There is a fundamental disconnect between the functions of two different classes of “discourse participants” - those who use language to think and discover truth and those who use it as a means to power.
On the Rufo-Singal thing: I agree with the broad point your making and I plan to bring it up to Jesse on his callin at some point. Three Caveats:
1) I think Jesse Singal is constitutionally incapable of understanding the point you're making because he's a member of the 'Thinker' class who is almost uniquely genuine and principled in his commitment to ideas and therefore constantly frustrated by the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of his peers. People like him have an important role in our society and he fills it well but this isn't his niche.
2) Although your points about the successes of Rufo's activism and his refreshing honesty about it are generally correct, I think it should be mentioned that Rufo appears to me to be an obvious case of high-functioning narcissistic personality disorder and shows all the signs of riding a narcissistic high at the moment. I'd wager the odds of a spectacular collapse in the near future are good and when the fall comes it may very well take a lot of the success he's had with it.
3) Predictable caveat that although Rufo and I share a few enemies he's a partisan republican and, I suspect, a christian theocrat whose medium and long-term goals are pretty incompatible with mine and, I suspect, yours.
When it comes to the broader point about activism I had the thought recently that modern activism reminds me a lot of 16th-17th century european nobility. Basically the nobility of this era owed its position to the military successes of their medieval ancestors who had lived in a much more chaotic world than them as a result of this pedigree to be a young man of this class was to be raised to believe martial virtue was paramount and that what made you better than other people was your military honor. This predisposition of the ruling class likely led to many unnecessary wars (this was the era in which war was the 'sport of kings'). I think a similar thing is happening to our elite youth with regard to political activism. Activism is held up as the moral idea to strive towards, universities have told the most privileged members of Gen Y and Z that they are the generation that was promised and that their calling is to go forth and activize to make the world better. Having predetermined that this is their mission in life, people go out in search of a cause.
Thanks for a great essay! Do you think Jonathan Haidt's suggestion that academic institutions explicitly define whether their mission is one of dispassionate investigation (traditional university) versus activism (more of a think tank) would help navigate these issues? My only concern is I suspect the effectiveness of the activist is partly dependent on their ability to "masquerade" as a thinker.
Before I could comment, I had to go into my memory vault, and onto YouTube, to listen again to Malvina Reynolds' "It Isn't Nice". Not totally convinced that, as Reynolds wrote and sang, "the nice ways always fail". But clearly Christopher Rufo would agree, diametrically opposed as his and Ms. Reynolds politics are. Or would be, if she still lived. I am on the far side of 70, and do think that I have spent too much of my life trying to be nice and reasonable. Yours was a worthy essay, giving me much to think about. And thanks for inspiring me to seek out Ms. Reynolds song again. If it inspires anybody here to listen, my favorite version is that of Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers. Wow, am I old, or what?
Really fantastic essay Sarah. The dichotomy of "the thinker vs. the activist" is one of the most helpful and illuminating comparisons I can remember reading. It's up there with Khanamen and Traversky's "system 1 vs system 2." I have always embraced the "thinker" mindset in my life and never really given any thought to the idea that one could approach things in a different way. I understood that some people were more Machiavellian than others, but never really understood the idea some people just had a different alignment to what it meant to be "right." I simply viewed most public thinkers under a one dimensional axis of "intellectually dishonest" vs. "intellectually honest." Obviously this wasn't all I cared about, but I just viewed intellectual honesty as a virtue that some had more of than others.
In many ways this dichotomy sort of gets at different ideas about what constitutes truth. There are certain kinds of truth (typically those that can be tested through the scientific method) that are objective and have no bearing based on whether or not people agree on them. Force of gravity, water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom etc. However, there are other truths that exist more or less because we all agree on them. We all agree that the United States as a country exists, but that is only because enough people believe in its existence. This is basically Noah Yuval Harari's idea he expresses in Sapiens. As it relates to your essay, I think the thinker cares more about the objective truths, while the activist has to be more concerned with the agreed upon truths.
This is a masterpiece! Absolutely scintillating! I know you argued recently against news obsession, and I partly agree, at least directionally, but I'm very impressed by your ability to combine current events (e.g. Rufo's tactics) with the history of ideas (e.g. Weber). This essay gets better with each new theme you add to the larger point-- there is just so much depth and range here! I've never heard you talk about Leo Strauss before so I'm not sure if you are familiar but maybe dabble with some of his work and write about it-- this piece reminds me of him and I'd love to hear your take on him if/when you get a chance. Great job!
While I understand the difficulty treading a line between principled and honest speech versus the need to "win" as an activist, the idea that one cannot be successful as an activist while adhering to the former I think deserves some more thought.
No matter what, if you hold to this dichotomy, then you are holding to the idea that ends justify means - that lies and misrepresentation are justified to attain noble and good results. But this inevitably backfires because many WILL see through the lies, and when when they do, for them it invalidates the end and creates mistrust - and that undercuts all the good you might have achieved. From those people, it can also cause activism *against* your positions that otherwise might not have come about - it can create "deniers" that dispute your position and can use your own words against you by pointing out the inconsistencies and contradictions.
The global warming issue as a perfect example of this, warming is real but there are so many lies and exaggerations put forth by activists that they have become an obstacle to any genuine and legitimate goals. The claims that we only have a few years to save ourselves or that all warming is "catastrophic" are no better than the doomsayers of old ("the end is nigh!"), and they have rightly earned skepticism and distrust accordingly.
