Rik Smits is a linguist, science journalist, and prolific author based in Amsterdam. He is formerly the editor of De Republikein, a quarterly on modern constitutional democracy and citizenship.
Below, Rik shares 5 key insights from his new book, The Art of Verbal Warfare. Listen to the audio version—read by Rik himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Magic rules our lives.
I went to the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, to stand on the balcony of room 306, a room frozen in time on April 4, 1968. Standing in the exact same spot in which Martin Luther King Jr. stood more than half a century ago, I could look out from the actual window through which James Earl Ray killed him with a single gunshot. I was impressed. But with what?
Meanwhile, a couple of miles down the road, Elvis Presley fans patiently queued at Graceland to feast their eyes on the toilet bowl on which the King spent his last moments on August 16, 1977. They too were impressed, but again: with what?
The answer is magic. Experiences like these are among the effects of the magical Law of Contact. The idea is that if two objects once were in contact or formed a single whole, its essence remains in both parts when they separate. In a sense, on that balcony and in that restroom, you are in the presence of the departed. In this way, the Law of Contact is a fundamental driving force behind modern tourism. But the Law also explains our fascination with the “real thing,” which shapes art markets. It makes us travel to catch a glimpse of the real Mona Lisa and fork out loads of money for John Lennon’s glasses, while shrugging our shoulders at copies, however technically perfect. It explains the attraction of the “handshakes away” idea, which puts you in the imagined proximity of celebrities. And it clarifies why some Australian Aboriginals believe that they can hurt an enemy by sticking slivers of glass into the footprints they left in the sand.
The Law of Contact is but one example of operational magic in our postmodern, apparently rational world. Others include the mechanisms behind the dietary industry or Feng Shui, the continued importance of putting people under oath, and a thousand other things.
2. Beware of value judgments—they’re toxic.
In 1967, the American psychiatrist Thomas A. Harris published a guide for modern life called I am Okay, You are Okay. It was a book about becoming truly free, about tolerance and getting along peacefully, very much in synch with the liberating revolutions of the sixties and seventies in Western cultures. It became a worldwide bestseller.
“Unless you want enmity, criticize what people do, not their character, identity, or affiliations.”
Of course, much of the famous “love and peace” of the sixties was self-serving, hedonistic pretense. Yet, there was a widely shared optimistic mood at its core that really helped improve things. In today’s social climate, a similarly hip bestseller would probably be called I am Okay, You are a Jerk. These are much less tolerant, bitterly polarized times.
Today we suffer from fake news, disinformation spread by rabid conspiracy theorists, and cancel culture extremists. But negativism is more widespread than that. For example, the venerable Edward Luce, national editor of the sedate Financial Times, wrote on August 18, 2022: “I’ve covered extremism and violent ideologies around the world over my career. I have never come across a political force more nihilistic, dangerous, and contemptible than today’s Republicans. Nothing close.” That’s not only harsh, it is also a hopelessly destructive comment because it’s a triple value judgment. “Nihilistic, dangerous, and contemptible” does not reflect on what Republicans do, but on what they are. It reflects on their character, their moral mettle. In essence, Luce is saying I am okay, Republicans are jerks.
Such value judgments are toxic in two ways. First, they are not factual assessments but opinions, and you cannot defend yourself against another person’s opinion. So, from the point of view of the jerk, so to speak, any discussion is futile. Second, value judgments are about characteristics that you can’t do anything about. You cannot atone for being contemptible, even if you’d want to. The value judgment of I am Okay, You are a Jerk is a surefire way to kill every chance of rapprochement or compromise. Unless you want enmity, criticize what people do, not their character, identity, or affiliations.
3. We may never come to terms with Twitter and other social media.
Twitter has brought an occasional regression of international diplomacy to the level of the schoolyard shouting match. In July 2018, American President Donald Trump yelled at his Iranian colleague Rouhani: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS”. Yes, in all caps. Rouhani immediately retorted: “Americans should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”
While most Twitter users behave civilly, we cannot deny that arguments, called fitties in Twitter jargon, spring up more often and get out of hand more easily than in real life. This is mostly due to the characteristics of the medium.
