The Moderate-Minded Writer

Finding my voice as an intellectual in a climate of extremes

This essay is the first in a series on virtues and habits of mind that promote human flourishing, stronger institutions, and liberal democracy — MN

I spend most of my time studying and writing about intractable debates over science, technology, and the environment. It is at times a depressing experience. Not only is climate change, for example, a grave threat, but it is one of the world’s most divisive issues.

Over the years, I have learned that strong discipline is required to avoid the easiest, most comfortable narrative, and to reconcile in my writing competing visions of the “good society.” 

Only a quiet mind can remain intellectually humble, recognizing the limits to knowledge, and the wisdom in drawing on multiple perspectives.

Therefore, several years ago, I decided to dramatically minimize my social media use and screen time, shifting most of my reading back to print, as I dedicated portions of each day to introspection and contemplation. 

The vast complexity of the problems we face requires us to engage in almost constant updating of our assumptions and beliefs, a goal best reached not through full throated advocacy, but via contemplative engagement with a diversity of voices and ideas.

Instead of quickly choosing between clashing perspectives, a better approach is to spend time wrestling with their tensions and uncertainties, and to recognize what each offers that is of value.1

I believe it is therefore essential for academics, intellectuals, and journalists to model forms of moderation, pragmatism, and skepticism that can only be cultivated by way of deep reading and contemplation.

This is my story on how I arrived at this realization — and how I strive to apply these habits of mind and virtues to my teaching, scholarship, and writing.

The outrage machine

It is impossible to resist the siren song of political tribalism if, like the average American, you spend several hours a day on your smartphone swiping, scrolling, skimming, liking, hearting, retweeting, forwarding, and responding to other people's thoughts.

Artificial intelligence-driven platforms serve up a constant stream of news and commentary that reflect our existing biases and beliefs rather than news and analysis that might challenge them. 

Because they kidnap our attention, the most inflammatory, most outrageous, and most catastrophic headlines are rewarded by social media algorithms, ensuring that they travel the furthest.2

When a major event occurs or a policy proposal announced, your first thought in today's news feed culture is not your own original idea but almost inevitably a headline or commenter appealing to your worse biases.3

Playing to the rawest elements of human nature, today’s social media-driven outrage machine has done great damage to intellectual life, destroying our ability to think independently, and discuss productively across lines of difference. 

On no other topic is this clearer than climate change.

In tracking how our media system tends to distort debate, scholars have primarily studied national TV news and cable news networks. With their focus on breaking political events, personality clashes, and election races, these outlets continue to give little airtime to climate change.4

When TV news does report on climate change, portrayals tend to exaggerate the threats, without providing information about what audiences might be able to do to protect against them, a style of fear mongering that can result in feelings of powerlessness or forms of denial.5

As researchers have also documented, just as troubling are portrayals at Fox News and online outlets such as Breitbart News, which routinely deny the reality of human-caused climate change; castigating climate scientists in the process.6

Scholars, however, have tended to mostly overlook the strategies of climate advocates that harm society’s ability to reach agreement on effective climate policy actions.

In pursuit of this “good fight,” the resulting weaponized metaphors, memes, and headlines hack readers brains, training their focus on conservatives and the evil doers of the fossil fuel industry while the end times loom.

Instead, some academics have joined with advocates in preaching that climate activists need to be more like their long standing conservative opponents: more ruthless, more cunning, more aggressive, and more committed to the most audacious and ambitious policies regardless of their flaws.7 

In the quest for climate progress, the goal is not to broker cross-alliances between the center-right, center-left, and left wing, drawing on the best ideas that those factions can offer, but rather to build progressive power.

In doing so, the vast complexity of climate politics is reduced to a Manichean storyline that features a battle between the forces of “good and light” and “evil and darkness.” 

Progressives not only see climate change as an epic battle to stave off catastrophe, but also an opportunity to transform the world into their vision of an ideal society.

