iAt Book Club: “How to Think” Round Table

February 12, 2018
Last week iAt began a book club series featuring the book, “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds,” by Alan Jacobs. Return to iAt throughout this week and the next as various voices are added to the series, interact with one another and respond to the book. Series contributors are Myles Werntz, Justin Bailey, Erin Olson, and Mary Nickel.


Title: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
Author: Alan Jacobs
Publisher: Currency (October 17, 2017)
Paperback: 160pages
Price: $15.00 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0451499608

Upon reflecting on Alan Jacobs’ perceptive book, How to Think, it occurred to me that it could easily have been called When Forbearance Fails—a play on the 1956 social psychology classic When Prophecy Fails. The eponymous subject of Jacobs’ analysis in How to Think is described as something that is “necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.” Contrary to the commonplace idiom, we simply can’t “think for ourselves.” Thinking is something humans do together. It requires membership in a healthy community. And, it seems, genuine, organic membership—as Jacobs puts it—requires a certain level of forbearance. Such membership involves knowing, for example, that others “wouldn’t write me out of their own personal Books of Life if I said something they strongly disagreed with” (63). This is the ideal context in which thinking can flourish.

I wonder if, by meditating on the role forbearance plays in developing healthy communities for thinking, we might get at the concerns that have been raised already by Myles and Justin. I might offer my own spin on Myles’ motivating question: what are the material conditions of forbearance? And, in engaging with Justin’s thoughts, I would ask: what does digital forbearance look like? I’ll reflect on these in reverse order.

What troubles me about some of the enthusiasm about social media is the sense I get that what I’ve called digital forbearance isn’t really a thing. Sure, the “global conversation” online might give users of social media access to diverse viewpoints, and the Gentzkow and Shapiro study Justin cites suggests that online encounters aren’t less ideologically diverse than face-to-face encounters. But, it seems clear to me that the problem isn’t simply about what kind of exposure individuals have to ideological difference. Many of us, I think, have had a great deal of exposure to what Jacobs calls an “RCO”—a repugnant cultural other—on social media.

The trouble is that it is vastly more feasible to dismiss, berate, or dehumanize an RCO online than in person. It’s easier to publish contemptuous words online than to say them in person. It’s less socially dangerous. Similarly, it’s easier to stop following a certain user than to walk away from a table at a meal. Again, it’s less socially costly. It’s no coincidence that though the group that Jacobs talks about having genuine membership in existed on an online platform, it was almost completely composed of people he had met in person. I’m concerned that the connections that we have to those that we have never met in person are simply so easy to forsake that they don’t seem worth the work of forbearance.

I’m not so certain, however, that there’s that much more hope for forbearance in the “real world,” so to speak. I’ve been apprehensive about this since reading Bill Bishop’s 2008 The Big Sort, which forcefully evidences the high degree to which Americans have been moving to neighborhoods with like-minded residents. As a helpful illustration, Bishop uses county presidential election results to show the considerable increase in voter homogeneity across 28 years. (Shaded counties in the maps below are “landslide counties,” where the margin of victory in the presidential election was more than 20 percentage points.)

Perhaps we’re not exactly writing one another out of our “personal Books of Life,” but we are less and less willing to bear ideological differences in the places we live. And—I should note—this we that I use here is no “false we,” as Jacobs calls it. I live in Princeton. If I have the opportunity to move in the near future, I’ll most likely seek out cities with high quality grocery stores and bike lanes, and avoid areas where NRA membership rates seem a little too high. Let’s be honest.

The real questions that stem from Jacobs’ book, as far as I can tell, are: how much are we personally willing to put on the line for forbearance, for the survival of the social fabric? Or is forbearance, in the age of the unfollow button, the discerning homebuyer, and all sorts of political balkanization, doomed to fail?

About the Author
  • Mary Nickel is working on a doctoral degree in Religion, Ethics, and Politics at Princeton University. Her research considers the relationship between Biblical theology and contemporary democratic theory. Before beginning her doctoral study, Mary earned a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, an M.A. in Politics & Government from Illinois State University, and a B.A. in Human Rights Studies & Philosophy from Juniata College. Mary is also currently certified ready for ordination, pending a call, in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).