Beyond first-order skepticism

In our culture, there’s a great shortcut to the high ground: the bold skeptic who doesn’t believe any of your ignorant mainstream rot. You see it everywhere. The bold skeptic is deeply and widely appealing, instantly recognizable, and so easy to fake. It’s almost as easy to fake as the other shortcut: the underdog. If underdog billionaires can complain about “the elites,” and underdog top (as in literally mainstream media) pundits can rage at mainstream media, then calling a good thing bad is nothing.

So: to instantly amaze your friends with your intellectual depth, take something everyone believes and reject it. That’s the first-order skeptic.

First-order skepticism in itself is common, and fine. It isn’t very deep to be a contrarian. But it’s something. The problem with the first order skeptic is this: a lot of what us sheeple believe, we believe because it’s true. Floor down, sky up, grass green, sun big. It can be tricky maintaining a skeptic identity without being easily cornerable into untenable positions. This is the big problem at the ground floor of skepticism. But you can solve it with work, by going deeper.

A second-order sceptic doubts both the common wisdom and the first-order skeptics. What a first-order skeptic has on the normies, a second-order skeptic has on on the first-order skeptics. “The earth isn’t flat or round: it’s a geoid!” Then there’s your third-order skeptic, who doubts the zero-, first-, and second-order skeptics, and so on. “Sure the earth is a geoid, but that’s not really a definition of a kind of shape, it’s really more our name for whatever shape earth is“. A hippie first-order skeptic will reject microwaves and dish washers for being too gadgety and commodity, while a second-order hippie will embrace them for being energy and resource efficient. Michael Moore rejects recycling because putting sustainability work on consumers is a drop in the bucket up against the magnitude of corporate waste. That’s a second-order skeptic. 

If a first-order vegetarian rejects meat on ethical or squeamish grounds, a second-order vegetarian might use ecological grounds, which reject animal agriculture, but will eat hunted goat in the tropics, or hunted moose in the arctic, ecosystems that can support those game at those levels of prevalence. A third-order vegetarian thinks that’s fine, but a little too naive in its embrace of the bold individualist. At the third order, your vote is naturally for the the most ecologically, ethically sound protein source of all. You argue that we should farm and eat bugs. 

As you go further and further down, you occupying increasingly unlikely, creative positions, and become more and more of a character, with more credibility with each level. At each level, you have to be more informed. Each level is harder to fake. Every take feels like IcyHot: spicy freshness and stone cold logic in the same package. Many of my biggest moments of admiration or respect boil down to a moment of seeing someone lodged in at level three or four casually blowing my mind. One of my most influential professors was so radically higher-order in her feminism that she exclusively wore dresses, because she saw the trend to sell women on shirts and pants as nothing but a fashion industry ploy to get women to spend twice as much on garments. And deeper isn’t always better, I also admire consistency at medium depth. Jacobin Magazine, and The Baffler before it, are just solid reliable consistent second-order skepticism. I always think of Jacobin taking down Foucault for admiration of capitalism.

I’ve seen that sometimes if you fly too high you wrap back around to incredibly norm-y positions. I’ve found many of the friends who are best at it become absolute curmudgeons. I’ve seen the second- and third- orders get faked as well. But overall, it’s a sign of quality. As an idea it’s like “Galaxy Brain” but the result of work and investment. It’s a sign of real thought. It’s something I look for in the people I follow. I don’t know if originality exists, it’s possible it doesn’t. It’s possible that no deep originality is more than a sum up from zero stopping at third, or fourth, or fifth order skepticisms, increasingly faithful to original with every extra pass. It’s also the perfect cudgel for all those bold skeptics.