Freedom From Thought, Research Time, 11/01/2018

I was reading an interesting article yesterday morning on the way to work. Joan Scott’s “How the Right Weaponized Free Speech” didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. But it reminded me of those things, which made for a downbeat start to my day.

It discussed the victory of revanchist politics on most college campuses in North America today. The most vile, aggressive racist, sexist, and anti-trans expression is now considered protected speech. Meanwhile, attempts by the victims of racist, sexist, and anti-trans bullying and verbal assault are declared fragile snowflakes and fascists for wanting to have their places of education protected from such bullying.

You'll be free because I'll tell you exactly what to think!
You might read this and think, ‘Surely, it’s the opposite! Surely free speech is under siege on campus, thanks to those protestors!’ If you think that, it’s a sign of revanchism’s victory – the presumption that racist speech needs protection because it’s someone’s opinion.

Right there is the false equivalence that won the white supremacist wing their victory on campuses – that freedom to speak and discuss issues is the same as freedom to hold your opinion in the face of any and all criticism. Opinion has become sacred.

Gilles Deleuze wrote about this, in very abstract terms of course, in the final pages of What Is Philosophy?. Opinion was never supposed to be sacred, according to the values of free speech and free discussion.

Don't even say opinion is the battlefield, that free speech is about conflict over people’s opinions, and who shares which opinions. Opinion, says Deleuze, has the most potential of any other form of human thinking to destroy knowledge itself.

Opinion destroys knowledge because an opinion is an attitude that transforms an idea or a perspective into an aggressive posture. An opinion is the product of a dogma, a set of principles that can easily appear to be legitimate knowledge, but that’s a false appearance.

How can we make this distinction? Well, there are questions of falsifiability, of course. This is the old recourse to fidelity to truth, opposed to fidelity to a given opinion. If you hold a belief, but are willing to drop or change it in the face of contradictory of contrary* evidence, then you ultimately care more about truth than your particular opinion.

* Respectively.

That’s one distinction, but I think it doesn’t quite make the distinction I think is best. It doesn’t identify the toxic elements of any thinking in terms of opinion. Fidelity to the truth foregrounds correspondence – it distinguishes good from bad opinion. Good opinion is humbly held, falsifiable opinion. Bad opinion is dogma.

The political heart of Gilles Deleuze's work is a guide to fight
fascism where it lives and thrives – inside your own fearful soul,
when you're scared of taking responsibility for your own
thinking and knowledge.
Deleuze’s distinction is between opinion and creative thinking, between holding an opinion and seeking to become a genuine expert. See, when you hold an opinion with humility, that’s nice, but you still rely on some authority to sanctify that opinion. You still aren’t in charge of your knowledge – you’re following orders.

No one can ever be in charge of their knowledge at the intensity or comprehensiveness of becoming an expert in every subject. There’s too much to know. I’m instead talking about an attitude toward knowledge – learning enough about how knowledge itself works to know how to take charge of your own knowledge without skepticism becoming a universal acid.

When you think only in terms of your opinions, you think algorithmically. The opinion becomes a template that stamps out each new thought of your own according to its pattern. It’s cookie-cutter thinking, mechanistic thinking according to a plan.

Deleuze calls it the thought that ends thinking, because you become an echo, a copy. Your thoughts follow dogmas. As an artist, your product becomes entirely cliché. As a follower of science, you think all knowledge will ultimately reduce to some formula that can fit on a tshirt. As a thinker, you think only in talking points.

Such thinking is comfortable because you take no risks. You just pump out whatever is expected of you when you join a community that gives you your thoughts to think. Such a life may not be empty – you may have a lot of friends in that lazy community, and they may comfort you when you’re confused.

A life of opinion means never being confused again – you always know what to think and say. Because you’re not thinking, you’re repeating. Because you’re not speaking, you’re parroting.

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