What Anthony Fantano and Noam Chomsky have in common
In the arena of free speech, YouTube is the superdome. It has led to the rise of some of the world’s most qualified and needed voices today. While this isn’t to say that it hasn’t also lent an audience to some of the more foolish among us, crowdsourcing ideas has mostly proven to be a success: most people want more free speech, not less. Bad ideas and thinkers are more often than not quarantined. More broadly, it seems most people want more freedom rather than less. But to an anointed few, some of the preeminent avatars for this massive movement for free speech don’t deserve our attention.
On YouTube’s mentally handicapped internet half-sibling, Twitter, someone shared an exchange they had with linguist and anarcho-syndicalist social critic Noam Chomsky. When he was asked how he felt about the work of prominent free speech advocates’ Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, he responded in a way that’s become far too predictable for intellectuals of all stripes. Despite their millions of followers and counting, Chomsky decides that they simply aren’t “worthy of consideration.”
Chomsky was most recently preceded in the exercise of dismissal and credibility sniping by fellow academic Ira Wells. And this urge isn’t limited to that class: there is no shortage of those within media who are willing to echo this sentiment. One smug Jeet Heer, a writer for The New Republic, is one such example. His tweet is something similar to another article, which also suggests that Peterson is what an intellectual looks like to idiots.
To whisk someone away by saying they “aren’t worthy of consideration” or to declare that someone is only appealing to the stupid isn’t new or limited to Chomsky, but he represents a broader group of people who would sooner dismiss them than engage their ideas. He’s joined recently by cultural critic Anthony Fantano, who angrily wrote Peterson off as “King Clown”, which happens to sound like an archetype Peterson himself might talk about. Anthony reasons that Peterson must either be a troll or a moron — which is an embarrassing thing for a music-reviewing YouTuber to say of a tenured professor who has lectured at institutions like Harvard.
This lack of self-awareness isn’t a bug for the too-arrogant opinion-haver, it’s a feature. The formula goes something like this: you gain notoriety and recognition in one field, and you think this means you can carry that knowledge into everything you talk about. Chomsky is a study of a well-esteemed linguist who decided long ago to venture into foreign policy, becoming one of the largest figures on the political left who consider American foreign policy the pinnacle of evil today. Anthony is a man who rose to prominence talking about music and being entertaining while doing so, but who has added Democratic Socialist thinker to his resume, and thinks the light fours he delivers to mediocre hip-hop artists can be dealt just as confidently and damagingly to people with more brain than the melon has visible scalp.
Every argument should be recognized on its merits and not its speakers’ area of specialization, Chomsky’s hypocrisy here should be obvious. Often those whose rise comes courtesy of sudden internet virality are seen to have inferior, or less valuable insight. Realistically, this just means they’re more influential. Although Peterson’s rise has largely been a byproduct of the internet, he can hardly be faulted for this, and it doesn’t undercut the validity of what he says. It isn’t somehow more valuable when Chomsky talks about things outside of his area of expertise than when Peterson does simply because one embraces the internet while the other prefers to speak into an academic ether. Even if Chomsky and his peers choose to diminish those who use the tools of real influence, a growing number of millions aren’t. Furthermore, almost none of Chomsky’s linguistic knowledge has anything to do with foreign policy, which is what he speaks most publically and authoritatively about.
In fact, shouldn’t public intellectuals like Peterson and Harris be celebrated for revivifying public interest in these great ideas? For making them not only accessible, but enjoyable? Isn’t this better than allowing a small group of people who think identically to monopolize them, to be warped and distorted in unchecked view? If anything, this is one of the greatest triumphs of the internet. And because these discussions are made easier than ever by this new frontier, why wouldn’t we utilize it every chance we get?
The point is that anyone should be able to talk about anything they want, but they should take stock of all the things they don’t know when they haven’t fine-tuned their attention to one area. Even if you know everything there is to know about a particular subject, it can hardly amount to even 1% of what there is to know in total. Realizing this is the beginning of wisdom. All men, including Chomsky and Fantano, would do well to remember this reality and enter conversations of such weight with reluctance and humility. Sadly, this isn’t the way of the intellectual or busy music nerds. Much more often they choose to theorize loudly, and their big ideas don’t have to be applied practically until they convince enough idealists in government to act them out, often to disastrous effect.
One such example would be in the wake of the catastrophe that was WWI, pacifism became as fashionable among intellectuals then as it has now following the widely unpopular Iraq War. Understandable as this instinct may have been, that strain of simple, monolithic thinking led to a reluctance to recognize and confront the encroaching threat to western liberalism that Adolf Hitler posed. When trends take grip of intellectuals whose only job it is to abstract and think without bearing responsibility for the end result of their ideas, irresponsible outcomes inevitably emerge.
