Exegesis of a Terrible Thought

This is not a happy story, so I have decided to build it around a more frivolous topic. For now, I need to begin with a joke:

You know you go to Wesleyan when you see a sign at a conference that says “the Twitter hashtag for this conference will be…” and you think “fuck you, we’ll make our own hashtag.”

This actually happened to me today, and I want to take a moment to explain why that  kind of thought is so terribly, terribly wrong.

Some readers may not agree with my original premise — that this is a popular mode of thought at Wes — and that’s fine, because it has no impact on my real argument. After considerable thought, I have decided not to explain exactly how I arrived at that premise. You can work that part out for yourself.

The Basics       

Ultimately, setting one standard hashtag from the get-go is useful for everybody.

All of the tweets get organized in one place where readers and tweeters can collectively converse. Competing hashtags allow for interested people to miss out on part of the dialogue, or, at least, discourage multiple conversations from interacting. The organizers of the conference spend the time and energy creating a good hashtag (short, relevant, decipherable) and the attendees spend time creating and building good content. The whole conference achieves better organization, better publicity, better viewership, and better dialogue. It’s a win-win for everybody.


Those were the thoughts that popped into my head immediately after that joke. Why? Because that’s not how I am trained to think. I am trained to question authority. I am trained to question the prevailing paradigm. I am trained to worship the masses. Twitter is about democracy, dammit! The people get to decide what’s trending, and they should be the ones to decide what to call it.

“Fuck you, we’ll make our own hashtag.”

This is wrong. Let’s break this down into parts:

1. “we”

We frequently believe that our opinions correspond with that of the majority (note my intentional use of “we” here — it’s not my typical ‘we’ to mean me and the reader), that everybody agrees with us except for those idiots on the other side. We don’t have to actually hear people agree with us — then it just becomes the “silent” majority. For our core beliefs and our gut opinions alike, we too often cement them with an inherent assumption that ours is the voice of the reasonable, the righteous, and the numerous. I frequently hear people at Wesleyan explicitly claim, with complete seriousness, to express the opinion of the “silent majority” (real quote) — with no evidence of any kind to back it up. That emotional mechanism for belonging is extremely powerful, and fabricates ghosts to echo our own opinions.

But the simply isn’t ever a given, at Wesleyan or not. (If one thing is true about Wesleyan, it’s that everyone disagrees on something about everything, including the one thing that’s true about Wesleyan.) I always try to catch myself when making the assumption that most people would agree with me, but it still happens too often.

So when I say “we” in the context of hashtagging, I am making the assumption that others also reflexively reject authority and want to build what’s needed through grassroots popular mandate. There are two things wrong with that. One, that assumption is just flatly false. And two, ‘grassroots popular mandate’ is much more fractured, much more Darwinian, and much more Machiavellian than my knee-jerk ideal.

There is no white knight ‘we.’

2. “our own”

We have a problem with ownership, at Wes and elsewhere. In my experience, most people want to be the leader at all the wrong times (when there’s a good one already) and want to follow a leader at all the wrong times (when there aren’t any). We sometimes carry a rather curious discomfort with allowing someone else to define the playground, and we become unnecessarily consumed with haggling over structure rather than putting our energy into product.

This habit becomes especially strange when, as occurred with me this morning, I took (momentary) issue with the structure developed by someone far more qualified than I — the conference organizers. Sure, I wasn’t consulted about it — and everyone loves to be consulted — but why should I be? The end result is more or less the same, if not better: one common hashtag for everybody to follow and to add to.

We do not need to own everything.

3. “fuck you”

Some of you may be thinking “well, duh, the ‘fuck you’ is just totally unnecessary.” You are absolutely right. But the problem is bigger than that.

I find myself starved, really starved, of productive and calm intellectual conversation on any topic directly relevant to the participants. Wesleyan (and the world) may be teeming with intelligence, but much of that intelligence is fundamentally tarnished. True intellectualism, in my opinion, requires the acknowledgement of other intelligence that generates a different conclusion.

We all live alone, each in hir own Plato’s Cave. We all see the world differently, and we all have myriad different motivations, and we all therefore conclude upon different courses of action as ‘best.’ Collaboration is successful because — when — it generates communication between caves, sharing perspectives, and collectively reaching a new, reinforced path forward.

In that sense, we don’t collaborate much. Intellectual interaction, I have found, commonly devolves into a struggle of perspectives, not a connection. One cave wins over another by force (often involves shouting). In a society where this is the norm (Wesleyan is one such society, in my opinion), every opinion becomes morphed into an attack plan. Battles of wits turn from discussions to literal battles.

Oh, and that’s another thing: everything suddenly becomes existential. A way of the mind is the way of living, and so a critique on an opinion suddenly explodes into an attack ad hominem on a way of life. Then the ‘fuck you’ is really just the icing on the defensive-reflex cake.

Can we all please take it down a notch?

3 thoughts on “Exegesis of a Terrible Thought

  1. BenDoernberg

    This is a fantastic, thought-provoking post. At various times I’ve been frustrated to tears by and participated in the first two trends (I actually haven’t dealt with the third too often).

    1. “We”

    I’ve seen this from two camps; those who care deeply about a cause (environmentalism, need blind, institutional racism etc.), and those who think nobody cares. This can lead to unrealistic and ineffective organizing in the first case, and a climate of pessimistic defeatism in the second case.