I do agree that sticking fully to principle and honesty will most often make the cause *take longer* to see significant results, but those results will be far more solid because they will rest on sound *honest* foundations, while results attained by taking "shortcuts" will result in "short-circuiting" and a weakening of the foundations you have built on.
Great essay. I don't agree with a lot of what Rufo says but his effectiveness should be admired and studied by all, which you have hit on perfectly here. By stating the manipulative tactics he has learned from the more extreme strands of progressives he leaves them bamboozled and fighting some issue that's well past its sell by date. I think him of him as sharing as an even more effective version of what Nigel Farage was to Brexit, but in his case school choice being the ultimate end goal, with every tactic along the way used discredit the dominant progressive school of thought and leave people in search of a better solution. The fact that his tweets about rebranding the meaning of CRT (which he readily declared and wanted people to be aware of) seem to still be many people's primary line of attack against him suggest his influence has a very long way to run before it stops growing.
Effective activism requires advancing your goals, not just capturing attention and triggering action. The activist mindset is often so destructive and hijackable that the ideas advanced are often net harmful for their goals: e.g. protests that have obstructed nuclear power and green infrastructure with poorly designed regulation. What is needed is thinkers that can simplify the trade-offs enough to decisively land net-good ideas in the attention competition and activists willing scale coalitions with such thinkers.
I read this piece back when it first came out, and the fascinating trade-offs you analyzed made a big impact on me. It became one of those essays that burrowed into my brain, just because it was so damn insightful. Recently, I started a visual essay series called Ideas Worth Drawing For, where I make hand-drawn images as tributes to essayists I admire. You can see the pencil drawing I made for this piece and read my reflection on your ideas here:
I focus in particular on the example of Rosa Parks. I would be so grateful if you have time to discuss my reaction, because I want to know if you think my proposed "exception to the rule" (or "exception that proves the rule") holds up to scrutiny, especially if you know more about Rosa Parks and can spot historical facts about her activism that I might have missed. There's a footnote comparing yours and Coleman Hughes' takes on Black Lives Matter activism, too, and I would love to know what you think about the question I posed about BLM success there. I'm also curious to find out if you left ex-Muslims of N. America because you wanted to stop playing the activist game so that you could exclusively play the thinker game.
Thank you so much for writing this essay, and for being such a thoughtful voice out there in "the discourse." If you'd like to get in touch, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org
All my best,
Thanku you for writing this and sharing it for free.
Your essay verbalises a lot of thoughts I had in my mind and also exposes me to perspectives I wasn't conscious of. This is very helpful.
This reminds me of a post a friend of mine wrote on the EA forum a little while ago (https://milan.cvitkovic.net/writing/ethics/) that ended up prompting a lively discussion (my own small contribution: https://write.as/masonmcgill/).
Taken together, a theme that keeps popping us is something like, "When we try to have an impact on a large group of people, the heuristics we have for success can be pretty bad". Provocativeness or bravery can be bad heuristics ("did this nude protest devolve into self-congratulatory entertainment?"), but so can intellectual scrupulousness, or prioritizing personal dignity at all costs.
From Milan's piece: "Much like a sales team, the success of an ethical belief is determined by its conversion rate and its retention rate. These two factors are sometimes at odds: exclusive ideologies often have higher retention rates, but inclusive ideologies are easier to join. The far-left vs. the far-right [...] with ethics of 'it’s not my job to educate you' probably repel many potential converts, but they provide their adherents with a feeling of being in an exclusive club."
There are many versions of this framing - most recently it reminds me of Julia Galef’s “scout mindset” vs “soldier mindset”. Activists are soldiers, pretty much by definition... There are circumstances where war is justified, but it would be great if more ppl were aware of the tradeoffs between activism and intellectual rigor.
I really do hope that Jesse Singal reads this essay . . . he still is loath to agree with the position that medical "transition" is never appropriate for a child or even a young adult who is not able to carefully and honest examine the tradeoffs that must be made when one makes irreversible cosmetic changes to one's body. Even as his recent public discussions regarding the pseudoscience and dishonestly of those propagandizing in favor of medical "transition" as an effective (even vital) treatment for a mental health condition (or even more fundamentally, as a human right) seem to pull him further and further in the direction of an anti-medical transition stance, he stubbornly clings to his refusal to condemn such practices as always unethical and always more harmful than helpful. Just as I have yet to hear any person try to justify lobotomies as good medicine in any circumstance these days, I long for the day when the person who would try to justify altering human bodies (particularly those of the young) in order to conform to some subjective gender identity will be recognized by the overwhelming majority of our culture as a nothing more than a promoter of unethical quack medicine.
Great article as usual, Sarah.
This reminds me of Arthur Schlesinger's distinction in The Vital Center between liberals and leftists who had realistic agendas to put into practice, and those who treated their ideology as an outlet for frustration and grievances. While he was much more sympathetic to the former, he had a strong moral passion behind his realism (although, writing in 1949, he greatly overestimated the speed with which most Americans would accept civil rights).
Will there be an audio version of this? I'm never sure how long to wait for the audio version of an article before giving up and reading the written version. I'm in a right mess now! I need to do a full audit of all your pieces and work out which ones I have & haven't consumed!
Please, say it isn’t so, Sarah🥲