The argument against nihilism in a socially networked world
Every generation believes that their own times are harder than any in the past and that inaction is somehow the best path forward.
There is no better place to start this discussion than Charles Dickens’s famous novel ‘A tale of two cities’ which begins with these fascinating words: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’
If you were given that sentence out of context, with no idea who Dickens was, you would be forgiven for thinking it was written in the 21st century, perhaps even during the coronavirus pandemic. Note especially the final clauses: ‘…some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received … in the superlative degree of comparison only.’ In our era of rising far right groups, where everyone seems to be against everyone else and we only ever speak in terms of the best or the worst or the most treacherous or the most anti-national, this sentence captures the spirits of our current leaders more eloquently than any other; and to think that it was written in 1859.
The fact is, however, that our troubles today are no greater than humanity’s troubles at any other point in history and we have ample peer-reviewed statistics to back this up. Fewer people live in extreme poverty today than at any other time in history; we have fewer people today who go to bed hungry than at any other time in the past; the average person today has more leisure time than they would have had had they lived at some time in the past; our life expectancy is higher than ever before; death at childbirth is rarer than ever before; we have eradicated so many diseases that newer generations cannot even name several of them; people smoke half as often today as they did in the 1950s; theft and murder rates have dropped, making our streets safer for our children today than even when you and I were born; schooling and literacy are higher than ever before; and there are more democratic countries today than there have ever been in the past.
One can go on and on with examples, but the point is simple: we look at the present through a microscope, noticing every bit of it, every moment and every nuance; and we look at the past as a vivid painting on a vast canvas in all its beauty. Our view is inherently skewed in favour of the long past; rather than understand that today will be to tomorrow what yesterday is to today, our basest instincts drive us instead to pessimism, picturing a bleaker world than ever before, picturing downfall, loss and hopelessness. And this leads us, as it always has, to the questionable coping mechanism we know as nihilism: the idea that our lives are fleeting, and that we will all die in no time, and that everything is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, so nothing really matters and we might as well shut up, subscribe to inaction and let the world—and its ideas that care not a tuppence for us—simply ride on.
On the contrary, things do matter. Ideas do matter. And it is precisely because someone somewhere in the past cared enough to do something about it that we happen to be in a better world today than the one in which any of our ancestors lived.
If one slips out of Nietzsche’s grip in the context of holding the state accountable one inevitably falls into the arms of Camus. Peaceful, positive action against the state is not only our right but our duty. In subscribing to inaction fuelled by the thought that ‘such is how things are’ subscribers of nihilist inaction forget that Nietzsche, whose ideas these were, also said this: ‘I will have all antisemites shot.’ That is quite an action.
One issue that often sends people scurrying back to Nietzsche is the belief that any form of dissent is necessarily bloody—either literally or figuratively—and the idea that we live in a world run by algorithms hell bent on monetising disagreement only serves to further this argument. Look closely, however, and it becomes clear that these ideas stem from tunnel vision. Should one look beyond the most obvious culprits—social media, tech moguls and faceless algorithms—it becomes clear that the fast shrining room for debate today is actually a cultural issue that was prevalent long before technology pervaded our lives.
In his 1987 bestseller The closing of the American mind the philosopher Allan Bloom argues against a 1960s decision to remove the so-called ‘great books’ from academic syllabi. He eerily compares it to 1930s Germany. He then talks about how discouraging ideas has led to shrinking room for disagreement because every idea is considered equal to every other eliminating any potential debate at all. To simply sit back and let things be what they are—such is how things are—is to accept everything; and to accept everything is nihilistic. Bloom proceeds to make a passionate case for questioning things around us and for disagreement and debate grounded in reason and made elegant by a peaceful tension between complex ideas born out of reading and learning, especially the humanities.
Two things might strike us about this book: first, the idea that we have no room to debate has more to do with the fabric of our society than a handful of websites that make up less than a tenth of the internet; and second, the argument might seem quite relevant to today, when our assault on the humanities in universities has continued and a call for accepting ideas different from our own is loud and seemingly omnipresent. But at this point some context is due: Bloom’s book was a staunchly conservative one, making a conservative argument in an especially liberal era.
Today, the tables seem to have turned and the most dangerous thing we can do is subscribe to inaction because ‘such is how things are’. An equally dangerous thing would be to assume that a general consensus cannot be formed because all ideas are equally valid. This is abjectly untrue; with debate—open, peaceful, constructive, well-informed, decent debate—some ideas will give way to others, some ideas will triumph. To believe that all ideas are equal and that a consensus need not be reached is to signal that we are taking things personally. People most certainly are equal, their ideas need not be so. And this becomes immediately apparent when we stop taking ideas personally; and if we did stop taking ideas personally, we open ourselves to a good discussion and disagreement and the argument that all ideas are equal breaks down.
