Alan Jacobs: How you should think in an age of acrimonyby Diana Wichtel
American professor Alan Jacobs has simple but effective advice on how to be a successful thinker in these fraught times.
The British edition of American academic Alan Jacobs’s small, breezy book looks a little like that soothing bestseller, The Little Book of Calm. It loops amiably from such psychologists as Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt to Lenin, CS Lewis, Homer Simpson and Breaking Bad.
It’s also quietly provocative. One section is headed, implacably, “Why Thinking for Yourself is Impossible”. Not only impossible but undesirable. “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly and wonderfully social. 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’,” he writes.
“You have to think in relation to others,” Jacobs tells me via Skype from Waco, Texas, where he’s a professor of humanities at Baylor University. “That means you have to do a good job of choosing the people you are going to think with. You have to make assessments about their reliability and their good faith.”
In the age of the social-media hot take, of toxic divisions between in-groups and out-groups, this involves less intuitive, “fast” thinking and a little more conscious “slow” thinking. “We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think,” Jacobs writes. Thinking can be troubling, tiring; it can complicate our lives. “Who needs thinking?”
It sounds like hard work. “Yeah, I think it is hard, because it’s often costly. This was something that I struggled with in [writing] the book. On the one hand, I wanted to make thinking seem desirable, and on the other hand, it would have been a lie not to acknowledge that you can think your way out of relationships, out of whole communities.”
He illustrates the point with the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, who “ended up losing a community and perhaps losing her family because she started to think about things that they didn’t want her to think about”.
Phelps-Roper is a former member of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, whose members picket funerals of soldiers and people who have died of Aids-related diseases, waving signs reading “Death Penalty for Fags”. Raised to front the church’s “God hates fags” theology, Phelps-Roper ended up engaging on Twitter with people who demonstrated there were communities less fuelled by hate that she could choose to think with. She left the church and her family.
“We need more people [to be] thinking,” says Jacobs. “We need to be more actively engaged and responsive to the world around us, but I can’t pretend that there won’t be a price to be paid for doing that.”
He knows about balancing such considerations. Baylor advertises itself as an “unambiguously Christian” institution. Jacobs is an evangelical Christian whose self-description as a “conservative-liberal-socialist” has brought him grief on Twitter.
“If I spoke as a Christian, there were people who were quite anti-religious who would attack me; if I spoke as an academic, there would be people who were anti-academic who would attack me; and frankly, though my name is actually Cornish, it sure sounds like a Jewish name and so I get a lot of anti-Semitic responses as well.”
Yikes. You might say it’s a battle zone out there, but Jacobs abhors metaphors that frame argument as warfare (try to substitute something less bellicose, he writes, and “you’re almost certainly going to be denounced as a wishy-washy, namby-pamby sissy-britches”). He set up an additional private Twitter account for those he chooses to think with.
Jacobs has done his thinking in some tight corners. Before Baylor, he taught at Wheaton College, which requires the annual reaffirmation of a “Statement of Faith”. The statement declares, among other tenets, that “God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race, and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness”.
That would put a damper on teaching evolution, for a start. Isn’t that inimical to, well, thinking?
“What precisely that statement means, what it requires you to affirm, is actually a matter of much debate, even among people who affirm it,” he says. There’s been talk of getting rid of the clause. “I do hope they do, because I think it is not in keeping with the rest of the statement. So, for what it’s worth, that’s a huge sticking point and Wheaton has lost a lot of really good faculty candidates over the years because they couldn’t sign on to that particular thing.”
In the end, Jacobs didn’t leave over Adam and Eve. “I hadn’t really reached the point where I felt, no, I don’t believe this, I don’t believe that and I would be lying if I stayed. So I didn’t have a crisis in that regard.”
He left because he was thinking about thinking. “I was in my early to mid-fifties and I thought about how I want to use what remains of my career to be the best scholar and the best thinker that I can be. I don’t want to be closing doors to my thinking because I’m afraid that I would then be on the outer with this community that I want to belong to.”
Doors opened. “If I were asked to go back [to Wheaton] now and I had to sign the statement, I don’t think I could, because of that particular clause.”
