In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part I: The Problem of Dialogical Illiberalism

Note: This is part of a series on public discourse. View Part 2 here.

Older readers of NOL may have noticed I have been absent from the blogosphere for the last four or so years. Part of this has been that I have rather intentionally taken a somewhat monkish vow of silence on many things that perplex me about the contemporary world. On many of these issues—the growing tide of global populist authoritarianism, the policy and cultural responses to COVID, and increasing political polarization to name a few—I still don’t know what is true or if I am equipped to say much other than express a vague, general sense that almost everyone in those debates has gotten something fundamentally wrong. Consequently, I have taken time in a philosophy grad school program to think about more fundamental issues rather than get lost in the daily obsessions of the internet. Now, I am done with that venture and have decided for various personal reasons to not pursue an academic career so I will have more time to write more freely here.

I think even more than my being epistemically overwhelmed by the…everything…of the last few years or even the time and energy constraints of grad school, a bigger reason why I have been loathe to blog or engage in public discussion has been a sense of frustration, exhaustion and melancholic angst with the state of public discourse, especially online. It seems like nearly everyone today—from partisan activists to family members, to friends, to even respected thinkers whose ideas have influenced me in the past, seem to be guilty of contributing to this problem. I surely do not exclude myself from these criticisms of the zeitgeist, for the zeitgeist very much lives in my head. For now, rather than discuss any substantive issues, I am going to start a series about some meta-issues that have poisoned our public discourse and made it unpleasant and even psychologically impossible for me, and I am sure others, to write publicly.


For now, I just want to narrow in on identifying the symptoms of our ruined discourse. I am talking about how almost every one of almost every ideological stripe these days constantly displays a vicious lack of charity to almost everyone they engage with who they vaguely associate with some outgroup. An illiberal intolerant attitude where their first impulse is to try to censor ideas that they find disagreeable. For the politically engaged and outraged, it seems like no disagreement can be a good-faith one. So many seem to just assume that almost anyone they disagree with is acting in bad faith. To be sure, many people are acting in bad faith, but that is no reason to become the monster one is fighting or assume that as the default with every interlocutor. So many people treat nearly every difference of opinion, no matter how great or small, not as potentially interesting differences in values that can be commensurably discussed or interesting empirical disagreements, but as “dangerous” ideas that need to be quashed.

I am talking about the tendency for people—everywhere from cable news, to Thanksgiving tables, to Twitter–to “nutpickoutgroups to outrage other members of their ingroups. How so much of political discourse has substituted sub-rational bumper stickers, memes, and tweets for substantive positions and arguments. How so many clearly rationalize terrible arguments they should know better than to make because said arguments have ideologically convenient or politically expedient conclusions. How so many seem more interested in morally grandstanding to their favored ingroup than trying to learn more from those with whom they have fruitful differences. How for some people to even listen to you, they make you engage in some sort of ideological purity test. How they engage in dishonest guilt by association to try to assassinate the character of people they might have minor disagreements with. How they generally view anyone with whom they have disagreements contemptuously

Of course, much of this has always been an element of how hooligans engage in democratic politics. However, the degree to which it has reached a fever pitch is a change from a few decades ago. Further, this loathsome creeping intolerance and lack of epistemic virtue have now seeped from screeching political rallies, Twitter, or Yahoo News comment sections to many self-important elites who fancy themselves above the fray of the irrational cacophony of political discourse, and often help shape that discourse. I am talking the sort of people who stridently read or write for NY Times and The Atlantic, legal professionals, elites in the ivory tower where I once delusionally hoped to find a bubble of safety.

The problem goes by many names—right-wing reactionaries call it “wokeness” or “cancel culture” when done by the left, leftists and progressives call it fascist authoritarianism when right-wingers do it. To some varying extent, both are correct about each other and wrong about themselves. To be clear, I do think the right’s illiberal authoritarianism is very much a bigger threat in this political moment, but rather than spending time unproductively fanning the flames of that culture war debate, let me neutrally call the problem dialogical illiberalism in the small “l” sense of liberalism. It is a form of brain rot that seems to have infected every one of all political persuasions to varying degrees of significance—from conservative culture warriors to socialist Breadtubers, to ostensibly “liberal” centrists, to anarchist antifascist activists, to even my (former) ingroup of some libertarian academics. None of you are free from sin.