    I don’t think this will change until there’s a stronger sense of campus as a community, and people spend more time socializing with those outside of their existing social groups. I think one of the biggest factors here is the physical design and architecture of the campus; when I look at Hi Rise, or the “student center”, I marvel that there’s any sense of student body cohesion at all.

    2. “our own”

    The prospect of leading an effective, well-regarded organization is enticing. The thing is, the organization got that way because it already has strong leadership of some kind (which could be a group of 10 committed peers). It’s much harder to find people to take the lead in an organization that looks like it might fail at any moment, which is when leadership is most necessary.

    Whatever you think of the WSA, by certain metrics it is an extraordinarily effective organization; it meets every week, every year. This attracts would-be leaders, and so you have dozens of ambitious students flocking to the most structured, difficult-to-change organization on campus. I thought Zach Malter was a fantastic president, but I also wonder what he could have accomplished if he had dedicated two years to building a campus community outside the confines of the WSA.

  2. summerboredom

    I respect your opinions generally, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to say with this piece.
    Here is how I followed your line of thinking:
    Without making this an essay-length comment, my impression of your argument is:
    -Most people think their opinions are rational, righteous and backed by a majority consensus.
    -It doesn’t matter if most people actually think this, as this premise does not affect my argument.
    -We cannot assume most people agree with us, as it is not the case that most people agree with us.
    -Most people think they are more qualified than they actually are to be a leader. (Is this “most people” claim also unnecessary to your argument?) Most people want to establish a leader when there ought to be none (by whose judgment? Is this supposed to be meta, because you are asserting an argument without evidence and anticipating understanding/agreement?)
    -My opinion is that true intellectualism requires acknowledgment of other, intelligent alternatives to your opinion.
    – I will provide no such alternative to this opinion (again, meta?)
    -Most people’s intelligence suffers the tarnish of anti-collaboration. Most people don’t collaborate because it is impossible to collaborate in the presence of: perspective-based arguments (meta, because your argument is solely perspective-based?), winning arguments by force (is shouting the only example of this?), arguments becoming plans of attack (what does that mean), and liberal battles (again, what is that?)

    So, is this a meta piece about how you can’t argue about arguments without falling victim to your own critiques? Are we to believe that the “most people” component is unnecessary, in which case this article is essentially a self-evaluation of something you did that you didn’t like for personal reasons? In which case- why is the “most people” component significant if you aren’t willing to back it up with any evidence beyond personal impressions, which lack sufficient description to even understand what those impressions are?

    I hope you decide to rewrite and repost- there’s clearly something interesting in all this. Just out of general interest, too, do Wesleying opinion/featured posts go through any sort of external editing process?

    1. pyrotechnics

      summerboredom —

      This post is riddled with bits of layered meta, so I am glad you caught some of that. However, I may not have made the core message clear enough.

      At no point in this article do I assert that this is anything other than *my* opinion. I make no claim to represent others and their opinions. I am not claiming that others, or a majority of others, will agree with me. I am (I believe that I am) merely sharing my isolated perspective on how people think, so that you, the reader, may of your own accord take my perspective and compare it with your own, maybe learning something in the process.

      My (in my opinion, meta) message is a call for others to follow suit, sharing and collaborating to bridge the islands of our minds rather than to send invasion parties.

      That is my core message.

      To cover some of your smaller points:

      – What doesn’t matter is my application of this argument *to Wesleyan,* not to most people, but ultimately you are correct because neither really matters and this only applies to the people it is true for.

      – I believe that knowledge of whether or not ‘most people’ agree or disagree prior to actual conversation with most people is inherently impossible. I always try to assume that my opinion is wholly solitary until proven otherwise. Thus I do not really have much interest in trying to prove that other people agree with me (that’s for you to decide).

      – The bit about leadership (which your summary slightly misconstrues) was really two points: one, in reality everyone thinks of themselves as the protagonist, and two, I find that people often unnecessarily want ownership of decisions or unnecessarily shirk such ownership depending on the situation.

      – True intellectualism does not require up-front acknowledgement of other intelligent conclusions, but rather an in-process acknowledgement that other conclusions are possible via intelligent thought. (So not really meta, because here I am acknowledging that your opinions are different from mine but still worth considering.)

      – Tarnish: in my opinion, the isolation of existence means that perspective-based arguments are the only possible arguments. Data is always interpreted via perspective. Again, not really meta because I am sharing my perspective for you to interpret with your own.

      – Literal battles, not liberal. ‘Plan of attack’ is a metaphor. Shouting is not the only example — in my experience people often use emotional triggers to reduce their conversational counterpart’s willingness to share their perspective and therefore one side wins out by ‘force.’

      – This is not really quite the meta piece you suggest. It *is* a self-critique of my own thoughts, and a reminder to myself that I take deep care to why and how I think whatever I think. But it is also a sharing of that note, and therefore a call for others to do the same. I don’t feel that I need to talk about why I think this applies to most people at Wesleyan, people will either agree with me on that or not, and maybe I’ll take the time to explain some other day. For now I don’t think it would be productive (for me anyway).

      – No real editing process. The editors (myself included) generally take the time to help out the newer writers with tips and pointers and a rigid adherence to our formatting guidelines, and for articles like this a writer will sometimes send the piece in advance to another writer to get their thoughts. I didn’t this time. (This is actually my fourth attempt at conveying this particular core message, I was tired of trying to find new vehicles for it so I went with my Twitter story).

      Hope this helps. Feel free to keep the dialogue going if you disagree or agree or don’t fully understand something.

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