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Jill Lepore Kicks the Hornet’s Nest

Do not engage
One of my favorite quotes is from Quentin Crisp, who said:

“Abatement in the hostility of one’s enemies must never be thought to signify they have been won over. It only means that one has ceased to constitute a threat.”

So if an epic Reddit argument ends with a 500-word comment rejoined by nothing at all, do not assume the comment’s writer has “won” and reduced her interlocutors to silence. That scenario never pops up. Success in argument is not humiliating others to produce a tidy resolution. Instead, the best sign that someone is onto something is usually spirited opposition. A response is a sign that the original argument is worth engaging; if it weren’t, it could be ignored. Even if the response is a typical Internet comment, its existence shows that its writer thought that there was something in the original that could be repurposed (“made fun of,” a lot of the time) for personal gain.

We have come to expect responses to everything we do, from custom job applications to Facebook status updates. Yet, as many lonely social media users can attest, as they stew over their beach photo album getting few or no likes, someone else’s refusal to engage is often devastating. Aristotle skirted past Parmenides’ deeply contrarian ideas by implying, in the Physics, that everybody knows that change is real. He didn’t pause to engage with Parmenides explicitly at length, expressing annoyance at every turn while lobbing tenuous counterexamples his way. Indifference is devastating.

The problem with “disruption”
By the same token, overzealous engagement often emanates from insecurity. If you haven’t done so, please read Jill Lepore’s essay “The Disruption Machine” in the June edition of The New Yorker. After that, check out some of the responses to it, from the likes of venture capitalist Marc Andreesen, Noah Smith (“Should I write a ‘stoned rewrite‘ of the Jill Lepore ‘disruptive innovation’ article?,” he asked), and Clayton M. Christensen, the Harvard professor behind the “disruption” buzzword that has underpinned every Silicon Valley slide deck of the last 15 years, and which Lepore took to the woodshed in just a few thousands words.

More measured responses have acknowledged Lepore’s keen observation that “disruption” is tired and imperfect, while insisting that it remains an important concept. Meanwhile, Christensen has been reduced to referring to himself in the third-person while taking on Lepore’s critique.

The tenor of response to Lepore’s critique speaks to its quality or, one might say, its disruption. Not only is it not being ignored, but it is inviting criticisms that would fall at the base of Graham’s Pyramid of Disagreement (engaging poorly is the opposite not just of engaging well, but of not engaging at all). Her interlocutors can’t let it go.

This is what happens when no one thinks the humanities are important. Lepore’s own background in American Studies has predictably been made fun of, in a highbrow variant on everyone’s annoying uncle asking “what ya gonna do with that?” when she tells him that she’s majoring in anything other than pre-med (“psychology, huh”). A society that doesn’t give value to language, theory, and the humanities at large is one in which a poorly architected system such as Christensen’s “disruption” model are rarely questioned until a skilled humanist demolishes them. Even then, onlookers fail to see the importance of training everyone to have historical perspective and realize that even Big Ideas are not special and have traceable roots in the mood of their eras.

As Lepore points out, “disruption” is a violent term. It is the basis of an explanation that could only have accrued cultural currency in an era marked by the perceived infringement of countries such as Japan and China onto U.S. economic supremacy (Christensen’s model is nothing if not Americentric) and the blatant infringement of Islamists via the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When everything feels like it’s under siege, it makes sense to assume that the natural state of business is one of upstarts lunging at fattened, entrenched cows, even if such a paradigm would have looked alien to people from other centuries and may end up seeming silly in retrospect.

The hornet’s nest
My title is a convenient reference to Stieg Larsson’s thriller, but the term “hornet’s nest” here refers to the vast, entrenched community that has real interests in ensuring that “disruption” is never disrupted. Like hornets, they have come out, stingers ready, to get back at the disrupter.

Irony aside, the real-world reaction to Lepore’s piece is a handy gloss to the arguments she makes in her New Yorker article, namely that each era has its own explanatory models that everyone feels “must be” right, whether the decline of man (pre-Renaissance Europe), progress (17th and 18th century Europe), evolution (19th century Europe and America), and now disruption. One can easily see how an event such as the Industrial Revolution, with its revelation that products can be iterated and changed, reinforced macro models such as evolution, while the devastation of the World Wars, global warming, and inequality have put pressure on the notion of “progress.”

Despite these major events, it is always difficult to dislodge a prevailing explanation of how human affairs are organized. This difficulty exists regardless of its quality. After all, it wasn’t easy for Galileo to take on geocentrism. Someone is always going to offer spirited resistance, given that the argument is a threat, and Lepore’s essay is threatening indeed, maybe even disruptive.

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