, to muse as a bovine animal chews, to toy with words and images in mind, to pick out superficial technicalities, to argue like cockfighters over positions, to parrot, preen and posture in clubs and cliques aligned for the purpose, to take flights of fancy with philosophy, to ramble with friends as loose talk comes to the tongue, or the like. In short they want to eschew responsibilities implied by the freedom to exercise that immense power immanent in ideas, the influential, propagating, almost-legislative rule of ideas in society. They treat this freedom as a libertine does, pretending to take it seriously but as provision for a game — always to say one takes it seriously, never to do so.

For if one did, if one really did — one would weigh ideas with great care, and live them with conscience and devotion. One would think through puzzles and problems with method and mood fitting to the subject. One might remember that every serious conversation could alter the minds having it, forever. One might hold every serious or would-be serious book like it deserved the respect due a weapon, or like an unknown. For an unknown is even more deserving of respect than a weapon, which at least remains an object defined in use and effect.

One must display conspicuous naiveté towards the concept of open mind in order to see it wholly as an unambiguous value, good or bad. Ideas are neither benign, nor malignant, out of the context of a specific mentality. They depend entirely on our subjective mental context to affect us. As we respond to ideas in one way or another, as we adopt one idea versus another, the ideas we use to operate in the world alter the chances of a given possibility coming to pass versus almost infinite others. This is how ideas benefit or harm us, which we can only judge by the experience of what we did believe and what did happen. We model the effect — not very accurately — by the metaphor of a polar charge, positive or negative. But ideas themselves are neither.

But all the same, ideas are most certainly not neutral, harmless, or unimportant. The written or spoken word is not a matter for flippancy simply because it comes with enjoyment, as well as consequences. One can play with it, and since I love to write, I gladly recommend the joys of artful language and communication. But this is also a serious kind of game. Ideas are the cuts made to sculpt minds, and like a god, a mind seeks to make the future in its own image.

If a mind really is “open,” it is not finished. It is still open to influence, and to being changed. Who can say what mind plus book becomes? A bookstore, a library, a computer connected to the internet —in farseeing eyes each radiates possibility. Each would seem a repository of frozen, time-bound power of thought, fossilized, concretized, made artifact in printed pages, in screen fonts, ready for unlocking and decoding by new minds, essentially printed in a kind of invisible ink to which old minds had become blind. One never knows what comes with the next page of the book or the website, what dangers, what intoxications, what brilliances, what journeys, what will occur to one, what images will appear unbidden in the mind’s eye.

Or if one does know — how could one pretend to have an open mind in any serious way at all? Indeed many have an open mind only so far as ideas are allowed into their anteroom, as if they are briefly entertaining guests. Others, however, let them in as though flinging open the door to a howling gale — they want the furniture rearranged and they do not much care how. Of course they pretend to have rhyme or reason. Both the superficial and the haphazard imply a primitive indifference to the impact of ideas.

Ideas impact all thinking beings, including all those who abdicate their obligation to really think well. If someone fails to take ideas seriously, it does not matter to nature, which will not excuse anyone for laziness, stupidity or cowardice. Careless minds do not transcend their lot. Their nature remains dependent on ideas, and interdependent, following others’ ideas. Those who regress cannot drop out from the imperatives of having a mind. Rather, ideas impact them mysteriously, the way seasons and storms will still confound and batter primitive farmers without means to predict the weather or channel the water. Theirs is a perilous world.

The “free world” only means the world which has inherited freedom. Those would-be open minds who inherit free thought must perpetually recreate themselves as worthy heirs, and earn their world in order to keep it. An open mind is not a present one can give, but an engine firing that must be maintained. The same is true of the open society open minds want to create. This world has been steadily losing the incomplete, but greater awareness of ideas it once had. The culture we generate is no longer one which carefully preserves certain arts and techniques we desperately need—those which individuals of a developed, civilized society employ to understand, and gain from the constant flow of ideas freedom allows, and also to manage the unavoidable influence of ideas on their lives.

