Sometimes you encounter someone who seems to really hit the nail on the head in terms of how they see the world. The brilliance of these moments is that — especially if you tend to be a social outlier — you’re given the gift of knowing you’re not alone. There are people who not only see the world as you do, but see it even more clearly and intelligently than you ever could.
Leon Wieseltier appeared on The Colbert Report last Tuesday (Oct 7), and I was so blown away by his words that I kept rewinding and rewinding so I could write it all down and record here what he said.
I was especially impressed by his ten-word critique of modern society!
Wieseltier is a philosopher, writer and critic. He’s been the literary editor of The New Republic magazine since 1983, and he was the guest on The Colber(t) Repor(t) to plug a book, Insurrections of the Mind, a collection of essays from the magazine.
Colbert asked him early in the interview if he had a critique of modern culture, and Wieseltier replied that he did, but it was “very elaborate.” Colbert challenged him to state it in ten words and — mind-blowingly — Wieseltier did just that. And, for my money, totally nailed it. Here’s what he said:
“Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”
Wow; that’s some serious genius going on there! Colbert was as impressed as I was.
And how many times have I written here about those first two clauses — particularly the latter. If this blog had a central theme, it would be about the importance of critical thinking — something that seems sorely lacking far too often.
Wieseltier later went on to explain why critical thinking was so important:
“A democratic society, an open society, places an extraordinary intellectual responsibility on ordinary men and women, because we are governed by what we think, we are governed by our opinions. So the content of our opinions, and the quality of our opinions, and the quality of the formation of our opinions, basically determines the character of our society.”
There is a crucial point at the beginning that bears repeating: Living in an open and democratic society does create a burden of intellectual responsibility on everyone. Because we all have a voice, our opinions shape our world.
Another part that really resonated with me was the clauses about, not just the quality and content of our opinions, but the quality of how we go about forming them. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not all opinions are entitled to be taken seriously.
For example, climate change deniers are entitled to their opinion, but the quality and content of that opinion is demonstrably absurd and cannot be taken seriously by any intelligent person who’s actually looked at any of the data. The manner in which climate change denier opinions are formed is intellectually defective.
Corrupt politicians can (and do) spend millions trying to sway your opinion, but if you are educated and capable of critical analysis, all that money goes down the drain. We complain endlessly about government, but despite all the power that money seems to have, “we the people” can still change things.
If — and only if — we are smart enough to realize when we’re being fooled.
Which is not to say that intelligent, educated people can’t look at the world differently and want it run differently. But an honest opposition of values and views is not what’s happening today. The current environment is one of polarized views and manufactured conflict. And we the people are losing in every way possible.
Wieseltier sums up the problem of not paying attention rather pointedly:
“And that means that in a democratic society, in an open society, a thoughtless citizen of a democracy is a delinquent citizen of a democracy.”
Indeed. Stamp out delinquency!
Later in the interview Wieseltier makes an important point about the heart (feelings) and the mind (thoughts):
“Human life is never going to suffer from too little feeling. We all feel all the time. We’re mortal creatures; we have hearts.”
As I have pointed out here and in various blog comments, feelings are the easy part. Even animals have feelings. It’s the mind that raises us above them (and, yes, cultivating and nurturing your mind is harder, but as mentioned above you have a responsibility to do so).
The problem with feelings is that they can deceive us and lead us into error (and temptation). As Wieseltier continues to say:
“The role of the mind is to actually question some of the assumptions and dogmas and prejudices of the heart.”
It’s very common for people to talk about the importance of feelings, particularly of empathy and compassion. These are necessary emotions! Wieseltier himself says that, if we were just brains, or just hearts, we would be monsters. But we are both. And that allows us to ground our feelings in rationality (which is different from pure logic, by the way).
Finally, Wieseltier explains why the combination is so necessary:
“The important thing is that we have reasons for those beliefs, and that we articulate those reasons, and that we can defend them.”
[Incidentally, the emphasis in the quotes is mine. You can watch the interview at Colbert Nation to see if I respected his intent. I believe I did.]
On a final note, perhaps it’s just me, or perhaps it’s somehow related to the imminent end of the show, but The Colber(t) Repor(t) has seemed much more enjoyable to me recently. I wrote a while back that it came in second compared to The Daily Show, but lately they’ve been neck-and-neck.
I still love The Daily Show as much as I always have, so either I’ve mellowed on the aspects of Colbert that (very slightly) annoyed me, or he’s toned it down somehow. It’s the interviews I usually had the most problem with, and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve seen for weeks now.
Two last comments. Colbert has a fireplace above which are the Latin words: “Videri Quam Esse.” I looked it up, and the usual phrase is “Esse quam videri” — “To be, rather than to seem (to be).” According to Google Translate, the reversed version translates as: “How to be seen.” Cute!
It turns out to be the official motto of the state of North Carolina. And while Stephen Colbert was born in Washington, D.C., his TV persona, Colber(t), claims South Carolina as his home (and Colbert, the real person, did grow up in Charleston). Not sure if there is meant to be a connection there or not.
Lastly, the new Robert Plant album, Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, sounds delicious! I most love music with strong rhythm and melody! Plant was the guest last Thursday (Oct. 9) and performed a couple cuts off the album. Check it out!