To what extent are intellectuals responsible for how their ideas are taken up?

To what extent are intellectuals responsible for how their ideas are taken up?There a great example of this on pg 126 of Winners Take All. Stephen Pinker’s entirely legitimate study of declining human violence is taken up as theodicy for contemporary capitalism, explaining away the appearance of injustice as a failure to take a sufficiently long term view. A former TED editor describes this as ‘Pinkering’: “using the long-run direction of human history to minimize, to delegitimize the concerns of those without power”.

Pinker’s actual point was narrow, focused, and valid: Interpersonal violence as a mode of human problem-solving was in a long free fall. But for many who heard the talk, it offered a socially acceptable way to tell people seething over the inequities of the age to drop their complaining. “It has become an ideology of: The world today may be complex and complicated and confusing in many ways, but the reality is that if you take the long-term perspective you will realize how good we have it,” Giussani said. The ideology, he said, told people, “You’re being unrealistic, and you’re not looking at things in the right way. And if you think that you have problems, then, you know, your problems don’t really matter compared to the past’s, and your problems are really not problems, because things are getting better.”

The more urgent esample can be seen in militant centrist thinkers (alt-libs) whose principled defences of free speech, as well as denunciations of the ‘regressive left’, often attract openly racist and far right support. It would be wrong to suggest ideas are intrinsically tarred by how they are taken up. But it seems equally problematic to deny any link. 

How do we think through this relationship at the level of political and moral theory? My hunch is the contemporary politics of circulation, to use Dave Beer’s phrase, renders this more important than ever. The speed with which ideas circulate within networks which themselves rapidly change, means that alliances form more rapidly and precariously. An adequate theory of intellectual responsibility must surely take account of this.

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