Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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HomeFeaturesAmerica chokes as rational decorum departs, Rich Roll claims

America chokes as rational decorum departs, Rich Roll claims

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Podcaster Rich Roll has raised an interesting question: Have Americans lost their sense of rational decorum? This thought-provoking query was his opening gambit in a recent and highly stimulating conversation with philosopher, neuroscientist, and best-selling author Sam Harris.

Roll believes Americans are currently “in a curious moment.” He likens it to “a sort of unhinged moment” where “we’ve lost touch with some of the best parts of who we are.”

The conversation between Roll and Harris, spanning almost two hours and forty-five minutes, delves into a myriad of pressing issues. The text segment shared below, a mere glimpse, encapsulates the intensity of the discourse. The full podcast is available at the end of this article.

Note: This translation is truncated for the sake of brevity and cannot practically convey the subtle nuances encapsulated in the podcast itself. However, it does introduce the key initial issue in the podcast: self-awareness and behaviour of public figures.

Rich Roll: It feels like we are untethered to this important fabric – like we’re losing the war of good ideas to misinformation and the allure of bad incentives that are increasingly ruling the information and intellectual landscape. I think the implications of this are dire in terms of the coherence of decision making, our democratic systems, and society at large. I’m interested in how you are reflecting on this moment that we find ourselves in and how you are trying to make sense of it, how we got here and where we go from here.

Sam Harris: I’m quite worried that we have performed a psychological experiment on ourselves, and it’s not going well. I credit social media with a lot of the problem, but it’s not everything. I was just reading The Closing of the American Mind, which came out in 1987, I think. So much of what ails us was whinged about in that book by Alan Bloom.

Many of these trends have been advancing on us for decades. When you see what’s happening on college campuses now, everything is upside down. People are openly supporting a death cult and thinking that they’re championing human freedom. That’s not to say there isn’t something to protest there, but it’s certainly not what’s being articulated in our finest universities at the moment.

Confusion and misinformation

There’s just so much confusion, and misinformation is clearly a major part of it. It’s not just that there are good-faith differences of opinion about how we should respond to the same set of facts. People just have different sets of facts.

And I feel like that process of amplifying confusion is getting away from us. I’ve long thought, you know, at least for a year and a half since I deleted my own Twitter account, that social media, in particular, is poised to render us effectively ungovernable. If we can’t agree about the most basic things that are happening in the world – for instance, this is a just a local example, but it’s ringing in my memory.

I know someone who overheard a teenage girl, a senior in high school, actually, no, she’s now in college. She went to a private school here in Los Angeles, she got into the finest colleges in America. I’m talking like MIT and Caltech and, colleges like that.

She was overheard to say that she had just heard someone say that Hamas wanted to kill all the Jews. And she knows that’s not true. To the contrary, the Jews want to kill all the Palestinians, right?

That’s her truth. Right? Now, on that basis, she’s, you know, probably protesting somewhere. That’s the problem in microcosm.

But, if we can’t agree about what Hamas is when Hamas has told us ad nauseum, and then at every opportunity tried to practice their murderous ideology, then I don’t see a way forward, right? It is something that worries me.

Roll: It’s hard not to be pessimistic. I resist pessimism. But when you really reflect on the landscape, a situation in which we truly can’t agree upon a shared sense of what is real and what is true – there really isn’t a way forward.

There is no way that a democratic system can cohere without that. And I think amidst that, in terms of how you move forward, there isn’t a sense of being able to engage with the ideas themselves in any kind of good-faith manner to arrive at a shared sense of what is true and what is real.

Harris: And the problem, especially right of center at the moment, is that any effort to contain the misinformation problem is perceived as censorship. So, whether it’s a platform trying to get aggressive with moderation, whether it’s a government that’s worrying about malicious amplification of disinformation and misinformation, whether it’s just the acknowledgement that the algorithms are such that they preferentially amplify misinformation – there’s something wrong with that. Right?

