I'm So Intellectually Brave!

Self-styled intellectual mavericks steer clear of genuinely risky ideas

According to the promo copy for Honestly with Bari Weiss, a podcast hosted by Bari Weiss, “The most interesting conversations in American life now happen in private.” These conversations are so interesting, we are meant to understand, because they touch on sensitive subjects and involve the perilous airing of outlaw opinions that would, if publicly expressed under non-podcast conditions, risk putting the speaker in the cancel posse’s censorious sights. It’s astonishing that these daring conversations can be held at all, much less be made freely available to billions of potential listeners on “Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Stitcher,” a list the Honestly podcast’s website offers just under its stoutly undaunted tagline: “Uncancellable. Unowned. Free and fearless.”

All this self-impressed rhetoric about fierce intellectual independence put me in mind of philosopher Jeff McMahan’s book Killing in War. McMahan maintains that war doesn’t magically suspend morality. That means that there’s nothing special about killing in war that distinguishes it from killing generally. When it’s justified, it’s for the same reasons that justify killing in ordinary conditions, like self-defense. But little of the killing in war occurs under those kinds of exculpatory conditions. It follows that killing in war is nearly always morally wrong. Wrongful killing is murder. Therefore many — perhaps most soldiers who kill in war are murderers.

This is especially clear-cut when (a) the war in question war is unjust, (b) it’s easy enough to see that the war is unjust, and (c) the soldiers who fought in the war were not conscripted but signed up voluntarily. In my opinion, unless you’re some kind of degenerate moral relativist, you really ought to believe that volunteer soldiers who kill in unjust wars are murderers.

Why did Bari Weiss’ podcast bring this to mind? Well, she’s selling the impishly defiant thrill that washes over a person when expressing a popular but slightly controversial opinion. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve come to think, usually at the encouragement of culture-war hustlers like Bari Weiss, that recent intensification of controversy around a certain subject means that your completely mundane opinion about it has been effectively censored, banned, or otherwise set outside the bounds of acceptable discourse and that voicing it anyway makes you a brave iconoclast. It’s the frisson of flirting with imaginary social danger by saying mildly conservative things that everyone you know agrees is too risky to say out loud while everyone loudly and gleefully says it.

Anyway, I was trying to come up with a claim that I find plausible, but which is genuinely risky to express. That’s how I got thinking about the idea that, actually, tons of our brave troops are guilty of literal murder. This is the sort of thing I think Bari Weiss would be talking about if she were as intellectually fearless as she pretends to be.

But she’s not stupid. Pretending bravery is more than good enough. Meanwhile, truly socially risky claims don’t move units. Affirming the idea that thousands of veterans of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq are murderers, or accessories to murder, does not deliver the plucky rush of anti-wokism, or the smirking dissident kick of “politically incorrect” transgression. Talking about it just makes you genuinely nervous. That’s not the feeling that Bari Weiss — and Tucker Carlson, Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and scores of other “free-thinking” pundits on the make — is selling.

Humans love wallowing in a self-satisfied sense of daring moral heroism for believing whatever they were going to believe anyway. The fact that you can make a healthy living selling the renegade iconoclast experience — the fact that a lot of people have made themselves wealthy selling it — tells you all you need to know about how “risky” it really is to broadcast “dangerous ideas.” It’s not risky at all.

We don’t see many “public intellectuals” defiantly trumpeting the idea that it is an outrageous perversion of moral truth to cast the patriotic American men and women who signed up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan as heroes when many of them are guilty of crimes morally equal or worse than those committed by murderers awaiting execution on death row.

Genuinely socially risky claims are generally bad business — especially when they ring with truth. People won’t want to hear it. We don’t listen to podcasts while walking the dog to hear intolerable truths about our cousin, the former Army Ranger. I’ve long felt that ransacking a sovereign nation on a false pretext and leaving hundreds of thousands of its denizens dead, with no remotely compensating upside, is a ghost that terrorizes the American psyche. Indeed, I suspect that the need to cope with the searing dissonance between our self-righteous national self-conception and the haunting enormity of our crime is a critical contributor to the American right’s deranged flight from reality.

Now, I got worked up about all this because I decided to torture myself and listen to Weiss interview the evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven about testosterone and sex differences. Weiss continually plays up the riskiness of the topic, implicitly praising herself and Hooven guest for their guts. Here’s the description that shows up in your podcast app…

Why are men the way they are? Are they naturally more aggressive? And is it fair for transwomen to compete in sports separated by sex? Is it possible to overcome our animal instincts?

And why has it gotten so hard to ask these questions out loud? To admit that there are any differences between men and women?

Some of these questions are silly. I mean, how are men? But it isn’t even a little bit hard to ask them out loud. I’m tickled by the idea that it’s somehow hard to “admit” that men and women are different, as though it’s hard to get anyone to confess their agreement with this too-hot-to-handle truth except under duress. I’ve spoken to human people before and, believe it or not, they love talking about the differences between men and women. Everybody, just about, thinks they’re different.

Just go out on the street. Try literally anyone. Ask if there are any differences between men and women. Depending on where you live, maybe 1 in 100 people will find it “hard” to “admit” that there are. It’s not brave to chat with your Uber driver about how women like gossip and romantic stories while men like sports and looking at pictures of naked ladies. It’s almost harder not to talk about how dudes want sex and chicks want money. This Mars/Venus stuff is in the core repertoire of universal human small talk.

I think that’s why we find it so annoying when the improvers and reformers want us to talk about these things in different, more thoughtful, more uniformly respectful terms. It feels like they want us to not relate to other people on comfortable, familiar terms, which sucks. The idea of changing our discursive habits to avoid breaking the new rules leaves us feeling hamstrung and tongue-tied. We doubt that we’d be able to do it without constantly slipping up.

But we’re rule-following beings and do feel the pull of the new rules. We don’t like the idea of breaking them — of doing something some people think is wrong just by talking about boys and girls, men and women, in the way we always have. It can feel like the only way to avoid the unhappy feeling of flouting social rules is to avoid the subject altogether. And that, in turn, can make us feel like the reformers are trying to take a core conversational topic off the table.

Still, we’re definitely going to talk about it anyway — and in the terms to which we have grown accustomed. But that doesn’t mean it won’t bother us if a bunch of people think we’re doing it wrong. Simply knowing that they’re out there clucking about our alleged verbal misdeeds can make a subject that was once the easiest thing in the world to talk about feel slightly less easy. It can be tempting to confuse that with hard.

But it’s not hard. We do what we were going to do anyway. The only difference is that changing norms and a touch of controversy mean that we get to feel proud of our bravery when we talk about things that remain extraordinarily easy to talk about in terms that most people have no problem with.

Bari Weiss isn’t going to invite a Navy SEAL on her show and accuse him of murder. I’ll eat my keyboard if she does an episode about critical race theory with Kimberlé Crenshaw or Charles Mills, controversial thinkers whose groundbreaking insights have been literally banned in schools in dozens of states. This isn’t some sort of gotcha. It’s a pretty boring observation only slightly more interesting than the observation that it’s self-refuting to appear on the highest-rated show on the highest-rated cable news channel in the nation and complain about being “silenced.” The self-martyring maverick shtick takes more and less sophisticated forms, but it’s a shtick even when it’s not a grift.

Leave a comment