Thinking. It’s complicated. Why this book and why now? “I was actually working on another book but it was during the presidential campaign [in 2016]. The Brexit debate was getting increasingly intense at the same time. I was watching the social fabric being rent, being torn, being shredded by levels of suspicion and hostility and anger that I don’t remember ever having encountered before.”
Not that he doesn’t have strong political views himself. “I wrote a post during the election campaign where I said that the only American I’m sure I would vote for Donald Trump in preference to is Charles Manson, who is a mass murderer,” he says cheerfully. “So a bit of a joke. But not altogether.”
He began thinking about the lengths to which people go to caricature opponents’ views. He calls that particular thinking faux pas “in-other-wordsing”. “Someone would say something and their political opponent would say, ‘Oh, in other words you mean …’ They would reframe whatever their opponents believed in the most uncharitable light possible to make them seem as stupid and wicked as possible. I thought we’re just not thinking here. We’re not willing to even try to understand – not agree – what it is precisely they’re saying.”
He dropped everything and wrote the book. “In one sense, it’s too late. It would have been great if it had been on the market while we were in the middle of the presidential campaign. But I think we’re still living with the repercussions of it, just as in England, people are living with the repercussions of Brexit. So I’m hoping that it will help people as they try to acclimatise themselves to their current political conditions.”
The book offers some deceptively simple solutions: “Value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory’.” And try to take five. “I’ve had a number of emails and letters, far more than for anything else I’ve written before, and that seems to be the one thing that sticks in people’s mind more than anything else. Just give it five minutes. We need to be able to form our characters and the basic shape and structure of our lives in ways that allow us to take a few more deep breaths.”
That’s not so easy in these clickable times. “It’s exactly what the structure, the code, of all the big media platforms don’t want us to do. The way they maintain our engagement on their site is to keep us in a state of continual instinctive reaction. As long as we’re engaged in that way, we’re like the rats tapping the little bar to get the pellets.”
It is addictive. “It really is. So you really do have to push back hard against all the incentives that your social-media platforms are giving you. I think Twitter is the absolute worst about this, which is why things escalate so quickly into wrath and rage. I’m not sure 280 characters is going to make that any better.”
All the cool reflection in the world won’t necessarily help when it comes to wresting meaning from the rhetoric of someone like Trump. “Trump is, in my judgment, a conman. He’s a huckster. I don’t think he is reclaimable. But I know a good many people, including members of my extended family, who voted for him. I think that was a terrible decision, but I want to be able to understand why they did.”
We tend to see people who think very differently as what psychologist Susan Harding calls “the repugnant cultural other”. “If, say, I refuse to engage with these people, so foul are they to me, even if they are just as foul and just as wicked and mean-spirited as you think they are, there are still millions and millions of them – and they vote. So it’s in your interests to try to understand them better and to learn to speak a language that they can understand, so that you might have a chance at persuading them.”
You don’t just consign them to Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”, he believes. “Sometimes people aren’t wicked or vicious, they’re just wrong. Are there among those people hard-core racists and xenophobes? There absolutely are. But let’s speak to them as though they are basically rational people who may not be as well-informed as they should be.” That means opening up; listening to their stories. “That’s a kind of vulnerability that a lot of people don’t want to have. It’s much easier to keep the repugnant cultural other repugnant and other because it simplifies your life. Things are complicated enough.”
Jacobs’s background offers clues about why someone might abandon the lonely concept of thinking for oneself in favour of a community to think with. His father, who was in the navy in World War II, was an alcoholic and, for most of Jacobs’s childhood, in prison. “When he got out of prison, he was still drinking pretty heavily and so I frankly preferred it when he was in prison. Though he did eventually get sober and was a leading figure in the local Alcoholics Anonymous and actually did some good for people, which I’m very thankful for.”
Jacobs was brought up only nominally Baptist. “So becoming a Christian was actually something that set me apart from my family in many ways and I don’t think anybody in my family has really understood my being a Christian.”
Does he think his evangelical community can benefit from How to Think? “Yes, I do. I would say that, certainly in the past 20 years, evangelical Christians in America have become less and less formed by the theological beliefs and religious practices that they are supposed to be formed by and have become more purely tribal.”
