The other day my friend texted me with a handful of funny memes alone with an article. He was asking me my opinion on a number of things political. This was normal banter between us, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeking out each other’s opinions on political events. We don’t see eye-to-eye often, mainly because both of us like to challenge the other— a habit that I would argue has been lost on much of today’s society. There was only one thing wrong, I hadn’t any idea what he was talking about at the time. Though it was an article written in what should have been my typical lane of travel (although in all fairness I am not even certain of what lane that is), an event that would have raised my antenna, it had eluded me. Problem is, habits had been changing, and I had yet to tell him.
While fun, political discourse can be antagonizing. Opinions fly around like murder hornets, trying to seek out any threat to their nest or to find small hives to attack and destroy. For some this is a game, not too unlike how my friend and I approach it with each other. (Considering we both play this game on equal terms, it does make it easy. We know that each of us are going in there to intellectually spar, so we come prepared.) Others feel as though it is more a matter of life and death. Neither is right or wrong; likely the only difference then is in the stress level.
What was found though was that in the weeks running up to the election, the climate had grown toxic. It wasn’t toxic in way like cigarettes are; it had become like swallowing a pound of arsenic. Dipping one’s toe into the arena could result in losing a leg, or worse. Team raging narcissist vs team senile statesman was running amok, each blind to what appeared to be another non-choice election… a victory only for the machine if you will. Seeing this, the decision was made to jump back. Illumination was needed in the form of ancient history and philosophy.
For some time, I’ve been diving deep into the pool of philosophy. To be specific, I’ve been studying philosophers such as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Diogenese the Cynic, and others in the realm of stoicism. This is a philosophy that essentially boils down to a single axiom: one cannot control anything in the universe except how one responds. There is plenty of nuance, great wisdom that accompanies that, but essentially the philosophy is about knowing that we control our reaction to the events of the world and nothing else, thus we must assign to ourselves values to hold up above all else. Values such as honesty, truth, kindness, hard work and discipline, etc must be made the bastions of any choice or reaction. In this realm, I believe that the political sphere, and really much of modern society, has fallen astray.
Reading into philosophy and history has shown that much more can be learned by tuning one’s ear to the past rather than trying to hear through the noise of the present. Think about the goals of information dissemination that exist today: tell it first. Get attention. Make money. Prove the other side wrong. Profit or victory moves the needle in the modern news cycle. Truth or facts do not. Integrity does not. How can one find the truth if all that one reads of the news cycle is how evil the other side is and how this side has never done anything wrong? And to question either side— that only results in banishment.
Questions are how we seek knowledge. If one remembers Socrates, he taught much through questions. Think of what is known as the Socratic Method, where a teacher uses questions to help guide the student towards the truth (aka, the answers) on a particular topic. Questions spurn thought. And thought, my friends, has appeared to be what has become dangerous.
Here comes a point where it is possible to jump off the deep end of conspiracy-minded thinking. Is this all state controlled? Are we all being played? Maybe. Maybe not. Who cares? How are we responding?
What is most concerning about the modern political climate is the refusal to be questioned. It is nothing new; although, anecdotally it appears worse than much of the past of the US. Each side will ardently assert that it is a trait displayed only in the other side; however, it is much like COVID and gives little regard to one’s political affiliation. Hell, like COVID, everyone appears to avoid questions, trying to inoculate themselves against differing opinions like we all wear masks to protect us from the idea of the virus. It is here that a chief argument about the algorithms of social media comes into play, where people get pushed into echo chambers. But where social media executes these programs to garner engagement more than to sway opinion (some will argue otherwise), real life psychological studies show that the mind prefers to sandbag their ideas, to guard them, rather than hanging them out like a piñata to have them destroyed. Yet, like the treasure found when vanquishing a dragon, there is a sweet reward in allowing ideas to be bludgeoned like one would that piñata.
Think of athletes. No professional athlete goes out on the field, or steps in the ring, or out onto the pitch on the day of the game without having done a thing in the way of training. How would a boxer do without having sparred many many times before a fight? Questions are akin to training. They are a way to flex ideas, to work them out, to strengthen them. Thus, refusal to have ideas questioned is akin to an athlete believing they are too good to attend practice. There’s hubris there. Although it can be argued that it is more to do with cowardice (although fear is a kinder way to put it).
It goes back to the life and death way that some take political discourse. Why that is seems to be linked to psychological needs of group acceptance and identity. When standing in a group becomes reliant on ideas being propagated, little will do to dissuade someone from holding onto these ideas so long as being in the group is more important to them. Tribal behaviors run deep in our genetic and social makeup. Until modern society, much of human existence relied on people being in a tribe. It provided them with much, including protection from the fact that nature was always looking for ways to kill. Staying in a group literally was a game of life or death for most humans in history. Loss of that group meant death. When ideas get tangled into group participation, it can be easier to understand why some may be unwilling to risk harm to said idea.
Groups are also a part of one’s identity. Thus an idea that is required for group membership can become interlocked not just with the group, but with personal identity as well. It becomes a interlocked with the core belief and value structures. Back to stoicism, depending on the hierarchy, a value or an idea can determine how willing an individual may be to having it questioned. It is why truth and honesty are two pillars that the philosophy insists be kept near, if not at the the top. If truth is valued above an idea itself, then when questions are placed against the idea, a willingness to participate in the intellectual sparring becomes easier as it fosters a greater understanding of the truth in the end.
Since the beginning of human consciousness in the world, that pursuit of understanding has been one of the key defining characteristics differing humans from other animal species. It is done through religion, through science, through the stories we tell. Questions have always helped us on that journey. We cannot find truth if we are unwilling to allow questions to be asked. Unless this feature is changed, unless we decide to seek truth rather than shore up our ideas against attack, the progress of society will regress into the totalitarian idealisms that marked many regimes both past and present— where ideas could get a person killed.