March 1, 2022
First of all: I know. Ukraine. I'm seeing and not wanting to see everything you're seeing and not wanting to see. And what can one say in response to any of that? What useful thing?
For nearly a year now, I've worked for an organization that focuses on progress and describes itself as "an idea movement for a better future." Shortly before starting the job, I read a book by John Gray called The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. I've written about the book before, but Gray's basic claim is that, while cumulative progress is achievable in science and tech, it's a fallacy when it comes to humans and human civilization. Advancements are made, but then they are are unmade. We go forward for a while, but then we go back. And not helping matters at all is the fact that we don't always agree on which direction is which.
In other words, unlike Martin Luther King Jr. saying "the line of progress is never straight," Gray was saying something like "That crooked line you call progress is just a crooked line. It's not going anywhere lasting. Because human nature and whatnot." There was much more to his somewhat disjointed argument than that. But that's the part that brought me some internal conflict.
In the end, I went with Team MLK. I took the job I mentioned and have spent the past 10 months focusing on progress and ideas for a better future. And do you know what? That internal conflict hasn't gone away. Or rather, it has at times, but then it's come back stronger. At the moment, I’d say it’s about as strong as it’s been since before I gave a damn, which was a long time ago.
What short of literal human evolution might turn our crooked going-nowhere line into lasting human progress? I do not know. But I also don't know how to iron a shirt or drive a stick shift. And both of those things are achievable. So I'm going to try to keep an ember of hope burning for the rest of my todays and tomorrows, and see how that pans out.
When I started looking for other people to write for Think List last year, someone I reached out to replied with interest and a few great ideas for things she might like to write about. She then asked me for a bit more direction.
I hadn't really thought about giving writers direction before that. Think List began as a place for sharing "things worth thinking more about, according to me." I later tried to add slightly more clarity to that by sharing things (still worth thinking more about) that examine life in a mind and society. If something was on my mind and it met those vague criteria, then I probably at least tried to write a Think List piece about it.
In retrospect, when I was asked for direction, I should have offered very little and just left it as wide open as I had for myself. If anything, there are only two other items that I think might have been worth adding. Something like "Think List encourages open inquiry and free expression" would have worked just fine.
Instead, I made what I see now as a gross and regrettable error. I started making a list of basic guiding principles that I felt might be helpful to anyone interested in writing for the site. The first draft was two pages. The heading on the first page read: "Think List writing proposes (or at least does not oppose)." And the one on the second page read: "Think List writing opposes (or at least does not propose)."
Now, most of the things on the "propose" list were innocuous enough: good-faith arguments, kindness, mindfulness, morality, and so on. Likewise, most of the things on the "oppose" list were essentially the opposites of the things on the "propose" list: bad-faith arguments, hate, narrow-mindedness, immorality, and so on.
Still, I got a little carried away, and some of the more specific items on the lists started getting weird and unclear. For example, from the "oppose" list: unreasonable cynicism, “safetyism” (protection from the idea that what doesn't kill you makes you weaker), reductive ideologies and frameworks, repressive ideologies and movements.
If I remember right, some of the even sillier ones on the "oppose" list were literally added just to counter their opposites on the "propose" list. "Unreasonable cynicism," for example, ran counter to "reasonable optimism," which is also silly and weird and unclear, not to mention unhelpful. But however I reverse-engineer it now, both list items are straight fucking stupid, and there are others.
Even worse than their stupidity was the realization I had soon after putting the "guidelines" together (and, unfortunately, sending them to several people). I had basically just created a Think List ideology, a doctrine of what were effectively odd rules for what I thought would be acceptable to think and write about here. And the fact that I'd written "free thought, inquiry, and expression" on the "propose" list did not absolve me of that thickheaded blunder. All it did was contradict many of the other things surrounding it. In short, I'd created the very thing I loathe and had aimed to make Think List the antithesis of: a closed system of thought.
Maybe I'm being too hard on myself. Maybe it's even worse. Or maybe I've got it about right. In any event, I learned from it. And I'm glad I learned it quickly. But it still bothers me. Maybe that will go away after I finish writing about it. We'll see. But I don't think it should ever fully go away. I think it should always be there at least a little, to bother me into trying to do better.
Upon realizing my error, I made a second draft that did away with the "oppose" list altogether. But that still wasn't good enough. So I then narrowed the list down to this:
Think List supports (a) freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression; (b) good ideas and explanations shared in good faith; (c) viewpoint diversity; (d) mercy, kindness, and compassion; (e) humor, humanity, and humility; (f) mindfulness, morality, and nuance.
That short list is the one that made it to the about page on the site last May. I don't cringe when I re-read it. Nothing in it hits me the wrong way or fills me with shame or embarrassment or regret. As far as guiding lights go, those seem like pretty good ones to me. And perhaps more importantly, I don't think there's anything limiting or restrictive about them. But let's look at their opposites, just for fun and old times’ sake. A whole new list is not even necessary. We can just change "supports" to "opposes" and see how that looks.
Think List opposes (a) freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression; (b) good ideas and explanations shared in good faith; (c) viewpoint diversity; (d) mercy, kindness, and compassion; (e) humor, humanity, and humility; (f) mindfulness, morality, and nuance.
Yeah, that's total horseshit and doesn't work for me on any level whatsoever. But I do need to qualify the approved, non-horseshit, "Think List supports" version of the list slightly. If you, as a reader or just some human I'm interacting with, feel you have a solid argument to make against freedom of thought, kindness, humility, mindfulness, etc., I am wide open to hearing it. And if I hear some of it and disagree with it, I will try to stay wide open to hearing more of it. And I mean that sincerely. The bottom line, I think, is what the fuck do I know? But also, what the fuck do you know? But together...
That awful first draft I wrote was what I've since started calling a "think this way" directive. I shout out what I think is basically right or wrong from my little spaceship moving through the internet. You choose to hop on board said spaceship or throw eggs at it or just ghost me. And that's all fine and useful enough. But what we humans need much more than that, I think, is to evolve our thinking. And narrowly defined ways of thinking that are intolerant to dissent (I'm looking at you, you unnamed illiberal ideologues) do not count.
My microscopic role in this ginormous mission, at least as far as I'm currently defining it, is to emphasize the hard questions being asked quietly between the devout extremes. And to try to make those questions more accessible to the people committed to not hearing them. And to do so in part by simply refusing to choose sides or answers, refusing to get locked in to any closed system of thought. And perhaps that might one day reveal answers. But we can't skip the questions. And the questions can't stop being asked.
Answers closed to further questions are not answers. They're bargain-bin dogmas. Cheap doctrines. A good deal on snake oil and snakes. But still just snake oil and snakes. And we’ve already got 24-hour fleets of drones out delivering both for free.