Take Your Time
By Todd MayDecember 4, 2023
A FORMER COLLEAGUE of mine used to say that central to doing philosophy is the practice of reading slowly. I recalled the saying later when I came across this passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein: “This is how philosophers should greet each other: ‘Take your time!’” Taking one’s time, lingering, what some philosophers call “tarrying,” is crucial to doing philosophy well.
Why is this? There are several reasons. Philosophy is supposed, among other things, to go deeper than appearances, to see what’s behind or beneath them. Relatedly, philosophy is supposed to be critical, not accepting what immediately presents itself but instead asking whether what presents itself is actually true or just or morally decent. Yet again, philosophy often involves following the thought of other philosophers, thought that itself can be elusive. (Reader-friendliness, unfortunately, is rarely counted among the virtues of philosophy.)
What all these tasks have in common are three takings: taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and taking stock. These takings take time. And in our social, political, cultural, and technological context, they are important activities to engage in if we, philosophers and nonphilosophers alike, seek to be agents in our lives rather than being carried along by the forces that buffet us.
It’s true, of course, that taking time to reflect on what is influencing us is important not only in the current context but in previous ones as well. Fair enough. However, there are aspects of our current situation that make this practice particularly urgent. These aspects are tied up with our technological situation and would not have the impact they do without it, but they are not reducible to technology; rather, they are a result of the convergence of technology, politics, and culture.
First, there is so much of what is popularly called “information” to which we are exposed. I place scare quotes around the term because the idea of information seems to imply that “it’s true.” But as we know, often it is not true. To be more precise, what we are exposed to presents itself as information. When I was growing up, there were several television stations to choose from and a limited amount of content that came to us through those channels. Then came cable television, then the internet, then things that we still call phones although calling people up is the very least of what they do. We are, as is said, plugged in to various virtual worlds through much of our waking hours and so are constantly bombarded by what is going on in those worlds.
If we are to be more than passive recipients, a mere audience for the passing show, then we need to question ourselves about these virtual worlds that are coming at us. What are they trying to get us to do or to think? What is important to me about involving myself in one or another of them? Which ones, if any, should I be exposing myself to? All of this requires taking a step back, taking a breath, and taking stock.
One of the ways people react to this bombardment of what is presented to us as information is by finding a comfortable niche and residing there. People enter into a virtual or even actual community with other like-minded people, often reinforced through social media, that offers a sense of place and broad agreement. This presents a second problem. Instead of being entirely passive, there is the possibility of becoming active in the wrong way. If contrary views or contradictory input is being foreclosed at the outset, it is impossible to tell where one might be going wrong, often very wrong. This is the problem of the echo chamber. We have experienced it in stark form in the examples of QAnon and the events of January 6, 2021. As we will see in a bit, however, most of us are not immune to the temptations of emotional safety through inhabiting personal silos.
Resisting echo chambers requires stepping outside of the comfort they provide in order to expose ourselves to contrary experiences and views. And this in turn requires stepping back from the immediacy of our situation and taking the time to reflect on it and on views and experiences that our echo chambers make it easy to ignore. Doing so, though, will meet with resistance from those with whom we occupy those chambers, and this leads to a third difficulty, one that might be called the pressure of an uncompromising loyalty.
In his excellent discussion of “echo chambers and epistemic bubbles,” C. Thi Nguyen distinguishes between situations in which like-minded people reinforce one another’s beliefs (epistemic bubbles) and situations in which people actively resist views and experiences that would challenge their beliefs. Of course, the distinction is a matter of degree, but in an echo chamber, people deeply identify themselves with their beliefs and those of their cohort, so that anything or anyone that raises questions or doubts about those beliefs must be dismissed and even attacked. Given what we’ve seen so far, it’s not difficult to imagine the formation of echo chambers when people are overwhelmed by what is presented as information and are seeking a comfortable niche that will reinforce their beliefs. The latter can be an epistemic bubble, but given the anxiety attendant upon our current political, technological, and cultural situation, the slippage from bubble to chamber can easily happen. Moreover, challenging one or another of the epistemic commitments of a group can lead to marginalization or even some form of excommunication. Thus, the phenomenon of uncompromising loyalty. While we’re familiar with some of the Right’s echo chambers, the Left is not immune to them either.