He cites the response to accusations of sexual misconduct against the Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. “There was a time, I think, when for evangelical Christians this would have been something that they would have forcefully, absolutely, 100% repudiated. And instead what we see is Southern evangelicals repeatedly making excuses and justifications for him.”
It reminds him of an infamous statement by a US officer during the Vietnam War that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”.
“This is how evangelicals are starting to sound.” In order to stand up for Christian values, he says, they feel they have to support someone accused of grossly violating Christian sexual morality. “What I want to say to them is, ‘Before you comment on this, could you just give it five minutes and think about what you’re saying? Where are your reactions here coming from? Do they really come out of your core convictions or is it just a matter of reacting to the repugnant cultural other, which for you is Democrats?’ So I’m hoping that some from among my brothers and sisters in the Christian faith will read it. Because I really feel like that community is in particular need of some of the lessons of this book.”
Some debates, such as abortion, are so polarised that asking for even five minutes’ reflection is asking too much. “I can’t think of anything else where the stakes are quite this high. People who are pro-abortion are perceived by the people who are anti-abortion as being child murderers. The people who are anti-abortion are perceived by pro-abortion people as wanting to enslave women. ‘You are a child murderer’ is a conversation-stopper. ‘You want to enslave women’ is a conversation-stopper. So it’s difficult for me to even imagine ways in which people can debate this without it becoming overheated almost instantly. I’m telling you what the problem is. I’m not telling you what the solution is, because I don’t have the first idea.”
Another increasingly urgent question of our times: can you separate the art from the sometimes desperately flawed figure of the artist? It depends. “It’s quite astonishing what Woody Allen has been able to get away with when you look at how many of his own idiosyncrasies, to put the most positive spin on them, are in his movies. This is also true of the comedian Louis CK. Now that he’s admitted to some of this behaviour, you actually see signs of it throughout his work. It’s very interesting that he admitted to it so quickly. I think, ‘Of course you did, because you’ve been confessing it all along, just in indirect form.’”
The extent to which you can separate the moral status of the artist from the work, says Jacobs, has everything to do with how much the art itself is separate from the person. “The more distant it is from that person’s direct experience, the easier it is for me to make that kind of separation. I stopped watching Woody Allen movies a long time ago.” As for Louis CK’s work, “I think he’s very funny, but I’m not going to be able to watch it now because so much of it deals with these very behavioural problems he has now had to confront.”
There are some issues on which the liberal in Jacobs seems in tension with the conservative. “In the US, we’re getting increasingly and, I think, unhelpfully focused on the people who are gender-fluid or who are transgender or somewhere in a process towards a different gender identity, and people are drawing lines in the sand,” he says. “There are people who are genuinely uncertain about some issues and then there are people who are uncertain if they thought they had room to be; that is, if they thought that uncertainty wouldn’t lead to them being cast out of their society. Whose job is it to make spaces where people can confess their lack of certainty? We have to be able to find ways and places where these kinds of issues can be debated and not expect there to be instantaneous transformation of society.”
Before you can point out that he might not feel the same urgency for change as transgender people, he says it himself. “Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail says that’s what the white moderate always says: give it time. As King says, there’s nothing about time that heals anything. It depends on how it’s used. But I still think it is possible to rush so quickly through the stage at which we debate and reflect that we cause unnecessary pain to one another. So I’m still trying to work that out. I don’t have an algorithm for that.”
Jacobs claims, not entirely convincingly for someone who is such upbeat company, that he’s a natural pessimist. Still, he maintains a cautious optimism that we can do better. “I think the US is going to survive Trump. I remain hopeful in a measured way and willing to do whatever I can to try to stitch up some of those tears in the social fabric that we’ve inflicted on it in the past few years.”
That will involve convincing us to take the trouble to think better; to stop seeing argument as a fight to the death; to shut the heck up for five minutes. “Just to be able to get to that point where you’re just saying, ‘Fellow human being, I think you’ve made an error there just as I have made errors about many things’, would be an incredible victory,” he says, unable, on this occasion, to resist the terminology of battle. “So I hope. I have my fingers crossed. But I’m not getting my hopes up too high.”
HOW TO THINK: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, by Alan Jacobs (Allen & Unwin, $24.99)
This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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