There is a strong indication of this in the incapacity of so many readers to actually read, a primary example of the instruments a developed culture must maintain. Of course many technically read, but few have mastered reading in a meaningful sense. By “meaningful sense,” I do not refer to desirable but special, esoteric insights into the subtleties of the author’s psychology, allusions or subtexts. I do not even mean the intermediate knack for grasping metaphor, irony, symbolism, and other indirect meanings found in poetry, satire, aphorism, and other rich forms at which many modern readers shrug indifferently. I mean that most show a pronounced inability to focus on denotation enough to extract a reasonable approximation of precise meaning. Instead, they leap directly to connotation, and without the anchor of meaning, a rough and sloppy connotation at that. They lack the will to understand; they do not really try in good faith, as if the author’s meaning is no matter. They have lost the habit of getting the idea, if they ever knew how. They take a mere impression of the words and immerse it in their own morass of preconceptions, from which no further meaning escapes. Somehow the words are about what they already had in mind, what little they have experienced and what little they can imagine. Strange conclusions bubble up from this process, but rarely do they understand the writer’s meaning in their haste to reiterate their previous notions. An open mind must first learn to lose itself for a minute. It requires enough discipline to pay attention to something other than its own preoccupations, such as the words right in front of it.

There has been much commentary on the modern degradation of standards in writing skills and inspiration. I will not add to that here, except to suggest that writing links with reading, most basically reading comprehension. And the problem is not simply a matter of the author showing poor command of language, necessarily failing at writing if he cannot read well. The problem also involves the author reflecting the audience. Special writers will still write wonderfully for themselves and a select audience. They will still express ideas well that demand to be heard by the minds who are listening, even if most do ignore or fail to understand. But the larger market of writing will follow its customers, giving them the sort of thin product they demand. Grotesquely, universal economic realities apply even if many customers have become unqualified to read, particularly to read anything substantial or challenging. They get the mediocrity they want, and embody. Good or important writing is much more difficult and expensive, as are the writers who can produce it. Mediocrity is so much cheaper and easier that only the artistic choose to elevate writing without market support. Therefore inconsequential writing has multiplied as inconsequential minds have multiplied.

The two most elementary toolsets of literate human minds rust from disuse even as words and data flood the world in numbers beyond measure. Without the will or the means to pay attention to ideas, understand and express them, people are easily consumed by avoidable errors, amorphous fears and baseless speculation. They easily succumb to those who practice manipulation of words and thoughts. They lack the faculties of protection for their own minds, but retain the vulnerabilities of complete dependence on ideas and their signification. They are hapless humans now devolving to prey, having abandoned the natural gift in their own head.

The Freedom of Discord

On the exceptional occasions when “progressive” modern people do attribute thorough significance to some consequential ideas, they do a great deal more than take them seriously, showing far more than the wariness due an unknown. They treat them like a known communicable disease, and try their best to stamp them out with complete intolerance for those who spread them.

Let us consider a particularly sensitive example to illustrate the point, which, chances are, the reader’s own awkwardness will underscore:

Expressing any skepticism about the mainstream view asserting the National Socialist genocide of Jews is not simply derided as a false or dangerous position. To hold any degree or kind of skepticism about this history is now an abomination among all moral and right-thinking people. In the reactive moralistic mind, re-examination of the supposed facts is rarely separated from the determined avoidance of facts, even though this difference distinguishes a conscientious (and undoubtedly a stubborn) historian from a neo-Nazi. Furthermore there exists a criminal offense of “Holocaust denial” in numerous Western countries, which is rigorously enforced. Regardless of the motives of particular historical revisionists suppressed under these laws, such laws render even details of interpreting genocidal evidence and events during the National Socialist regime into dictatorially-policed speech.

This is in accordance with a tenet of philosophically-illiterate, mass-oriented societies: that some ideas are themselves intrinsically dangerous. This is not a developed or reasoned idea, so much as an unexamined impulse against a supposed thing identified by a simple circuit of the brain as bad. To the nervous systems of vertebrates, including primates such as humans, what we call a bad thing stimulates the reaction avoid or the reaction destroy. Linguistic human culture interprets that aversive reaction as a “moral imperative,” and thereby the many mistake their fight-or-flight response for some superior reaction appropriate to civilization.