Unlike an engineer or an entrepreneur, professional thinkers don’t have to meet the bottom line of a stable skyscraper or returning a profit to investors: their ideas just need to impress enough people who think like them, until we’re too far along to hit the brakes. If we stopped to listen to one another calmly, rationally, and carefully, we might be more willing to approach things pragmatically, rather than scoffing at those who don’t conform to whatever it is you consider one-dimensionally true. Intellectuals like Chomsky have the luxury of looking at the short-term implications of their thinking, shielded from the long-term walls they’re guaranteed to hit, because they’re met with the external controls of final expectations. This can partially be avoided by having the courage to test your theories against those with different perspectives to bring to bear on the debate, an obligation Chomsky seems to have abandoned.
For men as large in public stature as Chomsky and Fantano, casual dismissals of ideas that don’t sit right with them shouldn’t be excused. Fantano’s public, angry tangent was in response to an interview with Peterson about Frozen, a movie which the professor considers bad political propaganda.
In his emotional flurry, Fantano strawmans Peterson by arguing that art made for the purpose of political evangelism is fine, not realizing that Peterson didn’t say otherwise. Peterson doesn’t dispute that artistic propaganda can be enjoyable, good, or truthful. He’s expressed that he’s enjoyed Ayn Rand’s novels, for instance, but that they’re the work of an ideologue for the reason that all of the protagonists are one-dimensionally good and all of the antagonists are one-dimensionally villainous. Because reality is never that simple and even the best among us are capable of evil, works of this nature can only be seen as something too simple to reflect anything other than its ideological ends.
By doing this, Fantano’s taking the weasley approach of making his opponent look like some sort of misunderstood hypocrite, reducing a sensible opinion to absurdity. Instead of opening a conversation which would undoubtedly educate hundreds of thousands, he chooses to demean, dismiss and mock the professor, which accomplishes precisely nothing other than the growth of his ego.
And it’s his ego that allows him to misframe and misunderstand Peterson’s position: which isn’t that you can’t enjoy something if it has a political purpose, but he merely makes the distinction between entertainment that is outwardly political and art. Political propaganda can be beautiful and compelling, but that doesn’t make it meaningful. It lacks depth, it doesn’t rise above shortsighted political aims to say something about our condition. It’s shallow and lacks a connection with the human experience. All of this could have been discussed & debated in a meaningful way, a way that could even reconcile their differences of opinion. That can’t and won’t happen if you imitate the childish antics of too-eager social justice college students and insult those you disagree with — ultimately knocking all of the chess pieces off the board in a Twitter tirade. Though, maybe that’s the reason at the core of his frustration: Fantano doesn’t really believe Peterson and those like him are clowns or morons, and he knows his silly and emotive rant would be seen as something much less authoritative and much more juvenile if put to the test in a real-time conversation.
Similarly, when Chomsky waves away two of the most prominent voices for free speech, the most pressing issue of our time, he’s also scoffing at the millions who find great meaning in what they say. If you truly believe that their ideas don’t even deserve acknowledgement, how in good conscience could you not explain why? If you’re as vocal as Fantano is, and think Peterson is as damaging to thought as you say, why would you not use your massive platform to expose him? Sniping at his credibility without addressing his arguments can’t be seen as much more than cowardice.
You see this cowardice all over the hard left: the answer that you’re met with whenever you question whatever fashionable theory they’ve rallied around at a given time. Whether that be discrimination, microagressions, or transgenderism, if you vocalize even the most modest of skepticisms you can be sure to be told by some unshaven wilderbeast of unknown origins that xe isn’t your gender studies teacher, and therefore it isn’t xir job to educate you. Respected voices of supposedly reasonable politics like Chomsky and Fantano should be wiser than to fuel this unwillingness to engage those you disagree with.
In the present time of cutthroat politics and an apparent absence of leftists willing to sensibly defend their ideas, we need more discussion, not less. And we ought to expect better of those who position themselves as leaders of thought than to pretend those who disagree with them are insignificant at best, or clowns at worst. All of which brings into question, finally, whether or not they are even confident enough or able to defend their challenges in the first place. It’s one thing to snipe at the person, and another to mount a serious challenge to their ideas. While one frees you from annoyances like thinking and evidence, the other moves us forward, no matter who “wins” the argument. Engagement isn’t an exercise in point-scoring, it’s the willingness to sacrifice what you now believe to what is true. That requires the courage of your convictions, and everyone should be unconvinced that there are many in media, entertainment and academia who have that quality.