In a recent podcast, philosopher, neuroscientist and vocal critic of religious extremism, Sam Harris, made the following comment:
“At this point I view most of my career as a massive opportunity cost. Most of what I spend my time talking about I do not find intellectually interesting, but I do find politically and morally necessary – how is it that I am living a life where I even have to know what honour killing means let alone spend time talking about it?”
This statement gave me pause for thought in regard to my own work. Of course I can’t claim anywhere near the readership, reach or back-catalogue Harris has to his name, nor can I (at least at this point) count my writing as a “career” so much as a passionate side-line. That being the case, I began thinking about how our focus at Imagine Athena, as well as my own, has shifted, or at least superficially appeared to do so, in recent years. From its inception, this website has been a platform to celebrate what makes life most worth living to us: the examined life, freedom of thought and expression, the values of the Enlightenment, human progress and virtue, the nebulous boundaries of art, science, philosophy, the numinous and transcendent (the only kind of “intersectionalism” that interests me). These concepts are at the core of everything we do.
To the unfamiliar reader, it might appear that, speaking for my own writing at least, that the content has become increasingly adversarial and reactive to events in the news cycle or social media. I recently wrote a piece on the wonder of space travel and the importance of nurturing human ambition and dreams for the future , and I noticed what a novel treat it was to write about something wonderful and inspiring rather than reacting to something I found to be morally reprehensible or politically regressive.
There are many subjects and ideas I find not only interesting but inspiring and joyous and which I would often rather be writing about.
Harris’ comment got me thinking about this dichotomy again and I realised it might be something worth reflecting on a little deeper. I say dichotomy because, in actual fact, these two broad areas are two sides of the same coin. Imagine Athena has been active, either in its current form or under its previous banner of Wry Republic, since 2012 and we really are living in a different world these days; our relationship to the Internet and social media has changed dramatically, censorship and political correctness have reared their heads once more, this time in far more sinister, censorious incarnations; campus culture has deteriorated into a hysterical and volatile mass delusion, swathes of the progressive movement are pushing hard for a kind of segregationalist categorisation along the lines of identity or perceived privilege and Islamic extremism is mounting an assault against Western civilisation with renewed maniacal bloodlust under the black flag of the Islamic State. It often seems that the enemy are no longer at the gates but well inside. But I write about these things I despise because they are threats to what I love.
It is not that I don’t find these things interesting – I spent four years studying politics after all, but there are many subjects and ideas I find not only interesting but inspiring and joyous and which I would often rather be writing about. Instead, much of the time at least, I find myself mounting a defence against those forces that threaten them.
Of course, this is not a call for sympathy, I don’t have to do any of this. I could hang up my pen, unplug, tune out and settle into a peaceful life in my little corner of Africa, but all this raised the question for me: why do we do it? Why do we fight? It has become so reflexive for me after these last few years that it sometimes slips my mind.
The answer is simple enough. While it may sometimes seem from my confrontational tone that I have a negative view of the world, in fact, the opposite is the case. It is true to say that there are many things that cause my hackles to raise, but I do not attack them because I am cynical or bitter. For all its many faults, I believe in the beauty of human civilisation and in the inherent nobility of human endeavour. It is those who would rather glower cynically at our achievements, to tear down what we have built rather than build further upon it who I want to defend against.
It is not enough to fight against what we hate; we fight for what we love.
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