James Ensor — Title Unknown (detail)

Reason, Logic and Paranoia

The current state of our debating culture. By René Scheu.

Translated from German. NZZ, Feuilleton, 26 March 2016.

Man is the being that stares at his screen. Excitement and danger do not loom on the horizon anymore but on the edge of the digital landscape. We live in a permanent stream of notifications and opinions, of comments, recommendations and hastily drawn-up tastes. In order to process all the stimuli of the digital age, our brain must differentiate between signal and noise, between what we choose to integrate in our own nebula of thought and what we filter out. Through this process, we build our own intellectual niche, which we share with the similarly minded peers in our network: this is how we constitute our very own little bubble of information and opinion.

What was once public space is now a constellation of ghettos that nurture their own preconceptions and suspicions. Argumentation has become pure slander. Debate has turned into vociferation. And, yes, the question now poses itself not only to journalists, but to the common man: is public discourse imploding just as it starts to open up to everyone with an access to the network?


The Athletics of Reason

Already Immanuel Kant, a liberal in the classical sense, saw in public expression the foundation of truly progressive human interactions. He describes it as a kind of training pitch for human reason: every citizen, once they start to publicly express themselves, become a “learned man” that speaks to the “true public” — the potentially limitless “reader sphere”. They are allowed to feel part of a greater “community of reason”, that understand debate for what it really is: a contribution to cultural progress. Everyone is free to contribute and compete, provided that they know they will be judged in light of what they have said. What Kant imagined was probably the greatest utopia of modernity: a standalone, civilisation-increasing process that would work through a reason-based feedback loop in the public sphere. Incidentally, it was clear to the Königsberg-based philosopher that the human spirit required constant training. An untrained reason would lose its elasticity, it would become flaccid — or, which seems more adequate in many contemporary disputes, drift into paranoia. And paranoia, unfortunately, has its very own feedback loops.

Boris Groys, an expert in media theory, foresaw suspicion as the defining characteristic of the digital age. His diagnosis is worthy of consideration. Through their general attitude of distrust, digital users have incorporated what had remained, for centuries, the quest of a handful of marginal philosophers: to seek the truth hiding behind the veil of appearances. We stare at an anonymous digital interface flooded with glimmering symbols and pixels, and we instinctively ask ourselves where all that material is coming from. What Groys calls the “ontological suspicion of the media” is therefore not merely a subjective state of the mind, but an objective reality. “As spectators”, he writes, “we are purely and simply unable to consider the media as anything else than a place of concealed manipulation. Because the internal substructure of the media infrastructure is hidden from us by design, we can do nothing else but suspect, speculate and make assumptions.”

The emitters of those digital signals are always, of course, some actors located in that internal substructure, but who are they exactly, and what is their agenda? Reason starts to float freely, in a speculative sense. A particular way of reading and understanding is now found to rule in the digital space, that was once the prerogative of philosophers and social scientists: the hermeneutics of suspicion. Whatever a person expresses is only seen as a manifestation of what they are trying to hide. Every statement hints at a secret dissimulation manoeuvre, every claim is viewed as a cleverly crafted cover-up attempt. But this attitude of blanket suspicion towards the world is the opposite of true criticism. Indeed, critical reason has to rely on a solid statement to build upon. It implies a minimum of substance, a minimum of respect towards the opposing party, since it presupposes — note how the words seem antiquated — a certain dose of honesty, sincerity and truthfulness for all concerned parties.

Dwindling reality

Paranoid reason, on the other hand, sumptuously ignores every reference, and focuses only on the person a statement originated from. As a result, it establishes a kind of inexorable loop of suspicion: an invisible author could be hiding behind every apparent one. Suspicion, by definition, can never be proven wrong. Every attempt at debunking it only strengthens a paranoid logic in its previously acquired certainties. It has become immune to any outside views. As far as it is concerned, argumentation is not only pointless, it is simply impossible, since whoever accepts to argue still has a hint of doubt about their own position. They accept that truth cannot be the prerogative of a single person, but — to borrow an expression from the X-Files TV series — “that it lies somewhere out there”.

But that “out there”, that exterior reality, has started to dwindle. Google and Facebook are shaping a new kind of environment for our existence, based on searches and social networks, which is increasingly difficult to grasp. Despite our resistance, self-isolation has become an everyday reality. Self-learning algorithms ensure that we only move within a trusted digital subnetwork of information. What exactly can be trusted, is for the software to decide. It uses our interactions, our settings, our search history and our location to create a unique, customised world. As users, we live in a digital echo chamber, in which every notification, every opinion and rumour gets amplified and repeated, provided they correspond to our current profile. The irony lies in the fact that, in reality, there is no puppet master holding the strings in the background. We are not being controlled by the network, or by “the liars in Silicon Valley”. We ourselves are the ones who influence and shape the network — through every one of our movements, likes, or internet search.

This customised digital landscape is the programmatical embodiment of confirmation bias, as defined by cognitive psychology: prevailing opinions get confirmed and amplified by an illusory democratic process, diverging ones get punished and shunned. Hatred towards unconformity is an all-pervasive fluid. Homogeneity of opinions, tastes and positions such as that which reigns in online communities, enables a feeling of collective belonging. The echo chamber becomes an echo bunker. In the erstwhile training room of reason, the last lights start to turn off.

Members of online communities have replaced the collective search for truth with the pursuit of acceptance. Their main concern is not with new discoveries, but with their own identity. Diverging positions are perceived as personal attacks, and reactions are then naturally made on a similarly personal level. They do not target the meaning of a particular statement, but — the circle is complete — its author, who becomes the subject of discredit, diffamation, pathologisation or criminalisation, depending on the mood of the moment. Members of online communities demonstrate increased solidarity towards one another, and vehemently defend their curated group identity. Every attack on a particular member is turned into an attack on the community as a whole. In that sense, this behavioural motif is reminiscent of certain aspects of the pre-enlightenment social order — some would say, of feudal or primitive societies.

Free thinking: the Feuilleton

Please do not misunderstand me: it is perfectly acceptable to join Kant in his Enlightenment point of view that the network-based public sphere is, in essence, a good thing. Everyone can now indeed act as a “learned man”, even though they might have to hide their name out of anonymity concerns. My argument is different. We can only speak of a training field of reason when the field is indeed used for training. Thomas Jefferson, another Enlightenment-minded man, said it with marvellous pathos: “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left to combat it.” The truth is out there somewhere. The ones who search for it are driven by the firm belief that a fair debate among free and reasonable men is the only way to get any closer to it. They relie on reason but at the same time are fully aware of its limits. They are aware that the opinion of others often contains (more than) a glimmer of truth, and that is why they start by listening carefully to their opponents. But more often than not, they also raise fruitless objections — and meddles with determination in public affairs. Authority always prevails over the position or the personal circumstances of the speaker. The world is the sum of all that can be said. Ignorance is not a crime. Freedom is a basic imperative.

A liberal Feuilleton such as this one enables the joyful criticism of its own time. It opens up the discussion space — and defends it against every push of “laziness and cowardice” (Kant), that is, of pre-Enlightenment opinion pressures and crippling herd mentalities. Feuilletonists are friends of an unbridled utilisation of reason, athletes of free thought. The culture of debate is the applied form of a thought- and expression-oriented culture, ideally, it constitutes its highest form. Wouldn’t this description fit the idea — at least under the classical understanding of culture — of universal higher culture for all human beings, at least for the genuine readers among them? What Kant wrote more than 200 years ago still remains as valid as it was then and as it will be tomorrow: “If someone asks: do we currently live in an enlightened time? We must answer: No, but we do live in a time of Enlightenment.” Always and forever. If only.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.