“Social media clash with [the] natural order of things.”
First, there is the illusion of intimacy. Social media are designed to give users the impression that they are among friends, like having a semi-private conversation at the pub where people at the next table may overhear you, but usually won’t listen. On social media, however, countless strangers do listen in and interfere, often creating misunderstandings. Twitter’s moderation systems are and always will be too slow, too heavy-handed, and too cumbersome to have the same corrective effect as an in-person authority figure. Instead, they tend to cause more aggravation.
Second, human communication is generally one of two kinds. Conversation is fast, relatively informal, fleeting, and interactive, meaning that listeners can interrupt at any time for clarification or show appreciation. On the other hand, written communication is slow, relatively formal, permanent, and strictly one-way. Social media clash with this natural order of things. They are fast and informal and interactive, yet permanent. As a result, sloppily formulated banter, quick repartee, and hastily typed replies may haunt you. A system of automatic degradation of posts, so that they disappear in a few days’ time, might help.
4. Cultural relativism is a dangerous fallacy.
A big bone of contention in current public verbal warfare is the issue of Cultural Relativism, often understood as the idea that all cultures are equal. By its promotors, it is toted as the apogee of respectful modern tolerance, but in reality, it is neither respectful, modern, nor tolerant.
Cultural Relativism is based on the premise that no universal moral values exist. That is: values that are shared by all cultures. This has devastating consequences, because if there is nothing that all cultures share, then there is no objective yardstick by which to compare them. Hence, a culture can only be appreciated and judged by its own members. Outsiders simply have nothing to say that is worth listening to. This renders all cross-cultural criticism void—even of such things as misogyny, exploitation of children, forced labor camps, and slavery.
If there is no sense in looking critically at other cultures, then there is also no point in trying to learn from them, or getting to know each other. As a consequence, there can be no trust. All that’s left is to withdraw into cultural foxholes, dreading the neighbors. What would ensue is the eternal war of all against all, the specter of Thomas Hobbes.
“[Cultural Relativism] is groundless, because there is at least one universal moral value: Nobody wishes an unhappy life full of sickness, disaster, and injustice upon himself or his nearest and dearest.”
Thankfully that is not what the world looks like at all, even if certain tribal cultures come close. In reality, there is intercultural interest and cooperation, and people from different cultures do learn from each other. So, Cultural Relativism is a hoax. The whole idea is groundless, because there is at least one universal moral value: Nobody wishes an unhappy life full of sickness, disaster, and injustice upon himself or his nearest and dearest. In this respect, cultures only differ with respect to who counts as nearest and dearest.
5. Don’t disparage irrationality.
“Happiness,” the writer and philosopher Ayn Rand once wrote, “is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.” If that were true, I’d forego happiness anytime. For by the prophet’s beard, doesn’t it sound incredibly mirthless and dull?!
Rand may be a relatively radical thinker, but she is not an exception. In our modern world, there are many who exult the virtues of rationality and disparage all that is irrational as backward, uncivilized, and even bestial. They stand in a long line of philosophers, going back at least to Pythagoras, who tried to make sense of the world by ordering it into a collection of oppositions: good versus bad, right versus wrong, light versus dark, male versus female, and life versus death—and rationality versus the irrational, with irrationality sitting on the side of the bad, wrong, dark, female, et cetera. In Pythagoras’s day, this was a good tool for understanding an often mysterious, bewildering world. But rationality and irrationality aren’t opposites. They are complements, inextricably intertwined aspects of life.
Take Rand’s rational man, or rather: take a boy building a model of the Titanic from Lego. Doing so requires rational planning and reasoning, but the joy involved in getting it done is entirely irrational. Without that joy, what’s the point of building a model in the first place? In such cases and many others, our rational mind is merely an instrument to achieve irrational ends, and to a considerable degree, is itself a source of irrational fun.
To listen to the audio version read by author Rik Smits, download the Next Big Idea App today: