I’ve had people think of me as a misanthrope, sometimes even a cynic. Some people might see me as unfriendly, shy, or aloof. There are reasons for these opinions; I am a little aloof (I chose to study philosophy, after all), I am a little shy, and I can be, in some cases, unfriendly.
Sometimes this unfriendliness is because I’m in a bad mood, and therefore I’m sorry because you probably don’t deserve it. Sometimes it’s because someone’s being an asshole, in which case go fuck yourself. Sometimes it’s because I don’t, in fact, like someone, in which case do better or get used to me being unfriendly. But this dislike is an exception, rather than the rule. And being a person who used to feel the opposite, I have some thoughts about my former misanthropy and why I now choose to not exercise the misanthropic aspects of myself, when I can help it.
Our views about people, whether individually or as sets, tells us a lot about ourselves, especially our ability to perceive and to judge well. Whether those conclusions about other people are tentative, well-considered, or reactionary are part of the analysis we should consider. Whether they are fundamentally emotional and subsequently rationalized is, perhaps, among the most important questions we can ask of our views of others. How we see people tells us about what aspects of our perception we focus on.
There is a place for things like anger, judgment, and criticism. These are tools which can be used well or poorly, and how we use these tools is the important factor. We cannot simply claim that anger is bad, being judgmental is wrong, or that criticism is not warranted. We have to understand the context of those things, because it is often our emotional states, focus, and values which determine how we use such tools. The tools have to be wielded. How we wield them, whether towards liking and trusting others or dislike and distrust, will help shape our characters.
But before we get there, I want to take a look at something else, which is related. I want to look at some simplified categorizations of attributes which contribute to how we form opinions about ourselves and others. I will call these attribute sets, for the sake of the habit of hitting on tropes, the good, bad, ugly, and even the beautiful.
The “good” ideal
This type of philosophy is fairly universal, and has its roots in many real philosophies such as Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and has been utilized in many tropes from various cultural origins such as Westerns, Samurai myths, etc. I am talking, of course, about the Jedi philosophy.
Here is the quintessential Jedi, Yoda, while training Luke Skywalker:
Yoda: Yes, run! Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
Yoda: You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.
As we see in the saga that is Star Wars (a flawed execution, so far anyway, of a wonderful universe. For many reasons), this view is positioned against the Sith, who use the “dark side” of the force which includes manipulation, lies, and the raw power of the dark side of the force to achieve various kinds of goals with little to no appeals to compassion or care of any kind.
The Jedi emphasize an almost ascetic, Buddhist-like, approach to life. No attachment, passivity, peace, and knowledge. This is the worldview of many people who might be classified as scholars, poets, and even religious mystics. It is one that focuses around compassion, empathy, and patience.
Nietzsche might have some comments about this, calling it a morality of “ressentiment” perhaps (cf. Beyond Good and Evil and The Geneology of Morals). And some of those comments might be valuable and true, but that moves too far from the scope here, so I’ll leave that aside for now (but seriously, read more Nietzsche!).
With this perspective on how to live, we are left with patience, kindness, compassion and empathy in how we view people. And this has value because, at bottom, we all have flaws, struggles we’ve overcome (and more we have to work on!), and so the flaws we might see in others are a reflection of ourselves. This view encourages us to reserve judgment, not because judgment is wrong or undeserved, but because pulling out the judgment tool too quickly gets in the way of our ability to sympathize, understand, and see those other people as mirrors for ourselves. By training ourselves to put away that tool, especially early on, we train ourselves to be patient and to allow our opinion to grow with experience, not quickly and with the bias which attaches itself to critical tools.
This approach to ourselves and to others will allow our patience and judgment to form over time, giving us the perspective to make better judgments, so long as we have the courage to actually dig in and use our critical and judgmental faculties in our patience, from time to time. It allows us to look more deeply at ourselves, others, and the similarities which overlaps ourselves.
The problem, however, is when we see this ideal as the only means to health, truth, or behavior. The problem is when passivity leads to complacency, being manipulated, or allowing the powerful to remain too powerful over us. Sometimes, we need to be more than merely reactive to harm. The problem is also when we allow ourselves to accept a self-deprecating view of ourselves as incapable, inferior, or unworthy.
The “bad” ideal
Ugh, people are so fucking frustrating sometimes! How can they be so damned stupid? Why can’t they just do things the right way? Why do I always have to explain this to them, again and again? Why can’t they just learn how to think? Why can’t they just grow up?
That’s it, I’m done with them. I hate people. A few, of course, are exceptions, but people are just stupid, the world is stupid, and I’m superior to them.
If you’ve known me for a long time, you very well may have heard me say things like the above. In times of frustration, I may still think such things. Because some people are frustrating. Some people do actually seem to be clueless, privileged, and fractally wrong much of the time. And it’s frustrating to be around, sometimes.