With this, let us return to Nietzsche. The German philosopher famously argues for amor fati, to love life and not want to change it. At this point bridging this with nihilism might seem natural to the point of being simplistic. But look no further than Camus to see how one might practise amor fati without necessarily giving to things because ‘such is how things are’ or even sitting idly by because no consensus may be reached since all ideas are equal:
The sum total of every possibility does not amount to liberty… Chaos is also a form of servitude. Freedom exists only in a world where what is possible is defined at the same time as what is not possible. Without law there is no freedom.
Camus’s idea of rebellion, of taking action, of debating, of disagreeing, inherits the sacred ideas of freedom, peace and individuality and does so explicitly without going the way of Ayn Rand’s ego. For Camus decent rebellion comes not from self-interest but an interest in the common good. ‘An act of rebellion is not, essentially, an egoistic act,’ says Camus, pointing out that, ‘The rebel … demands respect for himself, of course, but only in so far as he identifies himself with a natural community.’
That is the distinction between ideas, making ideas our identity, and fighting for an idea because it shapes society—the ‘natural community’ if you will—in which we live. Disagreement, rather than inaction and sitting back because ‘such is how things are’, speaks of our fundamental values that need to be defended. Camus, yet again, said it best: ‘Rebellion, though apparently negative, since it creates nothing, is profoundly positive in that it reveals the part of man which must always be defended.’
If the apparent lack of control stems from a uniquely modern problem like algorithms, it becomes important to realise that algorithms feed on either human instruction or human behaviour. In either case, we still hold the reins. My own social media feeds are not nearly as caustic as those I see others complaining about, which is because, one, I curate whom I follow and have clear reasons why I follow them; two, I do not read the news on social media, a seemingly innocent act that does a lot to give power the algorithm to learn about one’s stances on issues and then create an echo chamber.
Hidden behind an electronic facade, people find it easy and inconsequential to argue on such platforms; the solution is not to shun debate and sit back and let things run to ruin, rather it is to participate in sound debates (which should be easy if you do not make those ideas your identity), encourage reading, and preferably take the discussion elsewhere, such as to newspapers, an evening at the pub and so on.
Hidden behind an electronic facade, people are also more gullible to the mistaken belief that they are in fact making a difference. Virtue signalling is all the rage today because social media makes it easy to appear like one is making a difference even if they are not. This deepens the divide: as one side becomes pickier about things the other reacts furiously, pushing themselves further away from the idea than needed. The chasm widens and deepens, and the reason is crystal clear: everyone is busy enforcing their ideas instead of talking about or debating them first—or even considering if others might perhaps follow their arguments given some discussion in the first place. As a result, nobody ever reaches amicable resolutions and brutal friction abounds between polar opposites that need never have come to be.
In my own experience I have made much less progress trying to discuss ideas or show someone factually correct information while exchanging words on the web; offline, in an ‘old school’ tête-a-tête, things have been remarkably different. Sometimes, people just need to be in one another’s company to work up the patience to see things more reasonably. And to claim that algorithms have stolen power from users would be a defeatist attitude—one can blame a tool only so much—especially when you are still the one choosing to unquestioningly accept whatever an algorithm chooses to feed you.
In a lecture three years ago the Pulitzer-winning conservative journalist Bret Stephens had this to say about the nature of ideas and disagreement—
Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.
These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries.
Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.
In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.
The attentive reader may have noticed I have been picking conservative figures to make my points on openness, debate and disagreement; this was done intentionally so as not to leave room for doubts that I might be writing from inside a liberal echo chamber. Parenthetically, that modern-day hardline conservatives seem not to be following their own past words is something amusing to me; it is also an observation best left for another essay.
There are people on all sides with understanding and decency, and people without. The ideas that are at odds, however, do not represent these people; ideas are their own entities and confronting them is of utmost importance lest we soon find ourselves in a miserable society where amor fati far from being an approach to life becomes our only means of survival.
Nihilism feeds itself. Embracing inaction creates a world in which inaction becomes the sole means of survival and we leap closer to Rand’s Anthem-esque world. Embracing nihilism creates a world where chaining ourselves to nihilism becomes essential for existence. By all means sit back and take things lightly, especially take yourselves lightly; but ideas are not to be taken lightly. Not everyone has to agree on an idea, but once everyone agrees that all ideas can be debated openly and decently, there is no way society can escape a consensus.
If we are where we are today as a species—whether in our brilliance, our ruthlessness, our helpfulness, our carelessness, our resourcefulness or our heartlessness—it is because we reached a consensus on nearly every disagreement that crept into our society.