The nonsense of ideas malicious in themselves, outside the context of a moment in a mind, ignores the multitude of perspectives, the many different lights cast upon circulating ideas by subjective considerations of different and changing individuals. After all in terms of their relationships to people, ideas remain fluid, ever-shifting entities, not constant things. The belief that a given idea is like an atom of evil is not only primitive, it is inconsistent with a free society allowing liberty for individual minds. It shows no faith at all in the principle of free speech, and in the ability of an open mind to separate value from worthlessness.

If the deniers of a widely accepted theory are wrong, they can and should be proven wrong, again and again, and thereby discredited by the standard of accuracy. If the deniers of a widely accepted ethic seek to overturn it for some dubious motivation, bring all this out into the light, and let them scamper away. To do otherwise is to overestimate their power before any reckoning. It suggests that to do battle with them on the open field of ideas would bring defeat, or perhaps that an open debate would likewise draw unwanted attention to one’s own motives.

If all Holocaust revisionists are completely wrong and utterly-straightforward bigots, let them make their case, expose them, and devastate them. As with all such cases, we will know more than before. Our refreshed process of thought will lead to other thoughts. And we will avert the danger of censorship, as well as the danger of falsehoods. But, if they are even a few parts in a thousand right (which even a bigot might easily manage), don’t we want their yield added to our truth, as well?

We might recall that specifically, those who consider maximal emotional propaganda more important than historical accuracy once objected to precision over the death tolls at concentration camp Dachau. But it now seems almost certain Dachau’s facilities were either never, or hardly used in the same way as at a mass execution camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka, and that those who died at Dachau perished on a much smaller scale. That apparent truth is not some academic technicality, offensive when compared to the greater question of morality, and therefore indecent for skeptics to debate. It is a major historical difference, and essential knowledge for people tracing their familiar and beloved ones. We can never be sure we really are quite unalterably correct about ideas, or the motives, veracity or consequences surrounding them, no matter how indignantly we insist.

There are so many viewpoints, there is so much incomplete or flawed information, there are so many possibilities to hold in the mind, and there are so many possible unforeseen results from holding any one belief, even provisionally. Any serious thinker copes by means of an open mind. Thinking is a process of consumption, an ongoing reaction which requires an ongoing intake of fuel as well as practice and skill. Ideas put together produce compound ideas. Different thoughts can produce new thoughts, e.g. thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In these reactions, novelty is a prime catalyst. If everyone already agrees to presume to know, and everyone assumes they are all correct, there is very little point in trading ideas which are all quite similar — except to evoke vacuous feelings of congratulation for “being right,” confirming our untested point of view, giving us all comfortable, morally-assuring feelings that conformity has been satisfied.

Even the assimilation of new information requires disagreement between the old patterns and the different, new ones. Overcoming this friction, pushing against this inertia is essentially the process of learning. It is no coincidence that the young, who are scantily-endowed with established patterns of information, learn new things much more flexibly than older people, who are endowed with much that is established and tends to object to the new — the new becomes objectionable.

Notice, the requirement of tension for learning stands in stark contradiction to the tenets of those parents, and other authority figures who so kindly insulate children from whatever ideas they deem discordant (defaulting to their own harmonious program of inculcation, presumably). Watchful people, they aim to reduce children’s exposure to disagreeable influences in general (and in particular, disagreement with them). They often speak of the ‘confusion’ caused by conflicting attitudes (if they disapprove of one or more of them). But learning requires the comparison of different things and discrimination among them, the overcoming of disagreements within the mind, and the resolution of confusion. In fact, actual active learning consists principally of these processes of questioning whatever came before and had appeared solid, comparing, discriminating, overcoming, resolving—which are not to be confused with the rote of imitation, the faculty of absorption a human cannot help but practice from birth, aping aspects of his environment. Consequently, exposure to the provocations of contentious debate is even more crucial for children, who have the most left to learn, than for adults, who have less. Is it quite clear what this means? It would be educational to meditate on the incalculable losses of millions upon millions of young minds ‘protected’ from learning, and how far this goes towards explaining the present inadequacies of culture, but not too long, lest despair overwhelm.