Earth is “fucked” and our insatiable growth economy is to blame, argued Naomi Klein in her 2014 best-seller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, a book that inspired the rise of the climate justice movement.

The only possibility of survival was an abolitionist-style climate movement that would allow a global alliance of left-wing activists to achieve a diverse range of social justice goals, Klein wrote. These include repealing free trade agreements, easing immigration rules, establishing indigenous rights, and guaranteeing a minimum income level.

Ultimately, for Klein, climate change is our best chance to right the “festering wrongs” of colonialism and slavery, “the unfinished business of liberation.”8

The social media-driven outrage machine has done great damage to intellectual life, destroying our ability to think independently, and discuss productively across lines of difference. 

Normally, we should be able to rely on opinion-leading news organizations and experienced journalists to scrutinize flawed logic and abuses of power, hold all sides accountable in their twisting of scientific authority, and provide deeper, more nuanced context to the arguments posed.

But several of our most influential journalistic organizations led by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and The Guardian have allied with Klein, Bill McKibben, and groups like 350.org, Extinction Rebellion, and the Sunrise Movement to become moral crusaders on behalf of the Green New Deal, helping to spread a dangerous blindness that confuses rather than enlightens.

For example, at the launch of a 2019 “climate emergency” campaign led by CJR, The Nation, and The Guardian, the co-organizers urged journalists to focus on coverage of solutions, but the only solution they argued for was the Green New Deal, which they called “a response that is commensurate with the scale and urgency of the problem.”

They also emphasized that journalists needed to study up on climate science, recommending as main resources Klein’s On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal and McKibben’s Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?.

Yet these books are polemics and calls to action that do little to explain the complexity of climate science or policy.9

In pursuit of this “good fight,” the resulting weaponized metaphors, memes, and headlines hack readers brains, training their focus on conservatives and the evil doers of the fossil fuel industry while the end times loom. 

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner determined in 2019 that the term climate change was too passive sounding, “when what scientists are talking about is catastrophe for humanity.”

Moving ahead, according to a Guardian memo, climate change would be referred to exclusively as the “climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown.” Similarly, global warming would be referred to as “global heating,” and “climate sceptic” would be replaced by “climate science denier.”

Yet even as climate activists and allied journalists view conservatives and the fossil fuel industry as extreme, most seldom apply the same label to those on their own side. 

Green New Deal advocates, for example, have framed the choice for Americans in starkly binary terms: Either join us in a utopian quest to transform the United States into a social democracy or face the catastrophic consequences of a dystopian climate future. There are no other choices. Their fight is equally against moderates and pragmatists as it is against conservatives.10

“Moderate is not a stance,” U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the audience at the 2019 South by Southwest ideas festival. “It’s just an attitude towards life of, like, ‘meh.’ ”

Because scientists for the most part are still viewed as “above the fray,” scientific legitimation is a potent source of political power. Therefore Green New Dealers have twisted climate science to falsely claim that there is no time for debate, critical questions, or the scrutiny of assumptions — since we only have a few years to act.

"Millennials and people, you know, Gen Z and all these folks that will come after us are looking up and we're like: 'The world is gonna end in 12 years if we don't address climate change and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it? This is the war. This is our World War II," argued Ocasio-Cortez in 2019.

To protect preferred narratives, a main strategy by some activists, academics, and journalists has been to discredit experts who question worse-case scenario narratives or policies like the Green New Deal by labeling them “deniers,” “delayers,” “contrarians,” “confusionists,” “lukewarmers,” “inactivists,” and “non-solutionists.”11

These attacks are not so much about the specifics of climate science or policy, but instead about controlling who has the authority to speak on the subject.

Such labeling comports well with the political mood of the day: it breeds incivility and cultivates a discourse culture where protecting one’s own identity, group, and preferred storyline takes priority over constructive consideration of knowledge and evidence.12

Yet the more we become angry and the more we catastrophize about the future, the less likely we are to find common ground on behalf of effective actions, or to even recognize our mistakes.

