What the Intellectual Dark Web understands and churches need to consider

A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. (Acts 20:9)

What is the Intellectual Dark Web (I.D.W.), you ask? It’s the silly, tongue-in-cheek name for a groups of “intellectuals” on both the right and left (in political terms, since that’s what they care a lot about) who have found themselves embattled with their own sides of the isle in recent years for trying to express nuanced or (to borrow another politicized term) less-than-PC opinions. This PC policing applies to both sides of the political divide, because it basically amounts to not towing the party line, and these days, the party line is drawn by the most radical voices in either party. Moderates, in other words, tend to find them selves surprised to be alienated from their own tribes.

That’s interesting, but it’s just an explanatory note. I continue to care little about politics in the conventional sense. It’s the related cultural phenomenon that has captured my attention.

The I.D.W. is taking advantage of alternative media—meaning, the internet—to talk about their views. The point of this seems to be, aside from the fact that they aren’t especially welcome in many traditional media outlets, that podcasts and online video interviews afford time to explain the nuances of their positions. Traditional media is inimical to complexity. Think of a typical news segment or panel-style program. Talking heads disagree, and some viewers find it entertaining, but no one has the chance to explain anything complex. This feeds the tendency to spout scripted talking points and encourages viewers simply to line up on their respective, predetermined sides.

Enter the long-form podcast. I’ve written before about enjoying the Joe Rogan Experience. I’ve thought a lot about why I like it. The thing is, JRE episodes are long. Granted, there are lots of episodes that I don’t care to watch. He has all kinds of guests, and a lot of them are just comedians shooting the bull for a few hours, sometimes funny, sometimes not. Astonishingly (to me), when he has on writers, academics, and public intellectuals, the episodes are not less viewed. Millions of people watch this stuff for hours. Why? How?

Doesn’t conventional wisdom tell us that the American attention span is too short? Shouldn’t a podcast be 20 minutes, maybe 30 if it isn’t to transgress the sensibilities and time constraints of a distracted, overly busy audience? Doesn’t a TED Talk have to be 18 minutes by divine decree?

The I.D.W. is following the lead of podcasters like Rogan (and he has hosted a lot of it’s leading figures). Of course intellectuals want to take a long time talking about things. The crazy thing about it is that millions of people are taking the time to listen. (Here’s an example of such a conversation, with a half million views.) More than that, people are paying money to watch these conversations live. Jordan Peterson, for example, has recently gone on tour, and he’s filling auditoriums with people who want to listen to intellectuals discuss their complicated views. Not teach. Not debate. Discuss. Here’s how he explains the phenomenon I’m talking about:

The problem with books and videos is that you can’t do anything else while you’re doing them, right? When you’re reading, you’re reading. When you’re watching a video, you can be distracted, but you have to pay attention to the video. But, if you’re listening to a podcast, you can be driving a forklift or a long haul trunk, or you can be exercising or doing the dishes. And so what that means is that podcasts free up, say, two hours a day, for people to engage in education activities that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to engage in, and that’s about 1/8th of people’s lives.

So podcasts hand people 1/8th of their life back, to engage in high-level education. I thought, “well, people actually want to do this. There’s a massive market for high-level intellectual engagement, that’s much deeper and more desperate, let’s say, than anyone suspected.” We really saw that in Vancouver. I mean, the discussion I had with Sam Harris, the two discussions—we talked about the relationship between facts and values, and science and religion more peripherally. But the dialog was conducted approximately at the level, I would say, of a pretty rigorous PhD defense.

We were only suppose to talk for an hour and go to Q&A, but the crowd didn’t want us to stop, so we talked, the first night, for two and a half hours, and the second night for two and a half hours. The crowd was 100 per cent on board the entire time. It wasn’t because Sam was winning or I was winning. Neither of us, in fact, were trying to win: we were trying to learn something, and we were actually trying to learn something. We weren’t just pretending to do that. The place erupted at the end, and I think one of the things I’ve realized in the last couple of days, as I’ve been thinking this through, is the narrow bandwidth of TV has made us think we’re stupider than we are. People have a real hunger for deep intellectual dialog, and that can be met with these new technologies. That has revolutionary significance, and that’s starting to unfold. (https://jordanbpeterson.com/transcripts/aspen/; emphasis added)

Okay, so this is really optimistic. (And that’s one of the hallmarks of the secular humanists who populate the I.D.W.) But the fact of the audience’s paid attendance is incontrovertible. If you watch these folks talking on a YouTube channel with a recorded live comments feed, you’ll quickly see that far from every view counts as intellectual engagement. Trolls will congregate. Still, the numbers are still staggering for the kind of discussion it is (and trolls won’t bother where there are no numbers in the first place).

I think Peterson is basically right about traditional media formats convincing us we’re stupider than we actually are—or more to the point, that our attention spans can only span out for binge-watching Netflix. And I think he’s right that there is really an appetite for deep intellectual dialog.

But the key factor, I suspect, is the intersection of the long-form intellectual dialog with the cultural value of authenticity. It is not just that the format gives participants room to nuance their complex viewpoints, nor just that audiences are very hungry for a higher level of discourse. Lectures, educational seminars, and debates are all available on YouTube and podcasts. Those are not commanding attention. Instead, it is live discussion with sincere attempts to understand one another, push each other for clarity, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and respond to the strongest aspects of each other’s arguments that combines with the length of the format to force participants off script.

An audience gets to watch how an intellectual forms an argument, processes pushback, clarifies an interlocutor’s point, and even changes his or her mind in real time. And we’re sure this is real because it goes for so long, there is just no way it’s scripted. Of course, going on tour (for example) means the conversation will take on a rehearsed quality, and we all end up saying repeating ourselves if we have have the “same” conversation enough times. But lengthy discussion has an interesting effect on even the most rote thoughts. Granting the intention to explain, clarify, and revise understanding, extended conversation generates a zone of intellectual honesty.

That is what I think the unexpected appetite for the long-form intellectual discourse is really about—a social need not just for complexity and nuance but for authentic dialog.

These folks are agile enough thinkers to handle a long discussion without jumbling things too badly or boring us, but there is little entertainment value in it. Rather, the authenticity of the exchange, when the goal is not to score points or dispense a canned view but to think well, is riveting.

I headed the post with reference to the Eutychus story because the phenomenon I’ve been exploring prompts me to wonder: When was the last time that someone fell of out of the second-story window of a church gathering because they were willing to be taught to exhaustion?

Eutychus is the butt of many jokes about too-long sermons and boring teachers. That’s cute, but we have to recognize that it plays into a cultural narrative about attention spans and the entertainment value of Christian preaching. More importantly, I don’t think it does justice to how deadly seriously the early church took teaching and learning.

When was the last time you even had the opportunity in church to learn more than you could stay awake for?

I have the idea that the church’s traditional media formats too have convinced us that we’re stupider than we actually are. And I also have the suspicion that the appetite for authentic theological dialog is just as great among church people as the political discussions of the I.D.W. are among their growing audience. We have a lot of tacit pedagogical rules for church that basically equate to dumb it down. And there are good (or at least reasonable) explanations for that fact. But I’m not convinced it is either necessary or useful to keep dumbing things down, compressing teaching time, and canning “our” positions for easy consumption.

The question I’m starting to ask is, how can we force ourselves off script? Because I think the church needs to recognize not only that nuance and complexity are absolute ineradicables of Christian thought but that they will also be welcome among American Christians in a context of authentic dialog in which we can all learn to think well together in the midst of substantive disagreement and misunderstanding, even though—and precisely because—it must take a long time to do so.

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