In the extreme, the dialogical illiberal is not just an unreasonable conversation partner, but a dialectical rent-seeker demanding the state coercively censor those with whom they disagree. For now, I want to focus on the merely dialogical and social form of this illiberalism simply to avoid getting lost in the complicated intricacies of liberal free speech norms and First Amendment legal disputes. Those are complicated debates worth having but beyond the scope of this series. Suffice it to say, I have little patience for this form of actively statist censoriousness in whatever form. But I think its increasing prevalence has its roots in a culture of dialogical illiberalism that has evolved in the norms of public discourse, which is what I am interested in analyzing here.

This is where, usually, this genre of article goes into some detailed examples and case studies of “the problem” to convince you it is real. Typically, these are rather dishonestly cherry-picked to support whatever implicit tribal position the author happens to have. Frankly, I have no interest in such a performative exercise here—it is better left to the reader. It would just distract us by tempting us to engage in the accidental details of some particular examples rather than stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. I don’t wish to miss the trees for the forest, and neither should you. Suffice it to say, if you are unconvinced of that what I am talking about is a genuine problem, this series of posts probably isn’t for you. You have either been living under a rock (in which case I urge you to return because ignorance is sometimes bliss), are unusually patient with bad argumentation (in which case, I envy you), or might be part of the problem.

I imagine you are nodding your head in agreement and recalling times when this has been done to you or by someone in some other political tribe to someone in your tribe. I encourage you to stop this now and try to recall a time when someone you respect and agree with was being unreasonable and uncharitable to someone else, or perhaps when you yourself have done this in a social media exchange, or with a family member or friend. I know I have. If you are completely incapable of doing this, I encourage you to save yourself some time and stop reading now—this series isn’t for you. Perhaps return to Twitter.

Perhaps at this point, you are trying to rationalize your own version of dialogical illiberalism as somehow justifiable. If you can give an original good faith argument for it, go ahead and I might consider moderating my hardline position against dialogical illiberalism. Perhaps you are thinking something like this: “But they really are so terrible and bad-faith that we should not take them seriously as debaters. You are just engaging in toxic both-sideism!” Perhaps you are right about “them,”—whoever that outgroup might be in your head. However, that is no reason to become just like “them” to the point that you cannot engage with nearly anyone in good faith. Maybe you should reflect on whether you are projecting a caricature of “them” on people who genuinely are not one of “them.” Again, avoid becoming the monster you are fighting. If you do not wish to make that effort, return to the Twitter mob.

Most readers will agree with something like this, to put it bluntly: political discourse is terrible because politically active people are massive assholes to each other. I wish to understand why people of all ideological stripes have become such massive assholes and how I can stop being one myself. If you are interested in trying not to be an asshole too, perhaps you will join me.

I don’t have an explicit plan for this series, I am not sure how many posts it will comprise. But I expect to focus on topics such as how dialogical illiberals psychologically think of themselves while they are engaging in bad-faith discussion, the role of social media in making the problem worse, the extent to which the incentive structure of democratic institutions leads to dialogical illiberalism, the chilling effect this lack of civility has on discourse, and other cultural causes and effects of dialogical illiberalism.  

If you wish, consider this an exercise in therapeutic edification for me and, if you feel similarly, perhaps for you. I am not trying to make an argument trying to convince you of much substantively. If you change your mind about something, consider that a bonus. My goals here are to express my frustration with this moment in American cultural discourse, diagnose some of what I see as the psychological and social factors contributing to the problem, and hopefully come away making myself (and, with any luck, the reader) closer to the sort of person who is not part of the problem.

I do not have all the answers and do not think I will find them here, but I do have two ground rules I hope to establish: 1) It will be hard at times for me not to hide my frustration with people who are characteristically dialogical illiberals, I am sure that has already come through. But, when possible, my hope is to analyze these individuals with the empathetic self-detachment of a good philosophical anthropologist. Do, please, call me out in the comments when I fall short of that ideal.  2) To make my biases clear: I am a very idiosyncratic sort of radical liberal/anarchist/left-libertarian hybrid. I am very much on the left side of the culture wars instinctively, while at the same time I am strongly disposed to think any policy solutions the state could enact are bound to fail. Consequently, I am more likely to be harsher to the dialogical illiberalism on the right side of the political spectrum, yet more knowledgeable of the dialogical illiberalism on the left side. You do not have to be on the same side of those anti-statist policy conclusions or be sympathetic to my radically leftist cultural tendencies to learn something from this series. My aim here is not to convince you to join my oddly specific and strange “team.” I think that sort of mindset is what encourages the dialogical liberalism I am chiding to begin with. I will try to bracket my cultural and policy views where possible and focus more on the meta-issues poisoning our discourse, but I cannot help that those views will often seep through.