It’s not actually a level playing field upon which everyone has their free speech. No, there’s just a business model that is bursting at the seams with perverse incentives. And we know that lies travel faster and farther than the truth.

Any effort to address that, even what I’m saying now, even just acknowledging the misinformation problem itself, makes you sound like an elitist stooge anywhere right of center in America, in particular, right? So, it’s a pro-censorship elitist stooge. And, you know, the space we’re in, alternative media, really plays into this because there’s just this, you know, what I’ve called a religion of contrarianism where every anti-establishment narrative just gets endlessly extrapolated.

But the facts don’t fit

And it doesn’t matter if they don’t all fit together. What you want is just this rapacious search for anomalies. They don’t have to all fit together. It can be like a wall with strings connecting nodes of madness, John Nash style.

And so, you have a figure like Tucker Carlson, who really gets lionized throughout, you know, in the podcast sphere. I mean, I’ve watched podcast after podcast that has had him on since he got kicked off of Fox, and no one has asked him a sceptical question.

He’s an entertainer, a very cynical entertainer. He’s entertaining a personality cult that is organized around Trump and other figures out on the populist right in America. It’s not to say that nothing he says is ever true, but many of these people have cultivated audiences that simply don’t care about lies. This is the thing that’s amazing.

There are people who are uncancellable because they have found an audience that simply doesn’t care about any normal indiscretion that would cancel somebody, right? We can talk about cancel culture. It’s a real problem.

I’m not ignoring all of the craziness on the left that has gotten people fired and, you know, reputationally murdered. But, when you’re talking about someone like Trump or Tucker or any of these populist figures on the right, the people who love them, the people who support them, don’t care when they are caught lying. That doesn’t matter – that’s just how you play the game. They’re playing by a different kind of reputational physics, and it’s totally dysfunctional for our politics.

Roll: All of the incentives out there in podcastlandia and on social media incentivize this type of behaviour. What traffics is hypotheses that challenge the mainstream narrative. No matter how unhinged these ideas are, they seem to be what people are interested in. And that comes at the cost of truth and this shared sense of what is real and what isn’t

Harris: … just asking questions.

Roll: Yeah. Yeah. I’m just asking questions. I’m here for open and free dialogue, and everything you’re seeing and reading in mainstream news outlets is corrupted co-opted and captured. And yet, there is no journalistic ethic at play in podcastlandia or in, you know, social media at large.

So when somebody is platforming an individual with spurious ideas and allows them to basically just pontificate ad nauseam without any pushback whatsoever, I can’t help but think that we could use a little bit of journalistic ethics here.

Lies don’t matter

But to your point around the idea that it doesn’t matter if you’re lying and nobody seems to care, with respect to somebody like Tucker Carlson, he strikes me as somebody who’s smart enough to know what he’s doing. What is your sense of self-awareness that he has about that kind of behaviour?

Harris: There’s no question he’s pandering consciously to an audience. He knows how his brand is built.

But what’s amazing is the audience is such that there’s no level of incoherence – with the facts as we know them about evolution or about anything else, or even incoherence with one’s own self that matters.

Someone like Trump can contradict himself in a span of five minutes, and he has an audience that just doesn’t care. I don’t know what to compare it to. It’s almost like a World Wrestling Federation audience. On some level, you know the thing is fake, but you’ve agreed to take It seriously. Ironically, it’s dangerous, and it seems to be dangerous, but it’s all about a performance that creates a certain mood. In this case, in the contrarian space, it’s a mood of suspicion; it’s a mood of contempt for so-called elites and institutions.

The conspiracy thinking issue I view as a kind of pornography of doubt, a pornography of mistrust. The people of Davos are just twirling their moustaches and pulling all the strings, and somehow, it all comes back to the Jews.

There’s a danger to this kind of thinking.

Peter Barclay
Peter Barclayhttp://www.wholefoodliving.life
Has a professional background in journalism, photography and design. He is a passionate Kiwi traveler and an ardent evangelist for protecting all the good things New Zealand is best known for. With his wife Catherine is also the co-owner of Wholefoodliving.
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