Dr Tim Squirrell is a writer, broadcaster and researcher. He focusses on internet culture and extremism, specialising in the far right and misogynist extremists.

What I'm Reading #2

This week I have an eclectic array of different topics: the place of expertise in democracy, the nature of terrorism, the question of which lives matter the most, how to have civil discourse in new democracies, and the distinction between cults and religions. Enjoy.

  1. Tom Nichols on expertise.

    I have to say this is a bit of a disjointed read; you can tell that it's been ripped from a book in a way that's meant to create an overview of Nichols' arguments, but it's not particularly coherent. Given that the book itself is a bestseller, it's probably a good idea to get some conception of Nichols' thought on the topic (and thereby to understand what a lot of people are likely thinking). I'm not sure that I agree with his perspective: it's very much a "the internet is here and now anyone can know anything! What if knowledge, but too much???" type affair, and he fails to take account of a lot of the literature from Science and Technology Studies and associated social sciences which examines expertise through a constructivist lens. In particular he would do well to familiarise himself with the academic literature on the fate of expertise after the internet, which addresses a lot of problems he raises: whilst information might be increasingly accessible, it's becoming ever more important to be able to sift through that information to find the important things, and to know how to do that.

  2. Yuval Noah Harari on terrorism.

    "A terrorist is akin to a gambler holding a particularly bad hand, who tries to convince his rivals to reshuffle the cards. He cannot lose anything, but he may win everything." After showing why terrorism is the chosen means of attack for many disempowered groups, Harari proposes the idea that terror is so effective at destabilising countries because states have, over the past couple of centuries, based their credibility and mandate to govern on their capacity to prevent political violence within their borders. Terrorism works through theatre, and countries work to create a security response of the same kind, performing their actions and words in such a way as to give an impression of safety, of having the problem under control. 

  3. Dominic Wilkinson and Keyur Doolabh on the question "Which lives matter more?".

    This essay is an accessible exploration of a classic philosophical problem, the "non-identity problem", made famous by Derek Parfit. It shows how the decisions we make about the future will often change the people who will be around to experience that future, and then asks whether there are ethical implications to those decisions that accrue regardless of whether they affect specific people or not. This is all fairly standard, but the latter part of the essay attempts to reconcile the theoretical literature with the intuitions of non-philosophers who've taken a survey, and does a quick dive into Rawls' concept of "reflective equilibrium" which tries to bring our intuitions and theoretical ruminations into alignment with one another. It's an interesting treatment of an important topic.


  4. Shadi Hamid on how to hate each other peacefully in a democracy - looking at the challenges of living together in newly formed democracies.

    First Hamid examines the ways in which political systems can be designed to prevent violent conflict, arguing for parliamentary systems above presidential ones. He goes on to argue that the design of democratic systems only goes so far, and that forming norms of which kinds of discussions ought to be had early on is equally important. The last part of the article focusses on constitutions, and how countries might attempt to write them in such a way that they guarantee the rights of minorities without sacrificing democratic representation. There's a focus on Egypt as the case study throughout, and it's helped to solidify my understanding of fledgling democracies and their issues.


  5. Tara Isabella Burton on the distinction between religions and cults. Confronts the argument that "the word ‘cult’ is meaningless: it merely assumes a normative framework that legitimises some exertions of religious power – those associated with mainstream organisations – while condemning others. Groups that have approved, ‘orthodox’ beliefs are considered legitimate, while groups whose interpretation of a sacred text differs from established norms are delegitimised on that basis alone." The idea here is that in order to study something properly we have to treat it as we treat any other religion, rather than making a priori distinctions based on our preconceived notions of legitimacy of belief. The problem with blurring the distinction too far is that it allows you to do too much: you can easily claim that all religions are cults, and then extend that to any system of belief or community that requires some degree of sacrifice or commitment from its members, to the extent that pretty much any organisation can be called a cult. That makes the term meaningless. Of course, this ignores that religions tend to have specifically explanatory approaches to the world that attempt to establish some kind of overarching order, and other communities - no matter how much sacrifice they demand from their adherents - don't tend to do this to the same extent.

    The converse of "if God isn't real, then all religions are cults" is that "if this religion cult is correct, then that is the most important thing in the universe". "If a deity really, truly wants you to, say, flagellate yourself with a whip (as Catholic penitents once did), or burn yourself on your husband’s funeral pyre, then no amount of commonsense reasoning can amount to a legitimate deterrent: the ultimate cosmic meaningfulness of one’s actions transcends any other potential need. And to be in a community of people who can help reinforce that truth, whose rituals and discourse and symbols help not only to strengthen a sense of meaningfulness but also to ground it in a sense of collective purpose, then that meaningfulness becomes more vital still: it sits at the core of what it is to be human."

    The conclusion Burton draws is that our practices define our identities: every time we participate in rituals, religious or not, they reinscribe our identities and define ourselves with relation to the people around us. It's a nice sociological treatment of religion and community.


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What I'm Reading #1