Based on its extraordinary importance, one might surmise the entire point of protecting a free exchange of ideas is to engage in productive disagreement. Let us remember why disagreement needs protecting.

Among a social crowd, insignificant ideas always seem fine, and might even make for appreciable entertainment if they hit the right notes. Among these insignificant ideas are many sensationalistic presentations which distract keen minds from substantive evolutions, and revolutions. And serious-sounding ideas are generally tolerated. They are even agreeable if they remain customary or precedented — albeit a bit too boring to receive much attention.

But genuinely different, serious ideas look like obstructions and threats once they seem necessary to confront. They provoke intolerance among a crowd, unless the crowd is left to pay them no mind, even though these challenges are the only presentations of ideas that matter enormously in a society. For presumably, the old sovereign ideas need little minding to perpetuate themselves for benefit or ill effect, and therefore it is the challenges which deserve a great deal of consideration. And the deadly serious ideas, that is concepts so perversely different they are almost universally maligned, become anathema. Especially in times of pressure, the crowd pursues and approves any means to snuff them out: smears, prohibitions, searches, book-burnings, prison terms, executions, brainwashing generations — furious, righteous censorship of any extent, any merciless variety. The crowd always hates disagreement, strong disagreement most heartily. It does not matter whether the individual who takes exception is a dissident with answers to illuminate humanity in an hour of darkness, or some bigot determined to revise provable facts.

Of course this is why the founders of intellectual and ideological freedoms — familiar as the slogans and shibboleths of the West and modernity — first protected the disagreeable individual from the crowd. Only a fool asks a mob, or a ruler pandering to the mob to know and do only what is right, and suppress only that which they deem wrong. This is the wise rationale behind free speech: that only an individual can decide what to like and what to dislike while a mob reacts, and moreover, only an individual child or adult can decide for himself how an idea affects him personally, in his distinct context — as we say, positively or negatively — and nobody else.

The concept of an open mind freely consuming new ideas is not designed for social groups but individual minds. Only an individual can sift gold from sand. As masses, people seek to conform, to remove difference, and tend towards intolerance. Only an individual can experience and learn the value of internal discord. Social conformity, on the other hand, is the process which counterbalances novelty and differentiation. On a mental level, this produces similarity of thoughts with fewer catalysts in the form of different concepts and contrary information. Left to itself, conformity therefore tends to produce a slow-witted stasis.

The accord of society must be refreshed by the discord prized by open minds. Eventually a closed-minded culture is composed almost entirely of dull, conservative conformists, with many superficial differences that persuade them of their own breadth and tolerance, but a poverty of deep variations in thought. They are bored to tears with their well-worn comfort zone, and manufacture neverending permissible transgressions. Their sclerotic culture struggles to cope with changes their ancestors once weathered merrily. They are frightened by their own lethargy. Dimly recalling debate, they have too much trouble summoning up different points of view to stage a productive argument. Instead they bicker ineptly and tediously about nothing at all fundamental, nothing at all relevant to their predicament.

In their intolerance, those who forget why we need freedom of speech attack the very purpose for which it was created. That freedom of speech might, and does allow objectionable points to be raised in a society of two or two billion is not some price to pay for it, but the soul of the principle. To hear objectionable ideas is the goal! If we no longer value objection, if we do not prize the tutelage of discord more highly than uniform agreement, we are unworthy of this great freedom, and we will surely see the collapse of civilization follow the complacency of its engineers.

