How to think (dangerously)

What does a dangerous thinker look like?

I’ve noticed this vocab­u­lary that reac­tionary thinkers often deploy. You’ll hear them — climate change deniers, for example — use the word “dangerous” to describe their dissent. The people still promoting discred­ited theories of racial differ­ence use it, too.

But these people aren’t dangerous at all. Let me first describe the standard they fail to reach, then offer a counter-example.

Human beings think together. That old image of “standing athwart history, yelling stop” is nonsensical. History only offers us one place to stand, and that’s inside, where it’s crowded. You can only think with the people buckled in next to you. (Please don’t yell “stop” in my ear.)

I’m newly embold­ened in this belief by the provoca­tive How to Think by Alan Jacobs, a writer and scholar who I’ve long admired.

How to Think cover

In his book, Jacobs neatly evis­cer­ates the old exhor­ta­tion to “think for yourself.” He writes:

To think inde­pen­dently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonder­fully social. Every­thing you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for "thinking for herself" they usually mean "ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of."

Later, he continues:

So just as we do not “think for ourselves” but rather think with others, so too we think in active feeling response to the world, and in constant relation to others. Or we should. Only something that complete — relational, engaged, honest — truly deserves to be called thinking.

(Disclosure: I am quoted kindly in Alan’s book, and I enthusiastically blurbed it, as well … so … there might be a bit of log-rolling happening here. Just like a quarter rotation, though.)

Climate change deniers don’t rise to this level of completeness. They see them­selves as Galilean, bravely shouting the truth into a world of oppres­sive orthodoxy, but in this case, the Galileos are on the other side of the argument, and if their voices were lonely at first, well, they gathered allies over time, and now they’ve changed the whole conversation.

And, by the way: even Galileo wasn’t Galilean in the way these reac­tionary thinkers, or indeed most people, imagine. Brian Eno has it right, by way of Austin Kleon:

If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.”

Reactionary thinkers see their isolation as evidence of their dangerousness. In fact, it marks them as inert.

So what does a dangerous thinker really look like?

The whole dang earth

Like Stewart Brand, of course!

This is someone who, for decades, has been deeply engaged in important conver­sa­tions about the environment — about energy, resilience, biodiversity, climate change, the fate of the Whole dang Earth. But Brand is no meek consensus-follower. He’s been a vocal proponent of nuclear energy, earning him criticism from many erstwhile allies. He wonders aloud about the need for planet-scale geoengi­neering as a bulwark against climate change; plenty of his fellow thinkers are horrified by the potential for world-ruining miscalculation. Brand is working on a project, using the newest genetic techniques, to bring back the woolly mammoth, and guess what: not everybody thinks that’s a great idea!!

The debates around all of these things are unsettled and unsettling. These are not ritual perfor­mances inside circum­scribed intel­lec­tual space; they are live arguments with high stakes. Alliances are forming. Windows of possi­bility are shifting in real time.

A thinker like Stewart Brand has teeth.

The model here is straightforward. It’s someone deeply engaged in a community — someone who knows their shit — who is devel­oping and gathering support for ideas — possibly very chal­lenging ideas — that speak to that community’s most urgent questions. People are doing this right now in every community you can imagine. It’s not hard to find.

The problem for reac­tionary thinkers, I suppose, is that they don’t like their community’s actually urgent questions. They preferred different questions, and they’d like to return to those, even if it means doing so alone.

They want, somehow, not to be required to think with all these other people.

Here’s what I’d say to them: there is some truly dangerous thinking to be done, but only if you can catch up.

Okay, now go buy Alan’s book!

October 2017, Oakland