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I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest…. I’ve never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to “justify” and affirm someone’s mistaken beliefs; or when I tried to give my friends the incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear. In my presence they could talk and agree with themselves, the world was nailed down, and they loved it.They received a feeling of security.
RALPH ELLISON, INVISIBLE MAN
One Friday afternoon, in a carpeted alcove off the main sanctuary of my school, a Jewish school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my class collected in a circle as we did every week. A young, liberally perfumed Israeli woman in a tight turtleneck sweater read to us from a textbook about the exodus from Egypt. I asked her why our ancestors had been enslaved to begin with, and then wondered aloud whether it was because only former slaves can appreciate freedom. I remember the feeling of the idea forming in my very young mind, and the struggle to articulate it. Clumsily, with a child’s vocabulary, I suggested to my teacher that Jewish political life began with emancipation, and that this origin ensured that gratitude to God would be the foundation of our national identity. Could that have been God’s motivation? I don’t remember her answer, only her mild bemusement, and my impression that she did not have the philosophical tools or the inclination to engage with the question. I was left to wonder on my own about the nature of slavery, the distant memories that undergird identity, and God’s will; without a teacher, without a framework. I was by myself with these questions.
Of course, we were not gathered in that schoolchildren’s circle to study philosophy. We were studying the Biblical tale not in order to theorize about the nature of slavery and freedom, or to acquire a larger sense of Jewish history, but because it was expected of us, and every other grade in the school, this and every week since the school’s founding, to study the weekly portion of the Torah, because that is what Jewish students in a Jewish school of that denomination do. I had mistaken a social activity for an intellectual one. The norms of a community demanded this conversation of us, because otherwise the community would be suspect. People would whisper that graduates of our school lacked the capacity for full belonging within their particular Jewish group, because we had failed to receive the proper training in membership. The overarching objective of our education was initiation. The prayers that we were taught to say before and after eating, and upon waking up in the morning, and going to the bathroom, and seeing a rainbow, and on myriad other quotidian occasions, served the same purpose. These were not theological practices; we were not taught to consider the might and creative power of the God whom we were thanking — the meanings of what we recited, the ideas that lay beneath the words. We uttered all those sanctifying words because it was what our school’s permutation of the Jewish tradition taught Jews to do. We were performing, not pondering.
Divine commandments were the sources and accoutrements of our liturgies and rituals. But we lingered much longer over the choreography than over the divinity. The substance of our identity was rules, which included the recitation of certain formulas for certain concepts and customs. And our knowledge of the rules, how or whether we obeyed them, would signal what sort of Jews we were. The primary purpose of this system was to provide talismans that we could use to signal membership. In the context of my religious education, the meaning of the symbols was less important than how I presented them. Badges were more central than beliefs. The content of the badges — the symbols and all the concomitant intellectual complications — was left alone. Marinating within that culture inculcated in me an almost mystical reverence for my religion and for its God because it placed them in a realm outside of reason. I could not interrogate them: holiness is incommensurate with reason. Without the indelible experience of that schooling in anti-intellectualism, the beauties and intoxicants of tradition would be inaccessible to me. Even now, when I witness expressions of fine religious faith, I am capable of recognizing and honoring them because of that early training.
The anti-intellectualism had another unwitting effect: the indifference of my community to the cerebral and non-communal dimensions of the way we lived meant that I could develop my own relationship with them. Since they were unconcerned with the aspects of religious life to which I most kindled, I was free to discover them independently. They didn’t care what I thought, so I set out to think. In this manner I began to acquaint myself with fundamental human questions, to feel my way around and develop the rudiments of ideas about morality, slavery, love, and forgiveness. My academic syllabi were rife with references to these themes, but they were rarely discussed directly. They were like so many paintings on the wall: we would walk by them a hundred times a day and never stop and look. As children we became comfortable in their presence, but we did not exactly study them together, so I studied them alone, without the commentaries that would harden them into a catechism.