What is most threatening to an echo chamber is nuance. The recognition that things might be more vexed or complicated than a person’s group thinks is a provocation to group identity. Therefore, reflection on the group’s commitments is actively discouraged. Or, putting things the other way around, in order to avoid the trap of echo chambers, one must take a step back, take a breath, and take stock. The task is not one of doubting everything one believes à la Descartes. Rather, one requires an openness to, and at times an active pursuit of, views and opinions that come from sources contrary to one’s preferred authorities. As Gandhi was fond of reminding people, nobody has access to the whole truth, and so epistemic humility is in order if we are to avoid the temptations and traps of an echo chamber.
In order to see why it’s important to take time, let’s look at an example of the type of thing that crops up with some regularity in our current academic context.
Suppose a speaker who denies trans folks’ right to participate in sports is invited to a deeply conservative college campus by a conservative campus group. The speaker in this case does not advocate violence against trans folks; in fact, they actively oppose it and plan to say so in their speech. What should those who disagree with the speaker do? One position that’s sometimes taken is that the speaker should not be allowed to speak but should be disrupted in a way that prevents them from stating their case. What might justify that? Well, trans folks are vulnerable, and particularly so now that they are the object of a right-wing campaign of dehumanization and even demonization. The speaker, it might be said, by talking on this topic at this time, will contribute to that campaign and so make trans folks, especially those on campus, even more vulnerable. So, they should be prevented from doing that.
Those on the other side (who are not all conservatives) will point out that when people who have transitioned into biologically female bodies engage in sports, this puts those who were born female at a disadvantage. Some studies have shown, for example, that the muscle mass of postadolescent girls and women who have physically transitioned, even those who have undergone testosterone suppression treatments, gives them a measurable competitive edge. In addition, the conservative group will likely argue that preventing the speaker from delivering their address is a violation of free speech.
How shall we approach this issue? It is not unreasonable to think that a speaker who opposes trans folks’ participation in sports will contribute to an atmosphere that could be marginalizing of and perhaps even dangerous to trans folks on campus, especially if that campus were deeply conservative in the first place. Alternatively, there is good evidence that girls and women who have transitioned do have an athletic advantage. And regarding free speech, it would surely be pointed out that if a liberal or left-wing group brought a speaker to campus who opposed conservative views (say, by advocating for the rights of trans folks to participate in sports), that group would surely be outraged if the speech were disrupted.
There is, I believe, no easy answer to this question. The appeal to free speech, for one thing, cannot be absolute. If, for instance, the speaker were, contrary to our example, to advocate for the removal of trans students from campus, that would constitute a direct threat to those students’ safety and could thus be a reason to “deplatform” the speaker. While that is not the case with the speaker in our example, the possibility of harm stemming from the event remains. The problem becomes even more difficult if we assume that trans folks, as is likely to be the case on a conservative college campus, make up a small group of students who will likely feel threatened if they publicly advocate for their participation in sports. So, the free speech argument cannot be an absolute one.
We are stuck, then, with this dilemma. On the one hand, there is the possibility of at least some psychological harm to trans folks if the speaker delivers the talk, especially if there is no opportunity for presenting a contrary view. On the other hand, there is some evidence that a difficult issue is posed by trans women participating in sports, and thus, even on a non-absolutist free speech argument, there is some reason not to disrupt the speech.
What to do? You’ve no doubt already recognized that what we have done here is to step back from the immediacy of each position in order to introduce some nuance into the discussion. It seems to me that the previous paragraph, while not offering a solution to the problem, does offer a place to start. If both the members of the conservative group and those who oppose them were to begin there, it might offer a path that, while unlikely to satisfy everyone, would allow folks to move forward in a way that skirts some of the worst possible consequences of the differing positions.
Ours is a politically and culturally polarized society. Some of the positions currently occupied in this society, particularly the more authoritarian ones (predominantly on the right but not unknown on the left), need to be opposed directly, precisely because they are positions that require echo chambers—whether voluntarily joined or imposed from above—that are anathema to taking a step back, taking a breath, and taking stock. What philosophy can offer in this current context is a model of conduct, along with some tools for taking the time to see what else might be out there aside from what we in our various positions are encouraged to think of as obvious and incontrovertible.
Featured image: Frances Hodgkins, Untitled (Textile design no. VIII), ca. 1925, England. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1998-0006-12). Accessed November 30, 2023. Image has been cropped.
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