24 August 2010

A Call for 'Mental Courage'

In light of my comments below on the populist tendency to flatter the middle class (or the "majority" or "the people," however construed) and absolve coveted voters of responsibility for national failings, David Brooks's latest column comes as something like a gust of fresh air. Brooks can probably still be described as a moderate Republican, but his comments this week have a non-partisan, non-ideological flavor. He writes in opposition to a kind of anti-intellectualism that we may see concentrated in Brooks's own party, but is more widespread. His subject isn't so much the hostility to knowledge that the left attributes to the right but a more general unwillingness to question one's own presuppositions. Like many conservatives, he's concerned with cultivating individual character, but unlike many of the more popular conservatives, Brooks believes that "character is not only moral, it is also mental. Heroism exists not only on the battlefield or in public but also inside the head, in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts."

Brooks supposes that people were less self-satisfied in the now-distant past when most presumed themselves (and all human beings) to be "fallen," hopelessly imperfect by virtue of original sin. Such people, presumably, would not have believed that they knew everything they needed to know. Instead, Brooks claims, they knew that "to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness. In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful."

The truth was probably less ideal than Brooks's account. For most of our ancestors, the struggle against "mental laziness" did not extend to questioning the truth of allegedly divine revelations, for instance. But on their own terms they did often demonstrate an intellectual humility and an appreciation of improvement through learning that seem less prominent today. Brooks aligns himself with the more idiosyncratic conservatives by placing part of the blame for the change on capitalism. If anything, capitalism's corrosive effect has intensified lately.
In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime. In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions.

Brooks writes that "The ensuing mental flabbiness is most evident in politics." While his bipartisan examples of Republican insistence that the President is a Muslim and Democratic skepticism about the 2007 Surge in Iraq don't seem equally apt, let's give him credit for making a nonpartisan point. Better yet is this bit of common sense: "Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity."

It's pretty bold of Brooks to write that what he calls a "metacognition deficit" -- a reluctance to "habitually step back and think about the weakness in [our] own thinking and what they should do to compensate" -- is the underlying problem among all the problems that afflict the country. It would probably be expecting too much to want him to offer a solution in the same column, but the problem is stated with commendable force. I'd like to see him return to the subject, to see whether he'd link our time's "mental flabbiness" with the anti-"elitist" attitude that prevails in so many places today. Do we suffer from a hostility to knowledge itself or from a resentment of the knowledgeable? Do we reject reasoned advice because taking it would make us "inferior" to the advisor in our own minds? Are we so enthralled with the idea of a pure, originally whole self with a destiny distinct and independent from everyone else's that we rage against compromising our ideals and interests with almost existential fury? These are not new topics here, but in the wider world David Brooks may deserve credit for starting a new and necessary discussion.


Cammie Novara said...

As soon as I surfed to the stunning hilarious Yes We Scam! B.S. We Can Believe In! Obama Approval Plummets Hub on Hubpages I convinced myself that The Think 3 Institute's readers really must have their say on this link! http://hubpages.com/hub/Yes-We-Scam-BS-We-Can-Believe-In-Obama-Approval-Plummets

Crhymethinc said...

That is a call that will NOT resonate with the rank-and-file (or as I prefer to refer to them as "dirtclods").

It is far easier for them to simply accept what they are told by those they see as their lords and masters - the almighty talking heads. Belief is less strenuous and time-consuming than learning.

Crhymethinc said...

"Cammie", if I may...after following the link provided, I've decided the site you linked to is merely another in a long line of typical low-class right-wing idiocy. The "lowest-common-denominator" type. Please don't forget you would have nothing to even whine about if the Right-Wing Poster Child for Stupidity - George W. Bush - hadn't so badly screwed up the economy with yet another Repugnican-supported tax cut for the wealthy, while screwing over the working class (as usual)...not to mention the ridiculous war he started to the tune of a few hundred billion dollars he borrowed from Communist China. Feel free to take your substandard jibes elsewhere, as this page is reserved for intelligent conversation.

Samuel Wilson said...

Crhyme, I think that Brooks underestimated the extent to which people today take their prejudices and biases on "faith" or on the authority of someone they choose to trust blindly. The problem isn't entirely that some people won't listen to other people, as Brooks believes, but that they listen and trust the wrong people, and that has less to do with the arrogance Brooks perceives than with the tribalism he mentions in passing.

I agree that Cammie's link is pretty dumb, but she did invite us to have our say so she can't complain if you've done so.