Such ideas don’t spawn out of our minds without a source. They come from the same places as pride, self-worth, and self-confidence. Such things are valuable, and have a place in a healthy person. But when these attributes are not tempered (Aristotle, anyone?), they can become alluring, stroke our need for validation, and even become addictive.
This set of feelings is just as human as the “good” ideal above, and is not, in fact, “evil” or even necessarily “bad.” (Nietzsche fans are possibly gripping tightly at the potential conflationary association of the two…). They are, in many respects, the yin to the “good” ideals’ yang; as part of a balancing act that human emotions play on our sense of self worth, perception, and self-narrative. Humility and confidence, if we want to be simplistic about it. Both are part of the human experience and valuable in themselves, so long as they don’t become self-deprecation or arrogance.
A feeling of inherent superiority can come from this path; not as a passing feeling, but as an attribute and part of our vision of our very self. It becomes part of the narrative of our essence, rather than a description of some particular success or achievement. Winning the debate, the game, or the promotion are instances of success, but it does not necessarily mean that we are superior, essentially. Essential superiority is an illusion, one which can only separate us. Perhaps a misanthrope seeks this separation, but I find this attitude toxic and unhealthy. I now this from experience of having felt this way, previously, and having lived among similarly toxic narratives.
In dealing with the world around us, sometimes we can only take so much. People hurt us, frustrate us, or just bore us, sometimes. There are times when leadership, instruction, or correction are necessary. There are also times when passion and power are needed, so long as they are not abused or excused when they over-reach.
The problem is when we universalize this feeling of being better, not merely at this thing or right now but in general. When we start to feel like we are better than most people, whether morally or in terms of wisdom or maturity, we can sometimes achieve a perception of superiority over people which is an illusion. This power creates a sense of being entitled to make decisions for people and even to disregard their feelings, thoughts, or experience. In time, if maintained long enough, it turns into a kind of arrogance, wherein the thoughts and feeling that we have are inherently better, because other people are inferior.
And why, if we are superior, would we like inferior people? What’s to like about a person who has not done the work (or might even be incapable) to become superior as well? Perhaps they are not even really people at all, or perhaps only trivially so. Perhaps they are merely plebs, without any real content or importance except as pawns, NPCs, or tool in our own personal quests (in fact, RPG’s tend to poke at the trope of the superior hero, relative to the mere characters around them who you can overpower easily). Misanthropy is when we tip the scales a little towards seeing ourselves as an exception to the set of people in the world; we don’t count the same way as they do because we’re the special hero, an exception to the common rules.
It is a tendency which can lead us to lead groups of people towards many things, become leaders, and become respected. But at the same time, contained within this tendency is one which may make us feel qualitatively different from other people, and to look down upon them, and then we might begin to manipulate people, use them, and to abuse them.
For such superior people, self-knowledge and the perspective which comes from patience, empathy, and compassion is a threat to the narrative of superiority. When we allow ourselves down this path, we become critical of people in general, disliking all the flaws that they exhibit, and become too distracted by this perceived superiority to see any in ourselves to see anything else, most of the time.
And, of course, we rationalize this. We see the people we take advantage of as weak, stupid, or in some other way actually inferior. We create an entire rationalized worldview around the fact that we become so short-sighted, so selfish, and in some cases (though not all) so scared that we end up othering everyone else into mere objects, rather than people.
With exceptions, of course. We will find others who feel similarly, and create societies of superior people, tittering about the poor, the stupid, or the immature all around. (Ayn Rand, anyone?).
We start to celebrate our unique superiority, laughing at all the incapable people. Atheists often do it to theists (and the other way around), some people who view themselves as poly-capable do it to people who, they think, are doing polyamory wrong (or just badly), and humans do it to humans.
And isn’t that the point? Humans do it to humans! By some vain sliver of reality we humans are capable of carving out a whole pie of superiority, turning some small advantage in this space into the whole of advantages. We turn small bits of being “better” over there to just being better.
And these, the “good” and the “bad,” are the scales upon which we dance. We are capable of each tune, to our varying degrees, and I think most of us have experienced some amount of both sides of this scale. I certainly know the bitter, lonely lows of self-deprecation as well as the seeming highs of feeling powerful, capable, and superior. Whether it’s brain chemistry, treatment by others, or whatever cause, I have known both.
So now we venture into the realm of the attributes of humankind which pull us towards either direction. There is, in short, ugliness and beauty within all of us (I hope, anyway). These attributes will tug us towards the excesses of confidence or humility, and are the true sources of power within us. Let’s move forward, then.
On to Part 2, where I will discuss the ugly, the beautiful and sum up my feelings about misanthropy.