The Susceptible Mind: How the Internet Enables Hard Hearts and Soft Heads

It’s getting late and the crowded bar is starting to thin out. I have a half-drunken glass of beer in front of me that’s gone warm. A collection of Clive James essays lies next to it. My phone’s dead so I can either keep reading or wander home for the night. It’s at this moment that a guy about my age drifts up to my table and starts complaining about our culture and its “tyranny of tolerance.” I ask him if he thought up that phrase himself, tyranny of tolerance. He tells me no, that he heard it on a YouTube channel. Then he says that he would’ve offered to buy one of the women in the bar a drink—he points to a group at the bar who are talking and laughing loudly—but feminism’s ruined the pick-up game, he says. Any unsolicited praise of a woman, he tells me, is a potential harassment. “It’s these soft guys, nowadays.” I tell him I haven’t gotten his name and ask if he thought we knew each other from somewhere.

Where has this priggish young man come from? I may be assuming too much to say that the Internet has made him what he is, but what else could’ve done it? Guys previously unable to finish the most lightweight book of history or literature now proudly pronounce on scholarly matters as wide-ranging as Roman numismatics and Islamic precepts. Phrases like “second-wave feminism,” “virtue signaling,” and “classical liberalism” role effortlessly off their tongues. An effervescent passion for righteous truth fills their chests. Civilization is apparently under attack from feminists, Muslims, and weak-kneed, but a collective voice cries out from the wilderness. It’s the barbarians. They’re here to save us.

These days a strange abundance of knowledge can be obtained with little study, and even less thought. Condensed and hastened bits of trumpery on chemistry, economics, architecture, foreign affairs, physics, and history are available online. And it’s from these that the susceptible mind, rightly trying to make sense of what’s happening in the world, finds answers and devils. Strained by the feeling that society is mobilized to make him feel as guilty as possible, bored to death in an office building where he comfortably romanticizes the factory or rural life, and perverted into thinking there is a secluded culture he ought to defend but not participate in, the susceptible mind becomes a disciple of, first, the con artist, then the demagogue, and finally, the despot.

Humor plays an important role in this whole racket; cheap vileness is easily covered up with a bit of sardonic eloquence. And the demagogue can always escape responsibility by pretending to be a mere scoundrel. Thus the susceptible mind, listening to his favorite con artist impel the state to harass and murder others, is fooled into thinking he’s really just having a harmless bit of fun.

Of course, the con artist’s intellectual appeal is easy to understand. His opinions—unlike those of most educators and intellectuals—give at least the impression of being subservient to facts and reason. He also doesn’t trip over himself to avoid offending contemporary niceties. Nor does he shy away from competing ideas. Confrontation is his praxis, and he isn’t afraid to make enemies in order to win arguments (which is also part of his psychological appeal). Nonetheless, while he speaks freely about his hatred for certain things, pretending to be a rebel and a blasphemer, most of his hatreds are completely orthodox. In the end, he depends on the credulity of his audience to believe he, and thus they, are railing against the status quo when, in fact, they’re doing no such thing. What serious person, for example, could think attacking “political correctness” takes any moral or political courage? Or imagines that our society is run by the country’s two thousand gender studies professors?

However, the susceptible mind, lacking both self-confidence and ideological bearings, is easily swayed by the force and charm of these ideas. His education is partly to blame, for as C.S. Lewis observed, “By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.” Deprived of critical faculties, the susceptible mind has no intellectual self-defense against the neurotic distortions he finds online. Not that one can find fault with him for preferring a theory that explains everything to one that calls for nuance but never actually applies any. Giving credit where it’s due, the con artist’s analysis, despite its indulgences in conspiracy, is impressively simple—once you’ve got a set of villains, imagined transgressions are always easy to find.

But back to the priggish young man at the bar. He tells me his name and confirms what I suspected: that we don’t know each other from anywhere. He then mentions the YouTube channel he got his clever line from and asks if I’ve ever heard of it. I say that I have and that I watch it frequently. (Only a fool takes his eye off his enemies just because he doesn’t like what he sees.) He seems genuinely surprised, then, that I’m not more concerned with his grievances. I respond with a clever borrowed line of my own: “Don’t mistake the bars of your cage with its exit.” He looks confused and uneasy and in short time finds an excuse to shuffle off.

Fascism, Orwell said, could take hold in England “because it will have the guts to speak plainly [and therefore] gather into its ranks the very people who ought to be opposing it.” That quote stayed with me for a long time on the walk home. The guts to speak plainly. Perhaps if I come across that young man again I’ll ask him if he’s heard about the latest round of employees fired for attempting to unionize. No doubt his favorite crusaders for free speech will have been unable to stay off the subject.