Learning to Dialogue is Learning to Think

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

Steve Bannon has been de-platformed. This is obviously not the end of him, and there's an important psychological reason for that.

This post comes on the heels of another social justice mob rule victory; a situation wherein The New Yorker has removed an interview with Steve Bannon from their upcoming festival. Social media was flooded with cries for Bannon's de-platforming. The argument is that Bannon’s views are vile, reprehensible, and dangerous, and so giving them any sort of platform will only increase his following and power. That may be a real danger inherent with someone like Bannon. His views may indeed be vile and reprehensible, and giving him a platform to speak in front of an unsympathetic audience may not diminish him, as was the festival’s intent, but enlarge him. And that could have seriously bad consequences. The trouble with the de-platforming tactic is this: shutting out ideas and making them taboo doesn’t make them go away, but rather it drives them into the dark, where they mutate and come back in another, potentially more dangerous form. A community or society never exiles someone for good; it just unloads them somewhere else, and where they end up will very likely be less well-equipped to understand and deal with them than the original place.

One can easily imagine this de-platforming serving to anger and embolden Bannon's followers. Angry people are dangerous. Pushed to the fringe, they find one another, and bond over a common resentment. And beyond simply building the strength and cohesiveness of their opposition, this kind of thing doesn't even help the left on its own terms. While the mob congratulate themselves on another "victory", they can fail to notice those who are deserting their ranks; those who are concerned that the values of openness and inclusivity are actually acting as the façade covering an increasingly divisive and authoritarian core. As evidence of this collective "failure to notice", I offer you my friends' and my stunned faces as we watched the results come in on 2016 Election Night. This shock was echoed around the globe; the "basket of deplorables" was far more full than the left realized. This is a principle of psychological contents as well: You cannot eject something from your psyche. What the ego tries to throw out the front door comes in again through the window. An individual psyche is a microcosm of society in this regard.

It can be extraordinarily frustrating to realize that you can’t eject things you don’t like. You can call them deplorable, or nazis if you like, and try to banish them, but they don't really go anywhere. This realization can make you feel quite impotent, particularly if you are accustomed to the illusion that you are the one controlling what emerges in your life. But some agency returns if you understand that you can make these things conscious (which is a much more difficult and painful process, at least in the short term). And it involves thinking. And thinking--actual rigorous thought—is not the action of one voice assuring itself of its correctness, but a dialogue. (Jordan Peterson points this out, and he is reframing the philosopher Martin Heidegger as far as I understand it). To think, you first have to acknowledge the inner disagreements with your position; the parts of you that challenge what you think is correct; the thoughts that, as far as you're concerned, could just go ahead and shut up already. Once acknowledged, you let these inner voices have their say, and that on its own can be a pretty brutal task. If you've shut them out, there's a reason for that. But the process here is that you let them speak, and you withhold your rebuttals while you try to listen and understand what the idea is, and why it is the way it is. And then, only after you’ve really understood, you can respond. And you have to do it in good faith. To treat a seemingly hostile inner voice badly, to “straw man” the argument (misrepresent a point it so it is easier to rebut), or to try and totally shut it out altogether, doesn't cut it. Anybody who has done the painstaking work that gets you through–not out of, but through a serious inner conflict knows this. You have to dialogue, and you have to be willing to be affected by what you hear. The hardest part to accept can be that a voice that you dislike often has a point. Whether you like it or not. Whether it’s acceptable or not. And it will insist on that point until you are ready to hear it.

And so it is with the outside voices; the voices of other people. Voices like Steve Bannon’s have been around as long as humanity, and they will be here long after Bannon himself is no more. They return again and again, and trying to split them off and starve them out does nothing to alter the fundamental pattern. If the society is a macrocosm of the individual psyche, the degree to which the left is currently splitting off that which is unacceptable is the equivalent of a serious personality disorder.

Just as there always has been and always will be a “Steve Bannon” out there in the world, there is a “Steve Bannon” in each of our psyches as well, by which I mean a voice that we would rather not hear. The psychological shadow. In part, it is projecting this shadow outward onto the world that makes Bannon seem so fearsome; you might see in him what is darkest in you.

Both the outer Bannon and the inner one need to be confronted in good faith, patiently and persistently. To do otherwise is to blindly act out the pattern, to contribute to the shadow growing stronger and more desperate. This is not a blithe endorsement of free speech; open and honest dialogue is the very method by which opposites and conflicts are transcended.