Making Freedom Meaningless and Closing an Open Society

“In the East poets are sometimes thrown in prison—a sort of compliment, since it suggests the author has done something at least as real as theft or rape or revolution. Here poets are allowed to publish anything at all—a sort of punishment in effect, prison without walls, without echoes, without palpable existence—shadow-realm of print, or of abstract thought—world without risk or eros.”
– Hakim Bey

Instead of crediting ourselves for freedom of expression which, after all, we inherited by the blood and ink of the dead, we ought to remember that in practice, ideological freedom is only given whatever authenticity and weight it has by the impact of the ideas we circulate.

Considering the state of disuse to which the free world has abandoned the forum of serious ideas, can we finally admit that in one sense, there is more consistency in the countries where unsubtle powers limit free speech and free thought? — for there, at least they will acknowledge seriousness in the presence of danger, and thereby they recognize that ideas can indeed have power. They actually take the impact of ideas seriously enough to regulate them (or rather to regulate them openly, as opposed to obliquely). Whether this indicates more or less respect for ideas, I leave for those who enjoy pointless and arbitrary debate. But it is certainly less hypocritical than the supposed “free world” — which has yet to live up to that claim, and seems every year to retreat from it. And maybe, some of those who struggle with control over what they can think, write, and say learn that freedom of thought is worth quite a lot, worth wresting away from those who try to control ideas, the same way those who earned our freedoms learned it.

In those places where most take ideas for granted, however, they haven’t much notion what to do with the things anymore, besides toying with them. They return to creaky old methods to deputize ideas, and make them serve their society of stripped-down minds. They treat them like an ignorant savage confronted with chunks of metal ore, seeing the chance to make rough stone tools and nothing more.

They use ideas as currency in the superficial paths of pop culture memes, circulating freely — free as propaganda and advertisements are. And people marvel at the magical functioning of this memetic machinery, and it passes for the free exchange of ideas. But could “ideas” like these help but circulate? I have never heard the imitations of monkeys and parrots mistaken for an open society exchanging ideas, but that is how most humans have degraded the concept. (And do they make a cacophonous din with their chatter!) And why should we see anything remarkable in the delivery systems turning over countless memes that don’t matter? Bad pennies just keep turning up in a world too crooked or cheap to invest in something more worthwhile. Quality manufacturing takes time, effort, skill, as well as freedom to trade. A free exchange of ideas first requires ideas.

And a recent ‘innovation’ in answer to the dullard’s problem of what to do with ideas is that all-too-familiar, age-old attempt to control, limit and manage. Today they are still dispatching free thought as efficiently as the KGB — ah but in some permissible, acceptable, moral form of course, usually unspoken and unnoticed, probably done in the name of tolerance, but ruthless nonetheless. Three resorts of monolithic men bent on ignoring the outsider within — to belittle, to slander, or to distort and appropriate — prove more efficient than any secret police disappearing the dissidents in a totalitarian regime.

Finally, maybe worst of all, it is easy to stop considering the voices of few among many. If we don’t like to hear certain ideas, we don’t need to seize those who think and hide them away, or murder them in cold blood. (We — well, most of the modern We are far too progressive for that.) No, we have only to bury their ideas. The habit of ignoring an idea to death can be practiced and perfected. Ignoring becomes smooth second nature among the ignorant indifferent. If we cease caring about ideas, we have only to cease listening, cease reading, cease communicating, while continuing to go through all the motions. This raises an interesting question of semantics: are the people in a “free world” really living in an open society if they are deaf, blind, or dumb? What does openness mean among closed people?

Primitives born heirs to grand intellectual traditions now fall back on any means to avoid taking ideas seriously, and for one’s own. That is to say, as mature human beings create and claim sophisticated tools, not as toys, not like breaths of wind to pass in and out, not as haphazard effects of which we are prisoners, but as the potent devices our race made in order to remake ourselves. The written word, the spoken word, and the thought-expression of language was the human script for writing atop a palimpsest of the genetic code and any other fate “written in the stars” — for making culture ours. The body of thought is our very tongue, like our flesh itself. From our thoughts, we grow, insofar as we can still “keep an open mind.”

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