We used to be human

It is not just the outrage culture of social media; it is online immersion itself that is the death of the moderate-minded intellectual, disrupting our ability to acquire the specialized knowledge and insights needed to think critically; and the perspective taking needed to emphasize with others.

“As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it — and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and society,” wrote Nicholas Carr in 2011’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.13

The replacement of printed books and articles by screen-based text, images, and video marked the transition between two dramatically different modes of thinking, he argued.

When printed books and articles were at the center of human culture — the linear medium cultivated habits of mind related to concentration and disciplined thought.

“As supple as it is subtle,” the book has been “the imaginative mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism,” wrote Carr.

In contrast to the book, the Internet incentivized a reliance on skimming, multi-tasking, superficial thinking, and short-term memory rather than deeper understanding.

Over time, as the mental circuits devoted to constant online multitasking strengthen, the circuits used for reading and concentration erode. The altered brain consequently finds it more difficult to concentrate and read deeply — as numerous studies in subsequent years have shown.14 

Writing in 2016, the one time New Republic editor and longform journalist Andrew Sullivan reflected on the previous fifteen years he had spent devoted to “The Dish,” a preoccupation that involved blogging multiple times a day, constantly chasing the latest hot take or trending topic.

Sullivan described himself in the New York magazine cover story as a “very early adopter of what might now be called living in the web,” an obsession that took its toll on his psyche, health, and relationships.

He could no longer read books, his mind and fingers “twitched for a keyboard,” feeling as if he was living in a “constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise.”

Sullivan quit his blog, and embarked on a months long recovery that started with a silent meditation retreat. He eventually returned to longform journalism at New York magazine and currently writes a weekly essay at Substack, where he also hosts a weekly podcast conversation with other intellectuals and writers.

When the tenth anniversary edition of The Shallows was published in 2020, Carr in an updated introduction built on his thesis that digital technologies continued to make people more distracted and less focused.

The diffusion of smartphones had accelerated this process. “It’s common today, even more so than ten years ago, to think of knowledge as something that surrounds us, something we swim through to consume, like sea creatures in plankton-filled waters,” he wrote.

Absent the ability to read deeply, reason analytically, or argue effectively, generations of college students are at of risk of missing out on the most essential skills needed to sustain a liberal democracy.

As a professor, over the past decade I have noticed that an increasing number of students seem to have very little experience with the deep reading of challenging books, beyond what might be required in a course. As a result, those who avoid reading for its own sake typically lack basic skills related to analytical reasoning, perspective-taking, and persuasion.

This is a deeply worrying trend for multiple reasons. Absent the ability to read deeply, reason analytically, or argue effectively, generations of college students are at of risk of missing out on the most essential skills needed to sustain a liberal democracy.

The unbeatable chess game

In 2019, realizing that the cost of us zipping around online is not only an increase in sectarian polarization, but also a loss in our depth of thinking, I began to experiment with different techniques for minimizing the time I spent online.

I started by writing out a very long password in a notebook, so that when logging on to Twitter or Facebook, I had to do so with a specific intention and purpose in mind. On the latter platform, I also pared down my list of "friends" from more than 800 to just sixty-five, half of whom were relatives. 

But even when we try to use social media minimally and mindfully, we run up against an impossible task, as the Silicon Valley start-up investor Roger McNamee writes.15

Tech companies have recruited some of the world's brightest minds to create an unbeatable chess game in which we battle artificial intelligence and algorithms with almost perfect information about us — machine learning tools employed with the specific intention to keep us addicted to distraction. 

So, realizing the battle that all of us are losing, after a few months I decided to permanently delete my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Shifting my reading back to print has enabled me to be alone with my thoughts, wrestling with uncertainties and complexities, scrutinizing my assumptions and beliefs.

