An illustration from The Spectator
Cultural commentators often weigh in these days on what they perceive as a growing willingness to prioritize inoffensiveness over discourse. This recent column in The Spectator, for example, attacks “Stepford students” on campus and with a headline that declares: “Free speech is so last century. Today’s students want the right to be ‘comfortable.'”
I have tended to dismiss these articles as defensive attempts to push back against cultural changes, such as the growing number of women at the forefront of the sciences.
But when reading Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” I had an epiphany.
According to Carr, prioritizing inoffensiveness over discourse is a real phenomenon. But it’s a result, not of the influence of feminism, but of getting information online. “We no longer have the patience to await time’s slow and scrupulous winnowing. Inundated at every moment by information of immediate interest, we have little choice but to resort to automated filters, which grant their privilege, instantaneously, to the new and the popular.” (171) Add “more easily processed online,” and you can see why, biologically, a shirt might be more vivid than a description of a space mission.
Carr may even be able to explain trolling wars. “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion.” (220) If higher emotions do in fact come from slower neural processes, as he claims, it is to be expected that all people who communicate online will be less empathetic.