In a certain ironic sense, I was lucky. When someone is taught to think about fundamental human questions within a group, her conception of those themes will be shaped by the group. The goal of that sort of group study, perhaps not overtly articulated but always at work, would be to initiate her into a particular system of particular people, to provide her with a ready-made attitude and a handy worldview, to train her to think and speak in the jargon of that worldview, and to signal membership within the company of those who espouse it.
If language is a condition of our thoughts, it is also a source of their corruption. Thinking outside a language may be impossible, but thought may take place in a variety of vocabularies, and the unexamined vocabularies, the ones that we receive in tidy and dogmatic packages, pose a great danger to clear and critical thinking. My good fortune was that I was not socialized philosophically. My religious tradition was not presented to me as a philosophical tradition. I was not inducted into a full and finished vernacular that would dictate or manipulate how I would think. And I was young enough not to have become so sensitive to political or cultural etiquettes that they would inhibit or mitigate independent reflection and study. The space in my head into which I retreated to think was built and outfitted mainly by me, or so it felt; and there, in that detached and unassisted space, I became accustomed to the looming awareness that these themes were too complicated for me to really understand (an awareness which provoked an ineradicable distrust for communal ideological certainties). Yet this did not diminish my desire to spend time there. My relationship with my burgeoning ideas felt privileged, the way a child feels playing with plundered high heels or lipstick without the context to understand the social significations that those instruments may one day carry. If I misunderstood them, if they baffled me, there was no reason to be embarrassed. My sense of possibility was large and exciting, because it was unburdened by the adult awareness that convictions have social consequences by which they may then be judged.
My limited field of human experience — the people I knew, the fictional and historical figures to which I had been introduced — comprised all the materials with which I could conduct my solitary musings. I studied the rhythms and tendencies of human interactions. I watched the way that other people responded to each other, the way they held themselves when they were alone or in society. This stock of knowledge informed how I thought people in general do and ought to behave. (My theory of slavery and emancipation was a product of this discipline: for example, I noted that I got anxious for recess when in school but bored by endless freedom on the weekend or vacation. We appreciate freedom when we are enslaved: is that what Scripture wanted me to understand? Well, that was consistent with my experience.) My inquiries were catalyzed and sustained by pure curiosity about human beings and in retrospect they seem to have been relatively untainted by my community’s biases. Perhaps I am idealizing my beginnings, but I really do have the memory of an open mind and a pretty level playing field. Like the adolescent heroines in Rohmer’s films, I genuinely wanted to know how people are so I could figure out how I should be.
The effects of this solitary and informal mental life were permanent. Having developed the space in my head independent of a received blueprint, my intellectual methods would always be fundamentally unsocialized. Despite the external pressures, I have never successfully unlearned these attitudes. I don’t doubt that there were many influences from my surroundings, from my community and my culture, that I was absorbing without recognizing them, but still I felt significantly on my own and, as I say, lucky. But I was also quite lonely. The loneliness intensified as I got older and my family became more religious. The high school that I attended was much more traditional than my earlier schools had been. There were more rules, endless esoteric rituals and cultural habits that I had to learn in order to convince myself and others that I was one of them, that I belonged there. I failed often. There was so much that I didn’t know, and, more to the point, there was something about the weather around me that perpetually exposed my difference. No matter how hard I tried to remake myself into a member, to dismantle and rebuild the space in my head, everyone could sense that the indoctrination was not taking. I recited the script with a foreign accent.
In a flagrant, chronic, and no doubt annoying manifestation of otherness, I would badger my teachers and peers for reasons and explanations. Why were we — I was a “we” now - obeying all these rules? I was not in open revolt: I sensed that our tradition was rich and I was eager to plumb the treasures that I had been bequeathed. But it seemed a gross dereliction to obey the laws without considering their purpose. My intentions were innocent, perhaps even virtuous, but my questions were discomfiting anyway. Even now I often recall a particularly representative afternoon. A group of girls in my grade were discussing the practice called shmirat negiah, the strict observance of physical distance between the sexes, which prohibits men and women who are not related from touching one another. I wondered: Why had the rule been written to begin with? When did Jews begin to enforce it? What kind of male-female dynamic did it seek to cultivate? Did such emphatic chasteness in preparation for marriage help or harm that union? These were reasonable questions, except that in a context of orthodoxy they could be received as subversive. A girl I admired — a paragon of membership — complained that the practice made her awkward and scared of men, and that she could not understand why her mother enforced it. “Why don’t you just ask your mother why she thinks you ought to do it?” I finally asked. “Because,” she sighed, “she’ll just tell me that I have to because that is what Jews do.” My mind recoiled. Why on earth would a mother shirk the opportunity (and the responsibility) to help her child grapple with such an important question? Why wouldn’t she consider the law itself a catalyst for conversations about such primary themes? Yet even as I asked myself these questions, I knew the answer. Membership mattered more than meaning.
But surely that attitude did not govern all human communities. This could not be all there was. Somewhere, I assumed, there were institutions in which people directly addressed the ideas I wondered about on my own. Somewhere there were groups in which the exploration of meaning was an essential feature of membership. In the secular world, which I naively called “the real world,” I imagined intellectual camaraderie would be easier to find. Surely secular people, when they talk about justice, sex, mercy, and virtue, must be interested in seriously engaging those themes. In the real world, surely, there would be no orthodoxies, and people would have no reason to incessantly analyze one another’s behaviors in order to grant or deny them legitimacy. They would not spread petty rumors about neighbors failing to uphold the code or refuse to eat at the tables of those who were not exactly like them, as the worst members of my origin bubble did. They would not, forgive me, cancel each other.
Of course I was wrong. As it turns out, the secular world also has liturgies, dogmas, ostracisms, and bans. It, too, hallows conformity. It has heretics, and it even has gods: they just don’t call them that. In college I discovered the temples of the progressives, the liberals, the conservatives, and more. Each has a vernacular of its own, comprised of dialects and rituals which serve to establish membership, welcome members, and turn away outsiders. In this realm of proud secularity, my religious upbringing proved unexpectedly useful. It had prepared me to identify the mechanisms of group power, and the cruel drama of deviance and its consequences. (What is cancellation, if not excommunication?) It turned out that all too often in the real world, the open world, the democratic world, the enlightened world, when people talk about fundamental human questions they are far more interested in signaling membership and allegiance than in developing honest answers to them.
It is true that many of these questions are hard to answer. The intensity with which people hold convictions belies their complexity. Independent and critical reasoning is not for the faint of heart, and the length and difficulty of the search may eventually make skeptics or cynics of them. It is much simpler to memorize a script, and to establish a quasi-mystical allegiance to ones politics. Holiness is incommensurate with reason, remember. Still, the demands of a nuanced politics are not, I think, why people are reluctant to wrestle with ideas on their own. There are advantages to wholesale worldviews and closed systems. They provide something even more alluring than conviction: solidarity. They are a cure not only for perplexity but also for loneliness. A group with which to rehearse shared dogma, and to style oneself in accordance with the aesthetic that those dogma evoke: this is not a small thing. Thus the answer to a philosophical or moral question becomes…community. We choose our philosophy on the basis of our sociology. This is a category mistake — and the rule by which we live.
In a different world, most people would readily admit ignorance or doubt about political or cultural subjects the same way that my young peer would have had no reason to refrain from hugging friends of the opposite gender if Jewish custom did not forbid it. If their group ignored the subject, so would they. Most would not be ashamed of their confusion because intellectual confusion is not a common fear. But isolation is. We dread marginality more than we dread error. After all, the social costs of idiosyncrasy or independence are high. We fear finding ourselves at our screens, watching others retweet or like or share one another’s posts without a cohort of our own in which to do the same. Who does not wish to be a part of a whole? (Identity politics is the current name for this cozy mode of discourse.) In my experience, when most people talk about politics, they are largely motivated by this concern, which compromises the integrity of these conversations. They disguise a social discourse as an intellectual discourse.
I call this phony discourse the sludge. The sludge is intellectual and political kitsch. It is a shared mental condition in which all the work of thinking has already been done for us. It redirects attention away from fundamentals by converting them into accessories, into proofs of identity, into certificates of membership.
In a sludge-infected world, in our world, if someone were to say, “that fascist presides over a hegemonic patriarchy,” her primary purpose would be to communicate to her interlocutor that she is woke, trustworthy, an insider, an adept, a spokesperson, an agent of a particular ideology, proficient in its jargon. She would also be indicating the denomination of progressivism to which she subscribes, thus erecting the ideological boundaries for the conversation. If someone else were to say, of the same person, that he is a “cosmopolitan” or a “globalist” or a “snowflake” she would be doing the same thing in a different vernacular. (They would both use the terms “liberal” and “neoliberal” as slurs, probably without a firm sense of what either one means.) In the context of these two conversations, whether or not the individual in question is a snowflake or a fascist is as good as irrelevant. The subject of the conversation is just an occasion for manifesting group solidarity. Righteousness is an accoutrement of the code. In fact, asking either person to justify the assumptions inherent in her statement would be as irregular as asking me to justify my faith in God after witnessing me thank Him for the apple I am about to eat. She would answer with her equivalent of “that’s just what Jews do.” In both these cases, belonging is prior to belief.
The effect of sludge-infected language is that quite often the focal point of debates about politics or philosophy is not at all the literal subject at hand. Members are conditioned
to present as if they care about the substance of a particular ideology. Learning to present as if you care about something is very different from learning to actually care about something. Caring is difficult, it is a complicated and time-consuming capacity which requires discipline, openness, and analysis. This is not a trivial point. Imagine a sludge-infected romantic relationship (or just look around you) — if, instead of taking a close and patient interest in her lover’s needs, a woman simply asked herself, “What are the kinds of things that people who are in love do?,” and having done those things, considered herself well acquitted of these duties and therefore in love. She may tell him that she loves him, and she may be loving or supportive in a generic kind of way, but she will not really know him. Details about his inner life, about his insecurities and his demons, will not interest her. Romantic success, for her, would be to appear from the outside as if they have created a successful partnership. She will have treated love programmatically, in accordance with the expectations of her social context. Who her lover is when he is not playing the role she has assigned to him will remain mysterious. When tragedy strikes, they will be forced to recognize that they do not know or trust each other.
Sludge-infected politics are similarly behavioral and unsettling. Practitioners exploit opportunities for genuine expressions of devotion as occasions to signal membership. Consider the effect of the sludge on antiracism. Suppose we were taught to present as antiracists rather than to seriously consider the imperatives of antiracism (or, again, just look around you). Antiracism (like feminism, like Zionism, like socialism, like isms generally) is difficult to cultivate and strengthen. It requires work and must be consciously developed. It is the result of many individual experiences and sacrifices, highs and lows, of sustained and thoughtful interest and introspection. If we consider ourselves acquitted ofour responsibility to antiracism merely by posting #handsup-dontshoot at regular intervals on social media, perhaps garnering a host of likes and followers, the duties of an honest and reflective antiracism will remain unacknowledged (and the sentiment to which that slogan refers will be cheapened). Our antiracism would be not internal but external, not philosophical but stylistic.
If a person is a dedicated antiracist, over the years she will come to better appreciate the enormity of the battle against racism. She will develop the minute concerns and sensitivities of a veteran. She will realize that the world is not made up only of friends and enemies. She will know that sometimes, in order to do good, one must work alongside unlikely allies, and that purists are incapable of effecting sustainable change. The very language she uses to discuss her mission will be informed by this knowledge. Indeed, it would strike her as shabby and disloyal to regurgitate common slogans when speaking about the specific, discomfiting realities of which she has intimate knowledge and which she is serious about mitigating. She will choose more precise and shaded words, her own words, careful words. The novice will listen to her and think, “I would never have thought about it that way.” If, by contrast, a person is motivated by the pressure to appear as a loyal soldier, she will never gain this wisdom. Her concerns will be only about the rituals, the liturgies, and the catechisms of a particular politics, however just the cause. Outsiders will recognize her language from Twitter or Facebook or other digitized watering holes, and of course they will ratify it, but she will have gained all that she ever really sought: admiration and affirmation.
In this manner, movements that purport to exist in service to certain values may perpetuate a status quo in which those values, demanding and taxing, are named but never seriously treated. We ignore them, and pretend — together, as a community — that we are not ignoring them. Every time a self-proclaimed “n-ist” presents as an “n-ist,” every time a tweet or a post racks up a hundred likes in service to that presentation, she can tell herself she has fulfilled the responsibilities of her “n-ism” and so she will not feel further pressure to do so.
Consider two examples. First, a college student with two thousand followers on Instagram who attends every Black Lives Matter protest armed with placards, and who posts regularly about white privilege and the guilty conscience of white America. Suppose this woman’s antiracism manifests itself primarily as a crippling guilt in the face of systemic inequity from which she benefits: her service to antiracism is not nonexistent, or merely “performative,” since she does force her followers to think about uncomfortable subjects (though it is quite likely that her followers already agree with her, but never mind), and she does contribute to the increasing awareness that these injustices must be named and reckoned with now.
It is good that our college student marched. But compare her to a white septuagenarian who has moved into an increasingly gentrifying neighborhood, who is well off and even a member of the American elite, who has the cell phone numbers of more than a few important people. She has never once felt guilty for having been born into power and privilege. She is not a marcher. Now imagine that this woman, out of mere decency, involves herself in the everyday lives of her black neighbors (something which most people like her fail to do). She is who they turn to when forced to confront a system which she can manipulate for them, which they cannot navigate without her. She is the one they call when, say, one of their sons is unjustly arrested (again), or when the school board threatens to cut the district’s budget (again), because they trust that she will work tirelessly on their behalf. She learns over time, through direct experience, about the blisters and lacerations of racism, and about how to preempt and treat them. Owing to her skin color and her tax bracket, she, like our college student, profits from systemic inequity, but, unlike our college student, she takes regular and concrete actions to help the disadvantaged. Her actions are moral but not ideological. She is not a tourist in the cause and the cause is not a flex of her identity. Yet she is regularly in the trenches and she is alleviating hardship.
Which of these women has more ardently and effectively fought against racism? I have no objection to activism, quite the contrary, but it must be constantly vigilant against declining into the sludge. (Of course neither the good neighbor nor the tweeting marcher are engaged, strictly speaking, in politics; at the very least they both must also vote.) Sludge-like discourse is not a new phenomenon, of course — prior to the mass revulsion at the murder of George Floyd there was the convulsion known as #MeToo, which exposed some terrible abuses and established some necessary adjustments but was mired in the sludge and the culture of holy rage. And there is another historical revolution to consider: in all the centuries of thought distorted by community, there has never been a greater ally and amplifier of this phenomenon than the new technology. It is uncannily ideal for such shallowness and such conformism, and the best place to go to prove your purity. Owing to it, the sludge has become unprecedentedly manic and unprecedentedly ubiquitous. For all its reputation as an engine for loneliness and isolation, the internet is in fact the perfect technology of the herd. Consider Twitter, the infinitely metastazing home of the member-ships and the mobs. For demagogues and bigots and liars and inciters it has solved once and for all the old problem of the transmission and distribution of opinion. The echo-chambers of the righteous progressives and the righteous reactionaries exist side by side in splendid defiance of one another, drunk on themselves, on their likes, retweets, shares, and followers (the latter a disarmingly candid appellation). All these echo chambers — these braying threads — are structurally identical. Authority is granted to those with the highest numbers. The xenophobic “influencer” with the most followers is granted power for precisely the same reason, and according to the same authority, as the justice warrior with the most followers. And followers are won according to the same laws in all realms: those who are proficient in the vernacular, who can convince others that they are full members, that they understand the code and its implications best, they are the ones to whom the like-minded flock. The priests of one temple wrathfully say, “You are sexist” and those of another wrathfully say “You are un-American” in the same way members of my old community would wrathfully say, “You are a sinner.” It all means the same thing: get out.
The sludge does not govern all discourse in America, but a horrifying amount of our “national conversation” is canned. And instead of discussing actual injustices we have endless conversations about how to discuss such things. What can be said and what cannot be said? Why talk about slavery when you can talk about the 1619 Project? Why talk about the nuances and ambiguities endemic to any sexual encounter when you can talk about #MeToo? Why complicate the question for yourself when you can join the gang? Every time we choose one of these options over the other, we demonstrate what kind of knowledge matters to us most.
And one of the most pernicious effects of this degradation of our discourse occurs in our private lives — in personal relationships. Increasingly in conversations with friends I recognize a thickening boundary, a forcefield that repels us from the highly charged subject of our discussion. We bump up against it and decide not to go there, where integrity and trust would take us. At the point of impact, when honesty collides with membership and shrinks away, I sometimes feel as if I am being pushed back not just from the subject matter but also from the friend herself. She begins to speak in a pastiche of platitudes borrowed from the newsletters clogging her (and my) inbox. I don’t seem to be talking to her anymore, I can’t get through to her own thoughts, to her own perspective — which, I stubbornly insist, lies somewhere beneath the slogans and the shorthands. All too often I find myself following suit. Neither one of us is willing to express our respective curiosities and anxieties on matters related to politics. We just bat the keywords around and pretend we are really in dialogue with each other. He declares that the world will end if Biden is elected, she declares that the world will end if Trump is elected, and I am expected not to ask “Why?” Instead I am being invited to join him or to join her, and the more hysterically, the better.
Once this parameter, this border wall, has been erected, taking it down would require a troublesome break from social convention. One of us would have to be disruptive, even impolite, to pull us out of the sludge-slinging which prohibits intellectual and verbal independence. And so usually we carry on within those boundaries, interacting as representatives of a cohort or a movement, not as intellectually diligent citizens with a sense of our own ignorance and an appetite for what the other thinks. We become paranoid about discursive limits. Ever present in our conversation is the danger that if one of us deviates from the etiquette, the other will accuse her of being offensive, or worse. The wages of candor are now very high. We have made our discourse too brutal because we are too delicate.
So we obey the rules in which we have trained ourselves, and look for safety in numbers. We invoke the authority of dogma, hearsay, and cliche. We substitute popularity for truth. We quote statistics like gospel, without the faintest sense of their veracity, as if numbers can settle moral questions. We denounce the character of people we have not met simply because others — in a book group, a twitter thread, a newspaper column, or a mob — say they are no good. The actual interpretation of concepts such as climate change or race or interventionism is less significant than the affiliations that they denote. And when the conversation is over, we are where we were when it began, left to shibboleths and confirmed, as Lionel Trilling once complained about an earlier debasement, in our sense of our own righteousness. But this must not be the purpose of conversation, public or private. It is disgraceful to treat intellectual equals as if they cannot be trusted with our doubts. It is wrong to celebrate freedom of thought and freedom of speech and then think and speak unfreely. “Polarization” is just another name for this heated charade. In an open society, in American society, one should not be made to feel like a dissident for speaking one’s own mind.