At the time, I was reading the Roman stoic Seneca, who around 50 CE as a busy senator and advisor to emperors, still reserved time for the life of the mind as a prolific philosopher and essayist, influencing countless subsequent generations of intellectuals and writers. 

“No activity,” wrote Seneca, “can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied, since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply but reflects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it.”16

Today, I plan every day around several hours of solitude in my office with no digital screen in sight. Shifting my reading back to print has enabled me to be alone with my thoughts, wrestling with uncertainties and complexities, scrutinizing my assumptions and beliefs.

As I read a book or article, I write in the margins and underline the sentences, pausing to fill notebooks with related observations. During breaks taking a walk or practicing yoga, I sort out the complexities of something I might be writing — as I quiet the mind, easing the anxieties that afflict every writer. 

We have forgotten that writing is not typing. There is a creative link between the intellect and the pen that I have rediscovered by writing the first draft of an article (including this one) by hand. 

In launching this newsletter, I rejoined Twitter last year, but I remain cautious about when and how I use the platform. Only by committing to solitude and contemplation can I free my mind to write honestly and clearly.

1

In my “launch manifesto,” I previewed these principles as a main focus of my newsletter. See Nisbet, Matthew (2021, Jan 12). Welcome to Wealth of Ideas: Politics, culture, and moderation in an age of extremes. Substack: Wealth of Ideas newsletter.

2

For an excellent review, see Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Antisocial media: How Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy. Oxford University Press, 2018.

3

See Deresiewicz, William. "Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts." The American Scholar 79, no. 2 (2010): 20-31 for a spell-binding articulation of this theme.

4

For a comprehensive review of this literature see Feldman, Lauren. "Effects of TV and Cable News Viewing on Climate Change Opinion, Knowledge, and Behavior." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. 22 Nov. 2016.

5

See Hart, P. Sol, and Lauren Feldman. "Threat without efficacy? Climate change on US network news." Science Communication 36.3 (2014): 325-351 and O'Neill, Saffron, and Sophie Nicholson-Cole. "Fear won't do it” promoting positive engagement with climate change through visual and iconic representations." Science communication 30, no. 3 (2009): 355-379.

6

See Benkler, Y., Faris, R., & Roberts, H. (2018). Network propaganda: Manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics. Oxford University Press.

7

For discussion see Hulme, Mike. "The Manichean Mann." Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 3 (2021): 88-90.

8

Klein, Naomi. This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster, 2015. For related discussion see Nisbet, Matthew C. (2014, Oct. 5). Naomi Klein or Al Gore? Making sense of contrasting views on climate change. The Conversation.

9

For critical analysis see Nisbet, Matthew C. “Sciences, Publics, Politics: The Trouble With Climate Emergency Journalism.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 4 (Summer 2019): 23–26; Tracy, Marc (2019, July 8). As the World Heats Up, the Climate for News Is Changing, Too. The New York Times, B1, and Nisbet, Matthew C. (2021, Jun 4). “Manufacturing consent: The dangerous campaign behind climate emergency declarations.” Substack: Wealth of Ideas newsletter.

10

For analysis see Nisbet, Matthew C. “Sciences, Publics, Politics: The Green New Dilemma.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 3 (Spring 2019): 29–31.

11

Kloor, Keith. “The Science Police.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 4 (Summer 2017)

12

For discussion see Howarth, Candice C., and Amelia G. Sharman. "Labeling opinions in the climate debate: A critical review." Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 6, no. 2 (2015): 239-254.

13

Carr, Nicholas. The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. WW Norton & Company, 2020.

14

An excellent overview of this research and a convincing argument on behalf of deep reading as contemplation is Wolf, Maryanne. Reader, come home: The reading brain in a digital world. New York, NY: Harper, 2018.

15

McNamee, Roger. Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook catastrophe. Penguin Books, 2020.

16

Campbell, R. (Ed.). (2004). Letters from a Stoic. Penguin UK.