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Decoding the Gurus

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I’m a podcast junkie, and have been for– wow– fifteen years now. I listen to podcasts while traveling, going for walks, cleaning, and performing any other action that could be tedious if not for having interesting voices in my ears. When I think back to a portion of a podcast, I visualize where I was and what I was doing when I heard it, which seems like a rather useless talent except for how it also sometimes works in reverse (while in a place or doing a thing, I sometimes remember content from a podcast I listened to in that context).

But I wouldn’t call myself some kind of expert or connoisseur of podcasts, because I just listen to what I like. I get to know a podcast and then listen to it regularly, usually no more than a rotation of eight or so. Sometimes I’ll listen to a new show because one of its hosts was a guest on a show that I already listen to, which happened when Chris Kavanaugh appeared on Embrace the Void to talk about the Intellectual Dark Web.

Chris is someone I’d been following on Twitter on the basis of regularly saying stuff I found interesting, but I didn’t know that he’s an anthropologist who did his PhD with Harvey Whitehouse at Oxford on a topic within the realm of cognitive science of religion, seven years after I completed my own PhD in CSR at the University of Aarhus. That makes us, like…EU CSR buddies, or something.

I feel a bit guilty writing a blog post about Decoding the Gurus, having not written one on Embrace the Void or indeed any of the other podcasts I’ve been listening to, because it’s not as though they’re not worthy– I would definitely recommend EtV, for example. Its host Aaron Rabinowitz is a philosopher currently working on a PhD in moral education, and I’ve found his discussions with various guests fascinating and entertaining. It’s just that I’m trying to break out of a very long hiatus from writing, and took the last several days off work to do a lot of chores and other activities that were ripe for podcast binging, and DtG was what I binged on, and I have thoughts.

And here are my thoughts!

First, I should note that the other co-host of Decoding the Gurus is Matt Browne, a professor of psychology at Central Queensland in Australia and who, combined with Belfast-born Chris, make for a very qualified and diversely-accented duo to host a podcast on this subject. One benefit of this arrangement for new listeners is that it’s very difficult to confuse one co-host for the other. Yes. of course there are many differences between Chris and Matt, but when you’re just starting to listen to a podcast you don’t know what those other differences are, so it can be difficult to differentiate the hosts if they sound the same. That is not the case here. Just saying.

So what’s a guru, for the purposes of this podcast? What type of people are being decoded here? As of this writing, the gurus that have been decoded thus far are:

  • Eric and Brett Weinstein
  • James Lindsay
  • Jordan Peterson
  • JP Sears
  • Rutger Bregman
  • Russell Brand
  • Scott Adams
  • Contrapoints (Natalie Wynn)

While Chris and Matt have discussed factors that would cause a particular person to rate highly on a “gurometer,” they haven’t (to my knowledge) given a clear and concise definition of what it means to be a guru, and they might never do so– which, frankly, would be fine by me. But generally speaking, the people they’re “decoding” are cultural commentators with large followings on the internet, who engage with those followers primarily via the internet (especially Twitter), and create content in podcast or Youtube video format.

This working definition is functional– the structure of a podcast episode is generally that Chris and Matt consume content by the guru in question, like a couple of podcast episodes or Youtube videos, and then dissect it on DtG. This approach has an upside and a downside.

The upside is that you know exactly what content they’re referencing, and they actually play clips and react to them. With Scott Adams this was particularly painful, but it was bearable because I knew that I wasn’t listening to this stuff “alone.” I have a strong aversion to actually listening to people say some of the reprehensible things I can read in print much more easily, to the point that I avoid listening to Donald Trump speak whenever possible. However, in the context of a critical discussion of that person’s ideas, it’s all right. Since each episode of DtG is quite lengthy, it also affords them the opportunity to engage in the kind of deconstruction that invariably, stereotypically, takes a good deal longer to both create and consume than the quoted statements themselves.

The downside of this approach is that you (the listener) don’t really get some kind of comprehensive view of the ideas expressed by the guru under discussion. Each episode begins with a summary of why a particular person was chosen. But, for example, the episode on Jordan Peterson centered on a particular interview that JBP gave, which really limited the discussion to the subject of JBP’s “poetic” obscurantist language and double-speak regarding his actual beliefs on religious concepts in response to direct questions. That’s absolutely a worthy topic deserving of scrutiny, but it doesn’t by half address the reasons for JBP’s appeal to his enormous audience. That’s fair enough– if you want to read a comprehensive account of JBP’s online agenda, those do exist. If you want to hear a podcast version, those exist also.

So this is not necessarily a fault in DtG, but it does seem to encumber the hosts in drawing a through line addressing the ideological and social situation of the gurus they choose to discuss. Prior to and beginning the episode on Natalie Wynn/Contrapoints, Chris and Matt noted that they were trying to branch out from the otherwise straight white male choices for gurus, but they didn’t really reflect on why such traits would typify someone who pursued a “guru” status to begin with.

There’s a reason why the person I chose to depict in my doodle of a “heterodox iconoclast” is a white man, and it’s not (just) because he’s loosely modeled on Eric Weinstein. One thing that should become abundantly, ridiculously clear upon listening to the clips from the Weinstein brothers and other gurus selected for this podcast is that these are, broadly speaking, a collection of privileged people claiming that they’re being oppressed because of the content of their ideas is threatening.

Not only is this clearly not the case, but there are a host of people across the globe who absolutely are being oppressed for this reason, and those people are not typically privileged in the way that these “gurus” are. There are people being censored for their anti-establishment ideas, and they are not exactly prospective members of the Intellectual Dark Web.

It’s bitterly, absurdly ironic that the types of people adopting a “guru” type of position in Western countries are not only not the ones typically actually being persecuted for their speech, but who also actively tend to position themselves as stalwart defenders of the right to free speech, and (bonus) in some cases actively seek to suppress the freedom of speech of their critics via specious lawsuits that nevertheless create a silencing effect because (surprise) some people just can’t afford to be sued. And, surprise again, those people tend to not be especially privileged.

This is not something that has really been stressed on DtG, and it might well be because the free speech hypocrisy element is not as noticeable or as important to the non-American academic hosts. One thing to note about this podcast is that it’s not really about politics, although since politics are central to the ideologies of the respective gurus, it does invariably become part of the discussion.

So I’m making those comments not as a criticism of the podcast, but as a supplement to the material presented in it. I think it’s always important to critically examine the persecution narratives of people like the gurus chosen for this podcast, because a persecution narrative is so commonly central to the moral justification that oppressive classes use for…well, their oppression. It’s just textbook, because the strongest argument you can make for waging war against Group X is to claim that Group X has already declared war against you.

But on the other hand (there are always more than two hands), it’s a relief that Chris and Matt don’t belabor this point, because humor is critical. We have to laugh, or else we’ll cry. This is the philosophy of political cartoonists, a society to which I ostensibly belong. It’s something I require in my podcasts, because again– spoken language. A different impact than written words. As a podcast listener, I look for context, analysis, insight, and relatable commentary, and I find all of these in DtG.

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